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Employment anxiety trumps change agenda as Americans upend Washington
(Bloomberg) — The election that delivered control of the U.S. House of Representatives to Republicans was awash in numbers — incumbents ousted, hundreds of millions in secret money, President Barack Obama's 45 percent approval rating.
Yet the story of the victory could be told with one number: the 9.6 percent U.S. unemployment rate.
The anxiety Americans feel about their jobs led voters to turn the "Yes We Can" anthem of Obama's 2008 presidential campaign into "No you won't" two years later.
They rejected the president's stewardship of the economy even in the face of improving conditions and the passage of a health-care overhaul he had promised to deliver. They also gave him little credit for blunting the financial crisis and pushing historic regulation of Wall Street.
"Nine-point-six percent unemployment is the worst in a midterm since 1982," said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at the University of California at San Diego. "The most important single factor shaping electoral politics in this cycle is the economy, but the unemployment rate is the most obvious emblematic feature of that."
If previous midterm contests — even ones that shifted the balance of power — are a guide, though, the impact may not be the major transformation that the Election Day results suggest.
"Let's face it, it is schizophrenic," said Richard Norton Smith, a historian and professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. "Voters demand change, and they don't know what change is. They insist they want people to work across the aisle but reward people when that doesn't happen," he said.
"They claim to want to address fundamental issues, including the budget deficit but don't want to take the costly steps to get us there. The irony here is that it is a lot easier looking down the road for the next generation to envision a political culture that is in many ways a game of ping pong."
While the results were a rejection of Obama and Democrats, they weren't an affirmation for Republicans. For the 2012 elections, the state of the economy in two years will mean more than today's election results.
A Bloomberg National Poll in October found that voters were either divided about or opposed to the policies and approach that Republicans have said they would offer once in control, particularly on cutting spending. Voters also want the parties to work together.
First, the Republicans have to show they can work among themselves. The party's resurgence was built on an uneasy coalition of Tea Party activists, corporate interests and party leaders, who battled the insurgents before embracing them.
The revival started in the front seat of a black pickup truck driven by Scott Brown, a candidate who in January did what no other politician had been able to do in the last five decades: wrest control of a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts held by Democrat Edward M. Kennedy.
The initial sign of the Tea Party as a force came several months later, when Utah Republicans rejected three-term incumbent Senator Robert Bennett. It proceeded through states like Kentucky, where Republican Rand Paul last night said a Tea Party "tidal wave" powered his election to the Senate.
"America can rise and surmount these problems if we just get government out of our way," Paul said at a victory rally.
Hold to Pledge
Now, Republican leaders will have to deal with Tea Party- backed lawmakers and their activist supporters, who vow to hold them to pledges to cut taxes, streamline regulations and rein in the power of government bodies such as the Federal Reserve.
Unlike the election of 1994, when Representative Newt Gingrich was seen as the architect of the Republican victory and candidates campaigned on the "Contract With America," this time the Republicans prevailed without either a galvanizing leader or set of ideas.
The October Bloomberg poll found that 46 percent of likely voters had an unfavorable opinion of Republicans. Representative John Boehner of Ohio, who is poised to depose Representative Nancy Pelosi of California as speaker of the House, was viewed favorably by 37 percent and unfavorably by 37 percent. The rest had no opinion.
'Not Newt Gingrich'
"John Boehner, for his many virtues, is not Newt Gingrich," said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "Nobody would use 'visionary' to describe him. He's a tactical guy. And the Tea Party has no leader, and I'm not even sure there is a consistent ideology that all Tea Party supporters would subscribe to other than lower taxes and a smaller federal government. That's not a political schematic. What this is is a series of hopeful statements."
The losses Democrats suffered compared with 1994, when they gave up 54 seats and Republicans took control of the House for the first time since 1954, and the midterms of 1938, when Democrats lost 72 seats. Republicans lost 31 seats when they relinquished control to Democrats in 2006, House records show.
While the change is momentous when power shifts, it is rarely lasting.
"This is sort of a swing back to the partisan division that we've had in place since 1994 where neither party has a very comfortable grip on Congress," said Jacobson, an expert on so-called wave elections. "Control of the institution will be up for grabs in every election."
Doomed to Defeat
Still, so broad was the dissatisfaction with the economy, that the party in power this time was doomed to defeat.
Republicans "could have printed the Betty Crocker cookbook and still done well," said Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. "The forecasting models that political scientists use are pretty precise." With the president's approval rating at 45 percent, the economy would have to be growing more than 5 percent to minimize losses, she said. It is growing about 2 percent.
"He is the voice, the image, and the delivery man for the party," said Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University. "And he's failed to deliver."
Obama finds himself in the same position as Ronald Reagan in 1982 and Bill Clinton in 1994, hoping for the same fortunes that delivered both predecessors a second term. Only three times since 1934 has a president's party not lost seats in a midterm election.
The power of the president's rhetoric, which was essential to his White House victory, vanished. Smith, the founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, said the Republican victory was "a cause without a rationale," and he faulted the Obama team for failing to provide an effective counterargument.
"Some of the reasons lie with the White House and their failure to do even the most basic job to explain to the American people what they are doing, who the beneficiaries are and why in the long term it would benefit people.
"It is as if they have confused the 24/7 news cycle with the fundamental job of the modern president," he said. "As Harry Truman said, the power of the presidency is the power to persuade."
Baker said Obama can come back from the rebuke.
"It is always perilous to predict from a midterm to the next presidential election," Baker said. Franklin Roosevelt, Reagan and Clinton all proved that by winning re-election. Reagan and Clinton, though, governed in economic conditions better than Obama can expect in terms of the pace of overall growth.
Constant Pendulum Shift?
He'll begin that process today with a news conference in Washington as he confronts the reality of a political shift that undid Democratic gains of the last two election cycles.
That political change was driven by grass-roots animus and a swing by independents from Democrat to Republican, creating a unsettled climate.
"The question will be is this a constant pendulum shift, where an on-demand culture wants people and their representatives to meet their promise for change in 10 minutes or they change the channel?," said John Lapp, a Democratic consultant who served as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006.