The Great Debate

Why Obama isn’t sweating the midterms


By Joshua Spivak
The opinions expressed are his own.

With the Democrats thought to be facing a tidal wave of voter anger, and Republican incumbent Senators already being swept out of office in record numbers, the one person who seems unconcerned is President Obama. He has good reason not to sweat: while conservative activists are hoping the 2010 result is a harbinger for the presidential election, history shows that even disastrous mid-term elections don’t say much about a president’s re-election chances.

It has become a cliché that the president’s party suffers defeat in their first mid-term election. With a few exceptions, most notably the Republicans in 2002, the president’s party invariably witnesses setbacks in that first national return to the voters. Sometimes the impact is modest, other times the impact is so severe that it costs the party in power control over the legislature. Everyone is quick to remember the Democrats disaster in 1994, when they lost 54 seats and control of the House for the first time in four decades.

But the same phenomena occurred in 1954 when the Republicans coughed back the House to the Democrats, and in 1946 when the Republicans took control after a gain of 55 seats. Similarly, before the 1982 election, the Republicans had a minority in the House, but it was large enough to make deals. But a decisive Democratic performance ended that. Practically every mid-term has examples, including a 60+ seat deluge to the Republicans in 1914 following Woodrow Wilson’s first term and a 50+ seat victory that gave the Democrats control of the House in 1910.

What is noteworthy about the mid-term debacles is that they rarely spell disaster for the president. Looking at the elections of the past, one can see that Clinton, Reagan, Nixon and Eisenhower all cruised to reelection, and both Truman and Wilson skated by successfully. Rather than be hampered by the opposition controlling one or both houses of the legislature, these chief executives were strengthened. It gave the president an easy foil to score quick political points.

But it is not talking points and campaign ads that should give the incumbent comfort. It is another reality of mid-term elections that make the results a poor predictor of the next election. Voter turnout falls off greatly in mid-term elections. Since 1970, voter turnout in a mid-term election has never topped 40%. Outside of the 49% turnout in 1996, presidential elections always see over 50% of voters going to the polls. Just the last two elections tell the tale. In the presidential election of 2008, voter turnout among the voting age population was 56.8%. In 2006, it was just 37.1%.

Are Dems abandoning healthcare?


By Jane Orient. The opinions expressed are her own.

One of the Obama Administration’s greatest legislative triumphs is already turning sour.

Before passage, Democrats were urged to vote for ObamaCare as a smart political move. In time, they thought, people would come to love the new benefits. “Good policy is good politics,” Obama said.

But “Healthcare reform” passed with zero Republican support and bipartisan opposition. And with midterm elections on the horizon, Democrats who voted “no” are posing as heroes.

Desperate times do not always call for desperate measures


This is a guest post by R. Glenn Hubbard, dean of the Columbia Business School and former Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, and Peter Navarro, a professor of economics at the Merage School of Business at the University of California-Irvine. They are the authors of “Seeds of Destruction: Why the Path to Economic Ruin Runs Through Washington, and How to Reclaim American Prosperity.”

These seem like desperate times, particularly for incumbent politicians facing re-election. Here, we have an economy slowing once more below a 2% annual growth rate, even as the unemployment remains persistently high.

In response, a beleaguered White House wants yet another fiscal stimulus, while the Federal Reserve wants more easy money. This desperate fiscal and monetary policy response is, however, the very definition of insanity — using the same stimuli over and over and expecting a different result.

Why Obama won’t axe his economic advisers


The following is a guest post by Joshua Spivak, a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College and a lawyer. The opinions expressed are his own.

Trying to draw some direct implications between the country’s economic doldrums and the Obama administration, House Minority Leader John Boehner called for the firing of the administration’s economic team, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Boehner may just be looking to score some easy political points, but he is following in a grand tradition. With nearly every electoral or polling downturn, a president is faced with calls to remove cabinet members and other senior advisors.

Fortunately for Geithner, and for the other cabinet members, Obama certainly knows firing members of his team most likely wont help his or his party’s cause. Cabinet members, who serve as the face for a host of political decisions, are lighting rods for attacks. By calling for their removal, political opponents are able to claim that the president is unable to properly choose or manage his subordinates, and is therefore not qualified for the job.

Sarah Palin, big political lies and the U.S. immigration debate

The prize for the biggest political lie of 2009 went to Sarah Palin, the darling of the American right, for injecting fictitious “death panels” into the health reform debate. This year, fact-benders are hard at work to control the debate on another controversial topic, immigration. Competition is intense.

