What I learnt from the US mid-terms

In which I absorb the lessons of the mid-terms, am confirmed in my belief that it should have been Madam President, and advertise some good telly

So, the mid-terms in the US have delivered the Obama White House what the president himself has called a "shellacking". He has promised to try harder. Here's what I take from the results:

  • Americans have voted out the party in power for three elections in a row. That's unusual... remember, the Democrats controlled the House for 40 years not so long ago. Lots of Americans seem intent on voting for change again and again until they find what they like.
  • They won't ever find what they like, because what many are looking for is a more secure world where America ruled the world. They want the 1950s or, at a stretch, the 1980s back. They want to be the dominant power. They want job growth in manufacturing. They want no China or Brazil or Iran or India.
  • Most also want the major parties to work together - to cross the aisle - something that was much more common a generation or two ago.
  • The more they vote for change, back and forth, the more divided and polarised Congress gets and the harder it gets to make change, so it's all counter-productive.
  • That polarisation is both abetted and reflected by the cable news media, which goes after angles rather than facts.
  • The expectations around President Obama were simply too great to carry.
  • The junior senator for Illinois was too green for the White House and got played by those who revel in the Washington swamp.
  • Hillary Clinton would have been a more successful president these past two years.
  • Obama misread his first two years. He wanted to govern from the centre, and so wasted months on healthcare trying to get bi-partisan support while he was being demonised as a socialist, death-panel-creating monster. If he wanted to start with healthcare he should have rammed it through, given the mandate he had and then tacked back to the centre. Or he should have started with something else.
  • Having the presidency, the House and the Senate doesn't do the dominant party much good because they cop all the blame for everything.
  • Obama will do better in the next two years because he has something to kick against and voters will turn on the Republicans as they too fail to live up to expectations.
  • And people will turn on the Republicans, because for all their big talk on spending cuts, the only way to really eat into the deficit is to cut something people love, such as Social Security or Medicare or bombs.
  • Obama can win in 2012, but it's not a sure thing. The mid-term reversal is the biggest in 70 years. Still, both Reagan and Clinton lost seats in their first terms and comfortably won a second.
  • The Republicans claim the American people are calling for a repeal of healthcare and cuts to government spending. That's a misinterpretation. Spending cuts sound good until they hit your state, your town, your job.
  • Voters distrust Republicans at least as much as Democrats. Marc Rubio was bang on when he blamed both parties for the country's economic woes and said Republicans would be wrong to read this as an embrace of them.
  • Rubio is a star in the making. Hints of Obama 2004.
  • The Tea Party did OK, but not great. They're harnessing a mood of protest, but not because even all their supporters know and believe their policies. They're essentially libertarians and as such remain fringe. 
  • The Tea Party is still as much a threat to the Republicans as it is an opportunity. Zealots are hard to control and some in this crowd will run screaming at the military-industrial complex as much as at the liberal, biased media.
  • The Tea Party are, surprisingly, rejuvenating the Republicans. A woman from India is now governor in South Carolina and a Latino from Florida is in the senate.
  • The Republicans will be changed by the Tea Party, but not as much as people think. The establishment absorbs.
  • The Tea Party is there for a good time, not a long time. They will implode. But they'll get financial backing for as long as they want it. The powerful rich pushed the US to the right by using social/moral issues in the previous generation. But the moral majority is gone. Now they have a cause that's a more natural fit - economic conservatism rather than more conservatism.
  • Sarah Palin cannot win the presidency.
  • CNN monitored the Twitterverse and found that most tweeters in all but one state were voting against something. Only in one state were most tweeters voting for something. Three-quarters of Americans distrust Congress. Cynicism reins.
  • An election is a moment in time. War was everything a few years ago, now it's nothing. The economy is the only thing that matters and it's bad.
  • The economy is likely to be better in 2012, in part because of Obama's stimulus. He will have a better narrative and a better chance.
  • US debt is horrible. But austerity is worse. Just ask the 1920s. And the percentage of US spending that goes to pay debt is actually lower under Obama than the late 1980s and most of the 1990s (interest rates are down). Yes, he will have a better story to tell.
  • Climate change legislation in the US is dead. Obama chose healthcare and lost his chance. Almost all Tea Party lawmakers think climate change is unproven or a hoax. That's bad for the rest of us and any post-Copenhagen deal.
  • Nuclear security efforts could be threatened as well. Perhaps. That's bad for us as well.
  • Incumbency used to a huge asset in the US. Now it's a liability.
  • Obama won the rust belt - Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan - in 2008. He lost it this week. He needs to win it back in 2012 to stay in power and that means jobs. The good news for him is that he still has some friendly governors in those states to sing his song and jerrymander electorates.
  • Republicans are united in spending cuts, lowering taxes and repealing healthcare. But there are wedges. On defence, drugs, lobbyists/corruption and crucially, immigration.
  • All either party could talk about this election was the other's failures. If the Democrats get some runs on the board and can find some positives, they will do better next time.
  • The clear message from the electorate is that they want politicians to work together; yet they've voted in a more divisive crowd. That can't end well.
  • Republican leader Mitch O'Connell said last week that his priority was to ensure that Obama is a one term president. They're not going to start working together.
  • Ex-CEOs such as Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman couldn't win, even spending tens of millions of their own cash. Americans hate corporates even more than they hate politicians, it seems.
  • Jerry Brown is back in California. I love this story. He was governor in the '70s for crying out loud, and now he's governor again. By my guess, the first politician since FDR to serve a third term in the same job?

That's what I jotted down yesterday, anyway. If you want to see what I really think, check out Media7 tonight on TVNZ7. I'm on there with Dr. Paul Buchannan talking to Russell Brown about the mid-terms.

And check out Q+A on Sunday on TV1. We've got Simon Schama on from New York to talk about the Obama presidency, its failings and future.