Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The US Election: The Aftermath

I switched on the news this morning to be greeted by something which resembled the closing sequence from Return of the Jedi. Supposedly impartial journalists beamed from ear to ear as they stood, surrounded by cheering Obama supporters, to tell us that Europe’s favourite US President has won his second term. Guess what, it made me happy too. If I were a US citizen I’d be a registered Democrat, and I’d be even more delighted to hear that rape apologists had been voted out, and that LGBT candidates were now electable. Good times.

The problem is that I fear people of my political persuasion are getting carried away. Having President Obama is far better than having President Romney, of whom it could be said that nothing became his political life as much as the manner in which he left it, but the United States’ political problems remain much the same as they did yesterday, and could possibly get worse before they get better.

Europeans never seem to grasp that the US system is based on the separation of powers between the executive (the President) and the legislature (the House and the Senate). The result of last night’s election is to have a Democratic President and Senate, and a Republican House. Historically this has not been a problem, because agreement was reached across party lines to pass legislation. In recent years, as the US has become more politically polarised, or more accurately as the Republican Party has become more extreme, this has not been possible. Unless a single party controls all three branches of government, getting legislation passed becomes more or less impossible. That is the situation Barack Obama now faces; responsibility without power.

You only have to recall the way that the USA, the richest nation on earth, managed to lose its top credit rating last year, when legislation to raise the legal debt ceiling was held up in a row between the different government branches, to understand the damage this situation can do. It rules out the sort of serious strategic planning, involving both tax rises and spending cuts, which the US needs to implement in order to sort out its long term finances. This has been identified as one of the most serious threats that the US faces, and the result of this election is to postpone any possible solution a little longer.

The other effect of this election is that it is likely to make the Republican Party even more extreme and uncooperative. Mitt Romney, for all his faults, was the best and most moderate candidate in the Republican primaries. Remember Rick Perry? How about Herman Cain? The point is that Romney was selected because it was thought that his moderation was the best way to win the presidency (this is true incidentally, but he wasn’t moderate enough).

The call from the ‘movement conservative’ hardliners will now be that moderation failed, and a clear Republican message is needed. This is already happening. This debate will take place on Fox News and talk radio, and moderate voices will be drowned out. I cannot see any countervailing force, although I’m happy to be corrected on this. Hard-line, ‘tea party’ inspired resistance to everything President Obama does is likely in the near future, especially in the House of Representatives. Just imagine what the negotiations surrounding the so called ‘fiscal cliff’ are going to be like.     

I realise that this has come across as a very pessimistic viewpoint and it’s true, I have serious concerns about Obama’s second term. I don’t want that to overshadow the achievement of him winning it, nor write off a country that I sometimes admire more than my own. But I do think that those of us of a liberal left persuasion should be more focused on facts on the ground rather than the seductions of symbolic victories. Politics is about steering nations, not winning elections.  


  1. Completely agree. I think that one thing European's or people who haven't studied American politics don't seem to understand is that Obama has very little power, and with a divided Congress, he has even less power. People outside of the US seem to think he's some imposing force who will make great change, but if his first term is any indication, he hasn't made great change at all. I'm not a Romney fan by any means, but if you look at what he did during his time as Governor of Massachusetts, he did quite a bit.

    One thing I do disagree with you on though politics is about steering nations. It used to be, but now with media playing an even more important role than the politics itself, politics is about being elected and retaining support rather than doing what is in the best interest of a nation.

    1. Hi Krista

      I've been pondering the media point, and I'm not totally sure I agree. I certainly agree that nobody can thrive in modern politics without a constant, effective media management operation. I think Bill Clinton's advice to Tony Blair in 1997 was "never stop communicating", which sounds crass and spin obsessed, but on balance I think he was right.

      Having said that, media management does not necessarily preclude statesmanship. The fact that serious strategic leadership has not been a feature of (western) countries in the post cold war era does not mean that it is not possible, just that we have been "blessed" with a generation of politicians who have not tried it. In other words, while I agree that our politics is pathetically small compared to the challenges we face, I don't see this as a product of the media environment. If I had to assign responsibility, I would point to the 'end of history' approach that was adopted in the 1990's, and the disproportionate 'war on terror' of the 00's, both of which were effectively ducking serious 'where do we want to be in 20 years' type strategic questions. Since the 2008 crash, this inadequacy has been cruelly exposed. Sadly the inadequacy is with our politicians, not the media that film them.