After 2010, will he be Carter or Clinton?
That is the ongoing parlor game now played among pundits over how President Obama will react to a probable shellacking of the Democrats in midterm elections next month.
Jimmy Carter stuck to his liberal agenda after suffering a modest rebuke in the 1978 midterms amid sky-high inflation, interest rates and unemployment. He didn't take voters' hint and went on to get clobbered two years later by Ronald Reagan.
In contrast, after his party was slaughtered in the 1994 midterms (losing 51 House and eight Senate seats), a triangulating Bill Clinton moved to the center and handily won re-election in 1996.
So what will Obama do if he loses a Democratic majority in the House and quite possibly the Senate, as his approval ratings tank to 40 percent?
Most likely, he will stick to his liberal orthodoxy -- but in a way unlike Carter. Yet, like Clinton, Obama may still have a good chance at re-election.
Currently, banks, corporations and small businesses are sitting on trillions of dollars in cash from two years of low interest rates, a rebounding world economy, and massive cutbacks and downsizing. But they will continue to stay on the sidelines as long as they are unsure of the actual costs of Obamacare and a proposed federal income tax hike. A constant barrage of anti-business and anti-wealth diatribes from the president makes them even more skittish.
Yet, if the Republicans regain the House, the entire Obama redistributive agenda will stall. That stasis will give far more certainly to the business cycle -- and probably provide the necessary psychological lift for businesses to start hiring and buying.
In a weird way, by losing the Congress, Obama may well see the economy rebound -- a turnabout for which he'll take credit, despite the failure of his earlier massive borrowing schemes that will seem like ancient history by 2012.
Without Democratic congressional majorities, the president will also have to agree to vast budget cuts, as Republicans try to stave off fiscal insolvency.
Again, the president can let the Republican Congress take the hit for the unpopular pruning of entitlements, even as he points to a more encouraging balance sheet. In a Zen sort of way, Obama will allow Republicans to restore financial sanity to his administration, even as he blasts them for cutting programs and hurting the needy.
Much of Obama's left-wing base is disenchanted and may not give money or get out the vote in the manner of 2008. With control of the presidency and both houses of Congress the last two years, true-blue liberals were sure Obama could easily fulfill campaign promises such as shutting down Guantanamo, ending "don't ask, don't tell," and passing into law amnesty for illegal aliens, card-check for unions, and cap-and-trade for the green lobby. He did none of that, largely because much of his liberal agenda polls well below 50 percent.
But if Republicans take over Congress, they -- not Obama -- can be blamed for the failure to enact the liberal dream. Obama can nostalgically soar with hope-and-change platitudes about his aborted left-wing vision, with the assurance that there is absolutely no chance he will offend the majority of Americans by seeing any of it passed.
Overseas, much of the reset Obama foreign policy either stalled or simply reverted back to the policies of George W. Bush. Iran and North Korea are more anti-American -- and loonier -- than ever before. China is pushing around its neighbors in a way not seen just a few years ago. Russia hasn't helped stop the likely Iranian bomb. We can say that Cuba, Syria and Venezuela sound more friendly, but they still act like enemies. Iraq, Afghanistan and anti-terrorism policies are simply Bush policy rehashes.
A new rejectionist Republican Congress will probably ensure that Obama's therapeutic outreach abroad proves harmless. In turn, the president can safely blame "reactionaries" for blocking more of his utopian foreign-policy initiatives, while his political advisors privately express relief that they did.
If Democrats get clobbered in November, expect just such a passive rope-a-dope strategy, different from the last two years of either the Carter term or the first Clinton term. Obama will let Republicans punch themselves out at the nation's problems, hoping they expend energy and incur blood. Then, as things improve, he can come alive to brag in 2012 that the upturn would have been even better had he not been stopped by right-wing obstructionists.
The mellifluent-talking Obama will do far better if his agenda remains hope-and-change banter instead of becoming messy and costly law. Republicans will try to ensure both -- and thereby may save Obama from himself.