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Archives for December 2010

2012 elections: who's going to run, and when?

Mark Mardell | 19:49 UK time, Thursday, 30 December 2010

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One of the major US stories of 2011 will be the emergence of Republican presidential hopefuls. As ever, it will be about the direction of the party as well as the personality. The Tea Party, and its demand for fiscal conservatism, will play an important role. It would be a mistake to see this as business as usual: there will be an unusually large number of newly registered, newly engaged conservative Republicans voting.

So here is my cut-out-and-keep guide to the likely candidates. It is long and it is meant to be exhaustive. Still, I am prepared to be surprised by a candidate emerging who no-one has thought about. Twenty months ago, I had Governors Huntsman and Sanford at the top of my private list. The first was sent to China as ambassador and the second lost his heart and reputation in Argentina.

THE SUPERSTAR

Sarah Palin
Palin is in the enviable position of having easily the highest profile of any candidate, as well as being seen as something of an outsider, a dark horse. She says she is talking to her family about running. Those who see her as a money-making superstar ignore the fact that nearly everything she does is political. Some think putting her money where her mouth is might blow her reputation. But increasingly, Washington understands she is not a joke, and will run.

Democrats dream of her winning, as they believe she would never become president. Many Republicans agree.

She has completely avoided what a "sensible" candidate would have done: counter those negatives. No foreign policy initiative, no sense of listening and learning, instead she has lived up to her own image of a pit bull with lipstick.

Her fans will vote in droves, but a word of caution: Tea Party supporters may love her, but by no means do they all think she is ready to be president.

RETREADS

Mitt Romney
There is no doubt that Mitt Romney is the front runner, has a big organisation up and running, is still ahead in opinion polls and has raised huge amounts of money. Despite that, few people I've spoken to believe he's the one.

The former Massachusetts governor is certainly too moderate for the current Tea Party-enthused base. He introduced health care in his state not dissimilar to Obama's. Even if he can overcome that problem I tend to think it's a bit unexciting going with the guy who didn't win the nomination last time. Republicans don't necessarily agree though - Richard Nixon, Ronald Regan, George H W Bush and John McCain all had unsuccessful stabs at the presidency before winning their party's nomination.

Mike Huckabee
The former Arkansas governor, would-be rock star, ordained Baptist minister and Fox News political commentator came third in the popular vote in 2008, but could do better this time around. At the moment he feels low on energy and excitement. His economic voting record goes down badly with hard line Tea Partiers, although he is seen by most as pretty conservative. He is apparently rather sour that many don't talk about him. "I just don't understand how it is that a person can read these polls day after day and the narrative is constantly everybody but me. Whether I do it or not, the fact is that if one looks at the overall body of information that's available, nobody would be in a better position to take it all the way to November."

Newt Gingrich
The former speaker of the House is not officially a retread: he's never run for president even though he has flirted with the idea several times. In the 1990s, he was just about the highest profile speaker of the house ever, as well as de facto Republican leader, Bob Dole not withstanding. But his time in the Speaker's chair didn't end so well. A tremendous intellect, a brilliant strategist and so-so organiser, he's made plenty of enemies. His crude attacks on Obama are seen by many as beneath the intellect of a history PhD. His messy divorce was long ago but wouldn't escape scrutiny in a campaign.

THE ONES TO WATCH

Tim Pawlenty
The two-term Governor of Minnesota has been gearing up for a run for over a year, but won't announce until March. An early McCain backer and committed Christian, he was thought to be a likely VP pick before losing out to Palin. He calls himself (like Palin) a common sense conservative, but can appeal both to social conservatives and moderates. He promised to balance the budget and keep taxes down in Minnesota. The right accuses him of putting tax up instead. The left abhor his social conservatism. He was re-elected governor in 2006 by a very slim margin and it's not clear he can inspire an impassioned conservative following.

Haley Barbour
The Mississippi governor has long had a reputation for competence, not least in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but that is developing into respect. He's deeply plugged into the Republican machine. His jokes and southern drawl give him a folksy appeal. But the contrast with Obama might not be so great: he looks and sounds like a southern sheriff from the 50s. The recent furore and subsequent groveling when he appeared to sound rather laid-back about white supremacists in the 1960s shows the sort of scrutiny he would be under.

