It is easy, based on media coverage, to treat the moment as defining and historic in ways that it is not. Presidents have limited domestic policy-making authority, unlike Prime Ministers, who determine policy in more areas and at lower levels. Education, law enforcement and important social issues will continue to be decided at the state and local level based on those voters’ preferences. Only eleven governors, for example, were up for election, and only one state (Missouri) changed its chief executive’s party. On issues affecting the United Kingdom and the world, however, the importance is greater. The President largely controls foreign and defence policy, and his majority in both houses of Congress will give him legitimacy as well as power in those areas.


Voters undoubtedly wanted change, and they adopted a black chief executive to effect it: the first in a Western democracy. But a mandate can also be exaggerated. For example, the Supreme Court can block progressive policies, no matter what the president’s mandate. However, this is the very area in which the President-elect’s influence may last longest. Five of the nine Supreme Court Justices are at least 70 years old. Two of them were appointed by Bill Clinton, but three are Republican picks. If Obama follows George Bush’s lead and appoints young justices, the complexion of constitutional law in the United States could be affected for a long time. The lifetime appointment of lower-level federal judges, responsible for much civil rights law, is even more important.


Questions like this are best left to the betting shops. If I were betting, though, I would think in terms of experienced people, and possibly one, or even two, Republicans if he can recruit them. People in the Executive Office of the President are more likely to come from the campaign and from his past, but even there the smart money is on experience not cronyism.


The Democrats did well, but Congress is another constraint on presidential power, even with majorities in both houses. As I write, the Senate majority seems to have increased by 5 (from 51 to 56 out of 100); and the House majority by 18 or more (from 233 to at least 252 out of 435). Sixty Senators must vote to end a filibuster: extended debate which can defeat legislation (like talking a bill out in Parliament, if it were in the control of the opposition). The tool must not be overused, as it can be changed by the Senate itself, but Senators have been reluctant to do that. The last time the Senate had a filibuster-proof majority was in 1975-79, following the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s impeachment, and before that it was in 1959-69 when the Democrats were divided over civil rights, so that a party faction blocked legislation. With a weak party system, as in the USA, party factions are as important as the sizes of majorities.


The two most pressing problems, of course, are the United States economy, and the expensive military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Environmental issues may be prominent, as may civil rights policy, although it is difficult to tell. Danger points include the potential for movement toward protectionism, which might appeal to the electorate but could have long-term detrimental affects for the U.S. and the world. Obama is one of only five trial lawyers, and the only Democratic one, to be elected to the presidency in the twentieth century. (Bill Clinton, for example, taught law but never practiced.) That background suggests that he will choose legislation based on what is achievable strategically within the applicable constraints (his own electoral base, the judiciary and pivotal votes in Congress). If trial lawyers are anything, they are cautious and do their best to avoid large-scale disasters (the exception being Richard Nixon).


The Republicans will undoubtedly retrench. However, the biggest problem that the party had was the unacceptably low approval ratings of the current president, along with some events that no one predicted. Hurricane Katrina and the credit crunch cannot really be attributed to the Republican administration, as the adverse consequences of both are a product of long-term, rather than short-term, government policy. The Iraq war, on the other hand, was a decision that was ill-conceived and poorly executed by the Republicans themselves. It is always possible that the party whose leader makes a decision like that will overreact when it goes wrong and retreat into isolationism. Again, however, unlike the U.K., which has a strong party system, parties in the United States are weak but resilient. Republican congressional representatives, for example, will go back to promoting their constituents’ local interests, which is what they do best and what they must do to remain in office.