Health Care and the Obama Presidency: A Giant Squander?

There’s no doubt that, as midterms go, President Obama has not fared well. In 2010, his Democratic Party lost 63 House seats – the biggest midterm loss in that chamber since 1938 – and with it control of the House to the Republicans. Although they also lost six Senate seats, Democrats were at least able to retain their majority there. Four years later, however, Democrats lost the Senate too when Republicans picked up 8 Senate seats in the 2014 midterms – with one more still at stake – to regain a Senate majority. Republicans also padded their House majority by gaining a dozen more seats (a handful of House races have yet to be decided). The net result is that Obama is facing an opposition-controlled Congress for the last two years of his presidency.

The successive Republican waves are particularly devastating because they swept away what many pundits believed to be a coming period of Democratic electoral dominance. When Obama was elected President in 2008, he appeared to display substantial coattails; Democrats picked up 25 House and 8 Senate seats and enjoyed comfortable majorities in both chambers. More importantly, demographic trends suggested the size of the Democratic voting coalition was likely to expand in the coming years. In short, Obama’s election was, as one pundit put it at the time, “likely to create a new governing majority coalition that could dominate American politics for a generation or more.” Instead, the purported realignment lasted a bit less than two years. To borrow one of the catch phrases of Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione, the Obama presidency has been, politically at least, “a giant squander”.

But just how big a squander is it, historically speaking? One chart that made the rounds of the twitterverse this week indicates it was a very big squander indeed. It shows that Obama’s Democrats have suffered a net loss of 13 Senate and 77 House seats during the two midterms held in his presidency, which ranks as the third worst cumulative midterm seat loss among modern presidents, behind only FDR and Truman.

Obama losses

But is this really a useful metric? Roosevelt, who suffered the greatest cumulative seat loss, is nonetheless typically ranked as one of the nation’s three best presidents – someone who was the consummate political leader.  The problem with using total seat loss as a measuring rod is that presidents like FDR who enter office with substantial coattails, as indicated by large partisan majorities, and who serve the longest – both arguably measures of political skill – stand a greater probability of losing more seats. Moreover, looking only at midterms may not be a fair measure of a president’s party leadership since midterms operate under such unfavorable dynamics to the president. Perhaps a better metric is to assess the proportion of seats a president loses over the course of his presidency in all elections. This is not perfect, of course, because it still penalizes presidents who enter with a substantial governing majority – they have greater room to fall – but it is probably a better gauge of a president’s political pull than a raw seat count of midterms alone. Middlebury College student Tina Berger calculated that figure for all the modern presidents and summarized the totals in this chart.

Seats lostAlas, Obama does even worse by this standard – among modern presidents only Dwight Eisenhower lost a greater proportion of party seats across his presidency. The Republican Ike, however, presided in the midst of the post-Depression Democratic-dominated era (he was the only Republican president to serve between 1933 and 1969) and he managed to retain his personal popularity even as control of Congress reverted to what might be called its natural partisan state during this New Deal period. Obama, in contrast, has watched his popularity stagnate in the low 40% approval level for the better part of a year and with Democrats winning four of the last six presidential elections, it can hardly be called a Republican era (Karl Rove’s McKinleyesque visions notwithstanding.)

To be sure, not all of the blame for Democrats’ losses can be pinned on Obama. Surely the Party’s congressional wing is partly culpable for its dismal showing. Nor should we forget when judging his political leadership that Obama won reelection in 2012, and did so while helping Democrats net eight House and two Senate seats. The bottom line, however, is that in this era of nationalized politics, elections – even mid-year ones – are invariably in large part referendums on the president’s performance. And, at least by this one metric, Obama appears to have come up short.

Where did it all go wrong? Pundits are quick to blame the President’s detached leadership style but as I’ve noted in previous posts, it’s not clear how much temperament or character really matters. The fact is that Obama inherited an economic mess and a war on terror – two issues that defy easy solutions under the best of political circumstances. Moreover, as David Mayhew persuasively argues, the American system of separated institutions, each operating according to its own electoral clock and responding to different constituencies, seems to possess a systemic equilibrating tendency that prevents either party from holding onto strong majorities for very long, regardless of the president’s skills. In this respect Obama’s presidency demonstrated a not unexpected reversion to the political mean.

Still, I doubt very many pundits in 2008 predicted the speed and degree to which Obama’s governing majorities would dissipate – if they predicted dissipation at all. If one were to isolate one primary reason for this speedy partisan erosion, it is probably Obama’s decision to pursue health care reform despite strong Republican opposition and lukewarm public support. Along with the economic stimulus bill, health care proved to be the focal point of Republican resistance early in his presidency, and his failure to bring even a single Republican aboard when passing Obamacare cemented the partisan divisions that have come to characterize our national politics, and provided a rallying point for Republicans as they fought to regain partisan control of Congress. This is not to say pursuing health care reform was a mistake. It is to say that Obama – and his Democratic Party – paid a steep political price for doing so.

And so I wonder: as he contemplates finishing out his presidency facing two years of an opposition-controlled Congress, and with the fate of his signature piece of legislation now partly in the hands of the Supreme Court, does the President ever ask himself whether passing health care reform was really worth it?


  1. He never asks himself anything. It’s because he is always sure he is completely right on everything. It is his narcissistic personality. Someone else is always to blame.

    Obamacare may not survive this case; if they can get Jonathan Gruber under oath in the Congress and have him testify that it was intentionally a fraud, Roberts may get his do-over.

    Either way, if it survives the Court, the Congress will deal with it in 2016, after they fix Immigration, Taxes, Energy, Environment and Regulatory excess.

    A great two years for a Political Scientist, eh wot?

  2. Meh, I think this is a good instance where a counter-factual would be helpful. In the alternative universe were Obama ignored health care it’s not clear at all that the Democrats would have suffered fewer losses. Indeed it’s quite possible that they would suffer the same or even worse losses from the lousy economy/midterm dynamics plus the political costs of ignoring a key campaign theme and promise. Just look at how mad many liberals still are about say Guantanamo Bay, an issue where Obama has tried hard but been unable to close it due to Congress. Health care reform has been a major liberal priority for 60 years, and I think in many ways it makes sense to trade a few more House and Senate seats for fixing many of the huge problems with our terrible health care system.

    As for the punditry about the Age of Obama? I think the problem here is with the pundits not Obama, we basically are still living in a 50-50 nation and so claims that we were going into an age of triumphant liberalism were as silly in 2008 as they were in 1992.

    Finally I’d say that on some level you are right. Getting elected and then doing nothing is in some ways a better strategy vis-a-vis approval rating than doing stuff. Doing stuff always leads to people criticizing you. As Machiavelli taught us long ago, that’s just how politics works. And while the “don’t rock the boat” approach to leadership presents and interesting counter-factual for political scientists and indeed is nice fodder for Beltway pundits, people go into politics (and get involved in politics) because they want to do stuff. Especially liberals. I regard the Obama presidency as a huge success for liberals (and Democrats) because of all the stuff that got done and will get done, even if the midterms didn’t go well. That’s a calculation that I as a political actor am willing to make.

  3. It was predictable that Republicans would find and/or create a wedge issue that they could use to run against the opposing party. If it hadn’t been Obamacare, then it would have been something else.

    The problems for the Democrats were their failures to produce turnout from their base and to win over the independents. I would suggest that this was ultimately a vote on the economy and the lack of confidence that the average voter feels about his or her prospects within it.

    Ultimately, I believe that you can blame the president’s cautious nature and his unwillingness to make bold moves or to take ownership of them. The stimulus package combined with the Fed’s QE program prevented the economy from collapsing and created the basis for a slow recovery, but those did not purge the high levels of household debt that have constrained consumer spending and economic growth. He needed to be an FDR-style president who was willing to take drastic steps during a time of crisis, but Obama consistency pursues risk-avoidance strategies even though they have consistently backfired against him during his presidency. A cerebral guy generally, but when it comes to politics, quite a slow learner.

