x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Ahead of re-election bid, Obama struggles to keep the dream alive

Barack Obama has yet to convince the American electorate that his vision for the country, expressed in 2008 but so far not realised during his presidency, is more than a pipe dream.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Amid all the chants of "four more years" that echoed around the Ohio State University campus last weekend, one of two venues chosen by Barack Obama to finally launch his presidential re-election campaign, lay one startling admission, surrendered mid-speech by the most powerful man in the world.

"We have come too far to abandon the change we fought for these past few years," the president told his rapt audience, "We have to move forward, to the future we imagined in 2008, where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. That's the choice in this election, and that's why I'm running for a second term."

Obama had opened his address with talk of "reclaiming the basic bargain that built the largest middle class [in the world]" before reminding his supporters of the challenges that confronted him when he first walked into the Oval Office - spiralling unemployment, mounting debt - and concluding that this election represented a "make or break moment" for America. But it was that admission of a future "imagined" (and, by extension, not yet realised) that seemed most in touch with voter sentiment. But wasn't change, and change for the better, what America had signed up for in 2008?

For many reasons, the president knows that he is more electable than Mitt Romney, the Republican party nominee in waiting, not least because history tells us that incumbent presidents are rarely unseated when they seek re-election. Indeed, only two (Jimmy Carter and George Bush Sr) have fallen at the second hurdle in the past 80 years. But Obama also knows he will struggle to cast the past four years as a success when growth remains weak.

The same is true in Europe where one of the giants of these years of crisis was last weekend taken down by the French electorate. In the end, Nicolas Sarkozy's run-off election defeat did not come as a surprise - the writing has been on the wall since the first round of voting in France put him behind his socialist opponent François Hollande - but his demise represents a stunning vote of no-confidence in his stringent austerity measures designed to stabilise the French economy and ease the deepening eurozone crisis.

Many outside Europe would judge the former president to have acquitted himself well in the hurly-burly of the currency crisis (with his shuttle diplomacy and his "Merkozy" alliance) and yet, those that matter, the French public, voted in large numbers against austerity and in favour of a return to big spending, early retirement and higher taxes for the wealthy.

Like Sarkozy, David Cameron, the leader of the UK's coalition government, will have been licking his wounds last weekend, following a bruising set of mid-terms that saw his Conservative party endure heavy losses in local council elections. About the only bright spot in an otherwise dark night for the Tories was Boris Johnson's re-election as mayor of London. That the citywide mayoral race is as much about personality as it is about politics, will have provided little comfort for the otherwise beleaguered prime minister.

Cameron has since issued his own rallying call, promising more delivery from the coalition while being humble about the severe kicking he and his party endured at the polls.

That he has been contrite shows Cameron is, rather like Obama, canny enough to proceed with caution when voter confidence is so obviously fragile. Whether that will be enough to keep the coalition alive is harder to fathom, although he will hope that a change in British economic fortunes brings a bout of political stability. Plus ça change, as the French might say.