President Obama finally took a leadership step towards breaking what he once described as a "fever of gridlock" in Congress. He invited a dozen senators to dinner on Wednesday night, had dinner with Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) on Thursday and is scheduled to meet separately with lawmakers from both parties next week. Clearly, Obama is looking to move beyond the polarizing tactics that he has been accused of in the past and embrace a new period of bipartisan leadership beginning with talking directly to Republican leaders.
Obama has the challenge of showing leadership in the face of a polarized Congress exacerbated by his liberal agenda. While these overtures to the Republican leaders are a beginning, Obama's best hope lies in leading a midterm wave that will reduce the Republican majority in the House and maintain the Democratic majority in the Senate. Winning the 2014 midterm election is on the critical path to avoiding lame duck status, countervailing GOP resistance to his agenda and ensuring a Congress that will secure his second term legacy.
Obama and Democratic advisers have made it clear that 2014 is on their radar. The Washington Post reports, "Obama has committed to raising money for fellow Democrats, agreed to help recruit viable candidates, and launched a political nonprofit group dedicated to furthering his agenda and that of his congressional allies." It will not be an easy task. Bill Clinton is the only president since Franklin Roosevelt to pick up seats in the House for his party in the midterm election of a second term and the current system is stacked against seats switching between parties.
The Republican Party has a 33-seat majority in the House of Representatives. According to the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index that majority is likely to hold for the next few elections. The PVI looks at voting patterns in congressional districts to determine whether the district is considered solid Democrat, Republican or swing. The PVI data indicates that there are less than 100 swing districts in America and according to National Journal's David Wasserman that means Republicans will maintain control of the House. Wasserman notes "Democrats couldn't have picked a worse year to suffer horrific losses up and down the ballot than 2010. In effect, the GOP won the right to draw much of the political map for the next 10 years."
The 2010 Republican wave did not only affect Congress, Republicans also swept to power in a number of state legislatures. There are 30 Republican governors, 26 Republican controlled state legislatures, and 23 states with both a Republican governor and legislature. The Republican majority in Congress and state legislatures put them in control of the redistricting process in many states. They have taken advantage of their majority position to gerrymander electoral districts that not only ensure they maintain a majority position in Congress but that they maintain a majority position in state legislatures.
Gerrymandering essentially eliminates competition between the parties. It keeps conservative districts solidly and reliably Republican and liberal districts solidly Democrat. The gerrymandering has been so successful that it has left only 16 Republicans in districts carried by Obama in 2012. Meanwhile the Democrats will be defending seven Senate seats in states won by Mitt Romney the majority of which Romney won by double digits.
Last June, Obama indicated that the gridlock in Congress would end after the election. Obama explained that the Republican fever to make him a one-term president would break after the election and that would allow Congress to get back to work. He said, "it turns out that the goal of beating [me] doesn't make much sense because I'm not running again. We can start getting some cooperation again."
Obama actually is running again. He is running to secure his legacy and his vision for America. In order to do that he will have to buck the tradition of losing seats in the midterm of a second term and deliver a victory for the Democratic Party in 2014
"The president understands that to get anything done, he needs a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives," said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in The Washington Post. "To have a legacy in 2016, he will need a House majority in 2014, and that work has to start now."
Obama has started that work. He is reaching across the aisles and talking directly to Republicans. He is taking his message directly to the people. He is lending his coattails to the Democratic Party in a way that is in sharp contrast to 2010. He wants what he thinks is best for America and he realizes that the 2014 election is critical to that goal.