US voters to deliver half-term report on Trump presidency
Two months before the US midterm elections, the campaign is heating up. For those less familiar with the American political system, the process of electing representatives feels like a near-impenetrable cobweb. The country’s founding fathers, who were suspicious of the very notion of government, left a legacy of a country in a permanent state of electioneering in the hope that this would ensure representatives’ accountability and encourage them to serve their constituents rather than themselves and powerful vested interests.
Presidential election years, needless to say, are the most exciting, having the biggest impact on the nation. However, midterm elections carry immense weight too and none more so than those coming this November. However, one looks at it, they are bound to be a referendum on Trump’s tumultuous first two years in the White House.
At stake is the entire House of Representatives with its 435 seats, as well as 35 seats in the 100-member Senate. Beyond the congressional elections, 36 out of 50 state governors will also be elected. This is a very big chunk of the political system and the decision-making process, especially considering the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution. Add to this the plethora of state and local offices that are up for election, as well as the myriad pieces of proposed legislation that in many states serve as a mini-referendum presented to the voters, and the magnitude of this democratic exercise becomes evident.
Most pollsters predict that the Democrats will regain the House of Representatives. In order to do so, they need to gain 24 Republican seats. As it happens, in this instance the Democrats have been handed an advantage by the retirement of dozens of Republican representatives in the lower chamber. That is not the case in the upper chamber, the Senate, where the Republicans have a better chance of retaining their majority and even increasing it. As it stands, the Democrats are defending 26 of the 35 seats contested this time round, including two independents that are aligned with the party. This means they must protect all those they hold and gain at least two of the nine Republican seats — a task that might prove insurmountable.
If the Democrats fail to take control of the House, Trump will see it as a vindication of his policies and the general demeanor in which he is running the country. It will also serve as a tailwind for him to launch his campaign for a second term, not to mention galvanizing his core support in Congress and around the country. This, however, might backfire, as it will scare the more centrist/moderate elements within the GOP, who have been keeping their heads down for the last two years in the hope that Trump was a passing phenomenon who would last four years at most. In this case, they can regroup and prepare to rally round a candidate who will challenge Trump in the next GOP primaries.
US midterms are rarely as important as those taking place in November, which will effectively be a referendum on Trump's first two years as president
Similarly, for the Democrats, gaining seats and a probable majority would serve as both a morale booster and a platform for challenging the White House’s present incumbent. It would be another step on the road to recovery from their shell shock following 2016’s election results. Only a victory in the midterms will allow them to put all that behind them and begin searching in earnest for a contender for 2020’s presidential vote. For this to happen, the party needs to not only win seats, but also set an agenda that reflects a genuine soul-searching about why it lost the presidency two years ago, followed by a battle for the hearts and minds of many millions of Americans, while also healing the rifts within the party.
While Washington has reached a new level of partisanship, the primaries have produced a much more representative reflection of American society. More women than ever won gubernatorial and House nominations. The glass ceiling for women, and to a lesser extent for minorities, is showing noticeable cracks. It remains to be seen if the electorate will encourage this long overdue trend. For the first time, there is a good chance that at least one of two Native American candidates, Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland from Kansas and New Mexico respectively, will be elected to Congress. Equally encouraging is the nomination of Rashida Tlaib, who is almost certain to become the first Muslim, and also the first Palestinian American, member of Congress.
The elections of 2016 exposed the deep divisions in American society and, if anything, those divisions have deepened since then. Voting for Trump was an expression of frustration and protest, but it remains contested whether the electorate’s remedy was the one to adequately cure the problem or simply make it worse.
Despite Trump’s low levels of approval as expressed in the polls, the economy’s impressive performance and remarkably low levels of unemployment work in favor of his party. Yet issues such as immigration, healthcare and gun control continue to polarize the country and release much venomous rhetoric, with few constructive solutions. This in turn is a source of revulsion among many citizens, who consequently stay away from the polling stations altogether.
Two years ridden with scandals, suspicions of Russian interference in elections and a constant stream of resignations and firings from the current administration are bound to have an impact on the midterm results.
By Nov. 7, Trump, the American people and the rest of the world will know what kind of a half-term report voters have handed to the current administration and the person leading it. It might even provide a good indication of what to expect in Trump’s next two years, and whether he will be a one or two-term president.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg