By: J. Randolph Evans
As Americans wait for Republicans to pick their nominee against President Barack Obama, there is an important subtext emerging for 2012. With the federal debt mounting, and the recovery remaining sluggish (at best), Americans increasingly wonder “is anyone in Washington, D.C. actually doing anything – especially their job?”
In response to this question, an enormous public relations battle and political tug-of-war is going on between President Obama and the Congress. Of course, with the control of Congress split between the Republicans in the House and the Democrats in the Senate, whatever political message there is gets muddled.
An incumbent President labeling the Congress as a “do-nothing Congress” is not something new. Democratic President Harry Truman (in serious trouble of losing reelection) started labeling the Republican-led 80th Congress as the ‘do-nothing Congress’ in 1947. In fact, in his 1948 campaign, President Truman ran as much against the Congress as he did his Republican opponent Thomas Dewey. In what is largely regarded as one of the greatest political upsets in history, President Truman was reelected in 1948 and Democrats regained control of both the House and Senate.
Things are a little different in 2012. Republicans did regain control of the House in 2010. However, unlike the 80th Congress in 1946 when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, the 112th Congress is split between Democratic control in the Senate (by a 53 – 47 margin) and Republican control in the House. This split in control complicates things for the President.
On the one hand, if President Obama’s primary focus is winning reelection without regard for Democrats, he can run against “the do-nothing Congress” including both the House and the Senate. There is fertile ground for such a campaign, since only 12% of Americans approve of the job that Congress is doing. But, such a strategy does involve throwing Senate Democrats under the proverbial bus.
On occasion, President Obama has attempted to narrow his target to just the House. This strategy has not worked so well. First, it is one layer beyond what most Americans understand about national politics. Second, and more significantly, Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans have worked to proactively preempt such an attack.
The GOP-led House boasts of a long series of bills, legislation and actions – all of which have languished in the United States Senate. When the case can be made for ‘do-nothing,’ the focus has shifted to the ‘do-nothing Senate’ – a focus that might help the President win a battle, but lose a war.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have had a long string of really bad months. It culminated in recent days with the White House spokesman expressing ‘no opinion,’ i.e., no defense, of the failure of Senate Democrats to pass a budget for over 1,000 days. This dynamic is taking its toll on Senators. Already 9 Senators have announced that they will not seek reelection – 7 of whom are Democrats.
On the other hand, House Republicans seem content to be the body that blocked President Obama’s march. If anything, House Republicans gladly wear their ‘stop Obama’s transformation of America project’ badges proudly.
Do the Wrong Thing President?
There have been campaigns framed around ‘do-nothing’ Presidents. Sometimes, these were well earned labels (like President Millard Fillmore); sometimes they were not (like President Dwight Eisenhower). The best example was probably President Franklin Pierce, who started his Presidency by affirming the oath on a law book rather than the Bible. It was all downhill from there.
While President Obama has little to show for his efforts during the last two years, he can hardly be characterized as a ‘do-nothing President.’ After all, President Obama has done, and continues his bid to do, really big things to ‘transform’ America. The question that voters have is whether what President Obama wants for America are good things?
So far, voters are about evenly, but passionately, split on whether they approve of the way President Obama is doing his job. Yet, polls consistently show that an overwhelming majority (62%) of Americans believe that the country is headed in the wrong direction.
The result – do nothing vs. do the wrong thing – is set for a collision course for November 2012. The Presidency and control of the Congress – both House and Senate – are clearly at play.
All 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 U.S. Senate seats (23 held by Democrats with 7 retirements) are at play in the November General Election. Against this backdrop, the battle for the framing of the election will heat up.
In the end, voters will have to decide whether they want 4 more years. Democrats are betting that voters will decide that 4 more years of President Obama is better than the alternative. Republicans are betting they won’t. Voters decide.