The idea that a president's legislative and political success go hand in hand is starkly contradicted by the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency. With the help of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Obama pushed through a huge economic stimulus package targeting the deep recession he had inherited, initiated comprehensive reforms of the nation's health care system, and signed a major redesign of financial regulation aimed at preventing a repeat of the financial meltdown that had made the recession so severe. These legislative achievements made the 111th Congress among the most productive in many years, and they were fully consistent with promises Obama made during his successful campaign for the White House. Obama also kept his campaign pledge to wind down the United States' involvement in Iraq and to reallocate American forces to confront the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
In short, Obama had done what he might reasonably believe he was elected to do. His reward was to see his Democratic Party suffer a crushing defeat in the 2010 midterm elections, with Republicans gaining 64 House seats to win their largest majority (242193) since 1946, and six Senate seats, putting them within easy striking distance of a majority in that chamber in 2012. (1) Not only did the president and his party reap no political benefit from their legislative accomplishments, they were evidently punished for them. The congressional Republicans' strategy of all-out opposition, adopted not long after Obama took office, turned out to be remarkably successful, delivering a stunning setback to a majority party that had won a sweeping victory just two years earlier.
Scholars will be debating explanations for this swift turn of events for some time to come. The Obama administration's priorities, legislative strategies, and political acumen are sure to come under critical scrutiny. My purpose here is somewhat different. I focus on the state of public opinion regarding Obama and his party during his successful election campaign and on its evolution during his first two years in office, looking for clues about where, why, and how legislative and even policy successes turned into political failures that ended up devastating Obama's party on election day.
Background: The 2008 Election
Public opinion toward Obama during his first two years in office featured wide partisan divisions, unusually intense hostility among his detractors, and extraordinarily strong connections between popular opinions of Obama, his party, his policies, and, ultimately, voting decisions in the 2010 elections. The evidence presented in this article suggests that Obama has become a stronger anchor for political attitudes, positive and negative, than even his predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush had been a highly polarizing figure, inspiring the widest partisan differences in presidential evaluations since the advent of modern polling. By 2008, however, even Republicans had lost some of their enthusiasm for him, and he was receiving exceedingly low marks from Democrats and independents (Jacobson 2011a). Bush's unpopularity, mainly a legacy of the Iraq War, but reinforced by the financial crisis and sharp economic downturn near the end of his term, tarnished his party's image, drove independent voters toward the opposition, and contributed crucially to Obama's victory (Jacobson 2010a).
Obama's election did not signal any narrowing of partisan divisions. According to the 2008 American National Election Study,2 party-line voting, at 89.1%, was second only to 2004's 89.9% in the ANES series going back to 1952) Self-identified Republicans accounted for only 4.4% of Obama's voters, the smallest crossover vote for any winning presidential candidate since John E Kennedy in 1960. Moreover, voters who had supported his opponent, John McCain, tended to accept the McCain campaign's portrayal of Obama as a radical leftist (Conroy 2008; Drogan, and Barabak 2008; Kenski, Hardy, and Jamieson 2010). As Figure 1 shows, 41% judged him an "extreme liberal" and another 34% "liberal" on the ANES's 7-point liberal-conservative scale; only 23% put him in the middle three categories (slightly liberal, middle of the road, slightly conservative). Obama's voters, in contrast, saw him as much more moderate; 49% placed him in the middle three categories, 32% classified him as a liberal, and only 7% rated him an extreme liberal.
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McCain voters, on average, placed Obama at 2.0 on the 7-point scale, further left than Republican voters had placed any previous Democratic candidate, including George McGovern in 1972. The also placed him further to the left of their own ideological location, by an average of 3.1 points, than Republican voters had placed any previous Democratic candidate (the average distance for candidates from McGovern through John Kerry was 2.1 points). Moreover, the more conservative McCain voters were themselves, the more liberal they perceived Obama to be (Figure 2), whereas the more conservative the Obama voters, the more conservative they considered Obama. Obviously, the psychological processes of contrast (among McCain voters) and assimilation (among Obama voters) were powerfully at work (Sherif and Hovland 1961). (4) On average, Obama's voters placed him slightly left of center (at 3.3, where 4 is dead center) and slightly to their own right, an appropriate location for a leader of the Democratic Party's diverse center-left coalition.
The campaign by McCain (and especially his running mate, Sarah Palin) to brand Obama as a radical leftist, while insufficiently persuasive to defeat him, certainly resonated with many conservatives. This is no surprise, for Obama's race, background, personality, and political style were guaranteed to antagonize identifiable factions on the political right. An African American carrying a foreign-sounding name with "Hussein" in the middle, Obama also has an Ivy League education, a detached manner, and a nuanced, cerebral approach to politics. He passed a portion of his childhood in predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Entering politics as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side, Obama maintained links with local black activists and leaders, some with fairly radical views, including his long-time minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Obama was thus bound to vibrate the racist, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, and antielitist as well as antiliberal strands woven into the fabric of right wing populist thinking. Among people sharing this mindset and others who simply accepted the McCain campaign's depiction of Obama as an unreconstructed 1960s-style radical with a socialist agenda, his election was bound to be alarming, his every action scrutinized for signs of his "true" intentions. The 2008 campaign thus planted the seeds for the intense aversion to Obama and his policies that later blossomed in the Tea Party movement.
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The 2008 election also featured the highest levels of party loyalty among House and Senate voters and lowest levels of ticket-splitting between president and House or Senate candidates in more than four decades. (5) As a consequence, the number of split districts was also unusually low, and relatively few congressional Republicans shared a significant portion of their electoral constituents--the people whose votes had elected them--with Obama. This is evident from data in the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which with 32,800 respondents is large enough to provide estimates of partisan voting at the House district level. (6) Figure 3 displays the frequency distribution of House districts across 5-point ranges of Obama's 2008 vote share according to the percentage of voters in the district who also supported the winning House candidate. Few Republicans in the 111th House represented districts where their own supporter had also given Obama significant backing; in 87% of Republican districts, fewer than 20% of Republican voters also voted for Obama. There were was a slightly larger number of districts where a substantial proportion of voters for the winning Democrat preferred McCain; still, in 82% of Democratic districts, more than 80% of the Democrats' electoral constituents also supported Obama. The electoral connection thus gave a large majority of congressional Republicans little incentive to support the president's agenda and little to lose by adoption of a strategy of all-out opposition. It also established conditions for continuing high levels of partisan polarization in Congress.
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In sum, the 2008 election laid a foundation for both the elite and mass responses to the Obama and his policy agenda observed during the first two years of his presidency. The next section examines how and why successful action on that agenda failed to deliver political dividends.
Fixing the Economy
On taking office, Obama's first necessity was to address the deep recession that had begun in December 2007 and was to last for the next 18 months. The financial crisis that came to a head in the summer of 2008 in the wake of a collapse in housing prices had accelerated the economic downturn. Large financial institutions with huge positions in mortgage-backed bonds faced bankruptcy, a prospect that threatened to freeze the credit markets essential to the functioning of the American and international economies. The Bush administration …