Obama Called for Change:
Now Voters Call for Obama to Change
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
November 4, 2010
Two years ago, Barack Obama called for "change," and was elected president. He swept both the Senate and the House, achieving a majority in both. Two years later, a majority of voters in the US said "No!" to Obama and the changes he wrought. The Republicans swept the House during the midterm elections, achieving a majority. It gained 60 seats. They also gained six seats in the Senate, where the Democrats now hold a mere one seat majority. In the gubernatorial elections, the Republicans took at least ten states from the Democrats.
Two years ago Obama was elected under highly favorable circumstances. The Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress. But because Obama wielded a parliamentary majority in Congress, he was too rash while promoting his bills. White House and Democratic congressional leaders refused to compromise on anything -- from health care reform, to economic stimulus programs, to bank reform. Their legislative record was outstanding. But they left the public with the impression they were arrogant.
Obama's governing team also showed signs of disintegration. Cabinet leaders engaged in backstabbing. Many senior White House aides resigned just before the midterm elections, revealing a "rats deserting a sinking ship" mindset. Six months before the election Obama already detected an increase in public dissatisfaction. He even brought back David Plouffe, his 2008 presidential campaign advisor. But the tide had already turned.
The focus of attention this time was undeniably the Tea Party. It failed to receive as many votes as anticipated. Several high-profile candidates, including Christina O'Donnell and Sharon Angle, failed to win. But at least three state senators and a large number of Tea Party congressmen were elected. The Tea Party stressed spending cuts and small government. Overnight it went from a political movement to a political party. It is now entering Congress. Will it form a separate political caucus? Or is it gradually learning the rules of the power game, and about to be co-opted by the establishment? The answer remains to be seen.
The midterm election defeat will seriously constrain the Obama administration over the next two years. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has left office, to be replaced by Republican Majority Leader John Boehner. Every House committee will be chaired by a Republican. The congressional agenda and legislative review process will be controlled by the opposition GOP. As a result no one party will be able to pass legislation. In the House, the Republican majority will surely pass legislation disliked by Obama. In the Senate, the Republicans will find it easier to block legislation they do not like. Of course the White House can veto bills sent to it by Congress. But the end result is likely to be a refusal to compromise by either side. This will lead to congressional deadlock and administrative paralysis. This has happened before. During the 1992 midterm elections, Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to a stunning victory and a showdown with President Clinton and the Democratic Party. Even the federal budgets could not be passed. This led to a shutdown of the federal government.
This would not necessarily be bad for Obama. In fact, the Republicans know that if the government were shut down, they would not escape censure. In the end, they would have to share responsibility. Eventually Clinton reached a compromise with the Republicans. As a result Clinton successfully won re-election in 1996, and the Republicans retained their legislative majority. With a little give and take, the two sides each got what they wanted.
On the foreign policy front, diplomacy has seldom been an issue during midterm elections. But people outside the US were surprised to hear Republicans and the Tea Party blast Obama as unpatriotic. As Sarah Palin put it, Obama “doesn’t appear to believe that America is the greatest earthly force for good the world has ever known.” These critics of Obama believe the US is the most powerful, most moral nation on earth. They cannot accept other nations rising up to challenge the US. They believe therefore that the legal norms of other nations should not constrain the US. It was precisely this blind ideology that allowed Bush II to launch his invasion of Iraq. The prospect of Obama losing his bid for re-election two years is unimaginable to the rest of the world. The prospect of people who think this way returning to power is inconceivable.
The international community held high expectations of Obama. But two years have passed, and he has achieved little. The Middle East peace talks are stalled, again. The Iran and North Korea nuclear talks are stalled, again. No agreement has been reached on the Environmental Summit in Copenhagen. The US has suffered defeat after defeat on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Even relations with Beijing have regressed. Obama cannot rely on "I'm not Bush" alone to change the impression the world has of the US, The world's problems remain. In the two years that Obama has left, he must find a way to win the world's respect.
Three weeks from now, five cities on Taiwan will hold municipal elections. Conditions in the US may be different. But the midterm elections in the US offer a number of lessons for Taiwan. First, a midterm election is a vote of confidence in the government. This is true for the US. This will also be true for the five cities elections on Taiwan. If the opposition party receives the endorsement of the public, those in power must heed the warning. But if the ruling party candidate receives the endorsement of the public, the opposition party should also ask itself whether its ideas are outdated.
Secondly, midterm elections usually involve change. Mature and independent voters may change the way they vote. This was true in 1994 with Clinton. This was true when Reagan took over in 1982. Both presidents suffered midterm election defeats. But both were re-elected. Anyone who proclaims that the political climate has changed, may find two years later, that they were overly optimistic.
Finally, the results of the midterm election will be known by midnight on election day. That will mark the official beginning of the 2012 US presidential election. Certain candidates will emerge in the coming two years. Others will be eliminated. Political competition is cruel. There will be even less time following the five cities elections on Taiwan. Only one year and three months. The results of the five cities elections and the presidential election will be even more closely bound together.