Just eight weeks from midterm elections that are expected to take a debilitating bite out of the mandate of President Barack Obama, the final lines of battle were being drawn between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill yesterday with one issue looming larger than any other: tax rates for the rich and the middle class.
Adding to the season of nervousness was a final round of primary election voting in seven states last night. The results will give leaders of both parties this morning a clearer idea of the extent of the country's anti-incumbency mood and also the strength of the still-raucous Tea Party movement.
Congress was reconvening after the summer break for what will be a short few short weeks of tense and most likely testy manoeuvring ahead of the 2 November poll. Every member of the House of Representatives will be fighting to retain their seat, as will roughly a third of the 100-member US Senate. Polling suggests that the Republicans may be poised to take control at least of the House. The Senate may also be just in their grasp.
Tax policy is centre-stage, because the laws cutting taxes across the board passed near the start of George W Bush's first term as President are set to expire at the end of this year. The fight promises to be fiery. The Republican camp argues that the tax cuts must be extended. To do otherwise would in effect introduce tax hikes at a time when the economic recovery is faltering. The White House, and most Democrats on Capitol Hill, says yes to extending the cuts for the middle class but no to any extension of the cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
While reinstating the pre-2001 tax levels for households making more than $250,000 (£165,000) a year would help Mr Obama plug the country's yawning deficit hole he also sees fodder for a useful ideological showdown.
To that end, Mr Obama has in recent days been taking direct aim at Republicans and at the Minority Leader in the House, John Boehner of Ohio. The charge against them is clear: their determination to ensure that the very wealthy can escape paying more taxes means that none of the tax cuts will be extended. In other words, Republicans are holding renewed middle class cuts hostage to keeping the rich in Gucci and yachts.
Mr Boehner on Sunday seemed to throw a spanner in Mr Obama's strategy, saying on television that if it came to the crunch he might compromise on the issue. But no sooner had he shown the slightest wobble than other Republicans, notably the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, rushed in to stiffen his spine once more.
"Americans have had it," McConnell retorted. "They're tired of Democrat leaders in Washington pursuing the same government-driven programs that have done nothing but add to the debt and the burden of government."
The strategies of both camps are muddied by extraneous complications. For Mr Obama it is the problem of unity, with some moderate Democrats threatening to break ranks. The Republicans meanwhile are seeking to avoid any mistakes that could slow what seems to be the momentum towards huge gains in November. They most notably risk playing directly into the hands of Mr Obama as he accuses them of being the "Party of No" – part of a strategy that seeks to make the vote an election about future policy choices rather than a referendum on him personally.
Vexing Republican leaders last night was a cliff-hanger primary in Delaware where a candidate supported by the Tea Party, Christine O'Donnell, appeared dangerously close to defeating the party's preferred candidate, the former governor, Mike Castle. Mr Castle was meant to coast to victory in November to take the Senate seat once held by the Vice President, Joe Biden. The prospects for an O'Donnell win in November look much less certain, however. Without a gain in Delaware, taking control of the Senate will probably be out of the Republicans' reach.
The drama in Delaware has already offered the most vivid glimpse yet of how the insurgency of the Tea Party movement is threatening to disrupt the Republican establishment. But there were other races where Democrats were just as split. In Harlem, embattled Congressman Charles Rangel has had a torrid time clinging on to his seat of 20 terms after an ethics row, while the once-popular Mayor of Washington DC, Adrian Fenty, looks set to slump to a humiliating defeat.
President's pen: Obama expands literary output with children's book
As if being leader of the free world wasn't enough of a job, Barack Obama can now add children's author to his professional credits. Yesterday his publisher announced that his children's book Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters will be available from 16 November. Whether it will win quite the literary acclaim of his previous works is another question.
At 40 pages, Of Thee I Sing is rather slimmer than Obama's previous output: The Audacity of Hope and Dreams from my Father both reached well over 400 pages. But it follows the familiar sweep of other presidential tomes. The book tells of 13 "groundbreaking Americans and the ideals that shaped [the] nation", according to the publisher, Random House, and includes the first president, George Washington, the artist Georgia O'Keeffe and the baseball player Jackie Robinson. The book's cover shows Mr Obama's daughters, Sascha and Malia, walking their dog (with the normally inescapable security detail nowhere in sight).
The President wrote the book before taking office last January, having agreed to the commission in 2004, as part of a $1.9m three-book deal. All author proceeds will go to "a scholarship fund for the children of fallen and disabled soldiers".
He will be hoping the title does rather better than his one-time British counterpart's. Gordon Brown's 2007 work Courage, which told the story of eight individuals including Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela (again), met with a lukewarm critical reception and poor sales. His next effort, Britain's Everyday Heroes, struggled to shift even 1,000 copies.
Holly WilliamsReuse content