BBC BLOGS - Mark Mardell's America

Archives for November 2010

Games or gridlock?

Mark Mardell | 21:04 UK time, Tuesday, 30 November 2010


"The American people did not vote for gridlock," said President Barack Obama after meeting the new masters, the Republicans who will be in charge of the House after January.

He said that despite what he called a generally "hyper-partisan" atmosphere in Washington, the White House meeting with both parties from Congress had agreed to find sensible common ground, "and that will require choosing the best of our ideas over the worst of our politics".

Mr Obama said that in the next couple of days there would be an effort to square the circle over tax cuts.

Republicans want them all extended, including for those earning over $250,000. Democrats want them just for what they call the middle classes.

The president spoke, too, of the importance of the New Start treaty with Russia.

The president pronounced himself encouraged by the tone of the meeting and said there was an agreement not to rush to the microphones and paint the other side as "unyielding and uncooperative". That, he said, would be "trying to win the news cycle instead of solving problems... just another move in an old Washington game". 

But you don't get this town to play a new game that easily. Democrats believe that their main priorities for the "lame duck" session poll well with the public. In addition to the tax cuts and Start, they have two other priorities: abolishing "don't ask, don't tell" so that gay people can serve openly in the military, and passing the Dream Act, which would allow illegal immigrants to become citizens if they served in the armed forces. Good news for gay illegal immigrants who want to serve their adopted country.

Democratic strategists believe that if the Republicans are vocal in opposing these measures, they will find themselves annoying the voters and defined as partisan before they take control of the House. In particular, the Dream Act is a trap. The Democratic strategists think opposition to it would kill Republican hopes with Hispanic voters. But above these details, they think that by not being bipartisan, being seen to oppose compromise and working together would damage the Republicans.

So, no-one is rushing to the microphones. Not yet. Leave it a few weeks. Hyper-partisanship is not dead, Washington games are not at an end.

Tearing the fabric of government, or ripping the curtain of secrecy ?

Mark Mardell | 23:01 UK time, Monday, 29 November 2010


"Surprise, surprise" said the Russian ambassador at the UN when my colleague threw him a question about US diplomats spying on officials there.

Officialdom in the US is less amused by the Wikileaks. The White House says that those responsible are "first and foremost criminals". One Republican congressman wants Wikileaks classified as a foreign terrorist organisation. Hillary Clinton says the people responsible are not brave, but potentially responsible for the imprisonment, torture and death of others.

The secretary of state offered no evidence that any of the cables put intelligence sources or human rights campaigners at risk, and I can't see any in those published so far.

But it is clear America's top diplomat, an insider for many years, who knows all about the private becoming public, finds it distasteful, as well as difficult, that the curtain has been ripped aside. She said it was an attack, not on America, but on the international community which undermines diplomats ability to work with other countries, that tears at the fabric of the function of proper government.

She went on to say that whether in journalism, or law, or business we all need confidential communications. It is true of course. In any organisation people have frank conversations that would create problems if they were broadcast to a wider world. This is exactly the sort of arguments we've had before about Freedom of Information laws.

Part of the current difficulty is adjusting to the dominance of electronic media. It has always been a rule of thumb observed by the wise and cautious that some things just shouldn't be written down. Now it seems sensible not to put anything in an e-mail that you wouldn't be happy seeing on the front page of a newspaper.

But is Hillary Clinton on too high a high horse here? Should we respect the privacy of government so it can do its business? Are we in danger of cloaking natural curiosity and a right to know? Or should we indulge the instinct to find out what they are saying in our name?

Wikileaks: Red faces, but no crisis

Mark Mardell | 21:32 UK time, Sunday, 28 November 2010


A Wikileaks webpage

So far red faces, but no resignations, no reputations damaged beyond repair.

The US state department is still standing. Some of the no longer secret telegrams provide us with a much clearer picture of what we thought was going on, such as the Saudis urging the US to "cut the head off" the Iranian snake.

Some are gossipy, such as reports of Muammar Gaddafi's voluptuous Ukrainian nurse.

We still await what was written (separately) about a British royal, Gordon Brown and the performance of the UK military in Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama's spokesman has released a statement condemning the latest Wikileaks, saying they are reckless and dangerous, that they compromise diplomats and intelligence officials, put lives at risk and deeply impact their work.

That may be true but above all the leaks are embarrassing. Embarrassing that - what the White House describes as "candid and incomplete" views - are now in the public domain.

Embarrassing that documents marked Secret Noforn - meaning "secret no foreigners" - can be read by the very foreigners they are written about.

Embarrassing enough that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spent the weekend on the phone smoothing feathers even before they are ruffled.

But what they are not, so far, is earth-shattering.

Interesting - yes. Hard black-and-white confirmation of what we have long suspected but nothing that would cause real shock, rather than irritation. Nothing completely unexpected.

That may change - thousands of documents have still not yet been published.

But at the moment this is at the level of red faces rather than a full-blown crisis.

Still, it will leave American diplomats and their foreign service that much more exposed, it provides ammunition for their enemies and undermines their friends.

A brighter Black Friday?

Mark Mardell | 16:35 UK time, Friday, 26 November 2010


Macy's store


I'm told by my wife and daughter that I am a more enthusiastic shopper than most men, but my keenness is not quite as great as that of the many Americans for whom it seems a full-time hobby.

Still, I've still got a limited tolerance: a couple of hours is enough. Walking around the biggest department store in the world, Macy's in Manhattan, I was reminded of one of the trials of winter shopping. Covered up in jacket and overcoat against the bracing weather outside, the store feels as warm as a Florida winter. At least I am not burdened down by bags, their handles cutting into my hands, a horror of Christmas past. But, of course, for many of us what has curbed recent expeditions is not such mundane moans but the lack of money, and fears for the future.

So while you wouldn't catch me among the 7,000 people who rushed into Macy's when the doors opened at 4am, it seems a good sign for the economy.

It's Black Friday in America, the biggest shopping day of the year, which traditionally marks the spending season running up to Christmas. Last year, Macy's had 5,000 at the doors, and they opened an hour later. Predictions are that Americans will spend almost $450bn (£285bn) more this year than last Black Friday.

Terry Lundgren

Macy's chief executive officer, Terry Lundgren, tells me there are signs both for the world economy and the US.

"This is a major tourist attraction and we're starting to see a return of the European and Asian market, not just today but this year. That is different to 2009, very different to 2008 when particularly the Europeans stayed home."

He see a significance in not just the rise in number of people coming in, but the sort of people.

"We're seeing today many more young customers and many more male customers than you typically see the day after Thanksgiving. It's typically driven by the mature woman who's trying to get the gifts in for the family. We're seeing that but also these others. It tells me people are shopping for themselves. There's much more feeling of consumer confidence than a year ago. Last year they came in, got their gifts, had a budget and then they were out. This year, they're spending a bit more on themselves."

This matters. Most economists tell us that building consumer confidence is vital to maintaining and building on America's fragile recovery.

But Manhattan is special in so many ways. About five miles (8km) away in Astoria, in New York's Queens borough, many shops are boarded up. People out on the streets are much gloomier, telling us that they don't have any spare cash to go Christmas shopping. One woman says that she has to save to pay for things like children's school books and she has no money to spend on the sales.

The manager of one electronic store in Astoria, Freddy Lakahani, says: "The last couple of years have been bad and it's getting worse. So with us it's not getting any better. Next year if it stays like that, we'll have to call it a day. We cannot survive any more."

Some Americans are spending more. Big companies like Macy's are doing well. This is a positive sin for the future and should have an impact on the whole economy. Things are going in the right direction, and that is obviously better than the reverse. But the recovery is so slow many don't believe it is happening. Unemployment is stubbornly high and there are many Americans who may be constantly looking for any bargain they can get but are in no position to go on a spending spree.

A deadly game of chicken

Mark Mardell | 19:50 UK time, Tuesday, 23 November 2010


A plume of black smoke, an hour's artillery exchange, frightened people hurriedly leaving their homes, images that echo a war that began 61 years ago and ended without peace. But for pessimists they are harbingers of a horror yet to come.

"Outrageous", a US state department spokesman called the North Korean shelling of the South Korea island. But what exactly will it provoke, besides nerves?

The last four US presidents have faced North Korea's determination to become a nuclear state. Bill Clinton seemed prepared to send 50,000 troops to the border and to contemplate war. A deal of sorts was struck.

George W Bush identified North Korea as part of the Axis of Evil and briefly ordered bombers to the region when it was clear it was ready to make nuclear weapons. But Mr Bush was too focused on Iraq to deal with the arguably much greater threat to stability.

Mr Obama faces not just a nuclear state in defiance of international agreements but an increasingly aggressive one. There is a new pattern here there began this March with the sinking of a South Korean ship and the loss of 46 lives.

Some experts believe that what looks like a reckless game of chicken is a well-thought out plan intended to cement Kim Jong-un's path to power. His father, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, seems frail and ill and wants his son to take over when he is gone. I am told reports from China suggest Kim Jong-un was involved in giving the order for the shelling. This could improve his standing with the old guard and the military. That there may be a political rationale behind the violence is cold comfort.

The prospect of an incident like this one lighting the fuse to a bigger conflict is horrific. The US administration's man with direct responsibility for the region, Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, once warned that conflict on the peninsular would lead to a "symphony of death". There's no doubt Seoul is in serious danger, even without the threat of nuclear weapons.

Winding down two wars, Mr Obama hardly wants to get embroiled in another where the death toll of Afghanistan and Iraq combined might pale in comparison.

If America doesn't want a war, experts say neither does North Korea. Former defence department expert in the region, Abe Denmark, who's now with the Centre for a New American Security told me:

This latest incident in some ways increases the possibility of escalation. But North Korea knows what it would mean and it doesn't want to go there. A broader conflict would mean the end of North Korea as a political entity, so it wants to avoid that while using belligerence and aggression to get concessions from South Korea and America.

It is a delicate balancing act in an arena with no safety nets and a high possibility of disastrous miscalculations. One astute observer, Fred Kaplan, wrote five years ago:

In the game of highway chicken, North Korea is the shrewd lunatic who very visibly throws his steering wheel out the window, forcing the other, more responsible driver to veer off the road.

