On 7th November 2008, in the aftermath of the US presidential elections, I wrote a post that succeeded in making me about as popular as Sarah Palin would have been if she’d showed up at the Chicago victory rally. The reason for my unpopularity was that I suggested that the New Golden Messiah of American politics, President-Elect (as he was at the time) Obama, might turn out not to be as fantastically wonderful as most people at the time felt he was. I emphasised my worry that expectations about the soon-to-be-president’s ability to drastically reform and improve everything had surged to unsustainable levels. I expressed my belief that Obama would make a dedicated, well-intentioned president, and that, by the time he left office, most things would be a little better than they had been when he came into office, but that the widespread belief that everything would be instantly, dramatically transformed was inevitably going to be disappointed. I voiced concern that the people who had been most caught up in the surge of optimism – the young, the previously disenfranchised – would be the ones most likely to recognise that the president was falling short of the perfection he had encouraged them to expect, and that this would lead to them feeling they had been betrayed, with a consequent surge of cynical detachment from politics that would ultimately damage their long-term interests.
My opinions did not chime with the prevailing view in my little corner of the blogosphere. I think for many people who read the post (especially those who were younger than me, and had less clear memories of the build up to May 1997), my greatest faux pas was to suggest that we in the UK had seen a similar process with Tony Blair and New Labour. No-one wanted to believe at the time that Tony Blair – an old, discredited, toxically unpopular politician – could possibly have anything in common with the Saviour-Elect. Everyone wanted to believe that this time the hype was real, that the old politics was dead, that we were on the verge of a new global reality. It was wrong, and more than a little mean, for me to come along with my unfounded pessimism and scepticism and spoil the party for everyone else.
I was beginning on one of my periodic meltdowns at the time, as the posts after that one demonstrate, and I didn’t acquit myself well in the comments (to put it mildly…), but I did manage to make one point that was reasonable, and that I felt I could stand by: I hoped that I was wrong, and that the people with greater faith in Obama were proved right. And I did, I genuinely did. To quote a not-entirely-irrelevant REM song, I wanted to be wrong. So, that’s the question for today’s post, written a year after Obama was inaugurated: was I wrong?
Let’s start with looking at poll numbers. A year ago, President Obama’s approval rating was 68%: today it’s hovering around 50%, sometimes a little higher, sometimes a little lower. It’s not unheard of for a new president to have an approval rating this low after a year in office, and it’s also not unheard of for a president to suffer a fall so big within a year: previous incumbents have recovered from similar positions. Nevertheless, this does rather suggest that elements of America are falling out of love with President Obama in quite a big way. It also raises the question, if his ratings do not recover, of just how unpopular he will be by the time the next presidential election comes along in 2012.
Of course, a big part of the unpopularity can be laid at the foot of the economic downturn, for which Obama is not responsible (or at least, not as president – he failed to use his position as senator to ensure that the banks were more effectively regulated, but that’s true of the 99 other senators too). This unpopularity can, of course, be expected to ameliorate when the economy starts to improve. I also find myself a little sceptical about approval ratings altogether, and specifically how they relate to voting behaviour. Back in November 2008, 52.9% of those who voted gave their support to Obama (the apparent landslide victory was a result of the distortions introduced by the electoral college system). Compared with that benchmark, an approval rating hovering around 50% doesn’t look so terrible; it suggests that, by and large, the people who supported the president enough to vote for him still do.
So the poll numbers are perhaps inconclusive. The Republican victory in the recent election in Massachusetts certainly suggests that things are going badly for the Democrats, although the candidate has a lot to answer for in that case – misspelling the name of the state in which you are seeking election is mind-bogglingly inept. We may get a better sense of the voting intentions of the public in about 10 months time with the mid-term elections. Every professional pundit seems to be claiming that this election will give us the definitive answer to the question of the president’s popularity. Personally, I find myself wondering if the mid-terms genuinely are nothing more than a referendum on the president. I also worry that the interpretation of the results might be rather un-nuanced – if Democrat voters in a particular state stay away from the election in protest at a Democratic incumbent who dragged their heels over support for Obama’s healthcare plans, with the result that a Republican wins the seat, would it really be fair to argue that this demonstrates a lack of support for the president’s agenda?
Anyway, setting all that aside, the BBC, in the form of a blog-post by their North America Editor Mark Mardell (who, like his predecessors, will never be seen covering a story from Mexico or Canada…), have given us an opportunity to get inside what some young Obama campaigners are now thinking. Here’s Justin Staple:
I am a little disappointed. During the election there was the whole feeling that this was a time for change. We represented a generation that was a hopeful generation, with the hope that we would not be disillusioned again, that not every politician would turn out the same. We thought we could choose a figure who could stand for what he believes in, and not take pressures from Washington. That is something that has not happened. The reason I was so disappointed over the troop increase in Afghanistan is because it was such a poignant example of how the military can pressure the president.
I feel disappointed in this new-found disconnect. I had really high expectations. My life hasn’t changed. My family is dealing with the same problems. I feel a little bit let down but these expectations that we all had were a little negligent of the problems that were happening. I never really thought about the process of addressing the problems, I just wanted this immediate change, this top-to-bottom re-design.
Bonnie Kate Walker:
Do I still have faith in Obama? The answer is ‘Yes’. This country was like a freight train headed in the wrong direction and to stop that, and turn it around, takes a lot of power and a lot of time, and that is something I and a lot of activists didn’t understand. We were so exited, and that was part of Grant Park, we were thinking – maybe this is the end, we no longer have to work so hard as activists. Healthcare is a perfect example of something that needed to happen, that people supported but you get this bill and whittled it down to nothing and people now don’t care if it is passed or not.
So, what would be an accurate summary of these people’s feelings? Well, first of all, none of them are talking about a political golden age anymore: the shine has definitely come off the New Golden Messiah. Secondly, none of them are happy. Staple is disappointed by the president’s troop-surge in Afghanistan; Hungerford is disappointed that her family are still facing the same problems as they were before the president was elected; Walker is disappointed that healthcare reform has been whittled down to the point where nobody cares if it’s implemented or not (or so she claims – I suspect the millions of uninsured people who stood to gain cover under the limited proposals recently approved by the senate would see that differently). On the other hand, all three of them are more inclined to blame forces opposing Obama than they are the president himself, and two of them (Hungerford and Walker) specifically refer to the fact that some of their disappointment results from the fact that their own expectations were unreasonable. It would be fair to say, I think, that there’s plenty of evidence of disappointment here, but not much for the disillusionment I was referring to in my post.
There are some other things to keep in mind, though. In my post after the election I was talking about the view that people would have of Obama whenever his period of office would have come to an end. I was expecting disappointment and disillusionment in 2012 or 2016, but I’m not sure even I expected the process to be so far along already. The main reason I was caught out is that it hadn’t occurred to me that Obama would be so ham-fisted as to indulge in radical rhetoric that enrages conservatives whilst simultaneously pursuing reform so slowly and with so much attempted compromise that liberals were enraged as well. It takes a special kind of politician to deliberately polarise the debate so as to ensure that there is no middle ground – and then to make a play for support from the middle ground he has himself destroyed. Another thing to keep in mind is that the people Mark Mardell was speaking to were not members of the general public, but people who had actively campaigned on behalf of Obama. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect that they might hold a more positive view of the president’s achievements in office than the people who only voted for Obama would.
This was partly borne out by one of the participants in a documentary shown on BBC2, Obama and Me. This programme followed several people who had voted for the president over the course of his first year in office. The participants were (from memory) a dairy farmer, the wife of an airman deployed in Afghanistan, a single mother who worked for the US postal service, a former community organiser from Chicago who now runs a charity that supports the unemployed in that city, and a young couple with a family who had both been made redundant from the car industry immediately before the election. As a general rule, the participants in the programme remained broadly supportive of Obama, albeit with reservations over the pace of change in most cases. It also seemed to be the case that those who had directly benefited from the president’s policies – such as the autoworker who found a job with one of the car manufacturers bailed out by the government – were likely to be more definite in their appreciation for the president than those who felt let down – like the military wife, who was disappointed by the troop surge in Afghanistan.
The major exception to this rule was the single mother postal worker, who had become an ardent supporter of the tea party movement over the course of the summer. There was footage of her attending a Washington protest at which she seemed to be almost the only African-American in attendance, something which appeared to make her briefly uncomfortable. It wasn’t clear why she had ever voted for Obama in the first place, since her politics seemed to be decidedly non-liberal, and he had been the most liberal Democratic candidate in years. In fact, she appeared to be unable to articulate the reasons herself, beyond saying that she had been ‘taken in’ by the president’s campaign. I suspect this lady is an extreme example, but her journey from Obama supporter to outspoken opponent demonstrates that, amongst some people, the shift away from the president has been more significant than the quotations above suggest.
So, anyway, let me try and answer the questions I asked myself away back at the beginning of this post. Was I wrong to argue that Obama’s election would not turn out to be the everything-changed moment that so many people wanted it to be? Was I wrong to argue that it had been a mistake for Obama to allow expectations about what he could reasonably hope to achieve to surge so high? Was I wrong to say that the recognition that everything had failed to change would lead to feelings of disappointment, even of disillusionment and betrayal, amongst his rather naïve supporters?
I think the record, at this stage, shows that I was partly right. Obama’s election demonstrably hasn’t changed everything – the vested interests and lobbyists and generous corporate donors still have Washington politics pretty much caught in their grasp, with everything that means for the development of progressive legislation. The high expectations people had – around the economy, around military policy, around healthcare reform, around gay rights, around environmental policy – either have been or are in the process of being disappointed. That said, on the issues he has tackled thus far the president has made, as I suggested he would, most things a little bit better – but that is a long way short of what people had been allowed to expect. Where I have been wrong, so far, is in the effect this has had on public sentiment. A lot of people who voted for Obama are, I think, disappointed with him, but they are not yet at the stage of being disillusioned or feeling betrayed. There has been an ebbing of support for the president, but it hasn’t yet reached a catastrophic stage.
In terms of the future, well, everything could turn around, of course. But pundits are already suggesting that the loss of the Democratic supermajority in the Senate is likely to be the final nail in the coffin of even the limited healthcare reform that had been so nearly achieved. It seems likely this Democratic inability to implement presidential policy can only get worse after the November mid-terms. At the same time, hope in Obama’s ability to transform politics seems even less plausible now than it did 12 months ago.
It pains me to say it – genuinely, it does, although I know it will seem to some of you reading it that this post is nothing but a giant ‘told you so’ – but it seems pretty certain to me that we are on course for the disillusionment and feelings of betrayal I predicted. It also seems to me that the feelings will be misplaced, as I said they would be, since the president will actually have achieved quite a bit of modest, steady-as-she-goes, incremental reform, and the ‘failure’ will only seem like failure because of the ludicrous heights to which expectations had been allowed to build. As to whether that will have the effect I predicted – that swarms of people, specifically African-Americans, will be so turned off politics they stop voting, with the result that politicians will fail to reflect their interests – well, we’ll have to wait and see. But for the moment at least, I’m standing by my prediction – I reckon 2008 will turn out to have been the high-water-mark in terms of African-American participation in elections for quite some time to come.
Still, maybe I’ll get lucky. Maybe this time I really am wrong, and the golden age is just around the corner…