William J. Crotty – Obama at Midterm and the Politics of Polarization

This is a guest post by Professor William J. Crotty, the Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Public Life at Northeastern University

Photo William Crotty

Barack Obama emerged as a force in American politics unexpectedly. A speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004 electrified the delegates and brought national attention. Four years later he won the Democratic party’s presidential nomination defeating the heir apparent Hillary Clinton in an extraordinary upset. During the general election campaign he ran a carefully calibrated organizational effort, after he had in the nomination phase demonstrated his superior intelligence in the presidential debates and drew on an ability to articulate a progressive agenda (“change you can believe in”). He combined his issue positions with an incisive dissection of the incumbent George W. Bush administration, one of the least popular in history. Propelled by the economic collapse in the fall of 2008 (called by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke (in private) the worst since and including the Great depression) he went on to win the election.1

 A black man was now president, unthinkable as that may have been.2 It was a galvanizing moment in American history, watched and applauded universally. The dawn of a new era had begun and a new politics would see the redefinition of a nation: a new course of social justice; respect for human rights; an emphasis on negotiation and compromise in international affairs; an end to war and the police state that had been emerging; a green environment; and an emphasis on economic fairness and equality, rechanneling the wealth of the nation for all to enjoy.

It never happened. In office Obama, lacking previous administrative experience and a relative newcomer to national politics would find himself unprepared for what was to come. An intransigent Republican opposition would effectively, with limited exceptions, stalemate his programs and in time essentially grind his administration to a halt. The military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan would continue. The president proved himself not to be the civil libertarian he had once seemed, cracking down on dissent, authorizing at his initiative the assassination of American citizens and on a much broader scale alleged terrorists, including Osama bin Laden. The Bush policies – some came to argue that the Obama presidency was essentially a continuation of the Bush presidency – in domestic and foreign security matters would continue and, in the context of the War on Terror, come to engage the presidency to a greater extent than other concerns. The polarization of politics in the form of a better personal and hyper partisan assault culture would worsen and the complementary polarization of wealth upwards to the very wealthiest would also accelerate.3 The main domestic initiative, a national health plan, controversial in conception and never to be accepted by its opponents, was adopted at great political cost. The one outstanding success, and the earliest and most consistent of Obama’s attention, the economic recovery, concentrated on the bailout of Wall Street succeeded brilliantly; the stock market was to reach its highest levels in history. The new politics of the 2008 campaign was little more than a distant memory.

Obama by the early years of his second term would come to rank in the Gallup polls as the least popular president since the polls began, outdoing his predecessor, Richard M. Nixon, and other contenders.

What happened? A selection of established political scientists would ask themselves this very question. From the earliest years the directions and emphases of the administration would emerge, presenting a stark contrast with the programs advanced to win an election. The transformation seemed to describe what had taken place, why it had occurred and identify the consequences to emerge, the basis for this series of studies.

Crotty bookThe selections in our new edited volume, The Obama Presidency Promise and Performance, focus on the principal issues, political and substantive, that marked the Obama presidency, with an emphasis on the formative period. The president’s approach to issue development, public communication (curiously inadequate), congressional leaders and parties and in essence, governing (removed, nonpartisan, unengaged, apolitical) is explored.

The analyses were developed by scholars expert in their particular areas, with a level of knowledge that combined with a sense of political reality, to provide a meaningful look at one of the more fascinating presidencies in recent history. The authors represented different shades of the political spectrum and a diversity of views and evaluations was encouraged.

Among the topics addressed:

  • The politics of campaigning versus the reality of governing; a progressive agenda largely lost in a focus on banks “too big to fail” and elective wars (W. Crotty)
  • A controversial national health care plan, its adoption and implementation despite an all-out and continuing, opposition movement (James E. Morone)
  • A comparison of the Obama presidency with its predecessors in its decisive formative, structural phases (Bruce E. Caswell)
  • A mixed environmental record for a president emphasizing a pro-environmental mindset; the controversial handling of the BP disaster (John C. Berg)
  • The influence of structural realities, international pressures and a real politik Washington community on attempts to enact adaptive, negotiation-based approaches to foreign affairs (Lawrence C. Reardon)
  • The opposition strategy and threats of government shutdowns adopted by congressional Republicans to stalemate presidential initiatives (R. Lawrence Butler)
  • Realignment pressures and the move from coalition-based, umbrella parties to more of an ideologically-driven, hyper-partisan politics based on a more responsible party system (Arthur C. Paulson)
  • Midterm elections as unique, discrete responses to prevalent domestic concerns and international events, working to the disadvantage of an incumbent president; an approach applicable to all off-year elections (Maureen S. Moakley)

And in conclusion

  • The clash of principles and pragmatism, reality and idealism, commitments and flexibility, all played out in Obama’s adaption to the demands to the presidency (W. Crotty)

The intersection of politics and policy, campaigns and governing and the paths chosen form the crux of the presentations in this book.

As for the 2014 congressional election:

The basic issue for President Obama, as it is for every president, is to minimize the damage that is sure to follow.

