No president wants to lose any levers of power. And if the Democrats lose control of the House in November – an outcome that is looking increasingly likely – it will be seen as an embarrassing rejection of President Obama and his record after two years in office.
But if the choice is between keeping a Democratic House by a slim majority and losing the House to the Republicans, Mr. Obama may well be better off under the latter scenario. Either way, analysts say, not much of significance gets done, but if the Republicans control at least one house of Congress, Obama can point to them for blame. And it could boost his reelection chances in 2012.
Democrats are reluctant to say this on the record. And few Republicans are openly arguing the reverse – that they're better off in the minority, lobbing criticisms from the sidelines and making life difficult for Obama without the responsibility of governing.
"This is a little ticklish," says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. "It's hard to argue, 'You're a Democrat, you should go out there and argue that you want to lose.' "
For the Democrats, it's more a case of making the best of a bad situation, lemonade out of lemons, not wishing for defeat. The Nov. 2 midterm elections are less than two months away. If the Greek chorus of political prognosticators has it right, the Democrats will lose many, if not most, of the 55 House seats they netted in 2006 and 2008 – plus others held for many years by Democrats in conservative districts. The 39-seat net gain Republicans need for House control looks easier by the day. (More than 80 or 90 seats are in play, most of them currently held by Democrats, the handicappers say.)
In the Senate, which Democrats currently control with a 59 to 41 majority, the 10-seat net gain Republicans need to take over seemed a bridge too far until recently. Now polls suggest that, too, is possible, though still not likely.
Neither party is a sure winner
If it's any consolation to Democrats, voters are just as unenthusiastic about the Republican Party as they are about the Democratic Party – and in some polls even more so – even though many want a change in congressional control as a check on Obama.
"A lot of this" – the political landscape – "has to do ... with people saying no to the Democrats, not saying yes to the Republicans," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) said Sept. 5 on "Meet the Press."
If Obama has no choice but to spend the next two years presiding over a divided government, it could force him to do what he said he would do during the 2008 campaign – work in a more bipartisan fashion, though with Republicans setting the agenda in the chamber(s) they control. The Clinton presidency is an obvious model. President Clinton had a rough first two years in office, and the Democrats lost control of both houses of Congress in the 1994 midterms, forcing him to the center. He won reelection easily in 1996.
But history never fully repeats itself. Political polarization is worse than it was in the mid-'90s. The Republicans have their own internal divisions to sort through, with the rise of the conservative "tea party" movement, which looks set to elect a healthy contingent of members this fall. And Obama is no Clinton when it comes to political wheeling and dealing.
Mr. Sabato believes Obama is capable of learning to "triangulate," the Clintonian practice of working both sides in Congress and getting results. In Mr. Clinton's case, that meant crime and welfare legislation. "Obama will adapt," Sabato says. "He has to adapt. His staff will help him. And he'll get into it, and probably enjoy it."
An important difference between Obama and Clinton, at this point in their tenures, is that Obama already has significant legislation under his belt, while Clinton had yet to produce much. So, while Clinton still needed some accomplishments on which to run for reelection, Obama faces much less pressure legislatively.
The economy's influence
Most important is the economy. And if there's little improvement two years from now, not much else matters. Obama's reelection is likely beyond reach. In 1996, by the time Clinton faced the voters again, the economy had improved and the nation was at peace.
"There are so many variables to contemplate," says a Democratic aide on Capitol Hill who is not sure that Obama is necessarily better off if Democrats lose the House. "Does Obama adjust like Clinton adjusted? Do the Republicans overreach like they did in '95?"
If Republicans take over Congress, they will gain subpoena power on the government oversight committees – a potent weapon. Even in the minority, Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California has been aggressive in pursuit of suspected Obama administration wrongdoing. In the majority, as chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, he could make the White House miserable – or he could overdo it. Or both.
Effects of a narrow majority
Talk of a government shutdown next year – as part of a GOP attempt to defund health-care reform – and even impeachment brings back memories of the '90s, when Clinton only gained in popularity in the face of aggressive Republican tactics.
Still, Fenn says, there's more that Democrats can get done if they keep the majority. "But I hate this idea of a 35-seat Republican gain," he adds, "because then there's paralysis anyway." So do some Republicans.
"If the Republicans are going to take the House, I'd rather they take it by a sufficiently big margin that they can run it – or fall one vote short, so they avoid the problem of having authority but no power," says Ari Fleischer, White House spokesman under President George W. Bush.
Mr. Fleischer defines "sufficient" as roughly a 10-seat cushion. And he counsels congressional Republicans to exercise patience and compromise, so they can "grow that cushion" and elect a Republican president in 2012.
"That's going to be hard for some Republicans to swallow," Fleischer says. "Republicans can cement their gains, keep their conservative base, and rally the center if they're patient. But if they try to go too far too fast in 2011, it could strengthen Barack Obama's hand going into his reelection."
In fact, a Republican-led majority suddenly in a position of responsibility could surprise Obama and the Democrats.
The Republicans' "new majority will include people who will not want to spend even on things Republicans want to spend money on," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. "What that means is that Republicans in control in the House will need Democratic votes, as well as Obama's cooperation – so he might do as well on some measures with their majority in the leadership than he would with a narrower Democratic majority in the House."
If nothing else, a loss of Democratic control in Congress could give Obama the biggest gift of all heading into 2012: a way to rev up the engines of the Democratic base. The "enthusiasm gap" is killing the Democrats in 2010. And if Obama is going to win reelection, he needs to reenergize his voters. Watching the Republicans regain a slice of power could do it.