US election: Across the great divide

by Jon Johansson / 03 November, 2012
In the countdown to the US presidential poll, Victoria University political scientist Jon Johansson tours the red and blue states and finds an unhappy land.
US election - Statue of Liberty

Possessing a chosen country, with room enough for descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation … what more is necessary to make us a happy and prosperous people?
– Thomas Jefferson, 1801

In the first decade of the 19th century, Indian Wars veterans Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carried out the first transcontinental expedition to the United States’ Pacific coast. Their trip, at President Thomas Jefferson’s request, had two objectives: to study plants, animal life and geography; and to explore the economic potential of the expanse west of the Mississippi. This year, with a presidential election looming, it seemed worth driving the return journey: from Astoria, Oregon, eastwards to St Louis, then up to Chicago. We wanted to see the land Lewis and Clark saw, to try to imagine it through their eyes. We would be able to better appreciate their great achievement, which was, as historian Stephen Ambrose said, to make the idea of the West “something with which the mind could deal”.

After leaving the bluish hue of Oregon, we’d be tracking through solid Republican country, red-to-the-core Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Nebraska. We’d hit the Midwest, Kansas and Missouri before eventually reaching the line where, somewhere in suburban Ohio, red meets blue and presidential elections are won or lost. We’d then drive onwards, to upstate New York and through New Hampshire to Maine and the Atlantic coast before finally heading south to the liberal enclaves of Boston, New York and the District of Columbia. For me, the road trip was like a large field experiment while I mulled over President Barack Obama’s second-term prospects. Second-term prospects? What about the election? What about the deadlocked race and the bizarre comeback from near death for the surging Romney campaign? There’s no hiding it: I’ve never thought former Governor Mitt Romney could beat Obama. I believe he’s the worst Republican candidate since Bob Dole in 1996, so he should lose an election that some Republicans convinced themselves was theirs as of right.

Only the economy, not the Republicans, could defeat Obama. Or so I thought until he failed to show up in the first presidential debate, thereby giving sucker Romney an even break. I also believe that, consciously or otherwise, there are enough Americans who do not want to see this president fail. Right through my trip, however, polls had Obama and Romney neck and neck – as they are now – but with the President always looking a better bet on the Electoral College map – as he remains (just). And because Romney is that bad, his win in the first debate notwithstanding, I’ve mostly pondered the question of whether Obama might win a mandate that allows him to build on his first-term achievements. Or will stasis and inertia characterise the next four years? Driving east, I was thinking about Obama’s prospects for achieving what Yale presidential scholar Stephen Skowronek called a “reconstructive” presidency.

According to Skowronek, there were five earlier reconstructive presidencies: those of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Each of these presidents fundamentally altered the direction of American politics. Skowronek analysed Obama’s first term and concluded the president had transformative potential but it could go either way.


As our trip began in San Francisco, Astoria – 1200km to the north – seemed a long way away, but at dusk 13 hours later we made it to the Oregon coast. We gorged on seafood, drank too much and watched giant container ships pass by our hotel room – in a converted cannery where the Columbia River meets the mighty Pacific Ocean. I thought Lewis and Clark, who reached the Pacific a little over 18 months after leaving St Louis, might similarly have celebrated long into the night. But apparently not: from Clark’s diary, they seemed to be intoxicated only by the view:

Men appear much Satisfied with their trip beholding with estonishment the high waves dashing against the rocks & this emence Ocian.

They had arrived in Astoria in November 1805, after travelling about 5500km. They were still to build Fort Clatsop, where they would winter before beginning their return slog, so they can be excused for not getting too far ahead of themselves. The next morning we stayed close to the Columbia River as we drove eastwards across Oregon and Washington, and then inland across Idaho and finally into Montana – up the main divide and down the Lolo trail to Missoula. The next day included a detour to Yellowstone National Park – where our tempers boiled like the super-volcano beneath us as we found ourselves caught up with too many Americans who were themselves on holiday – before we eventually found our way to Billings, Montana, in the heart of Big Sky country. We were relieved to stop because I’d hit a loose bit of metal that shredded the left rear tyre. That was okay, even at 135km/h, but a funny thing happens when one’s force is disturbed: time slows to frame-by-frame moments even while everything is happening way too fast. As I gripped the wheel, kept my foot off the brake, checked my mirrors, reassured my wife, Paula, that everything was okay and steered the limping beast off the road, I was thinking, “This is what it must be like for Obama: just hanging on.”


How did it get to this for Barack Obama? Two main reasons: the economy has been flat, and he has failed to meet voters’ high expectations. The economic calamity that was the global financial crisis laid waste to millions of jobs. For a while, senior policy-makers seemed to have genuine concern about whether the economic system would collapse. But Obama’s responsible stabilisation of the financial system had the unintended consequence of tying him more closely to the old order than he would have wanted, limiting his ability to repudiate it, which is necessary when leading reconstructive politics. His failure to close the detention and interrogation camp at Guantánamo Bay also reinforced the image of him as someone continuing with the old rather than charging ahead with path-altering change.

When I was living in Washington DC in the second half of 2009, the economy was flat-lining: there was negligible growth and entrenched high unemployment (around 9.7%) The orthodox view of Washington’s scribbling set was that Obama could not be re-elected unless there was dramatic improvement in the economy. Three years on, the economy is still sputtering on, although unemployment has finally fallen below 8%. Crucially, the economy in battleground states like Ohio, Virginia and Florida is doing better than in the country overall. Also saving Obama in 2012 has been an underlying perception that his predecessor left him a dreadful mess. In any case, expectations were unrealistically high in November 2008 when Americans emphatically and enthusiastically placed their trust in their first black president. It was such a historic vote, so rich in symbolism, that it’s likely to overshadow the Obama presidency’s achievements and failures. The symbolism became slightly surreal when the heirs to Alfred Nobel’s conscience made the stunningly patronising decision to award the Peace Prize to Obama.

Compounding this was candidate Obama’s superb public speaking performances, which allowed him to defeat favourite Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and then Republican Senator John McCain in the race for the White House. I had started out a Clinton supporter (for reasons of realpolitik rather than affection) and my friends have not ceased to remind me how wrong I was. Yet something about candidate Obama irritated me during 2008. I used to scream at the telly when he would do one of his endless- loop preachy acts on the stump. I now know what bothered me. People voted in that Obama, the electrifying candidate who made people faint, weep and be inspired by his amazing voice. How could he feel so much, know so much and make us hope? He couldn’t.

Part of the disconnect between Obama and his fellow Democrats and the independent voters who put him in the Oval Office is their realisation that the coolly rational, pointy-headed policy wonk, the no-drama Obama they have as president, is the authentic man, not the emotion-provoking candidate Obama they hoped and prayed would break through and change their lives for the better. On occasions, such as during the first debate with Romney, President Obama can’t hide his disdain for candidate Obama, which only reinforces an odd inauthenticity.


We went east from Billings to Bismarck, North Dakota. Most Americans sneer if you mention North Dakota but it is one of the most beautiful US landscapes I’ve seen. The colours, emerald and gold on a big blue canvas of sky, were sumptuous, and the topography of Badlands National Park in the state’s west belongs on another planet. That night, in a happy, dreamy state, I started talking to Denis, a mining accountant in a local bar. He was as pro-Republican as he was anti-Obama. He had spent a year in the early 1980s working at the Waihi gold mine and he said he’d never drunk so much, before or since. He added it was just as well, because when he went to an NPC final at Hamilton’s Rugby Park, being drunk was the only way to absorb the sight of 40-year-oldcheerleaders revealing way too much. I judged this rude, so said to him in my best Kiwi English, “Did you know that Romney’s God is from the planet Kolob?” He grinned. “That’s exactly right, Kiwi,” he said. “Obama is costing us jobs.” Huh? If such basic misunderstandings weren’t a daily occurrence in America I’d think it was me. However, it is a well-known hazard – and one David Lange also believed explained his difficulties with the Americans: that we and they are, as George Bernard Shaw said, “two countries separated by a common language”.

