Why Democrats Have Reason to Fear

The combination of a weak economy, disapproval of President Obama, and Syria could hurt midterm prospects.

Members of Congress who were dreading a showdown on Capitol Hill over authorization of an attack on Syria have been given a reprieve. Even though the midterm elections are still more than 13 months away, the specter of an attack, and the unknown repercussions that could follow, were certainly on their minds. If the United States launched cruise missiles to punish the regime of President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons, what would happen if Syria launched a retaliatory attack against Israel or other U.S. interests in the region? This had the potential to be a big issue in 2014.

Although many lawmakers had called on President Obama to seek congressional approval for such an attack, they were none too happy when he punted the ball to their end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The measure faced an uphill fight in the Senate and looked even more doubtful in the House. It was a lot easier for members to see how they might regret voting yes than no.

The Russian-offered solution—for Syria to turn over or put under international control its chemical-weapons stockpile—was an unexpected development, but politicians quickly embraced it as an easy way to get off the hook. Even so, national security experts are raising legitimate questions about whether the Russian solution makes a lot of sense. Because only the U.S. and Russia have significant chemical-weapons expertise, the obligation to control these materials will likely fall to highly trained military personnel from these two countries. The steps required to take inventory, stabilize, secure, and possibly remove or destroy the weapons would inevitably be managed by Washington and Moscow, even if the United Nations were involved. The U.S. contingent capable of this sort of task could quite possibly come from the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Aberdeen, Md., or from a combination of two other posts in Pine Bluff, Ark., and Rock Island, Ill.

Even if those set to the task are wearing blue U.N. helmets, the American people might be justifiably skeptical about sending U.S. military personnel into Syria to deal with the weapons in an environment that requires them to cooperate and trust their Russian counterparts. And, oh yes, this would all take place in the middle of a civil war. What could go wrong? Would traditional military units also be needed to protect the chemical and biological warfare experts? If civilians are being gunned down nearby, are U.S. troops supposed to stand around and do nothing? Are they officially acting as peacekeepers? A lot of tough questions remain to be asked.

For now, a congressional vote on Syria is no longer on the docket, and the focus will shift to fiscal challenges—namely, passing a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1 and raising the debt limit to avoid defaulting on Treasury bonds later this fall.

Stepping back, midterm elections are, more often than not, referenda on the White House occupant. While the president’s name is not on the ballot, voters usually register their approval or disapproval of the administration through their votes for Congress. Obama’s job-approval ratings are currently in the low- to mid-40s, roughly where George W. Bush’s were at this point in his second term (his later dropped as low as 31 percent). Obama’s disapproval ratings are running just above his approval ratings—never a good sign—but the president’s numbers are not yet radioactive.

The other relevant political axiom to keep in mind is that Americans often vote their pocketbooks, based on their perceptions of how the national economy is doing, how they are doing, and whether they are seeing the economy through a hopeful or a pessimistic lens. The U.S. economy, as measured by real gross domestic product, grew at a very healthy pace of 3.7 percent in the first quarter of 2012. However, for the remaining three quarters of last year and first two quarters of this year, the recovery did not proceed nearly as steadily: Growth ranged from as low as one-tenth of 1 point in the fourth quarter of last year to 2.5 percent in the second quarter of this year. Growth is not at the pace that you would want coming out of the longest, deepest, and most diffuse economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The consensus of 55 top economists surveyed by Blue Chip Economic Indicators earlier this month called for the economy to increase by 2.1 percent in the third quarter of 2013 and 2.6 percent in the fourth quarter, with growth gradually rising to between 2.7 percent and 3 percent over the course of next year; the economists project unemployment to be at 6.8 percent in the final quarter of next year, somewhat better than the current level.

Consumer confidence is a bit off its six-year high but still not remotely near the bullish years from 1983 through 2007. So, yes, people are feeling better about the economy than they did during the recession, but the numbers still aren’t good.

A mediocre economy is certainly not an asset for the party holding the White House, but it may not be a strong drag, either. If Obama’s job ratings bounce around at or under 40 percent for long, Democrats should worry that the historic trend of the president’s party losing ground in the House may catch up with them. But these are the typical dynamics for a midterm election. Syria would definitely complicate matters.