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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?

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.