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.

 

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left