No one knows how bad Democratic losses in the mid-terms will be. But the GOP’s 10-point lead in the Gallup generic ballot removes all doubt that they’ll be very bad. So, one way or another, Obama is going to have to adapt to a new political landscape in which a reinvigorated Republican opposition takes a prominent place. There’s no reason for him not to start adapting now, so he can hit the ground running after the elections. Obama's speech tonight about the end of the combat mission in Iraq is an obvious place to start.
Picking up the pieces after a devastating defeat in mid-term elections is not an unusual presidential challenge; George Bush had to meet it in 2006 and Bill Clinton had to meet it in 1994. Both were successful in their own terms. Winding down his presidency, Bush wanted above all else to turn his failing Iraq policy around. So in the wake of the 2006 elections, and the loss of Republican congressional majorities, he used his remaining political capital to secure enough political autonomy to execute the Iraq surge. Were Obama content to be a one-term president willing to trade the rest of his political capital to secure one overriding objective, that might be a relevant precedent.
But if he hopes to govern successfully from the center-left for six more years under politically inhospitable conditions, Obama will have to start winning back the Independent voters he lost over the bailouts, the stimulus and ObamaCare. Clinton’s combination of tactical retreats and strategic triangulations is the most likely reference point. So far, Obama hasn’t shown the ideological flexibility he’d need to embark on a Clintonian pivot or the counterpunching technique he’ll need to execute it. If he wants to be a two-term president, however, he’ll probably have to learn from the acknowledged master of those dark political arts.
Tonight’s speech will undoubtedly include the obligatory acknowledgment of the military acumen of David Petraeus, the fortitude and sacrifice of our military personnel and the fact that the destiny of the Iraq lies in Iraqi hands. But what will Obama say about the conduct of the war by the prior administration, his own opposition to the war in general, and the surge in particular?
Given where we find ourselves, there’s not a lot of room for disagreement about how to wind the war down. Under the circumstances, if Clinton were president, I can't see him passing up the opportunity to put Iraq-related political rancor behind us by acknowledging, not the wisdom, but the political legitimacy of the previous administration’s decisions about whether and how to wage the war. It isn't necessary to concede that Democrats were wrong to oppose any of these decisions (although it might be worthwhile politically to concede that about the surge). It would just be a matter of acknowledging that, for better or worse, Bush's decisions about Iraq were our decisions.
We’ll see tonight whether Obama has the stomach for this sort of thing, and if does, the political skill to pull it off.