THE extent of the devastation caused by the electoral tsunami that the White House has been bracing for should become clear by today. Every opinion poll suggested that the House of Representatives would be lost to the Republicans by a substantial margins, and that the Democrats should consider themselves fortunate if they were able to hold on to the Senate, even though only a third of the upper chamber was up for grabs in Tuesday’s midterm elections.
This is not an entirely unusual phenomenon in the American political context. As any number of analysts have pointed out, both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton fared poorly in the elections two years into their first terms, and then went on to be re-elected without a great deal of fuss in 1984 and 1996 respectively. What’s more, their personal popularity ratings at this point in their presidencies were lower than those of Barack Obama.
In contrast, Jimmy Carter governed with a congressional Democratic majority throughout his first term, but his re-election bid in 1980 proved disastrous. Carter did go on to eventually carve out a rather more endearing career as an ex-president. That’s an option Obama probably does not wish to contemplate at this juncture. But, although Tuesday’s losses don’t necessarily entail a presidential defeat in 2012, there is obviously no guarantee that he will be able to emulate Reagan or Clinton.
What’s more than likely, though, is that the nature of the presidency will be altered from this point onwards, in the face of a broadly – and quite possibly implacably – hostile Congress. Given the level of progress so far, that won’t necessarily be a bad thing. Obama appears to have partially overcome his initial obsession with bipartisanship: the illusion that by striving for a middle course, he would be able to please more or less everyone. But there is no conclusive evidence thus far that he has fully imbibed the lessons of the ancient Aesopian fable which demonstrates that those who set out to placate everyone often end up pleasing no one.
This could, in fact, be delineated as the theme of the Obama presidency’s first two years. The much vaunted health reform, for instance, stops well short of universal healthcare, not least because it was deemed prudent to pander to profit-driven private health insurance providers (not to mention pharmaceuticals). Yet the Obama presidency’s more inveterate opponents were able to deride it as some sort of an outlandish Marxist measure that would somehow mysteriously leave everyone worse off. From the other side of the ideological spectrum, the administration has faced the considerably more valid criticism that the reform did not, by a long stretch, go far enough.
In this, as in so many other respects, the White House failed to weave a compelling counter-narrative. Similarly, efforts to curb some of the Wall Street excesses that contributed to the global financial crisis have been subsumed under the broad impression that the government has been vastly more considerate towards financial institutions than it has been towards their victims, those driven from their homes by foreclosures and the growing army of the unemployed.
It is undoubtedly true that the Obama administration inherited most of the economic woes that beset the United States today. It may even be reasonable to concede that two years is too short a period to remedy such disasters. But had the administration seriously been inclined to reposition the economy, it should not have found it impossible to establish suitable trends before seeking to demonstrate how they would bear fruit a couple of years down the line.
Of course, all the hype about hope and change that propelled Obama towards the White House in 2008 never seriously held out the prospect of a systemic overhaul. Nor was the Democratic presidential candidate the first one to raise unrealistic expectations. A great many Americans were eager to see the back of the dreadful Bush-Cheney presidency.
That was an entirely justifiable sentiment – and a judgement that will, I’m sure, stand the test of time. A substantial proportion of them are now disillusioned by the degree of continuity between the two presidencies. That, too, is perfectly understandable, even if it’s based on a failure to fully appreciate the nature of the American political system, wherein the alternation of power between two political parties that are broadly in ideological agreement and feed on the same corporate teat makes a difference only on the margins.
That is not to say the difference does not matter at all. But the illusion created by the Tea Party phenomenon of a deep divide between left and right ought not to be taken literally. There are, of course, Tea Party elements that indeed ought to be beyond the pale – but even they represent a long-standing trend in American politics, traceable to erstwhile elements such as the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society.
The fascist tendencies certainly should not be ignored, nor can the toxic output of media outlets such as Fox News be discounted. But in all too many cases, attraction to the Tea Party is a consequence of despair, often compounded by wilful ignorance. Its grassroots status is something of an exaggeration, though: the fact that it thrives on funding from billionaires such as the Koch brothers suggests it’s not all that different from the political mainstream.
Perceptions of the remainder of Obama’s presidential term – and the possibility of its extension in 2012 – will depend to a great extent on how he handles the altered circumstances. It is not inconceivable even for gridlock on Capitol Hill to be turned to Obama’s advantage. The indications thus far provide little cause for consolation, not least on the international front.
Perhaps none of this should detract substantially from the magical moment two years ago when, some 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the first African-American ascended to the pinnacle of power in the United States, and millions of people across the world shed tears of joy. It would be a shame, however, if the holder of this historical presidency were to be remembered by posterity as little more than a temporary un-Bush.