The Year in Review: World politics

Last stand of a lame duck
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The Independent US

American politics at the end of 2007 is a tale of two countdowns. Just 312 days remain to what is shaping up as the most open, and potentially the most transformative, election of the modern era. And just 387 remain until the victor is inaugurated, and George W Bush leaves the White House, formally ending what stands to be one of the worst presidencies in the history of the Republic. In the meantime an uneasy, discontented country drifts.

When the old is dead, the new cannot be born. Thus did Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political theorist, once define the meaning of "crisis". If so, then the present circumstances of the US fit that definition perfectly. Ever since the Democrats recaptured control of Congress in the November 2006 mid-term elections, Bush has been a lame-duck President, powerless to push through new legislation at home, and reduced to hoping that during his remaining year in office, his foreign policy problems grow no worse. Despite a few small, tactical successes of late, his approval ratings are stuck a little above 30 per cent. To all intents and purposes, therefore, the old is dead.

But the excruciatingly protracted process of choosing a successor means that not until 20 January 2009 can a new era be born. For the best part of 12 months the primary campaign has been in full swing. In less than six weeks, after the so-called "Tsunami Tuesday" of 5 February, when primaries will be held in some two-dozen states including California, New York and Illinois, the two main parties will probably know their nominees. Yet not until 4 November, a further nine months off, will Americans make their final choice and only two and a half months after that will the 44th president at last take office.

For the current incumbent, the only consolation is that 2007 has been a marginal improvement on the year that preceded it. Mostly, though, it has been a time of partings. By this stage in any administration, old retainers are heading for the exits, whether because of burn-out, scandal or the sense that everything that can be achieved has been achieved, and that the moment has come for a more satisfying and remunerative job beyond the White House. Of late, however, the trickle from the Bush administration has become a flood.

The Texas old guard is virtually no more. Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser, left in August. After an unhappy stint at the State Department in charge of America's public diplomacy, Karen Hughes, another close Bush confidante, has gone. So has Alberto Gonzales, forced to resign as attorney general after a series of scandals, the last of them over the allegedly political firings of eight US attorneys. So, too, have Dan Bartlett, a deft political operative at Bush's side since his days as Texas governor, Harriet Miers, who replaced Gonzales as White House counsel when the latter moved to the Justice Department, and Tony Snow, Bush's undisciplined but witty press spokesman.

At home, Bush's power is almost exclusively negative. Most Americans, their attention switching to the primaries battle, have simply tuned him out. But the presidential veto remains a potent weapon. Having used it just once in his first six years in office, Bush now wields the threat weekly, in the name of a fiscal responsibility conspicuous by its absence when his Republicans ruled Capitol Hill. Thus far the Democratic Congress has managed to muster the two-thirds majority needed to override it just once. But this President's grandiose second-term plans to overhaul the tax code, part-privatise social security and reform immigration laws are dead.

Abroad, the picture is a little brighter, but only in comparison with what went before. In military and US domestic political terms, the "surge" in Iraq seems to have worked. Both Iraqi and American casualties are down, al-Qa'ida has been beaten back, refugees are starting to return, and neighbourhoods in Baghdad are regaining a semblance of normality. The 2006 spiral into civil war appears to have been halted.

In Washington, the improvement has given the President the upper hand in his fight with the Democratic majority over funding the war, whose costs now outstrip those of Vietnam. Indeed Iraq, if not forgotten, has faded in the national consciousness. On the campaign trail, to the relief of Republican candidates, the issues that dominate are immigration, the economy and healthcare. But the surge has yet to produce reconciliation between Iraq's political factions, while stretching US military manpower close to breaking point. Some units are now being withdrawn. But up to 100,000 US troops are still likely to be deployed in Iraq come election day 2008.

Next month, Bush will visit the Middle East, belatedly stepping up his personal involvement in the search for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. But only the most optimistic would expect the "peace process" restarted at Annapolis in November to meet the target of a comprehensive deal by the end of 2008. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the Taliban controls vast areas of the country, despite having been toppled from power in November 2001. Osama bin Laden still sends his taunting messages, while Pakistan billed as a trusty ally in the war on terror teeters on the edge of chaos. As for the "freedom agenda" set out in the second Bush inaugural address, realpolitik and the need not to upset strategic allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia has reduced those lofty aspirations to empty words.

