Monday, October 25, 2010

No Swami

With the midterm elections coming up in a little more than a week, there's plenty of news worth a comment. I'm up to the task. If I jump around a bit, keep reading -- you'll get the idea.

The story of this election was written before Barack Obama took office in January 2009. It didn't take much predicting skill to do so. The 2010 elections were going to be tough for Democrats, better for Republicans.

Obama was told before Inauguration Day that the country was in the midst of a recession that was greater than the last three recessions combined. In other words, hard times were ahead, no matter what the government did.

At that instant, Obama and his staff could have figured that the midterm elections would be trouble. Any student of economics believes in business cycles, so such a deep drop in activity was not going to snap back easily. It figured to take a while for a recovery to take place, and it has. Job growth is always the last factor to turn around, and we're seeing the unemployment numbers stay stubbornly high this year.

A good argument could be made that unemployment numbers would be even worse without the bailout of the American auto industry, the lifeline to several financial institutions (many of which have paid back those loans), and the passage of a large stimulus package that put some people to work. It's impossible to know where unemployment would be without those measures, and many voters are just going to look at the current job numbers and vote for a different party next week. That's understandable.

Meanwhile, faced with memories of Obama's substantial win in 2008 and the possibility of a changing calculus of winning elections, the Republicans certainly had a vested interest in doing whatever they could to make Obama look bad -- particularly on issues without great public support. Health care reform qualifies, even if neither side is too sure how that reform package will turn out and how much it will cost.

Meanwhile, the so-called Tea Partiers have created some energy from the right that will help Republican turnout. I'm a little surprised that protests of deficit spending have been popular, when both parties haven't been worried about that issue for decades. If they can give politicians to do the unpopular but proper task of actually spending only what they have except in economic emergencies (the fall of 2008 probably qualified), more power to them.

But the rhetoric has been severe. Some independents certainly were scared by Tea Party signs of Obama with the caption, "Hitler gave good speeches too." And to argue that health care coverage for all is illegal because it's not in the Constitution makes me wonder if those same people should protest Medicare, social security and the Louisiana Purchase. Nothing in the Constitution mentions those actions, either.

Mix all of this together, and then add it to the fact that the opposing party usually bounces back in offyear elections. Republican gains were inevitable.

Those gains probably could have been tempered a bit. The Obama Administration didn't do a particularly good job of selling its programs to voters, and didn't do much more at times than say "we were dealt a bad hand." In addition, taking on such a major package as health care in 2009 seemed to suck a lot of the air out of the room when people were still pretty scared every time they looked at the Dow Jones Industrial Average or their 401k statements. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid weren't exactly dynamic faces for a new Washington either, even though I can't say Mitch McConnell and John Boehner would be any better. (Just who is picking the leadership in Washington, anyway?)

Still, the private sector is slowly showing signs of an economic rebound. Employment has been crawling upward the last several months, and some companies have shown good profits. My guess is that the numbers will get better, and by the time 2012 rolls around the economic engine will have picked up steam. That's in spite of anything done by government, which has a far smaller role in what happens to the economy than people realize.

Therefore, Obama -- who if nothing else showed that he's a great campaigner -- should have a relatively easy time putting back together that base for the 2012 Presidential election if we all stay on this path. That's especially true if the Republicans nominate an old face, such as someone who ran in 2008 or is associated with the past (read Newt Gingrich).

Some Republicans are already figuring the White House will be theirs in two years. My advice would be: underrate Barack Obama at your peril.

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