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Gans: Voter Disillusionment Has Only Just Begun

But on two major issues, Obama left himself and his party vulnerable. He was faced with the choice to put forward a stimulus program of sufficient size to reverse the employment plunge advocated by economic advisers Christina Romer and Lawrence Summers, among others, or accede to the political readings of Rahm Emanuel and others who counseled that only a more limited measure could pass Congress. He chose the easier perceived path of the possible over a major battle for the necessary. When that decision clearly failed to ameliorate the employment situation, he chose to neither propose nor fight for something that might.

In a larger sense, Obama chose to build his record on individual policy achievements rather than the assertion and defense of an engaged government as the only entity with sufficient resources and ability to attack the magnitude of the nation’s economic crisis.

The result has been that the Republicans have had a very large and stationary clay pigeon to shoot at: Massive government spending has failed to revive the economy. Massive government spending has produced a huge debt burden that is unsustainable in the present and will be an oppressive burden in the future. Any rollback of the Bush tax cuts will reduce what little consumption exists.

Given the state of the economy after two years of the Obama administration, it’s a winning strategy, and the Republicans will record major gains on all levels — both chambers of Congress, governorships and state legislatures.

The issue of whether the GOP gains enough seats to control one or both chambers of Congress is, basically, irrelevant. The GOP priorities of rapid deficit reduction, less business regulation and smaller government are likely to hurt the economy in the same manner that FDR’s austerity policies in 1937 renewed the Depression. Any major stimulative policies by the Obama administration are dead on arrival in a Congress in which the Republicans can block whatever they wish.

Minor agreements are possible on issues such as free trade with Korea and Latin America, modest tort reform and some stimulative policies on energy, particularly nuclear power. But the basic condition of Congress will be one of major gridlock and political posturing for the 2012 elections in an economy not noticeably healed. And we’ll probably see a progressively heightened amount of incivility on Capitol Hill.

All of which points to a polarized 2012 election — and the more tea party candidates that win this year, the more polarized 2012 will be. The GOP will put forward, at a high decibel level, policies that cannot possibly reverse the economic drift, while the president will face the perception of having singularly failed to meet the most important challenge of his time.

If anyone thought that disillusionment reigned this year, they ain’t seen nothing yet.

Curtis Gans is the director of American University’s Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

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