US & Canada

The 'Whoa, slow it down' election

President Barak Obama with voters during his presidential campaign
Image caption President Obama's victory in 2008 was not ideological - voters wanted change

Mid-term elections for new presidents have rarely been kind.

Ronald Reagan suffered huge losses in Congressional seats in his first off-year election in 1982. In 1994, Bill Clinton's defeat was so devastating that one reporter asked him if the presidency was still relevant.

But both men went on to win re-election by substantial margins.

What will happen in 2010 is still uncertain but President Barack Obama may find that a repeat of the plight suffered by his two predecessors above could be the best possible outcome for his presidency - and perhaps for the country.

Let's review where we stand with three weeks to go.

Obama's victory in 2008 was not ideological. Voters in post-Katrina America wanted change. They wanted problem-solving and consensus building. In short, they wanted a government that worked.

With his youth and ability to communicate to left and right, there would be little doubt that Americans would have very high expectations for Obama.

But the new president quickly discovered that his message of healing partisan rifts clashed with the hyper-polarisation of politics in Washington DC and with several simultaneous potential catastrophes that warranted his attention.

Fearful Democrats

Image caption There is anger from the right and disillusionment from the left

For their part, Republicans were not only smarting from defeat but from having lost chunks of their own base during the years that George W Bush was president, when they had a majority in Congress.

Thus they determined it was in their best interests to shore up that conservative base by providing a solid front in opposition to Obama's major reform initiatives. Today, Republicans are bolstered by solid support from the conservative base - and from conservative-leaning independents.

At the same time, Obama tried to find a middle way and split his base between moderate Democrats who wanted change and wanted him to succeed, and hardline liberals and progressives who wanted stronger reform and felt that Obama was too soft.

Today, as we head into Obama's first mid-term elections, we find anger from the right - notably expressed in the form of the Tea Party - and disillusionment from the left.

In these circumstances, it is difficult to predict an accurate outcome, because we still do not know who will vote.

Republicans and conservatives clearly are the most enthusiastic. But there has been some evidence in the past week that the Democratic base is getting a bit more energised - not so much because they endorse Obama and his "weak" reforms but because they are genuinely fearful of ultra-conservative, out-of-control Tea Party nominees winning.

Put on the brakes

What is clear is that many unaffiliated voters show disdain for both parties. In a poll Zogby International conducted for the Blue Dog Democrats - a coalition of conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives - independent voters gave only a 13% favourable rating to Congressional Democrats and 5% to Congressional Republicans. In that context, it is very hard to determine who they will ultimately vote for - or if they will even vote.

So I am not sure of the exact outcome of the election but what seems certain is that Democrats will lose seats in both houses.

And, as is always the case, a message will emerge from the vote that is larger than the sum of it parts. That message will be: Do not repeal the Obama agenda but put on the brakes.

The voters, many of whom see trillions of dollars being spent before they can see the return on their investment, will say: "Whoa. Slow it down."

They will not vote to reject the president or to reward the Republicans. They will want to repeat their message of 2008: "More problem-solving and consensus building, please."

This approach would enable Obama to achieve more and would soften the image of Republicans.

If both parties continue along current hyper-partisan path, look for a third party doing real damage to both in 2012.

If they show that they can solve problems by working together they will limit the damage.

For Obama, the best possible scenario is to have both parties chastened and running for their very lives.