Is it over for Obama and the Democrats?

It might just be too soon to write off the president and his party.

It's not about him -- it's what he stands for. Two thirds of Americans don't have an issue with President Obama as a person -- it's not that they really think he's aloof, or too remote, or any of the other stuff which is supposed to be behind his fall in the polls.

It's just that the vast numbers of middle-of-the-road voters across the country are proving more centre-right than centre-left. Health care was one thing - but what's not going down well, it seems, is the President's handling of the economy - from the banking bail out to the still-rising numbers out of work.

When the economy is doing badly - history shows people tend to blame the party in power. And the latest survey show just one third of Americans think Barack Obama has been a "very good" or a "good" president: the rest consider him merely average, or downright "poor".

It's useful ammunition for the GOP, of course: House minority leader John Boehner is making his first major speech of the campaign in Ohio, where he'll focus on jobs: as an aide put it - "the November election will be a referendum on President Obama and Washington Democrats' job killing record." And RNC chairman Michael Steele bashed out an instant response to the jobless figures: "President Obama and his left wing allies on Capitol Hill have spent trillions of taxpayer dollars with nothing to show for it but a mountain of crippling debt and chronic joblessness."

So just over three weeks before the midterms - how should the Democrats fight back? The good news for the party is that barely anyone (just 22%, apparently) - thinks Sarah Palin would make an effective president.

And key election strategist David Plouffe, who's back running Obama's "Organising for America" campaign, has insisted voters are still open to the arguments - claiming large numbers are being put off the Republicans by the success of Tea party candidates.

President Obama himself - and the First Lady, Michelle (now officially the "World's Most Powerful Woman"...whey-hey...) - are out there whipping up enthusiasm on the campaign trail. Even Joe Biden's been sent out on the road, campaigning for 18 candidates in 23 cities across the country - with 18 more events in his busy diary before election day.

And there's a decidely populist tone coming from many Democrats - a direct pitch to working families - hitting Republicans by bashing corporate America, outsourcing of jobs, and the minimum wage.

Yesterday President Obama used his veto to block a bill that sneaked through Congress last week - which critics say would have made it easier for lenders to evict people who missed their mortgage payments. There are legal moves going on in at least ten states to extend a voluntary freeze on foreclosures - with calls for a moratorium across the country.

Union officials from the AFL-CIO have put out literature in Illinois, Oregon and Minnesota, accusing Republican gubernatorial candidates of opposing an increase in the minimum wage - while highlighting other Republican candidates who've proposed doing away with federal minimum wage regulations altogether.

And Democrats in many districts are pushing the message that they're on the side of ordinary workers - a message that pollsters say has been going down well with focus groups. In at least six close-fought Senatorial contests, like California and Indiana - they're putting out campaign ads attacking the Republicans over their record on outsourcing - like this, from Barbara Boxer: "Carly Fiorina laid off 30,000 workers. Fiorina shipped jobs to China."

Not that the Republicans are taking this quietly: a collection of lobbyists from big business called Club Fox Growth is splurging millions on ads in toss-up states which depict Democrats as "out of touch with the financial plight of average Americans." Look at the level of campaign spending, in fact, and you'd be forgiven for thinking the recession never happened...television spending by outside interest groups, says the New York Times, has more than doubled the amount spent at this stage in the 2006 midterms.

But is any of this - from hard cash to populist ads - galvanising people to the polls, and overcoming that much-documented 'enthusisasm gap' among those voters who so optimistically swept Barack Obama into power?

The most recent survey by Pew Research at first looks alarmist - under its banner headline 'Lagging Youth Enthusiasm Could Hurt Democrats in 2010'. But read a little closer - and the numbers are rather more hopeful for the party. Younger voters, it says, are far more supportive of the President than any other age group. 58% of the so called 'Millennial' generation still approve of how he's doing. Of course optimism is the preserve of the young. And three weeks isn't long to turn things around. But still - it might just be too soon to write off Obama - and those "left wing allies on Capitol Hill" - just yet.

Felicity Spector is chief writer and American politics expert for Channel 4 News.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.