Obama faces the mid-terms

Why voters are looking elsewhere for change they can believe in

by James Robinson

The first midterm election of a Democratic presidential tenure has often resulted in large electoral losses (see, Truman: 1946, Johnson: 1966, Clinton: 1994), while Republican presidents have tended instead to wear thin later in their tenure (see, Nixon: 1974, Bush II: 2006). Large change in Washington has resulted in quick electoral backlash; Lyndon Johnson’s Democrats lost 48 seats in Congress after civil rights. Gun control and healthcare lost Clinton’s Democrats 54 seats. The current American political climate is thick with dissent towards Obama-driven healthcare, financial reform, and economic bailouts. Even if the everyman understanding may be deficient, it was a lot to happen in two years.

The midterm election has little to do with the President and everything to do with policy. It is a tough sell to hold up current polls as evidence that Obama will go the way of Jimmy Carter, and Bush I before him. In contrast, polls are in consensus that more people view Obama favourably, than unfavourably. Obama’s favourability polls ahead of his job approval, which sits neatly in line with Clinton’s and Reagan’s approval at this juncture of their presidency. He is viewed more favourably than all of his current likely 2012 opponents (Romney, Huckabee, Palin) and the current Republican leadership (minority leaders Senator Mitch McConnell, Congressman John Boehner).

But if the 2010 midterms really are the election on ideology, policy and governmental effectiveness, without the personality taint of presidential candidates on the mirror – than a full stock-take of the Obama administration really is in order. Most notably, he has failed to change Washington politics in any substantial way.

Where has Obama failed? Many past residents of the White House have campaigned on a Washington outsider mindset, and moved in to realize the error of their promise. Obama’s 2008 campaign mantras were avidly pro-change, but two years into his administration, there is remarkably little difference in the American political culture.

Transparency. This is the key area of broken promises. “My administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government,” Barack Obama remarked when taking office. Obama has not kept to his word on this, and has continued many of George W. Bush’s most unpopular policies. The previous Bush administration expanded the powers of the ‘state secrets’ privilege, to include the dismissal of entire court cases to protect government secrets. Obama has continued this practice, to provide immunity to the Bush administration’s activities, to forge ahead with an assault on whistle-blowers, and to place his own administration above the law.

His administration made noises in September 2009 about reform, but just last month invoked ‘state secrets’ to avoid having to answer to a lawsuit over the legitimacy of a Government order to kill an American citizen with Al-Qaeda ties. Obama’s administration has also continued to apply and support Bush’s notoriously unpopular detainee policies (developed with then Attorney General John Ashcroft) which take large liberties with the idea that a government can’t detain you without producing plausible evidence that you’ve committed a crime, or a material witness to one.

Bi-partisanship. When George W. Bush took office for the second time he remarked that he intended to spend the political capital he had earned in the election. Obama’s inaugural address was strongly anti-Bush, but broke with a tradition of silence towards the outgoing president. Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel quickly reflected that this was a reflection of the mandate of the people. There was a remarkable similarity in attitudes from the outset towards the opposition by both presidents, with a strong air of entitlement before any explicit attempts to reach across the aisle.

Admittedly, bi-partisanship was the easiest plank of the new Obama agenda to weaken. Obama had hung his hat on it- so all Republicans had to do was consistently decline to co-operate and the points scoring would take care of itself. But in the face of such explicit partisanship, Obama made little attempt to engage with it, either positively or negatively. Taking in tandem with smaller actions: the Obama Administration’s hostility towards Fox News, the fact that Obama did not meet one on one with key Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell until last week, leads to an interesting question. Was bi-partisanship just a nice thing to talk about in the context of a campaign, or did Obama really think that Republicans would come half way, or more? The Obama administration faced a particularly rancorous opposition, but they didn’t try to do anything about it.

Putting an end to political gamesmanship. Washington is still rife with politicking two years in. Despite the ‘no lobbyists in the White House’ rule, there are over forty employed within the administration. The constant maneuvering and catering of legislation to special interests diluted some bills (healthcare, financial reform) and completely killed others. The Kerry-Lieberman-Graham climate bill was so thoroughly picked apart by special clause after special clause, designed so nobody would be impacted in a negative way – at all – that it faced death by a thousand cuts. The Obama administration has backed away from tough fights – postponing a decision on whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts until after the election, to save Senators and Congressman having to front another unpopular decision.

Financial reform: This bill is long-winded legislation, overly complex, poorly written, and poorly communicated to a voting public. It does create some oversight and regulation – but is so bureaucratically focused that it has provided ample fodder for critics of Obama’s big government, and a source of confusion for those that support him.

