What mandate?

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What mandate?

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Obama’s second term won’t be easy

How will he play his cards? (photo: Obama 2012)

The hoariest cliché in Japan is that, “in politics, an inch ahead is darkness.” It is not quite that bleak for Barack Obama, having won election to a second term by a pretty comfortable margin, but it is still at best murky. That is less because of the proximate issues on his plate—the “fiscal cliff,” a still sluggish economy, the Middle East in turmoil, generals caught with pants down—and more a reflection of the political and cultural climate in which he must operate. The cold fact is that the 44th president is far from master of all he surveys.

That is why there is far too much loose talk about second term mandates. The last four re-elected presidents all fell foul of extraneous events: Richard Nixon was tripped up by Watergate, Ronald Reagan by Iran-Contra, Bill Clinton by Monica Lewinsky, George W Bush by an unending and unpaid for war in Iraq. Reagan got lucky in his second four years because the Soviet empire began falling apart under its own weight, and Clinton benefited from the economy going gangbusters, but W left office as unpopular as any president—and everyone knows what happened to Tricky Dick. All these governed in less polarised times than today.

In many respects, Barack Obama, leaving aside the colour of his skin, does not conform to presidential stereotype. For a start, the suspicion persists that he does not much like the practice of politics. He does not glad-hand, arm-twist, horse-trade or even schmooze. His most recent biographer, David Maraniss, believes that he is more an anthropologist than a quintessential politician, the observer as president if you will, understanding much but somehow disengaged, sometimes even from himself. Harry Truman once said that, “if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Obama has a Portuguese water variety, plus his family and the old mates with whom he plays basketball, which makes him pretty self-contained.

This is both a strength, because it allows a rational mind to work, and a weakness, because much around him is irrational. He may take pleasure from the eclectic, drawing ideas from left, right and centre, but most of his friends and foes have more concrete and driven agendas. Many of those who twice voted for him say they do not really know what he stands for, or even against. At his best, which is not always, he is a superb public speaker but the hectoring presidential “bully pulpit” is not yet his natural forum. It is probably overrated anyway in this age of the nanosecond news cycle—even assuming the TV networks would throw Survivor or the latest Simon Cowell production off the air to give him time. The 24-hour cable news channels would, but the commentariat would start nitpicking even before he stopped speaking.

Still, elections do have consequences, for the vanquished as much as the victor. The most positive for the president is that Obamacare—the slogan used by Republicans to denigrate health care reform but eventually adopted in the campaign, almost with pride of ownership, by Obama himself—will remain the law of the land. Individual states may yell, kick, scream and try to frustrate its implementation but they cannot expunge it from the statute books, as Mitt Romney promised he would “from day one” of his administration-that-never-will-be. It may not be particularly popular now (though it is more so than a year ago) but time, like a good doctor, can cure many wounds. Further refinements are also necessary, not least to put a brake on medical inflation.

It will also take time for Republicans to come to terms with why they lost the election. Putting up loony candidates who say daft things about God and rape, thereby costing the party regained control of the Senate, is a simple lesson to absorb and, now that the Tea Party element has been weakened, easier to implement. But it will be much harder to do something about the fact that there are not enough older white males to win national elections anymore, especially when all the other demographic components of the Obama victory were so thoroughly turned off by Republican rhetoric and threats.

Mitt Romney, from his bubble of wealth and even richer donors, complained that he lost because the president showered “gifts” on his supporters, thus buying an election that his money also sought to. This showed he still believed, even in the reflection of defeat, what he told his fundraisers last spring: that 47 per cent of the country would never vote for him because they were dependent on government handouts. He may not count anymore but the same line is peddled by the polemicists of the right-wing media, like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and their ilk, who still matter. They talked of “free stuff” and “Barack O’Claus” and played “Feliz Navidad,” the Christmas song, on an endless loop. This group is, in effect, still in denial. This is to be expected, since they all thought they could not lose, not realising that this was no longer the 1950s, before the great Latino influx and when blacks knew their place, women worked in the home and gays were in the closet.