John Thune
The South Dakota senator is a favourite both of Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and John McCain. He will almost certainly run. He's has a largely conservative voting record, but did vote for the economic bail-out, which goes down badly with the Tea Party. He is not a ranter, and looks like a president (detractors say that is the only reason he is being considered). A hot tip.

Mitch Daniels
Nicknamed "the blade" by George W Bush, the Bush administration budget director is now governor of Indiana. He's the man for Republicans who are looking for an economically literate, fiscal conservative who has a strong national and state track record. But he's not the most dynamic of speakers and shows little interest in the agenda that appeals to social conservatives. Some argue that seriousness, not bombast is exactly what the Republicans need. Another hot tip.

TEA PARTY FAVOURITES

Rick Santorum
This former Pennsylvania senator is a confrontational social conservative with strong views against homosexuality, but not a strong record on fiscal conservatism. A scandal about tax breaks for his children's education in the past would be revived. He says he is seriously considering a run and sees himself as "the Tea Party candidate".

Mike Pence
The congressman from Indiana is waiting on the Lord and the new year. He says he is praying about a decision to run and will announce what he will do in January. He's a Christian conservative with a strong economic conservative record. He came top in a straw poll of favourite candidates at an influential gathering of conservatives. But like many others on this list, he is unknown to much of America and not particularly charismatic.

Marco Rubio
Tea Party darling, and victor of the Florida senate race, in his acceptance speech he said he didn't know about the American dream from books, but from his own life. The son of working class Cuban immigrants he's a man to watch. It is, of course, not quite unprecedented, for a senator to make a presidential run just two years after his election, but the Obama example might harm rather than help. He hasn't said what he will do, but is raising money. Perhaps a better VP pick (if he's prepared to give up his hard-fought Senate seat). This time.

RULED OUT - BY THEMSELVES

Chris Christie
The governor of New Jersey beat an incumbent Democrat in 2009, signaling the start of the Republican surge. Christened Governor "Wrecking Ball" by a local paper, he has taken an axe to spending and made himself a hero to conservatives far beyond the state. A "fat man" ad was made about him, and he isn't the traditional airbrushed good-looker. He's won admirers in the Tea Party movement, though he's not really one of them. He's more of a traditional Republican. He is very much an up-and-comer, but he says it's too soon. "Short of suicide, I don't really know what I'd have to do to convince you people that I'm not running," he told eager reporters earlier this year.

Rick Perry
The governor of Texas has just been elected as the chairman of the Republican Governors Association and has certainly been touting himself around. But he says he won't go for it. If he did he's an outsider with the right credentials, his strong suit is fiscal conservatism (he turned down the stimulus money for Texas) but he's also socially conservative: anti gay marriage, anti abortion and pro teaching of creationism.

Bobby Jindal
The Louisiana governor had a "good" oil spill, looking both concerned and very active as he tackled its effects. His social and economic conservatism go down well with the base, and his background - the son of Indian immigrants - promotes a new Republican image. There's a Jindal for President website (many high profile candidates register the names to prevent opponents from launching attack sites) but he says he's not running: "No ifs, no buts."

Jeb Bush
W's younger, perhaps brighter, brother and former governor of Florida has said he won't run. Anyway, is the world ready for the third President Bush? Some centrist Republicans certainly are. Fluent in Spanish and married to a Colombian who was born and brought up in Mexico, he would certainly help with the Hispanic vote which may be deciding factor in 2012.

Read more about Mark Mardell's predictions for the big news of 2011 - and predictions from other BBC correspondents - here.

A Golden Age in the Obama White House come to an end?

Mark Mardell | 23:15 UK time, Wednesday, 22 December 2010

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There was a wide smile on President Barack Obama's face as he signed the law allowing gay people to serve openly in the military. In the November election, he was often heckled by disappointed liberals for not getting it through. On Wednesday they chanted "yes, we can" and he replied "yes, we did".

Remember, this issue has been a central battle in the culture wars for a generation. Mr Obama was the general who won it.

Getting the New Start treaty through was a different kind of victory. Backed by the foreign policy establishment, including all living Republican former secretaries of state from Henry Kissinger to Condi Rice, the naysayers looked increasingly vindictive and willing to put the interests of party before nation. Enough came over to hand the president another win.

The third victory was of still another stripe.

At a news conference after the votes, Mr Obama looked a changed man. Maybe it was the thought of his upcoming Hawaii holiday. I know that would perk me up no end. But commentators from both sides of the divide have made an instant judgement. This was the Obama of old, of the campaign, talking about the wishes of the people. About hope for a better future. A hope that he can work with Republicans in the next Congress, next year.

It is a vain hope, of course. He has little to offer them. The tax deal really was a result of horse trading with Republicans. Wednesday's victory was just a case of bringing a few moderates on board. But if he can keep it up, keep up the optimism and the open offer, he can pose as the reasonable one. This is also what Wednesday was about.

Will you remember the 111th Congress as a Golden Age? I suspect Mr Obama wants the American people to learn to feel nostalgia for the past two years. Of course, Republicans regard it as a period of unmitigated disaster. Many Americans will regard it as a period of much muddle and unnecessary politicking. Even die-hard Democrats don't feel a huge amount of pride in its achievements.

Yet Mr Obama said that it was "the most productive two years that we've had in generations". He wants the day to be remembered as a time when things got done, when people could agree, when progress could be made. It is going to be an interesting new year.

Time to put down the lame duck?

Mark Mardell | 14:37 UK time, Monday, 20 December 2010

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lame_duck1.jpgCongress has certainly been busy. The lame duck is popping out eggs. A tax deal cobbled together. Pop. "Don't ask, don't tell" snuffed out. Pop. A new treaty with Russia - START looks at least possible, as does an early Christmas present for the kids of illegal immigrants, the Dream act.

Republicans don't like the lame duck flying so high. They are grumbling that the Democrats are trying to do too much, pushing through the undone bits and pieces that have long been high on their wish list. This resentment exists even though the Democrats have just lost an election and so their legitimacy. For, of course, the Republicans will take control of the House of Representatives when Congress returns in January.

Whatever you think of the merits of the individual items, you can see their point. It does look a little unseemly. Democrats are voting for new laws for America after the country has apparently rejected their programme, including perhaps some of the items they are getting behind with one last dying heave.

To those of us who are not Americans, it looks weird.

When an election is held in most countries, that is it. No coming back for a second bite. No humiliated groups hanging around the chambers of power diminished, defeated and embarrassed for the last few weeks. You finish up that session, face the electorate and come back - or not.

With a fixed-term Parliament, there is plenty of time to get through some last few laws - if you think the voters you are about to face might like them.

This part of the American system could have been designed with the very purpose of undermining the legitimacy of Congress to make it look a bit seedy. It confirms the picture of Washington as a bit tricksy and out of touch, deliberately ignoring the electorate. After all, that is why we have elections - to find out what people want, rather than relying on some self appointed authority to devise some Rousseau-like "will of the people".

I can see no good reason for the lame duck session. As far as I can see, it should be abolished. If you can think of any earthly good it does, please let me know.

So those who are moaning do, in fact, have a choice. Campaign for a change to a more rational system, while complaining that the Democrats are doing what an irrational system allows. But if you don't want to change the rules, play by them without whining.

Obama shifts his gaze to harsh politics

Mark Mardell | 17:19 UK time, Friday, 17 December 2010

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Barack Obama

We've just seen the smartest piece of politics from Barack Obama of the whole year. Granted, there hasn't been much competition. Whatever you think of his policies, his politics in 2010 have been flat-footed. But not this tax deal.


A tax rise for all Americans in January, which some Democrats seem prepared to risk, has been averted. The president has, as one conservative commentator has noted with something approaching disgusted admiration, got through what amounts to a new stimulus package. Unemployment benefits continued. A range of tax breaks for the less well-off. A brand new tax cut for 155 million workers. Someone on $40,000 will get an extra $800 next year. On $70,000, that rises to $1,400.

Passed with not just Republican support but with the Republicans' enthusiastic support. Even though it meant increasing the deficit by $858bn (£542bn).

Their price? Tax cuts for the better-off. They can argue that Americans earning over $250,000 dollars are not rich. They might have a harder argument saying that Americans with an estate worth more than $5m are not rich, for that is the new ceiling for a lower death duty.

But it is clearly an argument Mr Obama will relish returning to in 2012. Oh, did I forget to mention these tax cuts will run out in election year? Is that a deal, or a trap?

True, Obama has greatly angered the left of his own party. In the House, 112 Democrats voted against the package. Some say he's a bad negotiator and has betrayed his principles. Well, annoying the left may be a cheap trick for leaders of left-of-centre parties (cf Tony Blair) but it often goes down well with voters in the middle ground. Or even on the right. Time and time again, even at Tea Party meetings, I've heard that President Obama has not governed as he was elected, that he's been captured by the "Pelosi-Reid agenda". This is his answer.

You could see this clunky welding of two opposite approaches to the economy as a rather grubby deal. But I suspect Mr Obama has positioned himself rather cleverly, looking like a grown-up figure willing to give the small-minded partisan players their sweeties in return for doing what is good for the American people, rising presidentially above petty party politics of left and right.

The White House has upped its game. It may not work, but Mr Obama has raised his gaze from serious policy to harsh politics, traps and tricks, and all.

Afghan end game peeks through headlines

Mark Mardell | 18:58 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

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“None of this will be easy, there will be more difficult days ahead," President Barack Obama said about the US-led war in Afghanistan today at the White House.

Mr Obama’s message was one of momentum toward a clear goal and a clear end in Afghanistan. Not nation building. Not a country free of corruption. But stopping al-Qaeda and the Taliban making a come-back. Behind the headlines, there’s an end game peeking through.

The president said “significant progress” was being made against al-Qaeda and that the US had seen "considerable gains” against the Taliban

He made it clear this was not a given but because of his actions, and said the extra troops he sent in and their success on the ground had only been possible because he had withdrawn them from Iraq.

Most importantly, he not only defended his most controversial decision, he singled it out as a reason for success.

The president’s promise that troops will start coming home next summer was widely criticised, even by serving officers, as giving comfort to the enemy. But he said it had given a clear signal and created a sense of urgency, which in turn will create the conditions for a handover to Afghan forces in 2014.

Neither the review by the White House national security staff nor the president suggested how many troops will come home in July 2011, nor whether that will be the start of a rolling-programme withdrawal.

But a decision has to be made, probably by next spring. That will mark a new phase in the conflict. The president’s next task is to design the path to a full hand-over. I’ve been told by well plugged-in sources that this report by the Center for a New American Security is a sensible and detailed plan. It emphases  action by special forces rather than regular troops.

It's pretty clear that if the difficulties I’ve mentioned below are not solved, the reaction from the White House will not be “one more heave” but “that’s life”.

Just about everyone agrees the current strategy of counter-insurgency, which is more about winning hearts and minds than simply killing the bad guys, is right. Right for now, that is. But next year expect a gradually transition to counter terrorism. When he's up for re-election in 2012, the president knows he won't in a position to declare victory. But he needs his policy to be seen as a reasonable success, so much so that it won't be a big issue.

Review hails success but big problems remain

Mark Mardell | 13:54 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

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The Afghan review is admirably clear in focusing on why America and its allies are in Afghanistan: "The core goal of the US strategy in the Afghanistan and Pakistan theatre remains to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al-Qaeda in the region and to prevent its return to either country."

The report lists a series of successes, but as always, the problems are more interesting.

  • There needs to be more cooperation on getting rid of safe havens for the enemy in Pakistan. This is seen as absolutely vital
  • The Kabul government has to show it can govern the whole country, not just the area around the capital
  • There must be more emphasis on Afghan led forces
  • There needs to be a political solution.
The question is, will any progress be made in any of these areas next year, the year after, or the year after that? If not, we will have arrived at the 2014 date for the handover of control to Afghan forces without solving the core problem.

It is not impossible, but it is very hard to see Pakistan cooperating in the sort of crack-down that President Barack Obama believes is critical to real success. If that doesn't happen, another full-blown strategy review may be needed.

Or the US could just declare victory and go home.

Looking for meaning in Obama's Afghan review

Mark Mardell | 03:33 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

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US Marines in Helmand province

What's the point of this Afghan review?

The report itself is top secret but we will get to see a summary and hear what President Barack Obama thinks about it.

Once this was seen as a critical date, a fundamental review of a policy that had only just been designed, asking if it could work.

Not now. We know it won't recommend more troops. We know it will say that the strategy ordered by the president last year is working.

As I wrote the words for the cue to my radio report - "it is expected the report will say that progress is being made but there are still many serious challenges ahead" - the words "no" and "Sherlock" came to mind.

It will conclude, as nearly every recent report into Afghanistan does, that military progress is being made, al-Qaeda leaders are being killed, the Pakistani government is co-operating a lot more but not enough, that there are serious worries about the central government of Afghanistan and about training up enough Afghan soldiers and police.

White House correspondents are baffled as to the purpose of this process. The other day, they pressed Robert Gibbs, the president's spokesman, on whether this was a re-think of strategy. This is one of his replies:

"I think it's important to understand that this is a process that happens every week and every month. I guess it's - the notion somehow again - as I was telling Savannah, the notion somehow that the president had a series of 12 or 13, I forget the exact number of three- or two-and-a-half hour meetings, and we just now have, over the course of two months, evaluated where we are, would be inaccurate.

"I do think this is - we did not set down two months ago and say, okay, is this working? We've been doing that every day since the president enumerated his policy. We wanted an evaluation as to where we were on the goals that the president had laid out, where were we on the implementation and time of achieving those goals."

I think that means that if the strategy wasn't working, they would have changed it by now. Whatever the intended purpose of the review, the most important thing is likely to be the president's language about it and where he puts the emphasis. Does he stress the need to go on fighting, or the need for peace talks? Does he leave any room open for more troops or a longer involvement? What reassurance will he offer the American people about their country's longest war?

Re-election 2012 already looks difficult enough for him, he'll want to make sure Afghanistan simply is not an issue by then.

The Star Trek mission for rare earths

Mark Mardell | 17:51 UK time, Wednesday, 15 December 2010

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Star Trek fans may recall those pesky lithium crystals used to power the Star Ship Enterprise were always having some problem or another. But I bet you the Federation wouldn't let the Romulans corner the market in them.

But back on earth a shortage of lithium is a problem for the US. America is beginning to wake up to the fact that it relies on China for a whole host of rare minerals that are vital for modern technology.

The supplies of delightfully named substances, collectively called rare earths, such as yttrium , praseodymium, neodymium, and dysprosium (which means "hard to get at") are critically low.

China, which controls at least 95% of what are know in the trade as "rare earths", alarmed some earlier this year by cutting back on supplies. Today it has promised it will show responsibility but the fact is that it could cut off supplies which are vital to the US military's most advanced weapons.

The US Department of Energy has a report out today urging the reopening of mines in America, and perhaps some government funding or loans to make this happen.

Rare earths are used in computers and mobile phones as well as smart weapons, but the Department of Energy's particular worry is that clean energy technologies from lighting to batteries to wind turbines could be at risk.

The Secretary of Energy, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Stephen Chu writes in the foreword: "The availability of a number of these materials is at risk due to their location, vulnerability to supply disruptions and lack of suitable substitutes."

The report says "production within the United States is vitally important", and one such mine is due to reopen in the New Year in California.

You don't have to be a historical genius to note how access to vital raw materials, whether gold, oil or coal, can be a vital factor in the rise and fall of empires and indeed the wars they wage. Given that the clue is even in their name, what is really puzzling is how on earth American politicians and policy makers managed to miss the importance of the rarity of rare earths up until now.

