Tavis: Eight weeks from tomorrow Americans will head to the polls in all 50 states in an election that could dramatically alter the balance of power in the House and the Senate and set the stage for a contentious presidential campaign come 2012.
For more on the most closely watched midterms in a long time, joined now by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for “USA Today” and a former president of the White House Correspondents Association. She joins us tonight from where else – D.C. Susan, good to have you back on this program.
Susan Page: Hey, Tavis, it’s great to be with you.
Tavis: Fair or not fair for me to suggest that this is one of the most closely watched midterms in a long time?
Page: It reminds me of 1994. You remember that was President Clinton’s first midterm election, a very disastrous one for Democrats. They lost control of the House and Senate. There are some parallels with what happened in 1994, which I note are a concern with the Democrats who control Congress now.
Tavis: Parallels like?
Page: Well, parallels like people unhappy about the direction of the country. In our “USA Today” Gallup poll, three-fourths of Americans say they don’t like the direction the country’s headed in. That’s similar to what we saw in 1994. The president’s approval rating has really sunk.
President Obama’s approval rating in our polling is now at 43 percent. That’s a little bit higher than President Clinton in 1994. He had just had that healthcare disaster – that disaster over trying to pass the healthcare legislation. But you see a similar kind of landscape, where people are unhappy with the party that is in power.
Tavis: To your point, as I recall very well, Clinton did in fact get his clock cleaned during those midterms, and yet, as you’ll recall, after ’94 he did his triangulation, he did his move to the center, he made that thing work for him, and in the end he came out on top and Newt Gingrich got kicked to the curb.
Page: And remember, he also got reelected in 1996 by a big margin. So if the Democrats do lose control of Congress or of the House in November, that is bad news in some ways for the Obama White House, but there are other ways in which it may not be such bad news. President Clinton’s experience goes to both points.
One thing that happens when you lose control of Congress is the other side’s inclined to investigate you a lot more. They have the power to hold hearings and issue subpoenas. It’s hard to imagine that President Clinton would have been impeached in 1998 if Democrats had still controlled the House then.
On the other hand, it’s also sometimes more possible to get things done because the other side controls some of the power. They have some of the obligation of governing. So we saw in 1996, for instance, President Clinton’s Welfare reform package passed, big budget bill that balanced the federal budget.
So it is possible to get things done in a divided government, and there are some ways in which it is maybe helpful.
Tavis: You have to take all this stuff, as you know, covering this every day, with a grain of salt, and I’ve been reading some of the punditry, and people like Dick Morris come to mind immediately and others. He’s not the only one. But they’re making these wild predictions about sweeping numbers, for Republicans, that is, picking up seats. My sense is, and again, I’m not an expert, but my sense is that if either of these houses switch, my sense is it’s going to be closer than we think, which raises this question for me.
If I’m right about this, that it’s going to be really close no matter who’s – whether Democrats retain power or give it up, if it’s close that’s a very different story than having 60 votes to get stuff through. So what happens if in the House and/or the Senate the numbers are really, really close; so you really do have as divided a government as you could have?
Page: Tavis, I think you make a great point, because whoever is in control, they’re not going to have the big numbers that Democrats have now in the House and Senate, and we know already in the Senate it’s so difficult to get things done because you really need 60 votes on your side to get past the filibuster. So that is in some ways a recipe for stalemate, a closely divided Senate.
We had a tied Senate, remember, after the 2006 election for a while. It makes it very hard to get things done. You really have to depend on a spirit of compromise. If there’s one thing we have not seen much in Washington in the past two years, it is a spirit of compromise.
Tavis: So who moves? To the brilliant point you make now, we have not seen a spirit of compromise, and that’s when the president has had control of the House and the Senate. So if you buy the line that the Republicans have been obstructionist, if you buy the line that they are the party of no, what reason is there to believe that they’re going to change?
So if we’re not getting a whole lot of stuff done now, what happens if these numbers turn out the way we’re talking about now?
Page: Well, let’s go back to the experience we were talking about before, about the 1994 example. After the Republicans took control in 1994, they tried to pass their agenda and they failed, because Democrats didn’t let it happen. Then you had a period of time where Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House and Bill Clinton in the White House had some things that they both wanted to make progress on, like Welfare.
So they worked together, but it took some time to get there. If after this election the Republicans have gained control of the House, maybe even of the Senate, I think we’ll have a period, maybe a rocky period for a while, and then the question will be do Republicans move ahead with things like trying to repel the healthcare bill, which Democrats will block, or will they end up wanting to work with the White House, get some achievements of their own on issues on which there’s some agreement?
