TPP’s prospects rise. Jokowi’s cabinet echoes Megawati. By Hamish McDonald.

Obama’s grim outlook in congressional midterm elections

Barack Obama takes part in early voting at a booth in Chicago during the midterm congressional elections.
Barack Obama takes part in early voting at a booth in Chicago during the midterm congressional elections.

If you think Australian politics are overwhelmed by negativity, take a look at the toxic pessimism, fear and hate whirling through the United States as it approaches its “midterm” elections on Tuesday. The US looks set to slide even deeper into its malaise for the remainder of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Dominating campaigning for the house of representatives and one-third of the senate have been the attack ads funded by the so-called super PACs (political action committees) and non-profit lobby groups. Like the famous “Would you buy
a used car from this man?” line run against Richard Nixon by John F. Kennedy’s campaign in 1960, they tend to dredge up everything in a candidate’s background likely to set off target voters and question his or her integrity.

With a court ruling against any limits on super PAC funding, wealthy Democrats have joined Republican counterparts in what has been likened to an arms race of negativity. As of Tuesday, super PACs reported $US300 million ($A340 million) in campaign spending this year. The non-profits are not obliged to report their spending. It means that the outgunned candidates themselves actually lose control of their campaigns.

So what is the outcome looking like? Opinion polls are suggesting the Republicans will pick up the six seats they need for a senate majority, and will reinforce their majority in the house (perhaps even widening their house majority to the point where the Democrats can’t hope to win back the chamber until 2020).

This means that the gridlock in Washington politics, between Obama and the congress, will get even more congested. As well as tougher budget wrangles, the Republicans would get control of the senate committees that run investigations into things such as intelligence abuse, have more say over federal judge appointments and in the debate leading up to the 2016 presidential election. As a lame duck, Obama will be struggling to defend his legacy policies such as affordable medical care through his veto power and to get new things done through executive orders.

The Republicans have been more careful than they were in 2010 and 2012 to screen out “loonies” among their candidates, and midterms usually favour the party anyway because their better-off white support base is more likely to turn out to vote. Yet success can lead to hubris and overreach that can blow back in future elections.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than at state level in North Carolina. There, after winning complete control of the legislature for the first time in more than a century, Republicans cut unemployment benefits and college funding, refused federal funds for healthcare among the poor, okayed outside funding of elections for judges and gerrymandered electoral boundaries while toying with bans on sharia law and allowing concealed guns into bars and schoolyards. As Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time program (comedy seems necessary to get the essence of US politics these days) put it: “Take every crazy, angry idea your drunk right-wing uncle mumbles at Thanksgiving , turn it into a law, and that’s North Carolina today.”

The Republicans also face deep strategic divisions and dilemmas. They ride the wave of pessimism arising from stagnating or declining real incomes in the middle class despite the lift in economic growth, and the sense of powerlessness from Middle East turmoil and Chinese assertiveness. Yet with the pessimism comes a backlash against the 11 million illegal immigrants that will damage hopes of breaking out of the white electoral base, which soon became a “minority majority”. The global mess, meanwhile, is playing into the hands of Senator Rand Paul, a neo-isolationist still holding strong support on the Republican right. The split would help hand the White House to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

1 . TPP’s prospects rise 

What does this continuing gridlock mean for Australia? For one thing, probably an America still focused on its own domestic issues.

That’s good in some respects, if Obama can stay reluctant to wade deeper into the Iraq–Syria quagmire and hold out against the panic being whipped up by conservatives about the Islamic State. It does mean less attention to this part of the world, where some positive reinforcement of democratic trends and reform is needed.

Wiser heads in Canberra will be hoping that the US and other big powers can clinch a deal with Iran on capping its nuclear weapons program by the current deadline of November 24, then defending it against efforts in the congress to impose conditions that would unravel it.

The outline of the agreement is that Iran would stop uranium enrichment well below weapons grade, reverse some enhancement of its existing uranium stockpiles, and allow outside inspections. Obama will use executive powers to “suspend” sanctions on Iranian exports and access to the global financial system centred on US banks.

But he is deeply at loggerheads with the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which insists on Iran’s weapons capability being completely dismantled. Through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful lobby group that channels funds to US politicians, this is echoed by numerous house and senate members who insist Iran cannot be left a “threshold” nuclear weapons power and want to bring the sanctions to a new vote in congress.

The Abbott government’s other big interest will be whether Obama gets “fast-track” authority from the senate to conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade agreement with 12 countries, including Australia. It was originally taken up by the Republicans during the George W. Bush presidency, and in pursuing it as part of his “pivot” to Asia, Obama has come up against the Democrat support base in organised labour, as well as interest groups worried about corporate power. So there is a good chance of the more moderate Republicans and Democrats combining to give Obama this negotiating authority, which means he doesn’t have to worry about the senate unpicking any agreement he can make. Against that, though, is the truculent mood among Republicans to deny Obama any achievement.

2 . Jokowi’s cabinet echoes Megawati

The first Jokowi cabinet in Jakarta is a disappointment, even though it had been apparent for some weeks that the new president would not be able to shake off the baggage of Megawati Sukarnoputri and her favourites.

The ministerial line-up is actually more political and less “technocratic” than almost any since the mid-1960s. A close look at postgraduate qualifications, even among holders of finance and infrastructure portfolios, shows political science, law and urban planning rather than hard economics. From having Australian alumni as vice-president and finance minister in the previous administration, the two now are State Secretary Pratikno, a PhD from Flinders, and Yohana Yembise, minister for women’s empowerment (and the first Papuan female minister), a PhD from Newcastle. The new foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, served as a middle-ranking diplomat in the Canberra embassy in the early 1990s − when she had her car vandalised following the Santa Cruz massacre in Timor.

All this calls for an Indonesian-speaking Australian ambassador attuned to the Javanese way of doing things, to help steer Jokowi away from policies that would hold back Indonesia as well as harm our interests. Word has it, however, that Tony Abbott has made another “captain’s call” over a successor to Greg Moriarty, about to finish his four-year term. Abbott is said to favour Paul Grigson, a deputy secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, who has no apparent background in Jakarta. Peter Woolcott, who does and was rumoured to be Julie Bishop’s preference, moves from Geneva to a deputy-secretary slot.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 1, 2014 as "Obama’s grim outlook as Republicans build".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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