Fri | Jan 18, 2019

How bad is it for Barack?

Published:Sunday | November 9, 2014 | 12:00 AM

John Rapley

Democrats took a beating in last week's US elections. They lost the Senate to the Republicans and fell further behind them in the House of Representatives.

The White House tried to put some lipstick on this pig of a result. It was quick to remind everyone that the party that controls the White House usually takes a hit in midterms. Besides, demographics favour Republicans when there isn't a presidential poll. Older white voters, who tend to turn out for midterms, also tend towards the Republicans, whereas Democratic-leaning young voters and Hispanics, for instance, are more likely to stay home.

Moreover, while Republicans ran a surprisingly good ground game and made inroads among Hispanic voters, they hardly won a sweeping mandate. It's clear that the mood is surly across America, and approval ratings for congressional Republicans are even lower than those for the president. Come the 2016 election, the Senate map favours Democrats, so Republicans will have to work hard to retain their support over the next couple of years.

The Democrats can hardly sit back and wait for their opponents to stumble, though. The Republican leadership maintained tight control on the campaign and managed to roll back some of the poisonous effect on its popularity of the Tea Partiers in its ranks. That kind of firm grip may continue in Congress, in which case Republicans might deliver the goods to their supporters.

That's more than can be said of the Obama administration. Therein lies the crux of the issue. Exit polls revealed clearly that these elections were, above all, a rebuke of Barack Obama's presidency. Even Democrats are dismayed at what they see as an aloof, out-of-touch leader with a weak handle on his administration.


Americans are less conservative than Republicans, so all the talk about voters rejecting big government has to be taken lightly. Take Obamacare, for instance, the President's signature achievement. Americans would probably show a greater acceptance of the new health-care system were it not that the roll-out was handled so disastrously. The White House waited for the launch to reveal huge problems with the website before it took action, and even then, it looked like a patch-up job. And despite the launch being a monumental failure of government, few heads rolled.

Sadly, the Obama presidency early settled into a pattern of this sort of thing. Just in the last two years, for instance, we've lived through a fiscal cliff, the Benghazi attack, the confused response to the Syrian Civil War and the spread of ISIS, the revelation of abuses by the nation's spies, serious leadership failings at the Department of Veteran Affairs, and even a break-in at the White House. But try to get a sense that the buck stops with Barack, and you're left frustrated.

Indeed, pundits are starting to use that dreaded term to describe the Obama presidency: Carteresque - a reference to the waffling and indecisive presidency of Jimmy Carter (1977-1981). Obama has two years to rescue his legacy. The Democrats will bounce back, but the prospects of Obama's place in the history books don't look so promising.

Eyes are already turning to the next presidential election. Indeed, perhaps the final insult to the Obama presidency would come with the election of Hilary Clinton, who he bested for the Democratic nomination in 2008, but who is the clear Democratic front-runner for 2016. Obama won the nomination and came to power promising to end the old-style politics with which the Clintons remain so closely associated. Were Americans to finally make her president in two years, it would smell a bit like buyer's remorse.

It's a long way to 2016, and Hilary Clinton is hardly a shoo-in for the presidency itself. But if it seemed like people littered Barack's path with rose petals when he entered the White House in 2009, he may find they're instead sweeping the floor behind him when he leaves in 2017.

John Rapley lectures at the Centre of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Email feedback to