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Republicans Frame Midterm Election as Referendum on Obama


President Barack Obama’s name will not appear on ballots across the country next Tuesday but Republicans have done a pretty good job of convincing voters otherwise.

Americans head to the polls on November 4 to elect a new Congress and how the elections turn out will have a major impact on President Obama’s final two years in office. And the way the polls look right now, the president should prepare for an even more difficult last two years in office if Republicans are able to capitalize on the sour public mood and retake a majority in the Senate as well as bolster their majority in the House of Representatives.

In one sense, the 2014 midterm election is Barack Obama’s final campaign, one last chance to win over voters and help Democrats hold their majority in the Senate. And surprisingly the president has not been shy about acknowledging that his policies are subject to public scrutiny.

“Now, I am not on the ballot this fall,” he said in a recent speech in Illinois. “ Michelle (his wife) is pretty happy about that. But make no mistake. These policies are on the ballot, every single one of them.”

U.S. Senate candidate and Speaker of the N.C. House Thom Tillis speaks with a supporter during a conservative rally in Smithfield, N.C., Oct. 24, 2014.

U.S. Senate candidate and Speaker of the N.C. House Thom Tillis speaks with a supporter during a conservative rally in Smithfield, N.C., Oct. 24, 2014.

That was music to the ears of many Republicans across the country including North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis, who is in a tight race with incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan.

“If you want the same failed policies of President Obama, you’d vote for Kay Hagan,” Tillis said.

Hagan, like so many Democrats in swing states (a state that could elect either a Democrat or Republican) and states that lean Republican, has been forced to run away from the president and his policies.

“Speaker Tillis wants to make this race about the president,” Hagan said. “This race is about who is going to represent North Carolina.”

The Republican effort to put President Obama front and center in this year’s election has already paid dividends, said American Enterprise Institute political scholar Norm Ornstein.

“You have individual candidates who have some serious weaknesses and the best way to go around that is to nationalize an election at a time when people are unhappy and believing that things are out of control and the government’s not working and the president is not competent,” he said.

Obama dragging democrats down

President Obama’s dismal public approval ratings, some of the lowest of his presidency, have caused many Democrats to keep a distance.

Frank Newport of the Gallup Polling organization said the public is down about the president’s handling of the economy and foreign policy, especially with the rise of the Islamic State group in the Middle East.

“Just about a quarter of Americans say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States and that is low,” Newport said. “You can do the math and that means about three-quarters of Americans are not satisfied, so I would say the mood in general is not great.”

Karlyn Bowman, who monitors public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, said the voter mood this year reflects long term pessimism about the economy and the future of the country.

“You’ve got a kind of passive dissatisfaction and I think that is related to aftershocks from the Great Recession and the financial crash in 2008,” she said. “We just haven’t seen a public opinion recovery of the kinds that we have seen in the past and the public is disengaged overall.”

Bowman added that many voters see this year’s midterms as an opportunity to register their unhappiness with the direction of the country and how the president is handling major issues.

“He won’t be on the ballot of course and usually around six in 10 people tell the pollsters that he won’t be a factor in their vote,” Bowman said. “Of the remainder, however, more people describe the vote as a vote against the president than for him.”

Uneasy electorate

Public concerns about Ebola and the threat of Islamic State terrorists have voters on edge, said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar the Brookings Institution.

“It contributes to an environment in which people feel, well, the president just doesn’t have this under control,” he said.

President Obama has campaigned in relatively safe Democratic-leaning states like Illinois and Maryland. And where he does campaign, such as a recent rally in Maryland on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown, he is quick to blame Republicans for political gridlock.

“You know they are against me,” he said. “We know that. You all know that if I propose something, they are against it.”

The president and his fellow Democrats are at a disadvantage this year, said analyst John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“One, midterm elections tend to go against the president no matter what,” he said. “And two, the president isn’t doing so well in public opinion polls. He is at about 40 to 42 percent of people thinking he’s doing a good job.”

Democrats have welcomed campaign help from first lady Michelle Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

At a recent rally in Illinois, Bill Clinton tried to dissuade voters from looking at the midterm elections as a referendum on President Obama.

“All of our friends in the other party are just relentlessly attacking the president and acting like this is a referendum on that,” he said. “It’s not. It’s about you and your future.”

Power balance shifts

For Mann of the Brookings Institution, a Republican majority in the senate would likely mean a continuation of years of partisan political gridlock on Capitol Hill.

“Divided party government in a time of extreme partisan polarization is a formula for vehement oppositional politics and gridlock,” he said. “But I mean it has been mean and nasty and oppositional, ugly and unproductive—so how much worse can it get?”

Most political experts believe Republicans are likely to win a majority in the Senate in November, setting up Republican control of both the Senate and House of Representatives for the final two years of the Obama presidency.

“I would say that it looks like the Senate is likely to end up in Republican hands,” said Henry Olsen who monitors U.S. politics for the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “The question would be the degree of the majority and exactly which people (candidates) are going to be coming (to Washington).”

Democrats still hold to the hope they will pull off enough upsets in Senate races to somehow cling to their majority. Anywhere from 10 to 12 Senate races are close enough to be within the margin of error in polling, and that has given Democrats enough encouragement to keep fighting right up until Election Day in states like North Carolina, Colorado, Iowa, Arkansas, Georgia and Louisiana.

Republicans need a net gain of six seats now held by Democrats to win an outright majority in the Senate and the polls show Republicans leading in most of the key Senate races around the country in the final days of the campaign, but by slim margins.

Gallup’s Newport said a Republican takeover of the Senate would shift the balance of power in Washington, creating the atmosphere for even more partisan gridlock as President Obama prepares for his last two years in the White House.

“And if the Senate did tip over so that the Republicans had majority control that would make it even more difficult for the president to try to get things passed or to work with Congress since both houses would be controlled by the opposition,” Newport said.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.

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