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US Mid Term Elections 2010 - Democrats Will Keep Congress - But Only Just!

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Contributor:
Chris Ford
Chris Ford

This is the last in a series of articles about three of the most important  global elections in 2010. This covers the US midterm elections scheduled for November 2nd. The other articles were on the British and Australian general elections.

US President Barack Obama will at least breathe a sigh of relief if the Democrats retain both Houses of Congress on November 2nd.

At the moment, despite slipping popularity, the Democrats look likely to retain control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. But on both counts, the margin could be narrow for the Democrats with anywhere between twenty to thirty seats being forecast as possible House losses for that party. Currently, the Democrats hold 257 House seats as against the Republicans 178. In the maximum thirty seat switch seat scenario I have just given (which has been guessed at by many pundits), the House will remain Democrat-controlled but on a slim 227-208 margin.

In the Senate, anywhere between four to six Senate races could go against the Democrats. This might re-tip the current Democrat-Republican balance in that 100 seat chamber from being 59-41 to around 53-47. It might even tie if the number of Democrat losses goes higher than eight.

In any event, the American system means that Obama doesn't have to resign, even if the Republicans were to regain Congress. Under the US system which strongly seperates the three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial) and the number of constitutional checks and balances which ensure that no one branch of government dominates, American presidents of one party have often had to co-habit with Congresses controlled by the other party. For example, former Republican president George W. Bush dealt with a Democrat controlled Congress during his last two years in office from 2006. In fact, almost all American post-war presidents (with the exceptions of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter) have had to effectively share power with the opposing party in this way. It must also be pointed out that almost every president since the 1900s (with the notable exceptions of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 and George W. Bush in 2002) has seen his party lose seats at mid-term elections.

Another aspect is that if even a president's own party retains congressional control, they don't completely get their own way on legislation. The American system means that presidents can propose legislation (which is introduced by a supportive legislator in either chamber) but they can often lose votes as party discipline is much looser than it is in Westminster system parliaments like New Zealand's. Therefore, right-wing Democrats have had a habit of voting against their own party's administrations and they have forged alliances with Republicans to do so in either or both chamber. It is interesting to note, though, that it is unusual, at least in the House, for Republicans to vote with left-leaning Democrats on issues. However, in the Senate, cross-party collaboration has been the order of the day on many issues due to the more consensual-style of that chamber.

How does this situation impact on Obama?

Currently, the president has almost solid support from the congressional wing of his own party on domestic policy. For example, nearly all congressional Democrats voted for Obama's health care and financial reform bills, which were two landmark pieces of legislation. On foreign policy, it has sometimes been a different story with Obama relying almost solely on Republicans (and a few Democrats) to support war funding bills for the Afghanistan War in Congress.

As it stands, Obama looks set not to face the scenario that confronted Bill Clinton post-1994. Having been defeated on health care legislation and facing a number of scandals (mainly Whitewater), Clinton's Democratic Party succumbed to its worst post-war congressional loss that year as the Republicans, under Newt Gingrich, took over the House and Senate. This meant that in order for Clinton to make any political progress, and thus secure his own re-election, he had to swing further to the right.

While Obama looks likely to escape that fate, he will still have to be mindful of a number of issues. The first is the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Obama has laid out an exit strategy from a war that he inherited from his successor, George W. Bush, in what clearly amounts to a Vietnam-style slow cut and run strategy. But in order to do so, he has misguidedly ordered a troop surge into that country (a move which, as a candidate, he criticised Bush for with respect to Iraq). With the war now going badly, he risks becoming another Lyndon B. Johnson-type figure if he doesn't withdraw even sooner (which I think he should do). 

The second is the post-BP spill clean up in the Gulf of Mexico region. This spill impacted on the livelihoods of fishermen, workers and small businesses in the electorally crucial southern states. Obama did well to win states like Florida and Virginia in 2008 and any alienation of southern sentiment (in a region that has become strongly Republican) might leave him vulnerable in 2012.

The third and most crucial issue is the economy. At the moment, both the US and global economies are undergoing a shakey recovery. Obama must be praised for his brave decision to keep running a Keynesian-style fiscal stimulus programme that appears to be delivering something of a halting recovery. While the federal government deficit is now sitting at record levels (US$2 trillion), one has to think as to how the American and global economy might have gone had not the programme been put in place. We might have been pulling ourselves out of, not a recession, but a depression! Over the next congressional term, in the lead up to the presidential contest in 2012, Obama will have to extremely careful about any stimulus withdrawal plan.

Obama, for all his faults, is the most progressive American leader since Lyndon B. Johnson in domestic policy terms. My hope is that enough Americans will elect or re-elect congressional and state Democrats in a way that endorses Obama but yet puts him on notice that he shouldn't completely jettison the progressive agenda. I think it's just too risky to put the GOP (Grand Old Party) back in charge of Congress. I say this as the Republicans appear to be both gaining some strength but are, as yet, hamstrung by divisions in their own party, particularly caused by the rabidly libertarian, Fox News-endorsed Tea Party movement. And they face the prospect of nominating (amongst the leading Republican contenders) Sarah Palin who is merely a more photogenic, female version of Dubya Bush in 2012. Their talent scouts will be hopeful that more 'moderate' Republicans like, for example, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (of Indian descent) might step up to the plate to become the GOP's own Obama that year.

Short of that, Americans are now bracing themselves for the post-September campaign onslaught. While campaigning has been going on for all of this year, it's about to reach fever pitch. And out of all those office seekers, the most important candidate will be one who isn't running, at least not this year - Barack Obama. 

 

 

  

 

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