Sunday, 22 August 2010

Ending in Failure

I am not one to quote Enoch Powell on regular occasions (and even less likely to agree with the quote) but his much used misquote that all political careers end in failure has had me thinking recently. It has been particularly prompted by the dramatic fall from grace of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.

Of course, as longer term readers of my blog (if such a creature really exists – I don’t exactly reward perseverance with regular writing!) will be aware, I was, and indeed remain, firmly in the Clinton camp. I did not support Obama during the Primaries, arguing that the gloss and presentation which so many people were raving over was a very shallow covering for a substantial lack of delivery. I should emphasise that I don’t actually like being proven right – as an Americanophile I want to see the country strong and successful, fulfilling its essential leadership role in the world. And god knows after the Bush years anybody was going to be an improvement in terms of the US’s standing on the global stage. I’m also aware that Obama was cursed before he began – no mere human being, let alone a politician, could hope to live up to the Messianic furore which surrounded him, the ecstatic religious outpourings which accompanied his every utterance. His election was a historical moment, one we can tell our children about in future years, but it was also a poisoned chalice which could really only lead to disappointment.

This grim foreboding has indeed turned out to be the reality. The slick, populist rhetoric which he employed in the campaign quickly became empty seeming when produced within the weighty environs of the White House. The confident assurance with which he outperformed better qualified candidates for PUSA in Hillary Clinton and John McCain in the public spotlight, has been surprisingly absent since his election, his mishandling of various challenges such as the AIG bonuses and Gulf oil spill more akin to the “rabbit-in-the-headlights” approach of his predecessor than we would have presumed possible. In a position which other Democratic Presidents would have killed for in terms of control over the full spectrum of US political power, he has found legislative priorities hard to pursue despite these majorities. Admittedly some of these have been massive and controversial (health care reform has been impossible for all Presidents) however they have demonstrated a lack of control, poor media presentation and mishandling which stands in contrast to the assured figure we were presented with, the young dynamic visionary standing opposite the aging statesman John McCain. The end result is that he appears weak and unsuccessful, despite pushing through a stimulus package of unparalleled proportions and delivering, however unconvincingly, on his election promise to pull troops out of Iraq.

At the time of the primaries, campaign and election, it was considered heresy to criticise Obama. I know that I received dismissive comments from many of the self-proclaimed Obamabots springing up on this side of the Atlantic for daring to pose the question that he might not be the best candidate to be the Commander-in-Chief of the world’s sole superpower. Tellingly this reaction, while still present from some of the more loyal supporters, has definitely become muted. Obama’s triumph, which was a massive victory for the Democratic Party and him personally, was rooted in his overwhelming control of the independent vote. This grasp has now been loosened, if not removed altogether. Polling figures for the independent voters have seen them swing against the President, as his own support has plummeted.

The problem is that the strengths of politicians can very quickly become weaknesses when the public starts to turn against or tire of them. Just ask Alex Salmond – in 2007 he was confident, funny and charismatic; now in 2010 he is arrogant, conceited and out of touch. They are actually the exact same qualities – he hasn’t changed, but the public’s view of his personality has. It is similar with Obama – he was the smooth tongued man of the people; now he is clumsy in his speaking and disconnected from the concerns of his electorate.

He is lucky in the sense that the Republicans, whilst rallying in the Gubernatorial, Senate and House races, seem to be trying to destroy their chance of regaining the White House in 2012. The Tea Party movement, with Sarah Palin as its figurehead, is a pain for the Obama Administration; but it is even more of a pain for the Republican Party. It will not capture the independent vote with the extremes of the Tea Party or by appealing to the hard right. It is true that US politics lean to the right, but I believe that there is a fundamental desire for the centre which the Tea Party quite frankly doesn’t get, let alone appeal to. However, if the GOP gets their act together and picks a serious, politically attractive candidate then Obama may struggle to achieve re-election.

First terms can be notoriously difficult for Presidents, but Obama needs to start turning his fortunes round if he is going to gain a second term and, more importantly, make the legislative changes which he wants for the US. Democratic candidates are abandoning the President in droves in term of the Midterms in November – these are almost unfailingly disastrous for the incumbent President, particularly given the Democrat’s control (and rather unsuccessful control at that) of all the levers of power. However, considering how short a time it has been since Obama was the best electoral addition in town (heck, all our politicians on this side of the Pond have been quoting him as well – if I hear the bloody word “Change” from one more politician...) it is a dramatic collapse in his personal prestige.

