If the 2010 mid-term election results delivered a “shellacking” to President Obama, the 2014 ones probably go beyond the reach of the standard dictionary of slang. Barack Obama now governs – as Bill Clinton did before him – without his party controlling either the senate or the House. Worse, the Republicans who are now in charge have a clear agenda to overturn and stop any reform that featured on the Obama agenda. And if politics was polarised under the Clinton-Gingrich axis, it is far more polarised now, with McConnell and Boehner unable to control their reddest, most reactionary members, even if they wanted to.
There’s a danger with election results such as these that they warp our view of the man in charge. After all, as we’ve been so regularly told, these were a verdict on the president himself. The election was as much about Obama as anything. Well, if it was, only about a third of the electorate took part. And as for Obama being the focus, he was focused through a lens expertly distorted by the Republican campaign.
Obama is a fine speaker – one of the best orators to inhabit the White House – but he is a relatively poor communicator in all other respects. His team, whilst efficient, have failed to make the inroads into the national political psyche that they need to, partly because they academicise things too much, partly because they sometimes don’t realise that everything – every single action, every single defence, every single policy – needs to be relentlessly simplified, broadcast and repeated until everyone “gets it”. Mass democracies are not marketplaces for complex theoretical reasoning. They are harsh, simple, fickle places and the Obama team has been poor at realising this. The Republicans suddenly became pre-eminent in this game – not least because they have a natural yen towards negative advertising and campaigning.
Thus the fact is that, despite the odd and perverse verdict of the electorate, Obama remains the best bet for Americans, and the world community which depends so much upon competence and rationalism in the White House.
This is a man who took the presidency in the most unpropitious circumstances – possibly the worst ever inherited by a president since Lincoln - but who has yet managed to pass significant reforms and re-balance what was becoming an irrational and dangerous foreign policy. Andrew Sullivan, as so often is the case in commentating upon Obama, provides one of the most vigorous and persuasive defences of the president in his post-election Dish piece. After assessing the responsibility that the president needed to take for failures in 2013, Sullivan goes on to say this:
The truth is: the Obama team subsequently achieved a near-miraculous rescue of Obamacare, achieved real success in enrollment, and have seen core healthcare costs slow down in such a way that could yet shift our long-term fiscal liabilities for the better. Obamacare is almost certainly here to stay – surviving one pitched battle after the next. As for Syria, Obama turned that crisis into opportunity, by seizing a compromise brokered by Russia which managed to locate, transport and destroy all but a few traces of Assad’s chemical stockpile. This remains a huge, and hugely under-appreciated achievement – and if you think I’m exaggerating, imagine what the stakes would now be in that region (and the world) if ISIS had a chance to get its hands on that stuff.
The same can be said of the economy. No other developed country has achieved the growth that the US has after the stimulus – including austerity-bound Germany. No other administration has presided over a steeper fall in the deficit.
Sullivan’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I finish with this thought. Obama may have received another electoral punishing, but when we start to eye up the sort of leadership and vision offered by his successful opponents in the Republican Party, it really does beg the question of whether electors are capable of voting properly in their own interests. A few months down the line, with McConnell besieged on the right by the likes of Ted Cruz, and trying to obstruct everything the Obama White House does, and proper reform stalled endlessly, who then will the fickle electors blame? It should be themselves.