Last night, President Obama gave his annual address to Congress and the American people. Reactions, as usual, were all over the map. Listening to some of them, though, I found myself wondering what will happen if the conventional Washington wisdom proves wrong in the 2014 midterm election, because while I didn't actually hear anyone toss out the "lame duck" term to describe Obama, most commentators were assuming that it's going to be a good Republican year at the polls, and that the only real question is whether Republicans will win control of the Senate or not. What if this proves not to be true? Call me a cock-eyed optimist if you will, but I couldn't help wondering how different next year's State of the Union speech will be if Democrats have a much better year than expected and not only hold the Senate but win control of the House.
Please understand that I'm not giving the odds of it happening here. Calling House races is incredibly tough to do in any midterm year, since there are over 400 of them to watch, so I truly have no concrete idea what the possibility is that Democrats will have such a good election season. But it is not outside the realm of probability either -- even though, to hear the pundits talk, we might as well just all stay home and not bother voting because the Republicans have the whole thing sewn up already. But pundits are often wrong in their predictions. This is what led me to ponder what Obama's final two years in office would be like if he had a Democratic-led Congress.
Many have already pointed out the rather limited nature of Obama's speech last night. Obama gave a speech listing things he thought he might be able to get done this year. It was a limited list, because nobody expects a whole lot of significant legislation to get through a Republican House before the elections happen. That's a pretty safe bet, with the only possible exception being immigration reform. Obama obviously realizes this and kept the goals he laid out in his speech limited to what he might actually accomplish. He didn't try to shoot for the moon, to put it another way, because there's no realistic possibility of a Republican House approving any moon shots anytime soon.
But what would Obama say next year if Nancy Pelosi had just been sworn in again as Speaker of the House? Just for the sake of argument, say Democrats hold roughly even in the Senate (enough seats for a majority, but not enough for a 60-vote supermajority) and win a thin edge in the House (say, a five- to 10-seat majority). This would bookend Obama's presidency in an odd way, since he started his first term with a Democratic House and Senate but lost the House in his first midterms. He did get a lot accomplished in his first two years, and he could easily be expected to get a lot accomplished in his last two as well with a friendlier Congress to work with.
On the House side of things, Nancy Pelosi has already proven what an impressive leader she can be. Agree with her agenda or not, you've got to at least admit she holds her caucus together well -- much better than John Boehner manages, in fact. During her speakership, she corralled her Democrats into a solid bloc, and only rarely did they not vote with Pelosi's agenda. She had a lot of Blue Dogs to deal with, but she marshaled her forces well even with that handicap. This time around, there would be fewer Blue Dogs to cope with, so it's an easy assumption that she'd start passing a lot of Democratic bills that have been halted by Boehner.
Over in the Senate, the dynamic would change as well, although not as radically. Since the Democrats lost their 60-vote majority (which they really only enjoyed for two months), they have had to peel off a number of Republican votes to get anything past the now-routine filibusters. Moderate Republicans have indeed joined with Democrats to get some things done during this period (such as the immigration bill the Senate passed last year, for instance). But they always voted with the clear knowledge that John Boehner was really setting the Republican agenda over in the House -- that nothing a significant number of House Republicans disapproved of would ever reach the president's desk. This would no longer be the case with a Democratic House.
Senate Republicans would come under an extraordinary amount of pressure from the Republican base in this scenario. Republican senators would be the only bulwark of power the party retained -- the only check on the Democratic agenda left open to them. Every time a few Republican Senators get on board with any bill at all, the Republican base will howl. But senators aren't quite like their House counterparts, for one big reason: You can't gerrymander a Senate seat. Senators have to run state-wide elections. Now, in the reddest of red states, this doesn't matter that much, because the entire state is the equivalent of a "safe" Republican House district. Senators from states like this could toss out as much extremist red meat as they liked, all the while knowing it would never hurt them at the polls. But not every state with a Republican senator is quite so deep-red. In these more-purplish states, Republican senators actually benefit from occasionally telling the tea party faction to take a hike. It shows they are moderate and don't stand in the way of progress simply because Democrats proposed the idea. Senators have always been more independent than House members, for this reason. They have to retain a wider electoral appeal than just pandering to one tiny district of base voters. So there would be pressure from both sides, really. And if the Republicans had just experienced another disappointing election, then Republican senators might be a lot more open to considerations that their party has gotten too extreme.
Of course, this is all admittedly nothing more than a fantasy at this point. But a Republican loss at the polls this year -- including a loss of control of the House -- would certainly shake up the power structure in Washington to Obama's advantage. If this comes to pass, next January President Obama will stand in front of Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi to give another speech to the nation. He will be addressing many newly sworn-in House members who are downright eager to advance the Democratic agenda.
In that case, Obama would have nothing to stop him from shooting for the moon -- on any number of issues. He would be almost assured of getting bills out of the House and having a vigorous debate on them in the Senate. The laundry list of things he wanted to accomplish in his final two years in office would be a lot more sweeping and lot more ambitious than last night's speech, in other words.
It flies in the face of history for a second-term president to see his party win a midterm election. But Obama's already chalked up a lot of "firsts" that everyone assumed could never happen (getting reelected with unemployment so high, for instance). This year, as I said, I didn't hear the term "lame duck" used by anyone after the speech, but next year, if Obama still faces a Republican House (or, even worse, a Republican Senate), I'd bet that the conventional wisdom inside the Beltway will be that nothing much of anything will get done in Obama's final two years in office. It's rare that any president gets much done in his seventh and eighth years in office, after all. But if Obama defies the odds and does have Nancy Pelosi sitting behind him next year, then Obama's final two years could be the most productive of his presidency -- which he would lay out, in great detail and with soaring ambition, in next year's annual speech.
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