The Newcastle Herald

by Tom Switzer

A few years ago, the conventional wisdom held that Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama had transformed the political landscape in Australia and the United States.

Not only did both leaders end long reigns of right-of-centre governance in Canberra and Washington, they won big elections that supposedly signalled the nadir of conservatism and the dawn of a new era of progressivism on both sides of the Pacific.

That exactly is how matters seemed to go, at least for a while.

Rudd and Obama were on the highest mountain while their opponents were in the deepest valley. Their overwhelming popularity – and, in Obama's case, coupled with his Democratic party's dominance in both houses of Congress – translated into significance political influence.

For Labor, Rudd apologised to Aboriginal Australians, rolled back free-market labour reforms, spent the big budget surplus bequeathed by the previous Coalition government to insulate Australia from the financial tsunami.

For Democrats, Obama implemented a policy trifecta of an $800-billion stimulus package, government bailouts in the corporate and automobile sectors and overhaul of the US health-care sector.

That was then. We all know what happened to Rudd: bungled home-insulation, wasted schools-funding projects, unpopular mining tax proposals aggravated Middle Australia. He sank in the polls. And his internal enemies did something that Labor had never done: knife a Prime Minister within his first three-year term.

But what's happened to Obama? After all, his historic presidential victory two years ago, we were told, had heralded a political realignment in the US. Democratic strategist James Carville wrote a book entitled 40 More Years: How the Democrats Will Rule the Next Generation. Time magazine's cover put the Republican elephant under the headline "Endangered species."

And yet after this week's midterm election results, it is Obama and the Democrats who are battered, bruised and bedevilled. Republicans are scheduled to pick up 60-plus seats, more than enough seats to win control of the House of Representatives. (By comparison, the historical average swing against a president's party in midterm elections is 25 seats.) And although Democrats will hold the Senate, they have conceded at least six seats. Meanwhile, Republicans won more than 10 governor races and have taken control of even more state legislatures. No amount of sugar coating can change this midterm election result: it is a forceful repudiation of the legislative agenda of both President Barack Obama and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

So, what's happened? Why the rapid electoral mood swing? How do we account for Obama's fall from adulation two years ago to outright anger today?

First, the Obama White House and Democrats in Congress badly misread their 2008 mandate. Voters wanted their new president to fix the economy and restore confidence. Instead, Democrats used the opportunity to try to implement the most interventionist and expensive agenda – stimulus, bailouts, financial regulations, nationalised health, cap and trade -- since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s.

In a nation where about 50 per cent of voters identify themselves as conservative (and only 20 per cent liberal), it was hardly surprising that such an activist agenda would generate resistance and a backlash. So much so that even many Democrats, struggling to cling onto their seats, repudiated the Obama agenda. All of this has culminated in the rise of the anti-tax, anti-Washington Tea Party movement, which is tapping into the economic anxiety and political estrangement that voters feel across the nation.

All true. But perhaps a more plausible explanation for the backlash against Obama and the Democrats goes beyond ideology and political affiliation. Americans, put simply, are in an angry and foul mood. They suffer from a crisis of confidence. And they overwhelmingly believe their nation is heading down the wrong path. And no wonder: Americans are in the midst of near-double-digit unemployment, skyrocketing national debt and deficits, swelling home foreclosures and a deeply unpopular war in Afghanistan.

Perhaps, then, what this election really shows is that the US is in a seriously bad way. Whereas Australians, notwithstanding a few interest rate rises here and there, are pretty relaxed and comfortable. Having weathered the global financial storm, we remain the envy of the industrialised world. Americans, though, are increasingly facing the prospect of lowering rather than raising their expectations.

The famous US capacity to rebound from adversity is going to be put to a severe test in coming years. Judging by the midterm election, the American people don't believe Obama and the Democrats have any sound answers. Do Republicans?