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The Farcical Scramble

Patrick Andelic

2011: The Year in US Politics

“Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job,” announced The Onion on November 5, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected forty-fourth president of the United States. American politics in 2011 – defined by economic malaise, absurd levels of partisanship, legislative constipation, insurgencies against Big Finance and Big Government, and at least one violent outburst –only confirmed the award-winning satirical website’s prescience.

2011 began violently, when a mentally disturbed youth, Jared Lee Loughner, fired on a meet-and-greet for the Tucson constituents of Arizona representative, Gabrielle Giffords. Six were killed and 14 injured, including Giffords, who has yet to fully recover. In the aftermath, it emerged that Giffords, a Democrat, had featured on a map produced by Sarah Palin, which placed gun sights over several districts targeted by Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections. Unwise martial imagery aside, Palin hardly intended to encourage violence against political opponents, and the controversy sputtered when Loughner’s mental instability and indeterminate political views became apparent.

In Congress, stalemate prevailed. A federal government shutdown over the budget was narrowly avoided in April. By mid-summer, the U.S. was close to triggering an automatic default when the parties failed to reach a deal to raise the $14 trillion debt ceiling. Largely due to the influx of Tea Party legislators, this actuarial formality became a political weapon. Fiscal catastrophe was averted only when the Democrats agreed to $2 trillion in spending cuts. This did not, however, save the nation from an historic credit downgrade. In dealing with the Tea Partiers, Obama administration officials fatefully misunderstood their opponents: they imagined that they were dealing with politicians, when in fact they were confronting revolutionaries. Tea Party Republicans had been swept to office on a wave of populist conservative anger. Owing no allegiance to Republican leadership, many were determined to force a default, dramatically halting an out-of-control spending culture in Washington.

As part of the debt ceiling agreement, and with much fanfare, a “supercommittee” was unveiled, reducing 535 deadlocked legislators to six deadlocked legislators. When the distinctly un-super supercommittee failed, legislators scrambled to reverse the automatic across-the-budget cuts intended to galvanise the participants to reach an equitable settlement, while President Obama threatened to veto any such evasion. By the end of the year, Congress’s approval rating was mired in the single digits. In November, The Washington Post reported that Congress was less popular than the “U.S. going Communist.”

As Congress’s ratings sank, so did Obama’s. Once journalists had wondered just how transformational his presidency would be; by 2011 many openly speculated whether he would be able to secure a second term. Some called for Hillary Clinton to mount a challenge to the erstwhile messiah. Even so, Obama’s year was not without triumphs, though most were in foreign policy, where the president’s freedom of action is largely unfettered. Osama bin Laden was assassinated, the last combat troops were brought home from Iraq, and, after a hesitant initial response to the “Arab Spring,” the administration elected for aloof encouragement of pro-democracy forces. The one “hard power” intervention, in Libya, remained limited, and largely succeeded without the commitment of U.S. ground troops.

Disaffection with Obama notwithstanding, 2011 also saw some considerable successes for progressives. Significant advances were made by gay rights campaigners, for instance, with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and the legalisation of gay marriage in New York. Furthermore, after liberals spent much of 2009-10 lamenting the absence of grassroots activism to match that of the Tea Party, last year saw the emergence of “Occupy Wall Street,” sparking imitators worldwide. Just as Tea Party activism made deficit reduction the most pressing national concern at the start of 2011, so “Occupy” forced wealth inequality onto the political agenda by the year’s end.

Off the main stage, and increasingly coming to resemble a circus pie-fight, was the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Since 2008, Mitt Romney has been odds-on favourite, a conclusion that remained foregone throughout last year, despite the raging apathy for, or naked hostility to, his candidacy from most Republicans. As the unloved former Massachusetts governor chugged relentlessly onwards, the GOP’s conservative base cast around for a champion to derail him. First, as though a prophet for the farcical scramble to come, was property billionaire Donald Trump, with oversized ego and unconvincing blond mane, apparently building a campaign on obnoxious demands for the President’s long-form birth certificate. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann enjoyed her moment with a victory in the Iowa Ames Straw poll before a series of gaffes, including warning parents that The Lion King might encourage their children to engage in homosexual frolicking, sent her poll numbers into freefall.

Among the most likable, and unlikely, candidates last year was the pizza magnate, Herman Cain, who bounded to the head of the pack before accusations of sexual impropriety and his obvious unpreparedness sank his campaign. The rootin’-tootin’, coyote-shootin’ Texas governor Rick Perry, widely hailed as the party’s saviour, was a perfect candidate right up until the moment he opened his mouth. Other candidates, such as Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman, struggled to gain traction, and dependable libertarian Ron Paul was mostly ignored. By the year’s end, the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich, whose campaign had been imploding a few months earlier, was leading in the nationally and several early primary states, helped by his bombastic attacks on the mainstream media in that year’s string of Republican debates. Yet as the Iowa caucuses approached, and the erratic Gingrich’s lead appeared to evaporate, the overlooked former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum (don’t Google his name before meals!) began to inch upwards in the polls…

Patrick Andelic is reading for a DPhil in US History at St Anne’s College.