Can things get any worse for Obama?

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Lost cause Obama is stumbling from irrelevance to humiliation, Photo: AFP
Lost cause Obama is stumbling from irrelevance to humiliation, Photo: AFP

From historic to irrelevant, US President Barack Obama has traversed an entire universe of consequence in the two years since he won a second term in 2012. On 4 November, Americans nudged Obama closer to irrelevance, handing Republicans total control of Congress, a slew of governorships and state legislatures.

The Republican wave added seven more seats in the Senate, wresting control of the Upper House. Republicans also won 12 more seats in the House of Representatives, which they already controlled. Two other Senate seats, undecided so far, could also go to the Republicans by January, when the process is complete.

Republican candidates unseated four Democratic Governors, including in Left-leaning states such as Illinois and Maryland, while ceding only Pennsylvania. The crushing defeat for the Democrats has two major consequences: in the short term, for Obama’s policies, which will have to be moved right to win Congressional approval and, in the longer term, for the party’s nominee in the presidential election now only two years away.

Indian-Americans had a largely good election. Nikki Haley, who won a second term as the Governor of South Carolina, was the most prominent winner. Another Indian-American, Kamala Harris, won a second term as attorney general from California. Eight others from the community entered state legislatures in Colorado, Connecticut, Michigan, Maryland, Ohio and Washington State.

After the polls, Republicans are in power in 31 of the 50 states, leaving the next Democratic nominee for US president without an incumbency advantage across large swathes of the country. More worrying for the Democrats in 2016 is the unpopularity of the current president. Obama’s personal popularity is low, with approval ratings at 40 or under. This unpopularity is sure to rub off on the next Democratic candidate.

The mid-terms were also widely seen as a referendum on the Obama presidency, an impression that Obama himself bolstered at a speech, much to the discomfiture of Democratic candidates who wanted local issues to count. Even David Axelrod, the former Obama confidant and adviser, conceded this was a “mistake”.

Things could get much worse over the next two years if Obama digs in his heels and — unlike all other presidents before him from either party after an electoral drubbing — sets up a messy and crippling battle with Congress, continuing the current “deadlock” between the executive and the legislative.

The American system, which invests a lot of power with the president, balances it out with Congressional control over the allocation of money for programmes. The legislature also controls the regular budgetary process. The president can veto policy Bills passed by Congress, though the veto can be overturned by an absolute majority in Congress.

A descent into such wrangling will create chaos and make the preceding four years seem like a picnic. Most legislative business has ground to a halt since voters in 2010, deeply worried by the ballooning national debt, gave the Republicans a majority in the House. With the Senate still in Democratic hands, virtually no important Bills cleared Congress to reach the president’s desk. Now, with both Houses under Republican control, the presidential veto will come into play.

The signs are not reassuring. Speaking at a White House press conference after the verdict, Obama darkly hinted at what was coming: “What I’m not going to do is just wait. I think it’s fair to say that I have shown a lot of patience and have tried to work on a bipartisan basis as much as possible… But in the meantime, let’s figure out what we can do lawfully though executive actions to improve the functioning of the existing system.”

Hours before the president spoke, a prominent Republican had warned Obama about taking executive action on immigration without waiting for Congressional assent. He said such action would “poison the well”.

He also did not dwell on the Democratic defeat or try to decipher the voters’ message, as every president does publicly after a setback at the polls. In fact, this happens with such regularity as to be something of a public ritual in the US.

All presidents are expected to care enough about popular will to adjust their policies after a mid-term debacle. George W Bush replaced Donald Rumsfeld as his defence secretary after a poll reversal and Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan achieved their best results working with legislatures controlled by the Opposition.

Obama’s blase reaction did not go unnoticed, eliciting repeated and uncharacteristically blunt follow-up questions from a Washington press corps that generally steps gingerly around the chief executive out of respect for the office. A Washington Post columnist noted caustically that the voters’ “message went in one presidential ear and out the other”.

Or, the president is simply hearing different things. Not only did Obama not display any signs of self-doubt, he seemed to question the validity of the vote. “To everyone who voted, I want you to know that I hear you,” the president declared generously. But he added, “To the two-thirds of voters who chose not to participate in the process yesterday, I hear you, too.”

His meaning was clear and unsettling: Those who did not vote were roughly double the number of those who voted to reproach him for his policies, thus throwing the breadth of the vote itself into doubt. This approach also plays to a familiar script that involves accusations of racism. Both the president and his black attorney general Eric Holder have blamed prejudice for “pushback” against the Obama administration.

A combination of factors makes the truth of this alleged racial bias hard to substantiate or refute. It is true that a large number of voters in these elections were older white men. It is also true that blacks and other minorities such as Hispanics did not turn out in large numbers. But this is true of all mid-term elections.

And it is also undeniable that Obama won in 2012 despite getting only 39 percent of the total white vote in the country. This was because of his rejection by southern voters, something that can be traced historically to racism. But to extend this across the country or even to blame all southern whites will be simplistic.

As an analysis in The New York Times notes, in 2012, Obama “was a strong candidate among white voters across much of the northern half of the country, easily winning overwhelmingly white states such as New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa”.

Indeed, Iowa. But Iowa (white population of 92.5 percent, according to census figures) is not just another white state. Iowa has a special place in the US electoral calendar as the state where the party primaries to elect presidential candidates begin. More, it was the state that picked Obama, a little-known senator, over both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in 2008, putting him on the path to the White House by first imagining the possibility of a black president. In fact, if Iowa had a colour, it should be black. An honorary black. Barack black.

And it is in this state of wheat, potato and corn farmers that Republican Joni Ernst beat the Democratic candidate Bruce Braley in a nationally watched race despite a much-covered campaign push by First Lady Michelle Obama. Ernst wrested the seat that a retiring Democrat had held since 1985.

This is not the only indication of the baggage Democrats will carry in 2016. Even in Democrat-leaning states, candidates from the president’s party moved as far away from Obama as they could without falling off themselves. The president was not asked to campaign for more than a handful of governors, one of whom failed to hold the seat.

This anxiety to put distance between themselves and Obama put candidates in comical situations. In Kentucky, key Republican Mitch McConnell trounced Alison Lundergan Grimes, who chose not to answer one repeated question: had she voted for Obama in the presidential polls? Campaigning by Hillary did not make a dent as Grimes lost by a large margin, a bad omen for Hillary, the Democratic front-runner.

The fallout from the washout is not limited to the US either. Across the world, from Russia to China and Japan, Obama is already being seen as a lame-duck president. It is sure to embolden China and Russia, both of which are already chafing at the bit of a weak US leadership.

Just before Obama landed in Beijing for an Asia-Pacific meeting attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe among others, a Chinese newspaper heaped scorn. “Obama always utters ‘Yes, we can,’ which led to the high expectations people had for him. But he has done an insipid job, offering nearly nothing to his supporters,” wrote The Global Times.

It’s a small step from irrelevance to humiliation.

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