Obama poised for four more years of limited room for manoeuvre
Obama’s meagre sum of achievements in office and the poor state of the economy was always going to make it difficult for him to run for re-election on his record. His decision to conduct such a relentlessly negative campaign sits uncomfortably, however, with the president’s promise to take his country beyond its political, ethnic and social divisions.
In the speech to the 2004 Democratic convention that launched his national career, Obama denounced “those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes”. Eight years later, the president of hope and change is running an ad in Ohio with the tagline “Mitt Romney. Not one of us”, echoing a slogan that has long been used as a racial code in US politics.
Obama’s negative campaign is not just distasteful, it could also make governing in a second term even more problematic than in the first. All polls suggest that the Republicans will retain control of the House of Representatives, even if they fail to wrest the Senate majority from the Democrats.
Congressional Republicans were unco-operative with Obama from the start but the president must share the blame for his failure to work successfully with them. Bob Woodward’s recent book The Price of Politics catalogues Obama’s miscalculations and insensitivities as he sought to reach a deal with Congress over the federal debt last year.
The two sides avoided a government shutdown by postponing the “fiscal cliff” – a massive reduction in the budget deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax revenues – until the beginning of 2013. If the two sides fail to agree a budget-cutting package, cuts totalling $110 billion a year will be imposed for the next 10 years, evenly divided between defence and non-defence discretionary spending.
Obama is confident that, if he wins next Tuesday, he will be able to agree with Republicans a $4 trillion “Grand Bargain” of spending cuts, tax reforms, changes to entitlement programmes for seniors and tax increases on the wealthiest Americans.
“It will probably be messy,” he told the Des Moines Register last month. “It won’t be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time.”
Given that no congressional Republican has voted for a tax increase for more than 20 years and the strength of the anti-tax Tea Party movement among party activists, it is difficult to share the president’s optimism about the prospects for a deal. If Congress refuses to legislate for an end to George W Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, Obama and his Democratic allies can simply allow them to expire. That would solve most of the budget problem but would almost certainly poison the atmosphere in Washington even further.