Barack Obama’s election win 15 years ago this month remains one of those rare moments in history when people remember exactly where they were. The victory of America’s first African American president was a global moment of hope that democracy and politics could lead to real change. Fifteen years later, however, hope is in short supply in America and Britain. But the Obama campaign still has important lessons for the Labour Party ahead of a UK general election next year – which could arrive within weeks of a likely third consecutive Trump-dominated US election.
The genius of the 2008 Obama campaign was that it struck the right balance of hope and realism for an electorate that was desperate for change but disillusioned with politics. The backdrop was the global financial crisis and America’s involvement in two wars. Obama was clear when he said “the road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year, or even one term.” Yet, the strapline of “Change we can believe in” presented a clean break after eight years of the Bush presidency. Policy offers on healthcare reform, economic rescue and withdrawal from Iraq gave voters a clear path forward.
In 2024, British people will also be weighing a choice between an unpopular and long-serving government that has presided over economic decline, and the prospect of change. Many voters are understandably apathetic and cynical, having gone through the Brexit referendum, Covid, a cost-of-living crisis and five prime ministers in just over six years. The challenge for Labour is to marry a long-term vision of national renewal with the realism necessitated by an economy in the doldrums; to avoid making false expectations, while still giving voters hope. The lesson from Obama is to match the language of moderation and credibility on the economy with bold policy offers on house-building, cutting NHS waiting lists and green jobs.
In Chicago last weekend, where the Obama campaign masterminds came together for their first major reunion, there was plenty of sober reflection on the differences between today and 2008. Obama himself was clear that the key to restoring faith in democracy and trust in government is ensuring the system delivers for people left behind by globalisation and technological change. His remedy is a more inclusive green capitalism, along with: strengthened trade union rights, an expanded social safety net and government investment in green technology.
Labour is in a good position on all three. It’s already taking inspiration from the Biden administration’s expansive Inflation Reduction Act, which is designed to transform the US economy with investment in areas like electric vehicles and batteries, targeted at the most deprived regions. In the UK, meanwhile, Labour’s green prosperity plan is the central tenet of its project to turn Britain’s economy around, with investment in clean energy sectors such as floating offshore wind farms, carbon capture and storage, and green hydrogen. Biden’s re-election chances hinge on voters feeling the impact quickly and tangibly, backed by a sophisticated communications plan to ensure they understand the impact on their local areas. Conveying the everyday benefits will need to be central to the Labour election campaign too.
It was clear from the anniversary reunion that no energy or motivation has been lost since the original 2008 Obama campaign team – its members want to continue inspiring and supporting election victories at home and abroad. Their combination of a ruthlessly data-driven, centralised operation with an empowered grassroots movement of thousands of volunteers is something Labour candidates across the country are seeking to replicate right now. If we can generate that enthusiasm, and convey the message of achievable change and hope that defined the Obama campaign, then a similar victory is possible.