Letter from Washington DC

Letter from Washington DC
The winter festive season proved a particularly cheery time for at least one resident of the nation’s capital. Having suffered steady erosion in his approval ratings throughout the past year, President Barack Obama ended 2011 on a marked upswing. Now, with his re-election contest less than a year away, Team Obama will enter campaign season on a stronger footing than many might have expected. Consider the events of last month alone: America’s bruising nine-year involvement in Iraq, without any fanfare or ‘Mission Accomplished’ banners, is finally at an end. The Republican-led Congress keeps discovering new and innovative ways to exasperate the American public. National unemployment figures, static at around nine per cent since mid-2009, are finally showing signs of nudging downwards. And the candidates vying for the GOP’s presidential nomination continues to provide a rich seam of material for America’s late-night comedians. It was not always thus. For a leader who swept into office on a cascading wave of optimism, and then for three years struggled to fulfil any of his lofty campaign promises amid a bleak global economic outlook and political gridlock, things could certainly be worse. Indeed, so strong were the electoral headwinds against Obama that until recently, many of his opponents were breezily optimistic that the White House was theirs for the taking. Few are so sure anymore. Republicans can blame two distinct groups for their recent inability to translate public discontent into electoral opportunity: GOP members of Congress and GOP presidential candidates. Approval ratings for the former are in the single-digits, so low that Republican senator Lindsay Graham confessed that ‘it’s so bad sometimes I tell people I’m a lawyer.’ Another senator, former presidential candidate John McCain, quipped that the only people in America happy with their congressmen were ‘paid staffers and blood relatives’. It is not difficult to understand why this is so. Congressional Republicans almost ended what had already been a pretty bad year with a spectacular and unnecessary own-goal. Up until the last possible minute, they had been fighting against the president’s bid to extend a tax cut on millions of middle-class families. For a party that has – with some vigour – sought to protect tax breaks for the wealthy, its opposition to the extension of the payroll tax cut was not a particularly easy position to explain away. If ever there was a bad time to disregard the very real sense of uncertainty many feel about their economic prospects, this is it. With the Occupy Wall Street movement continuing to focus public discourse on issues of income inequality, while maintaining levels of approval that most politicians could only dream of, Republicans ignore the self-proclaimed ’99 per cent’ at their peril. Regardless of whether ‘Occupy’ becomes a sort of left-leaning Tea Party counterpart, disgust with the seemingly cosy links between Wall Street and Washington will remain a key theme during the presidential election campaign. Before that contest can begin in earnest, however, there is the small matter of deciding which of the colourful characters seeking the Republican Party’s nomination will face off against President Obama in November. Though the list of names on the GOP ballot is extensive, the conventional wisdom is that there is really only one contender (two, if you are prepared to suspend all disbelief) that has a realistic chance of becoming the nominee: Mitt Romney. Despite his on-going failure to win the hearts and minds of the Republican base – to say nothing of his apparent inability to adhere to a stated point of principle – the former Massachusetts governor remains the bookie’s favourite. He has raised more money than anyone else in the field, enjoys stable if grudging support on a nationwide basis and sounds more presidential (and frankly less eccentric) than some of his rivals. Given the surly mood of many in his party, however, Romney’s discomfort with demagoguery may not be an asset. Trailing Romney are a triumvirate of more socially conservative candidates, the seeming frontrunner of which is Newt Gingrich. Having shot meteorically into pole position some weeks ago, support for the former house speaker now seems to be flaming out as quickly as it did for front-runners Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry and Herman Cain before him. While some voters seem to appreciate his zeal for verbal combat, others are put off by his outsized ego (he compares himself to Churchill, Thatcher and Reagan) and the small mountain of personal and professional baggage he brings to his campaign. Meanwhile, those who know Gingrich best in the so-called Republican ‘establishment’ – the Washington-based community of pundits, op-ed columnists and former congressional colleagues – have all but vowed to flee to Canada if he becomes president. Given their impressive showings in the Iowa caucuses, there is still at least a statistical possibility that dark horses like Ron Paul or Rick Santorum will mount some kind of surge and upset Romney’s well-oiled apple cart. Or that a late surprise entrant, whether Sarah Palin or even Donald Trump, could join the fray and create further turmoil for the front-runner. But with victory in New Hampshire, and in Iowa though subsequently he was edged out by Santorum on the official final count, Romney is looking more and more like the sure bet. If so, the path to the Republican nomination in August looks unlikely to be as long, winding or unpredictable as some had thought at first. And for those looking on with bated breath, in the White House and indeed in other parts of Washington DC, the Obama-Romney showdown looks all but inevitable. Amit Chanda Director of Operations, Washington DC
Published: 13th January 2012