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Midterm elections raise ante for Obama

Votes may hinge on his record

President Obama President Obama is trying to push his initiatives before elections next year. (Mark Wilson/ Getty Images)
By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / October 5, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama, facing a critical series of domestic and foreign challenges in upcoming months that will determine whether he delivers on the promises of his presidency, now must grapple with another potential peril: next year’s midterm congressional elections.

Obama is trying to prod Congress into passing legislation on health care overhaul, climate change, and financial services regulation by early next year, before election-year political pressures make it harder to persuade wary lawmakers to vote for the dramatic change Obama promised in his campaign.

He must also make difficult decisions on whether to increase troop strength and commit America to a larger, longer mission in Afghanistan. And the economy, while apparently on the road to recovery, is still not producing new jobs and continues to generate anxiety around the country.

By historical standards, it is an extraordinarily ambitious agenda, and the fundamental overhauls the president is proposing present a series of tough votes for a Congress more accustomed to incremental change. Failure, especially on his promise to expand health care coverage, could spell significant Democratic losses in Congress in November 2010, say members of both parties and analysts.

“The tough part of this presidency is that everything is on the front burner,’’ said Peter Fenn, a Democrat consultant. To achieve victory and minimize damage to Democratic majorities, Obama and his team will have to have their policy and political strategies clicking perfectly, he said.

Recent history underscores the stakes for the White House.

The Clinton Administration fought hard for a health care package, failed miserably, and then his party was hammered in the 1994 elections, losing control of both chambers of Congress. The Democratic hemorrhaging on the Hill meant theat Clinton had to struggle to win approval of nearly every major piece of legislation he offered for the rest of his presidency.

While such a dramatic turnover is not expected next year, Republicans say the disgruntled Americans who hosted antitax “tea parties’’ and railed against health care overhaul at town hall meetings this summer represent a nascent, and potentially powerful, new conservative force.

“There’s a grass-roots conservative movement which we have not seen since the ‘Contract With America’ days,’’ said Representative Jack Kingston, Republican of Georgia, referring to the 1994 statement of conservative principles that helped the GOP seize power that year.

Democrats may also face troubles from the left wing of their party as well, Kingston noted. Supporters of a broader government role in health care may become disenchanted with the Democratic Congress and White House if the health care plan is too moderate for them. Increasing America’s presence in Afghanistan could also anger the left. So far, the president says he is carefully studying the request by the US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, to add more troops.

Democrats expect they will lose some seats in the House next year - a prediction backed by independent political specialists - and believe the Senate will remain relatively stable.

Historically, new presidents lose about 30 House seats in their first midterm elections - not enough to upend the Democrats’ current 256 to 177 advantage. But GOP presidential candidate John McCain prevailed in 47 congressional districts now held by Democrats, suggesting that Republicans have a good chance at picking up a significant number of seats.

“It’s going to be a very challenging cycle,’’ Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an interview. And while Van Hollen believes the economy will drive the election results, he sees health care overhaul as a critical threshold for the rest of the president’s legislative agenda.

“I do believe that if we are not successful in passing health care reform, it will make it much more difficult to enact other major initiatives,’’ Van Hollen said.

The Senate elections, too, present difficulties for the Democrats. While the party expects to retain control, even a single-seat shrinkage means the Democrats would not benefit from the 60 votes they now have to end filibusters. While Democrats are not always united in fighting filibusters, dropping below a 60-vote majority would be a psychological blow to the party.

“I am certainly cognizant that after two cycles of big wins [in Congress] and a White House win - as well as the history going back to the Civil War, in which only three times was there an exception to this - the president’s party loses seats’’ in the first mid-terms, said Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Republicans, meanwhile, see an opening. While Obama enjoyed stratospheric approval ratings in his early months in office, support for his policies have dropped in recent months, according to polls. A CBS/New York Times poll last month showed Obama with a solid 56 percent approval rating, but support for his handling of Afghanistan was at 44 percent, and approval of his handling of health care - while somewhat better than in August - is at 47 percent.

Democrats fear that if Republicans succeed in felling the health care package, which Obama has identified as his single biggest priority, the majority party will look weak, setting the stage for significant losses in 2010.

“The president remains relatively popular, but his policies are not,’’ Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in an interview. “And candidates who are running in 2010 in support of the president’s platform are going to find that it will be a lot harder.’’

Republicans say that the White House, despite Obama’s assertion of bipartisan approach, has failed to draw more Republicans into the process - a charge White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has repeatedly dismissed, saying that the administration is willing to work with all lawmakers genuinely interested in health care overhaul.

For now, said independent pollster John Zogby, Obama can protect Democrats in next year’s elections by getting the health care bill through.

“Obama had a not-so-good August, but he seems to have his legs back. He’s probably going to get this health care bill, and hence, a good part of the rest of the agenda. And that hurts Republicans, because they’re not signing onto anything,’’ Zogby said. “A stop sign is not a good policy in times of crisis.’’