What could still go either way? The closing of Guantanamo Bay: This was a major symbol of Bush-era evildoings, and its closure was a key Obama campaign promise. He was thwarted by the fact that countries were reluctant to take in detainees who deserved to be released, and existing records were in such disarray that it would take months to determine the best course of action for each inmate. Progress has been much slower than expected, Obama failed to close the prison by 2009 as promised, but did put in place an order transferring prisoners to a correctional facility in Illinois, as well as bringing the first Guantanamo case to trial in a civilian court in early October.

The economic bailout. Obama gets it from each side on the topic of the bailout. Republicans claim it placed a burden on the economy that has held the economy back. Liberal economists, such as Paul Krugman, think it wasn’t large enough. To the best of economic wisdom the bailout stabilised an extremely volatile economic market at the time, but the full impact of the bailout needs the context of time for better interpretation.

Afghanistan/Iraq. As promised Obama withdrew troops from Iraq (but he dithered), and re-focused efforts in Afghanistan (but he dithered). The Iraq withdrawal leaves a lot of American troops behind, amid continuing minor episodes of violence and an Iraqi army only nominally in charge. Afghanistan is a mess, but the Americans are taking a new tactic of trying to negotiate with the Taliban while simultaneously bombing them into submission.

Where did he win? TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program): The once notoriously unpopular government purchase of a failing American giants AIG and GM, has started to redeem itself in the eyes of the public. Once expected to carry a price tag of $356 billion, the final cost is now estimated to be close to $30 billion. Approximately $170 billion dollars of the bailout funds has been paid back – generating some much needed positive press for the Obama administration.

Healthcare. Obama has taken a colossal step in a positive direction, subsidising and protecting Americans from spiraling healthcare costs, as well insulating consumers from extremely negative and unethical insurance practice. The law does not go as far as some hoped. It stops short of universal coverage, and its tiered implementation (spreading out over 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014) leaves it especially vulnerable to being chipped away at through legislative challenge. But considering the American climate, the insurance lobby, and share weight of disinformation designed to prevent a bill such as this passing, it is a very good start.

James Robinson is a Wellington writer currently living in Boston, MA.

Editor’s Footnote : Nate Silver’s 538 polling site at the New York Times has, as of October 25th, the poll spreadsheet showing Republican gains in the House of 51 seats, pointing to a likely 230-205 Republican majority. To win a majority, the Republicans nominally need to win 39 contests, but in practice they will need to win 44 House races, given the likelihood of some Dem counter-gains. Dems House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will almost certainly lose her seat.

The Senate outcome is far tighter. Currently there are 59 Senate votes held by the Dems and Dem-leaning independents against 41 for the Republicans. Of those 59 Dem seats 21 are up for grabs next week, and 18 of the 41 Republican-controlled seats are similarly up for re-election. Thus, to gain control of the Senate – and overcome vice-President Joe Biden’s casting vote, the Republicans will need to hold all theirs, and win 10 of the 21 Democrat controlled seats. Tough, but not impossible. As at October 25 Silver had the Senate races pointing to a 51-48 Democratic majority – but as he says, if the wind is beneath the Republican sails, they may outperform their polling on election day.

Some races to watch: the key one could well prove to be Washington, between Democrat Patty Murray and the Republican candidate, Dino Rossi. ( Michelle Obama has been wheeled in to try and get the women’s vote out for Murray.) Also tight : Colorado (where Republican Ken Buck has fallen back to almost deadheat now with Dems’ incumbent Michael Bennet) and West Virginia – where the chances of Democrat’ Joe Manchin have improved markedly since he came out against a second term for Obama. In Obama’s home state of Illinois, Democratic Party candidate Alex Giannoulias is still running behind the Republican Mark Kirk – a personal blow to Obama if Kirk does prevail in Obama’s old seat, and this now seems most likely. Liberal icon Russell Feingold (pictured left – notably, he was the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act) seems very likely to lose in Wisconsin. The Dems’ Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is also likely to lose to far right Sharron Angle in Nevada.

In California, both of the high profile, high spending Republican women – Carly Fiorina for Senate and Meg Whitman for Governor are now running significantly behind Barbara Boxer and Jerry Brown (by 8 and 12 points) respectively in the most recent L.A.Times polling. In Kentucky, Tea Party darling Rand Paul has a six point lead.

In the races for governor, Silver has the Republicans on track to pick up 20 to 23 of the 37 gubernatorial contests, with Democrats currently gaining ground only in those contests (Maryland, Hawaii, California) in which they were already ahead. Fans of The Wire will be aware that Maryland incumbent governor Martin O’Malley was the model for the TV series’ fictional mayor-come-governor, Tommy Carcetti. Most likely final balance in the governors’ races : a 30-20 balance in favour of the Republicans.