More specifically:

  • To the extent there is a unifying issue in its off-year elections it is the unpopularity of the president. Democrats do not want his endorsement or for him to appear in their districts. Republicans tie their opponents to the Obama administration. The president’s role has been to act as a fundraiser, something he excels at.
  • The congressional districts are severely gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. Democrats are at a substantial disadvantage before the campaigns even begin. This is a consequence of recent Republican success at the state level in winning governorships and state legislative majorities, the source of the electoral engineering.
  • The Democrats have considerably more Senate seats and governorships up for election and these are more vulnerable as are House seats. The Democratic priority is to maintain control of the Senate but to do so would mean holding or winning seats likely to go Republican.
  • The congressional electorate is fundamentally different from presidential electorates; there are in essence two electorates. The off-year races are low turnout and selective in participation, attracting older, white voters, a better-off clientele and more committed conservatives. Absent are blacks, Latinos, professional women, the young and low-income whites, Democratic 4
  • There has been a systematic campaign since the success of such efforts in Florida in 2000 to restrict voting and make it as difficult as possible: pruning rolls, limiting polling stations, placing polling booths in difficult to get to areas, requiring photo ids, not publicizing registration dates or localities, ending or limiting early voting, and so on. Aimed at Democratic constituencies, it has proven successful in restricting participation. The Supreme Court’s effective voiding of the enforcement powers contained in the Voting Rights Act (2013) is one such example of the anti-vote efforts.
  • The off-year elections will be the most expensive in history. Money in politics is a direct reflection of the dominant economic structure in the society. Such money is increasingly being invested in larger and larger sums in lower level (congressional, state and local) races. A million dollars is baseline for running a competitive House race. The governor’s race in Florida pitting a conservative and unpopular incumbent against a centrist Republican turned Democrat has drawn 1 million for the incumbent and $500,000 for the challenger. It is likely one of a number of such races. The final figures will not be available, and then primarily only for national races, until well after the final vote.
  • Billionaire funding of Tea Party races (among others) has created a bloc within the Republican party (and the Congress), difficult to deal with, divisive for the Republicans, yet successful in pushing legislation, tax policies and budgets that reward the funders.
  • Wildcards: There will be the usual off-the-wall independent candidacies and others internal to the (largely) Republication nomination process. These can have serious consequences in deciding close races and they are not immune to being elected. They serve whatever else they do to push the Republican party farther to the right. Such independent candidates can be mainstream (the Democratic gubernatorial and Senate candidates in Alaska resigned to run with independent candidates). More often thy are fringe figures on the political spectrum with, to say the least, idiosyncratic views (ex., proposals such as reclassifying single parenthood as child abuse; looking at “blood moons” as forces to change the world; advancing a “biblical worldview”; and attacking Hillary Clinton as “the Anti-Christ.” Independent candidates have rendered elections, in addition to Alaska, uncertain in Kansas, South Dakota, Georgia, Maine, Florida, Colorado, West Virginia, New Mexico, Iowa and Hawaii, among the more visible races. House races would be even more vulnerable to such campaigns, and established candidates have already lost re-nomination before getting to the general election phase (House Republican minority leader Eric Kantor of Virginia being the most prominent). Such independent efforts can be taken as evidence of a party system in flux with potentially less to offer voters and less power over their own decision-making processes.

What gives such candidacies hope, and creates further difficulties for the president, is the sour mood of the nation: September, 2014 New York Times poll showed 5 percent of the public believe that incumbent members of Congress should be re-elected (collectively support for the Congress is at its lowest in decades); 87 percent said the need was for new blood.

None of this works to Obama’s advantage. It is a time of stress, anxiety and uncertainty in American politics. The major parties have not answered the call. Neither has a presidential candidate who appeared to ride the wave of the future. It can be argued that the Obama years have contributed to the malaise of a nation and an electorate doubting itself, its leaders and the adequacy of its governing institutions.

It if offers any relief, the 2016 presidential race is already well underway.

William J. Crotty is the Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Public Life at Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts. His research interests include political parties; electoral behavior; American politics; presidential nominating systems; comparative public policy; and democratization. He received the Samuel J. Eldersveld Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Political Science Association’s Political Organization and Parties Section and is a former president of the Midwestern Political Science Association. He currently chairs the Executive Council of the New England Political Science Association and is a member of the Governing Council of the Northeastern Political Science Association. Among his recent publications are Winning the Presidency 2012 (2013); The Obama Presidency: Promise and Performance (2012); and Winning the Presidency 2008 (2009). He has a book forthcoming, The Consequences of Polarization: Parties, Politics and Policy (2014). Several of his books have won CHOICE awards from the Academic Library Association (ALA).


  1. See W. Crotty, ed., Winning the Presidency 2008 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2009) and W. Crotty, ed., Winning the Presidency 2012 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2013). I am calling largely on research with which I have been associated and with which in terms of quality and approach I am comfortable. There are obviously many other fine works available.
  2. On Obama and race, see: Michael Tesler and David O. Sears, Obama’s Race (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010): and Gerald M. Pomper, “The Presidential Election: Voting for Parties and Principles” in W. Crotty, ed. Winning the Presidency 2012 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 013), pp. 40-62; and Shayla C. Nunnally, “Race and the 2012 Presidential Election: The Declining Significance of the White Majority and the Future of American Party Politics,” in W. Crotty, ed., Winning the Presidency 2012 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2013), pp. 126-144.
  3. See W. Crotty, ed., Polarized Politics: The Impact of Divisiveness in the US Political System (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Press, forthcoming December 2014) for a comprehensive assessment of the causes and consequences of a polarized politics.
  4. Or an examination of these and related points, see: Elizabeth Drew, “Obama & the Coming Election,” The New York Review of Books, September 25, 2014, pp. 84-87.

See Jonathan Weisman, “House Hopefuls in GOP Seek Rightward shift,” New York Times, September 29, 2014, pp. A1ff; and Jonathan Martin, “Long Shots Loom as Spoilers in Tight Races Across Nation,” New York Times, September 28, 2014, p1ff.

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