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Archives for January 2011

Obama's behind-the-scenes efforts in Egypt

Mark Mardell | 18:31 UK time, Monday, 31 January 2011

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Protesters at evening prayer near tanks in Egypt

 

US President Barack Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs continues to dodge the question “should Mubarak go?”

He says that is “not for me, not for our country or our government to determine”.

He also says “the way Egypt looks and operates must change”. He even has a shopping list of what “must happen".

Negotiations with the political opposition. Free and fair elections. More freedoms. More openness. Changes in the constitution. But he was not going to talk about the central demand of the demonstrators.

Nevertheless, the buzz in Washington is that the Obama administration is working behind the scenes to ensure Mr Mubarak goes and the army takes charge until there can be new elections. One source thinks it has got down to the detail of where Mr Mubarak goes, how much money he takes with him and whether he is immune from prosecution.

This may all be diplomatic gossip and wishful think tanking but it is a near unanimous view.

An insider tells me that the administration can’t pull the plug because of the alarm that would cause to all the other authoritarian allies in the region but  “I don’t think anybody thinks he can stay: the conversations have changed and all the talk is about an ordered transition.”

He adds that the regime is listening but hasn’t got the message. “Mubarak seems to be out of touch, acting as if it is all a Muslim Brotherhood plot. He’s 82, Vice-President Omar Suleiman is 74, the chief of staff is 75, this really is the old guard in a country where the population is very young.” 

The relationship between the United States and the Egyptian army is strong and could be critical. One well-placed source has told the BBC that lines are buzzing between Washington and Cairo, with talk of the new vice-president and intelligence chief Omar Suleiman organising the transition. "$1.7bn in aid buys you the capacity to have that conversation," says the source.

In fact all but a measly $400m of that aid goes to the Egyptian military. There are other ties that bind. Every year for the past 30 years, the Egyptian and US armies have held joint manoeuvres, Operation Bright Star , which have grown in importance and most recently also included Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Greece, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, France and Pakistan.

Just in the past month, one American company has won a $20m contract to provide Egypt with "ground surveillance hardware", another a $7m deal to provide the Egyptian engineering corps with vehicles. Omar Suleiman has long been the main contact for the CIA in the Middle East, its favourite anti-Jihadist guru. A few days ago, the Egyptian chief of staff was an honoured guest at the Pentagon. I would love to have been a fly on the wall.

Shortly after President Barack Obama called for the repression and violence to stop, the Egyptian army appeared on the streets. The police disappeared. The repression and violence stopped. Is this causality or coincidence ?

A former senior US state department Egypt expert, Graeme Bannerman, who has subsequently worked as a consultant for the Egyptian government and is now with the Middle East Institute, is not sure it works like that. He told me that the Egyptian army thinks the police are badly trained and brutal, and that the army has "sympathy for the protesters, they don't want chaos, but see themselves as protectors of the Egyptian people and will do whatever they believe is best for their country".

He thinks that American influence is more subtle than hasty conversations, and is more about 30 years of training the officers of a professional army that has a sense of responsibility and a distaste for the idea of firing on its own population. He agrees that Mr Mubarak's fate has been decided, but those who remain don't want it to seem they have been pushed around by the demonstrators so the "million man march" expected on Tuesday will be critical.

"For the last three days, things have been moving in the right direction, but tomorrow is scary. The progress can be upset if there is violence. If things get out of control the army may act differently because chaos is not acceptable," Mr Bannerman says.

But his sense is that a huge, calm, demonstration under the watchful eye of the army will be another turning point.

Slowing down the revolution

Mark Mardell | 15:04 UK time, Sunday, 30 January 2011

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The Obama administration is edging towards accepting, if not openly endorsing, an end to Mubarak's rule.


Hillary Clinton

"We want to see an orderly transition so that no-one fills a void, that there not be a void, that there be a well thought out plan that will bring about a democratic participatory government," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

She took the highly unusual step of offering herself for all the Sunday morning TV interview shows, which are eagerly watched by Washington policy makers and pundits. Mrs Clinton was repeatedly asked to back, or oppose Mubarak. She side-stepped every opportunity to do either.

The strong impression is that the administration would like him to go and for a new moderate partner to emerge. But they don't want chaos and a power vacuum. Perhaps above all they don't want to give the impression that they are up to their elbows in engineering a change.


They are not denying that the wheels of change are revolving but they want to slow the speed of that revolution. The secretary of state said the question for those on the street was "how we get from where we are to where they want to be", that it would "take time, it's unlikely to be done overnight without grave consequences".

She pointed out there were presidential elections scheduled for September and that they had to be "free and fair and credible" in order that there could be "a peaceful orderly transition to democracy".

My impression is that the Obama administration is working for the change they want through the Egyptian army. After all they give them $1.3bn a year. Mrs Clinton went out of her way to stress the army was well respected, was now instrumental in keeping order without attacking protesters and had a delicate line to walk - and Washington was "encouraging a very careful response".

Some will regard this as Obama pussyfooting. It also reflects the very real difficulty of being a leader of the world whose self-set mission is to restore the USA's global reputation, who doesn't want to look like he's throwing his weight around, yet wants to be on the right side of history without damaging America's national interest. It is a difficult cocktail to mix.

Supporters of George W Bush argue he got it right, by strongly backing the democracy movement, and Obama has got it tragically wrong, by being less idealistic and wrong headedly pragmatic.

This isn't the view of several Republican candidates. John Bolton argues this is an opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood to take over, and that they may be behind the demonstrations. Others are even stronger, and less nuanced, and urge the president to back Mubarak. They are taking a gamble. If chaos ensues they may be hailed as clear-sighted. But if there is a peaceful transition to a friendly regime they will have crushed any foreign policy credentials they have.

But the momentum is not with the opposition here, but on the streets of Egypt. They may not give President Obama the time and space he wants for orderly change, but lines between the Pentagon and military HQ in Egypt will be buzzing with advice.

Obama's caution on Egypt is winning no friends

Mark Mardell | 19:02 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011

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A fire burns at the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party in Cairo

President Barack Obama's administration is putting pressure on the Egyptian government to change. But it is not backing a change of government. It is a critical difference.

The president's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, has said that the administration is reviewing the money it gives to Egypt. The country gets around $1.3bn (£800m) a year in military aid alone. Mere millions go to supporting democratic movements and other civilian aid.

