Obama poised for four more years of limited room for manoeuvre


OPINION:A re-elected Obama would enjoy about 18 months before entering his lame duck phase

THE NATIONAL polls may still point to a dead heat but there is a hardening conviction in Washington, among both Democrats and Republicans, that Barack Obama is heading for a narrow victory over Mitt Romney next Tuesday.

Even before Hurricane Sandy descended like a black swan over the campaign, the momentum Romney enjoyed since the first presidential debate last month had begun to stall and the president has retained a small but stubborn lead in a number of key swing states, notably Ohio. The hurricane allowed Obama to play every president’s most attractive role, that of father to the nation, while it subjected his challenger to an effective media blackout.

The storm also undermined Romney’s most effective closing argument, that the president had shown himself incapable of working across party lines whereas he, as a former Republican governor of the overwhelmingly Democratic state of Massachusetts, had a proven record of bipartisanship.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a long-standing Republican critic of Obama, this week became his booster-in-chief, praising his “outstanding” response to the storm as the two men made a joint visit to some of the communities worst affected.

Obama’s ecumenical credentials received a further fillip on Thursday when Republican- turned-Independent New York mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed him. One of the canniest and most cautious politicians in the US, Bloomberg declined to back either candidate in 2008 and spent much of the current campaign criticising both Obama and Romney. His decision to back the president, however lukewarm its tone, would have been unthinkable unless the mayor was convinced that Obama was going to win.

An Obama victory would come despite a disappointing first term and an uninspiring re-election campaign that included the most catastrophic presidential debate performance since Richard Nixon’s first televised encounter with John F Kennedy in 1960.

Nixon’s sweaty, unhealthy pallor owed much to the fact that he had just spent two weeks in hospital and was running a fever. Obama had no such excuse for his flaccid, disengaged appearance in Denver, where he allowed Romney to reposition himself as a moderate pragmatist, as opposed to the self-styled “severely conservative” candidate who contested the Republican primaries.

The race tightened everywhere but the impact of Romney’s reinvention was more muted in the seven battleground states of Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Iowa, New Hampshire, Colorado and North Carolina.

For months, the Obama campaign had spent vast sums in these states on negative advertising aimed at defining Romney as, in the words of former Republican Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, “a wealthy plutocrat married to a known equestrian”.

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.

Obama would begin a second term not having to worry about re-election, which in theory should allow him to be bolder than during his first term. A narrow victory over Romney and an enduring Republican majority in the House could, however, limit the president’s room for manoeuvre so that any deal he strikes with Congress is more likely to be on Republican than on Democratic terms.

A re-elected Obama will enjoy a window of about 18 months of undiminished authority before his presidency enters its lame duck phase and political allies and opponents alike start looking to his possible successors.

The president, who once famously compared himself to basketball star LeBron James, is not only one of the most confident but also one of the most intellectually gifted and eloquent men ever to occupy the White House. Unfortunately, as former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan noted in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, his confidence has shown itself to be more of a hindrance than a help to his ambitions in government.

“Because he had so much confidence, he thought whatever he did would work. He thought he had ‘a gift’, as he is said to have told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He thought he had a special ability to sway the American people, or so he suggested to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor,” she wrote.

“But whenever he went over the the heads of the media and Congress and went to the people, in prime-time addresses, it didn’t really work. He did not have a magical ability to sway. And – oddly – he didn’t seem to notice. It is one thing to think you’re LeBron. Its another thing to keep missing the basket and losing games and still think you’re LeBron.”

Denis Staunton is Deputy Editor

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