US Politics:

Yes we can, Obama said. But can he?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

US gets ready for a new kind of presidency

For barack Obama, the past is mere prologue. From January 2011, the President will be part of an entirely new political play in Washington. Unless every poll in these last days of the mid-term election campaign is wrong, next week's vote will force him to deal with a world in which Republicans have a majority in the House and near-parity in the Senate – and in which his plans for the presidency will have to take quite a different tack. For Mr Obama's first term, at least, the time of sweeping political change is at an end.

And yet, just possibly, a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections could be the making of the President. Had he powers of ESP, this President might consult the shade of Harry Truman for proof. More practically, Mr Obama could study – indeed, almost certainly has studied – how the very-much alive and thriving Bill Clinton turned that predicament to his advantage after the Republican landslide in 1994. For these last four days of the campaign, of course, Mr Obama has a record to defend, which he did during an interview with Jon Stewart on the satirical The Daily Show on Wednesday. By trumpeting healthcare reform and the other hard-won legislative victories of his first two years in office, he sought to remind the disillusioned young voters (for whom Stewart is more persuasive than any professional politician) of what he had achieved in the teeth of unrelenting Republican opposition.

Because of that opposition, whatever emerges from the incoming 112th Congress will perforce be a compromise. But that could be a good thing - not just for the President, but the country as well. Politicians may depict 2 November as a day of apocalypse (or rebirth, depending on their party). In fact, divided government is the rule rather than the exception in the US; indeed, the last president to serve an entire term with both a House and a Senate controlled by his own party was Jimmy Carter.

Perhaps not by coincidence, Mr Carter's relations with the Democratic leadership on the Hill were appalling. Ultimately he was challenged from within his own party by Ted Kennedy in the primaries, and subsequently trounced in the election. The single-term Carter presidency is generally regarded as a failure. Mr Obama does not want to follow suit – nor need he.

The conventional wisdom in Washington right now, of course, is rather different. If you detest the partisanship and polarisation of US politics these past two years, it runs, then get ready – you ain't seen nothing yet. Fanatical Tea Partiers, it is said, will gain a strong foothold in Congress and drag the Republicans further to the right, making it even less inclined to compromise. Welcome, in other words, to permanent deadlock, and endless fights over deficits, tax cuts, and social policy.

But these bleak prognostications may not come true. Yes, John Boehner, the current minority leader of the House who is all but certain to replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, has played hardball these last two years. But his gut political instincts are less confrontational than hers. More important still, he's been around long enough to know that with power comes responsibility.

Since 2008, Republicans have had it easy. American voters have short memories. The party has been able to watch the popularity of Mr Obama and the Democrats tumble thanks to the grim economy – even though Republican laissez-faire policies embraced by the Bush administration largely caused the 2008 financial crash and recession that followed.

Now however the public will expect Republicans not to carp from the sidelines, but to come up with answers. Mr Boehner is fully aware that victory on Tuesday is far more an unfocused scream of pain and anger against the government than it is an endorsement of Republicans.

Indeed polls show Americans still broadly believe Democrats have better policies. And here lies the opening for Mr Obama as he gears up for his 2012 re-election campaign. But first he must set the terms of the battle.

Harry Truman did that by lambasting the Republican-controlled "Do-Nothing" Congress that was elected in 1946. Two years later, he was rewarded by the most famous upset presidential victory in American history, and a Democratic sweep of both chambers on Capitol Hill.

Mr Clinton took a more nuanced but equally successful approach after the 1994 humiliation that at one point left him pleading to the country that the presidency was still "relevant", and forced him to declare that "the era of big government is over".

Instead, he shifted to the centre and worked with Republicans to pass major welfare reform – anathema to the Democratic left but proof to independents that he was not an out-of-control liberal. But he was mightily helped also by the over-reaching of Newt Gingrich, the then Speaker, whose brinkmanship over the budget led to a shutdown of government in 1995. The public, as Mr Clinton correctly guessed, blamed the Republican Congress for the impasse, and he was easily re-elected the following year to a second term.

A similar showdown could confront a Speaker Boehner if he cannot reach an understanding with the White House over taxation, spending and the deficit. Republicans will be tempted to become even more unyielding, to show that Mr Obama is ineffectual.

But this time they will share responsibility if nothing is done, at a moment when the country's problems are crying out for action. If Mr Obama can capitalise on that kind of resistance, re-election in 2012 may be a much better prospect than it might appear next week.

The man who shot the president – with his approval

As the official White House photographer, Pete Souza gets better access to Barack Obama than anyone outside of his closest political circle. Since the administration's website started posting a picture of the day one year ago, he has followed the President in every kind of situation that the leader of the Western world has to contend with – from key political moments to the endless meet 'n' greets that are a part of the job.

Yesterday Souza posted a selection of the best of those images to his blog. "The most popular pictures are ones involving fun moments with the President, or pictures of the family dog, Bo," he writes. "But we also try to show the President doing what he spends most of his time doing: running the country."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UX Consultant

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working with a 8 st...

Recruitment Genius: Part-time Editor

£8000 - £12000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A unique opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An exceptional opportunity has arisen for a pa...

Recruitment Genius: Kitchen and Bathroom Installers

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of designer kitch...

Day In a Page

Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

Orthorexia nervosa

How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

Set a pest to catch a pest

Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

The dark side of Mexico

A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border