The mantra of Obama's campaign was "forward," but this election seems more like a lateral transfer to me. With the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, we can expect at least another two years of gridlock. And does anyone ever control the Senate anymore, anyway?
One of the talking heads on NPR said that "I don't know if he has a mandate, but he has wind in his sails." That's putting it kindly. There were some inspiring speeches last night, but as you all know, reality has a way of setting things back to normal as quickly as possible. You're a sour loser if you're not gracious on election night but there's no reason to think the divisions won't return very soon. Furthermore, in the Senate, the Tea Party has added to its strength with Ted Cruz and Jeff Flake. Along with Rand Paul and Mike Lee, they form a Tea Party contingent much smarter and seasoned than the House amateurs.
Beyond the first two years, Congress will be likely be more gridlocked from 2015-2017. The president's party has lost 30 House seats on average during midterms and four Senate seats. Usually, presidents lose more in the second midterm election than the first. In the second midterm, Reagan lost 8 Senators and Bush the lesser lost 6. On top of this, there are 23 Democrats up for reelection in 2014 and 10 Republicans. All of the Republicans are in red states. Some of the Democrats will be running in states like South Dakota, Louisiana, Montana, Alaska, and North Carolina. They were elected in 2008, a good year for Democrats. The Senate races are the Republican's to lose, like they were this time around (21 Democrats up for reelection, 10 Republicans). On top of that, if you buy into Skowronek's theory of the presidency, which I like, presidents in Obama's place in political time lose more midterm seats than other presidents (averaging 37 House seats instead of just 30). Republicans might overreach, as they did with the Clinton impeachment, which added to Clinton's totals.
One area with real differences will be federal judges, who will have a large impact even if Scalia and Kennedy don't retire/die. The "Fiscal Cliff" eyewash is also on the immediate horizon. Rewinding a little, Obama really won the budget deal last year. The deal avoided substantial cuts as well as tax hikes for the wealthy. Obama milked the "eat the rich" theme for what it was worth, which he could not have done if Boehner had agreed to the deal. Obama and others (including newly elected Republican Senators) worry that the fiscal cliff, in which tax hikes and spending cuts automatically take effect at the end of the year, will plunge the economy back into a recession. I predict that Obama won't be able to get his tax hike on the wealthy, but he will be able to kick the can down the road. Congress will agree to table the tax hikes and spending cuts for 6 months. And he can probably get similar agreements if we're still in the recession at that point. When the recession is over, he won't be especially worried about the spending cuts, largely in defense, and he can blame the tax increases on the Republican's unwillingness to cut a deal.
Now that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana for recreational use, Obama will send the DEA after any large producers. A DEA spokesperson has already said "The Drug Enforcement Administration’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," They will also sue the state based on the Supremacy Clause, since marijuana is a federally controlled substance. Still, prosecutions will become less common and the federal government will only resist the tide of public opinion for so long.
I predict Obama will attempt a face-saving immigration package. Anything too radical and 1) it doesn't go through and 2) it becomes a liability for blue dog Democrats. And people will congratulate each other on insignificant bipartisan reform.
Leftish talking heads are already calling for the Republicans to change with the times. Concerning gay marriage, the Hispanic vote and immigration, they have a point. Romney wisely avoided gay marriage during the election. Republicans would also be wise to avoid nominating candidates who utter ridiculous Leibnizian statements about rape. On economic issues, Republicans have little reason to move to the left. Romney was a weak candidate who let his opponent define him and could never get out the message "are you better off than you were four years ago?" Nonetheless, it was a very close election. Of all of the presidents who won reelection, Obama won by the smallest share of the two party vote. If you add Libertarian Party Gary Johnson's 1 million votes to Romney's that's 49% of the popular vote for Romney compared with Obama's 50.4%. Johnson was more fiscally conservative than Romney. In Indiana, Murdouck would have won if all of the libertarian candidate's votes were added to his total.
In sum, this is more of a Pyrrhic victory for the Democrats than one might see at first glance (it would also be a Pyrrhic victory for Romney, who would be incapable of uniting his own party behind him). He'll be boxed in for the next four years. His presidency will also cause the Republicans to unite, and meanwhile, candidates far more talented than Romney (Rubio, Christie) will gain experience.
The last three presidents to win reelection with a comparably thin margin had their parties soundly repudiated four years later.
Incumbent (Wilson - D) Challenger (Hughes - R)
1916 49.2% 46.1%
was followed by
Incumbent Party (Cox - D) Challenger Party (Harding - R)
1920 34.1% 60.3%
Incumbent (Truman - D) Challenger (Dewey - R)
1948 49.6% 45.1%
was followed by
Incumbent Party (Stevenson - D) Challenger Party (Eisenhower - R)
1952 44.3% 55.2%
Incumbent (Bush - R) Challenger (Kerry - D)
2004 50.7% 48.3%
was followed by
Incumbent Party (McCain) Challenger Party (Obama)
2008 45.7% 52.9%
Who is going to be the next Warren Harding?