The headlines tell us of big Republican gains in these midterm elections, including the retaking of control of the U.S. House of Representatives. They also point to a number of victories for candidates from the far-right Tea Party movement. True enough. And this is news.
But I am not depressed or alarmed by these election returns. Indeed, this will no doubt surprise many people: I believe Obama is on track for reelection in 2012 and that the Democrats can see in last night's results the path to success two years from now.
The result of this election is an endorsement neither of a right-wing agenda nor of Republican ideology. Consistent with long historical precedent, it is centrally a referendum on economic performance. As has long been the case, the party in power loses and loses big when an economic downturn has been long and deep. And this economic downturn has been that and more. Exit polls show clearly that for two-thirds of voters, the economy was the dominant consideration in how they voted.
For Democrats, this election is worse than the 1994 midterm with regard to losses in the House; Obama's losses are worse than Bill Clinton's. Obama, however, has presided over a far deeper recession. At the time of the 1994 midterm elections, the national unemployment rate was around 6 percent. Today unemployment is closer to 10 percent, indicative of much more widespread economic uncertainty and hardship. And this is almost certainly the principal reason that Obama's midterm setback in the House involves nine more seats than Clinton lost.
There is almost no difference between Obama's current approval rating and that endured by Clinton in 1994, with both at roughly 45 percent approval. The bigger difference between now and then -- between Obama's standing and that of Clinton -- is that 40 percent of voters thought the country was headed in "the right direction" under Clinton in 1994, but only 32 percent said so going into this year's elections, according to an October CBS News Poll.
The difference here is the state of economy. To wit, this election is not a repudiation of a liberal agenda run amok or of an Obama administration out of touch with the American people. It is a loud declaration of deep disappointment with the weak and uneven pace of the economic recovery after a catastrophic economic downturn.
I want to press it further than merely claiming this was an election mainly about economic frustration. Barack Obama and the Democrats actually did much better than they should have if all the talk of an electorate that has turned against a "big government" agenda is really accurate. Democrats retained control of the U.S. Senate. Several of the most extreme Tea Party candidates lost, most notably Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and, even more revealingly, Sharron Angle in Nevada.
Moreover, it strikes me that the really telling case in this election occurred, of all places, in Massachusetts. Remember the state that brought us Sen. Scott Brown, "the 41st vote" against health-care reform, and arguably fired the first loud shot of impending doom across the Democrats' bow?
Well, the Democrat incumbent governor and close friend of Obama's, Deval Patrick, was re-elected, and the state congressional delegation remains 100 percent Democratic. The latter is particularly important because there was an open seat in the 10th district vacated by Bill Delahunt. Republicans poured in tons of money and thought they were poised to make major inroads in an otherwise thoroughly blue state. The Republican candidate, Jeff Perry, had the endorsements of Scott Brown and Republican 2012 presidential hopeful and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney -- and yet Democrat Bill Keating won. Had Republicans won this race, rest assured, it would have been national headline news. They did not. And that they did not matters greatly.
Massachusetts could have gone otherwise. That Massachusetts provided only bad news for Republicans is instructive for Democrats in general, and Obama in particular. The success of Scott Brown sent a clear message to Democrats in Massachusetts back in January of this year. That message was heard by Patrick and other Democrats in the state.
First Patrick gave a clear message about the things his administration and state government were doing right on the economy, on education and on health care. There was no bashfulness or hesitance about making the case for a record and for a real Democratic agenda. Advancing this agenda included making it clear that Patrick and other Democratic leaders in the state understood that too many people were still struggling economically and that much work remained to be done to get it right.
Second, he and others emphasized the record of his Republican challenger. Doing so meant that the simplistic nostrum of "shrink government, cut taxes" and the whole "something for nothing" Republican logic lay exposed as inadequate to the real challenges of the times. And third, there was scrupulous vigilance about mobilizing voters. There was no taking for granted that voters would turn out.
So the 2010 midterms were a setback for Democrats. Let's remember that this outcome was completely foreseeable in light of the economy. Republicans will celebrate with some measure of justification. But the presumption that Americans have repudiated Democrats and endorsed Republican ideology, or that Obama's electoral fate is now sealed, is just plain wrong. Assuming the economy continues to improve and the Democrats, including Obama, heed the lessons of Massachusetts, I'm feeling pretty good about 2012.
Lawrence D. Bobo is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University.
Crossposted from The Root.