Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Obama must play chicken or become a lame duck
The Times - September 6th 2010

If you had been asked on inauguration day in 2009 to define what might count as “success” for Barack Obama nearly two years later, what would you have said? Many would have reckoned that President Obama would be doing well if by now he could have achieved major reforms of health care and financial regulation, if he had carried out his campaign promise to withdraw combat troops from Iraq, and if America had avoided an economic depression. All those have happened. And, as today’s Labour Day public holiday signals the traditional resumption of American political in-fighting, he is entering his second autumn in the White House looking like a failure.

            Perhaps he even is one. To have arrived in office with an extraordinary groundswell of support and goodwill, both at home and around the world, but then just two years later to be fighting to avert a debacle for your Democratic party in the mid-term Congressional elections in November is quite an achievement.

A man widely praised for his great oratorical gifts, credited with creating dreams and inspiring billions, now looks remote from popular concerns, too professorial and too divisive. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said famously in 2008 that “no crisis should go to waste”, meaning that the sense of urgency should be used to bring in radical changes such as health-care reform. Right now, that looks exactly wrong: the effort to secure health-care distracted the administration from dealing with the crisis itself—or at least has ensured that it gets credit for neither.

If today’s opinion polls are to be believed, then in two months’ time President Obama’s party will lose control of the House of Representatives and possibly the Senate too, as well as a raft of state governorships. The presidential race for 2012 will get started in 2011 much more vigorously than would previously have been expected, with more Republican candidates tempted by the thought that there is, after all, a chance to beat America’s first black president, and with speculation inevitably growing that a prominent Democrat might even run against him too.

            You can argue that there is less to President Obama’s predicament than meets the eye. Divided government is an American tradition—voters have generally preferred to have different parties controlling Congress and the White House, in order to avoid extremism and encourage compromise. So to that extent, the past two years with the Democrats running everything have been the anomaly. Bill Clinton suffered a heavy Congressional defeat in 1994, but was still re-elected for a second term in 1996. He even secured his main legislative achievement, welfare reform, after that mid-term defeat.

            In theory, President Obama could do the same, learning the art of compromise and bipartisanship. In practice, two big things are different from the mid-1990s. The American economy then was growing lustily, while now unemployment is 9.6% of the workforce and the talk is of slow growth or a second recession which would surely blight his re-election chances in 2012. Secondly, politics has become more hyper-partisan, with the Republican moderates running too scared of their own extremists, in Tea Parties and the like, to want to compromise. And one could add a third, not-small difference, that unlike in 1994-96 America is fighting a pretty full-scale war, in Afghanistan. Paralysis looks the likeliest outcome.

            It is a bleak picture, not just for President Obama’s supporters but also for anyone hoping that America will be a force for progress in the world during the next two years. Two questions arise: first, what might President Obama do to try to avert electoral disaster? Second, what should he do with the next two years, if the predictions come true?

            The answer to the first question will emerge within the next few days and weeks. Slightly better jobs numbers in August, and some encouragement from the manufacturing sector, may avert (or postpone) panic about double-dipping. But President Obama will certainly announce some sort of initiative to appear to be boosting economic growth and creating jobs. Given the huge budget deficit, the initiative will be fairly phoney. So the temptation is rising to lash out at foreigners instead, through some sort of protectionist attack on Chinese imports.

            Two years ago this month, President Obama slapped a special tariff on tyres imported from China, a measure which the American tyre industry and trade unions now claim was successful, boosting their production and jobs. Never mind whether it raised prices for American consumers, diverting their spending from other things. So it is a fair bet that the White House is hunting for another Chinese target, especially given the failure of the Chinese currency to have risen in value against the dollar in recent months. Stand by for the whiff of trade-war grapeshot.

            To some extent, the period after an election defeat will look rather like a presidential second term come early: unable to get domestic legislation through Congress, the White House will become uncommonly interested in foreign affairs. World tours and peace-making photos on the Rose Lawn will hog the front pages. Knowing that Afghanistan is full of booby-traps, Europe and East Asia will come to seem remarkably interesting, all of a sudden.

            Along with the legislative paralysis, however, will come a game of political chicken: Democrats and Republicans will be battling to ensure that the other side gets blamed for everything bad that happens. Essentially, that means for recession, or budget cuts, or both.

            The best strategy for President Obama will be to try to force his Republican opponents into a corner, by focusing the political debate on the budget deficit. Republicans, and particularly their Tea Party extreme wing, claim government is too big and taxes are too high. Out of office, they don’t have to face up to the trade-offs that have to be made in fiscal policy, over what to cut and how to raise enough revenue to reduce the deficit. So the White House’s task will be to make sure that, as the majority party in the House and possibly also the Senate, they get confronted by nasty trade-offs as often as possible, and are held responsible by the electorate for whatever pain has to be inflicted.

            The Republicans, of course, will know full well that that is the Democrat strategy. Postponement and even more protectionism are thus just as likely outcomes. A surprise foreign-policy success could, naturally, change this bleak picture and reinvigorate the Obama presidency. But what? Well, we can but hope. Like President Obama himself.


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