Sunday, 5 September 2010

What went wrong for Obama?

On re-starting my blog, I looked over my earlier posts. President Obama was taking over in the Oval Office when I began this blog and my initial posts covered this momentus event.

Those blog posts were understandably full of relief that the reign of 'Dubya' had come to an end and optimism that Obama's was about to begin.

But, 18 months on, what went wrong?
Looking back now, it's incredible to see how such hope has turned to cynicism. Obama's popularity numbers are typically low (admittedly similar to those of Clinton and Regan mid-way through their first terms) and there doesn't seem to be any hope of an upsurge in his foirtunes in the near future. Indeed, with mid-term congressional elections just months away, things are going to get a lot worse.

But why?
The economy of course has been central. Despite the big bailouts, the western economy still hangs precariously and worries that we may fall into a 'double-dip' recession continues to harm consumer confidence. Obama is no miracle worker and recovery has been slow. Unemployment in the USA is still uncomfortably high, currently running at around 9.6% and until he can get these numbers down, Obama will continue to be harangued for a problem that emanated under his predecessors time in office.

The health care debate was protracted and felt more like an exercise in water torture. It is fundamentally to Obama'a credit that he finally came out of the 12 month long process with reform that has alluded past Presidents - particularly Clinton. Whatever happens, he can point decisively to this great, progressive step forward for his country as one of his legacies - 48m uninsured Americans now have affordable healthcare cover.

Yet, the anger that the whole debate engendered throughout the country demonstrates how vitriolic and downright stubborn the American right continue to be despite the defeat to Obama in November '08. There is an overwhelmingly strong independent streak within the American psyche that doesn't like to be told what to do. Big Government is Bad Government and Obama's 'Socialist' policies will of course be the ruin of the American way of life as we know it. The fact that these extreme sentiments are easily transferred into the American consciousness via the media and talk show stations across the country, means that agitation spreads quickly.

The growth of the 'Tea Party' movement at this time demonstrated to me very quickly and suddenly, that that minority who didn't support Obama, were not going to lie down and let him lead. They would do all that they could to challenge his government and in as loud a way as possible. Despite having a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, it was still a herculean effort for Obama, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to get their reforms onto the statute books. It was so ironic that the death of arch-liberal Ted Kennedy and the shock loss of his ultra-liberal safe Massachusetts Senate Seat made the whole saga that much more complicated. Yet, it demonstrated as starkly as anything else could, that within merely 12 months of his historic election, Obama's honeymoon had well and truly come to an end. By pushing so hard and so soon on this necessary piece of legislation, he offered his deepest cynics the opportunity to come out fighting. It is a great shame however, that despite being roundly defeated in the November '08 Presidential and Congressional elections, the Republican Party refused to show decent grace and greater magnaminity with Obama as he looked to herald in reform that had clearly won the support of the electorate at election time. I felt the Republican Party's attiude at this time was nothing short of disgraceful but then, I shouldn't really have been surprised.

The 'Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill' in the Gulf of Mexico has also been an unexpected disaster that has turned against Obama. In many respects, there's little he could do apart from wait for the engineers to find a way to finally block the pipe and make the best of a bad job. But whether he deserves criticism or not, the way he has handled the issue hasn't endeared him to many struggling Americans who have suffered as a result.

The recent furore about the Muslim Mosque planning application in New York by Ground Zero has again brought his judgement into question. In this writer's opinion, Obama'a willingness to suddenly change his tone, as he did with the BP Oil Spill above, to attempt to strike closer to what may be perceived to be the 'public mood' demonstrates a great enease in his own position at present.

The great tide of support for Obama of course was based not only on his personal credentials, but the widely perceived credentials of his failed predecessor. We moderate, reasonable thinking people of the world were just relieved that Dubya's time was finally at an end and that this shining star was coming to save us.

Of course, expectations were too high - particularly in the midst of a great economic downturn and being in government now for 18 months has meant that Obama has rightly had to shoulder greater responsibility for the ills of his nation.

But can it get any better?
The worrying truth of the matter, is probably not. The damage that has rightly or wrongly been dealt to the Democratic Party is without a doubt going to show itself this coming November. At the best, Obama can hope to retain greatly reduced majorities in both the House of Representatives and in the Senate. If the Democrats can pull this off, it would be a great result.

Of the 37 Senate seats up for grabs on November 2nd, 19 are held by the Democrats and 18 by the Republicans. Considering that the Democrats currently have 57 Senators to the Republicans' 41, Obama is in a better position than may have been the case. Almost half of the Republican Senatorial base are up for grabs this autumn but the same can only be said for a third of the Democratic base. To take the majority in the Senate, the Republicans would need to keep their 18 and take at least 9 of the Democrats' 19. It's a tall order but I can see Harry Reid continuing to play the role of Majority Leader come January, but only just.

The House of Representatives however is of course a much more fickle beast. All 435 seats are up for grabs this autumn and the Democrats currently hold a 253-178 seat majority of 75. There need be a mere switch of 40 seats for Nancy Pelosi to lose her position as Speaker of the House and in these fevered, volatile times, it could well happen.

Now, it's possible of course that the Democrats may well keep their majorities in both, but with the addition of the 'Tea Party' and their broad support of the Republican Party, who knows where the wind will blow. Will their additional support sweep the Republicans to victory on Capitol Hill or will it, Sarah Palin like, turn off the mainstream moderate voters and send them back to the Democrats?

Time will tell but whatever happens, Obama's great majorities in both Houses are going to be a thing of the past. These first two years have been tough but looking forward, we may look back at them as the Golden Years of Obama's Presidency when he actually had the support on Capitol Hill to push through progressive domestic reforms. If it all goes badly in the fall, then Obama could find himself up against a Republican House and/or Senate in the same way that Clinton did in 1994 after only 2 years at the White House.

This doesn't mean that Obama will lose his re-election bid in 2012 of course - Bill Clinton didn't. But if the Democrats lose out this November as they invariably will, then to quote Bachman-Turner Overdrive and to paraphrase D:ream, 'You ain't seen nothing yet' because 'Things can only get worse'.

Good luck for the elections to my Democrat friends and Mr Obama. I dread to say it, but they're going to need it.

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