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. 

Photo: Getty
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Ruling the waves: should the UK own its offshore wind?

A new report from Labour Energy Forum makes the case for greater public ownership in the offshore sector.

Rule, Britainnia! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves to EU policy again. So goes the thinking of the Brexiteers. But little mention is made of the foreign companies ruling our waves – via offshore wind.

According to a new report by the Labour Energy Forum, over 90 per cent of the UK’s offshore wind is owned by non-UK entities. Plus, over 50 per cent of is controlled by public, often state-owned entities, like the Danish wind company DONG.

In contrast, UK public entities own less than 1 per cent of the total wind farms already built or under construction. That translates to just one single wind turbine: a lonely creature, barely off the beach at Levenmouth in Scotland.

At a time when UK already generates more energy from offshore wind than any other nation and the costs are tumbling, does this ownership model put Britain at a disadvantage?

The government's Department for Business, Energy and industrial Strategy avoids answering this question head-on. Instead it focuses on how overseas investment can benefit service businesses: “Over £11bn of investment in new UK offshore wind farms is due to take place over the next four years with around half of the expenditure in planning, building and running offshore projects going to British companies,” a spokesperson told the New Statesman.

But what about future profit? If offshore wind is eventually able to power domestic demand six times over, as the Offshore Valuation Group predicts, how can the UK public reap the rewards of potential sale abroad?

“The UK has such enormous resources we should be leading, not lagging,” says the Labour Energy Forum’s report author, Mika Minio-Paluello of Transition Economics. Theresa May’s sale of the UK’s Green Investment Bank in April ended the coalition’s experiment in public sector ownership of the green economy, and since then their ambitions have been “limited”.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Minio-Paluello has spent a lot of time in Germany and seen the benefits of the public ownership route. The city of Munich never privatised its local energy supply system, she says. They are now working towards a 2025 target of 100 percent clean energy by building offshore wind farms, including around the UK. “They hadn’t farmed the staff out to the private sector or made as many cutbacks, which meant they could engage with [the renewable transition] as a society as a whole.”

The potential gains for the UK are substantial: from more control over where money is spent and who is employed, to greater tax revenues. “Offshore wind is already breathing life back into ports like Grimsby,” the report says, “but more stimulus and direction is needed. Especially as the fossil-fuel sector gives way to the clean energy economy.”

Yet is the UK already too far behind to catch up and compete with Europe's energy giants? Creating a fully independent public offshore wind company that builds its own wind farms is not a realistic short-term goal, Minio-Paluello says. But you have to start somewhere; the important thing is to be an active partner in the process.

Some UK local authority pension funds have already put money into the Green Investment Bank’s offshore wind fund – yet the hands-off approach means they have no direct influence on how the projects are carried out, staffed and supplied. A more involved option could see UK public bodies operating within the sector in partnership with more established companies. Even as non-operating partners, such bodies could still set requirements on local content and job creation – something that is especially important considering the low union density within the sector at present, the report notes.

A joint enterprise between the non-profit company Energy for Londoners and the Danish energy giant DONG, for example, could build a new windfarm with part UK public ownership. This is not fundamentally different from the councils who already invest in onshore wind and solar farms, Minio- Paluello suggests, “it’s just bigger”.

Such a scheme would allow the UK entities to build up their experience and staffing in the sector, opening the door to grander ambitions in the future. Plus it could bring down energy costs: public companies like DONG and Vattenfall have already led the way towards building subsidy-free sites, while access to cheaper capital can be passed on as savings to the consumer.

Without such interventions, some fear a return to the ill-winds of the Thatcher era, when the revenues from the North Sea Oil boom were squandered and government stakes sold off. “I think it’s quite possible that in 30 years we will look back and ask why did we privatise all our offshore wind sector?” Minio-Paluello says. 

The Labour Party is starting to explore the options, and campaigns like Switched On London and Manchester’s Energy Democracy are also doing their part. But a wind of change must blow from Westminster too – and soon.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.