Obama Response to Midterms Has Been Entirely Normal

Before you read or watch one more conservative (e.g., Peggy Noonan) or MSM (e.g., Ron Fournier) temper tantrum about Barack Obama “defying” public opinion and refusing to bend the knee to the manifest desire of 52% of 38% of Americans for a different course, please check out Julia Azari’s reminder at Ten Miles Square today of the historical parallels:

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)

In both 2010 and 2014, says Azari, Obama has fallen squarely within the normal range of past presidential reactions to midterm “rebukes.”

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.

Yeah, one wonders.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.