“I don’t want to try to read the tea leaves on election results,” said President Barack Obama following last Tuesday’s historic defeat.
Who’s he kidding? A month earlier, the President was honest and accurate when 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.” Fair enough.
Republicans won governorships in Illinois, Maryland and Massachusetts. As of now, with two races still undecided, Republicans gained seven seats in the Senate and at least 11 more seats in the House, with several races still undecided. Republicans now control 31 governorships, and Democrats control both state houses in only 11 states.
Black Republicans won House seats in Utah and Texas, and a South Carolina Republican became the first black person since Reconstruction elected to the Senate by popular vote from one of the former Confederate states.
Overwhelmingly, voters named the economy as their number one issue. President Obama, during the fight over Obamacare, insisted that the law was about the economy. Polls still show that most Americans think Obamacare makes health care worse, not better.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton suffered a similar defeat. As did Obama, Clinton spent the first two years of his administration on liberal issues like Hillarycare and changing military policy to allow gays to serve openly in the military. The American people felt ignored. In the 1994 midyear election wave, Republican Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House.
But, unlike Obama, Clinton immediately moved to the center.
Over the objections of many in his party, he dropped his pursuit of Hillarycare and signed the welfare reform act of 1996, having vetoed it twice before. Over the objections of many in his base, Clinton supported a cut in capital gain taxes and, despite union resistance, signed the NAFTA and GATT free-trade agreements.
How angry was his base over welfare reform? Marian Wright Edelman heads the Children’s Defense Fund and was a longtime friend of then-first lady Hillary Clinton. When Clinton signed the welfare reform bill, Edelman said, “His signature on this pernicious bill makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children.” In a 2007 interview, Edelman conceded that Hillary “was an old friend,” but that she and the Clintons “are not friends in politics.” Listing the faults of the 1996 bill, Edelman pronounced the state of “welfare reform” and its effect after 11 years “a growing national catastrophe” and an “abomination.”
Will Obama, like Clinton, look at his defeat as a referendum on his policies? At his first post-defeat press conference, an Associated Press reporter asked, “Do you feel any responsibility to recalibrate your agenda?” Obama characterized his midterm defeat as simply a sign by voters that they wanted him to “break through some of the gridlock and get stuff done.” There was no sense whatsoever that Obama thought his policies needed reconsidering.
Clinton, in moving to the center, knowingly crossed his base. During President Obama’s six years in office, there’s been no White House economic policy or legislative goal with which his base disagreed. Not one.
Did his base object to the trillion-dollar so-called “stimulus”? No. Did his base object to raising taxes on the “rich”? No. Did his base object to Obama’s stated second-term goal of reducing “inequality”? No. Did his base object when then-presidential candidate Obama told Joe the Plumber that he wanted to “spread the wealth around”? No. Did his base object to pursuing “cap and trade” in order to address “climate change”? No. Did his base oppose Obamacare? Of course not.
Obama is no Clinton.
When Republican Scott Brown won the so-called Ted Kennedy seat in 2010, this broke the filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate. To many, this reflected the nation’s widespread unhappiness with Obamacare. Brown’s victory spooked Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urged Obama not to reduce the goal to just “kiddie care.” Obama pressed on, and his Democrats in Congress used legislative maneuvers and passed Obamacare without a single Republican vote.
Defiant, Obama remains. Sure, he says things like, “Part of my task then is to reach out to Republicans, make sure that I’m listening to them. I’m looking forward to them putting forward a very specific agenda in terms of what they would like to accomplish.” At the same time, he tells GOP Speaker John Boehner that without an immigration bill on his desk, he will be forced to use executive powers. As Obama put it, “I’m going to do what I need to do.”
What Obama “needs to do” is listen to the American people. The recovery has been the worst in 80 years, two-thirds of the American people believe we are on the wrong track, and most believe Obamacare will undermine the best health care system in the world.
Obama misread his 2008 victory as a call to “transform America.” Voters don’t want America transformed. They want it back.
Larry Elder is a best-selling author and radio talk-show host.