Another strain, most vocally represented by Bobby Jindal, the Indian-American Republican governor of Louisiana, had no truck with this line and argued the party had to get off its reflexive anti-immigrant talk, such as Romney’s suggestion of self-deportation. Some Republican business leaders, needing the labour, would agree. Charles Krauthammer, the commentator who loathes the president with a disturbing passion, proposed, perhaps sarcastically, that all Republicans needed to do was to support amnesty for illegal immigrants and get Senator Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American from Florida, to propose it, thus burnishing his credentials for 2016. But these were tarnished by the fact that the Cuban vote in his state, once overwhelmingly Republican, split evenly this time, suggesting the senator cannot even rely on his own.

That field is now wide open. The next race will not include most of the clowns who lasted longest against Romney (Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, though Rick Santorum might run) but there are several relative heavyweights who declined to enter last time and will now sniff around. Among them are the Latino-friendly former Florida governor Jeb Bush (of that family), the actual Latino governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico and a fistful of other past or present state chief executives: Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Jon Huntsman of Utah, Bob McDonnell of Virginia and Chris Christie of New Jersey, if Republicans ever forgive him for the cardinal sin of bear hugging President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Paul Ryan, the defeated vice presidential candidate, is surely a contender. It is not the worst of potential candidate lists but it will not be enough merely to make nice to Latinos, other minorities, women, the young and gays. There will need to be a sea change in party attitudes towards a host of issues: immigration reform, same-sex marriage, birth control, climate change. There should be no more voter identification drives which, no matter how dressed up, were nakedly designed to divert minorities and the poor from the ballot box.

That will not be easy. The Christian right and the Tea Party may be weaker but they have not gone away. Republican incumbents in Congress are frankly scared witless of challenges in party primaries from the right, egged on by Limbaugh’s army; that is what happened this year to Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, so entrenched that Democrats often did not bother to run a candidate against him. He fell to the righteous sword of Richard Mourdock, who said he divined God’s intent that rape victims carry babies to term, and went on to get trounced in the general election in a state Romney carried easily.

More generally, ever since Newt Gingrich shaped it 20 years ago, the modern Republican Party has become Very Adamant, addicted to signing pledges from which to diverge is a cardinal sin. The most infamous of these was drawn up by the activist Grover Norquist and states that under no circumstances can taxes, of any form and on any segment of the population, be raised. All but a handful of moderate Republicans signed it and even after the election this contemporary Duke of York is holding them to account. That is a real problem for party leaders like John Boehner, speaker of the House, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who, being creatures of Congress, understand that deals in the national interest were once made on Capitol Hill and even with a president of the other party. To many of their troops, however, compromise remains a four-letter word.

But Barack Obama does not have it that easy with his own Democratic Party, which, when he took office, controlled both houses. In retrospect and even at the time, his biggest mistake was to cede too much policy authority to the Democrats running Capitol Hill, who are as subject to vested commercial interests as the Republicans. The net result was healthcare and financial reform acts that were much less than they might and should have been, yet Obama hardly ever interfered in the process. That deference is going to have to change in his second term, particularly on the intractable issues of immigration reform and any legislation on climate change. Even under the unlamented W, something like a consensus on both appeared achievable. That evaporated so much in the last couple of years that the president was forced into using his limited executive authority to stop the deportation of the children of illegal immigrants and to order the car industry to raise mileage standards. Such half measures will not be enough for a successful second term.

It is an insult to the intelligence to say that America has an ideological left, as Europe has had, let alone a far left, the label fixed on the staid New York Times by Limbaugh and O’Reilly. But it does have progressive constituent parts, many of whom were not happy with Obama’s first term (for not closing Guantanamo as promised, for continued restrictions on civil liberties in the name of national security) but who voted for him as the clear lesser of two evils. Now he cannot run again, their old unhappiness could resurface and when the debate finally gets round, as it must, to cutting government spending, it is their oxen who will get gored. There could well be much blood to the left and right of the tracks.

Ultimately, the election has given the president a better hand of cards to play than the awful one he was dealt four years ago, with the financial markets in chaos and the economy close to free-fall. But how he plays them is not easy to predict for a man who is not prone to raise hell, like Truman or LBJ, or let subordinates do the heavy lifting, à la Reagan. He might be familiar with another hoary Japanese cliché, “the nail that sticks up must be hammered down.” Barack Obama is going to have to stick his head above the parapet in the next four years and find ways of dodging the hammer.

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Jurek Martin is a Washington columnist for the Financial Times and twice its bureau chief 

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