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Obama and the end of great expectations

Four years ago the American presidential race excited people as no election in recent memory had.  Not only would the election of Barack Obama mark the symbolic achievement of the first black president. Obama the candidate ran on an uplifting campaign promising “hope” and “change”. He would be a “transformative” president.

His message energized many. Voter turnout in November 2008 was a record 133 million, the highest percentage of the electorate voting since 1968. With a big increase in the numbers of young people turning out, the vote seemed to herald a generational shift. It was in many respects a vote for the future: a rejection of the petty politics of the past, and a hope that politics could mean more.

The contrast with this year’s election is stark. Obama no longer promises any big, inspirational changes.  His campaign relies mainly on crude, negative campaign advertisements against his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. There is a clear lack of enthusiasm among his supporters, and the public at large.

And yet, Obama is up in the polls, and right now looks likely to win. Why? Well, certainly Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate are a big factor. But another, less-recognized reason is how Obama and the Democrats have been able to lower expectations of what can be achieved. This is a stunning reversal from theme of “making history” coming out of the 2008 election.

Entering the White House, Obama wasn’t so modest. He confidently predicted that he would turn around the economy, or else his presidency would be “a one-term proposition”. His administration talked up the “summer of recovery” in 2010. Having increased the government deficit with his stimulus package, Obama promised to cut it in half by the end of his first term. He heralded his health care reform package, which passed in 2010, as an “historic” achievement.

Of course, we now know the reality. Unemployment is higher than when Obama came to office, and the fiscal deficit for 2012 will be double the 2008 deficit. The Obamacare reform expanded the numbers covered but overall represented modest tinkering, and has proved unpopular.

The shift in Obama’s rhetoric about the potential for change was most noticeable following the party’s big losses in the 2010 mid-term elections, which resulted in losing their majority in the House of Representatives. From that time, Obama’s message became “it’s all the Republicans’ fault”.  He changed his tune on the economy, stressing incremental improvements rather than a full recovery. Obama no longer appeared in charge; he was just, like everyone else, waiting for the economy to turn up. The tone was fatalistic: there’s nothing you can do.

By the time of the Democratic Party national convention in early September, this downgraded outlook infused the event. Most Democrats taking to the podium preferred not to talk about policy at all, and instead emphasized how their caring, liberal “values” meant they were superior to Republicans.  But when speakers did turn to the economy, it was all about expectations management.

This was especially the case with Bill Clinton’s speech. Clinton was worthy of the praise showered on him: his speech was substantive, witty and made effective digs at the Republicans.  But Clinton’s core purpose was to lower voters’ expectations of what Obama could have achieved during his first term: “No president, not me, not any of my predecessors, no one could have fully repaired all the damage that he found in just four years.”

In his acceptance speech, Obama continued to ask people to curb their expectations. He claimed to have saved the economy from disaster, and pleaded for more time to pursue his agenda. ““I won’t pretend the path I’m offering is quick or easy; I never have… And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades.” Obama offered little in the way of policy. The "historic" Obamacare reforms barely merited a mention. As most observers noted, his speech was dull and uninspiring; he seemed half-hearted in delivering it. Obama 2012 did not have the audacity of Obama 2008 to dress up minimalist politics as transformative change.

In purely electoral terms, Clinton and Obama’s message of low expectations message does appear to be working in their favor.  The economy isn’t growing much, but it is more stable. Some that were scared by the financial crisis in late 2008 may be just relieved to be no longer in freefall.  Unemployment may be still high, and growth sluggish, but there is no sense of crisis in the US right now.  Confidence in the economy improved in September according to Gallup, albeit mainly due to Democrats feeling more upbeat. But clearly there’s no so-called “burning platform”, and the American economic situation is not perceived as being so bad that the electorate will automatically shift to the challenger.

The discussion of the economy – among Republicans as well as Democrats – is generally superficial, and that sets a low bar that seems to work to Obama’s advantage.  The real problems of the US economy are more fundamental than discussed: undynamic industry, over-reliance on finance, the longer-term deficit due to Social Security and Medicare. The issue is less about whether Gross Domestic Product should be growing one percentage point higher, and more about the quality of the economic recovery. Most of the Obama administration’s approach has been to try prop up the old finance-led economy, and even that hasn’t worked.  And so we have the worst of both worlds: neither a short-term burst nor a longer-term restructuring for the better.

In 2008 Obama, despite his lofty rhetoric, did not put forward ambitious policy to back up his talk. He ran more on his biography than issues. And yet his campaign did capture the imagination of many Americans, and this opened up the possibility of new period of political engagement. But the reality of Obama in office has led instead to greater cynicism about the potential for change in politics. Unfortunately many now believe that stagnation is as about as good as it gets, and will vote for Obama more in resignation than excitement.

In 2012 the US faces serious challenges, and Obama’s small-bore measures do not even attempt to address them. The irony is, this is a year in which we really do need big, inspiring ideas given the nature of the problems. For those who believe we need to do better – and can do better – this world of low horizons is a major obstacle we’ll need to confront, no matter who wins in November.

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