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 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.