The moment I switched on the radio Wednesday morning, I could tell who had won the US midterms. BBC presenters were using that special tone that they reserve for massacres, tragedies and natural disasters. They had been braced for a defeat, but not on such a scale.
The result was, as the Guardian newspaper admitted, "worse than expected" — using that phrase in a news piece, not an opinion column. In Brussels, the media were frankly incredulous. While the Republicans have a fair number of supporters in Britain, they have almost none in Europe. (Yes, they’re two different things. We Brits feel much closer to the other Anglophone, common-law democracies than we do to our geographical neighbors.)
As always when covering the US, few British or European media acknowledged that there were different branches of government. The election, BBC presenter Huw Edwards explained in the main evening news, would "make it much more difficult for President Obama to push through new legislation." Which, of course, is true. Except that legislation is supposed to be the business of the, you know, legislature. Obama himself keeps forgetting this, obviously, and he seems to have convinced the rest of the world to forget it, too.
For foreigners, the midterms, like all American politics these past six years, were all about Obama. Overseas, he’s still what he was to a goodly chunk of Americans when he started: the cool, mixed-race, anti-war guy who, explicitly or implicitly but always consistently, conveys the belief that America has been too arrogant. Europeans, in particular, can’t get enough of him. This is the candidate, after all, who in effect launched his presidential campaign in Berlin. This is the president who wants to copy European healthcare, European daycare, European carbon reduction, European foreign policy.
The elites of Europe, noting the mimicry, are flattered. So are their main media outlets. The fact that America has turned so emphatically against its president is therefore awkward. Euro-pundits can’t dismiss American voters as racist, for they gave Obama two substantial majorities before losing patience with him. In any case, the Republicans have just elected some inconveniently black candidates. How, then, to explain to readers what happened?
Some columnists blamed the poor tactics of individual Dems. Others loftily declared that this always happens to two-term presidents. It happened to that warmonger Reagan, they gleefully reminded their readers, and to that halfwit Dubya. Well, maybe. But I don’t remember their candidates running away from them in the way that we’ve just witnessed. I certainly don’t remember Republicans refusing even to admit having voted for their guy as president.
What’s missing from all the main news reports on the eastern shores of the Atlantic is Obamacare. It is an article of faith here that the old US healthcare system was vicious and socially divisive. It is widely believed that Americans were frequently left to die for want of means. After all, Michael Moore kept telling us about it.
If Obamacare were nothing more than the extension of healthcare to those who otherwise could not afford it, its unpopularity would be inexplicable. So the Euro-media ignore the whole subject.
They ignore, too, the way the 44th president proclaims parts of his healthcare program active or suspended more or less on a whim. They disregard his tendency to rule by decree, even on such sensitive questions as immigration. They avoid his cavalier attitude to the constitution: his breezy declaration, for example, that mere technicalities were no grounds for the Senate to block him.
The conventional wisdom is that voters don’t care about any of this constitutional stuff, but I’m not so sure. People care a great deal about leaders sticking to the rules. Not even George III legislated by making arbitrary pronouncements at press conferences.
Of course, if you don’t live in the United States, none of this directly affects you. What you mainly see is Obama’s state visits. And, to be fair, he does these very well. Barack is a fine speechmaker, and Michelle has a nice line in inspiring underprivileged schoolchildren — something she does with unfeigned warmth and sincerity.
You can understand why, coming back from these trips, with an entourage grander than any European monarch and with the cheers of the local media still ringing in his ears, Obama becomes exasperated with his domestic opponents. You can see why he is tempted to sideline congressional opposition. When you’re convinced of your moral rectitude, it’s natural to think of your critics as either crooks or dunderheads. The last thing you want to do is meet them halfway.
But the United States was designed precisely to contain the autocratic tendencies encouraged by spending too long in office. The Founders knew what they were doing when they put the Congress in Article One of your Constitution and the presidency in Article Two. They knew what they were doing, too, when they made the electorate the ultimate guarantors of that Constitution.
The American people as a whole are supposed to act as the supreme check on the executive. Last week, they discharged that duty to the letter, returning majorities pledged to reverse Washington’s recent power-grabs.
To adapt the President: If you like your balance of power, you can keep your balance of power. No one can take it away from you. If you like the Constitution, you can keep your Constitution. Period.Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.