WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama has spent much of his second term battling to salvage what he can of his liberal agenda in the face of stiff opposition from Republicans who control of the House of Representatives. Now things could get worse for Democrats, who face a tough fight to retain their Senate majority in the November midterm congressional elections.
That has raised the specter of complete gridlock during Obama's final two years in the White House — deepening the bitter partisan divide that triggered a partial government shutdown last year, brought the world's biggest economy to the edge of a debt default and paralyzed meaningful legislation on issues from immigration to deficit reduction.
"It would be one of the ugliest periods in American political history," says Charles Zelden, a political scientist at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
Political forecasters give Democrats virtually no hope of regaining the House majority they lost in 2010, midway through Obama's first term. Many signs favor a Republican takeover of the Senate.
Obama's approval ratings are hovering at just above 40 percent, weighed down by slow economic growth, high unemployment and intractable foreign problems from Syria to Ukraine. Historically, even in good times the political pendulum tends to swing away from the president's party during midterm elections. Also boding well for Republicans, midterm elections voters tend to be white, older and wealthier — voters who skew conservative. Minorities, young people and poorer citizens who lean liberal have historically been less likely to vote in elections when the White House is not at stake.
A Republican Senate takeover would doom any White House hopes of enacting major legislation on priorities from climate change and income inequality. Instead, Obama would confront Republican efforts to lower taxes on the wealthy and ease regulations on big business and the banking industry.
And the president could be forced to make vigorous use of his veto power to protect what he has managed to accomplish. The Senate has been Obama's main defense against relentless attempts by House Republicans to cripple his primary legislative achievement, the health care law designed to expand insurance coverage to most Americans. A Republican effort to undermine Obamacare sparked the government shutdown and debt default crisis, though Democrats stood united against it.
The biggest challenge now for the Democrats in November will be getting their supporters to the polls.
Republicans will be hammering away at their Democratic opponents over the health care law. But the law's defense will not be much of a rallying cry for the Democrats, Zelden said. The law, which had an embarrassingly flawed rollout last year due to severe website glitches, remains unpopular.
To fire up voters, Zelden said Democrats will have to make the campaign about other issues that galvanize liberals, including abortion rights and immigration.
"To the extent that those things are part of the dialogue, the Democrats stand a chance," he said.
Even with the Senate in his camp, Obama has already begun an aggressive effort to make an end run around Congress, taking a series of executive actions touching on climate change, the economy and education.
The measures are largely modest, but Democrats hope that some — like an order raising the federal minimum wage for government contractors — will serve their midterm election game plan of focusing on income inequality and the middle class.
Going into the Nov. 4 elections, Republicans have a 233-199 majority in the 435-seat House, whose members face re-election every two years. Three seats are vacant. Many political pundits predict Democrats will lose a few more seats in the House.
The big prize this year is the 100-member Senate, which Republicans failed to overtake in the past two election cycles, despite favorable odds. Democrats now hold 53 seats to 47 for the Republicans, and one-third of Senate seats are up for grabs in November. Democrats are defending 21 seats and Republicans only 15 — another reality working against Obama's party.
The main challenge for the Republican Party could be its own internal divisions.
In the 2012 Senate elections, some establishment-backed Republicans lost primary races to more right-wing, tea party-backed challengers who then failed to oust vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the general election. The Republican leadership is striving this year to stop that from happening again, but the tea party remains a potent, unpreditable force.
Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg, two well-respected political handicappers in Washington see the Republicans gaining anywhere from four to eight Senate seats. Nate Silver, a statistician who famously predicted the outcome in every state in the 2012 presidential race, wrote recently that Republicans will most likely gain six seats, although he puts the range of Republican pickups between one and 11.
"There has been a growing sense in recent weeks that the odds of Republicans picking up a Senate majority in November are not only growing, may well have tipped over to better than 50-50," Cook said.