BBC BLOGS - Mark Mardell's America

Archives for April 2011

Obama releases birth certificate, voters talk petrol prices

Mark Mardell | 17:55 UK time, Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Annapolis, Maryland

"I don't care where he was born. I just wish he would do something abut gas [petrol] prices," a man in Chick and Ruth's diner on the main street of Annapolis in the US state of Maryland told me.

That is the sort of reaction President Barack Obama hopes for. His message is that the fuss about where he was born is bemusing, puzzling, silly and a "sideshow" distracting from the huge economic issues facing America.

But Mr Obama had to kick over the sideshow if the customers at the diner were anything to go by. Most people I spoke had a hazy perception that there was something slightly untrustworthy about the document released by the Obama campaign two and a half years ago. Most thought this had dragged on far too long and deserved to be cleared up.

The argument that Mr Obama isn't eligible to be US president because he wasn't born in the US was once thought to be the preserve of the political fringes, those whose "birther" nickname equates them with the "truthers" who believe 9/11 was carried out by the US government.

But it was plonked centre stage by potential Republican candidate, billionaire property developer and TV star Donald Trump, who has said several times that he doubts Mr Obama was born in Hawaii and that he has put private detectives on the case.

Mr Trump was in New Hampshire today doing multiple stops in this key state. Mr Obama's press conference both stymies his big day and gives him even more publicity. Mr Obama's aim must be to make him look deeply unserious.

Many Obama supporters feel racism motivates the birthers - disbelief that a black man can be an American president. Some birthers are opponents who hate his values so much they think he must be un-American literally as well as metaphorically.

But there's no doubt his team has handled this appallingly.

They have today released the full birth certificate. In 2008 they released a "certification of live birth". The White House communications director writes:

When any citizen born in Hawaii requests their birth certificate, they receive exactly what the president received. In fact, the document posted on the campaign website is what Hawaiians use to get a driver's license from the state and the document recognised by the federal government and the courts for all legal purposes. That's because it is the birth certificate.

That appears to be true, and the Hawaiian authorities were apparently reluctant to publish the full thing. But what could be more delicious to conspiracy theorists than the existence of an unseen document that apparently the authorities were keen to keep from the full public gaze?

In Chick and Ruth's I found a full variety of views about the issue. A waitress said it was crazy that anyone ever doubted when Mr Obama was born, an older man still thought that his president may have been born in Kenyan and wanted to study the document. A younger man had no real doubts but thought this was overdue.

It may not go away. I have already had one e-mail from someone who said he had no interest in were Mr Obama was born but claimed the new document had been doctored.

But one thing is very clear. I was in Annapolis filming a story on the economy, and nearly every customer I spoke to ended up talking, unprompted, about the price of petrol. That was the real issue for them. Like the president, they regarded anything else as a sideshow, albeit an entertaining one.

US budget deal: Winners and losers

Mark Mardell | 18:17 UK time, Saturday, 9 April 2011

Everyone is breathing a sigh of relief. Everyone in my family, that is. We are about to take some holiday, spend some time taking friends round the sights of Washington DC and then visit a national park. Now these attractions will stay open for business.

A park ranger at the Bunker Hill monument in Boston, Massachussetts

I am sure many Americans share this sense of relief - that their government has not shut down, and for more serious reasons than mere avoidance of holiday season disappointment.

There's little doubt that it would have made America look rather ridiculous and people would have blamed politicians as a class.

But who are the winners and losers?

The Republican leader, Speaker John Boehner, is a clear winner. Had there been a shutdown, his party would have suffered, and his authority would have been damaged. He negotiated skilfully between the Democrats and his own ardent members and won a deal that many independents will welcome as sensible and necessary.

For the Tea Party movement, too, it is a success. They have made their agenda Washington's agenda. They have stiffened the steel in their leadership's spine to hold our for deeper cuts. But if they complain that this is not enough, or that they've been betrayed, they will look petulant and fall into a Democrat trap - that of looking and sounding like extremists.

The social conservatives, for a time insisting on a rather incoherent anti-abortion policies tacked onto the budget ("fungible money" doesn't make it into a soundbite), risked disaster for their party.

They appeal to a minority in the country and look politically irresponsible - a danger to their party's electability and the purity of the Tea Party's economic and constitutional messages.

The Democrats as a whole don't come off well. They look like realists, but they've given a lot of ground. These cuts will hurt their natural supporters and undermine plans and projects dear to their hearts. The tactics were quite skilful but I can't see the strategy .

President Obama has made the best of a bad job. He has tried to celebrate the agreement as the American virtue of compromise in action. He made himself look like an honest broker, standing for sensible compromise, rather than the deeply involved player that he is. He did a good job of making a shutdown sound really scary, and so pushing the Republicans towards a deal. But once again he looks like a skilful chairman, rather than a leader. The cuts he has had to accept will, I imagine, undermine important parts of his programme.

With bigger battles ahead, over the 2012 budget, the debt ceiling and the deficit, President Obama has yet to explain how he will fund hope and pay for change. By welcoming the deal, as he must, he has embraced a pared-down vision, accepted something smaller and meaner than he offered in 2008.

It was obvious this blow was coming after last year's elections, but it is a serious blow to the presidency nonetheless.

I'll be back in a couple of weeks.

Beyond the brink

Mark Mardell | 19:13 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

President Obama said he wanted an answer on a budget deal by the morning. That deadline has passed. The talking goes on but the blame game is on in earnest. If there is a shutdown it will do deep damage to the image of one or both parties. The two sides can't even agree what it is they disagree about.

The Democrats are doing a better job of setting the narrative. John Boehner made a mistake allowing the president to speak for him last night and issuing a joint statement with Harry Reid. He is not doing a good job of setting the narrative.

The Republicans insist the argument is about the size of cuts. The Democrats say it is about ideology. Harry Reid's case is that the remaining issue is a Republican demand to take funds away from Planned Parenthood. Although this is a group that funds abortions he says it is illegal for federal money to go towards this. As far as I can see he is factually correct.

So Mr Reid argues the Republicans are holding up the budget because they want to attack cancer screening for women. He says if that sounds ridiculous, it is because it is ridiculous.

By contrast John Boehner, tense and strained before the microphones says it is about the size of the cuts. He says few policy issues remain. But he won't answer the question whether Planned Parenthood is one of them. He is not trying hard to set out his side of the story. I am not arguing that the Republicans don't have a case. But they are not making it with any verve or enthusiasm. Mr Boehner's lack of fighting spirit suggests that he accepts he will get the blame for a shut down.

Back from the brink?

Mark Mardell | 04:23 UK time, Friday, 8 April 2011

The president has cancelled his travel plans and says he expects an answer on whether a government shutdown can be averted by Friday morning, Washington time. He says: "I'm not yet prepared to express wild optimism", but sounded stern about the consequences of failure, particularly damage to a fragile recovery. "For us to go backwards because Washington couldn't get its act together is unacceptable."

He could be simply preparing the way for failure and claiming the moral high ground. But If that was the case I think we would have heard from John Boehner, the Republican leader in the house. They appear to be on the edge of a deal. What to look for next is how enthusiastic or otherwise are the Tea Party about any such agreement. If there are very few moans then the Republican leadership will have pulled off something of a coup.

Both sides looked over the brink and didn't like what they saw. Or rather they couldn't peer through the fog of competing narratives to see what was at the bottom of the abysses. I tend to think that at the start the American people would blame "politicians" in general without bothering to distinguish their party.

Some Democrats think it would be a straight replay of the last shutdown in 1995. Newt Gingrich badly miscalculated, was blamed for the shutdown and was forced to give way. It was seen as a turning point in the Clinton presidency which had been in the doldrums until this victory. Incidentally it had another huge impact. During the shutdown, in an understaffed and quiet White House, one intern was at work and had an opportunity to be alone with the president. Bill met Monica and the presidency was never the same.

That aside, many think this wouldn't be a straight repeat of 95. Bill Walker, who's still close to Newt Gingrich, was an influential deputy chief whip at the time. He told me: "I think in many ways it would be different than 95, because I do get the feeling, when I'm back home in Pennsylvania, that people have come to the conclusion that when a country reaches the point that its debt is equal to its gross national product, that country is in trouble.

"I think the blame is likely to vastly more divided. Clearly, the partisans are going to come down on the side of their party affiliations, so the question is - where do the independents come down?

"And, by every measure, so far the independents have said they are extremely concerned about the situation we're in with regard to debt, so if they come to the conclusion that Republicans have stood on principle, i think the Republicans will get at least a percentage of the independent vote."

Perhaps this is so. But there are huge risks on both sides. Even if a breakdown is averted today, there are many more moments yet to come over budget, debt and deficit. Late night crisis meetings at the White House may become a fixture.

The cost of compromise

Mark Mardell | 20:51 UK time, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Protesters by the US Capitol

Washington teeters on the brink. If there is no agreement on a budget by midnight on Friday, the federal government will shut down. While cops and soldiers, air traffic controllers and others deemed essential won't down tools this is serious, at least according to the Obama administration. A senior administration official has told us loans to small businesses and home buyers will stop, which will have an impact on an already fragile housing market. Military and civilian workers won't be paid. The lions at the zoo will be fed (and unlike last time their waste should be collected) but the gates won't open to visitors. National parks will close. This is, of course, the most serious, as I am planning a vacation to one of them next week.

I am just back from the Capitol, and talking to people at a Tea Party rally. Their view might be summed up as "bring it on!" They were chanting "Shut it down!" Several made the point that if non-essential parts of the government shut down, they'd be quite happy. If it's not essential, the view is, then the government shouldn't be doing it anyway.

I suspect there will be a deal. There is too much for both sides to lose in the blame game that would follow. But the strength of the Tea Party has already made it hard for their leadership to compromise, and will make selling any deal tough. President Barack Obama and the Democrats don't have quite the same problem but the cuts he has accepted have already upset supporters.

Compromise is a peculiar business, I reflected as I started reading a book called At the Edge of the Precipice, by Robert Remini, the former historian of the US House of Representatives. It is about the 1850 compromise over slavery. He writes that the man at the centre of this, Henry Clay, "understood the importance of compromise... each side must feel that it has gained something that is essential to its interest as the result of the compromise. To achieve that goal each side must surrender something important to the opposing side. Both sides can then claim victory."

His contention is that compromise prevented an early civil war that the North would have lost, having neither leadership nor material to win at that stage. The argument is that it prevented the splitting of the US into two nations and thus was a good move. All history is hindsight, but I am uncertain about praising an agreement on the grounds that it turned out that it came unstuck later with better results. It was hardly the argument at the time. And compromises depend who is at the table. The compromise was between white gentlemen, while the slaves themselves had no say. Perhaps they might have had some thoughts about the value of compromise.

What's this got to do with today's politics? Simply that like Mr Remini, most Americans admire politicians who can behave with dignity and find a way through a difficult problem, by giving and taking. Bipartisanship is one of the highest ideals of US politics. But many of the politicians might question the morality of this. Enough of them might see the matters of practicality and principle at stake as too important to allow the other side to claim any sort of victory.

Obama 2012 takes off as rivals 'hit treacle'

Mark Mardell | 15:41 UK time, Monday, 4 April 2011

Obama_flag_march_19.jpgThe 2012 presidential race is on. Kinda.

At the moment, it feels more like a wade through treacle - so slow is the pace of President Barack Obama's opponents. Mr Obama can be unambiguous that he is going to run because they are all showing varying degrees of hesitancy.

If the president is to get back into the White House he has to leap a number of obstacles: an economy that is so sluggish that there are constant worries it could go backwards and supporters who may be unenthusiastic about sending more troops to Afghanistan, bombing Libya and failing to close Guantanamo Bay prison. There is also huge uncertainly in the country about health care and much more we will be looking at in detail.

But the strength of opposition doesn't seem, at the moment, a particularly high hurdle.  To British eyes, the primary system is one of the most curious parts of American politics.

The elite of British political parties have only grudgingly and slowly given the power of choosing their own leader. The principle of "one member, one vote" has been slow in coming. 

Elections for leaders rarely grip in the same way as American internal elections. While any American can easily register as a Republican or Democrat and have their say about who represents them, in Britain being a party member still seems an effort of will.

Twenty-five pounds ($40) per year may not be much to play your part in conservative politics in Britain, £12 may be a bargain to have a say in the Lib Dems and it's only a penny (for those under 27) to join the Labour Party - but it still costs something.

There's a feeling that being interested in who becomes your PM or MP isn't enough. You have to be willing to sit in draughty village halls on wet Wednesdays listening.  

The biggest difference is perhaps not in just who is involved, but how late in the political cycle the choice is made. This has a real impact. Every party leader, good or bad, has an image, policy likes and dislikes and personal ticks that colour voters approach to the parties as a whole.

The British public has years to get to know Ed Miliband and decide what to think about him leading a Labour government. Here in the US, the opposition is currently either faceless or hydra-headed. There is no obvious front-runner, and any prediction about who will be the Republican candidate in 2012 is nothing more than an informed guess.

Mr Obama v Michele Bachmann would be quite a different contest to Mr Obama v John Huntsman. 

Republicans get to choose, late in the day, exactly what they want their party to stand for.

The influence of the Tea Party suggests any candidate will be economically conservative, but beyond that, it is impossible to predict very much. The candidates are so unenthusiastic about firing the starting gun, the first big debate at the Reagan library in California has been put back from next month to the autumn.

Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Donald Trump seem almost certain to have a go. Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, John Huntsman and Mitch Daniels seem less sure bets. And, of course, there are plenty of other names out there.

Mr Obama is starting the race now to make sure that whoever challenges him, his organisation will be ramped up and ready, with big bucks at its command.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.