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Fyodor Lukyanov: Platform Shift
The 2010 Midterm Election results, called a political earthquake, are the fastest and most radical shift in public mood in America since at least World War II. A mere two years ago the Democrats secured a crushing victory, and moreover not only a quantitative one (the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate), but also qualitative. The Republicans were morally routed - in 2009 commentators were seriously discussing whether the 'Grand Old Party' would recover at all from the failure induced by the results of George Bush's presidency.
But then the wind began to blow in the opposite direction. The 2 November vote brought Republicans their biggest victory in the House of Representatives since 1948; they only narrowly missed out on taking a majority in the Senate. Republican candidates won a large proportion of the gubernatorial races. There is nothing sensational in the presidential party's defeat in midterm elections. American voters hate monopoly on power and they always try - consciously or instinctively - to restore balance. Therefore periods of total domination of one party in both branches of power are rather the exception.
Unusual is the speed with which citizens' sympathies have turned in the opposite direction. According to surveys on the eve of the election, 62% of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track. It is less than at the end of the Bush administration (then the figure topped 80%), but for an acting administration such an evaluation is close to a catastrophe.
Such a hefty defeat for the Democrats was not expected until a couple of months ago, but its reasons are explicable. Barack Obama came up against the flipside of his unbelievable popularity: The intensity of disappointment is directly proportional to the scale of vested hopes. All commentators two years ago unanimously warned that not one politician is capable of meeting the expectations which society linked to the victory of the first nonwhite presidential candidate. However, besides the objective trap in which the man who promised to change America has found himself, there also exists the personal factor. Today criticism aimed at Obama issues even from the mouths of his most earnest supporters for his inability to intelligibly explain to the nation what he is doing and why.
Those qualities which helped Barack Obama to win the 2008 campaign have proved to be insufficient in order to successfully carry out his declared policies. He was perfectly successful at 'firing up' the disaffected, instilling in them the hope for change, but in order to mobilize society in support of fundamental reforms you won't get away with general slogans, the substance of which does not stick in your memory. You need either a very accessible and patient explanation or a special emotional contact with your audience, the ability to create a sense of compassion, of which Bill Clinton was a master. Strange as it may seem, Obama has not greatly succeeded in either one, or the other.
Despite his obvious out of the ordinary nature which opposes the traditional presidential nomenclature, he is an elitist. The public increasingly sees in him an intellectual with strange ideas, removed from the people, and not a person who embodies their aspirations.
This 'sag' between the establishment and the people has sharply quickened the ratings drop. And since Obama has tried in these conditions to take steps which affect the fundamental arrangement of American politics (for example, reform of the healthcare system and giving up reliance on unconditional domination in global affairs), he has become an object of criticism from all sides. In September the American channels endlessly aired an incident during the President's meeting with a group of supporters, at which one of the participants said to him in despair: 'I am no longer in a position to defend you, it is impossible!'
Another aspect of the change is the sharp polarization of American society, which began under Bush, and which has been exacerbated under Obama. The country is going through a turning point in development - economic, political, and social. At the same time different strata and groups have diametric perceptions about what needs to be done. The Tea Party movement, which became the story of the campaign, is the flipside to the Obama phenomenon. Two years ago people who were mortally disappointed in their leaders voted for the candidate who even visually differed from the Washington insiders. Now their sympathies have swayed to the opposite side, to the radical conservative coalition of the most diverse views, which is cemented solely by rejection of the status quo, and moreover not just that of the Democrats, but also of the Republicans. Experts are observing a growth in the role of so-called independent voters, that is those who do not associate themselves with one or the other party, but vote based on the situation, switching support depending on the specific issue.
On the whole, all of this increases the instability of American politics, promising new sharp turns - disappointment in the 'simple' conservative schemes could arise just as quickly as did disappointment in the 'complex' schemes of Obama.
Positive changes are not foreseen on the foreign policy front. The administration's 'free hand' period is over, it will have to look toward its opponents, who hold tough (and in the worst case obstructionist) positions on the majority of issues. Just the list of people who will define the foreign policy agenda in Congress gives an insight into the possible attitudes. Thus Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, well-known for fighting against dictators and 'communists' all over the world - primarily in Cuba, where she was born, but at the same time in China and Russia - will head the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs. New Tea Party star Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who has entered the Senate, is in the same category.
Jon Kyl, who is prepared to ratify the START treaty only with the fulfillment of a whole list of supplementary conditions, Jim DeMint, a categorical opponent of START, and John McCain, whose views on Moscow are well-known, have also been nominated for leading roles in the upper chamber. Likely House of Representatives majority leader, Eric Cantor, is a well-known supporter of defending Israel and, accordingly, a representative of the toughest wing relating to countries which have connections with Iran, Syria, and others. A host of other figures in the Congress leadership are linked to the traditional 'strong' line on the affirmation of unconditional American primacy.
Barack Obama will now have to find ways to cooperate with his opponents. The Republicans have returned under the slogan of revising practically everything the President has done in two years. True, many remember the 1995-1996 experience, when the Republican Party, under the leadership of Newt Gingrich, the ideologue of the 'conservative revolution,' took control of both chambers and entered into heated opposition with the Democratic President Bill Clinton. At that time the conservatives' aggression was so strong that as a result it disconcerted voters, who in 1996 voted for a second term for Clinton.
The situation now is in some ways similar, but there are significant differences. On the one hand, it is not clear to what extent Obama is prepared to work under the new conditions, which demand great political skill. Clinton, one of the most refined politicians to hold the presidential post, was able to cope with the situation, but not everybody sees these qualities in Obama. On the other hand, Gingrich was the then Republicans' indisputable ideological and political leader, 'qualified' to conduct policy in their interest.
The new Republican majority's composition is not ideologically consolidated, the influence of the Tea Party fans is palpable. They will obviously continue to influence the sociopolitical atmosphere, but it is difficult to predict the influence's nature, because the movement is extremely heterogeneous.
Accordingly, it will be difficult for the majority's leadership to act in the interest of all. Whatever happens, it is already clear that the battle for the White House in 2012 will be fierce and hard-fought.