Mining country says 'No' to the 'War on Coal'

Mark Mardell | 21:44 UK time, Tuesday, 7 December 2010

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coal.jpgMount Storm in the US state of West Virginia is certainly living up to its name on the day I visit. It truly feels a long way from Cancun, the Mexican resort where the latest international climate talks are being held.

But a little thing like a blizzard does not stop the elongated lorries locally known as coal scuttles, loading up from the Mountain View Mine and trundling down the road to Mount Storm power station.

Coal was a big factor in the mid-term elections here, with signs saying, "No to the war on coal". The Democratic governor was elected senator, partly based on the strength of a notorious advert that showed him taking aim at US President Barack Obama's plans for a carbon tax.

The Republicans made coal the centre piece of their campaign, too - and there's no doubt the cap and trade bill is as dead as can be. Few expect much out of the climate summit in Cancun, but the president will now find it difficult to live up to the promises he made in Copenhagen last year. But this isn't all - the Republicans hope to roll back existing legislation at the national and state level.

I am watching the coal being loaded with the newly elected representative Gary Howell, who has just been elected to West Virginia's House of Delegates.

The vicious wind whips our face. It is the sort of cold that makes your face numb and your head hurt, but that is not what makes Delegate Howell doubt the findings of climate science.

"I do not believe in global warming. The earth has natural cycles. If you go back to the days of the dinosaurs when this coal was formed, we were in the middle of a tropical swamp. So the earth changes, that's natural. I don't believe it is manmade."

Mr Howell wants to introduce a bill that would allow 38 new mines to open in the state, even though they have been denied a licence by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He argues that because the coal is all used within the state, the federal government should not have any right to interfere.

"The Obama administration is really putting the hurt on the West Virginia economy. They are creating unemployment in our state," Mr Howell says.

He adds: "What my bill does, it says where there is no interstate commerce, when the coal never leaves the borders, then the Environmental Protection Agency has no authority. There are some 38 mines that right now are shut down. My bill opens those mines up to start helping our economy. It reverses what the Obama administration has done."

Not surprisingly, he is dismissive of those who say Mr Obama should use more executive powers and tighten EPA targets.

"The EPA is part of the executive branch and when they pass regulations that were never voted on by the US Congress, they are overstepping their bounds. There is a separation between the executive and the legislature, and they are circumventing that," Mr Howell says.

This particular battle will be played out in the West Virginia House of Delegates. But many new Republicans up on the Hill will want to take similar measures on a national level. Mr Obama has suffered a power cut and, for a while at least, coal seems to be king again.

My reports on this story should be running on Radio 4's PM programme and BBC1 News at Ten. I have taken a few days off but will be back around this time next week.

Waddling towards a deal on tax cuts

Mark Mardell | 13:46 UK time, Monday, 6 December 2010

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As the lame duck session of Congress waddles painfully to its Christmas demise the wiggle in its walk says something about the state of American politics.

At stake this week are the tax cuts made in 2001 and 2003 by President George W Bush and the Republicans, which run out in the New Year.

The shape of a deal to stop taxes automatically going up for all Americans is emerging. It throws into stark outline the different priorities of the two parties and so the difficulty of chalk merging with cheese.

The Republicans will only agree to taxes in general being kept down if couples earning over $250,000 a year are included. They argue it is vital for the economy: that many of these couples are what are called over here "mom and pop" businesses, small family businesses, and to put their taxes up would damage the economy, mean less investment, fewer jobs. Democrats retort these people are "the rich" and most sit on their money and don't invest or spend any extra windfall. Moreover, extending the tax cuts would add $7bn (£4.46bn) to the deficit.

Many Democrats are opposed to any deal. Full stop. Period. Others will agree to it only if unemployment benefits are extended. Few seem to make a loud economic argument, but if they wanted they could maintain that it strengthens the economy by making sure even the unemployed have a little to spend and don't lose their homes. They could say many countries have what in the jargon is known as "automatic stabilisers": such benefits are part of the system and so prevent widespread economic disruption in a time of economic crisis. Republicans counter the unemployed have no incentive to find work, and that is why America is more dynamic than Europe.

