Although President Barack Obama's name is not on the ballot this year — as vulnerable Democrats have repeatedly pointed out — his party's performance in the midterm elections could leave an embarrassing footnote to the history of his presidency.
As Roll Call points out, "Obama is likely to have the worst midterm numbers of any two-term president going back to Democrat Harry S. Truman" if current trends hold and Democrats take a beating Tuesday at the polls. Along with the Democrats' loss of 63 House seats and six Senate seats in 2010, Obama's combined midterm losses of 68 to 75 House seats and 11 to 16 Senate seats during his administration would be the worst in recent memory.
Conventional wisdom holds that the president's party loses seats in midterm elections, which is generally true. But most two-term presidents over the last 60 years haven't typically faced two midterm disasters in a row — they usually get hammered in the first midterms and bounce back in the second. Roll Call reported:
The GOP lost 30 House seats in George W. Bush's second midterm, but gained eight seats in his first midterm for a net loss of 22 seats. The party lost 26 seats in Ronald Reagan's first midterm, but a mere five seats in his second midterm for a net loss of 31 seats.
Democrats got shellacked in 1994, losing 54 seats in Bill Clinton's first midterm, but the party gained five House seats in 1998, Clinton's six-year-itch election, for a net Clinton loss of 49 House seats. (The figures don't include special elections during a president's term.)
This is a sign of just how badly things are going in Washington. The midterm electorate is increasingly polarized — voters tend to be more partisan during midterm elections than during presidential years. This inevitably leads to a more divided Congress and is partly the reason why common ground seems increasingly hard to find. Americans overall have been none too pleased with the last Congress' performance either, giving an approval rating of 14% just last month.
But the gridlock isn't solely the fault of Congress — the president also bears responsibility, at least in the view of centrist prognosticators. Obama has repeatedly "failed to show leadership on key issues and never successfully moved to the political center," as Roll Call notes.
Although Obama has made strides on fixing the economy, lowering unemployment and boasting a domestic record that is full of significant — if unpopular — achievements, he hasn't been able to communicate those successes to voters, and he's about to pay a price for it.