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Turning dark horses into grey mares

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The US constitution's aim is to obstruct, writes Tim Stanley

US President Barack Obama showing some grey hairs on the campaign trail.

US President Barack Obama showing some grey hairs on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty Images

After four years in the White House, Barack Obama is going grey fast. The President insists that it's genetic, that he's following the example of his grandfather, who was grey by the time he was 29.

But his wife believes that the stress of high office is to blame. ''Every day, I see Barack make choices he knows will affect every American family,'' Michelle wrote in an email to supporters. ''That's no small task for anyone - and more proof that he's earning every last one of those grey hairs.''

At the moment, Mitt Romney has an admirably dark head of hair, with just a few wisps of white around the ears (his barber insists that not a drop of dye is used). But if he does capture the presidency then there's every chance that the job will turn Romney just as grey as Obama. The man who wins the 2012 election will inherit plenty of troubles at home and abroad.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's hair still has it's lustre, but he's not in office yet.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's hair still has it's lustre, but he's not in office yet. Photo: Getty Images

Unemployment is stuck at 7.9 per cent and the national debt is $US16 trillion. The country needs to put its fiscal house in order, which means either reducing spending by reforming entitlements or raising taxes - or, of course, both. Overseas, America has to prosecute the War on Terror and trim China's ambitions. Embassies are under attack and Iran threatens to develop a nuclear bomb.

That in-tray is forbidding enough, but the next US president also has to navigate a political system that is verging on broken - hostile, divided and motored by self-interest.

Congress consists of two branches: the House and the Senate. At the moment the Republicans control the House and the Democrats control the Senate, and the latest polls suggest that things will stay that way after the election. Because a bill requires the support of both the House and Senate to get passed, that makes it very difficult for any president to force through a legislative agenda. Put crudely, the Republicans tend to block tax increases and the Democrats oppose savage spending cuts. The result is stalemate.

Things don't necessarily work better when the House and the Senate are controlled by the same party. From 2009 to 2011, Obama's Democrats held the House and the Senate by large majorities - yet Obama was still forced to negotiate and compromise with both Republicans and Democrats on his reform agenda. The reason why is a lesson in the often bizarre and self-destructive way American democracy works.

If a senator dislikes a bill, he can defeat it by delaying a vote - usually by talking so long that the Senate runs out of the time allotted to debate it. The record for the longest such filibuster goes to Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957. To prepare for the ordeal, Thurmond took steam baths to dehydrate his body so that he could absorb fluids without having to leave the Senate chamber to go to the lavatory. When that proved insufficient, aides set up a bucket in a room adjacent to the Senate, so that Thurmond could keep talking with one foot in the Senate while discreetly relieving himself out of view.

The only way to be sure of stopping a filibuster is to have enough senators to vote to end one, and the margin required is 60 representatives out of 100. But even if you get that magic 60, there is still no guarantee that bills will pass. In the first two years of his administration, Obama theoretically had 60 Democrat senators to rely on - but only theoretically. He was undone by old age and ill-health.

Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia was in his 90s; in the last six months of 2009, he missed 128 out of a possible 183 votes. Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy, who was dying of brain cancer, missed 261 out of a possible 270 votes throughout 2009. All of this underscores how a president does not govern alone. He not only has to deal with partisan party politics but also with a complex web of powerful individuals. A big part of the president's diary is given over to wooing legislators, and that means having the right kind of personality to get things done.

Barack Obama hasn't always displayed the requisite charm and tact. In his book The Price of Politics, Bob Woodward claims that Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi got so bored during one of the many ''uplifting speeches'' that Obama gave down the telephone that she actually put him on mute.

But most of all, the problems of getting a bill through the Senate are a reminder that the US constitution was written in a century when expectations of government were very different. It isn't designed to get things done but to delay and impede. The priority of the Founding Fathers of the 1700s was limiting the powers of central government - particularly the power to tax. The rights of state governments were almost sacrosanct and central authority was split among the presidency, the Senate and the House. The constitution protected against either a tyrant or the whims of the majority.

The problem is that America has never reconciled the small, fractured government idealism of its past with its growing ambitions in the present. The desire for a modern welfare state has compelled legislators to interpret the constitution in imaginative ways. For example, there is a clause in the constitution that entitles the Congress ''to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes''. Since the 1930s, this apparently innocuous line of text has been interpreted liberally to allow the Congress to regulate almost every aspect of physical or economic movement across the states - from the racial segregation of buses to minimum wage legislation. In this way, social reform has been carefully and deliberately straitjacketed by the constitution's 18th-century origins.

The obsession with limited government is combined with an emphasis upon constituency service, or ''bringing home the bacon''. Senators and congressmen may be part of a party with a complex whip system, but first and foremost they see themselves as the servants of their home district or state. Senator Ben Nelson - a conservative Democrat from the very Republican state of Nebraska - was a thorn in Obama's side throughout his first two years in office.

Nelson insisted that he would only vote for Obama's signature health-care reform if it was made clear that it wouldn't allow use of public money to perform abortions. He won his demand, along with a kickback in the form of federal aid to Nebraska's medical program worth $US100 million. Elected representatives are thus encouraged to play hard to get with their votes.

The system might work a little better if the participants were at least civil to one another. But US politics has become painfully partisan in the past few decades. When Obama visited the Congress in September 2009, Republican Representative Joe Wilson interrupted his speech with a cry of: ''You lie!'' This rudeness is not atypical. Democrats routinely portray Republicans as fundamentalist rednecks and Republicans portray Democrats as un-American hippies. Civilised dialogue is gone.

This tension makes for great television but terrible government - with global ramifications. Last month, the National Association of Manufacturers said that congressional gridlock was killing the recovery. Gridlock means businesses can't plan for the future, because they can't tell if Congress will raise taxes - and, if they do, when and on whom. Business people are worried that America may fall off a fiscal cliff early next year. Unless the Congress acts fast, a mix of tax increases and spending cuts are scheduled to land at exactly the same time. The consequences for both domestic and international markets could be severe.

Alas, there is no end in sight to the partisan, divided muddle. If Obama wins, he'll have to deal with a Republican House. If Romney wins, he'll have to deal with a Democrat Senate. Whatever the result today, expect the winner to age dramatically. London Daily Telegraph

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