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Lost in the middle

After his mid-term electoral defeat, Barack Obama may need to build bridges with the Republicans. India could be one of his starting points, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 16:49 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Despite his mid-term election setback, President Barack Obama is only down, but not out. The nature of his domestic political response, however, will determine the character of the remaining two years of his term. That, in turn, will colour how his foreign policy will unfold. During a recession, and with an administration whose horizon has been defined by Lake Michigan, expect all policy to be local.

No one can deny that the US mid-term results were in large part a referendum on Obama — a third of voters said as much to pollsters. The constituencies who bought his dreams two years ago stayed home. But when CNN this week asked US voters who they would vote for in 2012, he still beat Sarah Palin hollow. Mind you, he trailed former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney by 15 points.

As important: the Republicans aren’t popular either. Their disapproval ratings match those of Obama. The Tea Party movement may energise the rightwing base but it’s also reminding everyone how loony conservative subcultures can be. The Democrats are in trouble, but not irreversibly so. And Obama is still a contender.

The Obama administration has no middle. It has a brilliant and inspiring head. It gets a fair amount done. Just by getting healthcare reform, a topic that has been bandied around for a century in Washington, let alone a new financial regulatory system and repeated economic stimuli through the Congress shows it can get things done.

But in-between the administration falls apart. According to an Obama campaign aide, the president developed a style in his Chicago days of having an inner circle of a half-dozen confidantes and then outsourcing everything to them. This worked at the local political level, it doesn’t work when running the sole superpower.

Thus a landmark healthcare legislation was left to underlings and congressional aides. Almost unsupervised, they wrote a bill full of bizarre oddities promptly picked up and publicised by the Republicans. Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s War, reveals an administration startlingly weak on staff strength. The impression is of a bunch of small-town politicos suddenly dropped into the cockpit of global power.

Wrote William Galston, presidential analyst at the Brookings Institute in Washington, in an analysis of the second year of the Obama presidency, “It featured soaring rhetoric about hope and change at one extreme and a long series of detailed policy proposals at the other. But there was something missing in between: a compelling, easily grasped narrative that offered a theory about our challenges and unified his recommendations for addressing them.”

Amazingly, one of the most gifted political orators in recent memory has a communications problem. As Obama admitted recently about his administration’s errors: “We probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right.”

As a consequence, Obama has lost out on another middle. Democratic mid-term victories were largely concentrated on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Exit polls show that working class white voters turned against Democrats, ironically the party of organised labour, with unusual ferocity. In many interior states, as many as 60% of this key voting bloc went for the Republican candidate. If a congressional district had lots of whites who didn’t go to college, it went rightwing. As US political analyst Ronald Brownstein has argued that Obama swept to power because he won over huge chunks of votes from minorities, from educated whites and youth in general. These groups are important in an election, but as pollsters from both right and left are now warning, this coalition is not enough to secure a presidency.

Working class American whites are a tricky fish to land. His or her economic interests are social democratic. But their value systems are conservative and rightwing. They voted for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, but they also voted for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

Obama lost middle America in the mid-term. The huge stretch of land between the coasts and the central bit of the country’s sociological profile. Now he has to get the rednecks back, at least some of them. Which is why one should expect more attacks on outsourcing — just hopefully more about Chinese manufacturing losses rather than Indian service gains. The Republicans will be reluctant to go down that line, so the Democrats can be expected to do so. And which is why when President Obama ties his shoelaces, he will say he is doing it to get more jobs for Americans. It’s the working class that is fretting the most about this.

To win the middle back and put some centrality in his administration will be Obama’s goal in the next two years. How will he do it is the big question.

He could tack left. Some Democratic hardliners say the president let down his liberal-left supporters by compromising too much. He should have withdrawn from Afghanistan, he should have made healthcare much more state sector-driven. This seems a recipe for political suicide: only a fifth of Americans define themselves as “liberal”. Obama, in an interview at a time he could see mid-term defeat coming, admitted he let himself look too much like “the same old tax-and-spend liberal Democrat.”

He could tack right. This was the Bill Clinton formula after his first and disastrous mid-term result. The question is whether Obama will find the Republicans, who scent blood, receptive to doing anything with him. One area he could build a bipartisan bridge could be India, especially after Republican elder John McCain on Friday called on him to push that relationship forward. But that would mean compromising on outsourcing and an Afghanistan troop withdrawal — which may be too much for his own party to swallow.