News Comment

Thursday 18 September 2014

Robert Schmuhl: Obama to preside over an America more divided than ever

Published 09/11/2012 | 18:14

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Barack Obama

ALTHOUGH this week’s American elections resulted in a continuity of the status quo in the White House and Congress, the vote totals and exit polls reveal a stark political landscape of deepening division in the US.

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Geographically, demographically, economically and in other ways, the electorate sorted itself out by forming camps of defined allegiances. Political partisanship on this side of the Atlantic is becoming increasingly tribal.

According to responses on the exit surveys, voters under 40 decidedly favoured Barack Obama, with older citizens strongly going for Mitt Romney. While Obama captured non-white categories (among African-American 93pc to 6pc and with Hispanics 71pc to 27pc), Romney took the white vote 59pc to 39pc. People with incomes under $50,000 preferred Obama 60pc to 38pc, while those earning more than $100,000 chose Romney 54pc to 44pc.

Such numbers offer broader lessons and also provoke questions for the future. If strength comes from numbers, groups sharing specific characteristics will plant themselves more firmly in a particular party and try to exert greater influence.

This means Obama and Congressional leaders will need to navigate treacherous rapids created by all these divisions vis-à-vis government spending, taxation, entitlement reform and everything else. With Tuesday’s reinforcement of political polarisation as well as divided government, charges of deadlock and dysfunction could become close to deafening, as the “fiscal cliff” and other perils loom more clearly into focus.

How Obama handles the presidency during his second term will be critical in dealing with the domestic nation-building he advocated in his re-election campaign. Put more pointedly, which Obama will Washington - and the world - see in the months to come?

Near the end of his victory speech early on Wednesday, he said “. . . we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We’re not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.”

Noble sentiments to be sure, but is it wishful thinking and can his approach to governance in the next four years measure up to this rhetoric? To a certain extent, it seems back to the future. Four years ago, he gained appeal and, ultimately, won the White House emphasising virtues of bi-partisanship and working together.

Now, with no more campaigns of his own to mount, Obama is at liberty to become the leader he’s previously defined but had difficulty being. Since the debt-ceiling imbroglio during the summer of 2011, vividly chronicled in Bob Woodward’s recent book, The Price of Politics, Washington insiders have groused that the president hasn’t worked diligently enough to cultivate personal relationships essential to resolving thorny problems between the branches of government.

Will a second term and the desire to log more accomplishments for a lasting historical legacy concentrate Obama’s mind, leading him to adjust how he transacts public business? Viewed from another perspective, can Congressional Republicans, especially those in the decidedly conservative House of Representatives, meet the president on political terrain resembling common ground to do more than patch together short-term remedies for festering problems?

Recent American history is replete with second-term crises for the nation’s chief executive. Richard Nixon resigned during his sixth year in the White House following the Watergate revelations. Ronald Reagan endured sulphurous criticism dealing with the Iran-contra affair in his second term, and Bill Clinton suffered the tribulations of impeachment after his re-election in 1996.

As sensitive as Obama was to the political winds buffeting him this campaign season, maybe he can escape the traps and snares that upended his predecessors. One fact, though, is certain.

From the moment he declared victory this week, he - and others - are counting down the days before he leaves the White House. Lame duck status for the executive occurs at the same time members of Congress scheme and manoeuvre for their next elections. Plotting House or Senate survival can dictate action, which might not conform to what a departure-definite president prefers.

Moreover, Obama retained the reins of power, even though almost two-thirds of the public would like him to pursue other objectives and approaches. A recent Wall Street Journal/ NBC News poll reported 62pc holding the opinion “the president should make major changes in a second term.”

The principal implication of this finding is that Americans want the next four years to be different from the first term. To a degree, Tuesday’s popular vote, close as it was, symbolised both support for continuity and a desire for change.

Barack Obama’s second inauguration this coming January will seem light years removed from his first one four years ago. The romance of unreasonable expectations lasted but a few months before the laws of political gravity exerted themselves and brought the president, along with the citizenry, back to rocky earth.

What now abides for him and the America people is the sobering reality of sharp-edged divisions—and the urgent need to try to find ways to bridge them.

* Robert Schmuhl is Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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