There are many ways to slice the electoral defeat the Democrats have just endured in the midterm elections — principally because their defeat has been one of such catastrophic proportions.
As widely predicted, the young people and African Americans who were inspired by the Presidential election in 2008 failed to turn out to vote in sufficient numbers to prevent the midterm revenge of the gerontocracy. Among the more reliable voting demographics — older Americans and the white working class — the Democrats reversed the inroads they made in 2006 and 2008.
To some extent the greater power of oppositional politics is to blame — but the other side of the this coin is Obama’s lack of theatrical appeal as President to those voters who are the shifting foundation of oppositional politics. In particular, Democrats are unpopular among majorities of white men and women, suburbanites and older Americans — and it is these voters who decided this election.
In this sense, Barack Obama is still battling Hillary Clinton. Not the actual Hillary Clinton, of course, who has served the President as a sterling Secretary of State. Instead, it is the demographic groups to whom Hillary Clinton appealed so successfully and deliberately in 2008 that Obama has struggled to keep on side.
John McCain tried to appeal to disaffected white working class men and women when he selected Sarah Palin as running mate. Working against the far greater momentum of history, not to mention the catastrophic Bush years, his bid failed. Yet the weak point that McCain identified in the Democrat armour under Obama outlived the euphoria of the Presidential election.
In 2010, the Democrats have suffered defeat in the House of Representatives at the hands of the very voters to whom Hillary Clinton, and subsequently the Tea Party and Sarah Palin, appeal.
When Hillary Clinton launched her campaign for the presidential nomination in 2007, her cry was "Are you ready to take back America?" As an oppositional figure to the Bush administration, Senator Clinton galvanised not just women, but the white middle and working classes and the older Americans who predominate in swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
These are the revanchist classes whose nostalgia is for a lost America, and whose often cynical and fearful view of the future is coloured by this sense of loss. Clinton’s political gift was her ability to appeal in progressive terms to these voters who, after all, so often determine the outcome of elections in the US.
In 2008, Obama’s political genius was to be able to outflank Clinton by rallying together a coalition of new voters and rising demographics, and particularly to mobilise the young and African-Americans. Nonetheless, Obama still lost Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida to Clinton in the primaries. In 2008 these states went to Democrats, but in 2010 they have swung back with a vengeance to Republicans, whose familiar cry now is to "Reclaim America".
Obama’s message of hope and change pointed to an imagined future. He was in this sense a transformative rather than oppositional figure. This was the essence of his transcendentalism that spoke not just to the young but to independent voters perennially tired of oppositional and partisan politics. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, mobilised partisans, and appealed to an idealised past. "America is not just ready for change," she declared, but for "restoration." In Clinton’s terms, the nation was set "to become what we know it is" with a "renewed promise". In opposition to McCain and the Bush legacy, Democrats could unite these two transformative and restorative desires.
From a position of power however, Obama has been alone and he has struggled to both mobilise his transformative base and to appeal to the revanchism of those who feel themselves so oppressed.
In 2010, Obama’s Democrats have failed to unite the forces of change with the forces of opposition. The opposition of the Tea Party movement has been one opposed to change, and mobilised around slogans that appeal directly to ethnic whites and older and working class men and women whose feelings of nostalgia make them easy targets. Sarah Palin’s angry tweet to Obama on Election Night said it all: "We’ll send our representatives to DC to stop your fundamental transformation of America. Enough is enough."
America is split down the middle between white/non-white, small town/city, old/young — and in this election the old white small town America is still in the majority and lashing out at a president it is all too willing to blame for unwelcome "change".
One of the necessary ingredients of revanchism is an enemy to whom the nation has lost its honour. Rather than be that enemy, Obama’s challenge is to find a more credible one. Without invading Yemen, he must find that enemy within the newly hostile Congress — or else risk going down as a one term president. President Obama has too often tried to be everyone’s friend, even as his enemies were all too keen to set him up as a destroyer. They know what Obama must realise — that a hero requires enemies as well as friends. Obama has talked about the future, but if he wishes to captivate the revanchist classes, he must also appeal in yet stronger terms to them. In this regard, he could also do worse than make Hillary Clinton his running mate in 2012.
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