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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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.