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Upcoming Midterms Still Don't Have a Defining Issue

We still don’t know what the fall campaign is going to be about.
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Still searching for a defining issue for upcoming midterms

Now less than four months until Election Day 2014, everyone is so sure about what is going to happen in November. Republicans are either going to have a good night (picking up four to six Senate seats), or a great night (picking up more than six, including in blue and purple states). And yet, given this apparent certainty in the Acela Corridor about how the elections are going to play out, here is something to ponder: We still don’t know what the fall campaign is going to be about. Is it health care? (Premium increases could be news in fall; then again, health care hasn’t received much national attention in the last two or three months). Will it be about the economy? (Maybe, maybe not -- see below for more on its limited midterm impact in the past.) What about immigration? (Possibly, but we haven’t seen Democratic or GOP campaigns eager to run on this subject, especially Democrats in the red states) Foreign policy? (Remember Ukraine or Bowe Bergdahl? Or the debacle that is America’s Syria policy?) Will the midterms be about President Obama and Democrats suffering from a thousand different cuts? (Perhaps.) Or will it simply be about the red-leaning map and the fact that key parts of the Democratic base just don’t turn out in midterm elections? (Could be.) Bottom line: Election Day is a little more than 100 days away, and it’s hard to come up with a defining issue, even as so many folks are so sure about the outcome.

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U.S. economy is picking up speed

Speaking of the economy… Over the past couple of years, we’ve observed that for every two steps the U.S. economy has taken forward, it’s typically been followed by at least one step backward -- if not two. But after Thursday’s very positive jobs report, we need to amend that observation: The economy is now taking four or five steps forward for every step backward. Consider: An average of 230,000 jobs have been created over the first half of this year (January through June); we’ve now seen five consecutive months of 200,000-plus jobs created (the last time that happened was during the go-go days of 1999-2000); and the unemployment rate -- at 6.1% -- is at its lowest point in nearly six years (the last time it was this low was in Sept. 2008). To be sure, the economy still hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession; too many are still unemployed, wages (especially for low- and middle-class Americans) are too low. But it’s also undeniable that the economy is in stronger shape than it was in 2012 and 2013, and that’s with the inevitable step backward that we’ll see. Ironically, the economy is now showing a fascinating resiliency ,despite the fact that neither party in Washington has been able to successfully implement their FULL vision of how they would jump start what appeared to be a floundering post-recession recovery.

Can an improving economy help Democrats? Maybe or maybe not

So what does an improving economy mean for the upcoming midterm elections in November? Can another month or two of positive news help President Obama and the Democrats? Or is the midterm cake already baked? Well, here’s what you need to know about the economy when it comes to midterm elections: Sometimes it matters, and sometimes it doesn’t -- that’s very different than presidential contests. For example, Democrats lost 63 House seats in Nov. 2010, when the unemployment rate was an awful 9.8%, and Democrats also outperformed expectations in Nov. 1998, when the economy was humming and when the unemployment rate was a low 4.4%. So point for the side that says the economy can and WILL have an impact on this year’s midterms. On the other hand, George W. Bush and the Republicans lost control of the House and Senate in Nov. 2006, when the unemployment rate was 4.5%. Oops. Bottom line: Economic performance doesn’t always impact a midterm environment the way it does on a presidential election environment.

The administration’s tricky situation on immigration

Speaking of immigration, the Obama administration finds itself in a pickle -- between the immigrant-rights community that wants the United States to take in these immigrant children coming across the border, and the recognition that it must enforce the border. On “Meet the Press” yesterday, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson stressed that the children coming across the country aren’t eligible for the executive action that was announced in 2012. “The deferred action program is for kids who came to this country seven years ago. It's not for anyone who comes to this country today, tomorrow or yesterday. And the legislation that the Senate passed, which provides for an earned path to citizenship, is for those who were in this country in 2011. It's not for those that are coming here today,” he said. But Johnson also hedged a bit if the administration was seeking to immediately deport the children. “The law requires that, when DHS identifies somebody as a child, as an unaccompanied child, we turn them over to The Department of Health and Human Services. But there is a deportation proceeding that is commenced against the child. Now, that proceeding can take some time. And so we're looking at options, added flexibility, to deal with the children in particular, but in a humanitarian and fair way.”

Formal request for more border money is coming

Now, as a public official, Johnson couldn’t pre-judge whether these kids should be deported, given the law indicates that these children are afforded an immigration hearing. But as the administration gets set to formally ask Congress for emergency funding and powers to deal with this current border crisis, there are STRONG hints the administration will accept (or even want) more flexibility to immediately deport some of these kids without necessarily going through the extra hurdles that the current law demands. Perhaps the ONLY way Boehner can get these emergency funds approved is to have this law amended anyway.

Is Hillary really moving away from Obama?

Over the long July 4 weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran a story with this provocative headline: “Hillary Clinton Begins to Move Away From Obama Ahead of 2016.” From the story: "Mrs. Clinton hasn't repudiated Mr. Obama, who made her secretary of state in his first term, and comments aimed at highlighting her differences with Mr. Obama are often implied rather than stated bluntly. But in tone and substance, the presumed presidential candidate has made clear in recent public appearances that she wouldn't be running for a de facto third Obama term in the White House. The strategy could help Mrs. Clinton tackle one of her biggest challenges if she decides to run: how to separate herself from Mr. Obama without alienating Democrats and Obama supporters." But you really have to look hard to see significant daylight between Hillary and Obama. In her book, the only substantive disagreement she had with Obama was over Syria, but even there she said she respected the president’s decision on that thorny topic. Yes, if she runs in 2016, Hillary is going to want the flexibility to run for an Obama or Clinton third term. But to say that she’s moving away from Obama seems a bit overstated. There’s an assumption by many longtime Clinton watchers that she will do what she can to distance herself from Obama, but so did George H.W. Bush in 1988 (re: Reagan) and Al Gore in 2000 (re: Clinton). Every eventual nominee having to run while their own party has held the presidency for two terms or longer has to strike that balance of finding ways to be different than the person they want to succeed without alienating the political base that obviously was responsible for delivering a two-term presidency in the first place.

I won’t back down…

Finally, House Speaker John Boehner says he’s not backing down from his lawsuit against President Obama. “In the end, the Constitution makes it clear that the president's job is to faithfully execute the laws. And, in my view, the president has not faithfully executed the laws when it comes to a range of issues, including his health care law, energy regulations, foreign policy and education,” the speaker said in an op-ed on Yet once again, Boehner has failed to outline a specific example of Obama breaking the law or violating the Constitution. Which executive action on health care was against the law? Which energy regulation (when the Supreme Court has ruled that the EPA can regulate greenhouse gases)? Which foreign-policy action (the Bergdahl prisoner release?)? Once again, given the political energy this lawsuit has given the White House and even Democrats on the fundraising front, we wouldn’t be shocked if this gambit ends up dying an early political death.

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