Thirty-one months ago Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell affronted the media and other custodians of propriety by saying something common-sensical. On Oct. 23, 2010, he said: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” He meant that America needed conservative change from the statist course of Obama’s presidency (the stimulus, Obamacare, etc.), therefore America needed a president who would not veto such change.
By similar reasoning, Obama today could sensibly say, and probably has said to himself, that the single most important thing he wants to achieve now is for Democrats to win control of the House in 2014. That redoubt of conservatism is an insuperable obstacle to the change he favors — ever-larger government as an instrument of wealth redistribution.
How will his objective shape policy debates this year? And what are the chances of Democrats taking the House? The answers are: considerably and minimal.
Regarding policy, Obama has devoted much of the most crucial months of his second term — those closest to his reelection and furthest from the next election — to gun control and immigration. He may think he can win by losing with both in 2013, thereby gaining two issues for 2014.
Before the 2014 elections, the gun proposals that recently failed in the Senate might, slightly revised, pass there and be voted on in the House. If they pass there, Obama has an achievement, albeit of minimal importance for public safety. If they fail, he has an issue.
He may be wrong about the politics: Most people whose votes are determined by gun issues oppose more restrictions. Or he may be right that associating the GOP with resistance to gun control will weaken the party among swing voters he thinks can deliver the House to Democrats. But gun policy probably is less important to him than the politics of 2014.
If comprehensive immigration reform passes in essentially the form proposed by the Senate “Gang of Eight,” it would not much improve Democrats’ current strength with Hispanic voters, as measured by Obama’s 71 percent in 2012. And a decade or more would pass before significant numbers of immigrants currently here illegally would become voters. If, however, comprehensive reform fails — and because it is comprehensive, it will be replete with small measures offensive to a cumulatively large group of legislators — this might energize Hispanic voters whose turnout otherwise would be down in a non-presidential election.
Actually, however, Democrats are more apt to lose control of the Senate than gain control of the House. Republicans need to gain six Senate seats; Democrats are defending seven seats in states where Obama averaged just 40.5 percent of the vote in 2012. Democrats need to gain only 17 House seats, but just 17 Republicans hold seats from districts Obama carried last year, when he won 209 districts and lost 226. Analyst Charlie Cook says that the House, having reached “partisan equilibrium,” has little “elasticity.” Now that 96 percent of House Democrats represent Obama districts and 93 percent of Republicans represent districts that voted for Mitt Romney, “The House is now more sorted along partisan lines than ever.”
Democrats won the cumulative House vote by 1.4 million votes, but the off-year electorate is apt to be smaller, whiter and older — Romney won a majority of voters over 30 and a majority of white voters under 30. In the past 150 years, since the emergence of today’s two-party system, no party holding the presidency has gained even 10 House seats — or captured control of the House — in an off-year election.
Nevertheless, rather than try to make incremental progress on large problems such as sluggish job creation and stalled social mobility, Obama concentrates on other issues for tactical reasons related to 2014. He is sacrificing the possibility of usefulness for the chimera of greatness.
Given the vast sprawl and myriad tentacles of the regulatory state, which is the executive branch operating with minimal supervision by the legislative branch, Obama even without Democratic control of the House will not be a nullity. Still, he may cling to the delusion that some purposeful failures before the 2014 elections can make possible a triumphant second term.
This is a weak reed on which to rest hopes for a revival of those fanciful comparisons of Obama to Franklin Roosevelt. Obama may, however, understand that unless Democrats gain the House and retain the Senate in 2014, history might not place him even in the front rank of the second rank of presidents.