Can Barack Obama revive the spirit of 2008?

The return of the grassroots community organiser.

He was once hailed as the world's greatest celebrity but now the glitter is tarnished and the hero worship is barely anywhere to be found. So this week Barack Obama is going back on the road -- with just five weeks to save his Democratic Party from ignominy in November's midterm elections.

His blitz through four states is no ordinary road trip: this time the President is making a huge effort to re-discover the enthusiasm and the engagement that proved the key to his success in 2008. So there's just one rally, on Tuesday, to students at the University of Wisconsin, and a series of more informal meetings with "ordinary folks" in their own backyards.

This much more populist message aims to hit back at the Republican "Pledge to America" manifesto: and, as White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer put it, to show "why he thinks the direction the Republicans are pushing to go would be irresponsible, would be a mistake".

Instead the President will focus on the middle classes and America's public deficit, insisting it would be totally wrong to cut taxes and return to the Bush-style policies of the past, and what he's calling "the era of recklessness".

But policies aside, this trip is really meant to mark a return to the old-style Obama -- the grassroots community organiser, the one who spectacularly managed to to connect with ordinary people and fire up a political excitement they never knew they had.

It's an effort too to revive that coalition of young people and minorities that didn't just sweep him to power in 2008 -- but also seemed to usher in a completely new kind of politics, a kind based on inclusion and engagement and fuelled by the desire of individuals to make a difference.

And it's an attempt to turn around the political fortunes of the last 18 months, which has seen Obama and the Democrats beset by falling polls and disillusioned voters who simply don't want to turn out. As the Washington Post put it, Obama's much vaunted grassroots network is now "a shadow of its former self".

Latest polls in a number of key battleground states don't look good for the Democrats: as independent voters lean towards the GOP, while young people and minority voters say they're inclined to stay at home. Although "Organising for America" still has paid staffers in 50 states, trying to get out the vote and keep supporters engaged, there's a palpable "enthusiasm gap".

And hence Tuesday's speech to students in Madison -- trying to recapture just a little bit of the old magic -- and trying to get young people excited about politics again. It's being simulcast to 200 other campuses, with other youth events staged elsewhere, so there's no excuse to miss it.

Communications guru David Plouffe -- the man who forged much of the success story of 2008 -- is said to be behind the University of Wisconsin event, followed by three other old style mass political rallies in the run up to election day.

And meeting voters in their backyards is supposed to convince the country their President is not aloof and out of touch with the real problems they're facing in these tough economic times.

But it's all getting rather late for Obama to turn things around. Meantime there are murmurings about the effectiveness of the White House strategy team, who could once do no wrong, and some beleagued Democrats have insisted they don't want the President stumping for them right now, because it might just make things worse. It seems the old adage has never been more true -- the soaring poetry of campaigns is one thing, the complex and nuanced prose of government, quite another.

 

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism