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Top>Opinion>The Political Significance of the American Midterm Elections


Kenji Takita

Kenji Takita Profile

The Political Significance of the American Midterm Elections

Kenji Takita
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: International politics, American diplomacy


President Obama's Democratic Party suffered a defeat of historic proportions during the U.S. midterm election on November 2nd, 2010. We Japanese cannot afford to be indifferent about this defeat, as it will inevitably have a huge impact, not only on domestic U.S. politics, but on the international situation involving Japan and China as well. Before examining the effects of the midterm election results, let us take a brief look at the relationship between Congress and elections in the U.S.

Sessions and Elections of the Federal Councils

U.S. presidential terms are four years long (presidents are in office for two terms for a total of eight years if they are re-elected). Two congressional meetings-the first and second sessions-are held during this term. The midterm election is like a midterm exam, where the activities of one assembly are evaluated by the citizens. Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party, who won the presidential and congressional elections by a landslide in November 2008, enforced bills concerning domestic and foreign affairs in the 111th Congress, but the evaluations of this 111th Congress by the citizens represented a historical defeat of President Obama's Democratic Party.

The Downfall of President Obama's Popularity

President Obama's efforts in domestic affairs included the passing of his insurance reform bill, which he said he would stake his entire political career on, but voters who opposed the bill called these policies downright socialist and formed anti-Obama / anti-Democrat tea parties that spread across the nation-eclipsing the grassroots movements of the 2008 election, and Mr. Obama's resonant advocacy for "Change!"

As President Obama himself admits, it is clear that the Democratic Party's historic defeat was caused by the lagging economic recovery, which is apparent from the unemployment rate of 9.6% (as of September 2010). An unemployment rate of 9.6% means that almost fifteen million people are unemployed. But the greatest cause of the decline in President Obama's popularity is the voters, especially young unaffiliated voters, African-American voters, and Hispanic-American voters who had been enthusiastic supporters, having turned away in dismay at the sluggish economic recovery.

The globalization trend, which began with the end of the Cold War about twenty years ago, led the U.S. economy swiftly uphill during the days of former President Clinton's Democratic administration in the 1990's. At the same time, however, globalization has become a dynamic force behind the economic growth of nations such as the so-called BRICs-including China, India, and Russia-as well as nations with large populations (indicating that they have huge potential markets), high education levels, and many natural resources. But in contrast, it has also weakened the U.S. economy. Therefore, the situation would not have changed even if Republican candidate John McCain had been elected President of the United States in the 2008 election.

Senate, House, and Gubernatorial Election Results

The U.S. Senate (Upper House) comprises a hundred seats with six-year terms. Two members from each of the fifty states, regardless of size, are elected and about one out of three are contested every two years. The House of Representatives (Lower House) comprises four hundred and thirty-five seats with shorter terms of two years. The members are elected under a single-member district system so it is vital for them to be involved in community-based grassroots election campaigns, going door to door to appeal to constituents for their support. The Republican Party secured forty-seven seats (forty-one pre-election seats) and the Democratic Party secured just a little more than half with fifty-three seats (fifty-nine pre-election seats) in the last midterm election, but the treaties and agreements that have been signed externally by the President must receive a two-thirds majority vote in Congress to be ratified, so President Obama's foreign policies will likely be subject to significant restrictions.

Furthermore, a majority of two hundred and eighteen votes is required for bills to be passed in the House of Representatives, but as of this writing, November 4th, the Republican Party has secured two hundred and thirty nine seats (a hundred and seventy-eight pre-election seats) while the Democratic Party has secured a hundred and eighty four seats (two hundred and fifty-five pre-election seats). This is far short of a majority, so it is clear that the passage of bills here by these two opposing parties is extremely difficult. The 112th Congress is in the same situation as that in Japan in that it is a twisted congress.

In addition, the Republican Party has secured over two-thirds of the seats in gubernatorial elections, which will serve as a strong foundation for the Party when running in the 2012 presidential election.

Struggles in the Second Half of the Obama Administration

On behalf of the Republican Party, which embraces small government as a fundamental principle, House Majority Leader John Boehner, who will be the next House Speaker, is very serious about abolishing the healthcare insurance reforms, which lead to big government. This means that fierce struggles can be expected between both parties concerning the passage of the Green New Deal-related bills, which is another major domestic issue raised by President Obama's Democratic Party. The Democratic Obama administration has also been accused of being soft for its multilateralism in terms of foreign policy by the Republican Party, so the President's roadmap for a world without nuclear weapons may very well have to be scrapped. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (new START) with Russia was concluded because the deployment of MD (missile-defense) systems in Poland and Romania was put off, but the Republican Party will undoubtedly show resistance toward this compromising in the 112th Congress. The Republican Party is sure to strongly oppose President Obama for ratifying the CTBT (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty) with this new treaty with Russia as a lever, and furthermore, for trying to promote reductions in nuclear arms with Russia. His searching for clues in solving issues concerning the nuclear programs of countries such as Iran and North Korea with his talk and pressure policy is also being criticized for undermining national interest. There can be little doubt that the Republican Party will try to set the Obama administration off balance so that a tough stance can be taken on issues such as the revaluing of the Chinese yuan and the Futenma base issue with Japan.

Kenji Takita
Professor, Faculty of Law, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: International politics, American diplomacy
August 1946: Born in Yokohama
March 1970: Graduated from the Department of English, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies
March 1977: Completed the Doctoral Course of the Graduate School of Law, Hitotsubashi University
April 1987 to present: Professor on the Chuo University Faculty of Law
March 1991: Visiting researcher at George Washington University (Washington DC) (until March 1993)
Social activities: Served as a committee member and lecturer for the UNU Global Seminar, a key committee member for the Council on East Asian Community, a committee member for the Kanagawa
International Foundation's Encouragement Seminar, and more.
Principal achievements: The Road to the Pacific Power, America [Taiheiyo Kokka America heno Michi] (Yushindo, 1996), The Road to the East Asian Community [Higashi Asia Kyodotai heno Michi] (writer, editor: Chuo University Press, 2006), International Politics: No. 150 - The World and American Diplomacy after the Cold War [Kokusai Seiji: 150-go - Reisengo Sekai to Higashi Asia Gaiko]
(responsible editor: Japan Association of International Relations, 2007), Globalization and East Asian Economic Regionalism [Globalization to Higashi Asia no Keizai Regionalism] (edited by Takeo Uchida) Transformations and Governance of the Global Society [Chikyu Shakai no Henyo to Governance] (Chuo University Press, 2010), etc.