Since Iraq turned bad, relations with key European allies have improved as the style, if not the substance, of US diplomacy has mellowed. Most reassuring, the prospect has greatly receded of this President going out with the literal bang of a military attack on Iran during 2008, as hawks in the administration, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, have long advocated.

But the about-turn is no thanks to Bush, who a couple of months ago was musing in public about a Third World War if Tehran was allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. In fact, he was embarrassingly undercut by the same intelligence services whose errors provided the pretext for the Iraq debacle. To the unconcealed dismay of the White House, a National Intelligence Estimate published earlier this month concluded that Iran suspended its search for a nuclear weapon in late 2003. The military strikes that seemed an odds-on bet this year are now all but inconceivable, barring some massive Iranian provocation in Iraq.

But the damage this president has wrought on America's international image from Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the CIA's use of torture to the administration's refusal to act on global warming has not been removed. All he can hope is that history will judge him more kindly than either his own citizens or the rest of the world are inclined to do so right now.

As always, however, the man himself projects a strange serenity, stubbornly refusing to admit the slightest error. Facing reporters a day after the bombshell NIE report, he was asked about his seemingly "dispirited" body language. Did this mean, his questioner wondered, that he was worried that he had a "credibility gap" with the American people? "No, I'm feeling pretty spirited, pretty good about life," Bush replied, maintaining that the NIE had not made him rethink his views about Iran or anything else for that matter.

But if their President claims to feel upbeat, most Americans do not. There is a pervasive sense that the system isn't working. The worries are many. They include, in no particular order: the sub-prime mortgage crisis; the ever-rising cost of energy, petrol and now food; and the growing risk of recession and all that means in terms of jobs. The cost of healthcare and college education far outpaces inflation, while the gap between the very rich and the rest widens inexorably. And, worst of all, no one can do anything about it.

Bush's own job-approval rating has remained lower, and for longer, than any President since Harry S Truman more than half a century ago. Not even Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter was as unpopular for so long. But the Democrat-controlled Congress is faring even worse. Having lifted expectations with their sweeping 2006 victory, the Democratic majority is paying the price of not meeting those expectations. Most glaring has been the failure to shift Bush's policy on Iraq.

To be fair, the problem is not of the Democrats' making. Legislation must pass not just the House but the Senate, where the true majority is the 60 votes needed to block a Republican filibuster of any contentious measure. The Democrats, however, have just 51 votes, and only 50 on national security issues. But the public sees just bickering, dysfunction and stalemate on Capitol Hill, and gridlock between the White House and Congress. Not surprisingly, the closely watched "right track wrong track" indicator of Americans' mood is more negative than at any time since the successive oil shock of the 1970s, and the "malaise" identified by Jimmy Carter, to howls of national derision. Back then, the funk produced Ronald Reagan. Who will it be this time?

On the face of it, the Democrats ought to recapture the White House without breaking sweat. For months polls have shown a generic Democrat leading a generic Republican by about 50 to 35 per cent, as the issues play to traditional Democratic strengths such as healthcare, education and the economy. If it is true that oppositions don't win elections but governments lose them, the party of George Bush would be doomed.

But the joy of politics is that nothing is foreordained. For one thing, an outside event could tip the balance some calamity in Iraq, say, or if a new and much-prophesied terrorist attack on US soil comes to pass. The former would probably hurt Republicans, the latter might help them. Everything else is in flux.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton's once solid lead had narrowed by mid-December. After months in the doldrums, Barack Obama was making up ground, both in national polls and in the key early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Helping him is the tangible national desire for real change, not just of party but of generation. John Edwards, in third place, cannot be counted out, and in other years senators Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd, and the vastly experienced governor Bill Richardson, would be formidable candidates. But the odds are that the Democrats will nominate either their first woman candidate for the White House, or the first African American.

The Republican picture is even more confused. At the time of writing. Rudy Giuliani's once-comfortable national lead was evaporating, John McCain was making a comeback, while Mitt Romney who would be America's first Mormon president seemed to be losing ground. The sensation was the rise of the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who surged to the top of the polls in Iowa.

But within the next 10 days, those same Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary could up-end every calculation. And could there yet be a third-party candidate in New York, mayor Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire who could easily finance his own campaign, just like Ross Perot in 1992, that most recent year of voters' discontent. Anything (almost) is possible. However, one thing is sure: 2007 was the lull before the storm.