What has changed since then is that the new boy on the road may be even more reckless than his dad and perhaps not as shrewd. As so often these days all eyes are on China. As so often there is an equal danger of exaggerating China's power as underestimating it. There is no sign as yet that North Korea is paying any attention to its only ally. Let's hope it does. It is perhaps the only hope of avoiding a terrible collision in this dangerous game of dare.

Republican moves test co-operation

Mark Mardell | 18:58 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010


For all the talk of humility and working together, peering into the innards of the "lame duck" does not augur well for future co-operation. Two problems have already emerged. One is "inside the Beltway" stuff and largely symbolic. The other really matters.

On a trivial level, President Barack Obama's meeting with the leaders of Congress, planned for tomorrow, has been shifted, pushed into the week after Thanksgiving.

The reason? Republican leaders were too busy to turn up for the summit. The White House is playing down any sense this is a snub, but it hardly counts as eagerness and respect. The president's spokesman Robert Gibbs has said, with considerable understatement, that it will be "test of whether we can work together". Just getting them in the same room seems hard enough.

The real threat, though, is the intention to undermine the president's ability to do deals with other world leaders. There is a real possibility he won't be able to get through Congress the treaty with Russia reducing the number of nuclear missiles. The threat, by the Republican whip, Senator Jon Kyl, is to hold it up until the new Senate, when Mr Obama will need 14 Republican votes, not eight as at the moment. So, naturally, the White House wants it through this session, when it will be slightly easier, if not much.

It is furiously pushing the line that this is a matter of national security, that the improved relationship with Russia has helped across the foreign policy piste, from Iran to Afghanistan. It is ready to paint Republican opponents as putting America's interests in jeopardy for the sake of narrow political opposition.

A po-faced reaction to Guantanamo payout

Mark Mardell | 16:38 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010


Binyam_Mohamed.jpgThere's no on the record reaction to Britain's plan to pay millions to 16 men who had been held as prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, except for a rather po-faced "we see this as a deal between HMG and the detainees".

Foreign Secretary William Hague is in town and he told the BBC he denied the settlement was an admission that the intelligence agencies colluded in the mistreatment of detainees. He said it reflects the desire to move on and that it was good for Britain's intelligence agencies to be able to look entirely to the future, and not spend years going through court cases.

Similar attempts here to sue the US government by Guantanamo prisoners have failed in the past - and what happens in the UK sets no precedent and will make no difference.

Sources close to the Pentagon believe there will be two private reactions from the administration. One coming from the heart, the other the head. The initial reaction may be one of annoyance and profound embarrassment because this looks like confirmation by the British government that these men were wrongly detained and badly treated.

But, on reflection, it will be seen as a rational decision that avoids the possibility of the British government losing in court and having to produce thousands of documents that Americans would rather remain top secret.

That is good news for the relationship between UK and US intelligence. There are always nerves when it looks as if shared information could become public. The fact that the British government is making an awkward decision to avoid that will reassure some on this side of the Atlantic.

The instinct of many Americans may well be that such a payout is offensive. But so far, at least, there has been little public comment on the settlement. The American media are today obsessed with what is happening in Britain, but it's the news from the Palace, not the House of Commons, that has excited them.

Waddling towards oblivion

Mark Mardell | 12:23 UK time, Monday, 15 November 2010


There'll be plenty of ruffled feathers. That's an easy prediction for the "lame duck" Congress that meets today and goes on, with breaks, until some time near Christmas. It is so called because it is not the new Congress that Americans elected a couple of weeks ago, with lots of fresh Republican faces, but the tail end of the old one

It will still be something a test of how President Barack Obama intends to govern in this new world, and of the mood of Democrats in the House of Representatives. Everybody agrees that an ambitious environment bill or a second stimulus package would be, well, a dead duck.

Mr Obama is very keen to get the Start treaty with the Russians ratified. That may happen. Some Democrats think they can get rid of the ban on gay people openly serving in the military, the so-called "Don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The most squawking will be caused by the row over the tax cuts introduced by President George W Bush and due to run out in the New Year. Democrats want to keep them for "the middle class" but not the "rich". Republicans say families earning over $250,000 a year are not rich, but small business.

But why lame duck? It has come to refer to an individual, and by extension an institution, that will soon be out of office, and so lacks either moral authority or the ability to wield power because of expiring patronage and influence. But this aquatic avian used to keep company with the bull and the bear. In 18th-Century England, it was a stock market term for investors who couldn't pay their debts. The image conjured is simply that of a wounded waddle, a rather pathetic sight.

But the original farmyard metaphor is simple. A lame duck, that can't keep up with the rest of its fellows, is the one most likely to be picked off by a fox. There's a fable for our times.

So many parties, so little time

Mark Mardell | 20:25 UK time, Friday, 12 November 2010


Tea_Party.jpgWhat do you do when you are asked to two parties at the same time? Ask Peggy Post? Perhaps not this time.

This is not a dilemma for the crustless cucumber set but the beginnings of an ideological battle, a conflict about purity and pragmatism.

In an e-mail to its members, the Tea Party Patriots group warns that their newly-elected members of Congress are in danger of being nobbled by the Washington establishment.

They have an event this weekend aimed at showing how new members of Congress can govern according to the Constitution. But they say the Claremont Institute has organised a similar event for the same time. The Tea Party Patriots offered to combine the two but were "summarily and, we thought rudely, dismissed".

The Patriots claim the rival event is an attempt by lobbyists to indoctrinate their new members.

So they've urged supporters to write to their elected members - helpfully providing a list of e-mails and phone numbers - asking, "Do you want them to attend an event where DC insiders can begin to corrupt them? The water in the Potomac is infected with the politics of the past and needs to be boiled to be cleansed and then steeped in fresh tea."

I've been wary of predictions that the Republican establishment and the Tea Party will inevitably slide towards civil war. While there will be inevitable tensions between purity and pragmatism, they agree on the big issues. But the suspicion between them is real and hostilities have apparently already begun.

Tortured Seoul: Obama's G20 isolation

Mark Mardell | 15:53 UK time, Friday, 12 November 2010


President Barack Obama at the G20 in Seoul

The rather disappointing, at least low-key, outcome to the G20 adds to the sense of a president beleaguered and diminished.

The well-respected Washington Post even suggests Mr Obama failed to get a much-prized free trade deal with South Korea because of his party's "shellacking" in the mid-term elections. This is almost certainly nonsense, but a sign of the times.

The president even had to answer a question about whether the elections at home had undermined his power abroad. He said:

The answer is no. I think what we've seen over the last several days as we've travelled through Asia is that people are eager to work with America, eager to engage with America on economic issues, on security issues, on a whole range of mutual interests.

Fair enough. But it is true that a mere 18 months ago the president would probably have been handed any trade treaty he wanted, with extra sprinkles and birthday candles on top, just by flashing a smile. He is no longer the superstar who leaves other world leaders star-struck, but another mortal with one eye on the polls.

Leaders of democracies can be quick to sympathise with each other about the awkward matter of a tricky electorate and the distractions of the home front.

But Mr Obama's decrease in popularity at home is not matched by a robust admiration for his economic policy on the world stage. Far from it. It was only a few months ago at the G20 in Toronto that Mr Obama's failure was his inability to persuade other countries to join him in a new stimulus package. At the time I described him as "the last Keynesian standing".

Since then it has got worse for him. Other countries, most notably the UK, are wielding the knife, busy balancing the books, cutting the deficit - in fact, doing what the president's domestic opposition says he should do.

The vague agreement aimed at stopping currency wars does not really quantitatively ease Germany and China's distress at the Fed printing more money. Nor does it lessen Mr Obama's irritation that they are not buying more American goods.

I happen to believe that talking is better than not, mild agreement is better than sniping, and some sort of global consensus is better than leaders sitting in their capitals, glowering at each other and refusing to pick up the phone.

It would be a weird and perhaps not so wonderful world if they could all agree on a single economic policy. So this is hard, serious stuff.

But there's some irony that the leader of the richest and most powerful country in the world finds himself rather isolated, just like his predecessor, if for utterly different reasons. It sure is lonely at the top.

Republicans line up debate for 2012 hopefuls

Mark Mardell | 21:51 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010


The first debate between the Republican candidates for presidential contender in 2012 has just been announced.

Of course, we don't actually have any candidates yet, but that hasn't deterred the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in association with NBC News and Politico.

The GOP hero's widow, Nancy Reagan, is quoted as saying: "Ronnie would be thrilled that the road to the White House will begin at his presidential library."

The library is in California's Simi Valley and the debate will be held in the spring of next year. But exactly how many chairs will they need to set out?

Can America take the pain?

Mark Mardell | 02:18 UK time, Thursday, 11 November 2010


Alan_Simpson.jpg"The problem is real, the solution is painful" is the stark heading to one part of a brainstorming official report on how to cut America's huge and growing deficit.

It calls for "shared sacrifice" and its authors are not bluffing. Democrats will hate a lot of what is in this report. So will Republicans. It calls on nearly all Americans to pull their belts so tight it'll cut into the flesh.

That is why it is doomed to be a first draft.

President Barack Obama has appointed a bipartisan committee on fiscal responsibility and reform to come up with a plan to cut the deficit. Its members are due to report on 1 December. But the first stage is this paper by the co-chairs, Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator, and Erskine Bowles, who used to be chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

The knife they would jointly wield would cut deep. They would start at the top.

They want to cut the budget for the White House and Congress by 15%. There would be a federal pay freeze and a cut of the work force by 10%, as well as a cap on spending in most departments.

So far, so good. Many in America would view that with relish. But then they start culling some sacred cows.

First, $100bn off the defence budget. A third of overseas bases would be closed. Pay frozen for three years for all excepting combat troops. Much-beloved projects for planes, ships and fighting vehicles would go out of the window. Schools on military bases would close. A quarter of a million contractors would lose their jobs. And that is just a flavour of it.

Nearly as sacred as the military in the US is the car. But motorists would see taxes on petrol rise.

No politician can afford to offend those most consistent of voters, the retired. But pensions would be cut for many and the retirement age would go up and up until it reached 69 by 2075.

There are some professions you don't want to tangle with. But the proposal is to give doctors less money for working on government-run Medicare. Oh, and lawyers too.

All sensible politicians court the rural vote, and this is one area for government hand-outs that delights the right. But this pair would get rid of farm subsidies.

There is one sure way to lose elections, especially when times are hard. Put up taxes. So it is little surprise that even this daring duo don't give a huge amount of detail on their tax proposals. But they would raise $80bn a year, so someone would be going "ouch". In return for a lower and simpler income tax, nearly all tax breaks would be abolished, including the American equivalent of mortgage tax relief.

So it is not a huge shock that most members of the commission emerged from the briefing muttering not very positive thoughts. It is why all this is not going to happen. But some of it might.

The authors tell Americans it is their "patriotic duty" to come together behind a plan and that America "cannot be great if we go broke". Stirring stuff, and there is no doubt Americans are willing to make great sacrifices for glorious causes. Or in some cases, at least applaud while others do. But we'll have to see if even the most ardent Tea Party supporters will accept their own pain, and a drop in material well-being may be part of the price for achieving a balanced budget.

G20 nations jostling on cliff's edge

Mark Mardell | 18:49 UK time, Wednesday, 10 November 2010


A two-metre concrete fence surrounds the venue for the meeting of the world's largest economies in South Korea. It's to prevent demonstrators getting anywhere near the world leaders inside. However, it is not any putative problems outside, but the very real clashes between the prime ministers and presidents within that really matter.

Ahead of the G20, China and Germany, both huge exporters, piled in attacking US monetary policy. Their target is the second round of quantitative easing announced last week by America's central bank on the same day as the mid-term election results. Oh and back home, Sarah Palin doesn't like it either.

The German finance minister called it "sly" and "clueless". The Chinese promise "frank discussions" about what they have suggested is an irresponsible policy.

They are not alone.

Brazil says the action will cause "distortions" and hosts South Korea say they will "aggressively" counter its effects.

Why are they all so angry? They think America is cheating, fiddling its currency to make its exporters cheaper.

President Barack Obama has long said that world trade has to be rebalanced. His constant refrain is that the Americans need to buy more American goods and Germany and China need to buy more from foreign countries, like the US. He says it again in his letter to other G20 leaders:

Just as the US much change, so to must those economies that have previously relied on exports to offset weaknesses in their own demand. A rebalancing of the sources of global demand, along with market determination of exchange rates that reverses significant undervaluation, are the best base for the shifts needed to bring about the vigorous and well-balanced recovery that we all want.

It is one thing saying it. It is quite another persuading other countries to buy the stuff you make. One way is to make it cheaper.

Quantitative easing is just a fancy way of saying "pumping new money into the economy", the modern equivalent of printing money. It's a great example of specialist speak. You would almost think they don't want people to understand what they are on about. It isn't even really an obscure technical or academic term. It just means the policy is meant to "ease" the situation by increasing the "quantity" of money. So if you want second helpings at dinner, just call it "quantitative easing" and no one will mind.

It keeps the dollar weak and makes American exports cheaper. The Germans and Chinese deem it unfair currency manipulation. It also gives the Germans the historical shivers, raising as it does the spectre of money printing, inflation and political instability.

Of course the US complains that China is manipulating its currency. During and after the financial crisis, world leaders huddled close, staring together over the precipice. With the danger of an immediate plunge over, they began jostling, and are now pushing. But the cliff edge is still there.

Back in the swamp

Mark Mardell | 03:48 UK time, Tuesday, 9 November 2010


I haven't seen the book yet, but both George W Bush's interview with NBC and in the Times are much more interesting than I expected.

It is the nature of these things that we pull them apart in the search for news headlines, but it is the texture, style and nuance that is really engaging.

He is promoting his biography Decision Points and defending his most controversial pivots for posterity, while denying that is the case. George W Bush told NBC that he hadn't given any interviews for two years because he didn't want to be back in the swamp... but he now finds himself knee deep in familiar waters.

When you boil down the actual defence of each policy they are rather predictable. The near drowning of al-Qaeda prisoners, waterboarding, to get information? The lawyers said it wasn't torture and he'd do it again because it saved lives.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? No-one was more saddened and angry than he was but he wouldn't apologise because that would suggest the war was wrong and the world was a better place without Saddam Hussein.

Bailing out the banks? He couldn't worry about the angst it caused friends to see a free marketer intervening - he had to stop an economic depression.

But it is his primary purpose that is revealing. At one point he says: "I am a deliberative person", and he is out to counter the image of a politician who made snap decisions on gut instinct alone, when brains rather than intestines might have been a better guide to action.

He says at another point, when it is suggested to him that Vice-President Dick Cheney pushed him to invade Iraq, saying: "Are you going to take care of this guy or not", that he was reflective. "I was a dissenting voice: I didn't want to use force." He says at that stage he turned Mr Cheney down.

He clearly feels that he hasn't got enough credit for the apparent success of the surge in Iraq, pointing out: "I am the sort of person, the tougher it got the more willing I was to make a tough call."

He is also clearly offended that some saw him as the puppet of Mr Cheney and top presidential adviser Karl Rove. He shrugs it off saying Mr Rove knew he wasn't the president's brain and Mr Cheney knew he wasn't running the White House. But the body language is prickly, hurt and awkward.

Whether that is because there's some truth in it, or because there's none and that's even more irritating, I can't tell.

He can afford to be more discursive than any politician in office who'll find their words carved into potentially career-destroying soundbites.

These longer exchanges are revealing. Early on he tells the interviewer that he has heard all the "psycho babble" about his relationship with his father, President George HW Bush - that it was about competition, that he wanted to overshadow his dad. He dismisses this saying it is a much less complex relationship than that, based on love.

