Magazine article The New Yorker

Two More Years

Magazine article The New Yorker

Two More Years

Article excerpt

TWO MORE YEARS

"The American people have spoken," Mitch McConnell said last week, after announcing his intention to lead the Senate's new Republican majority. "They've given us divided government." It's a habit. Since 1981, party control of the White House and Congress has been split for all but six and a half years. Voters continually tell pollsters how disgusted they are that government doesn't function, then cast their ballots in patterns that all but insure gridlock. This pathology has many causes. One is that the electorate that votes in midterm years is smaller, older, whiter, and, these days, angrier than the one that votes in Presidential years. This contributes to Election Night whiplash; the change of control in the Senate next January will be the seventh since the Reagan Administration.

The Founding Fathers romanticized ancient Rome's republic (and feared mobs), so they eschewed straightforward majority rule and created the Senate, which evolved to empower small and rural states over large and urban ones. Accordingly, last Tuesday night, citizens stared bug-eyed at red-and-blue maps on their TV screens to puzzle out whether Kansans, who constitute less than one per cent of the population, or similarly minuscule bands of Alaskans, Arkansans, or Iowans might determine President Obama's ability to legislate, appoint judges, and ratify treaties. The slate of Senate races favored Republicans to an unusual degree. Among other things, many of the states hosting contested races had few Latino voters, who have recently been a decisive source of Democratic support. Democratic strategists boasted that they could overcome that deficit by turning out large numbers of African-American voters in North Carolina and Georgia. They failed.

The Republicans won a clean technical knockout against a hamstrung opponent, but they pranced as if they'd walloped Joe Louis in his prime. Party spokesmen described the victory as a referendum on Obama's failed leadership. That was spin, yet Obama does deserve much of the criticism he has taken for his party's defeat. Before the midterms, amid public scares over Ebola and ISIS, approval of the President's performance sank. He was late to lead in these crises and he failed to inspire swing voters with his successes: for one, his Administration is presiding over the fastest-growing economy in the industrialized world.

Now Obama seems at risk of running out his time in office by accepting dutifully the shrinking boundaries of his Presidency. Last Wednesday, at a press conference in the East Room, he spoke about how, even without congressional support, his Administration might yet improve customer service at government offices--an aspiration so small that it would sound sad if voiced by a mayor of Topeka. Asked about being called a lame duck, Obama replied, "That's the label that you guys apply." He outlined a modest legislative agenda that might be pursued with Republican cooperation, if such a thing could be obtained: infrastructure spending that would create high-paying jobs, a raise in the federal minimum wage, and programs to expand early-childhood education and to make college more affordable.

In private, Obama and his aides are discussing a different agenda, one that could be achieved without Congress, through regulation and executive orders, such as the ones he has already signed to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers and to triple the government's use of renewable energy. …

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