It comes from opponents of immigration reforms that would  simultaneously offer better control of the 2,000-mile U.S-Mexico border, a new visa system, and a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, the majority Mexicans, who are already in the country. The official term for this is “comprehensive immigration reform.”

But influential politicians insist there must be no reform before the border is entry-proof to illegals, and they portray the frontier as a virtual war zone, on both sides of the line.

The next chapter in reforming healthcare


The following is a guest post by Stephen Davidson, a professor at Boston University’s School of Management and author of “Still Broken: Understanding the U.S. Health Care System.” The opinions expressed are his own.

President Obama brought back the healthcare debate yesterday by telling a White House audience, “I refuse to go back. And so do countless Americans.”  Obama drew attention to the consumer protection regulations developed to implement the new law. Given the continuing controversy surrounding the new law and the relentless criticism from its opponents, the president’s remarks highlighted some of the law’s most dramatic early benefits.

Obama’s healthcare address was an early entry in what will undoubtedly be a series of efforts that emphasize how Americans will benefit from the healthcare bill.  The political reality is that as the fall elections approach, the administration must continually inform the public of the beneficial effects of the reform so Democrats get electoral credit come midterm elections.

George W. Obama and immigration fantasies

In the waning days of his presidency, George W. Bush listed the failure of immigration reform as one of his biggest disappointments and deplored the tone of the immigration debate. It had, he said in December 2008, undermined “the true greatness of America which is that we welcome people who want to work”.

The way things look a year and a half into the administration of Barack Obama, he too may end his presidency deploring the failure to fix America’s dysfunctional immigration system. The tone of the debate is even more rancorous now than it was when Bush pushed reform and it features the same arguments, including the fantasy that you can fully control the frontier between the U.S. and Mexico, the world’s busiest border.

That illusory target was set in the Secure Fence Act of 2006, signed into law by George W. Bush on October 26 of that year. It provided a definition of the term “operational control”, one of the most frequently used buzz phrases of the debate. (The other is “securing the border”). Under the letter of the law, operational control means “the prevention of all unlawful U.S. entries, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”

Obama, American guns and Mexican mayhem

During a visit to Mexico a year ago, President Barack Obama promised he would urge the U.S. Senate to ratify an international treaty designed to curb  the flow of weapons to Latin American drug cartels. It remains just that – a promise. Prospects for ratification are virtually zero.

Top officials in the Obama administration have called the cartels, and the extreme violence tearing apart Mexican cities on the U.S. border, threats to U.S. national security. Joining 30 other countries in the Western Hemisphere in an anti-arms smuggling accord would therefore seem a perfectly sane and logical thing to do. But logic often ends where American gun ownership begins.

The treaty in question is called the Inter-American Convention Against Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials. Known as CIFTA for its Spanish acronym, it was adopted by the Organization of American States in 1997. All but four of its 35 members have ratified it. Bill Clinton signed the convention but did not get the Senate to bless it.

In drug war, failed old ideas never die

Here’s a stern warning to the U.S. states of Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. A United Nations body is displeased with your liberal medical marijuana laws. Very displeased.

The U.N. rarely takes issue with the internal affairs of member states, and even less with those of the United States. But that’s what the International Narcotics Control Board has just done in its latest annual report, published this week. Without mentioning by name the 14 American states where marijuana is legal for medical purposes, the 149-page report says:

“While the consumption and cultivation of cannabis, except for scientific purposes, are illegal activities according to federal law in the United States, several states have enacted laws that provide for the ‘medical use’ of cannabis. The control measures applied in those states for the cultivation of cannabis plants and the production, distribution and use fall short of the control requirements laid down in the 1961 Convention (on narcotic drugs.)

Closing the wealth gap between men and women

– Mariko Chang is author of the forthcoming book “Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It.” A former Associate Professor of Sociology at Harvard, she is a member of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s Experts of Color Network. The views expressed are her own. –

I cheered when President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law one year ago. But on its first anniversary, I find the pessimist in me prevails. My skepticism isn’t about this new law, but rather our almost myopic focus on equal pay as the panacea for women’s economic inequality. It’s the inequality in wealth we need to address.

You may recall that Ledbetter was a supervisor at a tire factory in Alabama who, after almost 20 years of employment, received an anonymous note containing the salaries of three other male supervisors. The sole woman among 16 supervisors, Ledbetter was the lowest paid person in her position, earning $3,727 per month. Salaries for the men in the same position ranged from $4,286 to $5,236 per month, despite some having less seniority and experience. Over 19 years, cumulative salary discrepancies cost Ledbetter more than $200,000 in wages.