  4. LW,

    We have some data on this – Brady et al show that a vote for health care, and for cap-and-trade, did appear to prove costly in 2010 for legislators. See Of course, that’s not the same as disproving your counterfactual but it at least provides some evidence on the topic. I think your second point is the one I was trying to get at in the post: assume that Obama, and Democrats, did lose seats (a lot of seats!) as a result of pushing health care and other programs. Was it worth the price? As you note, a lot depends on one’s political views. But I can imagine that the calculus would change if, for instance, the Supreme Court invalidates the tax credit portion of the federal exchanges, and Republicans somehow weaken what is left. Hindsight is 20/20 but, alas for Presidents, they have to make tough decisions looking ahead to an uncertain future.

  5. T – Exit polls (for what they are worth) support your claim re: the important that a sluggish economy played in the 2014 midterms. As I noted in a previous post, it’s interesting that Democrats were not able to reprise the Obama 2012 argument that they inherited a mess but things were getting better. It might be that the difference between four years versus six years of slow growth was dispositive.

    The whole issue of Obama’s passive, cerebral nature, deserves closer scrutiny. I took a shot at it here but confess that I didn’t appear to persuade many people:

  6. Shelly – Here’s what is great about the next two years for a political scientist: the presidential campaign has begun, and there are two open races. It doesn’t get better than that!

  7. Ignoring the third-party candidates, voters in 2012 had the choice between voting for (or against) Obama, or for (or against) Romney.

    Being a presidential election year, more of the voters were already inclined to vote for Obama (or against Romney) regardless. It also provided more reasons for independents to vote for Obama, since some of them would be voting for the lesser of two evils. And it provided more reasons for the GOP to not show up, since 2012 would require them to vote for Romney, not just vote against Obama.

    In 2014, Democratic voters were apathetic for the usual midterm reasons, while the vote cast by independents and Republicans could be more of a pure referendum on Obama — there is no direct competitor to whom comparisons can be made. Losing a few Dems, agitating a few more Republicans, and migrating a few independents to the GOP is all it takes to change the outcome. Throwing in an October surprise or two (Ebola panic and ISIS), and you ended up with the makings for a political shift.

    I doubt that blaming Bush was a particularly compelling message in 2012. If the Republicans had had a better candidate in 2012, then I think that the GOP could have prevailed. But their bench isn’t very deep, and the Tea Party wing is too insular to realize that its preferences are far from universal; the Republicans needed a populist who could appeal to the middle and the base, but they didn’t have one.

    I am convinced that Obama’s introverted personality and caution are key to understanding his presidency. The motivations that he would have for many of the choices that he has made, for better or for worse, are better understood when seen from that vantage point.

  8. Professor, A devastating analysis. The fact that he was asked not to compaign in most battleground states suggests he has lost what ever influence he had on the Democrats in Congress and the Senate.

    I share the opinion that the economic recovery is very uneven, and even with a record stock market, the average American is still pretty worried.

    But for all that has gone wrong for the Democrats, they don’t have the ridiculous burden of a Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma, who thinks the earth is 6000 years old and that climate change is a huge hoax.

    What is frightening is that so many Americans believe he’s right.

  9. Matt, I’m sitting here and asking myself the following perplexing, hard-to-deal with question: how does one deal with election results analysis and never recognize issues relating to the President’s race? Marty

  10. Marty,

    Good question. The short (and necessarily incomplete answer), I think, is that because the forecast models did a decent job of predicting the midterm results without factoring in Obama’s race, there’s a tendency to dismiss it as an independent influence on the outcomes. This is not to say race is not a consideration in people’s evaluation of the President. It is to say that it it is hard to demonstrate that it mattered independently of other factors that normally predict midterms outcomes. So, those who voted against/for Democrats because of Obama’s race were likely to vote against/for Democrats for other reasons too – particularly because of reasons related to partisan affiliation. Another way to think of this is how many Republicans who voted against Democrats in the midterms would have voted for them if Obama was white? Similarly, how many Democratic supporters would have not voted Democrat if the President was white? I’m guessing not many. This doesn’t get to related issues like turnout, etc., but even here I think a race-based explanation only gets us so far.

  11. Jack,

    For Imhofe, of course, the Americans that count the most are the ones he represents in Oklahoma. And I suspect climate change is not nearly as important to them as is, say, building Keystone. Obama seems to recognize this too!:

    And for what it’s worth, when Imhofe looks at a list of what Americans think is the most pressing problems, he’s probably not too worried about climate change! Which may say something about Americans’ priorities in general, but that’s another story.

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