He continues that he decided to run for president in large part out of admiration for his father and "the truth of the matter was the final motivating factor was my admiration for George Bush and I wonder if I had what it took to get in the arena the way he did".

He concludes that he hopes history will judge him a success, but he will be dead before that happens. It is certainly true - whether you see him as hero or villain, you are unlikely to be swayed by the words on the page or the interview, but it was certainly a more interesting hour than I had expected.

Accidentally lending Pennsylvania Democrats a hand

Mark Mardell | 21:09 UK time, Thursday, 4 November 2010


Oh, the irony of politics.

I hear a report from Murrysville in the state of Pennsylvania that a Republican campaigner against healthcare reform is kicking herself because she may have saved Democrats a seat.

Jason_Altmire.jpg"I spoke to Jill Cooper in a diner near the William Penn Highway in March, where she told me how furious she was about healthcare. Ms Cooper went on to organise a protest outside Congressman Jason Altmire's office. After a lot of public agonising, he decided to vote against healthcare, and Ms Cooper reckons that may have saved his political skin.

The Democratic friend I interviewed with her, John Cicco, has written to me saying that since my visit to Pennsylvania, "Jill has been elected the Chair of the Murrysville Republican Committee".

And on 2 November, each Republican on the ballot, including governors, US senators and state representatives, replaced a Democrat, with Murrysville providing large margins in its support, Mr Cicco added.

The only Democrat on the ballot who survived the Republican landslide was Jason Altmire," he said.

"We laughed about it, but he waited and waited until he knew his vote didn't matter. He should have been a leader and told other Democrats that it was a bad idea, but changing his vote kept him safe," Ms Cooper told me.

This upset aside, Ms Cooper is exultant about election night. She says 2 November represents a big change and the people elected to Congress have to realise that.

"Most people are now more engaged, Democrat and Republican. They're talking about running for local office. During Bush we, I, fell asleep but now we've wised up. They call it [the] Tea Party, but I call it engaged citizens, Republican, Democrat or Independent. We are saying to the new people, 'We trust you.' The Republicans have a second chance. Lower the taxes. Cut spending. But we are not going to fall asleep again," she said.

Should Obama betray self-doubt?

Mark Mardell | 19:15 UK time, Wednesday, 3 November 2010


Obama_press_conference.jpgWe've just witnessed what must be one of the most extraordinary presidential appearances ever. At times, it felt more like therapy than a news conference.

President Obama, looking rather grey and subdued, came up with all the stuff I expected: jobs, understanding people's frustration, listening to the voice of the people, working together with Republicans and accepting responsibility for the defeat.

He then was asked how it felt when he was talking to friends who'd been defeated, perhaps because of him.

"It feels bad," he said.

Near the end of the news conference, he was asked if he had become out of touch. He hesitated and thought for seconds before he replied. He admitted he could get trapped inside the White House bubble and that it was difficult to balance the responsibilities of the office with meeting people.

"One of the challenges we have to think about is, how do I meet my responsibilities here in the White House, but still have that opportunity to engage with the American people on a day-to-day basis and give them confidence that I'm listening to them?" he said.

He spoke of his emotions when he read letters from voters every night, but observed, perhaps rather bitterly, that there were no cameras on hand to capture those moments. He was reflective, introspective and even seemed to doubt his own ability.

He added that nobody had questioned his leadership when he was on the campaign trail.

"They got a pretty good look at me up close and personal. And they were able to lift the hood and kick the tires, and I think they understood that my story was theirs," he said.

But, of course, he wasn't a leader then, just a candidate. He said that whenever he met people he felt much more optimistic - he just didn't look it.

Is this a calculated recalibration? I just don't know. It seemed from the heart, but the best politicians are often the best actors. Sometimes it is as calculating to show the real you, as to disguise it.

But I just don't know whether this will help him. In America, you can certainly tear up like John Boehner, especially when talking about family and the American dream. You can confess to sin but perhaps not to mistakes.

Showing self-doubt, a lack of confidence and insecurity may not be the path back to power.

US voters punish Obama

Mark Mardell | 05:37 UK time, Wednesday, 3 November 2010


This is a stinging setback for a president who was elected with so much hope and so much exuberance just two years ago. But it is more than a rebuke. It will stop him turning his plans into laws.

At the root of the defeat for his Democratic Party, undoubtedly, is the painfully slow economic recovery - which means many of those who propelled him to power are disappointed and disgruntled and stayed at home.

But that's only half the story.

At the heart of the Republican revival is the rise of the angry and energetic Tea Party movement - the fiscal puritans who say government is too big, doing too much. It is they - President Obama's ideological opposites - who have won the day.

Certainly two of their highest-profile, not to say eccentric, candidates did not succeed in Delaware and Nevada - perhaps costing the Republicans a couple of scalps, and perhaps undermining the woman who supported them, Sarah Palin.

But overall this conservative movement is in charge, with the man who is likely to be the Republican speaker in the House, John Boehner, telling them "I will never let you down".

Mr Obama's fall from grace has been hard and fast. He has been pulled to Earth by an electorate that is deeply divided, by a politics that has become tidal.

Perhaps the president, and many of the rest of us, over-interpreted what his victory two years ago really meant.

Perhaps it was nothing but a ringing endorsement of a couple of abstract nouns, rather than of a man and his policies - a vote for the ideal of hope, the concept of change, a rejection of George W Bush and a wish to embrace someone who wasn't for war and wasn't impulsive.

If Mr Obama and his Republican rival John McCain had swapped policies, I suspect America would still have voted for the young guy with lots of energy rather than the old bloke who didn't seem to understand economics.

Mr Obama has indeed admitted: "I am like a Rorschach test," referring to the inkblot technique used by psychologists. Voters saw their deepest hopes; now some see their darkest fears.

It isn't really a mark of outstanding arrogance that a man who's just been elected, in a mood of misty-eyed optimism, should mistake this for a mandate.

He couldn't have been clearer about the importance of healthcare reform, his belief the government had a role in improving peoples lives, and his warning it would all take time. But that, apparently, is not what a lot of people were buying.

It may be he is going against what a lot of Americans want for their country. For every Tea Party supporter who sees his mild social democracy as communism there are probably several more who don't characterise it in extreme terms, but don't like it any more for that.

It didn't help that the bail-outs of the banks and the car industry were disliked by left and right. To the left, they were helping the rich and powerful corporations which helped create the mess. To the right this was a Big Government takeover of the economy.

There was some terrible politics. Regardless of its merits or otherwise, health care reform looked like a muddle, badly sold, badly explained - and the eventual bill was the mangled result of the sort of horse trading people thought they were voting against.

Some are against stimulus spending on principle. But those who might have supported it couldn't see where the money was going, how it was being spent.

Having spent ages trying to find projects to illustrate TV reports, I know the money seemed to trickle into the sand into petty projects or invisibly plugging holes in the spending of individual states.

By all this he has been undone, at least for now. For much will depend on how he and Republicans play the second half of the match.

President Obama is due to give a news conference later on Wednesday, and no doubt he will talk of compromise and coming together. But it will be difficult to compromise with a party and movement that intends to gut his programme.

One must not exaggerate. Bill Clinton, as president, coped with a Congress of a different colour. So did George W Bush and Ronald Reagan. But there is now a bigger gulf than ever between the parties.

This does not spell the end. As we've just learnt a lot can happen in two years. In 2012 Mr Obama will be running against a man or a woman, not a movement and a feeling.

But for now it seems Senator Obama warned himself, and understood the dangers of the powers he was summoning. The hopes he raised do indeed seem too audacious for the times.

Parties gear up for post-poll gamesmanship

Mark Mardell | 18:53 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010


Obama_screenshot.jpg"Go vote! You could be the one that makes the difference."

So says President Barack Obama on an internet video, part of his election day push to get supporters to the polls.

He's also giving last-minute interviews to radio stations in an effort to reach the voters who elected him, particularly the young and African Americans, by talking to the likes of Big Boy and Luscious Liz on Power 106 and the presenter of TV talent show American Idol, Ryan Seacrest.

But this is, I suspect, about softening the blow of defeat, not about winning.

Of course opinion polls can be wrong. For Democratic supporters who want to feel sunny for a few more hours, Republicans backers who like to be cautiously gloomy until it's in the bag, and contrarians of any political persuasion this article is essential reading.

But when Mr Obama appears before the cameras at around 1pm Washington time on Wednesday it will probably not be to celebrate. I would expect stern stuff, about listening to messages, choices, and an appeal to the Republicans to work with him.

Then there will begin a careful game of positioning - of chess if you like - with traps set and each side attempting to appear more bipartisan than the other.

It is interesting to me that the Democrats' campaign slogan during this election has been "moving the country forward". It is no coincidence they have designed this, when the Tea Party's most famous line is: "Take our country back."

This is how, I imagine, Mr Obama will frame the choice over the next two years, backwards or forwards, towards a better future of a return to a failed past. But first we must await the results. You can follow them all on the BBC news website's America votes: Live coverage page, where I and many others will be having our say, and on this blog.

The mid-terms: a verdict on Obama?

Mark Mardell | 01:42 UK time, Tuesday, 2 November 2010


obama_face2.jpgJust two years since widespread jubilation was seen at the election of President Barack Obama, the political direction of the US is once again in the balance. For a while, the winner-takes-all presidential election and the acceptance of the Democratic outcome disguised the deep divisions in the country. But America's version of the permanent revolution - the permanent election - makes sure those divisions may soon be to the fore again. Two very different visions of society are slugging it out.

This campaign may be one of the most venomous for a while, and it certainly is the most expensive mid-term election ever, with candidates for the House of Representatives and Senate spending just short of $2bn (£1.2bn). At least someone's got money in this country.

There is, of course, venom on both sides. But the Tea Party movement, which is perhaps the most important factor in this whole election, has made the rhetoric harsher - the ideological divide starker. Its members' mainstream conservative beliefs in smaller government and lower taxation are held with an angry passion that leads them to drive less fiscally pure Republicans out of the party. At times, these beliefs also drive Republicans to portray the mildly social-democratic president as being a communist and his whole agenda as being somehow anti-American.

In the UK, you are not allowed to campaign on election day, and TV stations are restricted to bland pictures of party leaders voting and blander commentary about the weather. But as voters go to the polls today, they will be able to hear interviews Mr Obama has pre-recorded with friendly radio stations. The recordings will likely say that while Mr Obama is not on the ballot this election, voting is still important for the future of the country, jobs, the economy and education. He's right.

The myriad of individual elections are going to be seen as a referendum on his first two years in office. The 37 governorships, 37 Senate seats and all 435 seats in the House of Representative are important in themselves, of course - some more than others. But many votes cast will be a verdict on Obama.

With high unemployment and a lacklustre recovery, all the opinion polls suggest Republicans will take control of the House and have a chance of taking the Senate, as well. In other words, the result of the referendum on Obama will almost certainly be "no". But what was the question?

Was it "has he done enough" or "should he be president"? Or was it perhaps "has he improved your life" or "should he abandon his policies"?

It's hard to say. But if the opinion polls are right, it may be that we have already seen the extent of what Mr Obama can do in office.

If conservatives dominate the House, it will very difficult for him to turn any significant promises into law. But as politicians always tell us, the only poll that counts is the one on election day. So watch this space.

Beware Republican 'viper' Darrell Issa

Mark Mardell | 18:26 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010


California Representative Darrell Issa

After tomorrow's elections President Barack Obama should fear the voice of the viper.

Republicans are so confident of victory, at least in the House, that they are already talking publicly about what they will do.

Some want to focus on the big economic issues and force through their fiscally conservative agenda.

But others just want to bring the Obama administration to book, to damage them by tangling them up with legal inquiries.

So you'll be hearing a lot more about California Congressman Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on the House oversight committee, which investigates shady doings. Mr Issa is poised to become chairman of the committee if, as expected, Republicans take control of the House.

He is determined to harry the administration for alleged wrongdoing.

Mr Issa made his money selling car alarms (he says he went into the business because his brother was a car thief) and was the deep threatening voice behind the Viper car alarms TV ad in the 1980s. Have a listen. And be afraid.

It's not just senior members of Mr Obama's team who should be scared of getting bitten.

The congressman says Mr Obama is "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times".

Some conservatives despair. They are worried that this will become the running story of the next two years, and feel it is exactly the sort of stuff that turns the public off politics when they want to focus on policy. But it is likely to be another torment for Democrats if the polls are right.

The last rally

Mark Mardell | 01:05 UK time, Monday, 1 November 2010


Cleveland, Ohio

Obama and supporter in Cleveland

The trumpets and tubas of the Shaw High School Marching band sway and swing, glinting under the spotlights as they thump out tremendous versions of soul standards, fat with horns.

They're just one part of the rally building up to President Obama's last planned appearance on the campaign trail of this critical election campaign.
The speeches are short and snappy.

A congressman tells the crowd that they are not going to let America be "taken back" by insurance companies and oil companies. A woman reminisces about her feelings of exhilaration and excitement in 2008. This is all about recapturing some of that feeling.

A senator asks them to think about five people who might not be planning to vote and persuade them to go to the polls. The state's attorney general tells them he was elected by just 1,234 votes, which works out as one vote in every precinct. The lesson: every single vote counts.

The rapper Common praises Mr Obama's "great honest spirit" and bounces up and down as he gets the crowd to chant "Go! Go! Go!" A gravel voiced preacher urges the crowd to join hands and pray to the Lord "hold in your hands the president of our nation, be with his family and hold them in your grip of grace".

It does seem now only divine intervention can save Mr Obama's Democrats from losing the House on Tuesday. But Republican victory is not in the bag and anyway the scale of defeat matters. The Democrats need to motivate as many as possible of those voters who turned out for Mr Obama in 2008.

This is President Obama's last planned rally of the 2010 campaign. Under giant signs saying "moving America forward" he joked about his greying hair and got the crowd to yell "Yes, we can" just like in the old days.

His message was pretty simple. Voters could defy the "conventional wisdom, the stale wisdom". Republicans, he argued, had created the economic mess and wanted to go back to the policies that had failed in the past. They had decided not to help the recovery because they would rather keep the country angry, so they could win this election and kick him out of office in 2012.

And of course the appeal. "Cleveland. I need you to keep on fighting. I need you to vote. I need your neighbours to vote".

It's not all about big rallies. Over the past few weeks those signed up to Organising for America have been bombard with e-mails. Today's tells me the next half an hour is critical. It urges supporters to phone a friend, and indeed a stranger, and persuade them to vote. Yesterday's urges people to "rake the leaves later" and make 20 calls.

This is part of the suggested script

"Hello, is [VOTER NAME] there?
Hi! This is [YOUR NAME], a fellow voter [from Maryland, if you are from the same state] who supports President Barack Obama.

Official records show that you have voted in the past. We are calling voters like you to say thank you.

Thank you for being a voter! [PAUSE] Since you are the kind of person who votes and cares about the community, we wanted to remind you about the election this Tuesday, November 2nd"... and so on.

The rally, of course, finished on cheering and placard waving. But I am not sure it did the trick. This was a meeting for activists but four big blocks of seats were empty.

Perhaps that was down to fire regulations, I don't know. But the president seemed slightly lower key than I have seen him in the past, the speech heartfelt but not fresh. Despite the big build up, it seemed to me all rather low energy for the last rally in a critical election.

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