But in a performance that did not suggest the administration had yet alighted upon a firm policy, beyond denouncing violence, the word Mr Gibbs used repeatedly was "monitoring". He suggested that if the images we are all watching continued, aid might be reduced or halted. But it scarcely felt like a strong threat. The president has not spoken to President Hosni Mubarak. The White House is watching, and waiting. The coin is still spinning, and the administration is not eager to make a wager based on how it will fall.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also been speaking. Her first comments were about the demonstrations themselves. She has said that she was "deeply concerned" by the police violence and urged the government (in other words, President Mubarak) to restrain them. She said the steps taken against social media should be reversed.

Then she went on to draw lessons. There were "deep grievances" and reform was "critical" and "imperative", she said. The Egyptian government should see its people as partners, not as a threat. This is a change of tone, not so much from the past day or two, but from what went before.

There is plenty of evidence for the prosecution. I have just watched an Egyptian journalist on BBC World television say that the tear gas canisters fired by police were made in the US. Over dramatic pictures of billowing smoke, he says America likes strong men without democratic backing, because "it is easy to pick up the phone and tell the leader what is expected from them".

In the Washington Post, Jackson Diehl argues that while President George W Bush pushed for democratic reform, Barack Obama, believing he was being more pragmatic, embraced Mr Mubarak. Mr Diehl says it may be remembered as "one of the most short-sighted and wrongheaded policies the United States has ever pursued in the Middle East".

So some see Mrs Clinton's statement today and Mr Obama's yesterday as furiously back-pedalling away from a policy doomed to failure.

Yasser M El-Shimy is an expert on US policy in the Middle East, who lived in Egypt for 25 years but is now in the process of becoming an American citizen. He tells me that the Obama approach is the wrong side of a thin line.

If there is a democratic revolution, US-Egyptian relationships are in for a world of trouble. They think they can walk a fine line but the Egyptian public is listening to what they have been saying about the government being stable. There will be some anti-US sentiment among the protesters because they believe the US has been trying to prop up the regime until the last moment.

Some are openly arguing the opposite point of view, that democracy would "open up the flood gates" to Islamic revolution.

But one British think tank, Quilliam argues fear of the banned Muslim Brotherhood is over-played, not least by the organisation itself.

Brotherhood claims to be the "only real opposition" to dictatorial regimes in the Middle East should be viewed with a considerable amount of scepticism in future. Given the opportunity, many people in the Arab countries clearly prefer civil, non-sectarian parties over Islamists.

Mr El-Shimy agrees, telling me the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood lurking in the shadows waiting to take over is false. He argues that it is Mr Mubarak's policy of regression that has allowed it to flourish, and that in a real democracy it would be a power in the land, but not the dominant one.

There seems little doubt the US administration is playing catch-up, and is in a very awkward position. It is not ready to abandon its octogenarian ally of 30 years, but it is urging him to change and change quickly. This is all moving very quickly but at the moment both the White House and the US state department are being ignored by their allies, while not going far enough to make new friends.

Egypt unrest a dilemma for Obama

Mark Mardell | 00:43 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011

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egypt.jpgUS President Barack Obama has urged both sides in Egypt not to use violence but has thrown his weight behind change.

"There are certain core values that we believe in as Americans that we believe are universal: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, people being able to use any social networking or any other mechanisms to communicate with each other and express their concerns. That is no less true in the Arab world than it is here in the US," the president said.

But he faces a dilemma - one other presidents have faced in South America, Asia and indeed the Arab world. Which are more important: timeless principles or reliable allies?

Egypt is important for the US. It is the guardian of the still critical Suez Canal and is the most populous country in the region. It was the first country in that part of the globe to make peace with Israel and, from the perspective of US policy makers, a force for moderation and reason.

It gets $1.5bn (£942m) in aid from the US, just behind Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan. When Mr Obama wanted to send a message about a new beginning with the Muslim world, he chose to make his speech in Cairo.

There are those who think the administration's reaction to the street demonstrations is muddled, flimsy and uncertain. No doubt there is still a lot of internal debate.

But there is a response emerging, even if it is characterized by trepidation and wishful thinking. While Mr Obama's spokesman Robert Gibbs has said that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a close and important partner, he has also said that President Obama has continually pressed for "political discourse".

Over at the US State Department, spokesman PJ Crowley said: "Reform is needed, no question about it". But what was really interesting was the analysis that followed.

"There's a regional dynamic... across the region from the Middle East to North Africa, countries do face similar demographic challenges - young populations, highly educated, very motivated, looking for jobs, looking for opportunities and quite honestly frustrated by, depending on the country, what they see as a lack of opportunity," Mr Crowley added.

So the State Department at least believes a wind of change is blowing through the top of Africa, and they don't want to be on the wrong side of history or indeed the wrong side of new rulers, who might turn out to be good friends if handled correctly. Clearly they are not going to be rude to an old ally, but nor are they going to place all their bets on the reforming instincts of an 83-year-old man, one who has resisted change for three decades.

But that brings us back to one of America's oldest problems. From the founding fathers onwards, there have always been Americans who hope their country's example would inspire others around the world to kick out tyrants and dictators and embrace democracy. And there have long been other Americans who think democracy is fine and dandy if it wasn't for pesky foreign voters going and choosing the wrong sort of people, who may not have the best interests of US policy makers in mind.

It used to be the communists they worried about, now it's the Islamists. The Center for American Security's Robert Kaplan pushes the case for realpolitik, explaining that "in terms of American interests and regional peace, there is plenty of peril in democracy".

"It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. An autocrat firmly in charge can make concessions more easily than can a weak, elected leader. Just witness the fragility of Mahmoud Abbas's West Bank government. And it was democracy that brought the extremists of Hamas to power in Gaza," Mr Kaplan said.

After all, in Egypt, the best organised, biggest opposition movement is - despite being banned from open political activity - the Muslim Brotherhood. Some say they would easily win any free election in Egypt and they wouldn't exactly be the cosiest partner for Mr Obama and the US.

The National Review's summary may be close to the administration's view, if expressed in the rather more blunt language.

Mubarak is supposed to be "our SOB", but in distorting Egypt's political landscape to make the choice him or the Islamists, he's just been an SOB. We should want him to exit the scene - but not quite yet.