Everybody agrees we need to do something about immigration, although people have different prescriptions. Everybody agrees we need to do something about entitlements and the cost of entitlements. So will there be an attitude after some time has passed to deal with those? I don’t think we know the answer to that right now.
Tavis: Everybody has his or her opinion about this; I’m curious to hear yours, Susan, and that is why it is that the president’s numbers are as low in your own poll, 43 percent, why they are as low as they are. When you take into consideration that he has accomplished more in this first year and a half than most first-term presidents – again, whether one agrees or disagrees, and that may be your answer.
But he did get healthcare through, he did get financial reform through – we could run the list of things that he has accomplished. How is it, then, that a guy who’s been this busy and quite frankly this successful on some big stuff, on some historic stuff, could be looking at numbers like 43 percent?
Page: I think there are two reasons. One is the economy’s still so bad, so people – unemployment’s still high, we still see a lot of home foreclosures, and the president is held responsible for the economy even when he doesn’t have the power to change it with a snap of his fingers.
The other thing, you mentioned the big legislation that Congress has passed, and that is certainly true. I think he has the biggest set of legislative accomplishments of any president in his first two years since LBJ. But we had had a “USA Today” Gallup poll come out on Friday just before Labor Day that showed five big legislative achievements by Congress in the last two years.
A majority of Americans opposed four of them, and healthcare would be one where attitudes are getting worse about the healthcare bill, not better. So that means it’s hard for Republicans to go back to voters and brag that they’ve done all these big things when voters have a negative view of the things they’ve done.
Now, some Democrats think that over time, when the healthcare bill is put into place more completely, voters’ attitudes on it will turn around. But that hasn’t happened yet.
Tavis: So how should we read this, or put another way, how do you think it will, to your point, be read eventually? That is to say, will what President Obama has been able to do so far be looked upon eventually as courageous to take these measures on, even though most Americans tended to disagree with them, or is it going to turn out down the road that he really was tone deaf?
Page: One thing about history is you don’t know how it’s going to be judged until some time has passed. I’ll tell you what the White House hopes happens. They hope that we have an experience like that with Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, big problems, economic recession. He took a shellacking, the Republicans did, in the 1982 midterm, his first midterm election. Lost 26 seats in the House.
Yet he won reelection in 1984 and now he’s seen as a very consequential president. The things that he did many people look at in a positive light, that he was a president with big achievements. The Obama folks hope that that’s what happens here, that with the passage of some time and when the economy gets better, when people are back at work, feel secure in their homes, that the view of Obama is going to improve considerably.
That may happen, although as I said, it’s hard to read history while you’re in the middle of it.
Tavis: Yeah, but if it all hinges on the economy, and I think you’re right about this, if the economy turns significantly in an uptick, then I think you’re right – this conversation will change dramatically. But that’s a big when, that’s a big if, because the indicators right now don’t seem to underscore that.
Page: It’s unlikely that we’re going to see a big economic upsurge in the next two months before Election Day. If you’re a Democrat or if you’re in the White House, you have to take a longer view and say a year from now let’s hope the economy is perking along, and that will set the stage for a reelection campaign that Obama would like to face.
But for the congressional candidates who are on the ballot this November, well, it looks like a very tough terrain.
Tavis: Speaking of uptick, you guys do the polling, I’m just asking questions here – any sense that you guys have that the president has already received or is going to get an uptick as a result of keeping the campaign promise to draw down the troops in Iraq?
Page: His approval on the issue of handling Iraq is the highest of any issue of his presidency – higher than handling the economy or healthcare or anything else, so that’s a help. But the problem for Obama now is that that’s not really the issue driving the electorate.
When he first ran for president it was an issue that we saw at the top of voters’ concerns because the war was going so badly, and the course ahead seemed so uncertain. So now that that issue has been resolved in a way, or resolved for Americans, because we’ve ended combat operations and we have a timetable to pull all our troops out over the next 18 months, that’s an issue that people are glad about how he handled it, but so concerned about the economy that I think it washes away a lot of the bounce that you might expect him to get there.
Tavis: So here’s the exit question. I’m putting you on the spot here because I want to get this on tape so I can play it back for you when you are next on this program, post-midterm Election Day. So assuming that Republicans, by whatever margin, take back the House, take back the Senate, the president is going to speak to the nation the next day in some sort of press conference. What’s the narrative going to be? What’s the White House going to say on that dreaded day?
Page: The White House will say we’re going to work with Republicans; we invite them to work with us, because neither side will be in a position to get things done unless the other side goes along.
Tavis: I think you’re right about that, Susan, so I’m going to hold the tape to play it back for you. (Laughter) Susan Page of “USA Today.” Susan, nice to have you on. Thanks for talking to us.
Page: Thank you, Tavis.
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