Barack Obama & the US Mid Terms: COMMENTARY

The era of hope is over. If the results of the U.S. mid-term elections have been a huge setback for the Democrats, they were a personal catastrophe for Barack Obama.   

They were even worse than the most pessimistic forecasts of his party’s strategists, amounting to a comprehensive rejection of his governance.

With the Republicans now in control of both the upper and lower Houses of Congress, the twilight of Obama’s presidency has begun.

The man who once electrified the American nation with his soaring oratory - and titled his book on political philosophy The Audacity Of Hope - is now the lamest of ducks in the White House, mired in unpopularity and devoid of allies.

In this election, Democrat candidates saw him as a liability rather than an asset - with most of them running away from him like scalded cats. 

But the attempt to quarantine the President paid no dividends for his party.

Both the scale and geographical spread of their defeat was remarkable, with Democrats losing Senate seats across the country, from Montana to West Virginia. In former President Bill Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, there are now two Republican senators for the first time since the 19th century, while the Republicans now have their largest majority in the House since 1928.   

The results are a reminder that America still retains its vast conservative heartlands.

Despite the reality of demographic change – with the black and Hispanic populations expanding rapidly – and all the talk about a progressive transformation of the country triggered by Obama’s first election in 2008, it is clear that a large swathe of the U.S. electorate still holds to traditional values about the family, free enterprise and a limited role for government.

Indeed, in contrast to the optimism inspired by Obama in 2008, a large majority of the public are profoundly concerned about the country’s direction. One recent poll showed that 67 per cent of voters think that American is ‘on the wrong track’.

Several factors have contributed to this bleak mood.

One is the perceived weakness in foreign policy. Americans might be fed up with war, but they concerned about the seeming reluctance of the White House to challenge effectively aggression overseas, whether it be by Putin in Ukraine or Islamic extremists in the Middle East.  

Perhaps more important is the sluggish state of the U.S. economy. Just as in Britain, living standards have continued to fall despite a rise in employment. 

Part of the great American dream has always been that, if you work hard, you will be able to build a better life for yourself and your family.  This outlook has been central to the phenomenal success of America, where, until now, every generation has been wealthier than its predecessor.  

But now the dream is fading. Even those who put in long hours now fear that they will be less well off than their parents - and for this, some of the blame is directed towards President Obama. 

There is no doubt that, in 2008, he inherited a desperately tough legacy from George W Bush, thanks to wars abroad and recession at home.

In fact, as Sandy Berger, a former National Security Adviser, told me, no incoming President had faced a more difficult job since Franklin D Roosevelt in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression.

But after six years in power, Obama can no longer evade the responsibility for domestic and overseas failure. 

A further factor in the anti-Democrat landslide was the greater cohesiveness and moderation from most Republican candidates.   

In recent years, the Republican party has sometimes given the impression that it is being held hostage by right-wing activists, a negative image fuelled by the influence of the hardline Tea Party movement.

But now, after a period in the wilderness, the Republicans seem to be getting the message about the need to fight on the centre ground and reflect the diversity of America. Interestingly, one of the most high profile Congressional victories was that of Mia Love in Utah, the first Republican black woman to be elected to the House.

Yet the Republicans cannot afford to be complacent. With turnout low and apathy prevalent, it would be wrong to exaggerate the implications of these results. 

One of the main reasons for the Republicans’s success is that their supporters were more galvanised to vote than Democrats.

Despite widespread disillusion with Obama, there is no evidence of an overwhelming transfer of allegiance to the Republicans.

One recent survey showed that 59 per cent of voters are ‘dissatisfied’ with the Democrats, but 60 per cent have similar feelings towards the Republicans. 

What we are witnessing is an accelerating distrust towards all mainstream politicians. It is a similar discontent with the political establishment that we see here in Britain, reflected in the rise of UKIP and the mounting unpopularity of all main parties. (One opinion poll last week put the combined support for Labour and the Tories on just 59 per cent.)

One person to benefit from all this is Hillary Clinton, who is almost certain to be the Democrats’ candidate to succeed Obama.

She might benefit from the Republican domination of Congress - meaning that she can run as the challenger to the Washington establishment, just as Harry Truman did in 1948 against the “Do Nothing Congress”.

Despite a health scare in 2012 when Hillary suffered a blood clot, she is now fighting fit. She has built a formidable electoral machine and will run as a centrist moderate. 

For his part, Obama’s last years in office will be a period of stagnation.

His remoteness is in graphic contrast to Ronald Reagan’s easy charm, which enabled him to work successfully with a Democrat-led House of Representatives (the equivalent to our House of Commons) and the Senate (which is more like the Lords) in the 1980s, with deals over reached over a glass of whisky.

But relations between the Washington parties today are more prickly.

Crucially, deadlock in Washington is bad news for the wider world. 

We face huge global challenges - such as the threat of militant Islam and the ongoing collapse of the Eurozone. America, still the world’s greatest superpower, should be giving a lead to the West but is hopelessly divided and politically paralysed.  

And so the lame-duck president is now likely to spend even more time on the golf course because there is not much he can usefully do in the White House.  

Last month, it was revealed that he had played 200 rounds since becoming President. There will be many more in the empty presidential days that lie ahead - even though turmoil rages elsewhere.

* Gavin Esler is a presenter on BBC News and a former BBC Chief North America Correspondent.

Friday, 7 November 2014