Obama, on this occasion, may wish not so much for change we can believe in but change he can live with.

'Thundersnow' strikes Washington

Mark Mardell | 15:57 UK time, Thursday, 27 January 2011

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As I begin to write, the power miraculously comes back on. Outside all is still. The usual commuter bustle into Washington isn't happening. The scene is of a snow-covered battlefield where trees are the fallen. Oh dear, the power has just gone off again.

Last year it was "snowmageddon". This year it is the "thundersnow". From the office window we shivered as we looked out on thick flurries of the stuff falling from a bruised sky. Thundersnow, the meteorologists' term, was about to turn a routine commute home into something from a disaster movie. I accepted the kind offer of a lift from my bureau chief Simon Wilson, despite dire warnings from colleagues that the city was gridlocked. I usually take the metro and a bus for my short commute to the suburbs but wasn't sure public transport was up to thunder snow.

The reports on the radio had disgruntled reporters stuck in tunnels, Pentagon correspondents, trapped on the "Beltway", phoning in to tell the world, or at least Washington, that they hadn't touched their accelerators for over an hour.

So we found consolation in movement, however slow. Our snail-like progression was at least progress. Like a herd of exhausted animals, the cars and trucks and buses struggled through the growing blizzard, leaving the stragglers and the wounded to their fate. Cars with wheels frantically spinning. Buses grinding gear. Heavy taxis slip-sliding sideways. Simon remarked with sad satisfaction: "They don't know how to drive in snow." Simon, I am glad to say, does know how to drive in snow. A veteran of alpine driving and a graduate of a BBC four-wheel driving course we didn't spin or skid once on our marathon trek in his little two-wheel drive.

The herd made its compassionless way past the less fortunate, edging around abandoned cars. At least we saw none of the crazy driving on pavements and blocking of intersections reported by the stoic but excited radio presenters.

On Connecticut Avenue it got worse. Thundersnow is really "Blitz-Schnee", lightning snow. You couldn't hear the thunder. But you could see the lightning and the white world it illuminated. Suddenly the sky lights up in blue, like the flash of a gigantic camera, like some weird new weapon and for a few seconds the radio dies, phones cut out, the lights vanish. A huge electromagnetic pulse takes out everything, like the beginning of a new type of war.

Clumps of snow are banging on the roof now, like giant snowballs hurled from above. They are falling from overladen trees, which themselves look threatening. Buses are littered across the road at right-angles. One slides into the gutter and sways dangerously, leaning to one side. I am convinced that it is going to fall over, but it lurches almost upright and inches forward. More and more cars are abandoned. Two intrepid fellows on skis whizz past us. This so-familiar road is almost unrecognisable and all the more threatening for being a shade of something known. I wouldn't be too surprised if a couple of zombies staggered past.

We eventually take a side road. I would be gibbering and taking my chances with the skiers with many drivers but I trust steady Simon in the snow. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The branches of trees are so heavy with snow that they droop at unnatural but wonderful angles. It is a magic world, Narnia under the Snow Queen. But there are increasing signs that the dryads have been engaged in battle. Their limbs scatter the road. Not the odd twig or branch. Thick long sides of trees have been ripped off and hurled to the ground. We grimace. A car wouldn't stand much of a chance.

Eventually we make it back, a 25-minute journey to the suburbs that has stretched into four hours. Our emergency supplies, one packet of BBQ crisps, one packet of apple cinnamon crisps, two small bottles of water, have been consumed. Within five minutes of walking through the door there is a lightning pulse, a noise like machinery hurting and the power goes off. Simon makes the half a mile trip back to his house, but not without jumping into the cab of a stranded florists' van and using his snow-driving skills to negotiate it to the side of the road.

Out of my window I can see a tree crashed on to the roof of my neighbour's garage, his car hemmed in by fallen branches. Two very tall pines, weighed by snow, lean in towards one another like mantis about to fight. I have four hours, two minutes of battery power left on the laptop and a 3G card. You may hear from me later about the debt. If not, I will be digging out the drive in splendid electronic isolation.

Obama's space race strategy throws down gauntlet

Mark Mardell | 06:05 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011

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President Obama spoke to a unique audience, Republicans and Democrats sitting side by side. This was a first, a deliberate symbol of unity after the shooting of their colleague Gabby Giffords and the murder of six people in Arizona. It was as strange as it would be to see Labour and Conservative MPs sit side by side in the House of Commons.


Barack Obama

But the president hardly grasped the moment. He of course referred to it. He said: "What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow."

But he did not dwell on it. He did not have much to say about the shooting. The call to work together was there, but he didn't harp on about it.

There were examples in the speech of areas where compromise might be found (on a good day with a fair wind). Tax reform. Illegal immigration. Of course the five year freeze in spending. But these themes were not pulled together into anything remotely resembling an agenda.

Most commentators see this speech as a move to the centre which leaves him well positioned with the electorate. Maybe they are right. But what struck me was how defiant it was, how much it was a defence of Obama's central political beliefs.

He has apparently been reading Reagan's speeches and attempted something approaching sunny optimism.

We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.

But he seemed keen to move on to a lecture on the challenges posed by technology and globalisation. Some on twitter have compared it to the book "The world is flat".

He choose as his motif America's new "Sputnik moment". The first was when the USA was jolted and jarred by the Soviet Union's success in becoming the first nation to put a satellite in orbit around the Earth. But America went on to land on the moon and win the space race. Some will read Obama's message as simple as some of his best lines: "We do big things" or "the future is ours to win". A vision of an America that can and will pull itself up and score another great victory. That may be how some hear it, and it will appeal to an American sense of mission, optimism and will to win.

But the behind these ever popular themes was a staunch defence of Obama's economic principles. He was saying the space race was won because of government investment in education, innovation and research. He went on to talk about investment in crumbling roads. High speed rail. Bio tech. In other words the sort of spending the Republicans want to trim. Oh yes, he proposed cutting red tape, slimming down government and so on, but he also had a warning.

I recognize that some in this chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I'm willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without. But let's make sure that we're not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.  And let's make sure what we're cutting is really excess weight. Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you're flying high at first, but it won't take long before you'll feel the impact.

At that the Republican speaker John Boehner, sitting behind him, managed to puff a little air from his lips. Not a laugh exactly, more a representation of one.

