Delano Franklyn, GUEST COLUMNIST
President Barack Obama has always had, if not the support, the empathy of most Jamaicans.
Probably the reason for this is that he looks like one of us, and in 2008 he rose from virtual obscurity, to the surprise of many, to overcome the might and machinations of the politics of the United States (US), which is heavily stacked against people looking like him, to become the president of that country.
That one single act proved that belief in oneself, no matter the circumstances, is the place to start when faced with what seems not just insurmountable, but impossible.
Obama, for many of us, became in 2008 the latest symbol of the audacity of man. To prove that it was no fluke, he again overcame all that was thrown at him and was re-elected president in 2012.
No one expected his presidency to be easy. From Day One, it has been rough going. Today, he faces, one of the most challenging period of his presidency.
A few days ago, he expressed his exasperation with the tiny minority that is, according to him, for their own self-interest, prepared to railroad policies designed to advance the interest of the American people. His exasperation has become physically visible. His hair has greyed in a short time, and his frame is becoming increasingly slender.
The shutdown of the US federal government is just the latest indication of the persistent opposition Obama has faced since becoming president.
The shutdown has mainly to do with an ingrained and institutionalised cultural norm that exists in sections of the US society that someone with Obama's historical antecedent and racial profile ought not to be clothed in presidential garb.
The beef with Obama is disguised by their opposition to the introduction of his Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.
Medicare and Medicaid
More than 50 years ago, the US administration introduced Medicare and Medicaid to provide more persons with health insurance. These two bits of legislation widened health-insurance coverage for the majority of the American people. From 1963, with the passage of the Medicare and Medicare laws, to 1976, the uninsured fell from a high of 33 per cent of the population to 11 per cent. It is estimated that Obamacare will reduce the current uninsured population from 18 per cent today to eight per cent in a decade.
Obamacare will increase access to health care across racial and class lines. The Republicans oppose it. The electorate ignored their shenanigans and their bellyaching against Obamacare and, by a clear majority, decided that they wanted him to be their president. After the 2012 presidential elections, both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the act. The Supreme Court also ruled that the legislation was not in breach of the US constitution.
Now that it is time to pass to the national budget, a handful of Republicans belonging to the Tea Party have decided that they will only agree to the budget if Obamacare is defunded. The president has refused. The stand-off has led to the current shutdown.
A Quinnipiac University poll published a few days ago showed that 72 per cent of Americans opposed using a government shutdown to block the implementation of Obamacare. Despite this, 80 or so Tea Party members, constituting a significant bloc among the Republicans in the House of Representatives, have refused to budge.
This gridlock of the federal government flies in the face of those, even some here in Jamaica, who are of the view that the American system of government is the way to go.
The American constitution provides for a directly elected president, directly elected senators and directly elected members of the House of Representatives. Clearly, the constitution was never designed for there to be the easy passage of legislation. In order for the system to work, therefore, all three arms of government must find ways to operate in unison.
Currently, the president has majority support in the Senate but not so in the House of Representatives. While this can, and has led, where differences exist, to vigorous and rigorous debates, resulting in compromises and adjustments, it has led to the shutdown of the government on a number of occasions. This is the 19th shutdown of the federal government in 40 years, and the second in 18 years.
1995 Gov't shutdown
In 1995, the Republicans forced a shutdown of the federal government. That year, Newt Gingrich, then Republican speaker of the House, squared off with Bill Clinton, then president. It arose as a result of personal antagonisms between the two. At the time, the Republican Party operated as a bloc and was able to pull Gingrich to a position of compromise in his negotiations with Bill Clinton.
Today, the situation is different. The Republican Party has been hijacked by the Tea Party caucus, some of whom have been gloating that the Tea Party has the backbone to shut down the government. The Tea Party members are vehemently opposed to Obama. From a racial and class perspective, they do not support him. Their opposition to Obamacare is only being used as a cover to their deep resentment of his occupation of the White House.
What now exists is a battle of wills. Prior to the Tea Party members' decision to push the Republican-controlled House to shut down the government, Obama's personal approval numbers were at an all-time low. He prevaricated on the Syrian issue and lost out in the House on issues regarding gun control and immigration. Tea Party members read this as a sign of weakness - the sign of a person who cannot lead - the sign of a person who should not be allowed to lead. The members of the Tea Party believed that Obama was at his weakest point and moved in for the kill. Their move to close the government is to get Obama to capitulate on everything from hereon.
In light of the current situation, which is entering the third week of shutdown, the question has been repeatedly asked, who will blink first? Who will back down?
President Obama cannot afford to back down. If he does, his signature policy, his chief legacy as president, Obamacare, will be significantly impaired. Not only that, he would have lost the moral authority to lead. He would become a lame-duck president.
Obama seems to realise this when he says, "As long as I am president, I will not give in to reckless demands by some in the Republican Party to deny affordable health insurance to millions of hard-working Americans."
As the poll indicates, public sentiment is against the Tea Party and the Republicans. Even within the Republican Party itself a growing number of persons are at odds with the Tea Party for placing the US in a position of rigor mortis.
Obama has to play his cards right. He has to hold his ground and do what he has always done best - continuously take his case to the American people, those who voted for him.
Obama has to use the force of public opinion to put the Republicans, and especially its Tea Party wing, on the defensive and force it to buckle in light of the battering that the US economy is now experiencing.
Obama also has to play his cards right in light of the looming economic and constitutional crisis that will unfold if Congress does not convene by October 17, to vote to increase the country's debt limits. The failure to do so would result in the US defaulting on its debt, plunging the global financial system into chaos.
No one in the US can afford for this to happen, more so President Barack Obama. He has to keep his eyes rigidly focused on the matter at hand. He cannot afford to blink. He would do so at his own peril.
Delano Franklyn is an attorney-at-law and adviser in the Office of the Prime Minister. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.