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To The Presidential Victor Goes The Spoils: A Broken Washington

Article illustrative image Partner logo Gridlock and U-Turns in the nation's capital

WASHINGTON D.C. - As the campaign draws to a close, the American people have been hit by a barrage of promises of a better, more civil future.

The two candidates have vowed, even sworn, that they will work harder with the opposition. Mitt Romney mentioned it first in one of his advertisements and confirmed it in the debates: in Massachusetts, where he used to be governor, he learned how to deal with a state assembly dominated by Democrats. Barack Obama also took the opportunity of Hurricane Sandy to present himself as the President and protector of his nation by rising above partisan quarrels.

The candidates are well aware that the electorate has had enough of the political paralysis that has reigned over Washington, frequently pitting the President against either one or both houses of Congress. They have had enough with being stuck in the middle of the two stubborn factions.

However, most observers of the political landscape see slim chance of change: a Democratic Senate and a House of Representatives controlled by the Republicans. Whoever is elected, he will have to put together a divided Congress: a situation that has prevailed since the Democrats lost their majority in the House in November 2010.

"Whoever is elected, there will still be a certain degree of paralysis. Neither party will have enough votes in the Senate to claim a clear-cut majority," says Larry Sabato, who is coordinating polling predictions at the University of Virginia. "We need a consensus, but it's not clear that there is a willingness within the two parties."

The elected president will have to seduce politicians from the enemy camp, like Barack Obama did in February 2009, when three Republican Senators voted in favor of his economic revival plan, and therefore pushed it through. The "traitors" were duly hounded by the Tea Party.

According to an October 31 survey, 47% of Americans thought that Mitt Romney would be better suited to dealing with this institutional stalemate, compared to 37% who cited Barack Obama. In the first debate, on October 3, the Republican presented himself as pragmatic and open to working with everyone, particularly the Democrats in Congress. 

Obama himself has made the point that a number of Republicans will have learned from the election that it is time to cooperate. "My expectation is that there will be some popping of the blister after this election," Obama said in an interview with Time Magazine at the end of August. "And I believe that in a second term, where Mitch McConnell’s imperative of making me a one-term President is no longer relevant." The President remains convinced that the Republicans will end up accepting his proposal to raise taxes for the wealthy.

However, political commentators remain doubtful. Up until now, the Republicans have been sending mixed messages. "We are facing the big unknown," Michael Bennett, the Senator for Colorado, explained to Le Monde at the beginning of October. "After November 6, (Republican Senate Leader) Mitch McConnell will meet up with Jim DeMint, the head of the Tea Party, and then we'll see who gains the upperhand."

Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina left his door open to a tax hike in exchange for stopping the defense budget cuts, even though he was vigorously opposed by John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, where the Republicans now have a majority over the Democrats by 47 seats.

The President has repeatedly said that the elections represent a "stark choice"; however, if the latest poll figures are true, it is still all to play for. "If he is re-elected, Obama will be a weak president. Nobody fears a president in their second and final term," warns the economist and historian Michael Lind from the New America Foundation. "But if Romney wins, he will also be a weak president. The right wing of his party has no trust in him. It will be purposefully picky, especially as there is so much pressure on him to work with the Democrats."

In this situation where power is divided between the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives, how will the new president tackle the "fiscal cliff"? The question proves a nightmare, even for those who are well versed in the mysteries of Congress. The "cliff" - a strange term, but Washington has to take some short-cuts - designates a set of fiscal decisions that, by coincidence, all have to be made at the same time.

On one hand, it will tackle the tax cuts that George Bush granted 10 years ago, whatever their income (2% of GDP). This has already been renewed; however, it is once again coming to its expiration date on December 31, which is the same day as the expiration for the decrease in income tax that was part of Obama's revival plan in 2009 (from 0.6% to 0.8% of the GDP). The third element: the automatic budget cuts (0.5% of the GDP) decided upon by the Budget Control Act in August 2011. This law was adopted in exchange for the Republicans accepting an increase in the debt cap. In order to force renegotiations and to come to an agreement, politicians therefore decided on some compromises, as defense budget cuts were deemed unacceptable by the Republicans, while social program cuts were deemed unacceptable by Democrats. For a total of $1.2 trillion, this "sequester" comes into effect January 1.

At the start of 2013, the American economy could find itself virtually strangled by these cuts, with the International Monetary Fund suggesting it could spark a new recession. Obviously, this will not happen, as Obama suggests. "The sequester is not something that I've proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen," he assured. An explication: the incoming Congress, which will form on January 3, is not bound by any previous decisions.

However, right after November 6, the two sides will lock into a fierce battle over the renewal of George W. Bush's tax cuts. Obama refuses to negotiate on any reduction of the rate for taxpayers who earn more than $250,000 a year, and has announced that he will veto any measure that goes beyond a simple renewal of aid for the middle class.

Still, the tone could change after the election, when we consider that the country needs to protect its growth. Pundits are banking on a general, although temporary, renewal of the tax cuts. "No matter who comes into the White House, all changes to tax reductions are going to be pushed back until the summer of 2013," says the economist Michael Lind.

Meanwhile, after January, certain interest groups will push for an "grand bargain" to revize the national accounts, notably reforming the system for pensions and health insurance for the elderly. "These deficit hawks have been trying to cut back on pensions for years," adds Michael Lind.

Barack Obama, like Mitt Romney, has been vague about his intentions on this issue. Both of them have even planned to show a certain flexibility after the elections, in a gesture to the "moderates" of the opposing camps.

While waiting for the dust to settle after the numerous election results analyses, Barack Obama will travel to Asia. Win or lose, he can celebrate one of his presidential successes: reaching out to the Burmese regime, which led to the liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi.

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