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Will the Budget Showdown Be Obama's "Game Changer" (or Not)?

07/25/2011 11:10 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2011

In an insightful piece published last week, Michael Barone deduced that, in the last three presidential cycles, the share of the popular vote received by the two major parties' candidates was essentially the same as their parties received in the immediately preceding midterm. In 2008, then-Senator Obama bested Senator McCain 53-46, which mirrors the 53-45 Democratic advantage in the 2006 House vote. In 2004, President Bush beat Senator Kerry 51-48, closely tracking the 51-46 GOP tilt in the 2002 congressional election. And in 2000, the 48-48 tie between then-Governor Bush and Vice President Gore echoed the Republicans 49-48 advantage in the 1998 midterm. Should this trend hold, President Obama would lose the popular vote roughly 52-45 next November -- virtually assuring his ouster from the White House.

If one harkens back just four more years to the 1996 presidential election, however, this convergence between consecutive congressional and presidential results did not materialize. Two years after the Republican tide rolled in the 1994 midterm, when the GOP garnered a 52-44 advantage in the House vote, President Clinton handily won reelection over Senator Dole by a 49-41 margin.

Why did the convergence witnessed in 2000, 2004 and 2008 not occur in 1996? Part of the reason was the Perot factor. As Barone notes, if three-fourth of the vote for third party candidate Ross Perot is reallocated to Dole, Clinton would have prevailed only 51-47. But even in a two-man race, Clinton still would have emerged victorious despite his party's eight-point shellacking in the midterm two years earlier. Something else must have accounted for Clinton's reelection triumph.

Barone suggests that the "X-factor" that enabled Clinton to overcome his party's misfortune of two years' earlier was rebranding. Barone opines:

What I think these numbers suggest is that, absent a considerable redefinition by the incumbent president, he or his party's nominee is likely to run just about as well (or poorly) in the next presidential election as his party's House candidates did in the most recent off-year elections. The off-year vote represents a settled opinion on how the president and his party have performed in nearly two years in office, and unless the president takes a significantly different course toward governing, as Bill Clinton arguably did in 1995-1996, then that settled verdict remains more or less in place.

Barone is surely correct that Clinton's "triangulation" in the second half of his first term aided his reelection bid. But, thinking more broadly, Clinton was also the beneficiary of a booming economy (due in large part to the Internet build-out) and a GOP Congress that overplayed its hand. In short, Clinton benefitted from multiple disruptive events -- or "game changers" -- that occurred between the 1994 midterm and the 1996 presidential election and shifted the dominant political narrative in his favor.

This recent history perhaps helps explain why Obama has sought a "grand bargain" to resolve the present budget impasse. The Democrats lost the 2010 House vote decisively and the president desperately needs a "game changer" to escape the fate of Gore, Kerry and McCain, all of whose candidacies were handicapped by their party's loss in the prior midterm. But, unlike Clinton, Obama cannot count on a robust economy (see, for example, the recent Goldman Sachs economic forecast projecting that unemployment will remain at an elevated 8 ¾% at the end of 2012) to supply the transformative event he needs. He has been forced to look elsewhere to alter the current political trajectory and, to that end, a high-stakes budget showdown in which he might be perceived to emerge victorious provides a rare -- perhaps his only -- opportunity.