The answer may be 1938. Seventy-six years ago, President Franklin Roosevelt, in the sixth year of his presidency, received a shellacking: 81 House seats and 8 Senate seats flipped to the Republicans. FDR’s drubbing resembles that received on Tuesday by President Obama, also in his sixth year.
First, economic stagnation plagued the country during FDR’s presidency. FDR had almost doubled the nation’s national debt, but lackluster growth and high unemployment still persisted. Voters were tired of failed stimulus packages and thinly disguised efforts to buy votes. Maryland was a case in point. In 1938, reporter Ray Clapper reported, “Roosevelt’s promise of a bridge on the eastern shore [of Maryland] didn’t make a dent, except as it affronted many voters.” FDR’s promise of large projects “stimulating” the economy proved to be hollow.
Second, the costs and complexities of bigger government began to alarm voters. FDR’s effort to use public works projects to buy votes also began to backfire. Thomas Stokes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of Roosevelt’s WPA program called it “a grand political racket in which the taxpayer is the victim.” Millions of voters today would use Stokes’s eleven words to describe Obamacare, the college loan program, and the sharp increase in the number of Americans on food stamps.
Third, a huge growth in government always results in high taxes and scandal. Both FDR and Obama raised income tax rates and also added new taxes. Both presidencies also saw IRS scandals. We don’t know yet the extent of President Obama’s involvement in the IRS audits of his opponents—perhaps he is innocent. But FDR was not. “My father,” Elliott Roosevelt famously observed, “may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution.” FDR, through the Treasury department, launched IRS audits of political adversaries such as Andrew Mellon, Huey Long, and Moses Annenberg. He would also use wiretaps to secure information on his opponents. The formula seems to be this: Government programs are enacted, they often fail, they are then criticized, and the criticizers are then audited.
Fourth, the lackluster foreign policy of Presidents Roosevelt and Obama has weakened the image of the United States. One reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Manila, and Singapore in 1941 was because they thought the U.S. was too weak to mount much of an attack. Hitler had begun his long march through Europe in the 1930s, and ISIS began its expansion through the Middle East in 2014. Both times, the U.S. president has appeared to voters to be bumfuzzled over how to respond.
Fifth, once the 1938 and 2014 landslides occurred, both presidents took no responsibility for the outcomes. President Obama said in his press conference following the tsunami that he was unwilling to read the tea leaves to discern what happened at the polls. Roosevelt was more venturesome, but, in his mind, equally innocent. To his cabinet, he gave this alibi: “Well, I’ve been giving a lot of time to the study of the election returns and I find they demonstrate the result around the country was due in every case to local conditions.” 81 lost House seats for FDR and “in every case” it was “local conditions.”
One difference between the midterm elections of 1938 and 2014 is that President Obama cannot run for president again, but FDR did so—the only third term president in U.S. history. Even after his crushing defeat in 1938, he came back to win re-election in 1940. No, he didn’t change tactics and begin working with Republicans—an attitude similar to that of President Obama. Instead FDR exploited foreign crises to his advantage and used class warfare to tarnish the Republican brand.
Unlike 1938, however, in the aftermath of 2014 the Republicans will control both the Senate and the House; they have the exciting chance to create a program that will put the initiative in their hands. Instead of the president defining the Republicans, the Republicans can define Obama by sending him carefully crafted bills that cut government spending, increase freedom, and let Americans know that at least one party cares about the Constitution—and that following it can lead to the good society that we abandoned years ago for the New Deal and the Great Society.