Monday, 8 November 2010

For Obama, the midterms were a shellacking, but not a bloodbath...

Originally published on The Collective Review on 04/11/2010:

As the dust settles on the US Congressional mid-term elections, President Obama appears through the haze. He’s bruised, but still standing. The Republicans did most of what they promised to do; they wrestled control of the House from a Democratic party they saw as profligate and misguided, and damaged the reputation of a President that they have long since accused of being all style with little substance, but in the Senate they fell just short. Come November 15th, the man sitting at the helm of that chamber remains a Democrat, and he will cast he eye across the floor and see marginally more blue ties than he will red.

In the end, the House race wasn’t even close. If this was baseball, they would have enacted the mercy-rule. As many as 70 Democratic politicos have now been released back into the wilderness, many having been mauled by their hungry Republican counterparts. The new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, called this a victory for America and is promising to “restore trust” in Washington. It remains to be seen if either of these sentiments will hold true.

The Senate race, by contrast, brings the only positive headlines for a Democratic party that must now at least show itself to be humbled. They lost 7 seats, retaining a slim majority of 6. With 2 seats still undecided, this margin could become even slighter. Nonetheless, key party figures were returned such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who managed to win a contest that he described as ‘not close’ – though many others would disagree – and Senator Barbara Boxer of California, winning her eleventh straight election victory. This will provide some stability to a party that is currently rocking without the help of any Presidential ballast.

First and foremost, this election was a vote against President Obama. His voter-approval ratings have plummeted since he rocketed into office in 2008 fuelled with hope and promise, and this result was simply a confirmation of that feeling. It would be easy to put all the blame on Obama’s election strategy of high rhetoric and vague promises, but this would be to ignore recent history. It has become something of a tradition to give presidents a bit of a kicking come mid-terms. Not so much out of malice, or even genuine disdain, but as a means to keep them on their toes, batting for the team rather than their party.
For sure, there is disagreement with some of his policies. The health care bill – smartly dubbed ‘Obamacare’ by his opposition – was mis-pitched. Had the President and his Democratic Congressional counterparts chosen to stress the economic necessity of stealing back health care from the profit-driven insurance industries in order to return it to the increasingly desperate Americans who need to keep cash in their pockets now more than ever, then it may have found more success. But this is just one of many examples where Obama’s gift as a communicator deserted him.

Instead of framing the health issue as one of economic need, he and his party tried to use it to keep the momentum of 2008 going – painting Obama as the harbinger of real change – in spite of the fact that by the time it was bungled through the Senate it was already too late. He would have done well to listen to the campaign-mantra of the last Democratic President to get a mauling in the mid-terms, President Clinton: ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. Especially during a recession, stupid.

Perhaps more worrying for Obama, though, is that this was not just a vote against him by conservatives scared of what they see as the imminent nationalisation of America’s public services, but by a number of those constituents who voted him into office in 2008. One of his great advantages was that the young and vibrant loved him back then, and this in turn made Obama look young, vibrant and full of promise. But as enthusiastic as the young and vibrant are, they are also impatient. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect major change within two years, perhaps candidate Obama really did mean “change you can believe in… but not overnight” (as he tried and failed to point out on The Daily Show last week), but it is pure folly to promise the young something great and not deliver on time. They will move on, and are doing so. Obama, though, must work hard to ensure that this is but a phase of adolescent pique, rather than a permanent phase-shift away from himself and his party.

Most of all, this election highlights the difference between campaigning and governing. Obama is a maestro at the former, but is currently floundering with the latter. This same problem will challenge none more than the newly empowered Republican establishment. They have, in their midst, a grassroots movement to make Obama’s look like it’s been sprayed with weed-killer. The Tea Party train rolls on, all the way into Union Station, with figureheads such as Rand Paul riding out front to ‘take the government’ back for the disaffected. What they may find when they arrive, though, is an institution so stuck in its ways that it would take the entire AmTrak fleet to make it budge. Congress is the home of deliberation and compromise, and promising to change it radically with tactics that are anything but compromising is a non-starter. Many and better have tried previously and fared poorly.

That will suit the Democrats and President Obama just fine. If the Republicans try to force change by blocking every initiative the President puts forward, they will quickly be branded the party of ‘no’. If they sit down and compromise, the divisions within their own party will make the disagreements across the parties seem trivial. Furthermore, they will struggle to find a Presidential candidate who can capture both the centrist swing-voters and hang-on to the Tea Party activists. They will need to select well, which automatically rules out Sarah Palin, because if there’s one thing we know Obama is very good at, it’s Presidential campaigns.
This election was, as President Obama rightly points out, a right “shellacking” for him and his party. But it wasn’t the bloodbath it could have been. He must and will do better. The first and possibly only item on his agenda from now until 2012 has to be the economy. He has started well by offering an olive branch to the newly victorious Republicans. This has put the ball in their court. Either they start to play and the economy grows to everyones benefit, or they bicker and stall allowing Obama to prey on them in 2012 just as they gorged on his Democratic colleagues yesterday.

Either will do for a President who is down, but whom it would be foolish to count out.

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