US public fed up with Washington politicians
WASHINGTON // The divisive debate over the US deficit that ended this week did no American politician any favours. Poll after poll showed Americans increasingly unsatisfied with their leaders in Washington.
The debate also signalled the beginning of the 2012 presidential campaign with both the Republican and Democratic camps looking at how the outcome affected their prospects.
Not surprisingly perhaps, both sides believe the debate strengthened their chances, even though no one seemed happy with everything in the agreement. The bipartisan bill to raise the debt ceiling certainly did not have any immediate positive effect on America's sluggish economic recovery.
While the threat of default receded, stocks continued to plunge on the Dow Jones and across financial markets worldwide over fears of a double-dip American recession and Europe's financial crisis. US unemployment, in spite of better July figures, remains high, at 9.1 per cent.
"Barring some major incident,  is all about the economy," said Steve McMahon, a media consultant and strategic adviser to Democratic candidates.
If the deficit debate started the presidential race, no one came roaring out of the starting blocks.
"[The debt ceiling debate] attracted battle, which demonstrated some disarray to the American public. That probably hurt everybody," said Charles Black, chairman of Prime Policy Group and a leading Republican strategist. "Spending months out there in a debate and not being able to reach agreement causes the American people to lose confidence in the White House and the Congress."
Opinion polls bear this out. According to a Rasmussen poll published yesterday, as many as 39 per cent of Americans strongly disapprove of the way Barack Obama, the US president, is handling his job. Only 24 per cent strongly approve.
US legislators fare even worse; 62 per cent of Americans would, if given the option, vote to replace the entire Congress. Just 15 per cent would keep the existing composition, according to a Rasmussen poll on Thursday.
Mr McMahon, a principal political strategist for the former Vermont governor Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, suggested that, though the deficit debacle "didn't reflect well on anybody", Mr Obama came out of it looking better than others.
"He looked like the grown-up in the room who was bringing people together. And he seemed reasonable, moderate and willing to compromise."
The ability to compromise, Mr McMahon contended, was what Americans wanted in their elected officials.
Yet, it was an unwillingness to compromise, especially by the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, which characterised
the debate. And it arguably yielded results for the party. The final deal secured substantial spending cuts without any increases in government revenue, especially through taxes, a key Republican platform.
Nevertheless, Republicans ended up looking divided. A plan put forward by John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, had been voted down by his own party, leading to the eventual deal. Three Republican members of Congress have announced their intentions to seek their party's 2012 presidential nomination - and each one felt compelled to vote against that final deal.
To Democrats, this is a sign of Republican division that an Obama re-election campaign can take advantage of.
"The people who were running for president on the Republican side were able to, and therefore did, demagogue it the whole way through, which appeals to the base, but isn't very appealing to the middle," said Mr McMahon.
Mr Obama could simply point out that a leader needed to be able to say no to his base, to "take the tough decisions", Mr McMahon said.
But Mr Black, a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns dating back to 1976, suggested that not too much should be
read into candidates' decisions to vote against the bill, and that a clearer picture would only emerge after the Republican primaries.
"Republican primary voters have always been conservative, always. You have no more divisions among Republicans than usual."
On the contrary, Mr Black suggested that Tea Party legislators had actually injected energy into the party. Polls, he said, suggest that Republicans, as they were in the midterm election in 2010, are more enthusiastic about voting in 2012 than Democrats.
Moreover, the voters that elected the new wave of legislators in 2010 were primarily motivated by the economy.
"The interesting thing is that the new people who came out to vote in 2010 are interested in fiscal issues and the economy. And they're not hung up on social issues, which tend to be more divisive than the economic issues for us."
In an election that will most likely be fought over the economy, that should stand the Republicans in good stead, he said.
Unless, of course, as Mr McMahon said, the focus on spending cuts and the debt was too narrow for the mainstream.
"Most Americans aren't Tea Party activists, and just as they don't want a president who kowtows too much to the left, they don't want one who kowtows too much to the right" he said.
Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM