Lots of people asked – before and after the midterm elections – if a Republican congressional majority would help or hurt President Obama’s reelection chances?

Short answer: it might not matter. When it comes to deciding on a second term, strong evidence suggests the economy – not who is in charge of Congress – will shape Obama’s reelection fortunes.

Of course, no president wants to lose his legislative majority. Finding a political pony in the room full of manure produced by the 2010 midterms for the Democrats would require Ronald Reagan-like optimism. A GOP majority in the House means the White House agenda has floated past its high water mark and the word “gridlock” may become the most overused word in the American political lexicon.

George Washington University political scientist John Sides outlined a number of the reasons why divided government is bad for Obama in a recent post at the blog The Monkey Cage. “Obama will get less of what he wants and pretty much all the blame if the economy and country are still in the doldrums two years from now,” Sides argues.

He’s right when it comes to the issue of whether divided government is the preferred institutional arrangement from Obama’s perspective.

But how mixed party government might impact the president’s reelection prospects is a narrower question and one under considerable debate right now in Washington.

One school of thought (and Sides rejects this view) is that a Republican House might actually help Obama win reelection.

Those who ascribe to this theory point to Bill Clinton.

After Republicans won the majority in Congress in 1994, Washington began a new era of divided control. But the Gingrich-led Republicans were too radical, the theory goes. Two years after the stunning 1994 GOP victory, Americans reelected Bill Clinton by an even larger margin than his first win.

Some Washington insiders see a rerun of this political narrative. Losing the Congress will help Obama win reelection, they say. Setting up the GOP as gavel-wielding boogey men will help boost Obama’s standing with swing voters.

Writing in the Washington Post earlier this year, Chris Cillizza captured this view well: “The Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 election gave Clinton an enemy in the form of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA). Clinton played off of Gingrich masterfully – never more apparent than in the government shutdown of late 1995 – and found ways to work with the Republican-led House on initiatives (welfare reform being the most obvious) that cast him as a bipartisan bridge-builder.” “The result?” Cillizza observes. “A second term for Clinton in a race that was remarkably easy given where his political fate stood two years prior to the 1996 election.”

Could history repeat itself? Cillizza and others think it can. “If…the House flips in the fall,” he wrote in March, “there’s a reasonable case to be made that it could accrue to Obama’s political benefit in 2012.”

“Could” is the key word here. But will it? Who knows? Part of the answer is how both sides conduct themselves over the next two years. A recent essay in the Boston Review by Sides and two other political scientists (Eric McGhee and Brendan Nyhan) casts some doubt on whether voters will blame House Republicans and Obama equally, at least when it comes to shouldering the burden of a potentially torpid economy.

McGee, Nyhan and Sides highlight data demonstrating the president gets blamed for a bad economy – and the credit for a good one – no matter who controls Congress. “In an analysis of over 40 years of presidential elections,” they write, “political scientists Richard Nadeau and Michael Lewis-Beck found that voters reward the president’s party when times were good and punished it when times were bad regardless of whether government was unified or divided. Thus, the 2010 election leaves Obama with less power to promote his economic agenda but all the accountability,” according to McGee and his colleagues.

It’s a stretch to argue the conduct of the Republican majority in the House won’t impact 2012 election at all. But despite the “GOP foil” that supposedly helped Clinton win reelection in 1996, voters also reelected a Republican, Gingrich-led congressional majority in 1996.

Speculation about how the presidential/congressional kabuki dance plays with voters abound. While Obama might like to blame the Republicans for whatever ails his political soul, his reelection fate hinges a lot more on the strength of the economy than the behavior of the GOP legislative majority.

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