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The Current State of US Politics

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    1. Nicol C. Rae Florida International University Miami, Florida The Current State of US Politics

    3. Political Consequences Election of Barack Obama and a comfortably Democratic Congress in 2008 Misinterpretation of 2008 election outcome by Democrats and media The Obama Presidency Continued Political Polarization Constraints on political change in the US

    4. The 2008 Election The Unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration indicated a likely Democratic win in 2008 Recession Iraq and Afghanistan Wins Democratic Congressional Triumph 2006 Cycles of American Politics But the election of a relatively inexperienced African-American Senator total surprise, and monumental development in US History

    5. The Democratic Nomination: Why Obama? Underestimated the appeal of an attractive and charismatic minority candidate with a compelling life story. Overestimated the appeal of Hillary (and Bill) Clinton Mobilization of a network of grassroots leftist organizations (netroots) engendered by hostility to Iraq War Capacity to raise enough money to compete with Clinton Clear Antiwar position v. Clinton Great campaign organization and strategy with full understanding of rules of the Democratic primary process (contrast Clinton) Fortuna

    6. The Republican Nomination: Why McCain? Other candidates all had liabilities Conservatives split vote between Huckabee and Romney McCains defense of Bush administrations Iraq surge resonated with Republican voters The Republican primary schedule and rules Polls showed McCain to be the GOPs strongest candidate v. Clinton or Obama Maverick anti-establishment image Least associated with Bush administration or Republican culture of corruption

    7. The General Election E2000 and 2004 elections characterized by extremely closely divided electorate. 2008 shaping up similarly after McCain closed gap following GOP convention GOP convention highlighted Obamas liabilities BUT Financial tsunami of late September 2008 changed the whole context of the campaign away from national security/cultural issues Ensured a comfortable victory for Obama with strengthened Democratic majorities in Congress (including a 60-vote Senate).

    8. Red and Blue States : 2000-2008

    9. 2008 Election By County

    10. II. Misinterpreting the Election Sense of public euphoria around Obamas Inauguration BUT pronounced decline in public approval later in 2009 Democratic hopes of major policy change meet political realities Health Care Climate Change International Challenges Afghanistan Iran Arab/Israeli Conflict

    11. Realignment? Mandate? Many Democrats (and media commentators) believed 2008 election indicated realignment due to increasing support for Obama among: Latinos College-Educated Professionals/Upper Middle Class Youngest Voters Mandate for more activist government at home marking end of Reagan Era Bank Regulation Health Care Environment

    12. Realignment Evidence sketchy at best Some demographic trends favor the Democrats but some secular forces moving other way White working class South/Appalachia Older Voters Obama Coalition Young, Minorities, Educated Professionals inherently unstable Big Bang Realignment misleading concept? Lack of Stable Party Ties

    13. Mandate The concept of the mandate is a potential trap for Presidents Obama won because: He was a Democrat in a Democratic year (Pendulum Effect) Recession The financial meltdown of fall 2008 His mandate: End the financial crisis Bring about economic recovery Not a big government mandate.

    14. Obamas Declining Popularity

    15. Presidential Approval Obamas first year is fairly typical of recent Presidents Standard Pattern to a Presidency Honeymoon and initial legislative successes (stimulus package) Reality Check as underlying domestics and foreign policy problems inevitably intrude Underlying party polarization asserts itself Inevitable drop in presidential popularity 50-55% approval at end of first year PAR for the course.

    16. III. The Obama Presidency NOT George W. Bush! Cool, cerebral, analytical and consensual Deliberative rather than decisive decision-making. Polished speaker able to evoke symbolism of civil rights era Danger of overexposure (as for most presidents no matter how articulate) Popular with educated professionals and African Americans but Obama has problem with middle and working class whites (dating to 2008 Democratic primaries)

    17. The Cabinet Mostly made up of figures from the Democratic party establishment representing the most important elements of the party coalition Clinton Napolitano Salazar Holder Two interesting (and somewhat controversial) appointments Robert Gates retained at Defense despite association with G. W. Bush administration Iraq and Afghanistan policy Timothy Geithner named Treasury Secretary despite close association with failed Fed. Policies regarding Wall Street

    18. The White House Staff Closest aides Emmanuel and Axelrod hardball Chicago partisans Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel: Architect of Democratic House Majority Centrist Veteran of Clinton Adminstration Very abrasive and partisan political style (contrast Andy Card and Josh Bolten) David Axelrod Chicago political consultant Not clear aggressive style is working well with Congress, media, or public

