Obama's disunited states

It would be a mistake to regard the result as a sweeping endorsement of the Obama presidency.

So what was all that fuss about? Voters and pundits wanting a good night's sleep should have double-checked the final opinion polls and the exits and gone to bed safe in the knowledge that Barack Obama would be re-elected by a surprisingly convincing margin.

That was one of the stories of a great night for the pollsters as well as for Democrats and liberal America. By extension, the President's decisive defeat of Mitt Romney was a stunning reverse to Republicans who had insisted that the polls underplayed their score. The GOP had confidently expected to at least take Florida and Virginia and to run Obama to the wire in Ohio. It didn't happen. The President swept the board of the key swing states. In the event, of the states that made up his total of 365 electoral college votes in 2008, Obama ceded only two - Indiana and North Carolina to Romney - romping home with narrow but clear victories in, amongst others, Virginia, Colorado and the ultimate bellwether states, Ohio. While Florida will be recounted after a mere 46,000 votes separated the two main candidates, Obama still holds the load and will probably claim the state.

It is also a personal triumph for Obama and for liberal America. The Obama-care health reforms are a political revolution that few thought a Democratic President could get through Congress against well-funded opposition determined. The rights of women, gay Americans and minorities have also been protected. The two Republican Senatorial candidates who became embroiled in scandal after making incendiary remarks opposing the termination of pregnancies resulting from rape were heavily defeated.

At the weekend, Victoria Yeroian, President of the Young Democrats at Virginia Commonwealth university, passionately described the importance of the Affordable Care Act and legislation on gender pay discrimination. By contrast, one Republican canvasser in St Petersburg told me on Monday that "Obama care forcing everybody to be equal is just wrong", arguing instead that she had been forced to sell her house to pay for her husband's healthcare and that others should do the same. It is huge breakthrough that healthcare in America will no longer be based on the ability to pay and in time opponents, as well as supporters of Obama-care, will recognise its value and justness

But it would be a mistake to regard this as a sweeping endorsement of the Obama presidency. It is not just that the two candidates were separated by a fraction over one per cent in the popular vote but the fact that the results reflect an America that is deeply divided politically, socially and economically. Obama's winning coalition was based on reaching out to latino voters. The President picked up 70 per cent of Latino voters, over 90 per cent of African-Americans, as well as a majority of women and university educated voters. However, most white Americans voted for Romney with a large majority of male voters backing the Republican.

In fact, after an election process in which the two camps have spent a combined $6bn including $700m on television adverts in the swing states alone, the reality is that little has changed. Indiana and North Carolina were the only two states to change hands compared to 2008. Meanwhile, the Democrats increased their majority in the Senate by picking up two seats but failed to make any inroads into the Republicans' 25 seat majority in the House of Representatives.

With the Republican hard-right indicating that they will continue to oppose anything and everything that the President touches the political deadlock that has paralysed Capitol Hill for over two years will not be broken if Obama does not reach out to the remaining moderate Republicans. If he can do this, the Democrats will reap the rewards. For all the animosity between Democrats and Republicans, most voters want a bipartisan approach that can break the legislative log-jam in Washington.

Without a radical change of mindset and culture, it is difficult to see how a Republican candidate will be able to secure the presidency. The Hispanic community, in particular, is increasing rapidly, now accounting for over 10 per cent of the population. On the basis of the current demographic trends, America will cease to be a majority white country between 2040 and 2050.

The division between white and black and brown America also created an unedifying spectacle in a number of counties in the likes of Florida, Ohio and Virginia, with a string of accusations and lawsuits against state Republicans over allegations that voters in predominantly African-American and hispanic communities were being blocked or delayed at polling stations. At precinct 135 on the outskirts of St Petersburg, Sharon Hodgson, Vice-Chair of Pinellas Democrats, was in no doubt that the tactics were a cynical attempt by state Republicans to stop black and hispanic people from voting. The undoubted attempts by Republicans to suppress voting were and are a shameful stain on American democracy.

After the polls closed, I spent about an hour at the post-election party of the St Petersburg Republican party. The several hundred campaigners and local candidates were polite, committed, and almost exclusively white and middle aged. Aside from two waiters there was only one black man in the room, while a handful of unhappy looking children behaving themselves in their Sunday best brought down the average age into the 50s. In a country of minorities, the GOP can simply no longer afford to be a white-person's party. The Republicans remind me of the Tory blue rinse brigade - their base support is simply too old and too white to win.

But, for the moment, who cares about the GOP's doomsday scenario and the tightness of the popular vote? Wednesday is a great day to be a liberal in America.

Ben Fox is a political reporter for EU Observer

Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and their daughters Mali and Shasa arrive to board Marine One in Chicago. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue