The ‘American Promise’: more politics of personality

Obama and McCain have remodelled themselves, and yet both remain hindered by low horizons and identity politics.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

It seems like the American presidential election has gone on for an eternity. For many onlookers, it began in earnest back in January, when Barack Obama won his first primary, in Iowa. Obama’s bruising battle with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination continued until she conceded defeat in June. Then we had a summer of watching the contest take shape between Obama and the Republican nominee John McCain.

But, in another sense, the election has only really just got started. The fight between Obama and McCain over the past two months has consisted of a series of brief spars over minor points, like McCain’s adverts insinuating that Obama is a lightweight celebrity, and counter-accusations of flip-flopping. It’s only in the past week, when the Democrats’ held their national convention, that the election kicked off for real. From here on it is likely to be a fairly intense nine weeks until the vote on 4 November.

And over the past few days we’ve seen that the electoral campaigning has taken on a new dynamic that most did not predict. First, Obama in his acceptance speech at the Denver convention set out a different message than the one he promoted in the primaries. Then McCain announced the day after the end of the Democrats’ convention a surprising pick for his vice-presidential running mate – Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska – which also signalled a change in approach for the Republicans.

And today we’ll start to hear more about the Republicans’ strategy for the autumn contest, as they gather to launch their convention in Minneapolis. The convention did not begin in a promising way, with Hurricane Gustav ominously threatening to disrupt it and remind people of the Bush White House’s feeble response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (leading some to claim that, at least this year, God is a Democrat).

Obama’s ‘American Promise’

As the Democrats assembled in Denver last week, there were forecasts of divisions and doom: Hillary Clinton would lead her embittered supporters to a roll-call fight on the floor of the convention; Bill Clinton would make snide remarks about Obama; Michelle Obama would demonstrate that she is not a suburban middle-American housewife once again; Barack would embarrass himself with a speech in an outdoor stadium, especially since it was pompously decorated with Greek columns.

But the media’s conventional wisdoms were off-the-mark (one consistency in this year of electoral flux), and none of the predicted catastrophes emerged: the Democrats ran a tight conference and it was topped off by a widely praised Obama speech in a packed stadium of 80,000 people (and watched on television by millions more – more than watched the Olympics’ opening night ceremony or the Oscars).

Obama’s speech was different than those he gave in the primary season and his summer campaigning. Gone were the airy references to ‘hope’ – in fact, he mentioned ‘hope’ only once – replaced by specific policies. He ditched his prior dispassionate and above-it-all tone, and instead spoke with a new sombreness and even at times anger. He talked tough, challenging McCain head-on and personally, such as when he said: ‘John McCain likes to say that he’ll follow bin Laden to the gates of hell – but he won’t even go to the cave where he lives.’

But in adopting this new, combative stance, Obama dropped his earlier claims to be the agent of ambitious or ‘transformative’ change, a message that had inspired many of his followers (1). Yes, his Denver speech made many references to change, but now change meant…changing the occupant in the White House. It turns out that Obama’s references to ‘turning the page’ on history, and his claim that we are at a ‘defining moment’ in history, with echoes of the civil rights movement, now amounted to throwing out the rascal Bush.

To make his case for this ‘change’, Obama first rolled out a litany of charges against the Bush administration, although he didn’t dwell too long on them, presumably because the deep unpopularity of the regime made that unnecessary. He boiled down his message to an anti-Bush bumper-sticker slogan: ‘We are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look like the last eight. On 4 November we must stand up and say “Eight is enough”.’ His next move was to state that McCain agrees with Bush (he pointed out that McCain’s voting record was 90 per cent in support of Bush), and therefore voting for him would be equivalent to a third Bush term. This simplistic McCain = Bush line conveniently ignores the fact that McCain is seen by many as a maverick who hasn’t always toed the party line, and has diverged from Bush on certain issues, such as calling for the Iraq ‘surge’, campaign finance reform and immigration.

