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Obama: Whither hope and change?

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16 November 2010 11:21

Brendon O’Connor is Associate Professor in American politics at the United States Studies Centre, University of Sydney. His recent presentation with Michael Fullilove on the US mid-term elections and the Obama administration can be heard here.

Hope and change are the words most associated with Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. His best–selling campaign memoir was titled 'The Audacity of Hope', and Shepard Fairey's iconic 'Hope' posters featuring Obama's multi-coloured face were seen all across America during 2008. 'Change we can believe in' was the slogan most associated with the campaign and it was often displayed behind Obama when he spoke.

All this 'hope' generated extremely high expectations of Obama when he was elected. Despite this, there was still potential for him to be American liberalism's last best hope. Hope was fuelled by his very impressive presidential campaign, but there were a number of reasons to harbour caution: Obama's short federal Senate political career, his negligible national legislative achievements and the fact that, apart from two insightful memoirs, little was known about Obama's political views, management style or leadership skills.

Was the recent election of a Republican majority in the US House of Representatives the death knell for 'change we can believe in''

Even if the short–lived epoch of 'change and hope' is over, pessimism and criticisms of Obama should be put in context. Obama is, for many, the most heartening and agreeable president elected by Americans since the first half of the 1960s. As president, his push to get 30 million more Americans insured under a fairer national healthcare scheme is a significant and worthy change. Obama's comments about America's past foreign policy behaviour in Iran and Cuba show a rare sense of presidential reflection on America's motives and image as seen abroad. His speeches about his aspirations on global poverty, Middle Eastern peace and addressing global warming have been impressive. The man's opinions seem more than one could reasonably hope for in a US president.

It is Obama's political tactics and strategy since becoming president that are of concern. Undoubtedly the weight and volume of the problems he has confronted since being elected have made strategic thinking difficult. The aura and expectations which come with the role of President of the United States have made Obama seem too cautious. The sheer weight of deciding what America should do in Afghanistan has, not surprisingly, consumed significant amounts of his energies over the last two years.

Yet despite these acknowledged difficulties, Obama and his Democratic Party have blown an enormous political opportunity to change the course of American politics.

The Republican Party brand was seriously damaged by the economic crisis, the failures in Iraq and incompetence at home (most notably during Hurricane Katrina). Partisans like James Carville were writing books like '40 more years: how the Democrats will rule the next generation', and many more sober analysts were talking about a political realignment akin to the New Deal period of the 1930s, or the conservative ascendancy after the 1980 Reagan election. Both of these periods saw the losing party and its ideas demonised by the incumbent president.

After the Obama election win, real change on that sort of scale would have seen American voting patterns realign in favour of the Democrats. There should have been at least of decade of liberal policy–making dominance and a situation where Republicans found it very difficult to talk openly about the benefits of conservative ideas (as happened in American politics between the 1930s and 1970s). Undoubtedly such a strategy would have been risky and would have been loudly opposed. Anti–government movements might have formed across the country, placing the president's party at risk of a shellacking at the 2010 mid–term election. The fact that the Democrats did receive just such a pounding suggests that Obama's more nuanced and conciliatory approach to his opponents is looking like a serious error of judgement.

Two presidential reigns illustrate the benefits of bold strategies. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the master of bold strategies. He used the Great Depression to create a New Deal voting coalition that saw the Democrats control the House of Representatives from 1930 to 1994 (with only four years of Republican rule — in 1946 and 1952). Roosevelt and the Democrats passed a massive raft of legislation to protect unions, help the unemployed, widows and the elderly, and underwrite the banking system. Some might say that FDR's style, the media politics of the time and the desperation of the Great Depression created opportunities Obama never had, but at the very least FDR should have been the template for caricaturing one's opponents.

Lyndon Baines Johnson was the second champion strategist, using the tragedy of John F. Kennedy's death to push civil rights legislation through the Congress. He demonised his conservative opponents as frightening and mean–spirited, earning a 'landslide Lyndon' win in 1964. LBJ's legislative achievements on health care, anti–poverty measures, education, the environment and many other fronts should have been another template for Obama, despite Johnson's bullish over–commitment in Vietnam, which eventually saw him leave a much more mixed political and policy legacy than that of FDR. While LBJ faced a far less obstructionist Republican Party than Obama and also had key Republican votes, let's not forget the varmint opposition LBJ confronted from Southern segregationist opponents, generally from within his own party.

In comparison to these two men, Obama looks timid. His failure to borrow more from the most successful Democratic Party politician ever was a strategic error. The conditions prevailing in America at Obama's election in 2008 were difficult, but they were also the most fertile for a reforming liberal politician since 1980. While Obama pushed along a reforming agenda, particularly on health care, with more ideological and partisan conviction he could have effectively buried his opponents for a generation.

Photo by Flickr user Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons licence.

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