Tue | Jul 14, 2020

Obama in the political barracks

Published:Sunday | November 7, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Ian Boyne, Gleaner Writer

"It takes an effort these days to recall the thrill that surged through the world when Barack Obama was elected America's president … he seemed preternaturally thoughtful, dignified and decent; a man who could heal America's wounds at home … . None of it seemed wholly unreasonable at the time. Yes, many thought, he can." - The Economist

Tuesday's mid-term elections in America showed many now think he can't. Continues The Economist in its October 30 'Angry America' cover : "Two years (after his election) the magnitude of the letdown is palpable everywhere; and at home the president is caught in a vice. To many on the left he is a cowardly compromiser whose half-baked plans to get America back to work have done little to help those who voted for him, and whose health-care and financial reforms were gutted at the behest of special interests.

"To many on the right, he seems a doctrinaire spoondrift who has squandered trillions of dollars on wasteful bureaucracy. To centrists who backed him he has been a disappointment, his skills as president falling far short of his genius as a campaigner."

Well-known Bush critic and much-quoted liberal New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, in her op-ed piece on Wednesday, mourns : "Even though it was predicted, it was still a shock to see voters humiliate a brilliant and spellbinding young president who had such Kennedy-like beginning, while electing a lot of conservative nuts and promoting central-casting congressmen as the face of the future".

The Washington Post editorialised on Wednesday: "When he ran for president, Obama was a political phenomenon. There is little likelihood that he can rekindle the magic

of 2008 and his extraordinary campaign. Two years as president during some of the most difficult times the country has experienced in many years has taken their toll on the relationship between the president and the public."

The president feels the American people just don't get it. In a speech which has deepened the perception that he is an elitist president who doesn't listen to the people, he told a group of high-spending Democratic supporters on Saturday night that "facts and arguments from science" were not as powerful in influencing people when they are "scared". The American people were "not thinking clearly", he says, because they were scared.

That's precisely the problem with Obama, Tea-partiers and other conservatives say: Obama wants to impose his own agenda and vision on the American people; he feels he knows what's good for them.

Says the Economist: "Mr Obama seems curiously unable to perceive, let alone respond to the grievances of middle America, and has a dangerous habit of dismissing Tea-partiers and others who disagree with him as deluded, evil or just bitter. The silver tongue that charmed America during the campaign has been replaced by a tin.

Necessary hearing aid?

Tuesday's elections might provide the hearing aid needed, many believe.

The Republicans have chalked up a massive victory, surpassing even their gains in the Republican Revolution of 1994 by claiming the largest sweep of House seats since 1948. Republicans also gained in the Senate. The exit polls showed that it was not the wedge ideological issues which Tea-partiers and other conservatives stressed which was the number one reason for the Republican success: It was the poor state of the economy. Voters want more jobs, repeal of the health-care bill, more tax cuts.

The financial crisis, despite Obama's commendable efforts of containment, has left deep scars in the American economy. In 2009, those living below the poverty level jumped by four million to reach 44 million, 14.3 per cent of the population - and the highest level since 1994. Median income is today 4.2 per cent lower than in 2007 and five per cent lower than in 1999. Globally, 30 million people have been thrown on the unemployment heap since the financial crisis, pushing the global unemployment figure to 210 million. Interestingly, three-quarters of the increase in the numbers of unemployed persons has been in the advanced capitalist countries.

In the United States some 7.5 million have been flung into unemployment since 2007.

The irony is that, though Barack Obama has been punished for it, the economic mess has been created by free-spending Republican administrations - as has been freely admitted by conservatives themselves. But in politics the party in power has to own the crises inherited. After all, they are elected to do something about them. And voters are impatient with excuses or explanations - however rational or "scientific", as Mr Obama has learnt.

A big ideological debate has again erupted in America over the role of government - big government versus small government or Big Brother versus the independent, self-reliant Horatio Alger-type hero. As conservative Rand Paul put it grandly in his victory speech: "I have a message … that is loud and clear, that does not mince words; We've come to take our Government back. The American people are unhappy with what's going on in Washington." Paul promised "fiscal sanity," limited constitutional government and balanced budgets.

Americans' views on the role of Government have been slowly evolving, and are sometimes conflicted. In eight NBC/Wall Street Journal polls conducted between 2002 and April 2009 , respondents were asked whether they believed "Government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people" or whether "Government is doing too many things better left to business and individuals." Each time Americans said government should do more.

Writing in the October issue of the scholarly journal, Washington Quarterly, Charles Cook in a piece titled "Storm Clouds Gathering for the Democrats," notes however, that more recently NBC/WSJ polls have been showing more respondents saying government was doing too many things. The shift has not been wide but the shift has been taking place.

Influencing perceptions

This is partly due to how the right-wing has managed to frame the issues, and how right-wing media such as Fox and talk radio have been influencing ordinary people's perceptions. Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others have had an impact in slanting the issues in a particular way, making emotive appeals which have proven more powerful than logic. (Logic convinces but emotions motivate.)

And this raises another issue in the Democratic defeat: The ability of the Democrats to tell their story effectively and to resist the typecasting of their vision as un-American and alien (socialist). The fact that a large percentage of Americans believe that Obama is a Muslim is a graphic illustration of the power of propaganda and misinformation.

As Maureen Down says in that New York Times op-ed, right-wingers "were able to persuade a lot of Americans that the couple in the Write House was not American enough, too communist, too radical, too Great Society. All that Ivy League schooling had made them think they knew better than the average American".

Break habits

The New York Times itself, in an editorial on Wednesday, opines that, "Mr Obama and his party have to do a far better job of explaining their vision and their policies. Mr Obama needs to break his habits of neglecting his base voters, and of sitting on the sidelines and allowing others to shape the debate. He has made it easy for his opponents to spin and distort what Americans should see as genuine progress in very tough times: A historic health-care reform, and a stimulus that headed off an even deeper recession-financial reform to avid another meltdown".

Liberals should avoid the common trap of simply blaming electoral defeats on bad public relations. It's a common fallback position.

But there is something to be said for effective communications strategy. People don't always make the connections they should, and they frequently don't realise that they have contradictory desires. They want government to do more for their families and communities, but yet they want smaller governments and deficits.

Eric Alterman, writing in the November 22 issue of the left-leaning Nation magazine, refers to a recent Bloomberg poll which shows that a large percentage of Americans favour a repeal of Obama's health-care bill, but that three-quarters of those same people support a ban on insurance companies denying coverage on pre-existing conditions; 67 per cent support allowing children up to the age of 26 to stay on their parents' policies and 73 per cent want to keep prescription drug benefits for those on Medicare. "Um, these are primary provisions of the law you people say you oppose,"Alterman chastises.

Alterman makes the case that many Americans simply don't know some major things Obama has achieved. Says Alterman: "Obama's health-care reform, the stimulus, the saving of the auto industry etc. makes these two years among the most consequential of the past half-century … and a New York Times/CBS News poll found that fewer than 10 per cent of Americans knew they'd got a tax cut, while three times the number were under the misimpression that their tax bite had got bigger".

Exit polls show that most voters favour tax cuts, repeal of health-care and jobs. As much as 62 per cent of those who voted said the economy was their reason for wresting Democratic control of the House and for the Republican gains in the Senate. The disillusionment of many liberals who voted for Obama in 2008 kept many at home. Minorities and the young stayed away.

A Huffington Post commentary said on Wednesday: "President Obama and the Democrats lost many of the new constituencies they won in 2008. They lost independents by 15 per cent in the CNN exit poll. Obama had won them by eight points. They lost seniors by 16 points, doubling the loss by eight points when seniors turned out in droves. And they lost voters in households over $100,000 by 16 points, compared to an even split in 2008. That is evidence of the damage of a reinvigorated class warfare strategy".

The Economist, no leftist publication, says: "Mr Obama has got some big things right. He was correct to try to deal with a dreadful system that leaves millions of Americans without access to health." But he has to find a way to manage people's expectations, to increase his connection with the American people and to effectively engage - rather than merely dismiss ... conservative sentiments. He has not a day to waste in the two years ahead of him.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Feedback may be sent to ianboyne1@yahoo.com or columns@gleanerjm.com.