Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Give'em Hell, Barry: With the Economy in the Doldrums, Barack Obama's Best Chance of a Second Term Is by Breaking Free of the Deadening Search for Consensus That Blights US Politics - and Hoping That the Republican Party Self-Destructs

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Give'em Hell, Barry: With the Economy in the Doldrums, Barack Obama's Best Chance of a Second Term Is by Breaking Free of the Deadening Search for Consensus That Blights US Politics - and Hoping That the Republican Party Self-Destructs

Article excerpt

This is an "off-year" in the US electoral cycle. Some states elect their governors and legislatures in odd-numbered years; most follow the congressional and presidential election calendar: in 2010, the Tea Party-inspired Republicans massacred the Democrats and took control of the House of Representatives. In 2012, they have every chance of adding the Senate and White House, if they can find a presidential candidate who doesn't alienate all but the most wild-eyed of their conservative base - and if the congressional Republicans can avoid being saddled with responsibility for the economy.

Their aim is to ensure that Barack Obama carries the can for a 9 per cent unemployment rate - which doesn't include those who've given up looking for work. Obama wants the blame to fall on the Republicans' bloody-minded obstruction of all his proposals and is berating them for failing to get people back to work. The fear is that he's left it too late. Election results tend to reflect the state of the economy six months to a year earlier. Nobody expects an economic miracle between now and next November.

Common sense remains in short supply on the national political scene. When yet another opinion poll announced that the US public had fallen out of love with its politicians, nobody was surprised. When it was reported in October that the approval rating for Congress had fallen to 9 per cent, there was some surprise, not because the number was so low but because it was higher than zero. Politicians are despised by the electorate and the Republicans are particularly disliked, despite their victories in the 2010 midterm elections. Voters describing themselves as "independent" now outnumber those professing an allegiance. "Disenchanted" would win by a landslide.

The president's approval ratings hover in the low 40 per cent range, below what he needs for re-election next year. But the only candidate for the Republican nomination who runs him close is the former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, whose own party likes him so little that he has never got much above a 25 per cent approval rating from Republican voters. Polls suggest that Romney will come third place in the upcoming Iowa caucuses.

Congress is paralysed. The Republicans refuse to act on anything presented by the president but they rarely even pass motions of their own, knowing that they will go nowhere in the Senate. Occasional indignant flurries of sentiment in favour of a "balanced budget" amendment to the constitution result in a vote; that there won't be any such amendment is known to everyone. To describe this as "gridlock" is an understatement. The problem is institutional and therefore incurable, as US voters cannot confront the obvious deficiencies of their constitution - the one thing all Americans worship. The constitution enjoys the same status as the Bible and is often confused with it. They are right to flinch at rewriting the constitution; countries do this in the wake of war or dictators, but rarely otherwise. All the same, it is no accident that, of the 193 members of the United Nations, the only one that has copied the US constitution is the Philippines.

A form of parliamentary system is much more popular. Almost every aspect of the US constitution, from the separation of powers to the role of the Supreme Court, is a recipe for gridlock and the exploitation of the public by sectional interests. A president who needs no help from Congress in ordering the incineration of the human race in his role as commander-in-chief and who has organised the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and the removal of Colonel Gaddafi cannot get his modest proposals for injecting life into an anaemic economy on to the agenda of either house of Congress.

In the lower house, he is at the mercy of the Republican speaker, John Boehner - in the US system not a neutral chairman but the leader of the majority party - and in the Senate, he is at the mercy of procedural rules that result in the Democratic majority being unable to bring up his proposals unless it can rally 60 votes out * * of 100 to overcome the minority's obstruction. …

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