Obama’s odyssey

The president hares from state to state, but are the Democrats heading for a “historic bloodbath”?

Believe the respected Rothenberg political report, and the Democrats are heading for a "historic bloodbath" on Tuesday – at least in the House. The Republicans need to pick up just 39 seats to win a majority, and there isn't a poll around that doesn't suggest they'll win at least 50 – if not dozens more.

As for the Senate, it looks likely that the Democrats will at least avoid a wipeout there – the GOP isn't heading for the neccessary ten-seat win.

And while Obama has been appealing to supporters to knock on 20,000 doors this weekend, even the wildly successful Rally to Restore Sanity hasn't given the Dems the last-minute boost they were hoping for.

Sure, most of the 250,000 people who crowded into the National Mall were liberals through and through (and you couldn't help but think back to that freezing day back in January '09, when the entire city was a sea of Obama flags and faces shiny with hope), but Jon Stewart's shtick deliberately avoided any kind of partisan appeal.

"Some of you may have seen today as a clarion call for action," he told the crowd. "Clearly some of you who just wanted to see the Air and Space Museum got royally screwed."

And when he did get political, Stewart let rip against extremists on both sides. The media, especially the likes of Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck, got most of the flak. "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing," he said.

But beneath this cacophony of extremities, there's no getting away from the fact that President Obama is about to be dealt a huge rebuke.

"Part of it is a profound unhappiness with the way Washington is working," says Matt Bennett from the Third Way think tank, describing people's deep frustration that their lives aren't getting any better and no one in charge really seems to care.

The recession is overshadowing everything – almost all Americans think the economy is in bad shape, and hardly anyone can see things getting better soon.

Curse of the 'burbs

It is even more profound in the suburbs, where 53 per cent of people describe their own financial situation as "bad". Most people, according to Princeton Survey Research, have either lost their job or know someone who has, while 40 per cent have lost their home, or know someone in that situation.

That's a lot of discontent, and, says the survey, the suburbs hold the key to this year's Republican success. Especially when the president is so city-centric: years ago, he told AP he just wasn't interested in the suburbs – "they bore me".

But what is really noticeable right now is how polarised the debate is: as the saying goes, it's a lot easier to rant than to rave. If part of the national disappointment is over what's seen as Washington's obduracy, many voters are also disillusioned by a president who promised unity, but has ended up presiding over a country more divided than ever before.

So much for "No red states, no blue states – but the United States of America". Instead, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, has been proclaiming that "the single most important thing we want to achieve for President Obama is to be a one-term president", while Obama himself urged Latino voters to "punish our enemies" on Tuesday, warning Republicans, "You can ride with us if you want, but you gotta sit in the back seat."

And partisanship is flourishing within the parties as well. The Republican establishment must surely be worrying about the prospect of all those unruly Tea Partiers causing trouble for them – as well as the Democrats – in Congress. And the "professional left" is still causing trouble for the president.

Last night, as Obama made his final pitch for votes on a four-state blitz, one small section of the crowd in Connecticut suddenly started heckling him about funding for Aids research, before the rest of the audience drowned them out.

The president – looking noticeably annoyed – told them curtly to turn their anger against the Republicans instead, warning that his entire agenda could be rolled back if the GOP prevailed.

He did get a better rap back in his old Senate seat of Illinois – where a 35,000-strong crowd whooped it up for him, 2008-style. But it says a lot about the state of the country that, three days before election day, he's having to focus on getting his own key supporters to turn up at the polls.

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

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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