I mention it also because Democrats and Republicans communicate about as well as my mining friend and me, which is to say they talk straight past each other. Politics divides America even more than religion or sport. An atheist liberal Democrat is probably the most contemptible fellow citizen to the Republican mind; for Democrats the anti-science, anti-women, anti-immigrant Republican mindset is anathema to their progressive instincts. The resulting – and revolting – hyper-partisanship certainly predates the Obama presidency, but has only intensified during the past four years. The Republicans – conservative billionaires and their proxies in the media and elsewhere – have thrown the kitchen sink at Obama. He has been portrayed variously as godless, un-American (he’s dog-whistled as a either a Muslim appeaser or just plain Muslim), not American (by the birthers) and weak. The right has seen obstructiveness as its path back to power.

For the entire term, Republicans have just said no, turning their back on virtually every White House initiative in the hope of painting Obama as an ineffectual and weak president and driving him from office after one term. During my 2009 stay, Obama’s health care bill barely moved through the legislative maw that is the US Congress. The Senate, by December, had so done my head in that I remember feeling joy when we finally escaped the capital’s inertia for New Orleans and action. The stasis in the American political system is chronic. There’s no denying it, yet the counter-argument is that health care did pass, however awkwardly, so the Government can still get big things done: by 2016, 30 million more Americans will gain access to health care. These positions are hard to reconcile, but perhaps large-scale reform in contemporary American politics will always look ugly at the point of passage. Perhaps large-scale reform always does.


Ronald Reagan’s reconstruction is a qualified one because it wasn’t deeply structural. He may have enticed blue-collar Democrat voters to cross over, but the Democrats have held the White House for as long as the Republicans since “Dutch” wandered off into the sunset, not least because his voting realignment has been more than compensated for by the growth of heavily Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters. Reagan’s reconstruction was solely rhetorical, as he set the terms of political language and debate, most particularly around taxes (even though he raised them when he accepted his earlier economic policies were proving fiscally disastrous), the role of government and welfare. Bill Clinton succeeded because he understood this even as he railed against it, once famously exploding that his re-election chances relied upon “a bunch of f---ing bond traders”. George W Bush, seen as a swaggering and vigorous young defender of the faith, thrived. Hurricane Katrina and then Iraq changed all that.

Even Obama projects Reagan from time to time. Most of the President’s big set-piece speeches doff their cap at Nancy’s Ron. And that explains the disappointment of Obama’s first term. This
unbelievably talented first-in-his-class politician has not been able to break free, to forge new directions. He, too, lives in the ever-so-slowly receding shadow of the Reagan era – and that’s not change you can believe in. The Reagan revolution is nonetheless exhausted. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by the dreadful modern-day Republican Party. The new and ninth version of Mitt is imperfect camouflage for all that ails the Grand Old Party, although as long as Romney’s polls hold up, so will the mask.

Moderate Republicans have been purged or driven from the party. Mitt’s father George, Rockefeller Republicans, Richard Nixon – yes, even Reagan and the elder Bush – would all be burnt at the stake in 2012 for their liberal heresies. Romney, if he were ever honest enough for long enough to stand on principle, would likewise be set on fire, but luckily for him his first eight versions pretended to be severely conservative, so the Republican base’s betrayal will probably not boil over until after the election has been lost. Romney’s platform is implausibly vague and the candidate, whenever he’s dissembling over little details like how his economic plan might balance, is likewise vacuous. His sidekick, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, flat out makes things up. Presidential scholar Erwin Hargrove’s idea of leaders “teaching reality” to the citizenry has taken a historic beating this election cycle.

