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.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war