If being president entails the ability to legislate in order to promote a national project, then Obama’s tenure ended this past Tuesday. There is no turning back. From the very beginning of his first term, Obama has encountered a dishonest opposition whose explicit, and perhaps only goal has been to sabotage virtually every single initiative coming from the White House. Until Monday, that opposition controlled only the House of Representatives. On Tuesday, voters decided to give the Republican Party the keys to the Senate. The next Senate majority leader will be Mitch McConnell, who five years ago was cynical enough to affirm that, rather than acting as a firm yet honest opponent, he would throw all his efforts into preventing Obama’s reelection. Starting in January, Obama will have to attempt to negotiate with politicians who, like McConnell, have shown no interest whatsoever in finding common ground with the president. This will be even truer now. The situation is so dire that, were the U.S. a parliamentary democracy, Obama would already be packing his bags. Such is the extent of Democrats’ failure and Republicans’ victory.
How can we explain Tuesday’s defeat of Obama and his party? After all, the U.S. economy has slowly but surely been recovering. Only a few hours after the elections, competent authorities announced that unemployment in the U.S. had fallen to the lowest level since mid-2008. Healthcare reform — Obama’s token political legacy — had some problems at the beginning, but with the passing months has garnered momentum and acceptance. To date, 7.3 million people who did not have health insurance now do thanks to what is commonly known as Obamacare. Even gas prices have fallen. None of this seems to be enough. In several key states, inadequate wage recovery and other economic factors inherited from the shock of 2009 played a significant role. Some voters probably admonished Obama for his inept foreign policy, including his handling of the Islamic State, the migrant children’s crisis and even Ebola. In any case, propelled by the votes of a constituency that is mostly white, 45 years old and over—and mostly male—the Republican Party has seized control of the Senate and Congress.
The consequences will be diverse and immediate. It’s probable that Republicans will interpret Tuesday’s vote as an invitation to further radicalize themselves. They will do the impossible to annul health care reform. They will make Obama’s job difficult during annual budget discussions, in addition to blocking practically every single nomination to an important office. They will promote projects that Democrats, and environmentalists, have opposed for years, such as the Keystone pipeline. And, no doubt, they will strongly oppose any proposal that would resemble a comprehensive — sensible and humanitarian — immigration reform. There’s even the possibility that if the more radical sector of the party prevails, Republicans would initiate a legal battle to depose Obama; he has already been accused, without any basis, of abuse of power.
What is left for Obama? He still has the power of executive action, which would allow him, for instance, to provide temporary relief to millions of undocumented immigrants, a decision he will probably take in the next few weeks. That, however, is a small solace: No executive action has the power and scope of legislative reform.
These will be, in short, years of pitiful polarization in Washington. Yet this is exactly what voters — including those who went to polling stations and those who abstained — want. Sadly, Hispanics were among those who abstained; they represented 8 percent of those who voted, when they could have been much, much more. One hypothesis is that Latinos decided to chastise Obama for his record of deportations and, importantly, for delaying executive action to help the undocumented. No matter how understandable this may be, the decision to punish Obama could be interpreted, at best, as nonsensical. The only reason Obama has had to consider taking executive action is because Republicans in Congress have opted to block any reasonable immigration reform project. They — not Obama — are the ones truly responsible for gridlock. Their ability to charge Obama with the consequences of inaction represents a true magical illusion; it speaks well of Republicans’ cunning but badly of Hispanics’ political habits, badly of activists’ ability to counsel them and, inevitably, badly of the daily labor of all of us journalists working to inform them.