Traditionally, the party of the incumbent President loses seats in Congress during the midterm election. This is particularly true when the party of the sitting President holds the majority in Congress, as the Democrats do currently. The question is whether the losses result in a shift in party control in the House and Senate, or a significant closing of the gap between the majority party and the minority party. In 1994, Republican minority leader Newt Gingrich of Georgia led a GOP takeover of Congress in a conservative offensive against the Clinton administration. The Republican Party’s “Contract with America,” a recitation of conservative values, was used by Gingrich as cannon fodder and campaign propaganda to rally the right against the perceived leftward leaning policies of President Bill Clinton. Ironically, Clinton, skilled as he was in the art of political survival, managed to usurp the GOP’s agenda and masterfully co-opted the Republican majority.
This year the stakes are even higher as it is the first time in history when the electorate is weighing the performance of a Black President. The honeymoon has been short for President Obama. While previous occupants of the White House encountered opposition and criticism, the rancor targeting this President has been unprecedented. Though Mr. Obama has refused to acknowledge the role that race has played in some of the criticism directed toward him and his administration, there have been some obvious signs that racism is rooted in some of his opposition. From the outset, opponents questioned his citizenship and religion to a degree that is irrational. President Obama has had to fend off the zealotry of the “birthers” movement and defend his religious beliefs against those who have tried to exploit anti-Muslim sentiment in this country by suggesting he is a practitioner of the Islamic faith. The spike in sales of firearms and increased activity of white, right-wing militia groups is likely the paranoia of whites who see in this President the weakening of white hegemony in our nation. The appearance of firearm toting protesters at health care rallies is inexplicable except in the context of white resistance. Now, as the President and the Democratic Party face Tuesday’s election, the highest hurdle is a growing resentment and apathy among voters from both political parties, and a “Tea Party” movement that has masked racist sentiment in the rhetoric of populism.
Political polling in recent days indicate a shift in the electorate toward Republican Congressional candidates, with Democrats at risk of losing control of the House of Representatives while the Senate is also up for grabs. Even among President Obama’s core supporters, Black voters, a malaise has set in tied to the economic downturn and personal experiences with economic hardship. Sensing voter backlash, the White House in recent weeks has launched a full-scale offensive to defend the administration’s record and boost the chances of Democratic candidates running in key Congressional races. As part of that effort the White House dispatched, First Lady Michelle Obama, who is widely popular across party lines, on the campaign trail to rally the party faithful. If the depth of voter dissatisfaction did not initially register with the White House, it became clear to the administration when polling revealed that Black voters are not motivated to go to the polls on Tuesday. In recent weeks, the President has been working to rekindle the spark among young and Black voters that gave him an edge in the 2008 presidential election.
For Black Americans the stakes are extremely high on Tuesday. The economic downturn has been brutal for Blacks, with record high unemployment, growing long-term joblessness and a mortgage foreclosure crisis that is decimating a nascent Black middle class. Despite Depression-like conditions in the Black community, support for President Obama remains high as many Blacks recognize the unique circumstances and challenges facing this President. Still, the economy is taking its toll and unlike the 2008 presidential election, many Blacks have not expended their political capital to engage the Congressional races, particularly in those districts where Black voters could sway the outcome. Part of the reason for the Black electorate’s disconnect from this election is obvious: people withdraw in hard times as concerns turn to personal matters more than civic affairs. Another reason is that House and Senate races traditionally lack the glamour of a presidential election and there is always a downturn in voter participation after a highly charged White House campaign. It is not surprising that after the emotionally charged campaign in 2008, there would be some voter burnout in the Black community. However, the excuses for nonparticipation do not diminish the very serious consequences of a shift in the balance of power on Capitol Hill.
Here a few things at stake on Tuesday and why Republican majority control of Congress could have serious repercussions for Blacks.
The Republican minority has successfully stymied Obama administration appointees to key positions in federal agencies. The same is true for appointments to the federal judiciary. There are currently 3 vacancies on the Federal Circuit, 20 vacancies at the appellate court level and 84 vacancies at the district court level. If there was one hard lesson from the Reagan-Bush era it is the power to shape the federal judiciary has long lasting impact upon the country. The conservative bent of the judiciary is rooted in over two decades of reconstructing the courts with rightward leaning jurists. Control of the Senate means control of judicial appointments, and with possible Supreme Court vacancies down the road, the Obama administration will face stiff opposition in their efforts to balance the court with more moderate and progressive voices. As older justices on the high Court retire, a more youthful Supreme Court will hold sway over the interpretation of the Constitution for decades.
If there is one area in which the Obama administration is vulnerable, even among Black voters, it is the handling of the economy. Republicans support a market driven approach to job creation and tax policy that favors high earners at a time when the economy has imploded and though such methods have failed in the past. A Republican majority is certain to push for an extension of the Bush era tax cuts and oppose efforts by Democrats to use the federal government to jumpstart job creation. Despite evidence, and agreement by many economists, that the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), the economic “stimulus” package, prevented a Depression, the GOP has successfully tarred and feathered the economic recovery legislation. The difficulty for Black voters is that the Obama administration has not put forth a credible plan of its own and the President has refused to support measures that specifically target Blacks who have been disadvantaged by the recession. It is only of late that the White House has made jobs a priority and its focus on infrastructure will face a skeptical 111th Congress.
In addition to jobs, the mortgage meltdown has yet to peak. With new evidence that faulty paperwork and suspect procedures are driving foreclosures, many Black homeowners are sitting ducks. While President Obama has expressed outrage over banks’ practices, little has come by way of holding financial institutions accountable for unethical lending practices. Republicans, on the other hand, have defended financial institutions and placed the onus on homeowners. Combined with the loss of employment, Black homeowners face a double-whammy with underwater mortgages: as the value of a home is less than the mortgage. Given that home ownership gave rise of the Black middle class and Black wealth, the housing implosion is going to have a long lasting impact on Black economic progress.
Health Care Reform
The need for health care reform is clear. The evidence as is relates to Black Americans is the incidence of chronic illnesses. The passage of health care reform was a seminal moment in American history but not without a high level of acrimony. While Americans seem to be coming to terms with the health care reform measures, powerful forces are aligning against it and Republicans have hitched their wagon to business interests and Tea Party devotees who are committed to undo the reform measures. With millions of Blacks uninsured and underinsured, any rollback of the healthcare legislation has real life and death consequences. The lack of access to primary care, combined with the disproportionate impact of illnesses and conditions such as diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, HIV/AIDS and obesity, makes health care and wellness a policy imperative for the Black community. Current efforts by Republican activists to mount a legal challenge against the health care reform legislation will only intensify if the GOP wins the majority in Congress.
Republicans are insistent that deficit reduction should be a priority of Congress. Economists continue to debate the impact of the federal deficit and there is not widespread agreement over the true impact on the economy. Republicans are insisting that all new spending proposals also include matching revenue projections to curtail the growth of the deficit. In other words, all spending should pay for itself. While the federal deficit has ballooned to $13 trillion, the practical effect of GOP efforts to limit spending will be a reluctance to pursue new programs that could help disadvantaged groups.
Few people pay attention to the geographic boundaries of their Congressional districts. How those lines are determined, however, matter in the partisan composition of Congress. With the redrawing of Congressional districts around the corner, using data from the 2010 Census, the partisan split in state Congressional districts will determine who controls the process in each state to draw the new maps. A plethora of devices are used to secure partisan control of the districting map, including placing incumbents of the opposing party in the same district, and excising voters likely to support the opposition party from key districts. At the same time the conservative hue of the federal judiciary makes Voting Rights Act challenges aimed at increasing minority representation in Congress that much more difficult.
Black Power in Congress
In 2008, the election of Barack Obama to presidency was not only historic in the sense of electing a Black President but it marked the ascension of Black members of Congress to leadership positions. After decades of patiently adhering to the seniority system, and climbing the ranks, members of the Congressional Black Caucus assumed the chairs of key committees in Congress. It was a seminal moment in U.S. politics as the core of policymaking in Congress takes place in numerous committees and subcommittees that are organized along subject matter areas. The 110th Congress marked the elevation of several Black members of the House of Representatives to the head of key committees, such as the Judiciary and Ways and Means. Already, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-NY), who is facing a House ethics trial, has surrendered his position as chairperson of the Committee on Ways and Means. Rangel’s demotion is a significant political and emotional blow to Black political development. Meanwhile, Republicans would like nothing more than to bump Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) from his leadership post over the Judiciary Committee. To make matters worse, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA), are facing investigations. The Republican leadership has signaled it will aggressively investigate the administration if the GOP gains the majority in Congress. At the very moment when Black power in Congress is at its historical height, and a Black American sits in the Oval Office, forces are aligning to crush Black political gains. It is important to remember that Blacks are still underrepresented in Congress, representing only 9.5% of the House and %1.0 of the Senate with the lone Senator retiring from his seat.