But this is not about economics. These positions are only rarely adopted after people have looked long and hard at the economics and come to a difficult conclusion. They are emotional and political calculations. Do you want to aid the rich more than the helpless? Do you want to damage enterprise but throw money at the feckless? What will the big bosses of corporations want you to do? How will the unions expect you to help their more unfortunate members?

It seems from this episode that the Republicans have the better tactics but the Democrats potentially the stronger strategy, if they manage to conjure some sort of coherence and indeed enthusiasm.

Given their dispirited demeanour, they may well not.

If the deal comes off, the Republicans will avoid having to hold a separate vote in January introducing tax breaks solely for the better-off. They will have pleased their constituency, the aspirational, the rich, business, big and small, and tax-cutting enthusiasts, without being too exposed.

Some Democrats think Republicans will thus fall into a trap. Expose where their priorities lie, sharpening the argument in 2012. But Democrats in Congress can't really agree on the road ahead. One senior party source told me that many feel they have a big target on their back and are all about saving their own skins in two years' time. He added that people wanted to talk at length and he was not yet worried about the lack of agreement on political direction. But he would be if it was still true in two weeks' time.

President Barack Obama's approach is to appear bipartisan and indeed give Republicans some of what they want, as long as their fingerprints are all over the deal. But he is doing so with what seems to be a mild indifference. He read some fairly strong words after the recent bipartisan meeting with all the verve of a man reciting a bus timetable. One of the most perceptive articles I have read recently argues that if you listen to the mood music, not the words, you could believe he's just about given up. Unless he gets back some spring in his step he might as well have thrown in the towel.

Next year is, on paper, the dullest in the political cycle. No presidential election, no congressional election, not the first year of the president's term, nor the last. But it may be the most telling.

Washington slapped with harsh economic warning

Mark Mardell | 21:18 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

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Alan_Simpson2.jpgThis baby ain't going away.

Everyone seems to agree that the hole at the heart of America's budget is a crushing problem for the country. Few can agree on what to do about it. A couple of men think they have the answer. But few like it.

So Washington's politicians were given a stark warning today by one of their own.

"The heat is on you. Poised outside this chamber are the denizens of darkness," said former Republican Senator Alan Simpson.

"Those are the groups waiting out there in the temples of this city waiting to shred this baby to bits."

Mr Simpson has made an extraordinary speech ahead of a vote on plans to deal with the hole in the US's spending. It would be easy to call this speech fierce and harsh, if it hadn't been delivered with a great deal of easy humour in the mild tones of your favourite granddad.

For me, that only added to the power of his words.

Mr Simpson, along with his colleague Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton's former chief of staff, are co-chairs of the president's bipartisan committee on fiscal responsibility. Their plan shares out the pain, and it has been greeted by howls of outrage from left and right.

The Sisyphean nature of their task is highlighted by the fact that this speech was given to fellow members of the committee who may well vote against the plans.

Think, then, how hard it would be to get the House or the Senate to agree to something so controversial.

"Erskine and I will not and have not pleaded with you to support this plan. We sincerely hope you will, but that is solely your choice. I have been on and seen so many of these commissions in the past that come up with directives and solutions that are pure mush, watery gruel. Not for us. Not this time. Whether we get two votes or 18 this baby ain't going away," Mr Simpson said.

He acknowledged that the plan may soon be buried in an unmarked grave. But he warned "this cadaver will rise from the crypt" when the vote comes up next year on raising America's debt limit.

He said that after the crises in Greece and Ireland, times had changed. The American people had changed.

"This is it. No more fun and games. No more smoky mirrors. They've wised up. They're mad. They're tired of the bluster and the blather and the ego and the BS that has worked so well for all of us, including me, a master of it. So yes, times have changed."

I am not sure if this will make the headlines. But it should. Whether the details of the plan are right, it is not for me to judge. But its importance lies in the fact that it is not a plan of left or right - but rather a bipartisan one. It was a speech that had an almost presidential ring to it from a mature, retired politician.

But it could probably only be made by a man who is not looking for votes or a job.

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