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The US midterm elections: results and analysis

    • Rome
    • 6 November 2014

          This talk-debate session focused on the Republican victory in the recent US midterm elections, heralded as unquestionably significant in terms of both numbers and scale. President Obama is potentially up against both the House of Representatives and the Senate – a circumstance that is certainly nothing new in  the American political system. Indeed, in the last sixty years, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson were the only presidents not forced to contend with a “divided government”, making the latter an established institutional tradition of politics across the pond. Divided government is basically the rule and not the exception, and, according to some of those in attendance, forms part of the electorate’s perceived need for checks and balances.

          What is yet to be seen, however, is how Obama and the Republicans will manage the two difficult years remaining until the 2016 presidential elections. In the view of the more optimistic talk-debate participants, the Republicans are likely to pursue a path of compromise, both because the moderate wing made substantial gains in the midterm elections, balancing out the numbers of the Tea Party’s elected representatives, and because – in the lead-up to 2016 – the Republicans need to score political home runs capable of paving the way to the White House for their candidate, whoever he or she might be. They may therefore be tempted to take the road of mediation rather than of head-on confrontation. Also seen as pointing in this direction is the fact that certain up-and-coming candidates, such as Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner won Arkansas, Iowa and Colorado respectively, on an essentially moderate local platform.

          On the other hand, those more pessimistic felt that a bitter showdown looms ahead, and that the next two years will be strewn with numerous difficulties and fierce confrontations. According to this view, the Republican victory demonstrates that the American system is becoming increasingly polarized, characterized by more cohesive constituencies as electoral spending rises, especially among independents. Comparisons were drawn between America today and the polarized Europe of the 1950s, led by very radicalized leaders, a scenario which should see Obama defend his agenda through vetoes and executive orders, while the Republicans try to assert their own.

          It was observed that the 2014 elections were marked by the slogan “Stop Obama”, urging a vote against the President, and particularly against his failure to deliver on the many promised reforms, chief among them the stalled immigration reforms, which cost Obama the Latino vote that had so significantly contributed to his reelection for a second term. In essence, voters punished what in their eyes was the inability of the President to produce results and to turn what was a captivating but probably unattainable wish list into reality.

          In addition, while acknowledging that the debate does not hinge on foreign policy, it was submitted that the American electorate has not entirely forgiven Obama for vacillations over the Ukraine, the expansion of ISIS, and the handling of the Syrian crisis. Nor has it forgiven, deep down, the fact that America is no longer perceived at home or abroad as a country “bound to lead”. According to some participants, Iran could prove to be the turning point: the removal of sanctions would inject fresh vigor into Obama’s foreign policy, with a consequent redrawing of the Middle Eastern geopolitical map.

          In conclusion, it was noted that for Europeans, as interested observers of the midterm results, it is difficult to understand how Obama could have taken such a beating at the polls given the continuing progress being made by the American economy. The explanation proffered was that, although the performance figures are good, their timing presents a problem, with improvements on the economic front being too recent to be rewarded. Poverty rates are still too high, the gap between rich and poor is ever-widening, and the measures taken have not yet been effective, including as far as the middle class is concerned. What could stand to benefit from the Republican victory, however, are the Transatlantic Free Trade Area talks, as it is the Republicans who have always been advocates of free trade and the proposal to create a Euro-American free-trading zone.

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