It is common wisdom that most Presidents don’t do so well in midterm elections. For the past century and more, in fact, the party occupying the White House has always lost seats in Congress in the non-presidential election cycle, with three notable exceptions: George W. Bush in 2002; William Jefferson Clinton in 1998; and Franklin. D. Roosevelt in 1934. In the most recent examples, President Bush picked up four seats in the House and two in the Senate, while President Clinton managed to gain five seats in the House. FDR’s gains, which came in the midst of the Great Depression, were an impressive nine seats for each. Even more significantly, these gains came just two years after his unprecedented 1932 victory, a victory that saw the democrats gain 90 seats in the House and 13 in the Senate.
Presidents Bush and Clinton deserve credit for the electoral victories achieved by their respective parties in these elections. But in both cases, neither president was able to translate these gains into a sweeping new legislative agenda. The most significant legislation of the 106th Congress under President Clinton, for example, was the Gramm-Leach-Biley Act, which dismantled Glass-Steagall and continued the trend toward financial deregulation that had begun two decades earlier under President Regan. For President Bush, the most significant legislative achievements include the “Bush tax cuts,” which came with the passage of the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003, and the passage of the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act, which added significant prescription drug benefits to the existing Medicare program.
When we look at FDR, however, the story is much different. In the wake of the 1934 election, FDR launched what is often referred to as his second New Deal. Indeed, aside from the reform of the banking and financial sector that took place in his first 18 months in office (reforms that included the establishment of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission), some of the most significant and long-lasting pieces of New Deal reform legislation came in the period following his first mid-term election. These include the passage of the Social Security Act, which not only launched Social Security but also initiated nationwide unemployment insurance and the payment of dependent children programs; the National Labor Relations Act, which established the National Labor Relations Board and — for the first time in U.S. history — recognized the rights of workers to form unions and to engage in collective bargaining; and the Public Utility and Rural Electrification Acts, which not only brought electricity to 9 out of 10 farms in America (through rural electrification) but also completely restructured America’s utility industry in a way that made effective state regulation possible.
There was also a slew of other legislation that was passed during the 74th Congress, including legislation that dealt with such lesser-known but important issues as soil erosion, flood control, the requirement that all commodities and futures trading be carried out on organized exchanges, and the establishment of maximum hours and minimum wages for any worker employed under the aegis of a government contract. All told, it is clear that the Second New Deal represents one of the most significant periods of social and economic reform in our nation’s history. These acts not only helped provide the American people with basic economic security, but they also set new standards for labor-management relations and established the precedent that government has the right and responsibility to regulate key sectors of the economy. In the process, the Second New Deal helped transform the relationship between the American people and their government. It made clear that for a liberal capitalist democracy to work, the government — not the market — must become the primary instrument of social and economic justice.
President Obama would have a much greater chance of securing his legislative agenda if he were to join the ranks of Presidents Bush, Clinton and Roosevelt in bucking the trend and seeing his Democratic majority increase in the coming midterm election. Given the bitter partisan divide in Congress today, this is perhaps even more critical for our current president than it was for FDR, for we often forget that the New Deal received a good deal of support from moderate Republicans and was often harshly criticized by conservative Democrats. In the current political climate, though, it seems the best that President Obama could hope for would be either the moderation of the Republican Party, which is highly unlikely (and for many observers quite unfortunate), or the election of more democrats. Both scenarios represent a political challenge of the first order and in many respects may be linked to this critical election. The surest way to push the Republicans towards the center of the political spectrum would be for the President — and his party — to pull off a surprising electoral upset and increase their majorities in Congress. No easy task-but for the President to carry through with his promise of change, this is one midterm election that his party really cannot afford to lose.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute.