President Obama’s tenure so far has confirmed a fundamental operating principle of Democratic Party politics in the United States – campaign from the left and govern from the middle.
Obama’s campaign attracted the American left (not socialist left as we or Europeans understand the term but liberal left as Americans understand it) in unprecedented numbers. Not many on the left paused to read and analyze what he had written in his autobiography or to consider where he came from, to where he had arrived and how he had travelled.
In political terms his books reveal him to be a centrist in political terms – as opposed to the Democratic Left as he is to the Republican Right. This was not unusual. As an African American politician, whose generation was a beneficiary of the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, and the product of a relatively comfortable middle class upbringing, he could not have risen in American politics if he had shown any signs of radicalism, or had not negotiated his way or had appeared to go outside the comfort zone of middle America. Thus, when the exposed views of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, threatened that equilibrium, he quickly rejected them.
His exasperating efforts to negotiate health care reforms with Republicans in the face of their implacable hostility, making concession after rejected concession, which could not be retrieved, was not merely a political tactic, but the ingrained strategy of a politician who combine within his persona the complexities of an African American middle class origin, brought up by a white mother and white grandparents and having to learn the art of compromise to survive the harsh world of American politics.
The BP oil spill, the worst in American history, has once again exposed President Obama’s disinclination for resorting to the renowned mastery of his campaign mode to isolate powerful forces when the situation cries out for it. It was only after he was in danger of losing the health care debate that he publicly took on the health care industry and the Republicans. It was only after great public concern that he has only now belatedly taken on BP. He is yet to publicly expose Republican defence of BP. This political strategy has lost President Obama much political capital, so much so that some of his strongest liberal political supporters have become critics and this is being reflected in the most recent polls. At the same time the Republican Party, like opposition parties everywhere, is keeping up an unrelenting pressure on the Administration and on its legislative agenda, complicated by pressure from the extreme right by the Tea Party.
Governing from the middle and adopting material portions of the Republican agenda was astoundingly successful during the 1990s and saved the Clinton administration after devastating losses in the mid-term elections during its first term. But Obama might not succeed at the same tactic because the challenges faced by him far different from and more serious than those faced by Clinton. America is engaged in two wars, faces one of the worst economic crises in modern times and America’s prestige overseas was at an all time low. The economic recovery is slow and probably requires another stimulus package but for which no political ground work has been laid and which will probably not receive sufficient support in Congress. The wars continue to bleed America and sap the President’s bona fides both inside and outside America. And now the BP oil spill.
The collapse of the neo-liberal model of economic development with its attendant orthodoxies, which led to the economic meltdown towards the end of the Bush Administration, provided a real opportunity for the Obama Administration to transform economic thinking in America and the world. Instead, we have seen, not an effort by Obama to mobilize his political capital to chart a bold new course, but Republican lite policies in alleged deference to political realities. This is the approach that resulted in a less than optimum economic recovery programme, health care laws and new banking regulations. A decisive change in direction in US economic policy would have had a significant, positive, impact in the developing world.
Most of us on the outside supported the Obama campaign. We did not and do not expect such changes in America’s foreign policy as would fundamentally alter its economic relations with the developing world. We did, however, expect a lighter touch. Such a touch did not result in a transformative change in relations with the Arab world, or in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The war in Afghanistan rages. The killing in Iraq continues.
For our region the test is Cuba. The Administration’s lighter touch with respect to its Cuba policy has not and is not likely to lead to any significant transformation of either economic or political relations. More attention is being paid to Caricom but of a self-interested nature being limited to security so as to reduce the flow of drugs to the United States. The all important issue of trade does not appear to be on the agenda at this time.
Having said all of this it must be recognized that President Obama has faced a situation that no other President in recent memory has had to deal with. He also brings to the job unique qualities – high intelligence, a capacity for hard work and a powerful coalition.
As Rev. Jesse Jackson once said of Bill Clinton, to paraphrase – we do not support all that he does but he’s all we’ve got. If President Obama allows the coalition that sent him to the White House on a wave of euphoria to unravel by his failure to keep it engaged, he will be the loser. (www.conversationtree.com)