Barack Obama: two steps forward, two steps back

I like him. I don’t like him. I like him. I don’t like him. I can’t decide!

Barack Obama. What CAN I say? Well, I said this a few months ago -- and got pilloried by liberals at home and abroad. Until, that is, lots of other people started saying it, too.

Obama is not Bush. Of course not. How could anyone compare to the great "decider"? Obama is, however, a disappointment. And the whole two-steps-forward-two-steps-back manoeuvring both frustrates and saddens me.

On the one hand, for example, he persuades Congress, against all odds, to pass an unprecedented (if incomplete and "centrist") health-care reform bill, which will insure millions of uninsured Americans. And he boldly stands up to the Israeli right and humiliates the settlement-addicted Israeli premier, Binyamin Netanyahu, by "dumping him for dinner" during the latter's visit to the White House.

On the other hand, he rewrites America's policy on nuclear weapons and declares that the US will never use the bomb against a non-nuclear state -- but reserves the right to nuke non-nuclear Iran. And, in an unprecedented legal move, he approves the "targeted killing", or assassination, of a US citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

Two steps forward, two steps back. Deeply depressing.

Yet from liberals, and Obamaniacs, here in the UK and in the United States, there is either silence or there come feeble excuses. On the new nuclear posture, for example, Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: "I think this is positive. Does it go far enough? No. But would it be possible for Obama to make the great leap we want? No."

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, said: "It could go further, faster, but it is the best we can hope for under the circumstances."

"Best we can hope for"? I think that says it all.

And on the president's endorsement of targeted killings, the silence is deafening. Obama gets a pass. There's no other way to describe it. Can you imagine the reaction from liberals and leftists, and from the media as a whole, if George W Bush had targeted US citizens for execution from the air?

Yet the irony is that, according to the Guardian, "a former senior legal official in the Bush administration said he did not know of any American who was approved for targeted killing under the former president".

(Oh, and on a side note, before the neocon/Islamophobe trolls in the blogosphere start trying to smear me as an al-Awlaki supporter or defender, or as an apologist for Islamist violence or terror, please see here. My position on al-Awlaki is quite simple: I despise the man, but I don't deny him the right to a fair trial. And nor, having read the US constitution, do I think that the executive branch of the US government has the right or authority to declare any US citizen guilty or not guilty without due process. See the peerless Glenn Greenwald for more details -- and outrage.)

You can now follow me on Twitter.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.