    19. Obama Domestic Initiatives Economic Stimulus Package passed very early in his presidency Too limited? Not directed to job-creating sectors like infrastructure Unemployment stayed in double digits Successful nomination of Sonia Sotomayor (first Latino/Latina) to Supreme Court Financial Reform Not seen by left as adequate but may be moving toward tougher posture Climate Change Stalled in Congress and unlikely to pass Immigration Reform Unlikely to get very far in current climate

    20. Biggest Domestic Initiative: Health Care Major goal of the Democratic party since FDR to implement universal health care coverage The Democratic majorities in House and Senate seemed to give Obama an opportunity Obama deferred to congressional leadership on legislation House and Senate bills expanded coverage through individual mandate and state health insurance exchanges (public option in House bill). Neither bill popular with public Fears of expanding deficit Fears of losing current coverage Fears to taxation to pay for health care to indigents Major comprehensive bill now unlikely to pass

    21. (Apparent) Failure of Health Care Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress misread degree of public enthusiasm for it Misinterpreting the mandate again Underestimated concerns about deficits Obama deferred to congressional leadership Put his political fate in hands of other political actors instead of exercising power (Richard Neustadt) Did not make serious attempt to co-opt Republican minority All serious social reform in US has been to some degree bipartisan Senate Republicans vehemently and unanimously opposed bill Deal making with individual legislators and allied interest groups to pass bill did not reflect well on Democrats.

    22. Foreign/Security Policy Generally easier for Presidents Wildavsky Obamas policy surprising similar to Bush in many aspects although very different in tone. More multilateral approach (e.g: Iran) Obama popular abroad Nobel Prize Gained him nothing at home Maintained Bush administration Iraq policy with solid withdrawal date Under political pressure from right and left expanded American military commitment in Afghanistan to defeat Taliban and sustain Karzai regime Climate Change Copenhagen hardly a staggering success Ambivalent posture on Honduras coup Pledged to close Guantanamo and try terrorists in civil system but still adhering to many Bush anti-terror policies New York trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed very politically controversial. Tried to avoid War on Terror rhetoric but administration seriously embarrassed by Christmas underwear bomber scare.

    23. IV. Governing in an Era of Polarization Obamas 2008 campaign was often held to be post-partisan In the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton he generally appeared to be closer to the political center on domestic issues e.g.: health care Many were inspired by Obamas rhetoric which yearned for national unity and his campaign seemed to promise the healing of wounds and divisions in American politics eg: race Won the election because he convinced voters that he was not an ideologue, but had thoughtful and pragmatic answers to the problems facing the US at home and abroad. Once in office postpartisanship proved to be illusory

    24. Growing Partisanship in American Politics Since the mid-1970s Americas two major parties have become increasingly polarized The Civil Rights revolution in the 1960s dramatically realigned the two major parties on ideological grounds: Democrats more liberal, pro-government party Republicans more conservative, anti-government party The conservative Democratic South became the conservative Republican South Much of the Republican North became increasingly Democratic After 2008 election not a single Republican House member from New England states American Politics became increasingly ideologically and geographically polarized Rates of partisan voting in Congress increased dramatically since 1980. American politics today most partisan since late 19th century

    25. Election Maps: 2000-2008

    26. Culture War The issues that seem to most clearly divide the party are cultural/lifestyle issues Abortion/Reproductive issues Gay Rights Role of Religion in Public Life 2004 election the degree of religiosity rather than religious affiliation was the best predictor of presidential vote. Traditionally poor conservative bible belt states of the South and Mountain West conservative Republican bastions ( Democrats dominant in the wealthy, coastal states Midwestern/Great Lakes states competitive

    27. Blasphemous Map

    28. Polarized or just Closely Divided Morris Fiorina has questioned the degree to which American politics is really polarized as opposed to just closely divided. Polls shows that most voters in most states not so polarized on cultural issues as party activists and candidates. Fiorina blames unrepresentative American political elites for generating polarization between the parties. Culture War is an illusion American is neither Red nor Blue But Purple.

