'Off-Years' for Presidents

Wednesday, September 08, 2010 - 10:47 AM

US President Barack Obama walks to the Oval Office after returning to the White House in Washington on September 6, 2010 from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images/Getty)

In my lifetime it has seemed to me that American political anger is pretty much a constant. From time to time that anger finds a candidate. From time to time that anger also finds and takes down an incumbent or two—or fifty. In fact political incumbency seems threatened right now in 2010. Certainly unease from the persistent economic downturn would bedevil any sitting president. But looking down through history it seems there’s a kind of buyer’s remorse at work in American politics. A landslide for a president can become a slide in the polls and even the loss of control of congress in just 2 years. The landslide mandate for change becomes a cloud of anti-government anger in the short time it takes to get to the so-called “off-year elections.”

What’s “off” here? Is this electoral anger having trouble landing in some coherent program or candidate and so ends up just pinging around the media’s echo chamber? Is the anger a naive impatience about how difficult it is to get things done in a democracy. Presidents get punished for not getting gigantic things done in record time. Perhaps this shows that the transition to a new presidency takes longer than the few months between election day and inauguration day. This transition theory might explain why presidents who have this sophomore slump often are triumphant just two years later. There are exceptions to all of this of course. But what seems consistent is a feeling of dissatisfaction with government in the off year elections as though the easily believed dreams in a national election give way to grimmer frustrating realities at the local level, or in the case of someone facing imminent foreclosure, the really local level. It’s hard for that anger to aggregate into a “yes” message for anything, but that same anger quite easily becomes a resounding and generic “no”. In 2010 there seems to be a lot of political “no” out there. In the off year elections voters can say no very softly. Saying “no” in an off-year election does not mean scrapping the current administration or any real big change. It just means that you are mad. Mad wins incumbents lose. Congress changes hands and it feels like a midcourse correction. All is right with the world? Americans seem to love divided government these days. It’s been the rule rather than the exception since the 1950’s. The only consensus seems to be that Americans in our era want the freedom to say “yes” AND “no.” You got your big yes, Barack Obama, here comes your big NO!

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