Obama is still being blown back by Hurricane Reagan

The US President is likely to find himself back in the Oval Office – but further from real power than ever.

I’ve just retuned from a week in the USA.  I flew into Miami just as Hurricane Sandy passed on its destructive path through to the northeast seaboard. It left politics becalmed for a few days before the presidential storm reaches a crescendo next Tuesday. From what I saw and whom I talked to, it feels like President Obama is unlikely to be an ex-President this time next week. But what has he done, what is he likely to do if reelected and what does it tell us about the prospects for progressive politics?

First off, it shouldn’t surprise me but always does – the style of American politics is often so different to ours. It is played out on the TV and radio airwaves through a wall of paid-for advertising for very local jobs to the highest post in the land. Ninety per cent of it is negative and distorts and disfigures the political process beyond the tolerable. Obama has failed to change this. And they elect everything and anyone in the States from the members of the Mosquito Control Board to the occupier of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  And then it gets really weird as gun shop owners enter their customers in a raffle to win a rifle if they do their duty as a citizen and cast their ballot. It’s a shot in the arm for democracy, I guess.

But other things feel more familiar. Walking into a converted bar on Washington Avenue in the art deco district of South Beach Miami, which now houses a Democrat campaign office, feels eerily similar to any election committee room back home. Stickers and leaflets pile up, a few people mill about chatting over coffee, only one person is actually making calls to voters and every now and again someone goes out with a batch of leaflets as someone else comes back in. 

Most here think Obama will win even if he doesn’t take Florida. But you feel there is little energy. Few voters even bother to sport car bumper stickers or garden and window posters. The staffers and volunteers I spoke to were pretty sanguine. They have few illusions about what a second term Obama presidency would do.  They had illusions in 2008 and they were quickly dashed. The rhetoric of "hope" and "change" has had its day. What fuels the activists is the thought of a Romney victory and how much worse life will be for the poor and struggling across their country. It is the politics of the least worst option. The poor will get poorer and the planet will continue to burn but neither will happen as quickly if Romney is defeated.  As the historian Douglas Brinkley writes in this month's Rolling Stone, "The offensive driven, Yes-We-Can candidate of 2008 has become the No-You-Wont defensive champion of 2012."

It's not that Obama didn’t do successful things in his first term and it's not as if he won't do more good if re-elected. His minimal growth plan was better than the Republican alternative and his heathcare bill was better than no bill. And if he gets another go, his Affordable Care Act and Clean Energy proposals will all better anything from Romney. But nothing being proposed will alter the big picture, of a world heading in the wrong direction.

That is because, just like anyone else on the progressive left, Obama has to contend with the fact that capitalism went up and went in. It went up to a global level of fast moving financial flows beyond democratic control.  And it went into us – as we started to know ourselves and each other primarily as consumers. Walk around the Aventura Shopping Mall in North Beach Miami. This is where Miami families make the real decisions that determine their fate; like what they wear and what their mobile says about them. As the slogan on the ceiling of one of the imposing long stretches of designer shops reads: "Admired, desired, required, acquired". Whoever wins next Tuesday won’t stop this individualizing culture that washes away the once-rich soil of solidarity progressives rely on. Neither will they reverse the "big bang" of freedom for capital flows to wreck economies and lives. Struggling up a never-ending down escalator is bound to end only one way – in the final exhaustion of the progressive project.

Against the backdrop of corporate finance of all political machines, a Congress controlled by Republicans and a heavily funded right-wing lobby what else could Obama do?  Isn’t this the best we can expect, to try and hold the line? Isn’t anything else unrealistic?

Well, it wasn’t to Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, or, come to think of it, Clement Attlee, or the Swedish Social Democrats in their long haul to a good society. All were progressive pragmatists.  They knew where they wanted to take their countries and were clever about how they achieved it.

Obama can’t do more because he refuses to will the means to do so. The means are both ideological and organisational – a vision of a different kind of society and a political movement actually capable of standing up to financialised and consumerised capital. The most fateful decision Obama made was taken a few days into his Presidency, when he cut off the Movement for Change that helped get him elected. This quasi-autonomous political force held out the possibility of becoming a countervailing force to the corporate lobbies -  millions of ordinary voters who mobilised themselves online and off. But it was wound down, deemed unnecessary to the new kings of the White House Court. Obama has struggled ever since.  Hope and change now feel like another era. Instead what we get is the politics of managed decline. A Presidency and a Party weaker today than four years ago, when the overriding goal has to be to become stronger for slow but steady progress.

As Sandy dies down, America will continue to be shaped by the winds of Hurricane Reagan. It blows on, shaping the political and economic landscape and just as importantly the mindsets of the popular imagination of the American people. Obama is likely to find himself back in the Oval Office – but further from real power than ever. And what is true in substance of the Democrats, despite all the stylistic differences, is as true for Labour in Britain.

P.S. If it’s true that the left is fundamentally weakened by the rise of global capital, then the ability to regulate and harness international corporations is more important than ever. That has to start at a European level. We need more Europe, not less. That’s why Labour’s decision to vote with the Tory right to cut the EU budget is incredibly troubling. If the opportunistic vote had brought the government down, then fair enough, but as a tactic it will backfire.  It will stoke anti-European sentiment and confuse voters about where growth will come from, if not demand created by vital public expenditure.

Neal Lawson's column appears weekly on The Staggers.

Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally in Boulder, Colorado, on 1 November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones. 

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.