Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Unfinished revolution

Barack Obama’s mandate in 2008 was misunderstood by many
liberals. Can a new populist message save his bid for re-election,
asks Robert Philpot

Barring an upset on ‘Super Tuesday’ early this month – and there have been plenty of those already in this primary season – Mitt Romney’s campaign for the Republican party’s presidential nomination now appears to be closing in on its target.

While the seesaw nature of the primary race underlines Romney’s struggle to seal the deal with the party’s activist base, the likely nominee should prove a formidable opponent for Barack Obama. The fact that Romney managed to get himself elected governor of the liberal bastion of Massachusetts in 2002 should tell us something. His moderate record, ability to work with the Democrat-controlled legislature, and experience clearing up the state’s finances should all play well in the autumn with ‘swing voters’. Moreover, despite being wooden on the stump and his reputation as a flip-flopper, Romney has run a focused and disciplined campaign, which has refused to be blown off course by the turbulence it has faced along the way.

But Romney’s final strength is also his potential Achilles’ Heel: his business experience. At a time of high unemployment, the former governor will trumpet his claim to have created 100,000 jobs during his time at Bain Capital. But, as Newt Gingrich’s brutal ads graphically demonstrated, there is another tale that can be told about Romney’s career in finance – one of corporate raiders feasting on the entrails of the companies they swooped in to ‘restructure’, consigning whole communities to the industrial scrapheap in their wake.

And out of all of this, Romney has not only done personally very well – his campaign has declared his net worth at somewhere between $190-250m – but he has also seemed to pay rather less than his fair share of taxes. Shortly before his landslide loss in South Carolina, the candidate revealed that he paid less than 15 per cent tax on his $42.5m earnings in the previous two years.

Bloodied by Gingrich – Romney’s approval ratings among independent voters have sunk during the nomination battle – the putative Republican nominee presents an inviting target for what appears increasingly likely to be a populist Democrat campaign.

In his state of the union address in January, the president road-tested the themes of his re-election campaign with his pledge to ‘restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules’. Like a modern-day Canute, Obama pledged to hold back the tide of globalisation and ‘bring manufacturing back’, while also vowing to create a ‘special unit’ of federal prosecutors to track down and punish those responsible for ‘the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis’. The president’s reiteration of his support for the ‘Buffett rule’ was striking not so much for his backing the proposition that no one earning more than $1m should pay less than 30 per cent tax, but the manner in which he appeared to revel in the abuse that it might earn him: ‘You can call this class warfare all you want,’ he taunted his conservative critics. From the famously cerebral president, it bore the faintest of echoes of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous 1936 re-election pledge that the ‘economic royalists’ had ‘met their match’ in his first term, and would ‘meet their master’ in his second.

But Obama has yet to win that second term. As the US political analyst Charlie Cook cautions, so long as their opponents are ‘colourless and odourless’, most presidents running for re-election face a referendum on their performance. Last autumn, the president’s prospects on that score appeared weak, with the recovery remaining sluggish and his approval ratings similarly depressed. In recent weeks, the economy – and the president’s ratings – have begun to perk up, although both could easily be knocked off course.

Hence the strong dose of populism to provide a stark contrast with Romney. The last Democratic presidential campaign to attempt such a pitch was Al Gore’s ‘people versus the powerful’ run in 2000. That faltered, in part because Gore – a long-time Washington insider from a political dynasty – appeared a weak conduit for such a message. Eight years of peace and prosperity, moreover, also gave the message less resonance than it might attain after the last tumultuous decade.

Indeed, the electoral potential of Obama’s focus on fairness is indicated by polls which show that two-thirds of Americans believe the ‘distribution of wealth and money’ in the country is unfair. And with good reason: research published by the Congressional Budget Office last year demonstrated how in the past 30 years the distribution of household income became substantially more unequal, even after taxes and income transfers, and that most of the gain which had gone to the top quintile actually went to the top one per cent.

