Midterm Madness

Former presidential political advisers weigh in on this fall’s midterm elections at a GW event.

panelists on stage for Politico event discussing presidential campaign
June 30, 2010

By Julia Parmley

With growing anxiety about the future of the country and disillusionment over lack of promised change, the upcoming 2010 midterm elections are sure to spark some political power struggles. Prominent political strategists Mark Penn and Karen Hughes discussed November’s contests at GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium June 29 in an event moderated by Politico chief political correspondent Mike Allen.

Mr. Penn, currently worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller and president of the polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland, served as a Democratic political adviser to President Bill Clinton and chief political strategist on Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. Ms. Hughes was the White House communications director for President George W. Bush and currently serves as the vice chairman of Burson-Marsteller.

Mr. Penn and Ms. Hughes began the debate discussing the nation’s growing unease over President Obama’s leadership and the direction of the country. Ms. Hughes noted that this anxiety is giving “anti-incumbent” candidates a lead in the polls, as people become increasingly disillusioned about the “unreasonably high expectations” that President Obama set entering office.

Mr. Penn described the current political climate as “frosty”— recent polls calculated a current presidential approval rating of less than 50 percent and a 62 percent dissatisfaction about the direction of country—but said that more time should be allowed President Obama before judgment is passed.

“[People] are dissatisfied about what’s going on in the economy, what’s going in the war, what’s going on globally,” said Mr. Penn. “Most of these financial problems were created during the Bush administration, [as well as] the lack of review regulation, international problems… [But] this basically is too short a time to clean up messes left to the Obama administration. There is a good argument to be made that two years is not enough time.”

Ms. Hughes and Mr. Penn also clashed on President Obama’s leadership abilities. Ms. Hughes said several of former President Bush’s unpopular decisions—including the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and a 2007 surge in Iraq—ultimately laid a better groundwork for President Obama.

“I would argue that the $757 million stimulus that President Obama passed—promising that unemployment would not exceed 8 percent if he did—has been wasted money and it’s contributed a great deal to our national debt,” she said. “It’s not what rescued the economy. What rescued the economy was that tough vote [on TARP]…at President Bush’s urging and its passage in fall of 2008.”

“Unfortunately, everything looks like a mess right now,” she added. “We’ve spent every dime we got and a bunch we didn’t have, the oil spill is going on and government response has been extremely passive.”

Mr. Penn said President Obama has “exercised presidential power and leadership” in regard to the oil spill and that it is up to the nation to decide whether to give his new policies more time.

“[Now people] are going to say, should we wait. Should we give Obama and Democrats more of a chance to fix these big problems or not,” said Mr. Penn. “[Democrats have] laid down major policies—health care, the war, economy-- and none have really come to fruition, but none have really failed either. Republicans are going to have to make the case that they’ve failed and [Democrats] have taken the country in the wrong direction, while the Democrats are going to have to make the case [of] not yet.”

Ms. Hughes and Mr. Penn then debated the possibility of Republicans gaining seats in November’s midterm elections and the probability of President Obama’s reelection.

Ms. Hughes forecasted Republicans taking control of the House, noting that there are currently 35 “toss-up” seats in which Republicans have a nine-point lead in the polls. She also said that while the country hasn’t seen all of President Obama’s policies realized, he has “overreached” and “overpromised” to the point where a reelection may be in jeopardy.

“One of [Obama’s] vulnerabilities is lack of leadership experience,” says Ms. Hughes. “He doesn’t come across as a leader in which people can have confidence.”

Mr. Penn said there may be some turnover and stressed it is too early to tell if President Obama will have trouble getting reelected to a second term as he will most likely have to “re-shift” his campaign strategy. Mr. Penn also noted that there currently is a trend of people voting for either party but staying independent and said that should be a warning to both Democrats and Republicans to go after those voters.

“The primaries have the potential to pull people more right and left at a time when the public has never been more center,” he said. “The biggest party in America is no party…the center is where the voters are.”

The event was hosted by GW’s Graduate School of Political Management.

Politics and Society