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.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution