WASHINGTON -- Democratic leaders and their supporters approach the November elections with a lumpy mix of messages. It can't be as bad as it looks (it is) and maybe losing the House would be a good thing for Democrats (it isn't) and Americans are spoiled, ungrateful brats (not really an electoral winner). The president shifts from issue to issue in a kind of ADD without energy, managing to be frenetic and uninteresting at the same time. Now he proposes a focus on job creation -- too late to influence the employment numbers before November but just in time to raise the question: Why has everything else been more urgent than jobs?
For nearly two years, American politics has been a controlled ideological experiment. A popular president, granted sizable House and Senate majorities, passed the agenda nearly every Democrat wanted -- a large stimulus package and a major expansion of the federal role in health care. The economic outcome has been universally disappointing. A group of highly motivated activists has concluded that the president is a European-style social democrat who threatens the capitalist system. Many other Americans suspect he is simply out of his depth.
Soon another test commences. Barring some decisive intervening event, Obama and House Speaker John Boehner seem fated to be awkward partners in the public good. Beyond November, there will be a single political question: Can divided government work? The answer: Probably not.
On the Republican side following the election, ideology will be ascendant while congressional leadership will be weak. Since no Newt Gingrich-like figure has emerged to direct the revolution of 2010, Republican leaders will be carried along by its current. Boehner will have 40, 50 or 60 new Republican House members for whom any spending is too much, making even the normal work of passing annual appropriations bills difficult. The Senate is likely to have a seriously strengthened tea party wing, making Mitch McConnell's life miserable, as either majority or minority leader. Neither Boehner nor McConnell will be in a position to cut deals with Obama without provoking the ideologically excitable.
And there is no indication that Obama would be predisposed to such deals anyway. "I don't see him as a triangulator," says Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. "Obama is no Bill Clinton." Supporters view this as conviction; detractors as arrogance. In a divided government, both have the same outcome.