US midterm elections: Obama's twilight zone

Political polarisation is making America ungovernable  – and the midterm elections will only make it worse

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The Independent Online

Even if the Democrats manage, just, to hang on in the midterm Senate elections today, life is going to be difficult for Barack Obama in the twilight of his presidency.

If the Republicans do snatch control of the Senate, adding it to their dominance of the lower House of Representatives – and maybe extending their House majority to its largest since 1928 – then Mr Obama will be less of a lame duck than a dead duck president, at least on his domestic agenda. The Republicans will exercise a stranglehold over the legislative machine and the federal budget. “No you can’t” will be the constant refrain from Congress to the 44th president.

This is bad news. The US economy, growing at a respectable clip with plenty of new jobs, cannot be judged safely out of danger. As the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented programme of pumping money into the economy tails off, it remains to be seen whether American business can sustain growth under its own steam. If further federal stimulus is required, it is unlikely to materialise for as long as the Republicans maintain their adamantine devotion to balanced budgets, something of a hypocrisy given that party’s last few presidents: it was, after all, Bill Clinton who last balanced the books, and Ronald Reagan and George W Bush who blew the budget. On the environment, EU-US trade and any social reforms the President might care to promote, the road will be blocked.

The progressive reforms Mr Obama has managed to put on the statute book, notably healthcare, will be his last, and the Republicans will try to erode them. The President is paying a heavy price for his dismal approval ratings and – even more sadly, considering the galvanising effect this community politician had in 2008 – failing to get his vote out, especially among minority groups.

The rest of the world looks on with trepidation. US presidents at the end of their second term have traditionally turned overseas to do some good. Both Mr Clinton and Mr Bush tried for peace in the Middle East, while Reagan had one last push against the Iron Curtain. President Obama will be less lucky than those guys, in that the rise of Isis and the constant threat of instability in North Korea will be setting the agenda for him.

The withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq should have allowed the US to regenerate its diplomacy. As it is, Isis will push Mr Obama continually towards military solutions, and his weak base in the country means that his arguments carry less weight in any case. The nakedly pro-Republican campaigning by Benjamin Netanyahu tells us all we need to know about the chance of Mr Obama being able to carry Israel in any negotiations with the Palestinians. That, in turn, makes for a more volatile and dangerous world for everyone else.

And yet it was not always thus. US presidents have often had to face a Congress of a different complexion, and the rhetoric between them has often been fiery enough. But there was much more of a statesmanlike willingness to place nation before party in decades past: Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower would not recognise what passes for the Congressional leadership of the two old parties today, the Republicans especially stubborn, dominated by Tea Party fundamentalism that sees the closure of the federal government as a price worth paying for its ideological purity.

Whether the voters will be impressed enough by this to opt for a Republican for the White House in 2016 is another question. Mr Obama will be well out of it, in all senses.

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