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Gary Younge
The Tea Party is a dynamic force, but it is still unruly and incoherent

In the days after the Republican presidential contender John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, the Democratic party hierarchy started to panic. In the short period between her convention speech and her Katie Couric interviews, Palin looked to many like an inspired choice. Barack Obama had become exasperated by the propensity of the party establishment to panic at every psephological blip. Just then, a picture of him staring straight ahead and pointing at the camera went viral. On top, it read: "Everyone chill the fuck out." Below, it said: "I got this."

His friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett forwarded it to him. "That's what I was trying to tell you," Obama told her.

Compared with most politicians, Obama has a long fuse with a slow-burn. Contemptuous of the 24-hour news cycle, when asked why it took him a few days to make a statement about AIG bonuses, he put down a CNN reporter. "It took me a couple of days because I like to know what I talk about before I speak," he said.

However, in recent weeks his reputation for deftly picking his moments has been countered by a far less flattering conclusion: that his moment, for the first term at least, may already have passed.

That such a verdict might be delivered so early in his tenure is problematic. It took a long time to get the US in the mess it is in today. The idea that any meaningful and enduring change could take place in just over a year is ridiculous. And yet this judgment is not driven solely by voter impatience and media frenzy. It is also shaped by the rigours of America's electoral timetable.

Obama's agenda, including legislation on healthcare reform, climate change and income redistribution, was predicated on the expectation of a healthy Congressional majority. That is now in peril. Democrats currently have a majority of 77 in the House of Representatives and 18 in the Senate. According to the respected election forecasts of the Cook Political Report, there are 59 competitive House seats in the mid-terms. Of those, Democrats are defending 53 and Republicans only six. The Democratic hold on the Senate is also precarious. In the upper house there are 12 competitive seats, of which Democrats are defending eight and Republicans four. Democrats have little to show for their majorities as it is. Given the lack of discipline in the Democratic caucus, Republicans need only prevail in half of these races to make meaningful progress almost impossible.

Conventional wisdom has Obama now re-enacting Bill Clinton's first term: a hyperactive start in which the flagship legislation – healthcare – stalled, followed by a rightwing backlash at the polls that will effectively neuter what is left of his term.

While such a scenario is certainly possible, there are two key reasons why, at this stage, it is anything but a foregone conclusion. They have nothing to do with Obama and everything to do with who and what is driving his opposition.

First, this Republican revival is not actually led by the Republican party. In 1994, all but two Republican House representatives signed up to The Contract with America, a manifesto written by the party leadership with help from the rightwing Heritage Foundation. This current resurgence has primarily been inspired by the Tea Party movement – a fractious group of rightwing activists who owe their growth and influence more to Fox News and talk radio than the Republican party. These people were never Democrats, but they are not particularly reliable Republicans either.

"These are the people that left the Republican party in 2006 and 2008," explains the Republican strategist Frank Luntz. "They didn't embrace the Democrats, but they rejected the Republicans, and the only way the Republicans can recapture Congress in 2010 and the White House in 2012 is to unite the basic elements of the Republican party with this Tea Party movement."

Herein lies the second issue. Unlike in 1994, when Republicans had a clear set of demands, the Tea Party is an unruly, inchoate and incoherent force with neither a leader nor a clear programme. At the Conservative Political Action Conference a week ago, the libertarian Ron Paul won the straw poll with 31% of the vote. Announcement of his victory by the very crowd that had just endorsed him was greeted with jeers and boos. At the Tea Party convention a few weeks ago, large numbers stayed away in protest at everything from Palin's speaking fee to the costs of registration. Luntz has advised them to stop comparing Obama to Hitler and be more strategic in their choice of enemies and allies, but to little avail. "They don't want to be told," he says. "They don't want to be lectured, they don't want to be advised, educated, informed." He jokes that he's relieved to come out of those meetings without his tyres being slashed.

If you were looking for one thing that unites them, it would not be an agenda, but anger. Many are regular anti-tax, small-government social conservatives. But there are some serious Mad Hatters at this Tea Party: they believe Obama is a Muslim communist who was not born in the US – and they tend to be the loudest. As such, they are a potential liability for a Republican party that needs to reconnect with independent voters.

Not surprisingly, some Republicans like to play down their influence. "I don't think one should get carried away by how much growth [in the Tea Party movement] there has been," says former Bush speechwriter David Frum, who dismisses the protesters as a couple of hundred thousand malcontents in Paul Revere suits. It is true that the movement's reach can be exaggerated. Tea Party candidates are making the running in just two Republican senatorial primaries – Kentucky and Florida – so far, while a recent Washington Post/ABC poll revealed that nearly two-thirds of those polled say they know something, very little or nothing about what the Tea Party stands for. They claimed to be the force behind Scott Brown's recent Senate victory in Massachusetts. But, clearly, Brown didn't feel beholden to them. He used his first major vote to side with five renegade Republicans who voted for Obama's jobs bill, which the Tea Party vehemently opposed.

Thanks in no small part to their media sponsors, the Tea Partiers are nonetheless the most dynamic force in US politics at the moment and have successfully seized on popular disaffection with government in general to advance their cause. However unrealistic it may be to expect Obama to have delivered substantial improvements to people's lives by this stage, the fact remains that many desperately need things to get better quickly, but see little prospect of progress. Not unreasonably, they blame government for the stasis. The same Washington Post poll showed the highest levels of public dissatisfaction with government in a decade and negative ratings of the two main parties. About 45% of Americans, including most independents, said they agree at least somewhat with the Tea Party on the issues.

So the question is not how much influence the Tea Party will have, but what that influence will be. Obama's ability to be cool under pressure doesn't make that pressure disappear. These are volatile times in American politics, and the Tea Party movement is both a product and an expression of that volatility.

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