When a president's party has a difficult time in midterm elections, it's usually because the campaign has become about the president himself. As Democrats look towards an already-challenging midterm election cycle in 2014, they can thank, or blame, President Obama for handing Republicans several opportunities to focus voter attention -- and anger -- at the White House.
Any of the developing scandals, over the Internal Revenue Service's harassment of conservative organizations, the Department of Justice subpoenaing Associated Press telephone records and the immediate aftermath of the attack on a diplomatic facility in Benghazi, would damage an administration first elected in 2008 in part as a reaction to the previous administration's mismanagement of government. Taken together, they amplify the threat to Obama's second term, and to the party he ostensibly leads in next year's elections.
Had Republicans been handed a menu of possible scandals to pin on the Obama administration, they could hardly have picked three more beneficial options. Midterm elections are exercises in base turnout, and all three scandals are tailor-made to energize the Republican base and depress Democratic voters.
The Benghazi hearings seem the least likely to reveal any gross malfeasance on the administration's part, but they feed and excite a Republican base that deeply loathes the president. The IRS harassment both inflames the base and threatens to undermine the Obama administration's core thesis, that government exists to better the lives of citizens. And the Justice Department's feud with the AP has struck a chord with a media that has often treated the White House with kid gloves, but has simultaneously been frustrated and enraged by the administration's approach to the media and prosecution of leakers and whistleblowers.
The last two administrations have experienced similarly dreadful midterm elections when the President has become the chief focus in voters' minds.
Two years into Bill Clinton's presidency, the slow pace of recovery from a recession dampened voter enthusiasm, while an unpopular push to reform the nation's health care industry further depressed the president's approval ratings. The midterm elections of 1994, in which Democrats lost the House for the first time in 40 years, became a referendum on Clinton himself (The Republican agenda, embodied in the Contract with America, was largely a sideshow. A Gallup poll conducted a month before Election Day showed just 24 percent of Americans had heard of the Contract; a month after the election, that number had only increased to 34 percent).
The second midterm election of Clinton's tenure was much more about House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the Republican majority that had impeached the President. Congress had a net-unfavorable rating, but by today's standards, the 44 percent who approved of their job performance in Gallup's final pre-election poll looks like broad national support. Without Clinton as the focus, Democrats picked up seats in the House.
George W. Bush's first midterm election turned on national security issues. Just a year after the September 11 attacks, Bush remained hugely popular; 63 percent of Americans approved of his job performance in Gallup's final pre-election poll. Republicans benefited, picking up eight seats in the House and winning narrow control of the Senate.
But the beginning of Bush's second term bears the most resemblance to the current predicament in which Obama finds himself. The war in Iraq had grown unpopular during 2005, and the government's bungling of the recovery from Hurricane Katrina gave voters the sense that Washington was inept. A Gallup poll taken in September, a month after Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, was the last time Bush's approval rating reached even 45 percent. By Election Day 2006, his ratings had sagged to 38 percent, and Democrats took back both chambers of Congress.
The mishandling of Hurricane Katrina and the various troubles Obama is answering for now are completely different types of scandals. But the message they send to voters about the aptitude of governing is remarkably similar. Once voters lost confidence in Bush's ability to manage government, the Republican brand began to suffer. (The party still has a worse image with voters than the Democratic Party.) If voters begin to believe that Obama is similarly ill-equipped to govern, it will be the Democrats in Congress who bear the brunt of the political punishment.
Democrats on Capitol Hill harbored a dim view of the White House long before the current crop of scandals emerged. Members of Congress feel left out of policy discussions and decisions, dictated to by the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue and left behind by a political operation built specifically around, and for, one man.
Those hard feelings are hardly uncommon; ill will festers between almost every administration and its allies on Capitol Hill. Democrats have taken the opportunity to distance themselves politically from the White House -- members as different as conservative Democratic Rep. John Barrow of Georgia, and liberal Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano of Massachusetts, have called for investigations into the IRS scandal. But in an age of hyper-partisanship, where an individual candidate's identity matters less and party labels matter more, declaring one's independence from one's own party has lost the salience it once held.
The scandals that have consumed the last week of the Obama administration's time -- and will consume even more in the weeks to come -- are handing Republicans new opportunities to excite their base voters for an election in which base turnout is the difference between success and failure. And though Democrats on Capitol Hill can use the IRS and the Justice Department to distance themselves from Obama, they would much rather have a popular president, or at least one whose administration's missteps don't become the focus of an already-dicey midterm election.