‘Let me spell out exactly what change would mean if I am president’, said Obama in Denver. He presented a long list of policy aims – most of which could have been on any Democratic candidate’s list from Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign onwards. The theme of his speech was the ‘American Promise’, which, rather than a restatement of the need to deliver on the American Dream, turned out to be a hectoring lecture to individuals to shape up. Obama said: ‘Yes, government must lead on energy independence, but each of us must do our part to make our homes and businesses more efficient. Yes, we must provide more ladders for young men who fall into lives of crime and despair. But we must also admit that programmes alone can’t replace parents; that government can’t turn off the television and make a child do her homework; that fathers must take more responsibility for providing the love and guidance their children need.’ This emphasis on ‘mutual responsibility’ could have come straight out of Bill Clinton’s 1990s playbook.

All in all, while Obama remained in the realm of lofty rhetoric earlier in the year he could appear as a groundbreaking radical; but in Denver, where he succumbed to the pressure to be specific, he was revealed to be an unremarkable, traditional Democrat in policy terms. The speech was generally praised, and many said that for the first time he appeared like he was ready to take office – and in a year when there is great distrust of the Republican Bush administration, wearing the Democrat label on his sleeve may be a smart move. But in doing so, Obama has become the cautious and conservative candidate, presenting himself as a safe pair of hands in contrast to the ‘extreme’ Republicans. It has come at the price of abandoning any claim of providing an uplifting message or ushering in a new form of politics.

McCain’s risky VP pick

The Democrats expected that their successful convention, which ended with fireworks in the stadium, would have been discussed for at least the weekend to follow, if not for weeks later. But as it happened, McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate knocked Obama’s speech well off the media’s agenda.

The choice of Palin was certainly stunning, if not outright bizarre. Hardly anyone had ever heard of her before, and for good reason: she had been governor of the remote state of Alaska for less than two years, and before that, she was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, a town with fewer than 7,000 inhabitants. A journalism major at the University of Idaho, she entered politics comparatively late in life, and did not appear to have displayed any interest in world affairs. Now she was selected by McCain to be ‘a heartbeat away’ from becoming the commander-in-chief of the world’s largest military force, if elected.

Although seemingly bizarre, there were two obvious reasons why McCain picked Palin. One was that he was keen to reinforce his maverick image as a reformer, and Palin had led anti-corruption campaigns in her state, against senior members of her own party. The other was to energise the social conservative base of the party. Palin was introduced as a good family type (mother of five and wife to a regular working guy), pro-life (who very publicly decided to continue the birth of her son in the knowledge he had Down’s Syndrome), religious, and a pro-gun hunter. Beyond these reasons, selecting a woman might also have been a ploy to win over some disillusioned Hillary voters, although that seemed very unlikely to work given that most Hillary supporters disagreed with Palin’s views on abortion and other social issues.

Of course it wouldn’t be wise to follow the media and get too carried away with a vice-president pick; after all, the role, despite Cheney’s expansion of it under Bush, is still second-fiddle and it plays a minor role in determining who is elected president (remember, Dan Quayle didn’t stop George HW Bush from being elected). But McCain’s selection of Palin does reveal more about his campaign than might be readily apparent.

First, it indicates that McCain is not satisfied with running a campaign on ‘experience’, and totally ceding the mantle of ‘change’ to Obama. Over the summer, McCain had been banging on about how Obama was not ready to lead, and he appeared to have narrowed the gap with Obama in the polls. But picking Palin undermines any strong argument that experience is essential and that can no longer be his central plank. It appears that McCain concluded that, despite the current polls, he couldn’t win if he simply ran on that argument. Furthermore, it seems the selection of Palin is part and parcel of recasting himself as a reformer again, the reputation he had before the current election season. And given Obama’s decision to play it safe, McCain might be able to make some headway here.

The choice of Palin also reveals that the Republicans are as enamoured with identity politics as the Democrats are. Watching the Obama-Clinton primaries, Republicans could barely contain their glee at seeing the Democrats fall over themselves in wars of identity, with the rival camps making charges of racism and sexism, respectively. Yet Palin, an inexperienced nobody, is selected on the grounds that she meets the preferred identity profile: God-fearing? Check. Pro-life? Check. Gun-owner? Check. Woman? Extra points! Identity politics are ridiculed by conservatives when liberals express multicultural lifestyle preferences, but celebrated by them when religious and pro-gun lifestyles are promoted.

Finally, Palin’s selection indicates that the politics of personality threatens to get out of control to the point where the value of expertise is disregarded. Both Obama and McCain are running more as individuals than representatives of a party, and both have led with their biographies. Both have stressed their authenticity, their ability to relate directly to people and not play the typical stiff politician. Now, along comes Palin, who is so authentic she is downright ordinary and arguably unqualified for national office. The Republicans clearly hope that in her they have found their own Obama – someone from outside Washington who is untainted with the unpopular ways of governing in the past. But her shocking lack of interest in national and world affairs indicates a reckless pick by McCain, one that devalues the notion of professionalism in politics.

It is also highly questionable practical politics: even though authenticity is highly valued in this year’s election, it doesn’t follow that voters believe their nextdoor neighbour is qualified to lead. Already, you can easily see the risk of picking Palin. A video interview from a month ago shows her cluelessly asking ‘What is it exactly that the VP does every day?’ She is also embroiled in a potential scandal for allegedly putting pressure on a commissioner to fire her brother-in-law, and then firing the commissioner when he wouldn’t comply (which already has the name ‘Troopergate’).

And yet despite the easy target Palin should be for the Democrats, they have found it difficult to respond effectively. The initial response from the Obama campaign stressed Palin’s inexperience, but then Obama himself spoke out and said he didn’t share that view. Instead, Obama responded cautiously. As he knows, talk of inexperience might lead people to question his own thin CV. Also, if he appears to be patronising towards Palin, he could be accused of extending his campaign’s sexism towards Hillary to Palin. Or maybe, if he’s not careful, his criticisms of Palin could be construed as consistent with his ‘Bittergate’ comments about how ‘bitter’ working people ‘cling’ to guns and religion.

Attacks from other Democratic quarters were predictably lame and patronising. John Kerry called Palin ‘Cheney-esque’, continuing the Obama campaign’s mindless theme that electing McCain (and Palin) will extend the Bush regime for a third term. Others ridiculed Palin for her Alaskan cultural habits: her snowmachine driving, her preference for moose stew, her beauty queen past, her kids’ unusual names, the whole Northern Exposure image. It was if the left had learned nothing from criticising Bush in purely cultural terms (as a Texan). Finally, there is always a section today that believes the best angle of attack is conspiracy, and, sure enough, the internet was abuzz with the rumour that Palin’s youngest son was actually her grandson, and that she had covered up for her daughter’s pregnancy.

A new dynamic

So, just as the election gets going in earnest, we have a new dynamic: a new Obama, seeking votes simply on the grounds that he is not Bush and McCain is; and a new McCain, trying to re-establish himself as an agent of reform. And it is not clear how it will play itself out.

The thing that is most striking is how this election seems to have an arbitrary, unpredictable character. This is the result of a politics of personality that is unanchored to party and ideology in the old way. As McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin shows, in this environment candidates’ actions can be surprising. With this type of ‘politics’, it’s hard to feel confident that one candidate has a secure grasp on votes. Obama can fill stadiums, and McCain can’t, and yet the polls are close. With Bush so unpopular, Obama and the Democrats should be in the driver’s seat, and yet it seems that just one gaffe could put everything at risk for them.

Thus, in this election, day-to-day tactics are taking on greater importance than they might otherwise do. In his Denver speech, Obama complained that the Republicans were trying to make ‘a big election about small things’. In fact, McCain has also expressed a desire to have the election rise above narrow concerns. But both candidates will remain potential victims of petty politicking as long as they don’t have the ability to change the subject – that is, as long as they lack compelling narratives about the change that is needed and how to bring it about.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) See Will Obama change American politics?, by Sean Collins, 28 January 2008

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Topics USA


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