Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Almost half a million donors have contributed to President Barack Obama's campaign, according to a "thank you" sent from his official Twitter feed. It has not been confirmed whether he has reached the goal of raising $60m by the end of the second quarter (which ended on 30 June). Democrats claim they will easily hit this target.

Barack Obama's donors

2. In the Republican camp, speculation about donations is rife, although results won't be public until 15 July. Mitt Romney's campaign is expected to have raised around $20m in the quarter, less than the £30-40m some had forecast. However, he is still likely to far outpace everyone else in the Republican presidential field.

Jon Huntsman -- who has been an official candidate for just nine days -- is the first to leak his figures, which are reportedly around $4.1m. However, according to ABC, "less than half" came from Huntsman himself, meaning that he actually raised around $2m. Ron Paul announced on his Facebook page that he's raised $4.5m -- double the amount he raised at this point in the last election cycle.

Details about the others are less forthcoming, although Michele Bachmann is expected to have had a good quarter following all the publicity she has received in recent weeks.

Mitt Romney

3. Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner, appeared to back-pedal from his claims that Obama has made the recession worse. In early June, he said that Obama "didn't create the recession, but he made it worse and longer." He said the same thing on Monday.

However, when an NBC producer asked him yesterday to explain why Obama's policies hurt the economy, he said "I didn't say that things are worse", adding:

What I said was that [the] economy hasn't turned around, that you've got 20 million Americans out of work, or seriously unemployed; housing values still going down. You have a crisis of foreclosures in this country. The economy, by the way, if you think the economy is great and going well, be my guest. But the president of the United States, when he put in place his stimulus plan and borrowed $787 billion, said he would hold unemployment below 8% -- and 8% seemed like an awfully high number. It hasn't been below 8% since. That's failure. We're over 9% unemployment. That's failure. He set the bogie himself at 8% ,which strikes me as a very high number and we're still above that three years later.

4. Thaddeus McCotter, a Michigan congressman, will file paperwork to enter the 2012 presidential race today. The little known Republican spent four days in Iowa this week, and reportedly left "feeling positive". The former Iowa House Speaker, Chris Rants, will serve as his senior adviser in the state, although he previously endorsed Romney. Despite McCotter's low profile amongst Republicans across the country, Politico notes that he is popular with the conservative media crowd. The commentator Andrew Breitbart told the publication that McCotter was "blunt, sarcastic, pop-culture-savvy, constitutionally sound and an authentic voice."

Not sure who he is? Here is a vintage video of him explaining "How to speak Democrat" in 2008. Suffice to say comic timing isn't his forte.

 

5. Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, will leave his job in the autumn if economic conditions improve and the debt ceiling debate is resolved, according to a senior administration official. The news has been reported by several US media outlets, including Bloomberg.

While it is too early to say whether he will definitely depart (and indeed, there are too many caveats to be sure), it would be a significant loss. Geithner is the last member of Obama's original economic team still with the administration. Possible replacements are already being touted, with the list said to include Erskine Bowles, White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, and Roger Altman, a top investment banker and former deputy Treasury secretary.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times