As we approach the end of the year, we also approach the American mid-term elections. For those who have lived in parliamentary systems, the mid-term Congressional elections may produce an odd result: the Congress, or at least one house of the Congress, is likely to switch parties, but President Barack Obama still has two years left in his term. So we may have a dose of divided government.
Most Americans are just fine with that. They believe Lord Acton was right when he said that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” So Americans like one party to keep an eye on the other.
Although it is common for the President’s party to lose seats in a mid-term election, this year there is something more dramatic at work. President Obama and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have passed a great deal of legislation — notably the Health Insurance bill popularly dubbed “ObamaCare,” and they have done so in the face of polls that show most Americans are opposed to these policies.
Opposition to this expansion of government by the Democrats, combined with disgust at the last Republican majority in Congress for losing all spending discipline, has led to the formation of a citizen movement known as “The Tea Party,” named after the Tea Party staged in Boston Harbor in 1773 as a protest against the British tax on tea in the days leading up to the American Revolution.
There is a great sense of “buyer’s remorse” among Americans regarding the election of Barack Obama. He was once seen as a kind of antidote to George W. Bush. He was thought to be smarter, cooler and analytical. He could articulate the yearnings of Americans and could approach the rest of the world with friendship and respect.
Almost two years into his presidency, there is a disconnect. Part of it is that he has not succeeded in turning the economy around. That may be an unfair expectation but, in America, politicians take credit for the sunshine, so it is not surprising they get blamed for the rain.
Beyond a lack of success, though, the substance of his policies seems to be moving America upon a road most Americans see as alien — toward bigger government and a more robust safety net. Many Americans suspect that Obama would like America to be more like Sweden. But Americans are not Swedes.
Beyond his failures and beyond the substance of his policies, Americans who once projected the personality of their choice upon an almost unknown Barack Obama now see him as somewhat distant. Too cool and collected, not filled with the passion that connects with the “man on the street,” he seems detached, cerebral, and it is not even clear that he enjoys the job anymore.
The election of Barack Obama was a historic moment… the first African American to be elected President of the United States. Being black did not hinder him in the election; it actually helped him. His campaign successfully aligned itself with the great national mission of expanding our democracy. If the vote was once restricted to white, male landholders, the rising to the highest office in the land of an African American was, symbolically, a completion of the Constitution, a justification for the Declaration of Independence and a crown giving purpose to the bloodshed at Gettysburg and in the Civil War.
Now, many Americans think he was just too inexperienced, too much of an ideologue and too foreign from American concerns and more, they think they made a mistake in electing him.
The polls indicate massive shifts with the Republicans picking up hundreds of state legislative seats, a landslide in the House of Representatives and among the nation’s governors; the Senate could switch control as well, though that is hard because Republicans are starting at very low levels and only one-third of the Senate seats are elected in any given Senate election. If it transpires, it would be a dramatic rebuke to President Obama and a rejection of his policies.
Of course, it was not just Americans who looked to Barack Obama as an agent of hope and change. People around the world — and their governments — thought he would be more willing to consult.
Yet our sense is that the world has grown a little disappointed as well — perhaps because consulting and speech-giving are not enough. Just as Americans do not want to be Sweden, the truth is that the world doesn’t want America to be Sweden either.
The world needs an aggressive and strong America, one fighting to keep stability in the world, while pressing for liberty to expand its influence — an America that pushes for free trade but also has the ability and willingness to keep the sea lanes open.
It is a delicate balance. As now-retired General and Secretary of State Colin Powell once said of America: “One of the fondest expressions around is that we can’t be the world’s policeman. But guess who gets called when somebody needs a cop.”