Change – an update

Thursday, 8 November 2012 

I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.

Barack Obama

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right — there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing.

Mitt Romney

If even the stupid have worked out that it was about the economy, then there were good reasons why Obama should have lost on Tuesday. After all, no President has been re-elected in the middle of a recession since Roosevelt.

But then, there was never any real difference on economic policy. George Bush pumped money into the economy before he left. If the Republicans under Obama seriously blocked liquidity measures because they thought it would help the economy, then it would have been one of the most gracious things they have ever done to help Obama – rather than, say, merely blocking it for political reasons.

In reality it was politics that undermined the Republicans. Just as Carville’s famous reminder to Clinton came at the first post-Cold War election, it only seems about the economy because the politics, especially of the right, has lost its power.

There is talk that the American electorate is polarised. If that’s the case, why did Romney go out of his way to move to the centre once he won his nomination? He moved away from the positions he needed to win the nomination from the Republican party because it was the political system that was polarised, not the electorate.

The Tea Party that is presented as People Power, is really only the Republican party trying to recover its brand. The problem is that the political brand is of no interest to anyone else but the Republican Party. Rather than the Tea Party coming from popular anger, ultimately it is the lack of social engagement that is forcing the political parties to flounder around to try and define what they are for. It is that which gives Obama his advantage.

Ultimately there are two things that Obama is doing that ties in with political necessity. The first is that Obama retrenched the unilateralism of the Bush era when, in trying to reassert the lost political authority of US military power, the Bush doctrine only exposed the reality and left the US even more isolated than before.

But Obama has not replaced it with anything else. There is no sense that the US has recovered any authority. For the most important world political event during his first term, the Arab Spring, the US neither had the ability to prop up pro-Western dictators (as usually used to happen) nor the ability to look as they were leading their overthrow – a stalemate as epitomised by the endless Syrian bloodbath.

This inability to reassert the US’s political power to match its economic and military weight is surely going to get tricky, because pretty well every US recession since World War II has had an international political solution. Internal debates over the “fiscal cliff” and whether the Republicans will block in Congress detract from the more important question that no one, except perhaps the Secretary of State, wants to say out loud, how to deal with those actually bankrolling the continuation of US debt? Sooner or later the US retrenchment on the international scene will have to start turning the other way.

The second thing that Obama has done that fits in with political reality, is to expose the hollowness of political dogma by contrasting it with the personal – and to find the personal winning. This collision course was best summed up by the two Senatorial Tea Party candidates who came out with bizarre statements on abortion and then went on to lose what was, at least in one case, previously winnable seats. Obama himself supporting gay marriage before the campaign, what would have been considered only recently as a self-destructive political tactic, along with two referendums on the night, showed the inability of the right to make stick what what would have been one of their most comfortable positions on personal morality.

That is not to say that where it comes to social issues that require a social solution, things are still not going the wrong way. One of the exquisite ironies of the campaign was the way that what was supposed to be a major gaffe by Romney, his “47%” speech, actually did little more than say out loud the orthodoxy on both sides of the political divide. Democrats may differ on the number, but the idea of an unjustified “entitlement” to welfare is precisely the ethos behind Welfare to Work introduced by Clinton, opposed by Obama, but never dismantled by him. Of course, such hypocrisy between the social and the personal by the US Democrats has yet to reach the level of a certain party, that on the very day its leader was complaining about personal attacks of sexism to her, applies for the first time the Work to Welfare principle to arguably its biggest victims.

There is however, a third feature of the Obama Presidency that was promised from the beginning, the one the very election of the first black President was supposed to encapsulate, the sweeping away of the old political order. This was the real “radicalism” that was expected from Obama in 2008 that he has failed to live up to. The Tea Party sums up precisely the hollow culture war that Obama put his finger on and that Romney tried, unsuccessfully, to escape. It would seem whatever happens internationally, it would have to accompany dealing with the baby boomer psychodrama at home.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 8 November 2012.

Filed under International relations

Tags: ,


2 responses to “Change – an update”

  1. Riccardo on 15th November 2012 8:10 pm

    Some columnists have argued that each election drives republicans further right, arguing the moderate doesnt win the election, the ‘true’ comservative does.

  2. James on 26th November 2012 10:22 am

    Obama’s successful engagement of young voters is significant. In Australia, Labor and Liberal struggle to engage with under 30s. Voter turnout among this demographic has been woeful lately, as evidenced by the Melbourne by-election and voter turnout in Victorian local government elections where, in inner-city areas, voter turnout was often in the low 50s. Direct mail no longer works. Twenty-five per cent of inner city electorates comprise different people every four years. The Greens have benefited somewhat from this but low voter turnouts show they aren’t adequately reaping the gains from the deterioration of the ‘old parties’.

Comments are closed.