Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Obama, bruised battered but not out !

I am not sure about President Obama. I like him but I am just not sure. He is the most exciting thing to happen US politics in my life time, of this there is no doubt.
Will he be a "two termer" ? Nobody knows because American voters are funny. George Bush Senior won a war but lost reelection on the economy. Jimmy Carter was a fiscal conservative yet he lost to Regan because he was perceived as weak. If you can get both of these things right,a strong economy and strong in the world, then I reckon you will have two terms, just as Clinton and Bush Jr did. Obama could yet fit into this category, particularly if the economy improves between now and November 2012. Personally, I don't accept that yesterday's election were a referendum on Obama, I think it was a referendum on many Democratic congressmen and women, several of whom come across as pathetic liberal dweebs.

The excellent blogger Juan Cole over at Infomred Comment gives some historical context as to why losing congress is not always fatal to a President.

It was November, 1942. A year earlier the Japanese Empire had struck at Pearl Harbor and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had finally entered World War II. Although in May of 1942 the US was kicked out of the Philippines by the Japanese, with Gen. MacArthur retreating to Australia, in June of 1942 the US wins a major battle against the Japanese at Midway. Still, in fall of 1942 the long, bloody battle for Guadalcanal in The South Pacific had not been decided. The economy had finally begun improving after the long years of Depression. The unemployment rate was reduced from 14.6 percent in 1940 to only 4.7 percent in 1942. Roosevelt faced midterm elections.

Would you really choose that moment to more or less return to power the party that had caused the Great Depression?

We might look back on these years of the “Greatest Generation” as heroic, and Roosevelt as unbeatable. But you know what? His Democrats lost the popular vote, losing big in the House of Representatives, and Republicans picked up 47 seats. Because of the way things were then districted, the Democrats did hold on to the House by a slim margin. But they were deprived of a comfortable majority (left with just a 13 seat margin). As the Los Angeles Times noted the day after the election, Roosevelt was left without a real majority, because he always faced defections on any vote. The paper breathlessly noted the dramatic fall of Democratic dominance from the party’s commanding position in 1936.

Remember, this is almost a year into World War II, troops are fighting and dying in the Pacific, and the economy is looking up. Roosevelt and his party should have benefited from his being a war president, and should have gotten some credit for having saved the country from the worst economic crisis of all time. Instead, the voters punished him.

Of course, the dynamics were very different than today, with the Afghanistan War even chancier than the then Pacific one, and with government intervening in the economy in different ways (bank bailouts, briefly taking over an auto company, stubbornly high unemployment closet to that of 1940 than that of 1942, health care reform).
An even more interesting story could be told about the 1946 midterms, when Democratic President Harry Truman, who had, like won World War II, saw the Republicans pick up an astonishing 55 seats and take control of the House. People were tired of long years of war and sacrifice and the Republicans promised prosperity through unleashing the free market.

But that’s American politics. Presidents often lose big in midterms, and especially when the public is nervous about foreign wars and domestic economic uncertainty. In a two party system and a corporate-dominated society, what else can one expect but a continual see-saw?

I am not an American so Obama's domestic agenda is not something I get passionate about. Unlike many Europeans I have never been one to express amazement at the lack of a social safety net in America. They have a different system, that's all. It has its merits, as does the European model. However I do think that Obama's health care bill was impressive, as long as it does what he claims and it doesn't become an unsustainable cost in the long term. My feelings are simple, while I admire the American tradition of hostility to government intrusion into the economy, I draw the line at health care. I do think it is a bad reflection on America that hard working law biding people go bankrupt in the event of an illness. Hopefully Obamacare has gone a long way to resolving this.

On Foreign Policy, Obama has already proved conclusively that he is not a Jimmy Carter. In a recent interview with President Carter I saw, the Georgia man expressed pleasure at never having taken any military action during his presidency. Obama on the other hand has been ordering UAV strikes since his first week in office. He has also expanded the war in Afghanistan and done something which the previous administration never seemed able to do, he successfully pressurised the Pakistani government into aggressively confronting the Taliban dominated provinces of Western Pakistan. This is one reason Republicans don't like to talk about the war in Afghanistan, simply because most objective commentators on the war acknowledge that Obama has been an effective commander in chief. As long as the US does not suffer a large scale terrorist attack I believe that President Obama will successfully counter any claims that he has been a weak leader.

A favourite claim of the American right is that Obama is another Jimmy Carter. I think this is a mistake !

I believe the Obama legacy all comes down to the deficit and whether he can get government spending under control. Even for a "European Socialist" like me, I find Obamas spending levels astonishing. He has two years to get it under control, otherwise he will join that lonely club of one term Presidents, who won't even get an Aircraft Carrier named after them.


Gary said...

This is an interesting analysis with a couple of good points. The economy and jobs were definitely 2 major negatives for the Administration and Obamacare is hotly debated but I believe there was a more basic reason for the outcome of this election. What many people seem to be missing is the fact that Obama retained much of his base support. What he lost big were the "independent voters". Almost a third of Americans are neither Republican nor Democrat. These voters were outraged because they helped Obama get elected based on his promise to clean up Washington, be open, stop the "ear marks", the back room deals, the dirty politics and to be transparent. Then when he wanted to pass Health care reform he choose to use those same tactics and even more. He is seen as arrogant and elitist -out of touch with the people. That is why the Independents changed to support Republicans. Now, if the Republicans refuse to budge on issues and things gridlock, as I think they might, these Independents could easily swing back the other way again in 2012.

thesystemworks said...

I agree with Gary about Obama losing that vast pool of Independents.

I think the The Tea Party did a lot to reach out to these disenchanted: it showed that a message of small government and free-markets does appeal to Americans across a broad spectrum of opinions and ethnicities. I'm particularly happy about the election of Rand Paul.

However, the ultra-conservative candidates endorsed by the Tea Party did not fare as well. We saw the defeat of Sharon Angle in Nevada, who made noises about banning alcohol. And there was the well-deserved fall of Christine O’ Donnell, who believed we can outlaw someone fondling with their genitals. This trend is promising.

Ted Leddy said...


"Almost a third of Americans are neither Republican nor Democrat, These voters were outraged because they helped Obama get elected based on his promise to clean up Washington",

Very true, although surely when any controversial bill is passed it requires a bit of give and take from both sides. Is this what people mean when they talk about shady back room deals ?

I don't consider Obama to be a typical slick liberal (often East coast) elitist. People seem to forget that Obama had a humble upbringing. For the record, I share the dislike of the liberal elitist, but to me, that is more Pelosi, Reid, Barney Frank and others, not the President.

Sound analysis though, if you lose the independents you lose the white house. It appears that both the Democrats and the Republicans (the Tea Party specifically) have isolated many independents at present. 2012 is definitely up for grabs.

Ted Leddy said...


Sound analysis as always.

I like Rand Paul (an his father) too. Even though their non intervention approach to Foreign Affairs will always prevent them from climbing the political ladder.

Gary said...

When Obama and the Democrats were swept into office in 2008 there was real hope for a change in how things were done in Washington. No more gridlock, no more back room deals, everything in the open. Even the President at his news conference acknowledged that when they passed the Health Care Reform Bill they went the other way and used every trick in the book. He promised not to hire lobbyists in the Administration and as soon as he became President he appointed 3 to his cabinet. He promised no more earmarks and then spent billions of dollars on them. No, the dirty politics were magnified under his watch and the Independents are disenchanted at best.

As for the elitist charge - he is President. If his Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leaders are elitist (Pelosi and Reid) -he wears the label too. Plus things like flying the dog to vacation on Air Force One by itself, Michelle lavish trip to Spain with the kids - his playing golf during the oi spill crisis -these things all give the impression of an out of touch and elitist President.

He needs to change. He has admitted some responsibility for the dirty politics (claiming it was an emergency) and says he will change - we'll just have to wait and see....

Ted Leddy said...


My apologies for the delay in responding to your comment.

I think the back room deals are sadly inevitable, unless of course an independent is ever elected President. If you want to get the votes to pass legislation in a two party system then partisan deals will have to be done. Every Presidential election is run on the basis of change as there is always a challenger facing an incumbent. The victor will always renege to some degree. Having said that, Obama's pre election pledge to unite the United States has been a disaster. It appears to me that the you have to go back to the 196-s to find a more divided America.

On the elitist charge, I would expect that every man who has sat in the oval office has on occasion exploited the perks of the office. I personally consider an elitist to be someone who is born into privilege like John F Kennedy or George W Bush.