    29. Purple America

    30. Party Polarization Matters BUT political elites matter more because: They are political elites and general public tends to follow them politically over time. They participate and vote at far greater rate than public at large Polarized interest groups fund the parties and provide activists Candidates and parties have to respond to them in terms of policy. As center ground shrinks American elections become exercises in base mobilization rather than competing for centrist voters e.g.: 2004

    31. Illusion of PostPartisanship 2008 election focused on economic issues seemed to demonstrate a longing to escape from the culture wars and polarization. BUT Polarization returned with a vengeance not long after Obama became President and explains much of his falling approval ratings as Republicans and conservative independents returned to their normal positions. Culture War is real for most politically active Americans Reinforced by adversarial news media such as Cable TV and the Internet Fox News & MSNBC Huffington Post, Daily Kos & Netroots on Left, Red State and Tea Partiers on Right And ideological think tanks in Washington Heritage and Cato Institutes, Center for American Progress

    32. Partisanship in Congress Center ground in Congress has diminished greatly and particularly in the House BUT most significant legislation needs 60 votes to pass the Senate Depending on party composition of Congress there are three possible legislative strategies (C. Jones) Bipartisanship - collaboration between party leaders Crosspartisanship winning enough members of the other party to pass the bill Pure/Competitive partisanship pass the bill with the votes of your own party

    33. Obama Legislative Strategy Large Democratic majorities in Congress 256-178 in House 60-40 in Senate Makes Competitive Partisanship possible but no margin for error in Senate Obama got three Republican votes in the Senate to pass the stimulus package (1 switched parties later). Climate Change Bill passed the House but no prospects of Senate passage Health Care Bill passed House ((220-215, 1 Republican in favor) but unanimously opposed by Senate Republicans Passed Senate only with Democratic votes and after prolonged negotiations to bring all Democratic Senators on board including favors to Senators Mass. Special election provided 41 Republican Senators Bill dies in current form. Democrats had numbers to enact change in Congress but maintaining party unity gets harder as next elections approaches Democratic popularity collapsed and members starting to retire.

    34. Why the Partisan Resurgence since 2008? The cultural divisions in the electorate are real and reinforced by party attachments which were submerged by the financial crisis late in the campaign and the euphoria of Obama inauguration. Obamas popular vote margin in 2008 was relatively narrow at 53-46 particularly given the economic meltdown and poor McCain campaign. Polarized reactions to the vice-presidential nomination of Sarah Palin indicated that culture war could easily be reignited Despite convincing win Obama had significant electoral weaknesses among culturally conservative older voters, rural voters, and white working class the core of the grassroots tea-party movement.

    35. What Happens Next? Obama lost the Republican-leaning groups early. Now Obama administration caught between satisfying netroots constituency and independent voters who combined to elect him in 2008 Lost the upper middle-class independents on deficit and health care Lost much of the Left on Afghanistan and Wall Street bailout Facing possibly large Democratic losses in 2010 congressional elections and stalling of legislative agenda Can he succeed by pivoting (or re-pivoting) to the center like Clinton and hope for economic recovery by 2012. Or will he meet the same fate as Jimmy Carter?

    36. V. Governing in a Separated System in the 2010s Often forget that the American system of government is configured to impede significant political change. Procedures in Congress particularly the Senate make it even harder The short two-year election cycle provides very limited window to implement major legislation. Electoral mandates are tenuous and ephemeral especially in the context of deep-rooted party polarization Presidents need to devise a policy agenda that matches public concerns and take advantage of short-term political opportunities Obama misread public concerns by focusing on health care at the expense of the economy in his first year

    37. Concerns Severe Economic Recession Failure to control budget deficit/national debt Deficit constrains expansionist government at home as Democrats discovered with health care. Loss of status to China in economic and foreign policy Increasing income disparities at home Alienation from politics as expressed by tea party movement Polarization between party elites filtering down to mass

    38. Obamas Challenge Constraints of governing system, deficit, and political polarization plus difficult world situation make this a difficult time to be President even with comfortable congressional majorities Burden of expectations always unreasonably high for Presidents and even more so for Obama Continuing recession and midterm congressional elections would end possibility of major policy change in a leftward direction. Major terrorist outrage or disaster in Afghanistan would undermine support for foreign policy. Possibility of failed presidency that would undermine the Democratic party and American liberalism for some time to come.

    39. Opportunities Economic recovery would certainly revive Democrats fortunes Will it be strong enough? Republicans still unpopular and could overplay their hand lose the center Loss of effective control over Congress could allow Obama to recover in new role as check on ideologically conservative Congress All of these allowed Bill Clinton to recover from disastrous start in 1990 Not clear if Obama has Bill Clintons degree of political agility