Stuck in the middle?

Oliver Grant surveys America and its president at election time

Oliver Grant surveys America and its president at election time.

What happened in the midterms?

Last week's US midterm election results were a significant setback for Barack Obama's presidency. The Democrat Party lost control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans, and only narrowly held on to their majority in the Senate, where they experienced embarrassing defeats in Pennsylvania and Obama's home state of Illinois. At a hastily arranged post-election press conference at the White House, a downcast Obama candidly admitted that his Democrats had taken a "shellacking", in American sporting slang, a good beating.

The election represented an important breakthrough for the Tea Party Movement. Tea Party endorsed Republicans made significant Senate gains in Florida, Wisconsin and Kentucky. Rand Paul, who won the Kentucky Senate seat for the Tea Party, triumphantly claimed that a "tea party tidal wave is sending a message to Congress." However, the night was not an unalloyed success for the movement as high profile candidates such as Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle failed to gain office in Delaware and Nevada respectively.

It's the economy, stupid

The state of the US economy has been one of the most significant election issues. In a Gallup poll conducted in October, six out of ten Americans said that the economy was their top concern. Despite America leaving recession in spring 2009, growth rates have remained sluggish and unemployment has hovered just shy of 10 per cent. Ed Rendell, the outgoing Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, commented that the US "faced the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression" and "whenever that has happened, the party in power gets clobbered." Although Obama was not the architect of America's economic ills, it seems that the electorate has been unconvinced by his efforts to resolve them. Opinion polls have shown waning support for Obama's latest $787 billion stimulus package, and Obama readily admitted last week that "people were frustrated with pace of economic recovery".

Another key issue in the run up to the election was Obama's healthcare reforms. The reforms have proved very divisive in America, splitting people roughly 50/50. It seems that many Americans do not believe that healthcare was the most pressing issue for their government. Ed Burke, a prominent Democrat activist in Chicago, commented that "although many people agree it should be available, they want jobs before healthcare".

War weariness seems to have also cost Obama votes. The President associated himself with the conflict in Afghanistan when he agreed to send an additional 30,000 troops there in December. Despite these extra resources, US casualties have increased, and the country has remained unstable.

Testing times

The Democrats' loss of the House of Representatives will make it more difficult for Obama to pursue his agenda. Without control of the Lower House he will need to make deals with the Republicans to ensure legislation is passed, which is likely to lead to bills being watered down or being blocked entirely. Many already see the latter as the most likely, a political commentator from the US think-tank Politico wrote: "Once each side starts talking details and the political lines harden, it becomes tough to see how any serious legislating can be done over the next two years".

If this does turn out to be the case, it could be bad news for the global economy. The Curious Capitalist, a prominent American economics blogger, recently commented that "a divided Washington probably means that not much will get done to aid the stalling US recovery. Forget about a second stimulus. We're more likely to see extra pressure on Obama to cut spending. And that's not good for growth."

The election results have also left commentators asking what will become of the Tea Party movement. It seems to be alienating more moderate Republicans. Its losses in some critical swing states led prominent moderate Republicans such as Trent Lott to claim the party could have won control of the Senate "but did not nominate its best candidates". Dr Goldman also warns that: "the secret of American politics over the last 200 years has been to find the centre, to hold to it and dominate it" and that "many voters that will be concerned about a Party being taken over by one of its extreme wings."

But what do the results mean for Obama? The midterms are traditionally seen as a litmus test for a presidency and things clearly did not go well for him. However, history may provide some solace. Dr Lawrence Goldman, Fellow of Modern History at the University of Oxford told The Gateway: "Reagan took a pasting in '82, Clinton took a pasting in '94, and yet they both stormed back and won re-election two years later." Only time will tell whether Obama can repeat the same feat.

What are midterms?

In America, the President is elected every four years and, half-way through his term in office, elections for a large number of seats in Congress are held, known as midterms. Congress, like the British parliament, is made up of two houses - the Senate and the House of Representatives. But in America, both houses are elected.

This November, all 435 members of the House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 strong Senate faced the public vote. To pass legislation the President, like the PM in the UK, must secure the assent of both houses. The key difference is that in the American system, the President can be from a different party to the one that has a majority in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

What is the Tea Party movement?

The Tea Party is a grassroots conservative political movement that has grown organically over the last two years and counts Sarah Palin among its key advocates. The movement grew in opposition to Obama's stimulus package and proposed health care reforms, and argues that federal government spending and taxation must be reined in. Their fiscal conservatism is not merely a product of pragmatism in the face of a hefty budget deficit: it also has an ideological element. The Tea Party movement harks back to a long tradition in American politics which views big government as anathema to individual freedom. It is not a political party as such, but in some states it endorsed candidates who won nominations to run for the Republican Party. This was often not welcomed by the more moderate Republican Party establishment.

The name Tea Party Movement is a reference to an iconic anti-taxation rebellion against the British - the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

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