On Line Opinion
By Brendon O'Connor
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. Shepard Fairey produced the iconic "Hope" posters featuring Obama's multi-coloured face, 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" meant extremely high expectations were riding on Obama when he was elected. Despite this, I felt there was still potential for him to be American liberalism's last best hope.
My own hope was fuelled by his very impressive presidential campaign but I also had 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, it is important to place my pessimism and criticisms of Obama in context. For me, Obama is the most heartening and agreeable president elected by Americans since the first half of the 1960s. Furthermore, as president his push to assure that 30 million more Americans are insured under a more just 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 very rare sense of presidential reflection on America's motives and image as seen abroad. His speeches about his aspirations regarding global poverty, Middle Eastern peace, and addressing global warming have been very admirable. In short the man's opinions seem more than one could reasonably hope for in a US president.
The criticisms I have of Obama are of his political tactics and strategy since becoming president. Undoubtedly the weight and volume of the problems he has confronted since being elected have made thinking strategically difficult. Furthermore, 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, there is no doubt in my mind that 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). It is not surprising that partisans like James Carville were writing books with title such as The Next 40 Years: How Democrats will rule the next generation, because many more sober analysts were talking about a political realignment akin to the New Deal period of the 1930s or at least as significant as the ascendency of conservatism from the election of Reagan onwards in 1980. Both of these periods saw a demonization of the losing party and their ideas by the incumbent president.
Real change similar to what occurred in those two eras would have seen a realignment of American voting patterns in favour of the Democrats. There should have been at least a decade of liberal dominance of American policy making and a situation where Republicans found it very difficult to talk openly about the benefits of conservative ideas (it is worth remembering that this was generally the case from the 1930s to the 1970s in American politics).
Undoubtedly such a strategy would have been risky and would have received significant and loud opposition. Anti-government movements might have formed across the country and the president's party could have received a shellacking at the 2010 mid-term election. The fact that the Democrats did receive just such a pounding would suggest that Obama's more nuanced and conciliatory approach to his opponents is now looking like a serious error of judgement.
The benefits of bold strategies in the past are embodied by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 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 to 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.
The second example is Lyndon Baines Johnson, who used the tragedy of John F. Kennedy's death to push Civil Rights legislation through the Congress. He also demonised his conservative opponents as frightening and mean-spirited in a manner that truly (rather than sarcastically) made him "landslide Lyndon" in 1964. Johnson's legislative achievements on health care, anti-poverty measures, education, the environment and many other fronts should also have been Obama's template.
While LBJ faced a much 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. Remember though that it was LBJ's bullishness that led to America's significant over commitment in Vietnam, a factor that saw Johnson eventually leave a much more mixed political and policy legacy than that of FDR.
However, Obama's failure to borrow more from the most successful Democratic Party politician ever was a strategic error.
The conditions Obama was elected into in 2008 were difficult but they were also the most fertile for a reforming liberal politician since 1980. Obama pushed a reforming agenda along particularly on health care but he lacked the ideological and partisan conviction to effectively bury his opponents for a generation.