Obama--waving, drowning or singing?
As I wrote back in 2008 (I could start so many posts like that but my head has to fit through the odd narrow door) Barack Obama ought to be a one-term president. Unlike many, I didn't think that such a status would have much to do with the administration per se, but with the clash of the programme upon which Mr Obama was elected and reality.
The truth is that the USA is a deeply divided society, whose banks are in essence criminal enterprises, facing a long term loss of economic capacity, markets, dollar reserve status, and fiscal continence. It was fairly obvious in 2008, after TARP, that money would be diverted to banks and monetary gods rather than infrastructure and jobs, and also that the combination of corporate socialism for business and the exhasution of overindebted muncipalities and states (especially after AIG) would bring things to grief. No increase in demand--that is, a concerted attempt to lower unemployment--would be permitted and no tax cut for small business was possible.
That the world should have entered a strange collation of troughs--the downturn caused by falls in trade, the eurozone crisis, the derivative crisis, the sovereign bond crisis and the dollar-china imbalance spilling over into commodities--all at once seemed to me to guarantee an unexpected opposition victory in 2012, and another switch or even party realigment in 2016.
Yet, by the start of this year, the administration had been handed several breaks, which when taken together could in theory have changed the dynamics of the November election campaign. A very divisive republican primary campaign had opened up lines of attack on the presumptive nominee that made Mr Romney a very flawed candidate. In addition, Ron Paul supporters, now off-message and without a leader, have got themselves elected in large numbers as delegates to the GOP convention. They could very much destablise things, removing the spotlight from what will no doubt be the Democrats' own tepid debacle in North Carolina later this Summer. Obama has embraced the Democrat way of war--special forces and intelligence interventions--in such a way that he cannot be called weak (indeed, if anything, he can be called an Imperial President). The public story of Osama Bin Laden's death has been told. Manufacturing in the former rust belt is on a bit of an up, and the president has managed to make Republicans look like people of bad faith in Congress and a party opposed to immigrants outside of it.
So why, in the event, is Obama statistically tied with Romney across a range of polls and still facing defeat?
I think that there are a number of factors, which could of course change between now and election day.
Firstly, healthcare as an entire package is an election killer. In particular, the orginally conservative idea of an 'individual and employer mandate' is misconceived. It is a policy which requires employers to provide healthcare packages for individuals, and for individuals to contribute to them. Resilience from this orthodoxy is met with fines up to the value of the cheapest package that could have been provided, as I understand it. These fines are levied through the tax system.
It is possible to use the commerce clause and the clause of the constitution allowing for taxes and implied powers to meet necessary and proper ends to, say, require insurance on federal roads. That eliminates a cost that would otherwise make driving impossible. It is also possible to argue that the founders of the constitution supported healthcare for troops and sailors; insurance was mandated when the Navy was organised in the Barbary Wars, for instance. But it is not possible to use the tax or the commerce clauses of the constitution, as far as I can see, to force people to have what would otherwise elective health insurance. On top of that, when some procedures are classed as healthcare but disputed by religious employers, it is probably not possible to use such a system without endangering the first amendment.
The mandate section of Obamacare is a vote-killer. Although there is no one Catholic or Evangelical bloc, there are networks of money and influence in key states which could deprive the administration of electoral votes that they must win, should the mandate system continue--for instance, in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Ironically, the rest of the act--which allows for the restriction of insurance conditions, drug prices, and costs--is probably quite popular. Should the Supreme Court kill only the mandate this week, it may actually be doing Obama a favour. The key to how much of a favour it would be would link directly to the strength of the media spin which established the story and inversely to the working memory of those Americans who would have been dished by the mandate.
Secondly, however, even if Team Obama catch that break, the economy is about to fall into a deeper acknowledgement of the depression which many Americans have been experiencing for some time. This in itself will shave points from Mr Obama, just as his stance on gay marriage has probably lost him North Carolina. Without NC, or Virginia, and with Pennsylvania iffy, there are very few ways that the president can win in November, given a probable loss in Florida. Unlike many, I think that he stands a good chance of winning Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as Iowa and Colorado--but, added to his sure states, that would still leave him trailing Mr Romney 255-279 in the electoral college, where only 270 votes are needed to win.
Thirdly, Mr Obama has not defused the mortgage registration scandal, nor done more than postpone the foreclosure crisis, nor can Ben Bernanke's 'operation twist' and the efforts of the banks to hold down gold disguise the cancer that is eating away at the US capacity to finance business or to encourage new enterprise. The student loan bubble is about to pop. An expanded Syrian civil war in the Middle East looks more likely by the day, and, well, the air is ripe with the sound of rather nasty events in the pipeline.
Crisis does have a way of dramatising the presidency, and it is still possible, of course, that Mr Obama's administration can turn things around. The solid achievements of this administration are abroad--no Iran war as yet--or largely unacknowledged--energy independence is nearer, for example, at the expense of the deepwater disaster amongst other things. I can't help feeling that a whole new chapter of discord and lies will open up next January 20th, however, if and when Mr Romney and his particualr space cadets take office--and it won't necessarily be Mr Obama's fault.
UPDATE: Bloody Hell. As of today, the entire Affordable Care Act is apparently constitutional. Though the court, as I thought, thought it an impossible leap to allow the commerce clause to be used to institute the mandate, they have accepted that the tax power can be used to penalise people who do not have insurance. I had argued myself into the point that you could not have one or the other, but was in that case wrong. Now, though, the question of whether religious organisations will be allowed to provide care on their terms, and of whether the mandate will motivate small business people into the booths against the president, will be tested on election day. It all goes to show the utility of caution in prediction....