From the midterm elections in 2006 until well into President Barrack Obama’s first term, the Democratic political message turned on one simple theme: “[T]he failed policies of the Bush administration.” It was devastatingly effective.

The nation had grown weary of America’s presence in Iraq several years after President Bush proclaimed that “major combat operations in Iraq [had] ended.” Many Americans were also less than impressed over the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

The result was massive victories for Democrats in the Senate, House of Representatives and governors’ races around the nation. The election resulted in Nancy Pelosi becoming speaker of the House and Harry Reid heading the Senate as majority leader.

Reid and Pelosi hammered the simple mantra of Bush administration failures again and again. Even the stimulus and various bailouts during President Obama’s first term were hung on the Bush administration.

With a little more than a week to go until the 2014 midterm elections, the similarities to 2006 are worth considering.

According to Gallup’s Presidential Job Approval Center, President Obama’s approval rating is 41 percent to President Bush’s 37 percent at the same point into their second terms. While Bush faced an unpopular war, Obama has the fallout from Benghazi on his resume, as well as the emergence of the Islamic State and issues with Syria. Bush was criticized for the Katrina response; the Obama administration has struggled mightily responding to the Ebola outbreak.

The script should be familiar to Democrats but potentially more concerning because of one significant difference between Bush and Obama: Their willingness to keep a low profile.

Democrats are aware that the president’s unpopularity forces them to fight uphill electoral battles in many states. The president is not doing them any favors.

Republicans readily pounced on President Obama’s statement that his “policies are on the ballot” in November. Rather than adjusting his stance to help Democrats in tough races, President Obama doubled down on his remarks by noting that “these are all folks who vote with me; they have supported my agenda in Congress.”

The last thing any Democrat in a close election wants right now is a referendum vote on the Obama administration’s policies. At the same time, many Democratic candidates are trying to distance themselves from the president, he is making comments reminding voters that a vote for the Democratic candidate is a vote for the agenda and policies of the last six years.

The president might not be concerned because Bush’s relatively low profile did little to prevent Democratic victories in 2006. He might like the sound of a national referendum on his priorities or enjoy seeing them play well in states like Washington or Vermont. Regardless, his comments demonstrate a tone-deaf hubris that could prove costly to Democrats in contested states all the way down the ballot to local races.

If history is a marker, Republican success at the polls in 2014 could significantly shape the 2016 presidential election. Given the ability to push legislation, moderate confirmations, and generally put an already-unpopular president on the defensive, the GOP could literally take a page out of the Reid-Pelosi playbook on shaping elections and policy.

Public sentiment towards President Obama that tracks the feelings towards Bush in 2006 is enough to put Democrats in a tough spot, but a president unwilling to take a back seat may be enough to cost them a significant election.

Featured Publications