Obama’s “USA!” moment

The president’s poll ratings have leapt in the wake of Bin Laden’s killing, but Republicans are shar

A seminal time for his presidency: a true test of his leadership. Little wonder, you might think, that Barack Obama's approval ratings have soared in the wake of the targeted killing of Osama Bin Laden – from the lowest of his presidency to the highest in years. A series of polls shows that some 56 per cent of Americans now approve of his performance in his job as president, while more than two-thirds aprove his handling of the terrorism threat.

It's not surprising, when you read the accounts of Obama's coolness under pressure as he watched the live feed of that daring raid by Navy SEALs . . . when you consider that while making one of the most important decisions of his career, he managed to pull off a creditable comedy riff to a crowd of hacks at the White House correspondents' dinner . . . when you bask in the brief euphoria of what the pundits are calling the "USA! USA!" moment the country hasn't experienced for years.

It's ripped up another stereotype, too: that of Obama as hand-wringer in chief, an image of indecisiveness and weakness that has dogged him almost from the moment he took office. Suddenly his harshest critics – yes, even the likes of former Vice-President Dick Cheney and Obama's talk-show nemesis Rush Limbaugh – were lining up to offer praise. As the FT put it, "Mr Obama has a compelling new narrative."

So, it's not surprising, either, that the president tried to sieze the opportunity to build some of that political unity everyone's been paying lip-service to since, well, for ever. In his speech to the American people – which 56 million people tuned in to watch – he was pretty optimistic. As he said: "It is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the challenges we still face."

Yeah, right. It lasted all of about 12 hours before the Republicans went back on the offensive, with the Democrats hard on their heels. Here's the Republican senator Jim DeMint, not long after he had offered his "heartfelt thanks" to the president for "pursuing the neccessary policies to bring about today's success", changing his tune rather radically to weigh in to the adminstration's economic record. "The command-and-control paranoia that we see in this administration is antithetical to everything that we understand about freedom in our country," the senator opined.

And Tom Pawlenty, who's off to South Carolina to debate his GOP presidential rivals on Thursday said that "the time to engage President Obama is now" – and that despite the Bin Laden killing, Obama's "national defence posture" won't be off limits.

Nor did politics on the Hill take long to get back to the usual partisan sniping, with Republicans railing against the White House about everything from petrol prices to light bulbs (yes, really). The Democrats have hardly been sitting on their hands, either – barely pausing for breath before scheduling a press conference attacking the Republican plans for Medicare.

So the glow of national pride of the past few days, that "USA!" moment that echoed around Ground Zero, could very well turn out to be just that – a moment – as the normal dynamic of the 2012 campaign takes over once again. And despite the events of this week, that dynamic is likely to be driven by one thing: the economy. Take note: Obama's ratings here are by no means as healthy as his handling of the terror threat, and are still languishing at an all-time low.

There's no doubt that the president has proved his credentials as commander-in-chief: it'll be hard to keep asking that "3am phone call" question. But by the time Americans go to the polls next November, it could well be jobs, gas prices, the debt and the deficit that decide the way they vote. Without doubt, the economy will be the GOP's biggest electoral opportunity. And, blink and you'll miss it, but Obama and his campaign team could just have their best chance yet to make sure it's no longer their biggest electoral liability.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.