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.

Getty
Show Hide image

France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt