Like their British counterparts at Westminster, American Congressmen are not people who normally arouse much sympathy. If the former specialise in fiddling expenses, the latter are best at avidly seeking publicity – usually to the detriment of doing anything that actually benefits the country. Right now though, you have to feel sorry for them. If any one deserves a decent 4 July holiday break, it is these grossly overworked souls.
When he was inaugurated the eternity of five months ago, the experts said that Barack Obama would unleash the greatest flood of legislation since Franklin Roosevelt in the Great Depression. For once, the experts were absolutely right. This Congress has already passed the largest economic stimulus package in US history. Its toiling members have approved a historic bailout of the car industry. They have expanded child health care, and passed a bill stipulating equal pay for women. But that is only a start. These last couple of days, the weather in Washington turned sticky and hotter – and so did the pace of action on Capitol Hill.
On Friday the House of Representatives was considering a close-fought, hideously complicated 1,201-page bill tackling climate change and imposing the toughest clean energy standards in US history. Next up is an even more contentious and complicated measure, running to at least 850 pages, to overhaul the country's healthcare system.
But even then, no respite beckons. After healthcare comes a bill codifying Obama's controversial plans to give sweeping new powers to the Federal Reserve, America's central bank, to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis. Farther in the distance looms legislation on immigration reform – an issue that hopelessly divided the previous Congress – and to overhaul the country's creaking transport infrastructure.
Each one alone is a major undertaking. Together they add up to the biggest and most concentrated workload for Congress in three-quarters of a century. If they emerge in anything like the form the White House intends, they will amount to a peaceful American revolution. But the opposite is also true. If the enterprise fails then so, in all likelihood, will the Obama presidency and all the extravagant hopes placed upon it.
In short, if life is tough on the Hill, it's make-or-break time for the White House – and the omens are not entirely encouraging. The problem is not the President. According to a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, more than 70 per cent of Americans say they personally like Obama, remarkable at a time of economic suffering. The man himself continues to enjoy a honeymoon with voters.
But barely half these voters back his policies. One problem for the White House is that George W Bush, to whom all the nation's ills could conveniently be attributed, has totally vanished from view, presumably holed up in his new house in Dallas writing the promised memoirs. In his absence, the "Bush economy" is starting to become the "Obama economy".
Rightly or wrongly, a sense is growing that the fragile green shoots of recovery that the February stimulus package was designed to encourage, are withering. As often as they can, Obama aides pin the blame on the previous administration. But sooner rather than later, those problems will become Obama's problems.
It's not just Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who accuses Obama of behaving just like Bush. So too do liberals who press for more radical action on climate change and healthcare; why, they ask, does he not do more to push the country towards a "single payer" model for healthcare that offers the only realistic way of simultaneously cutting costs and insuring everyone? And why are there not more teeth in the "cap and trade" system at the heart of the energy bill?
Meanwhile fiscal hardliners who hated the Bush deficits and bailouts complain that Obama is offering more of the same. Only four in 10 Americans approve how he has handled the crisis that has brought down General Motors and Chrysler.
Increasingly, Obama is caught in the middle, between a disillusioned left and conservatives convinced he is the most dangerous liberal let loose on the land since, well, FDR. Normally, it's a fair conclusion that if you're upsetting both left and right, you must be doing something right. But this time, not necessarily.
The Obama way is to try to please everyone. In his efforts to do so, however, he risks achieving little or nothing of what he wants. A pattern is emerging with this President. No one is better at explaining a problem like healthcare. No one makes the case more eloquently, persuasively and as easily to understand, that the existing system is leading the country to ruin. But his actual proposals to change that system don't measure up to the oratory. Leave these to Congress, he seems to imply; sensible people will come up with sensible answers. But in the real world, the myriad competing vested interests at play in the legislative process – in healthcare the private insurance companies, the private hospitals and the drug companies, to name but three – as well as the intense local pressures on individual congressmen, render this faith in human nature vain.
Obama has to prove he's a bully as well as a philosopher. And if this makes life even more uncomfortable for those harassed and overworked denizens of Capital Hill, then so be it.Reuse content