It is a staple of American history that the president's party loses seats six years into his term. Voters are weary of the incumbent and receptive to change. In the past century, even the beloved Franklin Roosevelt lost seats in his sixth year, 1938, before going in to win two more terms.
The only modern president to have overcome this jinx was Bill Clinton in 1998, mainly because the Republicans had over-reached in their Monica-obsessed impeachment crusade. The Democrats actually picked up five house seats in Clinton's sixth year, the first such 6th year gain for the in-party since 1822.
What are the odds that Barack Obama and the Democrats will beat the odds, and what might they do to improve their chances?
The circumstances are far from auspicious and the stakes could hardly be higher. Democrats hold the Senate by a margin of 55-45, counting the two independents who caucus with the Democrats. Only Democratic control of the Senate has allowed President Obama to win some key victories over the Republican House, including the recent increase in the debt ceiling and some relief from the budget sequester, as well as forcing through some confirmations of presidential nominees.
But in at least five states, the Democratic Senate candidate is currently the underdog. Three longtime Democrats with safe Senate seats, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Carl Levin of Michigan, are retiring. Max Baucus of Montana has already stepped down to take his new appointment as ambassador to China. West Virginia is leaning Republican and Montana is considered a toss-up at best. Four other Democratic incumbents are considered vulnerable, in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina.
The only Republican Senate seat in any jeopardy is in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is running slightly behind in most polls. If Republicans run the table, they could hold as many as Senate 53 seats in the next Congress.
Other things being equal, economic circumstances are not great. The measured unemployment rate keeps slowly subsiding, but not enough to give the Democrats much in the way of bragging rights. Living standards are still flat at best for most American families. Government, largely because of Republican blockage, is providing less help than usual after a recession, but Democrats as the incumbent party stand to take the blame for the generally soft economy.
The Affordable Care Act, after a disastrous start, is at last enrolling more and more people. But it is still a net loser for the Democrats in most polls.
Although there are countless heartening stories of people who finally got long deferred medical care thanks to the ACA, the political risk is that more voters will see themselves harmed than helped. Were that not the case, the GOP would not be making Obama Care the centerpiece of their campaign.
Though the ACA will eventually help something less than 10 percent of the population to get health insurance. A good-sized fraction of the remaining 90 percent will face premium increases this year, and fairly or not many voters will blame Obama Care. Millions of people will experience changes in their policies required to bring them into conformity with the ACA. In many cases, the result will be more comprehensive but more costly insurance. And the bungled rollout will live on in political memory as an epic case of government messing up.
In addition, the always-helpful Roberts Supreme Court, by invalidating key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, has given Republican-led states a free pass on voter suppression gimmicks. Demographic trends favor Democrats, but only if people are permitted to register and vote.
So what's a Democrat to do?
I can think of three big things.
First, the Democrats should work to qualify as many state ballot initiatives as possible to raise the state minimum wage -- and entrap Republicans into opposing it. A higher minimum wage, say the $10.40-an-hour federal minimum that Obama supports, helps the only the lowest income of workers, but it signals that Democrats care about living standards and smokes out the callousness of Republicans. A minimum wage initiative also brings more low-income voters to the polls.
Second, as I have argued before, we need a Freedom Summer 2014 to get photo ID cards to every eligible voter. Republican-led states are hoping to use new ID requirements to suppress turnout. But progressives can turn that tactic against itself by fielding an army of organizers to get every voter a card and then build a database of the newly enfranchised for get-out-the-vote operations in November.
Third, President Obama needs to discover his inner partisan. In year six of his presidency, the idea of finding common ground with the Republicans is an illusion. The only time the Republicans have been willing to compromise is when the Democrats have backed them into the uncomfortable position of showing their true colors to a disgusted public opinion, as was the case with the Republican games on the debt ceiling.
Ever since they took control of the House, the Republicans have used their muscle to block federal help for ordinary people, to weaken social insurance, and to reward privilege with tax cuts and deregulation. Obama needs to tell that story. His idealistic wish, expressed in his famous 2004 keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, that there should no longer be red states and blue states but only the United States, has been overtaken by the cynicism of the Republicans.
Obama can use his presidential bully pulpit to educate voters, or he can cling to his illusions. It will not be easy for Democrats to beat the six-year jinx. But they haven't a prayer unless they try.
Robert Kuttner's new book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. http://www.amazon.com/Debtors-Prison-Politics-Austerity-Possibility/dp/0307959805 He is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior Fellow at Demos.
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