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Tue Jan 21, 2014, 06:47 AM

US Already Petrified by the Midterms


US Already Petrified by the Midterms
Les Echos, France
By Lucie Robequain
Translated By Bora Mici
8 January 2014
Edited by Eliz­a­beth Schwartz

Elections already! After 2013 spared Barack Obama nothing — governmental paralysis, the spying scandal, the health insurance fiasco — he promises that 2014 will be a year of action. If that is the case, this will be within the realm of politics rather than that of real reforms. With next November's elections, which will refresh one-third of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives, this new year risks becoming another year of deadlock and ideological quarrels. Unfortunately for the White House, midterm elections are never favorable to the ruling party, even less so when the president is in his second term. This is what Americans call the 6-year curse. Statistics prove it: When the midterm elections occur during a president's second term, the opposition steals on average 29 seats from the ruling party. No president, or almost none, has ever escaped this sad fate. Humiliated by the launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik, Dwight Eisenhower ceded about five dozen seats to his Democratic rivals. Brought down by the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon left office before the elections even took place. The background was more burgeoning for Ronald Reagan, who then reaped all the benefits of growth. However, he did not fare better than his predecessor, ceding the Senate to the Democrats. Paradoxically, as the Lewinsky affair was developing, Bill Clinton saw his camp win seats in Congress. However, this was not enough for him to win Democratic control of the House of Representatives. As for George Bush, he managed to lose the majority in both houses, something that had not been achieved in 14 years. It was "a roundhouse punch," he acknowledged.

As for Barack Obama, will he know how to defy the bad omens? The economic rebound gives him a little serendipitous help. Despite the missing reforms or any deeper examination of inequality, the president has the luck of being able to show a significant drop in unemployment, an acceleration in growth and an unbelievable reduction in the deficit — 38 percent compared to the previous year. This year seems even more promising: The page of austerity has now been turned, and companies expect to rack up record profits. However, it is not certain that this will be enough for the White House. Tainted by the National Security Agency's spying and unable to keep his promises, the president’s popularity level, 43 percent, is understood to be incredibly weak, considering it is his second term. Except for George Bush, all the presidents were above 50 percent popularity at this stage in the year. Republicans, who only need to steal away six seats to gain the majority in the Senate, hope to therefore dominate both houses. They have definite chances of defeating the Democrats in Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to win three other states.

The rules of the political game have changed a lot since George Bush, and they make changes in power clearly less frequent: Governors have redrawn the districts so that their allies, Democrats or Republicans, can be sure to keep their seats. The numbers speak for themselves: During the 1986 elections, almost half the seats were clinched from the opposite camp. This portion dropped to 26 percent in 1998, and to 6 percent during the 2012 elections. Therefore, Barack Obama must not expect much of the map of the United States to go from blue, the color of the Democrats, to red, the color of the Republicans. In the opposite scenario, he can barely hope for things to tip in his favor: the House of Representatives has a serious chance of remaining in the hands of Republicans, which will prolong the political deadlock in Washington.

The current Congress is already the least productive in US history. It has only voted on around 60 laws in the past year, and none of them have been very significant. The immigration reform, which is desired on both the left and the right, remains in limbo. This year risks plunging the U.S. into more deadlock. In the U.S., as elsewhere, elections do not make compromise easier but instead promote defending existing differences. The Democrats have found their battle horse: an increase in the minimum wage by more than one-third, to $10 per hour. At face value, the provision has no chance of passing in the House of Representatives, dominated by Republicans. However, in the eyes of Democrats, it presents all the advantages: It has overwhelming support from three-quarters of Americans, as the latest polls indicate, allowing them to woo right-wing voters. It especially resonates with young people and immigrants, two populations who stay away from local elections and that Democrats hope to get to the ballots this time around. It is an embarrassing issue for Republicans, who do not want to be seen as supporting a raise in the minimum and get on the wrong side of small and medium sized businesses in their districts.

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