Bourbon and Shellack: How Should Presidents Respond to Midterm Defeats?

Although Tuesday’s election results were nothing special on the spectrum of midterm defeats (as pointed out by Seth, Hans, and Jon), Republican victories across the country present both real and symbolic challenges for Obama’s last two years. Jonathan Alter has already asked if Obama’s is the “lamest duck ever.” And Obama’s response to the midterms has already attracted criticism – for example, Ron Fournier claims that Obama is “ignoring” the wishes of the voters. Regardless of whether it was really fair to call the election a referendum on Obama, it sure looks that way to a lot of people. And the expectation in some circles seems to be that the president should admit that he’s lost and adjust course accordingly.

How should presidents react to a perceived “rebuke?” It’s not as obvious as it seems. The president leads a coequal branch of government. The Constitution gives the executive and legislative branches different functions and different constituencies.

At the same time, it’s hard to ignore the perception that midterms are referenda on presidential performance, and therefore convey messages about policy. Ideas about how the views of the mass electorate could and should inform governance have been brewing since the 1830s, and picked up steam in presidential politics during the Progressive era. In the past forty years, mandate politics has been an especially important framework. Linking elections to governance – and seeing nearly all elections as some sort of “wave” or message from the electorate – has become the norm rather than the exception.

Other modern presidents have varied widely in their responses to painful midterm elections. (What follows is mostly from press conferences, with one radio address – Reagan’s -thrown in.) There have been some efforts to play nice and cooperate. Following the 1954 midterms, in which Republicans had modest seat losses but lost control of both chambers, Eisenhower claimed that while he shared fewer beliefs with the Democrats, he enjoyed personal friendships across party lines and anticipated cooperation. Similarly, when the Democrats lost 4 Senate seats and 47 House seats in the 1966 midterms, Johnson’s remarks stressed his previous cooperative efforts, and talked about the dynamics of the “pendulum swing” back after Democratic gains in 1964. (Admittedly, the fact that the Democrats maintained substantial majorities cushioned the blow for Johnson, at least for awhile.)

Eisenhower was less conciliatory in 1958, after the Republicans lost 52 seats in the House and 12 seats in the Senate; his remarks criticized incoming Democratic members of Congress for their “big spending” ways. It’s also been common for presidents to use the press conference or speech after a midterm defeat to reassert their own policy commitments and claims to power. Before the 1966 midterms took place, LBJ suggested that he wouldn’t change his Vietnam policy based on the election results, reminding the audience that “the president is not a candidate in this election.” George W. Bush echoed these themes in his 2006 press conference, in which he announced that the administration’s policy in Iraq would not change.

Clinton’s response to the Democrats’ misfortune in 1994 emphasized cooperation and avoiding gridlock, but also ended by noting that the election didn’t change “the reason I was sent here, or that Congress was sent here.” After a less historically significant but nevertheless painful set of losses in 1982, Reagan chastised members of Congress for spending too much time campaigning and asked them to come back to Washington to complete their work. He also asserted that his own policies were working, reading a letter from from a woman who told him, “(M)y dollars are buying more. Little by little, I find I can breathe easier.” (Radio Address to the Nation on the Congressional Agenda and the Economy, November 6, 1982)

How do these responses compare with what we saw from Obama last week? His remarks about cooperation highlighted the shared responsibility to find common ground and “drama-free” solutions. He also, like Reagan in 1982 and Clinton in 1994, reestablished his own claim to power, noting at the end of the speech that, “I still believe what I said when I was elected six years ago ago last night… We are more than just a collection of red and blue states. We are the United States.”

Obama’s remarks after both the 2010 and 2014 midterms have also taken some responsibility for his party’s fate. Polarized political conditions change the calculus and make promises to cooperate seem that much more strained. And like his predecessors, Obama hasn’t totally renounced his claim as an independently elected politician and officer of the Constitution. In other words, his response hasn’t been much different from what we’ve seen from other modern presidents after midterm losses. One wonders why this president should be held to a different standard when it comes to asserting his political and Constitutional prerogatives.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

Julia Azari

Julia Azari is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University.