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Why Is Obama So Calm Right Now?

A lot of liberals are going to be panicking on Tuesday night. President Obama probably won’t be one of them.

At least, that’s the impression I get from Ron Brownstein’s latest column for National Journal. Brownstein compares two interviews he did: one with then-President Clinton, just before the 1994 midterms, and one with Obama, just last month.

Brownstein recalls a “tormented” Clinton lashing out at congressional Republicans, second-guessing his own strategic decisions, and cursing the distance his office placed between him and the voters. Obama, Brownstein says, is “at peace.” The president readily concedes his failures as a communicator, Brownstein says, but he’s already moved on to the very practical questions of how to work with a Republican Congress--and, when it comes time, how to run against it.

“The latter response may be more emotionally healthy,” Brownstein says. “Whether it’s politically wise is another question.” Yes it is. And I’m not sure I know the answer.

To be sure, we've seen Obama act this way before. He didn’t panic when Hillary Clinton surprised him in New Hampshire and kept fighting until the final primaries. He didn’t panic when John McCain tapped Sarah Palin and jumped ahead in the polls. He didn’t panic when the financial system collapsed, the auto industry was near liquidation, or his health care bill was about to die. In every one of those cases, Obama or the causes he supported prevailed.

And there are some good reasons not to panic. Obama and his allies have accomplished an entire term's worth of legislation in just two years. Financial regulation, direct student lending, the Recovery Act, and health care reform--that's a record of accomplishment unmatched in recent history. Losses were inevitable at the midterms. Why get worked up?

But if it's reassuring to see Obama in his familiar posture, it's also a little unsettling--because, well, maybe this time is different.

If you believe, as I do, that the primary factor in determining election outcomes is the economy, then tomorrow’s results have been a foregone conclusion for some time now. The midterms were more or less out of Obama’s control the day he signed off on a stimulus too small to create robust job growth. But what’s true of this election will be true of the election two years from now. And with a Republican Congress blocking new economic initiatives, Obama won’t have much ability to create jobs--or even help those who can’t find any. If the economy continues to recover this slowly, the Republicans won’t merely solidify their hold on Congress in two years. They’ll also be in a position to win the White House. 

Yes, it’s possible the Republicans will overreach, particularly if their gains on Tuesday are of historic proportions. In fact, Obama may be counting upon the GOP leadership to go too far--to assume a mandate for conservative governing that doesn’t exist. And he may be counting upon the American people to rally behind him once that happens. One constant in Obama’s record is his assumption that American people will act like political grown-ups—that, when presented with a choice between a party that takes governing seriously and one that does not, they will choose the former. 

But will the American people react that way? It worked out that way in 1995 and 1996, with a less popular president and (arguably) a less radical set of Republicans. But, again, that less popular president also could run for re-election on a strong recovery that was creating jobs and raising incomes. When the economy is poor, voters have other priorities in mind. Just look at the polls right now. Americans say trust Obama and the Democrats more than the Republicans, but that they are more likely to vote for the Republicans anyway. Who's to say they wouldn't vote the exact same way in 2012?

I keep thinking back to that email that circulated in late 2008, when Obama was behind in the polls. It had a picture of him speaking at the convention with the caption “I’ve got this.” Part of me thinks he still does. And part of me doesn’t.