Will Obama Disappoint?


The transition has been seamless. Remember this time last year, when every poll was obsessively picked over, when people were muttering "touchwood" after saying "…if he gets in," when "he" meant Kevin Rudd?

Political junkies everywhere have now switched from pinning their hopes on Rudd to Barack Obama.

While reading about whether Virginia might fall Democratic or Obama’s plans to address 80,000 people in Denver are a welcome distraction from the insipid government emerging in Canberra, the question should probably be broached: if Obama wins (touchwood) will we, this time next year, after the initial post-Bush glee, be similarly disenchanted with him?

You shouldn’t count your chickens before they start hatching policy – nonetheless, there are good reasons why Obama may be a better bet than Rudd. They centre on an under appreciated rule in politics: the government you become is rooted in the type of campaign you run and the election mandate you seek. Peter Garrett, bless his soul, is wrong: you usually can’t just change it all.

Last year, Labor followed the Bill Clinton playbook: meet your opponents three-quarters of the way on anything vaguely contentious. But in 1993 Clinton discovered that a minimalist election strategy necessitates a minimalist government. After running for office as a semi-Republican, he lurched left on issues – like gays in the military – for which he had no mandate.

Labor diagnosed, probably accurately, that for the most part Australians were content with the status quo. They fought the campaign accordingly, Rudd running as John Howard sans WorkChoices. Now he finds himself in Clinton’s predicament.

America in 2008 is different. While rejection of Howard was wide but shallow, rejection of Bush is wide and deep. Eight in 10 Americans believe their country is on the wrong track. George Packer in The New Yorker explored the idea, increasingly accepted, that 2008 is a reverse 1968, the year the Democratic coalition collapsed and the Republicans became the majority party.

Unlike in Australia, an ideological shift is at work in the US, a recognition that America’s problems, in health, the economy, the environment, require proactive government. Whereas Rudd was scrambling to close credibility gaps right up to 24 November, Democrats lead Republicans in polling on every policy indicator except terrorism. This is more momentous still when you consider the policy differences: this election is anything but a "Seinfeld election", as Mungo MacCallum described the Ruddslide.

In America, it’s Republicanism that’s been doing most of the me too-ing, most notably on climate change. And whereas Rudd was paranoid about "wedges", in America these are largely on the conservative side. John McCain is caught between Hispanics and border-control rednecks on immigration, and between right-wingers and moderates on Supreme Court nominees.

Labor, in Opposition, was embarrassed by defecting trade unionists, but in America this year it’s the Republicans who are defecting: Chuck Hagel visited Iraq with Obama, and Colin Powell has met with Obama twice, praised him repeatedly, and just might endorse him.

This means that the ground is likely to be solid beneath the Democrat’s feet, with a prospective mandate (touchwood) for changing a country, rather than simply booting out someone whose use-by-date is up. In Australia, 2007 was about things having to change to stay the same. In America, Obama’s "Change" slogan has been prescient.

Then there is the candidate. The ALP in 2007 won with a small-target strategy, but they also did it with a conservative, tentative leader. Compare this to America. Look at the tone of Obama’s rhetoric:

"I chose to run in this election – at this moment – because of what Dr King called ‘the fierce urgency of now’. Because we are at a defining moment in our history. Our nation is at war. Our planet is in peril. Our health care system is broken, our economy is out of balance… At this defining moment, we cannot wait any longer."

Rudd mentioned "the future" and its "challenges" ad nauseum last year, but the vibe was – to put it kindly – dissimilar. Obama’s primary battle with Hillary Clinton was in part a referendum on tone. Jonathan Raban articulated it best:

"His differences with Clinton aren’t ones of mere…presentation: they’re rooted in the temper of his mind…[for Clinton]the damage is superficial, not structural…[while Obama’s]stump speech is built on the premise that America has become estranged from its essential character…he paints a blacker picture of America than any Democratic presidential candidate in living memory has dared."

Days before last year’s election, Rudd was asked by Rove McManus, "Hillary or Obama?" Immediately he said, "Hillary". Probably he was simply backing the likely winner. But "the temper of his mind" clearly resembles her more than him.

Here’s the obvious difference: Rudd’s Achilles heel – communication skills – is Obama’s great strength. Rudd’s dialect is an appalling mix, half bureaucrat, half well-spun soundbite. As one Labor insider put it, "he doesn’t trust the electorate".

Obama is a contrast. Frequently, he has treated voters with a maturity he evidently believes they deserve, explaining complex policy, often telling them things they find unpalatable: to teachers unions about abolishing tenure, to black audiences about absentee fathers. When the Jeremiah Wright controversy broke, Obama refused to disown him. He was, Jon Stewart said in mock wonderment, "talking to the electorate like they’re adults". Much of Obama’s reputation is hyped, but this part is supported by evidence, and the opposite of the Clinton playbook to which Rudd appears to wholly subscribe.

It’s worth noting that so far most of the Obama rhetoric has been aimed at winning Democrat voters at primaries, with one eye on the bigger contest too. (That is something Rudd never had to do, and his mild messages reflected that. It’s interesting to speculate on whether under a US-style primaries voting system our small-target Prime Minister would have won his party’s nomination from core Labor voters livid at Howard.) There is still plenty of time for Obama’s rhetoric to change, as he seeks a mandate from the entire US voting public, but so far the tone of his campaign has been consistent. Obama may have been accused of backtracking on his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and on what the US should be doing in Iraq, but from the other side The Economist says he hasn’t gone far enough in the usual post-primaries dash to the middle-ground.

The test of whether Obama will disappoint is probably how he is campaigning on the issue Rudd has most disappointed on: is Obama trapping himself on "gas" prices as Rudd did on petrol prices?

Undeniably, he sometimes goes populist. He accuses oil companies of profiteering while not developing refinery capacity. But sometimes – increasingly – Obama’s line on gas is sensible. He begins by recognising people’s pain:

"I’m fortunate that I am able to afford spending $50 on a tank of gas; there are a lot of families out there that can’t … they’ve seen their standard of living drop substantially."

More and more, he then launches into – not a promise to lower gas prices – but how the Democratic Party might help living standards more broadly, by tax reform and government aid. And then, into a plan to make petrol not cheaper, but obsolete: "the internal combustion engine… has served us well, but it’s time for us to move on".

Obama’s oratory was deployed successfully against McCain’s and Clinton’s "gas tax holiday" proposals. Perhaps most significantly for those frustrated by Rudd’s softly-softly, inquiry-laden approach to carbon reduction, Obama recently provided an eyebrow-raising hint of how he might act more decisively:

"When John F Kennedy said we were going to the moon, the engineers … at NASA, they all pulled out their slide rules and said, ‘How are we going to do that?’ They didn’t know how it was going to get done. But once we set a clear goal … nothing can stop us. The same is true on energy."

There is reason to hope that if Obama gets in, his will be a more impressive performance than our new PM’s. Touchwood.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.