On Tuesday, the USA held legislative and regional elections.Some of you may know that the USA is kind of like Switzerland or Canada in that it is divided, geographically, into several individual states.One way of looking at the USA's political structure is that it is fifty different small countries with a large super-country placed on top of them. In some ways this is accurate and in some ways it is not; what I hope to help you understand is that the fifty states that make up the USA have a lot of political power and can do things that the national government may not like.
Next, bear in mind that our national legislature,
the Congress, is divided into two houses of equal power. Right now, the
Democrats have majorities in both houses. But the results of the 2010
elections mean that when January of 2011 comes around, the Republicans
will control one of the two houses of Congress. They are close to, but
not quite at, having a majority in the other. Congress is going to
become a lot less friendly to President Obama over the next two years
than it has been over the last two.
Because the states have a lot of power, the governors of the states are politically important people. Usually, we choose someone who has been a Governor to be President -- Barack Obama is an exception to this rule. In my adult life, most of the Presidents of the USA have served as governors of various states: Ronald Reagan was Governor of California, Bill Clinton was Governor of Arkansas, George W. Bush was Governor of Texas. Historically, candidates who have served as a state's Governor tend to do better when they run for President than candidates who have experience only as legislators.
Finally, bear in mind that there are only two parties in the USA with any real power; the Republican (center-right) and Democratic (center-left) parties so completely dominate the political scene that every other party and point of view can be safely ignored. For someone like me used to seeing two major political parties maneuver against each other, looking at political events in a nation like Brazil or France or Israel is confusing because there are so many different parties who come together to form complex, and fragile, governing coalitions that always seem to break whenever a difficult decision comes along. Our more subtle political differences are handled at the level of factions within the two big parties, not as five or six parties, none of which have a majority, fighting it out on the floor of the Congress with coalitions that shift from issue to issue. (Better or worse here? You decide. I'm just telling you how it is.)
So put all this together: 1) only two major parties hold any power at any level of government, 2) Congress divided equally between the two parties, and 3) future Presidents chosen mostly from the ranks of Governors and not from Congress. President Obama is a Democrat (the center-left party) and the big winners in the recent election were the Republicans (the center-right party). Obviously the recent election for Obama is not good news -- and here's how it's not good news for him:
Elections for our states set the wheels turning for who will be candidates for the national government in future elections. If you care about who the USA's next President will be, look to the Governors' elections. In the 2010 elections held Tuesday, 37 out of the 50 Governor's seats were available. Before the election, Democrats (the center-left party) held 25 of those 37 seats, and the Republicans (center-right) held the other 12. After the election, 12 states switched from Democratic to Republican governors and 3 states switched from Republican to Democratic governors (including my own state of California). And as I noted before, the Republicans took control of one, but not both, of the houses of Congress.
So what you can look for from the USA is President Obama spending more of his time and energy dealing with a hostile Congress than he did in the first two years of his term. So, he will have little choice but to delegate more diplomatic power to his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, with respect to our dealings with other nations in the world; Obama will become more of a figurehead with less time to devote to ceremonial visits or diplomatic relations with other nations and Clinton will be the one who effectively makes international policy decisions for the USA with only minimal oversight by Obama. He will also have little choice but to effect a swifter conclusion to hostilities in Afghanistan than he would have otherwise, whether on terms favorable to the USA or not, because he will need to free up governmental money and ease pressure on the military in response to Republican pressure.
This election also points to a strong challenge to be made to President Obama in 2012. For a time, it has looked like the only Republican who would step up to challenge Obama in 2012 would be Sarah Palin -- and it is widely believed that Obama would be able to defeat Palin easily for a variety of reasons that are now no longer particularly important. Now, we can expect a few Republicans who will be the right age (late 40's to early 60's), will have the right kind of experience, and who will have the political networks and fundraising ability to offer serious campaigns to be President in 2012.
If President Obama wants to keep his job through 2016, he's going to have to meet a much more serious challenge than he did before this election because he will face much stronger opposition now than had been predicted.