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Published: 11/3/2010

Analysis: Results are tough blow for President Obama

U.S. Rep. John Boehner signs in before casting his vote in West Chester, Ohio. The Ohio Republican is likely to become speaker of the House with his party's regaining a majority of seats in the midterm elections. All 435 House seats were on the ballot. U.S. Rep. John Boehner signs in before casting his vote in West Chester, Ohio. The Ohio Republican is likely to become speaker of the House with his party's regaining a majority of seats in the midterm elections. All 435 House seats were on the ballot.
CARA OWSLEY / AP Enlarge

John Kasich defeated Barack Obama to become Ohio's 69th governor Tuesday night.

Gov. Ted Strickland was merely a victim.

In what was predicted to be a bad night for President Obama, Republicans swept back into power in the U.S. House of Representatives, several statehouses, and all statewide races in Ohio — riding a tidal wave of voter frustration with an Obama presidency that is not quite 2 years old.

Like many of those successful GOP candidates nationwide, Governor-elect Kasich mentioned President Obama and Democrats in Congress on the stump almost as much as he mentioned his actual opponent — Mr. Strickland.

The rallying cries against national health care, the stimulus bill, exploding national debt, failed cap-and-trade legislation, and a 9.6 percent national unemployment rate on Mr. Obama's watch trumped Democrats across the country.

Those issues, coupled with Mr. Kasich's attacks on Mr. Strickland for the 400,000 jobs lost in Ohio during the last four years were too much to overcome in Ohio, where the President visited twice since mid-October and campaigned in Cleveland on Sunday.

“This was clearly a nationalized election and was a referendum on the President's and Democrats' agenda,” said Republican strategist Kevin Madden, a former senior adviser to U.S. Rep. John Boehner (R., West Chester), who is expected to become speaker of the House.

Mr. Madden also served as press secretary for 2008 GOP presidential candidate and likely 2012 hopeful Mitt Romney. “This was a signal to Washington that the Democrats' spending, cavalier way of piling up deficits, and growth of ineffective government was rejected,” Mr. Madden said.

Given Ohio's traditional status as a vital swing state in presidential politics, as well as the special attention Mr. Obama paid to the state and to Mr. Strickland's re-election campaign — visiting Ohio 12 times since he was elected President — Mr. Kasich's triumph was a particularly tough blow during a night full of punches to the gut for the President.

But according to analysts from both parties, academics, and recorded history, it's unclear what effect — if any — Tuesday night's electoral drubbing will have on Mr. Obama's own re-election bid.

The volatility of the electorate, caused at the moment by the rising tide of the Tea Party, a clear antagonist for Mr. Obama to oppose in the new House majority, and a possible shift in the main campaign issues two years from now make it difficult to draw any conclusions for 2012 hours after the polls closed in 2010.

“If history is any guide, the President can certainly come back and win in 2012,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “It just would be easier if Ted Strickland were re-elected.”

Mr. Green said governors play a significant role in assembling statewide campaign efforts for presidential candidates and said Mr. Strickland was a key figure in Mr. Obama's Ohio victory in 2008.

Mr. Obama, who won with about 53 percent of the popular vote nationwide in 2008, picked up 51.5 percent of the vote in Ohio that year.

Mr. Green said Mr. Obama's re-election will hinge in part on his ability to complete a mid-course correction, perhaps by reaching compromises with Republicans on tax cuts and other measures to speed recovery from the recent national recession.

But Mr. Boehner and other prominent Republicans have signaled they don't intend to seek middle ground on Mr. Obama's policies, which provides indications about Mr. Obama's next possible window of opportunity.

If a Republican-led House and a Senate with fewer Democratic votes is even more difficult to work with than the Congress that dragged its feet on health care and extending unemployment benefits, Mr. Obama would have an obvious villain to run against.

“On the one hand his legislative agenda could be hamstrung, but like [then-President] Bill Clinton did he could win re-election by running against Republicans in Congress,” Mr. Green said.

The previous midterm elections this year's races have often been compared to are 1982 and 1994, when in the midst of a national recession the sitting President's party suffered huge losses nationally and in Ohio.

After winning election in 1980, Republican President Ronald Reagan was rebuked by 26 House seats lost at the midterm. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) won her first term in Congress that year and Democrat Richard Celeste was elected Ohio's governor in 1982 in part by running against Mr. Reagan.

In 1994, President Clinton's Democrats were scorched by the GOP, losing 54 House seats and ceding control of that chamber for the first time in 40 years. Republican George Voinovich won re-election as Ohio's governor with 72 percent of the vote.

Things seemed so bad for Mr. Clinton that following the Democrats' disastrous 1994 midterm he had to declare to the press that “the president is still relevant here.”

Mr. Clinton and Mr. Reagan did prove to be relevant following their midterm thumpings. Both won re-election two years later.

“Who happened to be the governor of Ohio didn't make any difference in either case,” said Mike Beazley, a longtime Democratic official in Lucas County who served as the Ohio field director for Mr. Clinton's re-election campaign.

Mr. Obama's approval rating of about 45 percent is slightly better than Mr. Reagan's and Mr. Clinton's ratings at the same time in their presidencies.

If the economy, which was easily the hottest topic on the campaign trail this year, improves, Mr. Beazley believes people will feel better about the direction of the country and by proxy better about Mr. Obama.

“The conversation two years from now is not going to be about what's going on Wednesday,” Mr. Beazley said.

Indeed, the war in Afghanistan, abortion, immigration, and gay marriage were just some of the issues that seemed to take a back seat in 2010 and could re-appear.

Also, as likely battles over health-care reform, Social Security, and the federal government's role in education materialize, any one of those issues could drive the discussion two years from now.

It's also too soon to know what kind of impact Tea Party-backed Senate winners such as Rand Paul (R., Kentucky) and Marco Rubio (R., Florida) will have on Washington, whether they will be forced to stand in line as junior senators or will drive the discussion as the face of America's fast-growing political movement.

As time moves on the nation will learn if the Tea Party has spread wide enough for presidential candidates such as Sarah Palin to make a serious challenge, or if it's strong enough to derail runs from traditional Republicans like Mr. Romney or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Just as there are so many issues that could make what happened to Mr. Obama's Democrats Tuesday night moot, there are also many who are surprised the superstar President was humbled so quickly.

“Was there anyone who stood there at Grant Park [in Chicago on election night in 2008] and thought two years later the President would receive such widespread repudiation of his agenda?” Mr. Madden said.

Contact Joe Vardon at:

jvardon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6559.



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