On 4th November 2008, Barack Obama won the American presidential election. One year on, and voters in Virginia and New Jersey last night elected Republican governors—the latter especially surprising, given the conventional wisdom that the hugely rich Democrat incumbent, John Corzine, had fought a campaign just about expensive and dirty enough to win. But, as I argue in my essay in Prospect this month (now free to read online today, to mark the president’s first birthday), we shouldn’t be distracted by such setbacks in judging the president.
In truth, Obama is doing just fine. His first year has been successful: the interesting thing about it is how unlike the promise of his campaign it has been. In any case, here are three quick thoughts about yesterday’s result to try and put them in a small amount of context:
1. Don’t read too much into individual results. Virginia is an unusual state. As I understand it, its governor’s race has gone to the party not in control of the presidency in every election for the last generation. Add that to a weak Democratic candidate, a strong Republican candidate, and a horrid economy—and few expected anything different. New Jersey is a surprise, as in a different way is the narrow margin of Michael Bloomberg’s victory in New York. Obama had stumped for Corzine on numerous occasions, the thought being that at least when he won the president could pop over to the victory party, and share in some of the good news.
That he didn’t win—despite vast spending and a concerted campaign to muddy his opponents—reveals not much more than the fact that voters, at time of economic struggle, were especially keen for a change in a state which most observers agree has been disproportionately hit by the financial crisis, and extraordinarily badly governed in any case. The same is true for the result in the congressional district of NY-23, where Sarah Palin’s support of an alternative conservative candidate is being seen (with some justification) as the reason for a historically unusual Democratic victory. True enough, but not hugely more significant in the long run than the way that netroots flexed its muscles and tried (and failed) to unseat Joe Lieberman from his senate seat in 2006.
2. Wait for the health care bounce. At the moment (and particularly this morning) Obama’s reputation and popularity are likely below the fair level for his achievements. As I argue in my essay, his first year has been pretty impressive, especially given the constraints he has faced. It’s perfectly possible to imagine a scenario in which Obama was, by this point, genuinely embattled—having had one of his major initiatives already failed, for instance. But he is yet to lose a political fight that matters. And when healthcare passes, as it now looks certain to do probably just after Christmas, the reverse will be true: there will likely be a period of celebration at what will be a genuinely historic achievement, one which no Democrat will stop mentioning until 2012.
3. And if you want unpopular, wait for next summer. That said, even if I am right and these elections are quickly forgotten in the aftermath of healthcare, don’t expect an easy walk through to the 2010 mid-terms. The opposite is in fact much more likely. If growth returns next year it will be slow. The result in New Jersey shows there is still a powerful anti-incumbent mood. Obama’s next legislative priorities—perhaps immigration reform?—will be even more divisive than the current fight over health. Most importantly, America’s fiscal problems are going to have to be tackled, requiring a policy pivot towards deficit reduction and possible tax rises which no voter will much like. So while the the president is more than handy odds-on to be re-elected in 2012, you wouldn’t bet against him coming close to losing the house of representatives next year. If he does it will be a political disaster—but it will also make his decision to go for healthcare early seem especially well judged.