Friday, November 05, 2010

U.S. Politics: Happy ays are Here Again for the 'Nobama' Crowd

By Ernest Corea Courtesy
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) - "The moving finger writes; and having writ, moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line," said Omar Khayyam. Although "paper balloting" was available, moving fingers wrote less than they pressed buttons at electronic polling booths during the November 2 mid-term congressional elections here. No matter. The result could not be cancelled or changed even by those experiencing pangs of remorse. Those moving fingers delivered President Barack Obama a resounding snub.

He had received a "shellacking" that was "humbling," a subdued Obama told a news conference on the day after the election, acknowledging that he felt bad personally, and was saddened by the knowledge that some excellent public servants had been defeated and would have no opportunity to serve, at least in the short term. Some of them were defeated because they supported initiatives that he had initiated, such as health care reform, although they represented conservative constituencies.

Obama hit the campaign trail with enormous vigor during the final stages of the run-up to Election Day. That did not prevent the Republicans from taking over the House of Representatives, while the Democrats maintained a wafer-thin majority in the Senate, far short of the 60 votes required to end a filibuster. The Republican "wave" was greater than the Gingrich swell of 1994.


For the "Nobama" crowd, whether they function outside Congress or within it, happy days are here again.

What a contrast from the scene at Chicago's Grant Park on the night of November 2, 2008. Over 250,000 laughing, weeping, praying, hollering, dancing, swaying men and women of all ethnicities gathered and waited to hear the president-elect speak. He did not disappoint them.

He said: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." Well, what the power of democracy giveth, it can taketh back.

Just two years after the Grant Park event, less time than it takes an undergraduate to obtain his first degree, the mood has changed, and the tide reversed. Obama has been deprived of his congressional support. He is, in effect, like a little boy without his security blanket.

Yes, indeed, Obama remains installed at the White House for at least two more years but, absent congressional support, he will be severely constricted in his efforts to pursue, let alone bring about, the changes that this country needs.


In fairness to Obama and other Democrats it should be remembered that the party of the incumbent president usually suffers reversals at "mid-term" elections. Moreover, for voters to switch caucuses from in-power to out, is a practice well ingrained in the American system.

Carroll Quigley, an academic whose research and writing dealt with the development of governance, said of the U.S. system: "The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to the doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can 'throw the rascals out' at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy."

Quigley's analysis might be considered outdated because currently the two main parties do represent opposing viewpoints and approach public policy from very different perspectives. The phrase "throw the rascals out" is, however, very much a part of political discourse and practice. In fact, it is so well established that it is sometimes expressed in more picturesque prose as "throw the bums out" -- meaning "idlers" or "worthless persons" (Webster).

The process of throwing the rascals out, sometimes quite quick in recent years, took place at a slower pace in the past. For instance, when Gingrich led a Republican take-over of the House, Democrats had been in power for some 40 years. Twelve years later (2006), the Senate and House both went to the Democrats. The White House was also taken back by Democrats in 2008, and all three institutions came under Democratic management. Now, two years on, change has again taken place.

In no way, however, can it be claimed that the defeated Democrats were part of a "do nothing" congress or that they were idle and worthless. Nor can that be said of the Obama White House which accepts part of the blame for the defeat.

In the brief space of two years, the houses of Congress adopted a recovery package proposed by the White House that prevented the banking sector from plunging into collapse and continues to create jobs. Tax relief in different forms was given to the middle class, and job creation was generated.

Congress adopted financial reform measures, as well as health care reform that will give insurance coverage to over 30,000 uninsured Americans and eliminate existing inequities suffered by the insured. That is only a sampling of major legislation. The total is much longer.

Some of the institutions that would be affected by much needed financial reform are believed to have provided the Republicans with major support.


Why, then, did voters decide to "throw the rascals out" despite the record of efforts and achievement by the Democrats? If President Clinton was asked that question, he would surely respond: "It's still the economy, stupid."

Obama inherited the worst "hand" that an American president has been bequeathed by his predecessor in recent years. As a result of imprudent financial management, inadequate oversight of the banking sector, chaos in the housing sector, regression in manufacturing, and the pursuit of two wars, the economy was in a hole.

President George W. Bush inherited a surplus and transformed it into a debt with nothing to show for it. His policies made the wealthy richer and placed burdens on the less well off. Unemployment began to rise, reaching its current brutal level of almost 10 percent.

All this was clearly understood during the election campaign of 2008. Voters do not blame Obama for creating the problems. They blame him for not solving them. Sure, the economy has been stabilized, and is growing. Nobody considers it likely that the country is on the brink of another great depression. All that is small comfort to the unemployed and the under-employed. They want solutions, now.

Breadwinners contemplating a reduced pay cheque or even no pay cheques at all, retirees whose savings have even partially evaporated, young folk who have really serious doubts now about their own future, and families that have lost their homes, are not comforted by happy talk about macro-economics.

They want to be liberated from the need to carry heavy burdens. Even Obama while arguing the case for, and the effectiveness of, measures taken acknowledges that "voters are not satisfied with the outcomes of the measures adopted."

There has also been a suggestion that Obama is not personally affected by the suffering that a huge swathe of voters is experiencing; in other words, that he "does not feel their pain." There is enough and more textual evidence -- in his writing, speeches, interviews, and so on – to counter this claim. He does not, however, have his heart affixed to his sleeve.

A leader, or anybody else, cannot be blamed for his or her manner. The fact that Obama shows great calmness under stress is a virtue. In almost any other society, the fact that he has a Nehruvian intellect would be honoured and he would not be dismissed as an ice-cold wonk.


In addition to encountering misgivings among those affected by the state of the economy, Obama has also been the target of an intensive effort over the past two years to malign him personally and disparage his programs. His religion, his place of birth, and his loyalty to the country, have all been falsely and unfairly questioned. Hence, for instance, the rallying cry among tea party goers that they want to "take our country back."

His critics have not resisted the impulse to base their condemnation on lies. The former Alaskan Governor and unsuccessful Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claimed on her Face Book page that the Health Care Bill contained a provision for Death Panels to decide whether patients deserved health care. After meticulous fact checking, the Pulitzer Winning organization declared this claim the "Lie of the Year" in 2009. Meanwhile, it had become received wisdom among some segments of the voting public.

Obama, for his part, has fuelled the perception that he has done little or nothing to fulfil his campaign pledge to "change Washington." In fact, the August 2010 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 65 percent believed "Obama had fallen short of their expectations to change Washington."

Interpreting this finding, Chuck Todd of NBC wrote: "Yes, the Obama White House has been more transparent than its predecessors and has implemented rules to discourage the revolving door between public service and lobbying. And, yes, the Democratic-controlled Congress implemented unprecedented rules to police ethical violations.

"But the partisanship -- as well as all the deals Democrats cut to pass legislation over the last two years -- has made the public believe that Washington hasn't changed under Democratic rule.

The perception is strengthened by the fact that several Obama appointees are "old Washington hands" including some who have been recycled from the Clinton administration.

For all these transgressions, real or imagined, Obama lost many of his supporters who simply stayed home on November 2. They included minority voters, young voters, liberals, and independents. The majority of those who cast their voters were older and more conservative. We now know how a majority of them voted.


What, now?

As at the beginning of his presidency, liberals want him to "stand up and fight for progressive ideals." Others want him to govern "from the center." Still others see him turning into a "foreign policy president" for the next two years.

Obama is emphatic about how he himself views the immediate future. First, he plans to be more directly engaged with supporters and other voters who are located "beyond the White House bubble." Pursuing this goal, he engaged his supporters in a conference call just a few hours after his news conference.

Next, he will push for continued civility in Washington, so that political discourse among those who disagree with each other need not be disagreeable. This point was emphasized to him, he said, by the owner of a "small business" tree care firm in Virginia during a town hall meeting in that state.

Most of all, however, he will seek to sit down with Speaker-elect John Boehnor and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell as well with the Democratic leadership to seek areas of public policy and legislation on which they can forge consensus and move forward together. This exercise could involve new legislation or adjustments to existing legislation.

He has already spoken to Boehnor and McConnell over the phone, informing them of his desire to work constructively with them. He acknowledges nevertheless that the process he has in mind "will not be easy."

McConnell, it might be recalled, is on record as believing that a major goal of Republicans should be to ensure that Obama will be a one-term president. Others, emboldened by election results, might share that view. At least one of them has already published his thoughts on how the country's economic problems can be solved.

Palin, it has been said, no longer focuses her binoculars on Russia when she looks out from her home in Alaska. She sees, instead, the looming attraction of 2012. (IDN-InDepthNews/04.11.2010)

Copyright © 2010 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is on the IDN editorial board and President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.