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Obama’s ground game, avoiding the fiscal cliff and thoughts of President Gore

There is relief – and pride – about the US election result in Labour ranks.

I arrived in Boston on the night of the third and last presidential debate – which focused solely on foreign policy. Despite the jet lag I was up early the following morning for breakfast with one of the handful of men who knows what it is like to stand on that stage – the former vice-president Walter Mondale.

Mondale, despite his advancing years, was insightful, engaging and candid. He pointed out that – at the age of just 51 – Barack Obama has now participated in his last ever presidential debate. And he said the overriding emotion he felt after the president’s final debate was “relief”. It is now often forgotten that in the first debate between Mondale and Ronald Reagan in 1984, Mondale was judged the clear winner. This time Mitt Romney came out on top in the first debate, with 70 per cent of the 70 million viewers judging him the winner. But 32 years on, it had little effect: Obama, like Reagan, went on to win the race, transformed from struggling incumbent to re-elected president with an improving economy.

The message
Sure, the economy has been tough, but despite that the Democrats were widely judged to have had a better convention than the Republicans and left Charlotte, North Carolina, with a clear poll bounce. Yet this contest went right down to the wire. How did that happen? Apart from a weak first presidential debate, most Democrats are blaming the lack of a clear campaign message. This weakness seems strange, not least because Obama demonstrated four years ago what a powerful communicator he could be, something we glimpsed again in his victory speech on the morning of Wednesday 7 November.

A former Bill Clinton staffer offered me this explanation: “Even as early as New Hampshire [1992] with Gennifer Flowers and the ‘bimbo’ eruptions, we knew we had a brilliant, if flawed, politician. So we built a message architecture around our candidate to get him across the line. That was the real strength of ‘Opportunity, Community, Responsibility’, ‘Putting the People First’ and the rest of our campaign themes. [David] Axelrod and the Obama team have never faced that reckoning. Four years ago he was the perfect candidate, and ‘Hope and Change’ was enough. Four years on, we nearly learned it wasn’t.”

The machine
One task of any campaign is persuasion. The other is mobilisation. And we have just witnessed another masterclass in mobilisation.
Four years ago, David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign supremo, set the gold standard for field operations. This year the Democrats, through perspiration more than inspiration, retained their advantage.

But only last Saturday (3 November) did the sheer scale of Obama’s field operations emerge. A memo released by the campaign contained numbers that, if accurate, help explain his strong performance in the ten states that mattered most. The memo claimed party workers had registered 1,792,261 voters in the battleground states – nearly double the number of voters the Obama campaign registered in 2008.

The memo also suggests that, in contrast to Romney’s 50 million voter contacts, the Obama team made 125,646,479 personal phone calls or visits. As enthusiasts for American football will tell you, it’s important to have a good ground game and the Obama campaign showed that, on the ground, they’re still about as good as it gets.

The president’s in-box: foreign
It tells you something that during the presidential debate on foreign policy, Europe was not mentioned. Iran, China, Afghanistan, Syria . . . but no Europe. That reflects how, over the past four years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has led what’s become known as America’s “strategic pivot” towards Asia. In the coming weeks we will have a new US secretary of state and new Chinese leaders. They will face each other over policies from trade and currency to climate and security.

Iran will require immediate attention. The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, will have been deeply disappointed by Obama’s victory. But what matters is what happens next. On 24 October the New York Times ran a report (later denied) that the US is preparing to hold bilateral talks with Iran over the nuclear issue. Given the lack of progress and all the dangers involved in Israel launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran, let’s hope this report proves accurate. If a diplomatic breakthrough is not achieved we will be in unchartered waters. And soon.

The president’s in-box: domestic
“It’s the economy, stupid!” That was the maxim James Carville pinned to the wall of the Arkansas war room. Two decades on, perhaps the newly re-elected president should pin it up in the Oval Office. Although the US economy is growing at about 2 per cent, the immediate worry is a return to recession if a deal is not done to avoid the “fiscal cliff” – the automatic introduction of roughly $600bn of tax increases and spending cuts due early in 2013.

I visited my friend Gene Sperling, director of Obama’s National Economic Council, in the West Wing during the “debt ceiling” negotiations in 2011, when the poisonous partisan politics of Capitol Hill was all too obvious.

It seems likely that Obama and the Senate leader, Harry Reid, will be less tolerant of Republican obstruction this time. The view of triumphant if weary Democrats is that the best hope is a two-stage deal – a bridging agreement before the end of the year to calm the markets, and then a grand bargain, to be struck in 2013.

Labour and the Democrats
Anyone who thinks Obama’s re-election has no real influence on British politics should ask themselves this: how different would Tony Blair’s premiership have been if Al Gore and not George W Bush had won the White House as well as the vote in 2000? There is relief – and pride – about the result in Labour ranks, especially about the countless Labour activists who went as volunteers to learn and contribute. Mitcham and Morden CLP alone took 31 volunteers to help in Ohio.

Back in 2002, Bill Clinton told the Labour conference, “It is fun to be in a place where our crowd is still in office.” “Our crowd” gets back together next week when Clinton visits London. I’m hoping he might even hint at the name of the 2016 Democratic nominee.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.