The State of the Union tends to be seen as an important speech, but in some ways it is a diary date, rarely a turning point. It was a little flat, and certainly didn't soar in the way his speech at the memorial service in Tucson did. Perhaps it never could, or should. I don't yet know whether it will receive the near universal praise from American pundits that that speech did, but I rather doubt it. What was striking, despite the calls for unity, despite the mild almost academic language was the sheer defiance of the speech in terms of the central question of Government spending. Obama did not so much reach out to find hands across the aisle as throw down a gauntlet.

Obama faces street fight down the road

Mark Mardell | 20:53 UK time, Monday, 24 January 2011

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President Barack Obama

The tone of the President Barack Obama's State of the Union address will be framed by an absence, an empty seat, a politician who can't be in the House of Representatives chamber to hear him.

The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords has brought Democrats and Republicans closer together, underlining what unites them rather than divides them. And it just so happens that this mood is immensely helpful to the president. In his speech he will do all he can to reinforce a sense of a new era of common goals.

The first lady's special guests will be victims and heroes of the shooting in Tucson, Arizona. Daniel Hernandez, the intern who helped the congresswoman when she was shot, will be there. So will the family of the youngest victim, nine-year-old Christina Taylor Green.

Some politicians will do their bit.

The lambs are inviting the lions to sheath their claws for the night and lie down beside them. Or at least sit down next to them. Some Democratic and Republican politicians will sit side by side instead of, as usual, divided by an aisle. The Republican who interrupted the president last year by calling out "you lie" will join in this display of bipartisanship. Others grumpily refuse. After all, the symbolic gesture is highly political. It is in the Democratic lambs' interest if the Republican lions make nice. They don't want the new masters of the House to savage their programmes.

The president is likely to summon the power of the American Dream in his state of the union address. The "American Dream" classically refers to the ability of every American to make it, what ever their background.

But a powerful part of the dream is also the vision of a country where all Americans pull together regardless of party, where politicians rise above faction for the common good. Mr Obama evoked it to huge effect in his election campaign and it is something he is now trying to recapture.

State of the union speeches are rarely momentous. But they are opportunities.

Last year 48 million people watched Mr Obama's address. After 2010, his year of constant shellacking, things might be turning around for the man who fell to earth.

His approval rating is the highest since last February and some opinion polls have him back above 50% with the help of all-important independent voters.

Some advisers say this is down to an improving economy. But spokesman Robert Gibbs thinks it is down to what went on in the so-called lame duck session of Congress before Christmas:

People put aside game-playing and broad bipartisan majorities made progress on behalf of the American people. I think the American people saw two groups sitting down at a big table and figuring out how to solve our problems. And I think because of that, people have reacted positively to the progress that has been made.

Part of the tone of the speech, is of course set by its content. I am torn as to whether there will be a glancing reference to gun control, a promise perhaps of a "Christina's law" controlling the sort of magazines containing 30 bullets that were used by the accused Tucson killer. My gut instinct says he will, but it sets my alarm bells ringing very loudly. He will want to avoid starting an immediate partisan debate as the story of the night.

The focus will be on jobs. If common sense didn't tell us that, a sneak preview does. He'll talk, but probably not in detail, about the importance of innovation, competitiveness and education to the American economy. There will be more than a nod to Republican concerns about "leaner and smarter government" and dealing with the deficit and debt.

It is hard to see how Mr Obama can avoid a bitter, bare-knuckle fight further down the road.

"Competiveness and education" sound innocuous enough, but they mean more government spending.

"Dealing with the deficit" may have everyone nodding their heads, but Mr Obama doesn't want to deal with it as quickly and severely as the Republicans who control the house.

What he can do with the State of the Union is condition the debate, claim the mantle of reasonableness and consensus. I have been saying for sometime now that this year will end in a blame game. Who threatened the recovery? Who stopped progress from "Middle Class families ?"

Mr Obama stands alone at the podium and doesn't get the chance to buddy up with a Republican colleague. But he will do all he can to wrap his arms around the lot of them, and show he's willing to sit down and do business.

Obama finds fitting words for Arizona tragedy

Mark Mardell | 01:47 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011

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President Barack Obama in Tucson

Tucson, Arizona

It wasn't the usual sort of memorial service. It wasn't, for a start, very solemn. Music of all sorts, from choral to soul, built up towards the speeches. It followed pretty much the pattern of every other Obama rally I have been to.

The audience whooped and hollered during the speech. But there was no doubt they were local people, and I presume this was a sort of cathartic release after days of horrible tension. The biggest cheer was when the president revealed that Gabby Giffords had opened her eyes.

He brought them good news and he tried to bring them hope. He portrayed those who died as archetypes in a tableau: the mum, grandma, brother and child of an American family, who should inspire every American that they can be better in their private and public life.

His tribute to the nine-year-old who died was heart-rending.

"Christina was given to us on September 11th, 2001, one of 50 babies born that day to be pictured in a book called 'Faces of Hope'. On either side of her photo in that book were simple wishes for a child's life. 'I hope you help those in need,' read one. 'I hope you know all of the words to the National Anthem and sing it with your hand over your heart. I hope you jump in rain puddles.'

"If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today."

But his message was broader than that of a young life cut brutally short.

Here was a young girl who was just becoming aware of our democracy; just beginning to understand the obligations of citizenship; just starting to glimpse the fact that someday she too might play a part in shaping her nation's future. She had been elected to her student council; she saw public service as something exciting, something hopeful. She was off to meet her congresswoman, someone she was sure was good and important and might be a role model.

She saw all this through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted."

The US TV networks call this part of the president's job - a sort of "healer-in-chief". But here Mr Obama attempted to go well beyond binding the wounds, to deal with what he sees as a more profound sickness.

It was a subtly political speech, defying the expectation of those who those who thought he would remain aloof from the debate about the sometimes febrile and vitriolic nature of American politics.

When he said that this tragedy must not be an excuse for Americans to turn on one another for more point scoring and pettiness, Mr Obama appeared to rise above party and castigate both Republicans and Democrats.

But it is the right that has been revitalised by the Tea Party movement and its sometimes harsh language.

"At a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."

He is trying to brand his opponents' most successful rhetoric a moral failure.

"We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future," the president said. He did not mention gun control or new legislation. But it is hard to see what else he meant.

Nor is the call to unite a bland apolitical cliche.

With the Republicans in control of part of congress he is in a tricky position. Getting them to agree to anything will be enormously difficult and is likely to alarm his own side.

In talking about working together, and rising above the "usual plane of politics" the president is suggesting that necessity is a virtue.

For Sarah Palin, best defence is attack

Mark Mardell | 15:51 UK time, Wednesday, 12 January 2011

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People wait for University of Arizona memorial

Tucson The queue outside the sports stadium is already long, winding around the block. People sit on the pavement in the sunshine, hours before President Barack Obama has even left Washington.

He's coming to the "Together we thrive" memorial event for the victims of Saturday's deadly shooting here. But what do they want from their president? Above all, they tell me, they want unity, a sense of bringing the country together.

Most say the shooting was not motivated by politics, but most want the rhetoric turned down a notch. A few think he should lead this debate, but the majority of those I talk think now is not the time.

The leader of the local Tea Party movement, Trent Humphries, tells me that he may not agree with the president on a lot of things but Mr Obama is a great orator, an icon, and he can bring the country together. He doesn't think he will go near the debate on the tone of politics.



But Sarah Palin has. In a video, she condemns violence and the attack but also castigates those who would blame her rhetoric for creating a political climate where such things can happen.

She quotes former President Ronald Reagan, indicating that society is not to blame for crimes, only the criminal is.

She continues:

After this shocking tragedy, I listened at first puzzled, then with concern, and now with sadness, to the irresponsible statements from people attempting to apportion blame for this terrible event.

She suggests that strong language is not new in American politics, pointing out that in the time of the founding fathers, opponents settled their differences by duelling. She doesn't mention that the death in a duel of Alexander Hamilton at the hands of the then Vice-President Aaron Burr in 1804 brought the practice to an end and did for a time appear to change the nature of debate.

She declares:

No-one should be deterred from speaking up and speaking out in peaceful dissent, and we certainly must not be deterred by those who embrace evil and call it good. And we will not be stopped from celebrating the greatness of our country and our foundational freedoms by those who mock its greatness by being intolerant of differing opinion and seeking to muzzle dissent with shrill cries of imagined insults.

And she is strong in condemnation:

...Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.

Her use of the term "blood libel" has already raised some hackles. It is a term used to describe the anti-Semitic slur of the middle ages that Jews ritualistically murdered Christian babies.

While the Anti-Defamation League wished she had not used the term their comments are not harsh and they also condemn the attacks on her.

The video tells us a great deal about Ms Palin. Even when attempting to make a statement about healing she cannot help but attack.

Her pithy direct language and anger is her greatest strength. But she finds it hard to sound more than one note. The worry over the term "blood libel" is entirely predictable. Her use of it is either naïve, in that she did not understand the meaning and resonances, or it is a sign she simply doesn't care and wants controversy. The remarks about dueling are also difficult to interpret.

But over all, she has made a prompt statement that does weave together notions of unity and strength with a very firm rejection of any sense of blame. There is no sense of second thoughts or self doubt and she clearly believes the best form of defence is attack. The self-described pit bull in lipstick will not be muzzled.

The role of harsh language in politics

Mark Mardell | 00:18 UK time, Tuesday, 11 January 2011

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Barack and Michelle Obama

President Barack Obama will travel to Tucson for a memorial service on Wednesday. It will be an important moment in his presidency, and his words will be under scrutiny.

Few could criticise him so far for his reaction to the shooting. He stood alongside the First Lady on the White House lawn and led the nation in a minute's silence for those killed and wounded in Arizona. He can't afford to be accused of exploiting the tragedy for political gain and speaking afterwards instead attempted to be inspirational.

He said those in the crowd at the scene showed heroism: "Part of what I think that speaks to is the best of America, even in the face of such mindless violence."

He continued: "But I think it's going to be important, I think, for the country as a whole, as well as the people of Arizona, to feel as if we are speaking directly to our sense of loss, but also speaking to our hopes for the future and how out of this tragedy we can come together as a stronger nation."

Of course, whatever the president does is political, and remaining above the political fray and not entering the national debate about the role of harsh language in politics, is in itself a piece of positioning. He, as president, wants to been seen as a healer, and to recapture something he has lost since his election: the mantle of someone who can unify rather than divide.

His secretary of state was rather more bold. Talking to an audience in the United Arab Emirates, Hillary Clinton responded to a question about why all Arabs were blamed for 9/11 by saying that all countries had extremists and that a congresswoman in America had been shot by "an extremist".

"The extremists and their voices, the crazy voices that sometimes get on the TV, that's not who we are, that's not who you are, and what we have to do is get through that and make it clear that that doesn't represent either American or Arab ideas or opinions," she said.

It is increasingly clear that the man in custody accused of the killings was obsessed by the connection between grammar and government and had a grudge against the congresswoman for not answering to his satisfaction a question about this relationship.

While he mentions (in a YouTube video) the gold standard, the constitution, and a treasonous government, most of his concerns seem more to do with the odd writings of David Wynn Miller than the Tea Party. Miller's writings are very anti-government but are based on weird theories on the place of linguistics in law and are almost impenetrable rather than inflammatory. He's been quoted as saying he condemns the attack and all violence.

Still, the genie is out of the bottle. Many don't like it, and indeed many who post here think we shouldn't be talking about it. But there is a debate going on about the role of harsh language in politics. It is a debate that was waiting to happen.

The right's response is obvious on the internet, hesitant or absent at a senior national level, apart from House Speaker John Boehner, who said an attack on one who serves was an attack on all.

Many blogs and tweets, like those of the Fox star Glenn Beck, accuse liberals of "sad, transparent" attempts to "play politics". Constitutionally, or perhaps contractually, unable to avoid apocalyptic language he said that those with fame and fortune were in danger, he was in danger, you were in danger and things could go awry, America could end up like Israelis and Palestinians. But he didn't want that to happen and asked people to sign a pledge against violence... and against blaming others for the acts of madmen... and said those who believed in "peace and love will stand".

By contrast Trent Humphries, from the Tucson Tea Party, just seemed really sad and weary when I spoke to him. He told me that anyone who knew his group wouldn't blame them for creating a climate of hatred, and none of the local media had. "I would advise the national and international media to back off and let us heal, and get to grips with what happened in our neighbourhood," he said.

He said he had received abusive e-mails and that the local sheriffs had been in "to make sure we will be safe - there are messages in my inbox like 'we wish it was your family' and 'you have blood on your hands'".

But we have yet to hear from those who may aspire to lead the Republican Party. Mitt Romney is in Afghanistan. Sarah Palin has expressed sympathy but has otherwise not commented. As far as I know, none of the others on my long list has said anything. They may not want to enter the debate. They may choose not to say anything directly. But when they next open their mouths they will be part of the debate, by the very tone they adopt.

Sarah Palin and the Arizona shooting

Mark Mardell | 02:20 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

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This week, Republicans in the House of Representatives planned a vote to repeal President Barack Obama's healthcare legislation - the law that first caused the Tea Party movement to erupt on to the national scene in a series of furious encounters with politicians who supported the changes. Now, the vote won't happen. Not this week. The US is no stranger to mass killings, but the shootings in Tucson have prompted a national pause. Instead of trying to repeal healthcare laws, a solemn reflective House will pay tribute to Gabby Giffords, and others hurt or killed in the shootings.

It is too late for this crime to be dismissed as the meaningless act of a madman. It may turn out there was no political motive at all. But the killings have already acquired a meaning. A mood of anxiety about political tone that has existed for months has begun to harden into something more tangible, something that could be a game changer, provoking national soul searching.

After the Oklahoma bombing in 1995, when a right-wing extremist killed 168 people by blowing up a federal building, Bill Clinton used the moment to link the attack with the Republicans' anti-government rhetoric of the time. It worked. Mr Obama may not go that far, but he will stand in silent tribute on the White House lawn later. In a year when he is trying to recapture the centre ground and appear above partisan bickering, it will be a silent rebuke to a certain brand of politics.

Facebook spokeswoman Randi Zuckerberg told ABC News the biggest question on the social-networking site since the shootings has been: "Is Sarah Palin to blame?"

Many will say obviously not.

But some liberals accuse the Tea Party movement of creating a climate of hatred where opponents are seen not as wrongheaded, but as treasonous enemies of America.

Ms Palin bears the brunt of the criticism, partly because of the strength of her language, and partly because her website did carry pictures of what looked like crosshairs of a rifle targeting political constituencies in the US, including that of Gabby Giffords. Ms Palin's aides rather lamely claimed the illustrations were meant to represent surveyors' symbols, leading to one blogger talking about that well-known song: "I surveyed the sheriff." And it is Ms Palin who uses the slogan: "Don't retreat, reload."

On the internet, the right has reacted with fury to these accusations. One website writes: "Despite the fact that Jared Lee Loughner was a psychotic loner with 'left-wing' beliefs according to those who knew him, the establishment has hastily exploited yesterday's tragic shooting in Tucson to demonise conservatives, libertarians and gun owners."

But whatever the bloggers get up to, this week no national figure will indulge in harsh rhetoric, and there will be, for a while, a change in tone.

That is difficult for Ms Palin and her ambitions. As a self-described pit-bull with lipstick, her appeal is in her ferocious attack. But it is hard to believe she will ever again talk of reloading or even targeting opponents. Her trademark bite and bark may ill fit a newly chastened public mood. It may make her less appealing to Republicans, who are already worried that she can't appeal to the centre. Or this moment of concern may pass quickly and it will be back to business as normal before the month is out. Still, I will be listening to her tone very carefully when she makes her next public speech.

Sarah Palin and the Arizona shooting

Mark Mardell | 02:20 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

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This week, Republicans in the House of Representatives planned a vote to repeal President Barack Obama's healthcare legislation - the law that first caused the Tea Party movement to erupt on to the national scene in a series of furious encounters with politicians who supported the changes. Now, the vote won't happen. Not this week. The US is no stranger to mass killings, but the shootings in Tucson have prompted a national pause. Instead of trying to repeal healthcare laws, a solemn reflective House will instead pay tribute to Gabby Giffords, and others hurt or killed in the shootings.

It is too late for this crime to be dismissed as the meaningless act of a madman. It may turn out there was no political motive at all. But the killings have already acquired a meaning. A mood of anxiety about political tone that has existed for months has begun to harden into something more tangible, something that could be a game changer, provoking national soul searching.

After the Oklahoma bombing in 1995, when a right-wing extremist killed 168 people by blowing up a federal building, Bill Clinton used the moment to link the attack with the Republicans' anti-government rhetoric of the time. It worked. Mr Obama may not go that far, but he will stand in silent tribute on the White House lawn later. In a year when he is trying to recapture the centre ground and appear above partisan bickering, it will be a silent rebuke to a certain brand of politics.


Facebook spokeswoman Randi Zuckerberg told ABC News the biggest question on the social-networking site since the shootings has been: "Is Sarah Palin to blame?"

Many will say obviously not.

But some liberals accuse the Tea Party movement of creating a climate of hatred where opponents are seen as not wrongheaded, but treasonous enemies of America.

Ms Palin bears the brunt of the criticism, partly because of the strength of her language, and partly because her website did carry pictures of what looked like crosshairs of a rifle targeting politicians including Gabby Giffords. Ms Palin's aides rather lamely claimed the illustrations are meant to represent surveyors' symbols, leading to one blogger talking about that well-known song: "I surveyed the sheriff. " And it is Ms Palin who uses the slogan: "Don't retreat, reload."

On the internet, the right has reacted with fury to these accusations. One website writes: "Despite the fact that Jared Lee Loughner was a psychotic loner with 'left-wing' beliefs according to those who knew him, the establishment has hastily exploited yesterday's tragic shooting in Tucson to demonise conservatives, libertarians and gun owners."

But whatever the bloggers get up to, this week no national figure will indulge in harsh rhetoric, and there will be, for a while, a change in tone.

That is difficult for Ms Palin and her ambitions. As a self-described pit-bull with lipstick, her appeal is in her ferocious attack. But it is hard to believe she will ever again talk of reloading or even targeting opponents. Her trademark bite and bark may ill fit a newly chastened public mood. It may make her less appealing to Republicans, who are already worried that she can't appeal to the centre. Or this moment of concern may pass quickly and it will be back to business as normal before the month is out. Still I will be listening to her tone very carefully when she makes her next public speech.

Febrile politics of Giffords shooting

Mark Mardell | 21:00 UK time, Saturday, 8 January 2011

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We do not, as I write, know what lies behind the shooting of a Democratic congresswoman and others in Arizona at a political meeting.

