Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Obama may hate the midterm results

By Julian Zelizer
March 10, 2014 -- Updated 1131 GMT (1931 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Most presidents fare poorly in their second set of midterm elections
  • He says Wilson, FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan and George W. Bush all suffered reverses
  • In past century, only Bill Clinton was able to gain strength from second midterm, he says
  • Zelizer: Obama's final years in office could be shadowed by midterm results

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."

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama doesn't have much to look forward to in November.

While a president's first midterm election rarely goes well for his party, second term presidents don't fare any better. The opposition party, even when struggling in the polls, has traditionally been able to use these elections to mobilize its base. The result has been that second term midterms create great congressional obstacles for the president in his final years in office. And, based on current polls, 2014 could well fit the pattern.

Take a look at how midterms have affected second-term presidents:

1918: GOP gains in wartime

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

In the midst of World War I, Republicans rebounded in the midterm elections.

President Woodrow Wilson had a number of major achievements under his belt. He had moved a sweeping domestic agenda through Congress, including the creation of the Federal Reserve and the creation of the progressive income tax. The president had also been able to mobilize support for American intervention in World War I.

Although Wilson strenuously campaigned to convince voters that electing Democrats would help in the war effort, warning voters that Republicans "sought to take the choice of policy out of my hands and put it under the control of instrumentalities of their own choosing," his argument didn't persuade.

Republicans gained control of Congress. In the House, the GOP exited the election with a 240 to 192 margin while in the Senate, after picking up six seats, they controlled the upper chamber 49 to 47. The impact would be significant.

Senate Republicans would successfully use their power and control of the committees to oppose Wilson's request to ratify the Treaty of Versailles based on their opposition to the U.S. entering into a League of Nations. They ultimately blocked ratification.

King: GOP unsettled over FL election
Rep. Ryan: The left is exhausted
Is McConnell in trouble?
Gov. Chris Christie at CPAC

1938: Backlash against FDR

Following his landslide victory in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats seemed unbeatable. Roosevelt had transformed the federal government with his New Deal policies. In doing so, he had also formed a powerful coalition of industrial workers, farmers, progressive business leaders and intellectuals.

But the sense of power was fleeting. In 1937, Roosevelt tried to expand the size of the Supreme Court so that he could appoint more liberals and prevent the court from knocking down any more of his programs; he also pushed a plan to reorganize the executive branch by granting the president's staff more sweeping power over Congress.

The proposals triggered a fierce backlash. Democrats lost 72 seats in the House and seven in the Senate. A conservative coalition of Southern Democrats and Midwestern Republicans formed in response and did extremely well in the midterm elections. Given that Southern Democrats controlled most of the major committees, the coalition would be able to block many of FDR's domestic proposals and remain the dominant force in congressional politics for decades to come.

1958: Start of a liberal force in Congress

Republican Dwight Eisenhower was an enormously popular president who coasted to an easy re-election victory against Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1956. But two years after his success, Democrats scored huge victories in the midterm elections. They retained control of both chambers and vastly increased their numbers.

The Democratic seats in the Senate rose to 65, from 49, and 283 in the House, up from 232. It was not just the numbers but the fact there was an influx of liberal Democrats. The new members pushed domestic politics in a more liberal direction for the remainder of Eisenhower's term and put issues such as health care, civil rights, and federal aid to education onto the national agenda. They would be the backbone of Lyndon Johnson's coalition in 1964 and 1965 as he moved forward with the Great Society.

1986: Democrats stymie Reagan's final years in office

Ronald Reagan struggled in 1986. Although he seemed to be on the road to victory after his decisive defeat of Walter Mondale in 1984, Democrats rebounded and in 1986 regained control of the Senate with a nine-seat increase in their numbers, thus controlling both houses of Congress. The next two years would be extraordinarily difficult for the President as Democrats were able to protect domestic programs and even push Reagan toward accepting measures, such as a tax increase, that went against his ideals.

More important, the Democratic Congress launched an investigation into the Iran Contra scandal, which severely damaged Reagan's standing and weakened his political position. Reagan would rebound by negotiating a major treaty with the Soviet Union, but his ability to move forward with any big ideas was severely hampered.

1998: Clinton leads Democrats to gains despite impeachment

President Bill Clinton was the only recent president to do relatively well in his second set of midterm elections. For a while, Clinton seemed to be on the ropes after his re-election. Republicans retained control of Congress, and in 1998, House Republicans were conducting an impeachment proceeding against the President for having lied about his affair with an intern. But public sentiment went against the Republicans, not against the Clinton.

Riding the wave of a booming economy, Democrats gained five seats in the House though they failed to regain control.

2006: Bush suffers a "thumping"

President George W. Bush was feeling strong after having mounted a successful campaign against John Kerry in 2004, drawing on the theme of national security. However, public frustration with Bush was mounting. Democrats pounded on the administration for his mistakes in handling Hurricane Katrina and revelations about interrogations of terror suspects caused trouble overseas. Many Republicans were blasting Bush as a big government conservative who had led the nation into an unnecessary war in Iraq.

On the domestic front, Bush tried to use his political capital from 2004 to privatize Social Security, but the plan backfired.

In 2006, Bush suffered a "thumping," as he called it. For the first time since 1994, Democrats regained control of the House and Senate. Democrats wound up with a majority of the House by 232 to 203. The split in the Senate was 49 to 49. But two independents caucused with the Democrats, giving them a majority. In the coming years, the Democrats used their position to change the national debate and to place immense pressure on the White House to redirect Bush's policy in Iraq.

In short, other than Clinton, presidents have suffered greatly in their second terms in the past century. The elation and momentum from the president's re-election fades quickly.

The problems and burdens that come from being in office, especially after an entire term of controversial decisions, never disappear. As with all midterms, partisans turn out to vote much more eagerly than moderates and independents who sit these contests out.

Perhaps Obama will be able to pull off what Clinton achieved given the unpopularity of Congress, but it's not likely. The continued controversy over the President's health care policies and general frustration with Congress will make things difficult for Democrats. A recent wave of retirements won't make things any easier. And so it's conceivable that Republicans could even regain control of the Senate while expanding their majority in the House.

If so, the tough road that Obama has faced will only get that much harder.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1619 GMT (0019 HKT)
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2235 GMT (0635 HKT)
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2208 GMT (0608 HKT)
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT