Outside the Aragon ballroom in the north Chicago neighborhood of Uptown, little sign remained of US President Barack Obama’s 50th birthday party. The night before, 2,000 well-wishers had crammed inside the beautiful old building to mark Obama’s half-century. They had partied and danced as R&B singer Jennifer Hudson crooned Happy Birthday.
However, now only one forlorn birthday banner still hung from a local bar. The party was truly over. As unwelcome late birthday presents go, the dramatic downgrading of the US’ debt rating by Standard & Poor’s was hard to beat. The shock news sent reverberations through US politics, triggered an ugly blame game and plunged the economy into a fresh crisis that looks set to reverberate all the way to next year’s presidential election.
On the streets of Uptown the mood was bleak.
“The entire political culture has just stopped working. It feels like it is broken,” Christian Lindemer, 30, an employee at an information-technology firm, said as he strolled by the now empty Aragon.
His critics might say the same of the Obama White House. It has certainly become a place under siege. On the right it faces implacable foes in the shape of an ultra-conservative Republican Party that has danced nimbly around Obama’s efforts to work with it. Tea Party defenders shrug off the idea that its extremism helped to cause S&P’s action and put the blame for the downgrade firmly on Obama’s shoulders.
“President Obama is destroying the foundations of our economy one beam at a time,” Tea Party-backed presidential candidate US Representative Michele Bachmann said as the news broke.
Meanwhile, on the left, Obama faces a liberal base depressed by what it sees as the president’s continual concessions to Republicans. It blames the Tea Party’s intransigence over the debt ceiling for the political deadlock that led to the downgrade.
Republicans were “antediluvian,” online Slate magazine columnist Jacob Weisberg wrote.
Even US Vice President Joe Biden, in private meetings with Democrat leaders, has reportedly said they “acted like terrorists.”
However, now Obama’s biggest enemy of all lies outside politics: It is the economy itself. The historic S&P downgrade came after a week of terrifying market swings and amid the promise of vicious cuts to the US’ already shaky welfare state.
It is now clear that the US economy is terribly sick. It is failing to create jobs and might double-dip back into recession. The stock market is tumbling.
No wonder that Obama’s birthday celebrations were so brief. He flew in and out of Chicago on the same day. Yet perhaps he got a little lift from being in a town where sympathy for its favorite political son remains relatively strong.
“He’s trying his best, or at least I think he is,” Lindemer said.
However, in the wider landscape of US politics there is no denying the anger among some leading lights of the left at Obama, which the debt downgrade will only sharpen. After all, last week’s debt deal — so hated by liberals — was meant to avoid precisely such a fiasco.
After having initially promised tax increases for the rich to go alongside deep spending cuts, Obama ended up signing a debt agreement with Republicans that contained no new revenues. Not a single cent would come from the US’ wealthiest people, while a burden of hundreds of billions of US dollars of cuts would be borne by some of the poorest.