Does a GOP Congress Help Obama For 2012?

President Barack Obama gestures while talking about the economy, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Carolyn Kaster
AP/Obama Campaign

Ahead of the 1994 midterm elections, President Clinton traveled the country to make the case that voters should not hand Congress to the GOP. Newt Gingrich and his Republican colleagues, Mr. Clinton argued, wanted to return to the disastrous policies of the past; he insisted, a month before the vote, that the American people "will not be fooled again." 

It didn't work. Republicans took control of both houses of Congress, and pundits saw the vote as a clear repudiation of the president's policies. Media coverage suggested it was all but over for the Democratic president.

And then -- just two years later -- Mr. Clinton cruised to a nine-point reelection victory over Bob Dole to win a second term.

On CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday, Mr. Clinton suggested he saw parallels between his experience and the fate of President Obama. If Republicans take control of the House in the midterm elections, he told Bob Schieffer, "it would increase [President Obama's] chances of being re-elected."

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That's not something anyone in the Obama administration will say out loud, and for good reason: It reeks of the very Washington cynicism that many voters find repugnant. Indeed, any sign that the president is not fully behind his party would be met with outrage; when White House spokesman Robert Gibbs merely suggested back in July that Democrats might lose the House - which they very well might - Speaker Nancy Pelosi made her anger known.

Much like Mr. Clinton did, Mr. Obama has been traveling the countryto raise money for Democratic candidates and generate enthusiasm heading into the midterms. The parallels between their efforts are striking, though John Boehner has replaced Newt Gingrichas the designated GOP bad guy. Even the message has been similar: "The other party spent a decade driving the economy into the they want the car keys back," Mr. Obama said at a Missouri fundraiser in July. They can't have them back. They don't know how to drive."  

But while Mr. Obama certainly seems to want to hang on to the House, it would be naive to think the White House isn't considering both the plusses and minuses that come with a loss. The big potential advantage, as Mr. Clinton suggested, is a bump in Mr. Obama's reelection prospects.

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Why would this be the case? Because once Republicans are back in power, even in a limited sense, they will be expected to help govern the country. And from a messaging standpoint, that's a problem.

While Republicans are trying to portray themselves as having new ideas to move forward - they are releasing a new legislative agenda Thursday- they have gotten much more traction in the past two years with an anti-Democrat message than with a pro-Republican one. (Remember, despite all the energy on the right, Republicans remain the less popular party overall.) The argument that American needs to throw the (dangerous, extremist) bums out becomes more difficult to make when you're among the bums. 

Newt Gingrich.

In addition, with power comes the potential for political missteps, as Gingrich and his colleagues proved with their unpopular role in the government shutdown of 1995. The former speaker has already warned that another shutdown could be on the way thanks to GOP efforts to choke off funding to the health care reform bill; after Rep. Lynn Westmoreland raised the prospect of a shutdown if Republicans take the House, Democrats were eager to spotlight the comments. 

A political upside to a GOP takeover is no sure thing, of course. If the economy comes roaring back in the second two years of the president's term, it could be the Republicans, not Mr. Obama and the Democrats, who get the credit -- something that would likely infuriate the White House. 

And it's not just about politics. For those who believe in Democratic policies, the prospect of a reelection bump is the silver lining on the overwhelmingly dark cloud that is the possibility of a GOP House takeover. A Republican-led House would make it virtually impossible for Democrats to pass anything remotely ambitious. (Granted, with Democrats unlikely to emerge from the midterms with anything close to a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, that will likely be the new reality no matter what happens in the House.)

Instead of passing aggressive Democratic initiatives like the stimulus bill and cap and trade (which didn't get through the Senate), Republicans would be focused on turning back the legislation passed in the previous two years. They will also likely aggressively investigate the Obama administration for perceived misdeeds and scandals. By June, California Rep. Darrell Issa, who would become House Oversight and Government Reform Committee if the GOP takes the House, was already reportedly making plans to "hire dozens of subpoena-wielding investigators" if his party takes over.

"I will use [subpoena power] to get the very information that today the White House is either shredding or not producing," he said.

That prospect has Democrats gritting their teeth, including Mr. Clinton, who would know. He is warning his party to "expect investigations into the president's staff, his appointees, and every policy he promotes -- not to mention his response to crises like the BP spill."

"Democrats should be able to keep the House and President Obama should be successful in 2012 either way, but nobody wants to see Darrell Issa...tying up reform with senseless investigations for two years," Democratic Strategist Jamal Simmons told Hotsheet.

Indeed, on the whole, the Obama administration would likely much rather face a slightly tougher reelection landscape in the 2012 cycle than deal with the many headaches that would come with a Boehner and Issa-led House. But that doesn't change the fact that Mr. Obama and his advisers are well aware that in politics, a loss isn't always 100 percent bad news.

And as they plot a reelection campaign that will begin in earnest after the midterms, the architects of Mr. Obama's 2012 run will be looking closely at the lessons of Mr. Clinton's presidency - and preparing themselves to take advantage of the potential benefits to be had if things go south in November. Special Report: Election 2010

Brian Montopoli is a political reporter for You can read more of his posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.