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Obama’s Wake-Up Call

On Tuesday, President Obama received an unpleasant wake-up call from the American electorate, as the Republicans scored their biggest electoral gains since World War II. In the U.S. House of Representatives, the GOP swept to their largest majority since 1946, a stunning gain of over 60 seats. While the Republicans did not take control of the Senate, they gained six to seven seats to move the Democrats to a minimalist majority that cannot function well under the rules of the upper chamber.

Republicans’ greatest gains, however, occurred in the 37 states with elections for governor. The GOP swept normally Democratic states from Pennsylvania and Ohio to Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin, presenting serious difficulties for Obama’s reelection effort in 2012. Moreover, on the eve of the redistricting of all U.S. House seats, Republicans gained around 19 new state legislative chambers. When combined with seven to eight additional state governorships, Republicans will have an outsized influence that will stretch over the next decade.

For the Tea Party, the closely-watched contingent of very conservative voters, the results were mixed. It would certainly be foolish to discount them as the GOP swept to victory at all levels of government, powered by uniquely motivated conservative voters across the country. At the same time, they may have cost the Republicans a shot at the majority in the Senate as Tea Party candidates spoiled otherwise strong chances at GOP pick-ups in Delaware, Colorado, and Nevada.

Looking at the big picture, this was the 39th midterm election in U.S. history since Democrats and Republicans first faced each other in the 1850s. Fully 20 of the 39 have produced major pendulum swings, whereby the American public decides to apply the brakes to a president who has fallen into disfavor. Interestingly, there have been 11 pendulum swings to the Democrats and 2010 is the ninth such swing to the GOP—a nearly even divide over the course of the American republic. Such balance is of little comfort to Obama, though, since he has little in common with the conservative Republicans who will be running the House and influential enough to stymie the Senate.

Obama is very fortunate to have had large Democratic majorities in Congress for his first two years, and they helped him to pass a massive economic stimulus bill, an historic healthcare reform bill, and legislation realigning the financial institutions in the U.S. that helped to cause the Wall Street collapse of 2008. The productive legislative period of Obama’s presidency is over. Under the American system, checks and balances that have produced divided government for 38 of the past 64 years will guarantee that little is achieved before the presidential election of 2012.

What should Obama do in this dramatically changed circumstance? Other than hoping for an improvement in the economy, which is an essential ingredient in securing reelection, the president must decide which posture he will adopt. Should he be the second Bill Clinton, who faced a GOP landslide in the midpoint of his first term and chose to compromise and cooperate on an essentially conservative agenda of crime control, welfare reform, and deficit reduction? Or will the more liberal Barack Obama prefer the approach taken by a long-ago Democratic president, Harry S Truman, once the Republicans grabbed the Congress in his first term? Truman decided to give the Republicans hell, as he put it, and ran against the do-nothing GOP Congress on his way to an upset victory for the White House in 1948.

It is difficult to know which strategy will pay greater dividends for Obama. Everything depends upon the fortunes of the U.S. economy. If unemployment stays anywhere near 9 percent (it is currently at 9.6 percent) then President Obama’s hopes for reelection may be forlorn, unless Republicans nominate a far right-wing, completely unacceptable alternative.

We will know soon enough which path Obama will take because the tax cuts passed by President George W. Bush expire at the end of this calendar year. If affirmative action is not taken, the taxes of almost all Americans will automatically rise on January 1st. Obama does not want to extend the tax cuts for Americans making over $200,000, but this may have to be his first compromise, if he is to hold his administration together. The veto is not enough to sustain a presidency.

Even though bipartisanship has been in short supply since he took office in 2009, Obama has no real alternative but to extend the hand of friendship after such a humiliating loss. The cool-headed, unemotional Obama will be sorely tried in the next two years, and his response and leadership skills will determine whether he is a one-term reincarnation of Jimmy Carter or the natural successor to the wily, two-term Bill Clinton.

A version of this piece appeared today in The Times of London.