As Romney said, his campaign wouldn’t be influenced by “fact-checkers”. The greater risk to the Common Weal lies in those lower down the party’s ticket. I mean this affectionately, but Republican House members are perfectly entitled to be barking mad. The House of Representatives was created precisely so that the peoples’ passions could be contained, and hopefully constrained, but the Senate was established at least in part to safeguard against these passions spilling over to infect the wider body politic. It was the House that founding father James Madison had in mind when he explained in Federalist No 66 the different roles each chamber plays in impeachment – one as accuser, the other as jury – designed as such to ward against “the prevalency [sic] of a fractious spirit in either of those branches”, which is exactly how it played out during the attempt to impeach Clinton. But if House intransigence and insane flights of fancy are a concern, the Senate is at greater risk. With Tea Party Republicans, absolutists all, already in or trying to enter the Senate, it is a worrying time for a chamber that freely grants a powerful instrument, the filibuster, to obstructionists.


Leaving Bismarck, we had two nights left to finish our journey. We were following the Missouri River through the Great Plains, and spent the first night in Omaha, Nebraska. It was 40°C and compounding our discomfort was that all we’d seen of the plains was endless fields of wheat. Lewis and Clark took six months to cross this seemingly never-ending expanse. I began to wonder how they stayed sane. The next afternoon we arrived in St Louis and drove straight to the Lewis and Clark museum, located beneath the city’s famous Gateway Arch. We were bone-tired after several days on the road, but knew the discomfort would be short-lived while our memories of the vast majestic American West would endure. We were right.

It’s impossible not to be awed by Lewis and Clark’s achievement. Month after month of trudging across the Great Plains would have sent me back a gibbering wreck. Exploring their territory reminded me afresh that America is at its best when it pursues an expansive purpose or is reinventing itself. That is Lewis and Clark’s legacy to the 100th and 1000th generations to come. But it’s also clear that if all that space has made Americans unbelievably prosperous, it has not made them happy. They seem to this outsider to be disconnected in their space, alienated from any sense of purpose and dislocated from their history. As for Obama, if he loses, America might conceivably be a step nearer to its next catharsis, because one of Skowronek’s scenarios sees the next Republican President preside over the final disjunctive phase of the Reagan era. This is scary to contemplate, but one of his other scenarios is even worse: that some time during the next decade or so we’ll witness a Tea Party-inspired reconstruction of American politics from the right, one that will forever change the character of the republic. No thanks.

I have a more optimistic view. The very idea of reconstructive politics is vastly different from in Thomas Jefferson’s day, or Andrew Jackson’s for that matter. Everything was more fluid during the early days of the republic. Inertia has strangled the dynamism that long drove its politics. If Obama wins, he has the chance to incrementally build upon his first-term achievements, most likely in foreign policy, although I don’t underestimate the madness a defeated Republican Party might inflict. It won’t surprise me if talk of impeachment pollutes the political air sometime during the next four years. But if in 2016 Obama leaves the presidency largely unscathed, his contribution will have only begun. He will be 55 years old, and if one looks at the post-presidency model established by Jimmy Carter, then turbo-charged by Bill Clinton, Obama may well influence the direction of global politics for another three decades.

If he does, his symbolism will only grow, not least because the causes Obama pursues after the presidency will be of his choosing, not those forced on him. Lewis and Clark were pathfinders. As America’s first black president, so too is Obama. Like them, he inspires others to be able to imagine their own larger America, a place still with boundless space to grow and prosper. In the meantime, and with only a few days to go before the deal goes down, all of this is up for grabs, and Obama is just holding on.

Electoral College map

The election will be decided in 50 statewide contests along with the District of Columbia. In all states except New Hampshire and Nebraska, the vote winner in each state takes all the available Electoral College votes. Obama or Romney needs 270 Electoral College votes to win the presidency. Because American politics has become so polarised, Obama has 247 Electoral College votes locked in. Romney has a solid but smaller core of 191 Electoral College votes. Obama therefore needs an additional 23 Electoral College votes to remain in the White House, and Romney 79, from the following battleground states:

US election - Electoral College mapA simple rule of thumb on election night, is that if Romney doesn’t win Ohio or Florida, he can’t win the election. Obama just needs to win Florida or Ohio plus one of Nevada, Iowa, Colorado and Virginia.
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