Original Articles

Obama’s loss – lessons for progressives

It is arguable, but two factors in Obama's character proved to his downfall. His sense of duty and his aversion to political soundbites and showman ship

When the Barak Hussain Obama took oath to become 44th President of United States of America, it was truly a historic day. Here was a self-made man, who, despite hardships and challenges, was taking post of arguably world’s most powerful man. His personal story was great, his promise simple, he shall put America back to path of hope, optimism and progressiveness, that America has for long enshrined. List of things Obama did in his first two years is long, but notably he ended a war in Iraq, enacted legislation on health care for poor, an environmental legislation and avoided America from falling into a great depression. He also provided direction to fight in Afghanistan, which we shall see, has now a path and is scheduled to end active combat by his first term.^ Yet he failed to ensure his party from being elected in the lower house (House of Representative) of American Congress.

It is arguable, but two factors in Obama’s character proved to his downfall. His sense of duty and his aversion to political soundbites and showman ship. It is no secret, Democrats lost the election because of the ‘economy stupid’*. People desperate, with no jobs and bleak future outlook, voted in Tea Party candidates, running on Republican platform. Tea Party is a right-leaning movement, that emerged as a reaction to fiscal stimulus given to Banks and other private organisation, after the collapse of US and International financial markets. A Stimulus started by Bush administration.
America considers itself to be a pure capitalist country, where Adam Smith’s Invisible hand# will make things better for all. In that sense, giving protection to Banks is akin to muddling the system and influencing the private commerce. This creates moral hazard, because if banks know that by playing gamble with money they will still be protected by government even when they fail, why not do this again. But in times of crisis, Keynesian economics states that these interventions are necessary.^ Thus, there are many arguments and counter arguments. These arguments actually aren’t that important for present purposes. Because though Tea Party movement was started by some neo-liberal conservative activists on the principle of economics. Tea Party movement gained momentum on three practical issues. One, why do rich cats at wall street get a bail out, while we lose our house/jobs? Two, threat of socialist/communist/liberal/Muslim/Gay agenda the democratic party is bent on imposing on us that would ruin the Christian roots of America and three Obama is not even a real American, son of a Kenyan man, allegedly born in Hawaii, he is in fact a closeted Muslim.
To be in Tea Party, you needn’t believe in all three assertions, one of them would do.

Obama shrugged off these people as a fringe movement, and he may as well have when he looked at his support in 2008. However Obama gravely misunderstood his base. Obama is an intellectual, a college professor and lawyer by profession. In both professions your audience are aware of ground issues and basics. All you need to explain build on it, with additional facts etc. Politics is different, because so many people of different backgrounds are your audience, basic explanation is necessary, especially when there are no practical results being had, sacrifice and patience is required. People need to understand that: A. something is being done and that B. what and when it will have a positive effect on them. Failure to show this leads to disillusionment and distance. Obama paid the price of this aloofness on night of 2nd November, when his supporters remained away from elections or switched sides. As mentioned above, what further exacerbated the issue was Obama’s innate character. When he took office, he dutifully accepted all the problems as his. A bold action, but not without consequences. Similarly he failed to explain to people his actions or create a sense of feeling good. There were no soundbites or political theatre on display.
Look at his every action, the process was always barely laid out for people observe, without fanfare or smokescreens. While he didn’t explain in detail what he was doing, he did let it be known that he was failing to whatever he was doing. He claimed frustration, say when he tried to pass Health care bill, when Wall Street failed to put money back into economy, when environmental legislation was stalled, when Afghanistan war or curbing Al Qaida activities didn’t bear results, when Israel and Palestine failed to negotiate forward, when he couldn’t close Guantanamo, when he couldn’t end ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ – so on and so forth.
It felt as if he is not in control, as, say, compared to Dubya. But any fair analysis of the two Presidents would show that while Dubya was possibly delusional, highly optimistic or misrepresenting about being in control. Obama more often than not is in control.
But you wouldn’t think that, if you watched the news on the American news cycle. Even when its 24 hours, 7 days a week, literally on all the time, the news channels are very good at dissecting something but fail to see the full picture. Obama seemed frustrated say on health care but he got it through. He was disappointed at BP, but made them cleanup and pay highest compensation ever and quickly, as compared to court arbitration. He does things, its just that he does them out in public.
Bush had no idea what he was doing, and during his time he was presented with options A, B and C with a arrow pointing to ‘A’. He invariably choose A and that was that. In his own words he was merely ‘holding on to the ride’. Obama on the other hand, directs. You wouldn’t know this, cause former spoke so surely and the latter speaks with qualifications, as any lawyer must.

There are few parallels for our government as well. Though it doesn’t function in same way, in public, it too seems too aloof. You always hear complaints that somehow Islamabad’s misty air makes the ministers forget their constituents. It so far has been our fortune that right in Pakistan is ineffective and lacks any form of coherence. However, as dictators have shown in past, right doesn’t need elections to come into power, they can use other methods.

Obama, and I’m sure already possibly knows, needs to possibly give out more positive vibes and let the people know he is in-charge. In this, he would do well to learn from Republicans, not only the Bush jnr and Ronald Reagan, but also his ideal, Lincoln. Fortunately or unfortunately, in a democracy Presidency is not only about substance, it also is a popularity contest.

^ Cf. Bob Woodward’s book, Obama’s War.
*Economy Stupid was 42nd Democrat President of USA, Bill Clinton’s election slogan.
#Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations states “..It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest …
he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention …. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it”

^Based on Bagehot’s Lender of Last resort