Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Obama can avoid lame-duck blues

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: The last midterm election that a president faces matters very much
  • Zelizer: If GOP gains control of Senate and retains control of House, its power increases
  • He says President Obama might turn into a lame-duck president with little clout
  • Zelizer: If Democrats lose the Senate in November, Obama will accomplish little

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- A lot of people don't pay close attention to midterm elections. They are not as exciting as the presidential campaigns, and most Americans are just not interested in the ups and downs of individual members of Congress.

But the last midterm that a president faces matter very much.

President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections. If Republicans are able to regain control of the Senate while retaining their majority in the House in November, they will have two years to inflict significant damage on the administration's agenda and set the terms of debate for the 2016 election.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Republicans have already been remarkably successful at using their standing in Congress to cause problems for President Obama. Even though Democrats have controlled the Senate, House Republicans have stood as an impenetrable barrier against almost any substantial legislation and used the lower chamber as a platform to keep public attention focused on deficit reduction. If they can grab hold of the Senate as well, their power will vastly increase.

Lame-duck presidents have repeatedly seen the ways in which an opposition Congress can be used as a battering ram against the White House.

During the late 1950s, the enormously popular Dwight Eisenhower learned this the hard way. In the 1958 midterm elections, Democrats, who already controlled Congress, vastly increased the size of their majorities in both chambers. Most importantly, the number of Northern liberals grew to counteract the power of Southern conservative Democrats. Liberals used the next two years to put forward a huge array of proposals—ranging from medical care for the elderly to civil rights—that liberalized the political conversation.

President Eisenhower, who was focused on balancing the budget and cutting federal spending, had little success holding back this idealistic bunch. Although they didn't have much legislative success before John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson arrived in the White House, congressional Democrats were able to set the agenda for the next decade, with many of their ideas culminating in the Great Society.

One of the most influential presidents of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan, learned about his diminishing clout after the 1986 midterm elections, when Democrats retook control of the Senate (which they had lost in the 1980 election) and retained control of the House.

Between 1987 and 1989, Democrats used their power in Congress to finally hit back against the conservative revolution. With powerful Speaker James Wright at the helm in the House, Democrats obtained a budget deal that increased taxes and preserved most key domestic spending. They also expanded Medicare and built pressure for clean air initiatives. On foreign policy, they launched a devastating investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal that severely damaged President Reagan's reputation, while working on a peace plan for Nicaragua, a country that had been a focus of Reagan's anti-Communist efforts.

If anyone survived the lame-duck blues it was President Bill Clinton.

In the 1998 midterm elections, Republicans defied historical trends and suffered losses in the House. Undeterred, they managed to impeach Clinton on December 19, 1998. In the months that followed, Clinton was able to avoid conviction because the Senate refused to move forward with the decision of their counterparts. Over the next couple of years, Republicans suffered as much as Clinton, as there was a backlash against what they had done. Clinton watched his approval ratings soar while the booming economy continued to lift the president's spirits.

Nonetheless, Republicans still had considerable clout through their congressional base. They continued to keep the public agenda focused on deficit reduction and spending cuts and offered almost no space for Clinton to pursue any major domestic initiatives. Clinton's presidency—even with his popularity and a booming economy—sputtered in its final moments with Republicans making sure that no policy-making opportunities emerged at the end for him to build his legacy.

Nobody understood how that lame duck period could really hurt like President George W. Bush. At the height of power after his 2004 defeat of John Kerry, Bush struggled after Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006. Democrats used the next two years to get their bills through Congress, including an economic stimulus package, ethics reform, a higher minimum wage and energy legislation that raised fuel efficiency standards. They also mounted enormous pressure on the administration to change course in Iraq -- which the President did with the announcement of the surge in 2007—and blocked any hope that existed for him to pursue spending cuts.

The midterms this November will matter a great deal. If Republicans win control of the Senate, President Obama will be in for some tough times. Some Democrats have complained that the White House has not been doing enough to provide assistance in the midterms. If that accusation is true, the White House might want to rethink its strategy given the important two years that lay ahead.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT