America's system of separated powers is wondrous to behold. Even considering just the two elected branches, Congress and the Presidency, its complications and intricacies baffle foreigners and Americans alike. Moreover, the 50 states remain politically pivotal, especially immediately after the decennial census. Population changes among states shift their relative weights in the Electoral College, and control of state governments post-census can shape congressional districts and therefore election outcomes. Not surprisingly, interpreting the biennial elections between presidential years is both critical and highly uncertain. In 1994, an unexpected tsunami gave Republicans control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954, and was widely interpreted as signalling Bill Clinton's impending defeat in 1996. Nonetheless, Clinton won re-election easily. By contrast, the 2006 Republican "thumpin'", as George W. Bush described it, did indeed foreshadow Barack Obama's 2008 victory.
This November 2, Obama was not on anyone's ballot. During his first two years, he seemed indifferent to, or in denial about, the political firestorm growing around him. In January 2010, for example, Arkansas Congressman Marion Berry described Obama's candid remarks to the House Democratic caucus. Fearing the rising backlash against his programmes, especially health care, Democrats asked how they could avoid a 1994-type cataclysm. Obama answered: "Well, the big difference [between] here and 1994 is you've got me." Apart from unrestrained egotism, Obama's answer reflected awesome political misjudgment. Bill Clinton, who defeated a Republican incumbent with a 91 per cent approval rating following the first Gulf War, could easily have said exactly the same thing in 1994. Had Obama learned nothing?