After the 2008 election Democrats were on a high. President Barack Obama had been elected as the first black President, the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, and demographics seemed to indicate that if anything, their future was brighter than ever. President Bush left office as one of the least popular Presidents in history, being blamed for a dubious war in Iraq and an economic crisis that hurled the US into recession.
Yet the pendulum swung. The depth and severity of the recession proved greater than the Obama White House had anticipated, and with the Democrats in control of government they were blamed for anything that went wrong. After health care reform was pushed through just barely, yielding a compromise that angered conservatives and many liberals alike, President Obama found the honey moon over. The tea party movement achieved amazing success at shaping the political discourse, and a new narrative took hold.
This narrative said that President Obama’s policies were hindering the recovery, that the stimulus was a waste of money and a failure, and that the raw politicking of the health care deal showed the shady side of Democratic politics. Republicans said the real solution to the problems the country faces is smaller government and fiscal conservatism. The hope and change promised by the Democrats was just more tax and spend — more government programs.
In 2010 the GOP achieved dramatic success, something unexpected after two election cycles dominated by the Democrats. Without the drag of the Iraq war and with President Obama “owning” the economy (even though neither he nor Bush ever could control it) the public swung right. Some of it was fear that change was going too fast; others thought the Democrats simply moved farther and faster than the public wanted. President Obama’s approval ratings dropped down below 50%.
Yet even as the Republicans start to lick their chops over electoral prospects in 2012, the pendulum may be swinging again. The President’s approval ratings are still bad, but they are picking up slightly. Don’t forget, President Clinton had 40% approval in early 1995, and Reagan dropped to 38% for awhile in 1983. President Obama is now at about 43%.
The mood seems to be changing. E J Dionne notes this “narrative change,” citing Paul Ryan’s somewhat bitter speech to the Heritage Foundation as evidence that Republicans recognize that the argument is slipping away from them. Occupy Wall Street has shown itself more popular and resilient than anyone expected, and the efforts to paint them as a bunch of spoiled hippies and malcontents has failed. President Obama’s “new populism” is hitting a chord. Americans don’t want massive redistribution and high taxes, but the idea that the system is unbalanced in favor of the wealthy is gaining traction.
Moreover, the Republican party doesn’t seem to have a clear leader, and their primaries have been dominated by sometimes extreme rhetoric that scares independents. Herman Cain wants an abortion ban with no exceptions, not even for rape and incest. That kind of talk scares people. Michelle Bachmann’s call to bring taxes back to the level they were under Ronald Reagan is illustrative. Taxes were much higher under Reagan than they are now; as she had to retreat from that statement it reinforced the idea that Reagan would be far too liberal for today’s GOP. The narrative of an extremist Republican party is building. Rick Perry’s assault on social security addsto that as the GOP Presidential field tries to capture the tea party electorate that vote in early primaries.
Mitt Romney should be a strong candidate. He is clearly a moderate who shouldn’t scare anyone, but his Mormonism and moderation might actually decrease conservative enthusiasm in 2012. He’s benefited from the turmoil in the GOP field, but the Republican party has lost control of the conversation. Instead of Reaganesque optimism the tune from the right is increasingly antagonistic.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the House start whispering that there are a lot of vulnerable Republicans, especially first termers, who are having trouble raising money and whose ideological voting records don’t play well at home. All Democrats expect gains in 2012; the idea of winning back the House is not as far fetched as it used to be.
Right now the conventional wisdom remains that President Obama is, if not the underdog, in a difficult position heading into the re-election fight. But at this point in 2009, when Obama was still above 50% in approval, few people realized that the pendulum had already started a decisive swing away from the Democrats and towards the Republicans.
It’s still too early to know for sure if the pendulum is swinging back in the Democrat’s direction. Obama is getting kudos for success in Libya, he announced the end of the Iraq war, and there may be an end in Afghanistan sooner than people expect. The economic news has become slightly more optimistic. Occupy Wall Street has stolen the attention that the tea party used to enjoy and has spread across the country, gaining a lot of support from Iraq veterans. In states like Ohio, Wisconsin and even here in Maine conservative causes have led to dissatisfaction — ballot initiatives in both Ohio and Maine might be very telling about the way the mood is changing (Ohio’s involves public labor unions, Maine’s is an effort to undo Republican legislation removing same day voting registration).
It feels like the pendulum has switched directions. It feels like 2012 could be for the Democrats what 2010 was for the Republicans. It feels like Obama may join Presidents Clinton and Reagan in the catagory of having their political obituaries written too soon. Time will tell — there is still a lot that could go right or wrong for both parties. The good news about the political pendulum is that if you’re on the losing side of an election, it won’t be that way forever. The bad news is that if you’re on the winning side the same applies.