By Tom Switzer
Yesterday's midterm election results are the equivalent in a parliamentary system of a vote of no confidence in Barack Obama. They also reflect America's serious crisis of confidence.
At one level, Americans should be in an upbeat mood. After all, since Obama came to power in 2009, unemployment has fallen from 10 per cent to less than 6 per cent. The budget deficit is in decline. And the economy could break the 3 per cent annual growth rate for the first time in nearly a decade. Crikey, even the hapless Dallas Cowboys — America's Team — have a 6-3 winning record in the NFL!
And yet the President's national approval ratings are in the low-40s and in some crucial battleground states they're in the low-30s.
So unpopular is Obama that he was largely absent from the campaign trail. Worse, Democrats were airing ads distancing themselves from his presidency. In campaign commercials, one Democrat senate candidate in Kentucky, Alison Grimes, toted a shotgun and declared her love for Big Coal. She even refused to say if she voted for Obama in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections.
So where did it all go wrong? Why has the Obama phenomenon imploded with the force it has, just two years after the President's impressive re-election?
Start with Obama himself. Certainly there have been widespread — and justified — criticisms about his effectiveness and his general ability to lead, persuade and influence, both at home and abroad. When even his former most senior foreign-policy officials attack Obama, as Bob Gates, Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta have done in their memoirs, you know the President's prestige has dwindled.
There also remains a widespread sense of economic angst. Most of the new jobs are "McJobs" — low-paid and part-time work. The recent recovery has been the most sluggish in generations. In the Obama era, moreover, inequality has widened dramatically and medium-household income has declined by 4 per cent.
Add to this the botched rollout of his administration's controversial healthcare programs, the rise of the so-called Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and the arrival of the Ebola virus in the US, and it is clear that Americans are in no mood to re-elect incumbent politicians.
As it happens, more Democratic senators were up for re-election than Republicans and most of the competitive races were in GOP-leaning states. The result: Democrat candidates were always going to struggle this year.
But the Republican brand is also damaged. Like American conservatism itself, the GOP lacks a national leader, is riven by factionalism and displays a lack of intellectual self-consciousness and philosophical reflection. The main source of Republican unity is Barack Obama and his big spending and interventionist economic agenda.
Although Republicans spent heavily and deployed new technology to help sell an impressive get-out-the-vote effort this year, they have hardly ridden the kind of wave that lifted the party in 1994 and 2010 — the years of the midterm elections when the GOP regained control of Congress.
A more plausible explanation for the rapid mood swings within the electorate, epitomised in Obama's fall from adulation to contempt, has to do with America's crisis of confidence.
For generations the American people have believed that the United States is the most powerful, most prosperous, culturally and economically the most influential nation in the world. Since the Iraq fiasco and the sub-prime crisis in the Bush era, they have been slowly and painfully coming to grips with the reality that those days are over.
The nation is badly off track and there is a haemorrhage of confidence in America's future.
Three-quarters of Americans — Republicans, Democrats and independents — continue to believe their nation is heading in the wrong direction. According to a recent Washington Post–ABC News poll, two-thirds say that neither the President nor the Congress has a clear plan for governing.
Obama took office during two wars and a global recession, but he has failed to meet expectations of "hope and change". There is a widespread sense that Washington has become more dysfunctional than in the past.
The causes, to be sure, are more deep-seated than any one president or party: a more polarising political culture, an unprecedented amount of money spent on campaigns and the relentless 24-7 cable media, talk radio and Internet environment. The government shutdown a year ago was not, alas, an aberration.
According to the distinguished New York Times analyst Peter Baker, since Obama's first year in office Gallup polling shows that "public confidence in virtually every major institution of American life has fallen". Think of the military, the courts, Congress, public schools, organised religion, the criminal justice system, print/digital media, broadcasting and so on.
To the extent that such attitudes prevail, frustration and despair will continue to roil American politics for years to come. Tony Abbott perhaps put it best in 2012 when he told the Washington-based Heritage Foundation: "America needs to believe in itself the way that others still believe in it." Until it does, expect more electoral volatility.
This article was originally published in Fairfax Media