President Obama was right.
On October 2, he told a crowd at Northwestern University, “I’m not on the ballot this fall…but make no mistake, these policies are on the ballot, every single one of them.” Just in case the message didn’t get through, he later reminded voters that the incumbent Democrats “are all folks who vote with me” and “have supported my agenda.”
Two of those Democratic senators are now ex-Senators: Arkansas’s Mark Pryor, North Carolina’s Kay Hagan and soon Alaska’s Mark Begich will join their ranks, once the final count is completed. And Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu is in a run-off she will likely lose. Ed Gillespie came within a hair of defeating Virginia’s Mark Warner, despite being massively outspent.
In probably the most Democratic state in the country, Maryland elected Larry Hogan the second Republican governor since 1969. (Disclosure: Hogan was a client of my firm’s.) Republican Charlie Baker will be Massachusetts’s new governor. In Barack Obama’s Illinois, Republican Bruce Rauner defeated one of the few candidates Obama campaigned for, incumbent Governor Pat Quinn.
Before the historic election night was over, Harry Reid’s chief of staff hurled the President under the bus: “The president’s approval rating is barely 40 percent,” David Krone, Reid’s top aide told the Washington Post. “What else more is there to say? He wasn’t going to play well in North Carolina or Iowa or New Hampshire. I’m sorry. It doesn’t mean that the message was bad, but sometimes the messenger isn’t good.”
That’s a nice try to save your boss (and Harry Reid is far more unpopular than President Obama) but the reality is that the president is unpopular precisely because of his message and policies. This is not a president suffering from personal scandals. He’s unpopular not, as some have tried to suggest, because he is African American; he was African American when his popularity was near a record high seventy percent.
Voters rejected the president’s policies for the usual, very simple reason: few believe they are working. That can be survivable if a president acknowledges failures and takes steps to correct. But when a president seems determined to tell voters that they are wrong and he is right, voters usually respond negatively.
Yes, the stock market is booming but overwhelmingly Americans are unhappy with their economic situation—and for good reason. Wages are stagnant and middle-class household incomes continue to decline. President Obama is on track to become the first president in history to leave office after two terms with fewer full time jobs than when he took office. The reduction in the unemployment levels is largely due to part time jobs and more people simply giving up looking for jobs.
“The purchasing power of the typical American family is 3.1 percent lower now than it was five years ago,” wrote The New York Times’ Neil Irwin over the summer. “No wonder people are unhappy about the economy! The benefits of rising levels of economic activity have simply not accrued to middle-income wage earners.”
It’s no surprise that people feel the economy isn’t working like it once did or should. It’s not. Ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage passed in four states: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. It seems contradictory that voters would vote both for the initiatives and for candidates who oppose the initiatives—as was the case in all four of these states—but that dichotomy precisely reflects voters attitudes. The majority support raising the minimum wage but they don’t see it as a long-term solution and don’t trust Democrats to solve the underlying issues of the job crunch.
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, “We’ve been promising that government can be a tool to improve people’s economic situation for decades, and by and large, it hasn’t happened.”
So what happens now? Republicans must provide positive alternatives. President Obama has vetoed only three bills, an historic low. It seems safe to assume that will soon change. Republicans must seize this opportunity to pass legislation to improve the economic stagnation. That should include an alternative to Obamacare, and not just a repeal.
If the President vetoes these bills—as he surely will for an Obamacare alternative—it will still serve the useful purpose of changing the terms of the debate. There will be two opposing approaches and voters in 2016 will have a clearer choice. Do they prefer the Republican alternatives or the President’s agenda?
For both Parties, this involves considerable risk. If Republicans blow it and fail to pass significant legislation, that will be a huge lost opportunity and damaging for 2016. If the President continues to insist that his current course is the right one, it could prove crippling for both the country and Democratic chances in 2016.
Not so long ago, many were predicting that the government shutdown would kill Republican chances in 2014. But the American political memory is rarely long-term. By the summer of 2016, what happened on Tuesday will be long forgotten. Voters will experience the outcome of this election in very personal terms. If they believe change has bettered their lives, 2016 could be another good day for Republicans. If they don’t, the pain of tomorrow’s defeat will overwhelm the joy of yesterday’s victory.
Republicans won. Now they have to help govern. After all, that’s what elections are all about, right?