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 and author of the book All Consuming.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle