It’s hard to recapture the extraordinary atmosphere in which Barack Obama was elected the first black president of the US six years ago. Then there was a sense of widening possibilities expressed in Obama’s slogan, “Yes we can!”
But now mid-term Congressional elections—for the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate—reinforced a powerful feeling of immobility and disillusionment.
Marxist blogger Michael Roberts said that the “no vote party” won the mid-terms. That’s true in the sense that only 36.5 percent of the electorate turned out to vote.
But, however despised, one group of politicians did better than the other. The Republicans won big. They increased their majority in the House of Representatives, winning the most seats since Herbert Hoover was elected president in 1928. And they took control of the Senate.
The Republicans ran a much more disciplined campaign than in the last mid-terms in 2010, when various right wing Tea Party fanatics were allowed to run wild.
The Democrats, by contrast, were divided. On one side was the White House, hoarding the huge campaign funds Obama has amassed. On the other was the Congressional leadership, many of whom didn’t want to touch the unpopular president with a bargepole.
The Republicans may have got their act together, but their victory still represents a big shift to the right. The new senators include some real fanatics—for example, Tom Cotton in Arkansas and Joni Ernst in Iowa. Both are veterans who defend the Iraq war as a fine idea.
How much of a practical difference the elections make, at least in the short term, is another matter. Washington has been paralysed ever since the first Tea Party wave allowed the Republicans to win control of the House in 2010.
Obama has been at loggerheads with many Congressional Democrats because of his hunt for free-trade deals in the Pacific and Europe. The Republicans are actually talking about giving him the necessary fast-track authority to negotiate these deals.
This kind of convergence on a renewed neoliberal economic agenda is exactly what big business would like to see. The US Chamber of Commerce spent a lot of money financing Republican candidates. It is estimated to have achieved an 80 percent success rate in its political investments.
Obama’s agreement with the Republicans on free trade begins to give the secret to the rout of the Democrats.
Even in his most controversial policy, healthcare reform, Obama has stuck to the political centre. This means he has pursued policies that have systematically favoured the interests of capital.
This has given the advantage to the Republican right. Even though ideologically they are even more pro-capitalist than Obama, they have a critique of US society—for being insufficiently capitalist. Barmy though this is, this has given them the initiative. They sound angry at a time when many Americans are angry and disillusioned with Obama.
He could point to a growing economy, but household income has been falling in almost all the states where Senate seats were being fought over. Then there were specific irritants that put Obama onto the back foot. These include the chaos surrounding the initial introduction of healthcare reform and the absurd and shameful moral panic stirred up by media and politicians over Ebola.
All this meant that the groups whose support was decisive in Obama’s two presidential victories turned out in fewer numbers. As a Republican website pointed out, “In 2012, African-Americans comprised 13 percent of all voters. In 2014, they were down to 12 percent. Likewise, Hispanics comprised 10 percent of all 2012 voters but only 8 percent of 2014 voters.
“Unmarried women also had a lower turnout, declining from 23 percent of all voters in 2012 to 21 percent in 2014.” By contrast, the share of voters who were over 65 (a strongly Republican group) rose from 16 percent in 2012 to 22 percent this time.
Obama will remain in the White House for another two years. But he will haunt its corridors like the ghost of the hopes he once embodied.