If the YouTube video said to be from the man in custody for the shooting of Gabby Giffords - named by local media as Jared Loughner - really is by him, he seems very disturbed.

Over soft lounge music, with the heading "My final thoughts", text appears mimicking in style formal logic, but in fact making incoherent rambling statements about sleepwalking, numerology and grammar. He writes about the US Constitution, about a currency not backed by gold, and that he can't trust the government and its treasonous laws. But the impression is of unbalanced incoherence rather than political grievance.

While we don't know if the motive behind the shooting was political, it is very clear that it was immediately politicised, at least on the internet. Twitter was immediately full of accusations that the right had created a climate of hatred where this could happen. The right responded in fury. Some pointed out this wasn't based on evidence. One claimed an illegal immigrant was responsible, another that it was done by the left to harm the right.

Much of the criticism was aimed at Sarah Palin.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords had been one of 20 names on a "hit list" issued by Palin, complete with graphics of a rifle-like telescopic sight.

Ms Palin meant, of course, that Ms Giffords was to be targeted by voters in the mid-term elections. The congresswoman herself had warned of the danger of the site, after her office was vandalised in March.

She said: "We're on Sarah Palin's 'targeted' list, but the thing is that the way she has it depicted, we're in the crosshairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they've got to realise that there are consequences to that action."

Ms Palin hasn't directly commented on whether she thinks there were consequences to her actions but she did issue a statement saying: "My sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today's tragic shooting in Arizona.

"On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice."

After the Oklahoma massacre, Bill Clinton spoke out, linking the attack by extremists to the anti-government rhetoric in Washington. I am uncertain whether it changed the nature of the debate but it was certainly judged something of a turning point for the president.

It is just too soon to say if this shooting will have any lasting impact, although there will no doubt be new calls for a more moderate, less emotional discourse.

But there is an irony.

The rhetoric and debate that instantly sprang up around this crime show the volatile, febrile nature of American politics and those passions are unlikely to disappear overnight.

Obama seeks business boost with Daley pick

Mark Mardell | 18:01 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011

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Daley2.jpgBill Daley is a banker, a lawyer, a Washington insider and a member of one of the Democrats' most powerful dynasties.

He is the seventh child of Chicago's former mayor Richard Daley, who ran the city in the 1960s and 1970s, and the brother of the current mayor, also Richard Daley.

Bill Daley is one of the political mentors of the man he'll be replacing, Rahm Emanuel, who is running to become Chicago's next mayor just to keep things neat and tidy.

President Barack Obama's critics will focus on this point, claiming that, when in trouble, Mr Daley runs back to the old Chicago machine. But apparently he and the president don't know each other that well.

One of the hold-ups in the announcement seems to have been the need to hold face-to-face sessions to make sure the two are capable of getting along.

The real importance of the appointment is that Bill Daley, an executive of JP Morgan Chase, is well-liked by financiers and those in big business - and Mr Obama needs to mend fences with them.

Mr Daley was also Bill Clinton's commerce secretary and an architect of Nafta (North American Free Trade Agreement) and is still disliked by many unions here. His friends contend he's an operator, and perhaps he's got the job for that reason alone. But it looks like a signal that Mr Obama is tacking to the centre - not worried about what his left wing might say.

The failure of an industry

Mark Mardell | 04:05 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011

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Oil soaked bird in Gulf of Mexico

It is just chapter four, the concluding chapter that has been released of the presidential commission's report into the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

Much of it is deeply technical, and it takes me at least a couple of readings to sort out my spacer fluids from my annular preventer. But the authors intentions could not be clearer.

The opening is worthy of any British tabloid. A picture of the inferno, a core as bright as the sun, surrounded by scarlet flames and billows of black smoke. In bold type a headline, a quote from an email by one of the engineers involved in putting the rig in place: "Who cares ... it's done ... end of story ... will probably be fine."

This is perhaps rather unfairly taken out of context. It suggests a cavalier approach to the whole job. In fact the man was talking about a specific and rather technical dispute about how many, and what type of centralisers should be used. Perhaps he's saying: "There's more than one way to skin a cat." Except of course the cat wasn't skinned.

The detail is devilish, but worth following.

These devices are apparently crucial to guide the concrete that should block any gaps and so stop oil and gas leaking. First they were going to use six. Then they decided they needed 15 more. Then when they arrived they weren't of the type ordered. So someone else decided to go with just six.

But it turns out they might have in fact been the right sort. The report argues this, and many other examples show a rather slapdash approach - BP wasn't sitting down and thinking this through in advance (remember we are not talking about crisis management here, but the installation of the Deepwater Horizon).

The report says the disaster happened not because of a series of aberrations by rogue operators but a systemic failure of management. And that means it could happen again.

John Boehner: the man with the out-sized gavel

Mark Mardell | 22:02 UK time, Wednesday, 5 January 2011

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It is a lovely day for the swearing-in of a new Congress. The atmosphere is one of occasion, and for some, celebration. Under blue skies and bright sunshine, new congressmen and women proudly usher their guests into the Capitol.


Little boys in suits and ties and women in an almost de rigueur uniform of smart black numbers bustle past a rather more casually dressed protester. The middle-aged man in a hippy type tie-dye outfit is carrying a banner demanding the repeal of healthcare reform and shrieking "14 billion freakin' dollars, man". Another man has a different slogan, another cause: "First, second, third, and you've got it, fourth priority: repeal planned parenthood." Supporters stand by carrying gruesome anti-abortion photographs and a picture of the Virgin Mary.

The two different messages boil down to one thought: "We've got our eye on you." The new Republicans inside know their supporters outside have high expectations, and will be watching.

Inside there is a rather more admiring and trusting audience. In a nice touch, children are allowed in to witness the triumph of their parents.

Waiting for the outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi to finish her rather vacuous speech, the new man in the job, John Boehner, looked rather nervous, chewing his lip and tapping his fingers on a chair. Rather predictably, when she mentioned his family a pristine white hanky was at the ready, and he duly whipped it out to wipe his eyes.

As if to show he is no softie, he has asked for a bigger gavel than usual. Brandishing the out-sized wooden mallet was perhaps a sign of how hard he intends to hammer the Democratic agenda. His speech was measured, promising he would be a caretaker overseeing an accountable and responsive government. "No longer can we kick the can down the road. People have voted to end business as usual, and today we begin carrying out their instructions," he said.

Fine rhetoric for a fine day. It won't be long before we see if it satisfies the man in the tie-dye.

Obama to be stoic spouse in marriage of inconvenience

Mark Mardell | 20:57 UK time, Tuesday, 4 January 2011

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Republican House Speaker John Boehner

 

One thing is not in doubt: there will be tears before it's over.

The man who will be sworn in on Wednesday as speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, cried when his party won in November, cried afterwards when he explained he had been at that moment thinking of his modest background, helping out in his dad's bar, and then cried again on TV when he was asked why he'd cried.

Whether he'll weep again now, I cannot say, but it may be a moment when all Republicans may feel like getting out the hanky. The scale of their achievement is enormous: two years after the election of Barack Obama on a huge wave of abstract ideals like hope and change, they won the mid-term election hands down. Today they take charge of one of the most important components of American government, the House of Representatives. They have cut the Democratic majority in the Senate too.

In this fluid mix comes not just tears, but tea.

There will be many new faces in Congress. Fresh faces, steeped in the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement. They really are different. Many of them took not the tired old route of a little light lawyering and then a stint in the city council or state government. Here are car salesmen, pizza restaurant owners, opticians - people who've never before been politicians.

They are filled with a sense of mission and mandate, a belief that they have been elected by the American people to overturn what they see as Mr Obama's socialist agenda.

Their very first action? To order the reading on the House floor of the US Constitution, to them an almost sacred document aimed primarily at limiting government. Their next step? A bill to repeal what they scornfully call Obamacare - Mr Obama and the Democrats' effort to reform the US healthcare system.

Eventually, of course, the main battlegrounds will be the economy, debt and deficit, taxation and the size of government.

So do Democrats feel like shedding a few tears of their own in the face of their loss and the passion of the new masters? Not a bit of it.

Some Democratic strategists are already salivating at what they see as an opportunity to position the president ahead of the 2012 elections.

After all, they have just woken from a similar illusion, that Mr Obama's election was a whole-hearted embrace of his policies, a mandate for the left rather than a preference for him over the old bloke. Now they've got the old, old message that it is the economy, stupid. One strategist told me their failure over healthcare was in trying to sell it as a self-evident virtue - because more people would have access to care - rather than puting the economy first and appealing to people's self interest by branding it the second biggest tax cut in American history.

Elections can sometimes be about choosing a brand new direction. But those voting are often choosing the lesser of two evils, or indeed not choosing by not voting. American politics is becoming not merely tidal but now sloshes from one side to the other with the alarming regularity of a bucket carried by a staggering drunkard. Every two years, the voters seem to express their disgust with Washington and whomever is in power.

And this is why some Democrats are rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of being the opposition in the House.

The Tea Party's near-revolutionary fervour appealed to something deep in the American soul but, as of today in the House, the Republicans are in control. The public may, in part and in time, come to blame them for the economic woes all around them.

Mr Obama's game plan is to murmur constantly the mantra "jobs jobs jobs". All the while he'll attempt to look achingly responsible, striving to find compromise on behalf of the American people.

The French call it "cohabitation", when the president has to work with a party of a different stripe. This, though, is a marriage of inconvenience, of opposites, where Mr Obama will attempt to appear the stoic one, working at a hellish marriage for the sake of the kids.

If the Republicans spend time trying to pass a healthcare repeal that won't go anywhere (because if the Senate doesn't reject the repeal, the president will) it will be portrayed as hopelessly self-indulgent. If Tea Party purists insist on not raising America's debt limit that will be putting ideology before country. Of course, the Republicans will be also be attempting to paint Mr Obama as the one not trying hard enough to make the marriage work: the profligate parent intent on blowing what little is left of the family fortune on his undeserving favourites.

The difference is that Mr Obama was sobered up by what he called his "shellacking" in the elections, while the potent Tea Party brew is still coursing through the Republicans' veins.

Democrats are hoping all that tea will lead to tears. Not Mr Boehner's brought on by contemplation of the American dream, just of frustration and failure.

The real comeback kid

Mark Mardell | 15:24 UK time, Monday, 3 January 2011

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"The Comeback kid" is an overused term in American politics, first applied to Bill Clinton, now used for any politicians who may be experiencing something of a renaissance, including Obama.


Jerry Brown

But surely no-one deserves the title more than Jerry Brown who becomes California's governor today. It's his third term. His first two were between 1975 and 83. When first took office Harold Wilson was prime minister in Britain. The outgoing governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, hadn't thought about becoming the Terminator, let alone the "Governator", and was still gleaming and posing his way to the title of Mr Universe, as detailed in the film Pumping Iron.

I am about halfway through a new biography of Schwarzenegger, "The Govenator" by Ian Halperin and it makes fascinating reading. The central character of most political biographies features a man or woman who has never done anything outside politics unless it is being a lawyer. I have certainly never before read so much about steroids and flexing. According to the book Schwarzenegger couldn't bear not winning, not being the best of the best. It is by no means certain he'll get that title as California's 38th governor.

But what of the old new kid on the block? In his first terms of office Brown was nicknamed "Governor Moonbeam" for what one columnist considered his far out ways, including extending California's space programme. The journalist later recanted.

Brown dated the singer Linda Ronstadt, and lived not in the mansion but a modest flat. Liberals at least will see Brown as well ahead of the times in his concern for gay rights, opposition to the death penalty and enthusiastic backing of green projects.

Brown faces huge challenges. California, which would be eighth in world economic ranking if it was a country, faces bankruptcy. Although one conservative magazine suggested that in his first terms Brown was more of a fiscal conservative than Reagan, it will be hard to turn on friends in the unions and force deep cuts. Indeed, his economic programme seems the familiar theme (from Obama to the UK and the EU) of creating green jobs mixed with equally familiar ideas of cutting red tape and more nebulous ones of encouraging manufacturing. We'll be watching to see if Moonbeam can cut through the fog that has descended on the Golden State.

2012 elections: Footnote

Mark Mardell | 15:25 UK time, Sunday, 2 January 2011

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In my list of potential Republican candidates I made the point that politics is nothing if not unpredictable. I said that 20 months ago John Huntsman would have been high on my list , but Obama wisely sent him to China. I may have written him off too soon.

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