Obama calm in the Tea Party tempest

About eight months ago, I was visiting an old friend in San Francisco, and for reasons I couldn’t then explain I found myself betting him and his son $100 each that the Democrats would lose their majority in both houses of Congress in the U.S. mid-term elections this November.

About eight months ago, I was visiting an old friend in San Francisco, and for reasons I couldn’t then explain I found myself betting him and his son $100 each that the Democrats would lose their majority in both houses of Congress in the U.S. mid-term elections this November.

It seemed like easy money to them then — surely the Democrats wouldn’t lose the Senate — but I think they are going to owe me $200.

Much is being made of this in the media at the moment: how disappointed Obama’s former supporters are, how angry and mobilized the Republican “base” are, how extremely hostile to him the new Republican-controlled House and Senate will be.

How can he be so calm about this? Why doesn’t he get out there and fight?

Well, he has made a few fairly fiery speeches recently, but basically he knows speeches won’t do much good. His supporters are disappointed because it has been a long, grim recession, and for most Americans it is still not over.

Obama couldn’t get another economic stimulus bill through Congress at this point even if he thought it was a good idea, so he can’t hurry the recovery all that much.

Some of the people who voted Democratic in 2008 are also very cross because Obama has not brought American troops home from Afghanistan as fast as they hoped, or hasn’t got any legislation about climate change through Congress, but he can’t deliver on those things this year either. All he actually has at his disposal is words, and they won’t be enough to re-motivate disillusioned Democrats.

The Democrats lack all conviction, while the Republican base is filled with passionate intensity. Obama’s approval rating of 44 per cent is not especially low for a U.S. president two years into his first term — Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were considerably lower at this point in their presidencies — but most of his supporters won’t bother to vote in this election, while almost all of his enemies will.

If you really believe that your country has been hijacked by a Muslim Communist who was born in Kenya (or a cannibal troll who was born in Mordor, or whatever), then you will certainly get out and vote. If all of the retired white people vote, and only the usual mid-term proportion of all the other demographics does, then the Democrats will lose both houses of Congress.

So why isn’t Obama more worried about it?

He will certainly regret that so many long-serving Democratic senators and congressmen are going to lose their seats this autumn, but it really does not much matter to him who controls the Congress for the next two years. He can’t hope to get any more legislation even through the current Congress since the Democrats lost their “super-majority” of 60 seats in the Senate last January, so what’s the difference?

Nor does Obama actually have to get more legislation through Congress right now. It would be nice to have a tough climate-change bill, no doubt, but from a political point of view there is no new law that he simply must pass before he faces re-election himself in 2012.

Indeed, he stands a very good chance of winning a second term in 2012, in large part because of what is going to happen this November.

Getting majorities in both houses of Congress will leave the Republicans nowhere to hide on the critical issue of cutting the huge federal deficit. They have already said that they will not raise taxes — even for those earning more than $250,000 a year — and they have pledged not to cut defence spending. What’s left? The only other big-ticket items in the budget are entitlements: health care and pensions.

The United States has not yet gone through the painful debate about how to tame the deficit that has already happened in most European countries, but it will have to do so soon.

That poses a particular problem for Republicans, because if they will not raise taxes on the rich or cut defence spending, then they have to support brutal cuts in health care and pensions or lose all credibility as deficit-cutters.

But cutting entitlements would alienate the Republicans’ own most important demographic: older white people. They will not risk that.

By contrast, the Democrats would not be alienating their own base if they cut defence spending and raise taxes on the rich, so they can be coherent and consistent on the topic. A Republican-controlled Congress may well come to be seen as an obstacle to fiscal responsibility even by many Republicans.

Make the further, quite reasonable assumptions that the U.S. economy will be growing strongly again by 2012, and that U.S. troops will be gone from Iraq and on their way out of Afghanistan, and you have a credible scenario in which the Democrats win back both houses of Congress as well as re-electing Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, Obama can veto any Republican attempt to repeal the legislation he has already got through Congress, and he will retain a free hand in foreign affairs. He could even try to get new legislation on immigration through Congress: it wouldn’t pass, but he could thereby lock up the Latino vote. No wonder he looks calm.

Gwynne Dyer is a freelance Canadian journalist living in London. His new book, Crawling from the Wreckage, is published in Canada by Random House.

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