So do all political careers end in failure? Powell’s full quote pointed out that the failure came “unless they are cut off in midstream at some happy juncture”. I have always been wary of introducing term limits to elected office – it surely forces us to run the risk of losing good politicians when we most need them. However, I think that there is actually a lot to recommend them. I think it is impossible as a decision maker to know when it is time to go – there is always more that can be achieved, always legacies to be rescued or delivered. Term limits create the disappointing reality of lame ducks, but they also ensure that there is a turn over and fluidity to the political system. Unlike just now where we have our politicians in place for decades, and where leaders fight on long beyond when their energy and interest has been sapped, we could potentially see renewed energy, new generations of political figures.

(Damn it, the reality is that I’m wanting to use that thrice-cursed “C” word. But I will not give in, I will not boost its usage any further.)

The truth is that President Obama needs a dose of his own rhetoric if he is going to make it to his term limit. He needs to reconnect and deliver, to find a way to live up to his own image. And for all other politicians, current and future, it is important that lessons are learned from his example. Glory is fleeting in the political world, and eventually the public falls out of love with all politicians – such is the nature of the difficult choices which decision makers have to bear. When you set yourself up as the Agent of Change, you have to accept that you will also be subject to that very same process, and that your moment at the pinnacle of the world may be painfully brief.

Obama is falling, and it is going to take a change of style and direction to arrest that decline.

Anyone for VP Clinton in 2012?

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Being the Change

I go through spells with politics. Sometimes I am fired up with the enthusiasm of believing it to be a worthwhile pursuit, my idealistic, optimistic side pushing me to believe that the impossible can be achieved through common endeavour and humanity’s limitless potential. Other times, I struggle to see the point of the whole process, losing touch with its purpose and instead becoming immersed in my own lack of importance, dissatisfaction with the political world and lack of energy.
I have recently been stuck in the latter cycle. I don’t know why exactly, but my motivation to be involved in politics has been at rock bottom. I haven’t been involved in my local party activity and have allowed the Labour Leadership campaign to pass me by entirely; I haven’t blogged in months; and even my following of political developments has been disjointed and negligible. Effectively I haven’t cared, losing any motivation to be involved under a morass of sapped energy and sheer feduppedness.

Being in Belfast for the last couple of days with my Fellows has changed that. In a very stimulating debate about the impact of cuts on public services, every single point was political, every single solution was political. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, politics is the cause and solution of all life’s problems.

This was rammed home even more powerfully by taking a walk around the section dedicated to the The Troubles in the excellent Ulster Museum. Politics, in all its glory and shame, is documented across the walls of the room in unavoidable form. There is the tragedy of those killed, the bravery of those willing to make decisions unpalatable to the communities they represented, the cowardice of those who refused to listen to those selfsame communities. We take so much for granted about Northern Ireland, allowing the horror of those years to quickly slip unremembered amidst the normality of peace, yet with recent developments we must always remember the sacrifices that were made, and the progress which was secured. We in the Labour Party should be proud of the achievements of Tony Blair and his Government, a pinnacle of triumph in his premiership – yet we should also discard the veil of partisanship and recognise the achievements of John Major, for whom compromise with the IRA in particular was a painful political decision given the loss which his own party had experienced to bombs previously. Yet his decision helped to shape the environment for the Good Friday agreement, allowing for change and progress to occur.

Yet most of all, above the contributions of the British, Irish and American Governments, was the political push made in Northern Ireland itself. The movement by David Trimble and John Hume, crossing the divide to deliver for their people, restores faith in humanity. Despite differences which seem irreconcilable, peace can be delivered, eventually resulting in the surreal and previously unthinkable reality of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing power, happy Chuckle Brothers working together (however limited the real impact of that work).

All of this was politics. All of this reflected political decisions, shaped by community and social pressures but delivered through the democratic process of politics. All of it is a welcome slap to the chops for the disillusioned onlooker like me, wallowing in self-pity about the impact politics can have. Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to imply that I can have an impact on the world like the Good Friday agreement. However I can guarantee that I won’t if I spend my whole time moaning and contributing. Politics is the means by which humanity changes, progresses and shapes the world around it. It is the way in which society can change for better and for worse, and it continues inescapably whether I choose to participate or not. It offers us the potential to make the world a better a place, whether that be in the massive ways of Northern Ireland, South Africa or the creation of the Welfare State in post-war Britain; or the more modest (but no less important) ways of changing our local communities, helping our fellow citizens or promoting tolerance, progress and pro social thinking.

So, the moral of my trip is to get my finger out and get involved. If I believe in this process, which I do, then I need to justify this belief, I need to fight for it and deliver it. I am lucky enough to be in a position whereby I actually can participate, through my work and my personal political involvement. There is a major election coming up next year in Scotland, and I want to be a part of that. There is a Coalition Government implementing decisions for this country whilst the Opposition challenges them, and I want to be a part of that. There is a debate taking place about the future of my political party, and I want to be a part of that.

The call to action is that we need to be the change we want to see in society. It’s about time I lived up to that challenge.