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?