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Leader: The world cannot afford a defeat for Barack Obama

A Romney victory would greatly increase the chances of war with Iran, embolden the most reactionary elements in Israel and further accelerate climate change.

If Barack Obama has fallen short of the expectations of many of his supporters, it is partly because they were so high to begin with. During his election campaign in 2008, Mr Obama spoke lyrically of “hope” and “change” and promised a new era of post-partisan politics. His unique status as his country’s first black president encouraged the sense that the limits of the possible had been redefined. Liberals embraced him as the man who would close Guantanamo Bay, bring peace to the Middle East and slow “the rise of the oceans”.

But Mr Obama did not reckon on the recalcitrance of a Republican opposition that has sought to undermine his presidency at every turn, or the intransigence of leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Binyamin Netanyahu. Four years on from his election, Guantanamo Bay remains open, the Middle East peace process has collapsed and the oceans have continued to rise. Yet, if the initial adulation for him was excessive, then so, too, is much of the subsequent disdain.

Mr Obama entered office in more difficult circumstances than any US president since Franklin D Roosevelt. The economy was in the deepest recession in 70 years and losing jobs at a rate of 750,000 a month; the automobile industry appeared destined for bankruptcy; the US was embroiled in a ruinous and unjust war in Iraq. It was, as we said at the time of his election, “the in-box from hell”. In view of this inheritance, he has performed creditably.

Early in his presidency, he acted to prevent another Great Depression by introducing a fiscal stimulus of $787bn, a mixture of tax cuts, infrastructure projects and increased unemployment benefits. Republican claims that the stimulus was “a failure” are entirely unsupported by evidence. A study by Mark Zandi, a former economic adviser to John McCain, and Alan Blinder, a former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve, concluded that the policy had created or saved 2.7 million jobs and added 3.4 per cent to US GDP. The US economy has now grown for 13 consecutive quarters, a record that compares favourably with that of the austerity-fixated UK. A more appropriate criticism of the stimulus is that it was too small – yet it is doubtful that a bigger package would have passed Congress, and the final bill, 50 per cent larger in real terms than the entire New Deal, stands as a considerable achievement.

Similarly successful, as Nicky Woolf reports on page 18, was the government-led bailout of Chrysler and General Motors, an intervention dogmatically opposed by the Republicans. “Let Detroit go bankrupt,” declared Mr Obama’s opponent Mitt Romney in November 2008. Should he fail to win Ohio, a state that no Republican has ever won the presidency without carrying, that could be his epitaph.

It is in the sphere of foreign policy that Mr Obama has disappointed. While fulfilling his pledge to withdraw all US troops from Iraq, he has vastly expanded the use of predator drones in Pakistan, a form of warfare that is neither just nor efficacious. In the Middle East, he has been con­sistently outmanoeuvred by Mr Netanyahu, who, in violation of international law, has continued the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Yet any temptation to suggest that the world can afford a defeat for Mr Obama is dispelled by the prospect of a Romney presidency. A victory for the Republican candidate, who, as Mehdi Hasan writes on page 38, has surrounded himself with Bush-era neoconservatives, would greatly increase the chances of war with Iran, embolden the most reactionary elements in Israel and further accelerate climate change.

On the domestic level, Mr Romney’s pledge to reduce government spending by a fifth would likely plunge the US into a double-dip recession, while his plans to cut taxes for the rich and slash spending on Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies and job training would result in a marked redistribution of wealth from the poorest to the richest. Mr Obama’s health-care reform act – his single greatest domestic achievement – would be repealed and Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court judgment that established the legal right to abortion, would be overturned. Let no one claim that there is nothing to choose between the candidates.

Mr Obama stands in a noble liberal tradition that supports an active state as a precondition for individual flourishing. His opponent, by contrast, stands for a shrivelled public realm in which the market rules all and the poor are treated with contempt. In order that the former vision may triumph, Mr Obama must be returned as president on 6 November and Mr Romney decisively rejected.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide