Thursday, 4 November 2010

5 November 2010

If you’ve ever been the parent of a small child, you will probably remember those moments when, in a fury of disappointment, it puckered up its little face and screamed: “But you promised!”

You probably explained that people can’t always have everything they want, and that sometimes they have to learn to wait. And then you waited for the response.

“I HATE you.”

I mean no disrespect to American voters when I say that I have been thinking back to my days as the parent of toddlers in the aftermath of the mid-term elections this week. I’m not saying that American voters behaved like children, but after all those uplifting campaign promises of just two years ago – remember Yes, We Can, and Change You Can Believe In – well, is it surprising that millions of them are angry?

One of America’s great strengths, it has always seemed to me, is that its people are eternal optimists. They are convinced that one day, with luck and hard work, they will be rich; that the rest of the world will learn to love the American way of life; and that yes, there is no greater good fortune than to be able to say “I am an American.”

The flip-side of this is that they are impatient. Two years ago, a persuasive Barack Obama promised them better times ahead – and many of them believed him. Instead, they see unemployment levels still high and government spending growing.

President Obama now seems to recognise that he should have been clearer about the time scales he had in mind. A few days ago, he told the TV host Jon Stewart: “When we promised during the campaign change you can believe in, it wasn't change you can believe in in 18 months.”

So now he’s lost control of the House of Representatives and has only a wafer-thin majority in the Senate. The next two years on Capitol Hill will not be a pretty sight.

But we have been here before. Mid-term drubbings – or “shellackings” to use the Obama term – are standard fare, a bit like bye-election defeats in the UK. They tell us next to nothing about what will happen in the next Presidential election, when Mr Obama will be up against, well, who? Are the Republicans really ready to nominate Sarah Palin as their candidate for the White House, with opinion polls suggesting that Obama would easily beat her?

(He’d have a much tougher time against other potential Republican contenders like Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney, according to one poll this week – but as I say, I wouldn’t want to pay much attention to what the polls say now. Two years is a long time …)

A word about the Tea Party movement, which has attracted so much attention. For non-Americans, it may seem difficult to comprehend the level of antipathy which its supporters feel towards President Obama and the Democrats. But again, it does fit neatly into a long American political tradition: suspicion of Washington, suspicion of Federal government spending, hatred of taxes, a deep-seated belief that Americans do best when the government is off their backs.

Some of you may remember Ronald Reagan: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I'm from the government and I'm here to help.’”

But Obama does believe that the government can, and should, help – help those millions of Americans who had no health insurance, and the millions more who have no jobs. He says government spending can do it; but his now much-strengthened opponents say government spending is the problem, not the solution.

They will battle it out between now and the next election – mark it in your diary: 6 November 2012.

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