By Edward Luce in Washington
Published: November 3 2010 06:00 | Last updated: November 3 2010 06:00
It was a disastrous night for the Democratic Party across America – the worst since 1994. But for President Barack Obama gaming out his 2012 re-election prospects it was a uniquely bad night.
The awful news can be divided into three. The first, the Democratic loss of of the House of Representatives, caught the headlines but may eventually prove the easiest for Mr Obama to turn back to his advantage.
For John Boehner, the country’s next Speaker, the time for soundbites is over. He will now have to decide where and how to confront a besieged President Obama while trying to avoid the kind of overreach that gave Bill Clinton his comeback in 1995. The understated Mr Boehner will also have to demonstrate control of what may prove to be an unusually unruly and Tea Party-flavoured Republican majority. As Mr Boehner said in his tearful victory speech on Tuesday night, “now the real work begins”.
The second piece of bad news from Mr Obama’s perspective – and the most counter-intuitive – was that the Democrats retained control of the Senate. Mr Obama’s aim from now on will be to ensure that the Republicans share the responsibility, and the blame, for what looks like an economy that will continue to keep America’s electorate in a foul mood.
The fact that the Senate will remain in Democratic hands will dilute Mr Obama’s ability to ram home that message. Nor are there silver linings. Without a filibuster-breaking super majority of 60 votes, the Democrats can be blocked by the Republicans at any stage.
But the worst, and also most overlooked, piece of bad news from Mr Obama’s point of view was the sweep of Democratic losses across the state capitols. Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives in Washington for the next two years.
With a net gain of nine state governorships, the Republican party has acquired the means to redraw large chunks of the American political map in its favour for the next decade.
By taking control of the key swing states in presidential elections, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Iowa, or retaining control, as they did in Florida, Republicans have robbed Mr Obama of a sympathetic local ground force where it will matter for his 2012 re-election campaign. Mr Obama’s last campaign event on Sunday was in Ohio to help shore up Governor Ted Strickland in a close race. It obviously didn’t work.
For the Democratic Party the timing could not have been worse. Republicans now control 33 out of America’s 50 states, which means they can take charge of re-drawing congressional district boundaries next year following America’s decennial census. The net gain in the number of Republican congressional districts could be as high as thirty or forty seats. Other states taken by the Republicans from Democrats were New Mexico, Tennessee, Wyoming, Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
At 1pm on Wednesday, Mr Obama will give some indication of how he intends to navigate the new era of divided government in his first press conference after the election. Supporters will be hoping that he will hint at the tactical suppleness that enabled Bill Clinton to rise from the dead in 1995. They will also be hoping that Mr Boehner will overplay his hand by allowing the Tea Partiers to block the essential appropriations bills that keep government running. And they will be praying that the Republican presidential campaign, which begins on Wednesday, will throw up the kind of Tea Party candidate that Mr Obama can easily defeat in 2012 – a Sarah Palin, rather than a Mitt Romney.
All of these are very tenuous assumptions. In the last few months, Mr Obama has been operating well within his limits. From now on he will have to perform at a much higher level if he wants a chance of winning a second term. At the moment, he looks like a shooting star who briefly lit the sky before crashing. There is still plenty of time to change the narrative.