Americas - Issue 62 - Magazine | Monocle

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View from washington

The post-Obama blues

by Sasha Issenberg

A party in disarray, riven by ideological and regional splits, torn between populist impulses and its donor class’s economic interest, with glaring electoral deficiencies among major voting blocs and no leader to unify the fractious bunch and guide it to victory: meet the Democrats, circa 2016.

It is the Republicans who are today suffering the most visible crack-up, torn between a moderate establishment and conservative insurgency, hapless at holding together a coalition with enough purpose to win elections. But less than a decade ago, after John Kerry’s loss to George W Bush, it was the Democrats who were caricatured in similar terms, doomed to life as a minority party. What changed was the arrival of Barack Obama.

He seemed to transform the bounds of what was possible in politics, thrilling his party’s liberal activist base without limiting his ability to raise money or draw support from independents. Obama remade the party in his image, putting together a winning black-brown-young coalition and using his exceptional popularity among blacks and white liberals to assume a centrist posture without fear of a lefty backlash.

But disinterest in party-building means little of that is likely to outlive his tenure. Indeed, on crucial domestic and foreign issues, Obama’s success has papered over major ideological cracks. In an era defined by financial crisis, Democrats have not fully reconciled a populist desire to punish bankers with a Clintonian affection for deregulation. Meanwhile, Obama’s unexpected reliance on his predecessor’s anti-terror tactics has kept alive the Iraq-war tensions that pulled the party apart during the Bush years. Goodwill has allowed the president to move to the centre, approaching drone warfare aggressively and Wall Street oversight timidly. Meanwhile, unshakeable African-American support allows him to assume socially liberal positions on gay marriage and immigration that would have raised hackles within the black community if taken by a white president.

That the Democrats’ next nominee is unlikely to share Obama’s complexion could reveal the party’s seemingly invincible coalition as ephemeral. In 2016, they won’t be able to count on the absurdly lopsided margins Obama enjoyed among black voters, nor the historic turnout that maximised his performance. While a popular Democrat could conceivably generate similar volunteer activity, it may not come from the inner cities and college towns in which Obama’s supporters mobilised their neighbours.

That new arithmetic could send party strategists back to fretting about the Democrats’ old demographic problem: a dismal standing with white men that once kept Rust Belt states out of reach. Obama, who has held up Ronald Reagan as a political model, could fill the same mythic role for his party’s next generation that Reagan does for Republicans. When Democrats look back on the 44th president, it may be with a nostalgia for the days when winning looked easy, as though it would go on forever.

Three issues that could divide the post-Obama Democratic Party:

  1. Regulation and taxing of Wall Street banks
  2. Approving the Keystone XL pipeline to move Canadian oil through the US
  3. The use of drone warfare and Guantanamo trials for suspected terrorists

Another Bush grows in Texas


The Bush political dynasty looks unlikely to have ended with the presidency of George W. Not only is his brother, Jeb, thought to be considering a run at the White House in 2016, but George P Bush – Jeb’s son – is set to run for office in Texas in 2014.

NYC saddles up

New York [transport]

New York City’s long-awaited bike-sharing scheme launches across Brooklyn and Manhattan next month after faulty software postponed the deployment of its 5,500 bikes. Hurricane Sandy caused further delays when the warehouse containing most of the bikes was flooded but now it seems New York will, at last, follow in the tyretreads of London and Paris.

Rights reserved

Canada [campaign]

Idle No More began last autumn in Saskatchewan as a grassroots direct-action protest but has since mushroomed into a boisterous national movement that has forced aboriginal concerns back on to the government’s agenda. The issues are long-standing, from dire living standards on native reserves to government attempts to gut environmental regulations. Now, however, the chiefs have leverage. The PM sees Canada as a future energy superpower but many of the natural resources that underpin his plans are on aboriginal land. If Harper hopes for peaceable development, he will need to engage aboriginal leaders with an urgency lacking until now.

Children of the revolution


Despite president Salvador Allende’s death in the 1973 coup, his daughter Isabel returned to Chilean politics in 1994 and is now senator for Atacama. Salvador’s granddaughter Maya Fernández was elected mayor of Ñuñoa in 2012, but poll chaos allowed right-wingers to overturn her win.

Flight path no.05

Non-stop to nowhere

Anchorage [transport]

Plane: Boeing 737-400
Airline: Alaska Airlines
Route: Anchorage to Adak
Frequency: Twice a week

Twice weekly in Anchorage a Boeing 737-400 loads up for the run to Adak, a remote Alaskan community 2,000km away in the Aleutian Islands. This is one of Alaska Airlines’ more unusual routes, operated with a rare Combi version of the 737 that has a cargo compartment in the forward half of the aircraft and 72 economy-class seats in the rear. That’s a useful modification on this service, where goods carriage is essential but the demand for seats is modest – Adak, as close to Tokyo as to Seattle, is a community of fewer than 300 people.

Alaska Airlines does a lot of flying outside of Alaska these days; its most important hub is Seattle and its aircraft are as likely to be seen in Honolulu or Los Angeles as in Anchorage. But Alaska remains a vital part of the airline’s service, not least for the state’s more remote communities for whom a reduction in air services could spell downfall. “Alaska Airlines is more than an airline to the state’s communities,” says spokesperson Marianne Lindsey. “In some cases we’re a lifeline providing air service to places that are otherwise isolated.”

Long flights to small communities, however, don’t tend to be enormously profitable. That’s where the federal Essential Air Service (eas) steps in. Founded in response to airline deregulation in the 1970s, it subsidises a minimum level of service to destinations that otherwise wouldn’t attract any. Over 150 communities in the US are covered by the programme; nearly a third of those are in Alaska. The Adak service receives $1.6m (€1.2m) annually, securing a future for the former wartime naval base and its far-flung, hardy inhabitants.


Patrick Donahoe

US postmaster general


As the US Postal Service struggles to survive it is dropping Saturday deliveries. The postmaster general explains how he hopes to bounce back.

How important is the US Postal Service to America’s economy?
It’s still very important: the mailing industry is an $800bn (€603bn) business in America today, employing more than a million people. A large amount of billing, advertising and package delivery still goes through our system.

How will the Service’s business model evolve in response to fiscal challenges? 
We’ve lost revenue on small business transactions and magazine distribution so we’ve reduced delivery to five days. We also have to continue with changes to labour, which is 78 per cent of our costs.

Where do you see opportunities for revenue growth?
Balancing volume losses with small price increases is important. We’ll see big increases in package business and in direct mail.

Mrs President

Lima [politics]

Nadine Heredia became Peru’s first lady aged just 35. Two years later the journalist and political science PhD has proven anything but the standard politician’s wife. Heredia is viewed as President Humala’s top adviser and her daily agenda is circulated to the media. She has dodged a finance scandal and press attacks. It would be illegal for her to run for president while Humala is in power and she denies interest, but talk in Lima is about whether that – or the law – will change.

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