Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Obama can avoid lame-duck blues

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: The last midterm election that a president faces matters very much
  • Zelizer: If GOP gains control of Senate and retains control of House, its power increases
  • He says President Obama might turn into a lame-duck president with little clout
  • Zelizer: If Democrats lose the Senate in November, Obama will accomplish little

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- A lot of people don't pay close attention to midterm elections. They are not as exciting as the presidential campaigns, and most Americans are just not interested in the ups and downs of individual members of Congress.

But the last midterm that a president faces matter very much.

President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections. If Republicans are able to regain control of the Senate while retaining their majority in the House in November, they will have two years to inflict significant damage on the administration's agenda and set the terms of debate for the 2016 election.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Republicans have already been remarkably successful at using their standing in Congress to cause problems for President Obama. Even though Democrats have controlled the Senate, House Republicans have stood as an impenetrable barrier against almost any substantial legislation and used the lower chamber as a platform to keep public attention focused on deficit reduction. If they can grab hold of the Senate as well, their power will vastly increase.

Lame-duck presidents have repeatedly seen the ways in which an opposition Congress can be used as a battering ram against the White House.

During the late 1950s, the enormously popular Dwight Eisenhower learned this the hard way. In the 1958 midterm elections, Democrats, who already controlled Congress, vastly increased the size of their majorities in both chambers. Most importantly, the number of Northern liberals grew to counteract the power of Southern conservative Democrats. Liberals used the next two years to put forward a huge array of proposals—ranging from medical care for the elderly to civil rights—that liberalized the political conversation.

President Eisenhower, who was focused on balancing the budget and cutting federal spending, had little success holding back this idealistic bunch. Although they didn't have much legislative success before John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson arrived in the White House, congressional Democrats were able to set the agenda for the next decade, with many of their ideas culminating in the Great Society.

One of the most influential presidents of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan, learned about his diminishing clout after the 1986 midterm elections, when Democrats retook control of the Senate (which they had lost in the 1980 election) and retained control of the House.

Between 1987 and 1989, Democrats used their power in Congress to finally hit back against the conservative revolution. With powerful Speaker James Wright at the helm in the House, Democrats obtained a budget deal that increased taxes and preserved most key domestic spending. They also expanded Medicare and built pressure for clean air initiatives. On foreign policy, they launched a devastating investigation into the Iran-Contra scandal that severely damaged President Reagan's reputation, while working on a peace plan for Nicaragua, a country that had been a focus of Reagan's anti-Communist efforts.

If anyone survived the lame-duck blues it was President Bill Clinton.

In the 1998 midterm elections, Republicans defied historical trends and suffered losses in the House. Undeterred, they managed to impeach Clinton on December 19, 1998. In the months that followed, Clinton was able to avoid conviction because the Senate refused to move forward with the decision of their counterparts. Over the next couple of years, Republicans suffered as much as Clinton, as there was a backlash against what they had done. Clinton watched his approval ratings soar while the booming economy continued to lift the president's spirits.

Nonetheless, Republicans still had considerable clout through their congressional base. They continued to keep the public agenda focused on deficit reduction and spending cuts and offered almost no space for Clinton to pursue any major domestic initiatives. Clinton's presidency—even with his popularity and a booming economy—sputtered in its final moments with Republicans making sure that no policy-making opportunities emerged at the end for him to build his legacy.

Nobody understood how that lame duck period could really hurt like President George W. Bush. At the height of power after his 2004 defeat of John Kerry, Bush struggled after Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006. Democrats used the next two years to get their bills through Congress, including an economic stimulus package, ethics reform, a higher minimum wage and energy legislation that raised fuel efficiency standards. They also mounted enormous pressure on the administration to change course in Iraq -- which the President did with the announcement of the surge in 2007—and blocked any hope that existed for him to pursue spending cuts.

The midterms this November will matter a great deal. If Republicans win control of the Senate, President Obama will be in for some tough times. Some Democrats have complained that the White House has not been doing enough to provide assistance in the midterms. If that accusation is true, the White House might want to rethink its strategy given the important two years that lay ahead.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT