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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage