The “historic vacuum” for the Republicans makes the guessing game for 2016 even harder

My Swedish journalist colleague Staffan Heimerson wrote in his column in Aftonbladet the other day about Swedish predictions regarding the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Who will be the two parties’ candidates? On the Republican side, the Swedes most often mentioned  Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, but also Rand Paul, while Hillary Clinton was pretty much a given as the Democratic candidate.

My American journalist colleague Carl Cannon, Washington bureau chief of RealClearPolitics, explained this confusion very nicely in his column yesterday. He writes about a “historic vacuum” for the Republicans, which  “has prompted stirrings among a veritable roster of colorful, ambitious—and unlikely—White House aspirants,” and continues:

“The cast of characters includes a popular conservative neurosurgeon with the habit of making outlandish political pronouncements; a New Jersey governor whose main personality trait is in-your-face aggression; a freshman senator from Texas loathed by his peers and whose idea of high jinks is shutting down the government; a Kentucky libertarian who barely tolerates the idea of a standing army; a Baptist preacher and Fox News host better known for his weight-loss book than his stint as governor of Arkansas; and a former a Florida governor who hasn’t held office in eight years and would (a) be forgotten by now or (b) have been president already—if he wasn’t the son and younger brother of two previous presidents.”

Nicely put about Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, and Jeb Bush, although he excluded Marco Rubio. But then he added an even “less likely” name, “almost as unlikely as Ben Carson,” Mitt Romney, the man who ran from the wrong state. He needs to remedy this mistake, if he wants to run again — “Mitt Romney for Mayor.”

If he does, it would certainly add to the Republican confusion.

Hey, Congressman, your vote does have consequences

Today, I drove my cousin and his wife down to the National Mall in Washington, DC.  It was a sad an empty sight, with barriers in front of the monuments and museums and barely a  tourist soul in sight. The government is shut down. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are forced to stay home, without pay. Washington, DC is practically closed.

But in the middle of this, Texas Republican congressman Randy Neugebauer visiting the Mall had the audacity to verbally attack a Park Service ranger in front of the closed World War II Memorial, saying that the Park Service should be ashamed of itself.

Hello! In what world does congressman Neugebauer live? Hey, there are consequences for how you vote, Congressman, at least in a democracy. But Neugebauer does not seem to understand that. The reason the National Mall is deserted today is that you and the other Republicans in Congress are sore losers. You lost on Obamacare. You lost in the Supreme Court. And you lost in last year’s elections, which came pretty close to being a referendum on Obamacare.

Have you never heard of majority rule? The minority never rules. That’s what voting and democracy are all about, and that is what really makes this present political stalemate so scary, well, such a scandal.  If you want to go out and overturn Obamacare, congressman Neugebauer, go out and win an election. That’s how it works!

As Tom Friedman wrote in yesterday’s New York Times, “the future of how we govern ourselves is at stake…”you can’t just put a fiscal gun to the country’s head.”

Obama on guns — and his State of the Union finally took off

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union last night was not, I am afraid, a speech to be long remembered.  It was good, but ordinary, although at the same time “extraordinarily ambitious,” as Ezra Klein writes on his Wonkblog:

“Imagine, for a moment, that President Obama managed to pass every policy he proposed tonight. Within a couple of years, every four-year-old would have access to preschool. The federal minimum wage would be at $9 — higher than it’s been, after adjusting for inflation, since 1981. There’d be a cap-and-trade program limiting our carbon emissions and a vast infrastructure investment to upgrade our roads and bridges. Taxes would be higher, guns would be harder to come by, and undocumented immigrants would have a path to citizenship. America would be a noticeably different country.”

That is unlikely to happen, as Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus writes, but if Obama meets his most significant and realistic goals – “immigration reform, even modest steps on gun control, an end to the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, a free-trade agreement with Europe and, oh yes, implementation of Obamacare — and manages to keep the economy growing, even if slowly, that’s not a bad list. Plenty of two-term presidents have done worse.”

What Obama mentioned in his speech is clearly popular with the American public, according to Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky but “the Republicans just sat there like statues ignoring” them. They are such crybabies every day about what Obama allegedly does to try to make them look bad. They’re doing plenty well at that themselves.”

“Long gone,” writes The New Yorker’s John Cassidy on his blog Rational Irrationality “is the era when he (Obama) treated Republicans as reasonable men and women with whom he could do business. Nowadays, he is in permanent campaign mode. With the ongoing dispute over taxes and spending still far from decided, he is intent on rallying his supporters whilst depicting his opponents as crazed ideologues and craven defenders of the privileges enjoyed by the ultra-rich. “

Well, ok. Still, in my view Obama’s fifth State of the Union never really took off until the end and when the subject was guns and gun control. “They deserve a vote,” Obama repeated time and again:

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote; the families of Newtown deserve a vote; the families of Aurora deserve a vote; the families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

“Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.  Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight.  But we were never sent here to be perfect.”

And the President returned to his them from the Inauguration about inclusiveness, about “us” and “we.”

”The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem.  They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue.  But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.  They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can.  For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.”

Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker thinks that Obama’s urgent message that “they deserve a vote” may come to serve “as the rallying cry for 2013,”  and so “if last night was any indication, the two years to come will be far more confrontational. “

So, no political peace is to be expected in Washington.  But Obama, a much different and more self-confident President than in his first term,  got to say his peace, and he made his troops happy.

It’s “we” and “together” in Obama’s inclusive America

President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address today was all about ”we,” and ”we, the people,” about ”equality” and ”together.”  It was a clear and straight forward statement by the re-elected president about his view of America, a liberal/progressive view in an inclusive America  — a country for everyone.

The speech was elegant, inspiring, and passionate, given by someone who looked forward to his second term in the White House with renewed strength and great self-confidence, and it was the highlight of a most festive day in Washington, DC, where the crowds were not as large as four years ago, when almost two million people jammed The National Mall in spite of very chilly weather. But they were just as enthusiastic, clearly cherishing the moment that America’s first black president had been re-elected and handed the nation’s trust for another four years.

The president talked about America’s “never-ending journey” and that so much is remains to be done.

”Now, more than ever, we must do these things together, as one nation, and one people…This is our generation’s ask – to make these words, these rights, these values – of Life and Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – real for every American.

The speech was an unabashed re-affirmation of Obama’s basic liberal political philosophy, saying that  ”preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

He was full of hope and faith in America, if the nation stuck together:

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it—so long as we seize it together.”

He talked about equal pay for women, equal treatment for gays, right to vote for everyone,  about the importance of social security, Medicare and Medicaid, the right of immigrants, and about gun control, without mentioning the word but referring to the ”quite lanes of Newtown” and keeping the nation’s children ”safe from harm.”

“We, the people,  still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity. We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit;  but we reject the belief that America must choose between the caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.”

Obama’s second inaugural address was free of political attacks and party politics. It contained no direct attacks on the Republicans, but, on the other hand, one could interpret the whole speech as Obama putting down his marker, that this is what he believes in, this is his America, and this is what he is going to fight for during his second term.

The details in his political program will come in his State of the Union address to Congress on February 12. That will also likely mark the continuation of Washington’s political battle. Will that fight be as merciless as before today’s inauguration? Probably, and maybe even more so… But, at least it is now totally clear where Barack Obama stands, and that feels liberating.

Fear can pave the way to avoid the “financial cliff”

I haven’t blogged much lately, in fact, very little since the November 6 elections. I needed a break, and I hope you haven’t missed me too much. In any case, I am back with the goal of writing more about issues beyond politics and the political quagmire here in Washington.

My blog posting yesterday about the death of jazz legend, Dave Brubeck, was part of that effort, and I hope to continue so. But, first, I must write about the “financial cliff” – the financial Armageddon that looms at the end of the year if the White House and Congress cannot agree on a new approach on how to solve America’s serious financial problems and growing national debt.

It’s already a month since President Barack Obama’s convincing victory over the Republican challenger Mitt Romney. The Republicans are still trying to come to terms with what actually happened and why. Meanwhile, all eyes in Washington have been focused on the “fiscal cliff,” by some called the “austerity crisis,” a matter of seldom seen proportions and seldom seen consequences if not dealt with before the New Year. If the White House and Congress cannot come to an agreement, a series of automatic events – all extremely negative — will unfold, both on taxes and on budget cuts.

The financial cliff came about because of previous failures in Washington after the big debt ceiling crisis of 2011 to lower the budget deficit and the national debt. The parties decided to postpone the tough decisions – kick the can down the road, as it is so often put. So, no one imposed the cliff on Washington – the politicians did it this to themselves, and they will go down together if there is no deal before December 31, although polls show that most voters will blame the Republicans.

If there is no deal, all American will see their taxes go up next year — by an average of 3 446 dollars. In addition, 200 billion dollars in tough spending cuts will take effect. A non-deal will cause the U.S. economy to shrink and unemployment to turn upwards, to over 9 percent. That would be not only a shame, it would be catastrophic for an economy that now shows encouraging signs of steady improvement, including steadily lower unemployment figures – to now 7.7 percent, the lowest since December 2008, just before Obama entered the White House.

Indeed, it’s a frightening scenario, and, for many, it seems incomprehensible that the White House and Congress will let this happen. Too much is at stake, both politically for the parties, and economically for the whole country. No one wants to be blamed for such a collapse and common sense says that there will be a deal. But time is rapidly running out in this “magic moment,” for a deal, as a leading Democrat put it recently. There is no better time than right now to make a deal.

So far, the Republicans have resisted the “balanced approach” — with tax rate hikes for the richest two percent of the population, those with incomes of over 250,000 dollars per year, combined with a series of spending cuts – an approach on which Obama campaigned and won the election. Stubbornly, the Republicans have so far said no to all tax rate hikes, but without them, Obama has repeatedly and firmly stated, there will be no deal.

During the election campaign, the majority of voters seemed to think that Obama’s “balanced approach” was sensible, and those sentiments linger. The President’s approval ratings are up, over 50 percent, and he is now clearly in the driver’s seat.

Maybe, in the end, plain fear of a failure and the subsequent wrath of the voters, who want a deal and want Washington to come together, will drive the parties together to reach an agreement. There have been cracks in the unified resistance among the Republicans in Congress to higher taxes. No doubt they see the writing on the wall.

If the Republicans don’t meet Obama partway, they “would contribute to a recession that would discredit them for a decade,” David Brooks warns in the New York Times today.

Fear… fine! Who cares? The main thing is that there is a deal before midnight strikes on December 31.

Shocked Republicans face a new political reality

The air during the walks in the woods outside Washington, DC a few days after Barack Obama’s convincing victory is somehow easier to breathe under the clear, blue November sky.  It’s been a long, an awfully long, campaign, emotionally draining. Most are just happy that it’s over, and at least 61 million voters are happy about the outcome.

The American voters chose the man they trusted to continue to lead them in these difficult economic times, while Mitt Romney, his challenger, beckoned to an old America as he asked the voters to trust a man they really did not know, a man who would not release his tax returns, who never explained why he invested money in tax havens in the Cayman Islands or in Switzerland, who denied his own moderate political record as a governor of Massachusetts, supportive of a woman’s right to choose, implementer of universal healthcare in his home state.

The bruising Republican primary campaign forced him steadily further to the right, and by the time he won and became the party’s presidential nominee, it was too late change in a credible way. 

As conservative columnist Kathleen Parker writes in the Washington Post today:

“The truth is, Romney was better than the GOP deserved. Party nitwits undermined him, and the self-righteous tried to bring him down. The nitwits are well-enough known at this point — those farthest-right social conservatives who couldn’t find it in their hearts to keep their traps shut. No abortion for rape or incest? Sit down. Legitimate rape? Put on your clown suit and go play in the street.  Equally damaging were the primary leeches, who embarrassed the party and wouldn’t leave the stage. Nine-nine-nine, we’re talking about you, Herman Cain. And Gov. Oops?  You, too. And then there were Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, who never had a real shot at the nomination and certainly could never win a national election, yet they refused to surrender to the certain nominee.”

The name of Newt Gingrich should be added to these names.   

The result was that the “Etch-a-Sketch” in the last month of the election campaign, when “severely conservative” Romney suddenly turned moderate, never worked. By then, the Obama campaign had already defined him for the voters and they did not trust him, he did not care about the ordinary voter.

The end result was an Obama victory by 332 electoral votes to Romney’s 206 – way more than the necessary 270 to win.  Of the nine battleground states, Obama only lost North Carolina. That means that Obama captured 61,7 million votes compared to Romney’s 58,5 million, or 50,6 percent compared to 47,9 percent.

The Romney campaign, which up to the last moments really believed they would win, never knew what hit them according to John Dickerson in a fascinating piece in Slate Magazine.

“Mitt Romney says he is a numbers guy, but in the end he got the numbers wrong. Even on the morning of the election, Romney’s senior advisers weren’t close to hedging. They said he was going to win decisively…How did the Romney team get it so wrong? According to those involved, it was a mix of believing anecdotes about party enthusiasm and an underestimation of their opponents’ talents.”

Instead, Barack Obama won among Blacks (93 percent), Hispanics (71 percent), and Asians (73 percent), among women (53 percent) and among working women with children under 18 (62 percent), among gays and lesbians (76 percent), among those between 18 and 29 (60 percent) and those between 30 and 44 (52 percent), among those in big cities (69 percent) and those in cities up to 500 000 people (58 percent), among Jewish voters (69 percent) and Catholics (52 percent,)  among those without a high school diploma (64 percent) and among those with a post-graduate degree (62 percent,)  and among those earning less than 50,000 dollars (56 percent).

Romney won among men (52 percent), among those above 45 years of age, among white voters (59 percent) among those with incomes above 50,000 dollars per year, among Independents (50 percent), and among those in the suburbs (50 percent), the small towns (56 percent) and in rural America  (61 percent). And he won the protestant votes, including the white born-again or evangelical Christians (78 percent).

His support was white, old, and rural, when all demographic trends point to a younger, multi-ethnic, and more urban America.  That’s a losing proposition. It’s the old America vs. the new America, and the Republicans, in a state of shock, have suddenly come face to face with this political reality. A long and fierce internal debate is expected whose outcome is far from certain. 

That debate is taking place as America faces a fiscal cliff by year’s end, when almost one trillion dollars in automatic budget cuts will be implemented at the same time as taxes are raised for everyone, if a new budget deal is not struck before that.  The cliff is of Congress’s own making when it failed last year to reach a budget deal.  The question is: are the players more ready now? We will soon know.

From election euphoria to the same gridlock…or?

After the euphoria of president Obama’s his big election victory, it’s important to remember that the political situation in Washington is really virtually unchanged and that continued political gridlock is probably more likely than unlikely.

The new Congress takes office in January. It continues to be deeply divided with a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican rule in the House of Representatives.

The Democrats’ majority in the Senate is not large enough to withstand the Republican filibusters even though it seems that the Democrats will increase their majority and strengthen their position even more. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats had to pick up 25 new seats to get a majority, but they only managed to win six to eight new seats. So Speaker John Boehner will continue to control the House and continue to be a main opponent in the upcoming negotiations with Obama and Senate.

In spite of this past and, likely, future political gridlock, president Obama sounded hopeful in his victory speech last night when he declared himself prepared to reach out to the Republicans:

“Our economy is recovering. A decade of war is ending. A long campaign is now over. And whether I earned your vote or not, I have listened to you. I have learned from you. And you’ve made me a better president. With your stories and your struggles, I return to the White House determined more and more inspired than ever about the work there is to do, and the future that lies ahead. Tonight, you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours. And in the coming weeks and months, I am looking forward to reaching out and working with leaders of bothering parties to meet the challenges we can only solve together: reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil. We’ve got more work to do. “

Much depends on the Republican congressional willingness and readiness to compromise with the president. We still do not know much about it. Tea Party supporters are still influential in the new House although several of their leading representatives were defeated, and in spite of the two prominent Tea Party Senate candidates, Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin from conservative Indiana and Missouri, both losing badly to their Democratic opponents.

But, as the Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus writes today, a president who gets the chance to another four years in the White House often it is not always so easy. On the contrary! Just look at Richard Nixon (Watergate), Ronald Reagan (Iran-contra) Bill Clinton (Monica Lewinsky). It is highly likely that the Obama administration can avoid the fate of his three predecessors — his administration has distinguished itself for being free of scandals — but his mandate is weaker than before compared to his election victory in 2008, with only slightly more votes than Romney – about 53.5 million for Obama against 52.8 million for Romney.

Time will tell, but there is a sense of great urgency in Washington the day after Election Day.