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Gordon Campbell on where the US goes from here

Gordon Campbell on where the US goes from here

by Gordon Campbell

Was it only four years ago that Barack Obama was first elected? The visibly tired, visibly older man on stage in Chicago yesterday seemed to have aged a decade or more, and his rhetoric reflected it. In place of the fleet hearted, ‘anything is possible’ air of his original victory speech, this one was a grinding, almost baleful commitment to difficulty and to compromise. It promised to do what was necessary, not what was hoped or wished for, and it called on all Americans to find common cause. In a neatly pragmatic twist on JFK’s idealistic “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” Obama recast this as a pragmatic call to exercise self governance. (Idealism, retooled as libertarianism.)

None of this was very surprising. Relief rather than elation was the prime driver of much of the emotion on display last night in Chicago, and in Democratic strongholds elsewhere. Obama’s victory may have been decisive in that he won almost all the battleground states but he did so very narrowly in most cases, and his popular vote margin reflected the reality of social and political division. Thus, the speech was full of calls to Republicans as much as to Democrats – thus there were references to American exceptionalism, to the need for military strength as well as economic innovation, to duty, to family and to God, alongside the references to global warming, to minorities and to gays.

Re-election was a triumph though, given the state of the domestic economy, and the foreign wars and foreign policy problems that Obama inherited – and which in his second term, he now has a sporting chance of leaving behind him. That is, once he deals with that looming “fiscal cliff” of $600 billion in tax hikes and/or spending cuts facing the US economy by January 1st. If history is any guide, a solution will be deferred and the problem will be kicked further down the road. His immediate task will be to avoid having America plunge back into recession during 2013.

As some pundits have dutifully noted, Obama’s victory speech did have passion, but it felt like the passion of desperation - permeating a message of hard times endured, and of more hard times still to come. What after all, was there to be optimistic about? Well, the Democrats did prove yesterday that they were the party of the future, for now at least. The votes of young people, of Hispanics (the fastest growing part of the electorate) and of women all went disproportionately to Obama, and the votes of older whites (for whom it is sunset in America) went to the Republican Party. For now at least, enough working class whites in Obama’s Midwest ‘firewall’ states (Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin etc) have chosen to put their trust in Obama, rather than in a plutocratic Mitt Romney. The auto company bailout and the rest of the stimulus package (derided by Small Government zealots on the right as being too big and by Paul Krugman and the left as being too small) eventually proved sufficient to carry the day for Obama.

What message should this send to the Republicans? Last night, Fox News was not of a mind to listen, if that meant any change of course. For them, the Republicans should just double down and find a better carrier pigeon for the same small government, tax cutting, de-regulation message. Some would call this living in denial – and it is. Yet in reality, the Republican Party does look like having, by 2016, several people eminently capable of winning back the White House. They have that legacy at least from their bruising 2012 year.

Who am I talking about? In New Jersey governor Chris Christie the Republicans have a politician with genuine appeal across the political spectrum –think Tony Soprano, volatile temper and all. Some in the Republican Party will never forgive Christie for his embrace of Obama during the Hurricane Sandy aftermath, but that can readily be presented as bi-partisan outreach at a time of local and national crisis. Christie really had no choice. In Florida’s Marco Rubio, the Republicans also have a telegenic, intelligent Catholic conservative who has already shown he can recast the party’s immigration policy, and make it closer to 21st century realities. (Rubio is also antigay. Some things never change.) You would have to think that a Christie/Rubio ticket would be very difficult for the Democrats to combat in 2016 – if the Republicans can jettison much of the Tea Party baggage. Banging on about Big Government gets you nowhere when you are just as clearly the creature of Big Commerce.

If even in victory, Barack Obama looked something of a tragic figure last night, that perception seems well founded. For much of his first term, the spectre of Jimmy Carter hung over him, as another one term anomaly. (One of the great ironies of 2012 was that the damning 47% tape that damaged Romney so badly was found and brought to daylight by Jimmy Carter’s grandson.) To my mind, the former President that Obama most resembles is Lyndon Johnson. Both of them highly talented, both never able to fulfil their full potential thanks in part to the legacy of foreign wars they inherited – and which they then pursued with zeal in the false hope that this would bring them to a speedier resolution.

Like Obama, Johnson also had the good luck to have a poor opponent during his re-election contest in 1964 – and while Johnson had greater skill than Obama at getting his civil rights programme and Great Society welfare package through Congress, this was a gentler time. Johnson never faced the level of pathological obstructionism that the Republicans have gotten away with against Obama. During his second term Obama has to successfully portray that obstructionism for what it is – a willingness to damage America by those incapable of winning at the ballot box. He now has nothing to lose. His party though – unfortunately - has no successor on the horizon. The fact that Hillary Clinton is still being mentioned in that light speaks volumes. So does the fact that Elizabeth Warren is already being mentioned as a 2016 contender.

Final footnote: the pollsters were right, right? Despite all the hate levelled at the pollsters- and at Nate Silver in particular - the mainstream polls were right. (And Gallup and Rasmussen did indeed prove to be outliers.) Kudos in particular to Politico, whose 303 to 235 prediction was almost uncannily spot on. We’re currently at 303 to 206, with Florida’s 29 votes still in the balance. Even if Florida finally goes to Obama, getting everything else right is remarkable.

Personal apologies again for miscalling the Tammy Baldwin vs. Tommy Thompson contest in Wisconsin yesterday. Having written about Thompson’s welfare experiment in Wisconsin for nearly 20 years, I misread his early big lead as heralding an inevitable – and galling – triumph. Yet Baldwin came back and buried him, and she buried also (one hopes) the Wisconsin welfare reform process that is now being belatedly mimicked here in New Zealand by Paula Bennett.


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