And the good news for Obama...

A statistical lifeline, of sorts.

In just under three weeks, America goes to the polls for the midterm elections. And whichever way you cut it, things aren't looking good for the President's party.

Polls of voting intention are showing the Republicans an average of six points up on the Democrats. Fivethirtyeight.com, a political forecasting site that came impressively close to predicting the election result in 2008, reckons that the Dems will lose control of the more than 30 seats in the House of Representatives, handing the chamber to the Republicans.

The party should just about keep its majority in the Senate; but there, too, it's likely to lose seven or eight seats, with such solidly blue territory as Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin looking likely to fall.

The president's people know they're in trouble. Obama, his wife and vice president Joe Biden are all doing the obligatory tour of town halls and rallies in small town America to drum up support, and the begging emails from the Organising for America campaign group have been increasing in both frequency and hysteria. (One dropped into my inbox yesterday morning, apparently from the president himself, bearing the exciting subject line "I want to meet Jonn". This was momentarily flattering, until I realised this offer was only open if I paid for the privilege, and even then I'd have to take part in a lottery first. Cheek of it.)

But still, anything other than retaining control of both Houses of Congress is going to look like a defeat for the president. And that is not going to happen.

I don't want to underplay the effect that a Republic victory would have; it will, after all, make it much, much harder for President Obama to implement his preferred policies on everything from healthcare to the deficit.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to assume that a defeat now means a Republican president in 2012. Think back to 1994, the last time the Republicans retook Congress in a revolt against a Democratic president. That was a landslide - the so-called Gingrich revolution, when eight Senate seats and 54 House ones fell to the red team. Two years later, though, Bill Clinton won a second term. It wasn't even close.

In fact, look back through history, and it's clear that a midterm defeat for the governing party is actually the norm. The opposition to the president's party "won" the midterms against Reagan in 1982, Nixon in 1970, Eisenhower in 1954, Truman in 1946... All of them went on the win the next election.

It's far more unusual, in fact, for the governing party to win the midterms. The Republicans did so in 2002, but that was largely off the back of 9/11. Before that, to find a two-term president whose party won his first midterms, you have to go all the way back to 1934, when there was another national crisis to worry about. So while a Democratic defeat on November 2nd does mean that the electorate is angry with Obama, that doesn't necessarily mean they won't re-elect him in two years time.

Of course, one-term presidents, too, have a tendency to lose the midterms. But the president's electoral prospects will depend on a lot more than what happens on 2 November. After the election, the pundits will start telling you he's finished. Don't believe a word of it.

Jonn Elledge is a London-based journalist. In autumn 2008 he wrote the New Statesman's US election blog.

 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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