That’s the sound of swing voters swinging away from Obama

Although he remains overwhelmingly popular inside his own party, Obama is losing the independents.

Six months ago, the White House was weighing up an enviable problem: when do you get to start celebrating an economic recovery? The administration's chief economist at the time, Austan Goolsbee, had announced that the US had "turned a very serious corner". The Democratic strategist Paul Begala told me the "hard part" was to cheerlead the "nascent recovery" without appearing out of touch. I wrote a now-ludicrous story casting Barack Obama's dilem­ma as being when and how to declare victory.

That assumption was not limited to Democrats. The Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney warned a private Republican gathering a year ago this month that Obama "will do everything he can to get the economy going back again, and most likely - at least in my view - the economy will be coming back". Romney told Republicans that they would have to make the vaguer case that Obama "has not understood the nature of America".

Obama took office with what looked like enviable timing. Americans had chosen the candidate of change in bad times and, when recovery inevitably took hold, he would get the credit. That was the formula for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. In 1995, Clinton's aides had the same debate Obama's had this winter. They convinced Clinton to declare economic victory, and he helped turn favourable economic numbers into an optimistic national mood.

Numbers game

Economists and politicians will debate why the US recovery flagged this spring. Critics on the right say Obama should have cut regulations and taxes, not passed a new health-care plan. Keynesians to his left say - as they have said for two years - that his "stimulus" was simply too small. That question of blame will be central to next year's presidential campaign.

Reagan and Clinton were both years in to real booms when public perception caught up with economic reality. Obama's aides like to note that poll numbers for every president of modern times have dipped below 40 per cent - as Obama's did last month for the first time in Gallup's survey. But neither Reagan nor Clinton had ratings this bad this close to an election.

So, Obama's supporters and foes alike have begun to contemplate something that has no place in the triumphal arc on which he seemed set when elected: Obama could well lose next time. The president's odds of re-election on the political gambling site Intrade were exactly even last weekend. And the online traders aren't the only ones gambling.

The sense of weakness has begun to ripple outward. For instance, Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike are acting as if there won't be another Obama term, rebuffing the most powerful man in the world without evident regret.

Obama ran for office and won it as the candidate of history and change - and that candidate never loses. For that reason, it may have taken unusually long for his lengthening odds for 2012 to sink in. The White House still projects political confidence and leading Democrats continue to stand with Obama publicly, but privately they are beginning to worry.

Although he remains overwhelmingly popular inside his own party, it's the independents he's losing. An unexpectedly tight congressional election in liberal New York City is the latest bad sign: the voters, unhappy with Obama, are taking it out on his allies.

One recent weekend in New Hampshire, it was easy to see the path to an Obama defeat. He won the state by 10 percentage points in 2008. Now a series of statewide polls shows him trailing Romney - who has established his residence at a local vacation home. Romney may not survive the arrival of the staunchly conservative Rick Perry in the Republican primary, but Perry's entry into the race has, paradoxically, liberated the moderate former governor of Massachusetts to follow a more centrist path. At a sparsely attended Tea Party rally at a park in Concord, New Hampshire, Romney didn't let the words "Tea Party" pass his lips, and he hasn't offered the conservative grass roots any especially juicy red meat.

The next morning, Romney found his core supporters - more than 400 of them, an excellent turnout in the small-scale politics of the state - at a Manchester country club. They included people such as Susan Greeley. (Her husband is a distant cousin of the newspaper editor Horace Greeley, who said: "Go west, young man.") She voted for Obama in 2008, but will vote for Romney in 2012 if he is the Republican nominee. He is, she said, "balanced" and "level-headed". "I want somebody who's in the centre who can pull people together from both sides," said another Romney backer, Bill Gordon. "We'll tear this country apart if we swing all the way the other way."

Centre ground

These are the voices of swing voters swinging away from the president. And they aren't people who hate Obama - indeed, surveys show that more than 70 per cent of Americans like him, though only about half that number think he's doing a good job. While Perry projects the Tea Party's loathing - the president, he said recently, appears to be an "abject liar" - Romney has calibrated his pitch to the centre, where elections are decided. He speaks of Obama in tones of pity, as a man out of his depth. The president, Romney said in the Republicans' California debate on 7 September, is "a nice guy" who "doesn't have a clue how to get this country working again".

That's a powerful pitch to suburban working women like Greeley, who make up a vital bloc of swing votes and who may not warm as quickly to Perry's more sharply conservative views. It's a symptom of Obama's plight that his shot at a second term may turn on the decisions of Republican primary voters - yet another development over which he has almost no control.

Ben Smith writes for politico.com

This article first appeared in the 19 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the next Prime Minister

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”