President Obama has made a political calculation when it comes to the automatic spending cuts that took effect on March 1. His thinking is that if he refuses to budge on his demands for higher taxes, that eventually, either Republicans will cave or he’ll be able to castigate them and reap political advantage. Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported on Obama’s focus on winning back control of the House of Representatives in 2014 so that he can advance his agenda. But his strategy carries great risks.
To start with, even though it’s true that Obama is more popular that Congressional Republicans, it’s unclear whether his popularity will survive a protracted fight with Republicans over sequestration. Even if more Americans place the blame on Congress, any anti-Washington sentiment that arises from sequestration is likely to affect Obama too, because at least a subset of the public will think it reflects poorly on his leadership. Though it’s by no means conclusive, Sunday’s Gallup tracking poll had Obama’s approval rating down to 46 percent, the lowest since last September.
Also, it’s very unlikely that Democrats will be able to take back that House in 2014. As I’ve previously written, “there has never been a case since the Civil War (i.e since the Democratic and Republican parties co-existed) in which a president regained control of the House for his party in the sixth year of his presidency.” The only time a president’s party gained seats in the comparable sixth year was the Democrats under Bill Clinton in 1998, but they only gained five seats. Democrats would need 17 seats this time. Also, Clinton’s Gallup approval rating was 66 percent at the time of the 1998 mid-term elections, which is 20 points higher than Obama’s now. Obama hasn’t reached 66 percent approval since May 2009, just a few months into his presidency. It’s also worth noting that presidents don’t typically pass major legislation in their final two years in office. Once the 2014 election ends, the 2016 presidential sweepstakes will begin.
Bottom line: a protracted sequestration battle will make it harder for Obama to advance his agenda in 2013 and could erode his popularity — and historical precedent argues against the idea that he’ll be in a stronger position to enact his legislative agenda after 2014.