Can he still?

A year since being elected, Tom Toulson argues that it's too early to judge Obama's presidency

Last week the Democratic Party lost two high profile gubernatorial elections. In Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell took 59 per cent of the vote beating Creigh Deeds by a margin of 18 per cent. But Deeds ran a weak campaign in which he publicly distanced himself from the President. For the Democrats, the result in New Jersey was much more troubling. The Republican Chris Christie, who won 49 per cent of the vote, narrowly defeated the incumbent governor (and former CEO of Goldman Sachs) Jon Corzine, who received 45 per cent. It had been a bitter campaign; Corzine attacked Christie for his views on abortion and healthcare and for being fat - a tactic that seems to have backfired. President Obama twice visited the state to campaign for Corzine.

"It sends a clear signal that voters have had enough of the president's liberal agenda," said the Republican party chairman Michael Steele. Exit polls showed that in Virginia 24 per cent of those who voted said they had done so to show opposition to the president. Senior Democrats sought to dismiss any suggestion that the results represented a referendum on the President's performance. "These races turned on local and state issues...the results are not predictive of the future or reflective of the national mood," said Democratic party chairman Tim Kaine.

But party rank and file are worried about next year's midterm elections, in which the entire House of Representatives, one third of the Senate and two thirds of all state governorships are up for grabs. They fear that if the recent voting trends continue they will lose control of the House. The polling data suggests they are right to be concerned. The views on the economy were the most striking. 89 per cent of those who responded in New Jersey said they were worried about the direction of the economy; 56 per cent were "very worried" about it. The figures were similar in Virginia (85 per cent and 53 percent). For a year the Democrats have blamed the Bush administration for the budget deficit (currently $1.4 trillion) and unemployment levels (now at 10 per cent). It is their responsibility now. Analogies have been drawn with the Clinton years. In 1994 nearly 60 per cent of voters thought the economy was in bad shape. At the midterms the Republicans went on to gain control of both the Senate and the House for the first time in 42 years.

A comparison with a more recent election is also causing concern. In 2008 Obama won in Virginia (the first democratic candidate to do so since Lyndon Johnson in 1964) thanks to a coalition of young, black and independent voters, brought together by his personal magnetism. Now there are fears that the coalition is breaking up: the magic fading. In both Virginia and New Jersey the majority of independents went Republican: 66 per cent voted for McDonnell and 60 per cent for Christie. Meanwhile, the young stayed at home. In both states around 10 per cent of those who voted were under 30. The figures in the 2008 election were 21 per cent in Virginia and 17 per cent in New Jersey. Obama went to New Jersey and urged them to vote and they ignored him.

But these numbers do not tell the whole story. There are several reasons why the Democrats should not be too downcast. First, the President is not unpopular. 57 per cent of voters in New Jersey approved of his performance so far as President, 48 per cent in Virginia. Nationally his ratings are around 52 per cent. Throughout his last year in office George W. Bush's ratings rarely touched 30 per cent. The Democratic argument that the elections where determined by local campaign issues is not an empty excuse. Secondly, history shows that disappointing results in these "off-years" have little bearing on mid-term elections. In 2001 - after the first year of George W. Bush's presidency, the Republicans lost governorships in New Jersey and Virginia but went on to make gains in both the House and the Senate.

But the best news for Democrats is that the Republicans have their own problems. They too suffered a disappointing defeat in a one-off election to fill a congressional vacancy in the 23rd district of New York. The local party originally nominated Dede Scozzafava, a moderate who supports legalised abortion and same-sex marriage. Her views were strongly criticised by senior party figures, including Sarah Palin, who instead backed local Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. Scozzafava withdrew and placed her support behind Democrat Bill Owens, who went on to win a seat which had previously been held by the Republicans for 16 years. This enabled the Democrats to claim that the Republican party is divided and will struggle to appeal to moderate voters.

The different views on what the results mean for the Democrats form part of a wider debate on the Obama presidency. After a year in office, critics suggest the administration is losing momentum. The difficulties it faces over Afghanistan and healthcare reform have forced other issues, such as a climate change bill, immigration and the closure of Guantanamo further down the agenda. As Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times, the President's opponents are trying to cast him as "Obama the false Messiah; Obama, the president who apologises for America; Obama, the man who is more loved abroad than at home; Obama, the man who never gets anything done; Obama the hesitant; Obama the weak."

Even some of his supporters sound slightly disappointed that more progress hasn't been made on certain issues. Eugene Robinson, of the Washington Post has written,

"Like many people who desperately want to see the country take a more progressive course, I quibble and quarrel with some of President Obama's actions. I wish he'd been tougher on Wall street, quicker to close Guantanamo, bolder in seeking universal health care... but he's a president, not a Hollywood action hero."

The debate over Obama's record is a hollow one. It is obviously far too soon to form a meaningful judgement on his presidency. Neither his achievements nor his failures amount to much - yet. As Larry Sabato has written,

"What history really teaches about presidential first years is not to take them too seriously. In the first year, no one forsaw how Vietnam would doom Lyndon Johnson, Watergate would unhorse Richard Nixon nor how Iran would cut Carter's White House stay short. And after 12 months of Bill Clinton, you couldn't find an analyst who thought he'd get reelected, much less achieve anything."

Much will depend on what happens to healthcare. In this area he has already achieved more than the Clinton administration, whose bill never left the committee stage. If he succeeds in passing a bill it will be a major achievement. And yet it may count for little at the next Presidential election if the war in Afghanistan continues to worsen.

The President's biggest challenges

Healthcare

The Obama administration has pledged to introduce a healthcare reform bill by the end of the year. At present there is no universal system of healthcare coverage in the US. Most people obtain private health insurance through their employers. The state runs its own scheme for the over 65s (Medicare); low income families and people with certain disabilities (Medicaid); children of middle income parents who don't qualify for Medicaid (S-Chip) and for veterans of the armed forces. Under these schemes the medical treatment is provided in private hospitals but the bill is paid for by the state. The US Census Bureau estimates that 46 million people (out of a total population of 300 million) have no form of coverage. These figures are disputed - they include illegal immigrants as well as a significant number of people who could obtain private or state insurance but choose not to. The cost of premiums has doubled in the last nine years and now most coverage plans do not cover the full cost of treatment. Patients with insurance will also end up paying part of the fee called the "deductible". These too have risen in recent years. Insurance companies have been criticised for certain commercial practices which include raising premiums once medical conditions have been diagnosed. The state run schemes have also become increasingly expensive. In total the US spent $2.2 trillion (£1.34 trillion) on healthcare in 2007: 16.2 per cent of its GDP or twice the average of that of the other OECD countries.

On September 9th the President outlined his proposals for reform in an address to both the House and the Senate. These have three main aims: to curb spending on healthcare, regulate the cost of insurance and ensure universal coverage.

All citizens would be required to obtain insurance or face a fine. Those on low incomes would be eligible for state subsidies to help them pay. Insurance companies would no longer be allowed to refuse coverage to people because they have fallen ill. A system of health insurance exchanges would also be set up, where those who cannot obtain insurance through their employer could compare different options.

In addition, the President also favours the creation of a government-run insurance scheme which would be offered to those who are eligible for the exchanges. This is the so called "public option". The theory is that it would increase competition and keep premium costs low. It is opposed by Republicans who argue it would increase the burden on the state and distort the market (the government could afford to offer lower premiums because it can borrow cheaply by issuing bonds) which could drive some insurance companies out of business.

In total the plans are expected to cost $900 billion. The administration says most of this would come through cutting waste from Medicare and taxing insurance companies who offer special plans to the super rich (again, opposed by the Republicans).

Committees of both the House and the Senate have spent months drawing up and combining different bills. Last Saturday the House finally passed a bill which included a public option by 220 votes to 215 (one Republican voted in favour and 39 Democrats against).

In the Senate the process is further behind. Last month the Senate finance committee approved a bill which did not include a public option. However Senate majority leader Harry Reid has since said that this might be reintroduced (with an option for states to opt out) to the final bill which will go to the Senate floor for a vote. Reid believes the Democrats are close to securing the 60 votes they need to pass the bill. When asked whether the President's proposed deadline of the end of the year would be met, Reid recently said "we're not going to be bound by any timelines". His office have since backtracked on these comments saying the Senator shares the President's target of the end of the year. It seems increasingly unlikely that this will be met.

If the Senate follows the House in passing legislation then both bills will go to a conference committee (made up of members from both chambers), who will reconcile the two. The final bill must then be voted on by both the House and the Senate before going to the White House for the President's signature.

Afghanistan

105,000 troops from 42 countries are currently deployed in Afghanistan, of which 67,000 are American. October was the bloodiest month of the conflict so far - 45 US service personnel were killed. On October 9 the top US military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, recommended that 40,000 more troops be sent to Afghanistan. Since then the President has been considering his options. First the decision was put off until after the Afghan presidential election. It was hoped those elections would produce a national leader with a democratic mandate. But the first round of voting, won by President Hamid Karzai, was declared invalid by the UN Electoral Complaints Commission on account of widespread fraud. Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the only challenger to the incumbent Mr Karzai withdrew from the second round earlier this month. NATO allies decided not to risk troops by staging a second round when there was only one name on the ballot paper. The President is thought to be considering two options. The first, concentrating on "counter-terrorism", would involve the scaling down of troops and a focus on special operations against al-Qaida targets. The alternative "counter-insurgency" approach recommended by General McChrystal would see a larger troop presence in population centres. The former Vice-President, Dick Cheney, has publicly accused the Obama administration of dithering. Opponents of the war draw parallels with Vietnam where the US lost almost 60,000 lives (so far in Afghanistan they have lost 797). The President is expected to announce his decision by the Thanksgiving holiday on November 26. "My concern is that we get, say, a 20,000 troop increase but with instructions to General McChrystal to achieve results on an unrealistic timetable," says retired air force general and former Pentagon advisor, Bobby Wilkes.

Guantanamo

The President has signed an executive order to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay by January 22. The facility currently holds 220 prisoners. Some will be tried in US federal courts, some by military tribunals, others will be repatriated. There are difficulties in two main areas - where to send detainees who cannot return to their homelands and what to do with those deemed too dangerous to release, but against whom there is not enough evidence to prosecute. The President has pledged that no potentially dangerous terror suspects will be released into the US. A system of indefinite detention is under consideration but would face legal challenge.

Climate Change

From December 7 representatives from 192 countries will meet in Copenhagen for the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to agree measures for tackling climate change. It's hoped a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, which placed binding targets on member countries, will be agreed. There are strong disagreements between developing and developed countries over what their relative emission targets should be. Developing nations also want a financial package to help fund the cost of building climate adaptation infrastructure. The last round of pre-conference talks collapsed without agreement in Barcelona last week. Then last weekend, at a meeting in St. Andrews, finance ministers from the group of 20 countries (G20) failed to agree a target for a financial package. The US was a signatory to Kyoto but the Senate refused to ratify the treaty meaning it had no legal force. During his electoral campaign Obama proposed that the US cut its carbon emissions by 14 per cent from 2005 levels. The House has passed a bill which includes a 17 per cent reduction target. In the Senate, former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has proposed a bill which would see a 20 per cent reduction. Both bills include a cap-and-trade system. The Senate is unlikely to vote before the end of the year. However, US negotiators in Barcelona indicated that the Obama administration was unwilling to agree to a reduction in targets in Copenhagen without domestic legislation already in place.

Iran

In a speech in January President Obama said "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us." However on September 25 he announced that Iran had built a secret uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom. A UN Security Council resolution prohibits Iran from any enrichment activity. On October 25 the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited the site. Iran is considering an offer which would see the low-grade uranium which they have already stockpiled exported to Russia and France where it would be converted into energy rods and returned to Iran. President Obama said the Iranian position would have to be reassessed by the end of the year, the implication being that further sanctions (possibly of petroleum exports to Iran) would be considered if the offer is refused.

Comments