Barack Obama

US President Barack Obama

It seems the American federal government is constantly in electioneering mode. The latest one comes to an end today, with the likely result that the Republican party will retain control of Congress and gain control of the Senate. As usual in the sixth year of a US president’s term, Americans are tiring of having the same person in the White House. An exit poll carried out by Fox News says 34% of votes for the House were made to signal opposition to President Obama policies. 20% were voting in support of Obama and 45% stated he wasn’t a factor in their decision. That is actually lower than the 2012 election though, where the same poll recorded 37% opposition to the President.

For four years now, there had been very little productive legislation passed by the American government. 2010 saw the election of the infamous Tea Party candidates – a right-wing element within the Republican party. These people had no understanding of how to govern effectively. Their opinion was that they had been elected with a particular mandate, and if they didn’t get their way, nothing was going to happen. Thus, this minority controlled the majority and at one point the whole government was shut down – something that isn’t even possible in any other Western democracy. Their failure to compromise severely damaged the already suffering Republican brand. However, America has widely recognized that the tactics of the Tea Party are damaging to their country and their candidates are struggling this election. If the Republican party wins the seats they are expected to, there will be enough votes that party leaders do not need to rely on the votes of Tea Party candidates, and political progress is therefore more likely.

Tea Party

So, assuming the Republican party will now be in control of both the House and the Senate, what will this mean? Well, it’s only two years until the next Presidential election, and the Republicans need to prove they’re worthy of a vote. The Republican campaign has focused on opposing Obama rather than anything positive that they might offer, so they need to find a positive message. Further, at this stage former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, is winning opinion polls in a head to head contest against all potential Republican candidates. Someone needs to step up if the Republican party is to have any hope of gaining the presidency. They’re also going to have to prove they can govern, which they have failed to do for four years because of the damaging tactics of the Tea Party. We’ll have to wait and see if they can do this.

From New Zealand’s point of view, the combination of a Democratic president and a Republican Congress and Senate is probably a good thing. The Republican Party is supportive of free trade, and we are therefore much more likely to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership FTA (free trade agreement) finalized. President Obama recognizes the value and importance of free trade, but there are powerful factions in his party that are opposed to it. Having a Democratic president also means the Republican party will be unable to progress an extreme agenda as he has veto power.

Most of us in the rest of the world though are a bit bemused by the constant electioneering in the USA. It seems to me that it means nothing can get done because everyone is always focused on an election rather than governing. In New Zealand we have general elections every three years, which is a very short time period (too short in my opinion), but it’s nowhere near as bad as America. We have additional rules that the US doesn’t have too. Most importantly, electioneering is legislatively confined to the three months before election day, and there are also tight spending limits on political parties. Therefore it is much harder for big money to influence elections.

GerrymanderingCartoonWhen the last US government shut-down happened (1-16 October 2013), it badly damaged the prestige of America in the eyes of the rest of the world. The rest of us wonder how the most powerful country in the world seems to be so broken politically. There is so much that from a distance looks corrupt. For example, in most countries there isn’t such widespread gerrymandering of political boundaries. In 2012, there were more votes for Democratic congress candidates than Republican ones, but because of the way Republicans already in power changed some electorate boundaries, the Republicans took control of Congress. New Zealand has an independent Electoral Commission to decide electorate boundaries, and most democracies have something similar.

My opinion is that at a minimum, America needs to change its terms so that elections are carried out only every four years so that politicians can spend more time actually governing and less electioneering. Electorate boundaries also need to be decided by an independent body that makes it decision on rules agreed by all. Further, it should not be possible to simply shut-down the government because a group of politicians or a political party are incapable compromising. There has also been much discussion lately that the American government is not actually representative of its people. Both major parties are guilty in this area, but the Republican party is the worst offender. (If polls are correct, the Republican party will increase its number of both women and minority representatives today though.) Special interest groups and lobbyists seems to have taken control of what was once the greatest democracy on the world. It is time the USA reformed its political system to return it to a genuinely fair and representative democracy. It can only improve that great country.