But here is the rub. As William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and former domestic policy adviser to Bill Clinton, argues, Americans may want to see rising inequality halted, and have little faith in the market to do so, ‘but if they don’t think they can trust the government to get the job done, they’re stuck with a status quo they dislike’. People want change, he believes, but they ‘have no confidence in the public sector as the change agent’. This dilemma is amplified by the fact that while voters view the Republicans as out to serve the interests of the rich, who already have too much, they are not sure either whose interests Obama seeks to serve or whether he has a plan that ‘could translate good economic intentions into tangible results’.

Americans’ feelings about government are both complex and contradictory. Despite the efforts of Occupy Wall Street, most Americans – by a margin of two to one – blame the government, and not Wall Street, for the country’s economic plight. Albeit by a much narrower margin, most Democrat voters do too. In his new book, Clinton relates a congressman’s flummoxed reaction at a town hall meeting on Obama’s healthcare legislation when confronted with an angry constituent who said he did not want government ‘messing with my Medicare’ – Medicare being the government-run health programme for elderly Americans.

Obama’s bid for re-election is also complicated by a continuing misunderstanding by many on the left about the nature of his victory in 2008. As Sean Trende, an analyst for RealClearPolitics, argues in his new book, The Lost Majority: Why the Future of Government is Up For Grabs, the president’s win was neither an endorsement of ‘an aggressive activist government’ nor a repudiation of ‘the gradualism that characterised the Clinton presidency’.

Indeed, polling by the Pew Research Center indicated that, by the time of Obama’s election, ‘attitudes were in many ways not appreciably less “conservative” than they had been in the heyday of the Reagan administration’. Only on issues around race, gender and gay rights had voters moved in a markedly more liberal direction. On the role of the state, however, there had been barely any shift at all. However, Obama, with his promise to ‘fundamentally transform America’, coded attacks on the ‘triangulation’ of the Clinton years and suggestion that the former president’s time in office was merely an extension of the Reagan era, did little to disabuse liberals of their misperception.

The strong political headwinds that were blowing in the Democrats’ favour in 2008 should also not be forgotten. Recalling the traumatic nature of the previous eight years, David Frum, a former speechwriter to George W Bush, recently suggested that it was as if the Bush presidency had begun with Pearl Harbor, ended with the Great Depression and had Vietnam in the intervening period. Nonetheless, it is worth recalling that, even against this benign electoral backdrop, Obama secured a narrower popular vote majority than did George HW Bush in 1988 or Clinton in 1996.

Even more surprisingly given the way it was later presented, Trende suggests that the coalition Obama assembled on election day was ‘not novel. It wasn’t even that broad. It was a narrower version of Clinton’s’. Thus, while Clinton took the traditional Democratic base of minorities and liberals, pulled upper middle-class suburbanites away from their Republican moorings, restored the Democrats’ support among white working-class voters and shored up the party’s residual support among rural southern and border-state Democrats, Obama ran up huge majorities among the first three groups, brought blue-collar workers on board only after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and oversaw a collapse in the party’s support in the last group.

This ‘narrow, deeper’ version of Clinton’s coalition assured Obama a solid win in 2008 but left him ‘little room for error’, as the Democrats’ humiliating defeat in the 2010 midterm elections graphically demonstrated. Suburbanites and the white working class bolted from the president’s party, while turnout among minorities and the young fell. Exit polls suggested that it was not so much the economy’s continuing difficulties that dragged the Democrats down but a belief that ‘government was doing too much’ and that spending and the deficit needed to be reined in.

Democrats can, of course, be comforted by the fact that with the presidency at stake turnout will rise in November and groups who favour the party will go to the polls in greater numbers than they did two years ago. Nonetheless, the hopes of 2008 – that Obama’s election would usher in a new Democratic majority as Roosevelt’s did in 1932 – now look something of a false dawn. The result may well not turn out to be the same, but Obama’s fight for re-election currently bears a closer resemblance to Jimmy Carter’s than Franklin Roosevelt’s.


Photo: Charis Tsevis

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Robert Philpot

is a contributing editor to Progress magazine and former director of Progress

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