As his party lost seats in epic fashion Tuesday in both the House and Senate, the world's most famous Democrat sat on the sidelines—like a player ejected early from a championship game.
But while there will be second-guessing, teeth-gnashing, and blame flying in the wake of the results, the plain truth is that President Obama was never the kind of man who could ride to his party's rescue in a midterm cycle like this. As he's made clear over the past six years, his political style isn't one suited to hot-blooded rhetoric and emotional appeals. He prefers, instead, deliberation, nuance, reason—and incrementalism above narrative. All are commodities with little currency in the hyperpolarized world of 2014. When Obama preaches at all these days, it's usually to the converted, as was evidenced by his final campaign swing to shrinking crowds in friendly states.
In an increasingly black-and-white political universe, Obama is now all gray, all the time. As a result, the man elected to be a post-partisan figure has become one, stuck in the unpopulated center, out of place in the binary equation of R's and D's. Those qualities were supposed to make him the perfect antidote to George W. Bush—but instead voters seem to have gotten what they wanted and then not wanted what they got.
What they got was a realist, a man who, like him or not, seems more uncomfortable than ever pandering to voters or telling them what they want to hear, who has always believed that simply explaining was enough, who has almost no patience for political theater and little interest in using his office for pure optical purposes. Despite his rock-star origins, he's no showman. And at times, he comes off as almost determinedly tone-deaf.
Think about last week, when Obama invited doctors and nurses who had treated the Ebola virus to an event to the White House. The outbreak had become a key issue on campaign trails across the United States. There was almost no political upside to an event dedicated to minimizing the risk of transmission, but the president did it anyway, determined to be the Explainer in Chief and to try to dissipate the cloud of fear enveloping the country.
Or when he argued that his policies were indeed on the ballot for these midterms, despite a legion of at-risk Democrats hollering it wasn't so. Or how his White House maintained that should the Senate change hands, no senior aides would pay a price even if it meant that this administration had now lost both houses of Congress during its tenure. Such a move, the White House argued, would be symbolic and meaningless. It's fairly clear that Obama doesn't see Tuesday's setbacks as a rebuke. "This is possibly the worst possible group of states for Democrats since Dwight Eisenhower," Obama said in a radio interview Tuesday. (But even in the blue-state governor's races in which he campaigned, Obama fared terribly.)
Often, too, the president and his staff have spoken in the language of limitation. Obama doesn't overpromise or offer feel-good reassurance. Hence, the repeated assertions that the U.S. can ultimately do little to "destroy and degrade" the forces of ISIS in Iraq and Syria without help. And how Russia can still be a strategic partner on some issues even as Obama has tried to talk tough to Vladimir Putin. Since his reelection, his foreign-policy ratings have tumbled, even as Americans have largely favored his approach in both instances.
But nowhere has Obama employed the half-full/half-empty approach more than with the economy. The White House has resisted spiking the football on the recovery even as Wall Street roared to life and unemployment slid under 6 percent. There were good reasons: Polls show that reams of voters remain skittish about their personal situations. But the president, to the chagrin of some progressives, has also resisted sending ambitious economic programs to Congress to force a confrontation—because he knows they face no chance of passage. Politically, it left the impression that this is administration that is eternally halfway-done with the job it's doing—and left Democrats without much of a story to tell this election.
Not that they wanted to tell it. One of the great ironies is that some of the Democratic senators most like Obama in temperament—the Mark Warners, Kay Hagans, and Mark Udalls—thought so little of his standing with the public and his political skills that they wanted nothing to do with him, even after the economy improved, even after the furor over health care waned, after he punted his immigration executive order on their behalf, and as they appropriated his turnout model for their own.
That still-in-development order was another area in which Obama seemed to lose his political bearings repeatedly, leaving him almost with no upside and all downside. Now, as the Republicans take charge of the Senate, the order will land with an even bigger, more disruptive thud, undermining the goodwill the White House wants to build with the new GOP caucus. And make no mistake, the president, ever the pragmatist, does believe—yet again—that he can work with Republicans, much to the frustration of liberals. Whether this is a misread of the political environment or a real opportunity remains to be seen.
The White House knew Obama would be blamed if the GOP claimed the Senate and insisted that he didn't care if he got the credit if Democrats somehow kept a razor-thin majority. But part of the art of politics is understanding ways to claim the credit, to make sure that the public knows the score. (If you want a prime example, take the party's favorite surrogate these days, Bill Clinton.) This is an administration, however, that has always been more about science than art. Remember, so much of the president's political success was premised less on his rudimentary political skills and more on his revolutionary turnout machine.
That may be Obama's ultimate legacy—more technician than tactician, and a man who, perhaps, had more faith in the American public's ability to discern substance from style than was warranted. But another legacy was assured Tuesday night: The man who promised to fix politics was instead buried by them.