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.

 

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.