x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

John Wayne rides again as Obama aims for re-election

US President Barack Obama is pounding the drums of patriotism as he looks towards securing re-election next year.

President Barack Obama has never hidden his admiration for the former president Ronald Reagan, and it may yet be in mimicking the political talent he so admired in the Republican hero that Mr Obama will find the secret to securing his own re-election.

Mr Obama was pilloried by his then-rival Hillary Clinton when, on the campaign trail in 2008, he urged Democrats to emulate Reagan's achievement in turning the Republicans into the party whose ideas dominated US politics for a generation. Mr Obama was not admiring Reagan's policies, but his political skill in making the ideas of a party whose policies favoured the wealthy few at the expense of the majority into the political "common sense" of a generation.

Reagan recognised that Americans wanted to feel good about their country, and so he told them, in the memorable slogan of his 1984 campaign, that "it's morning in America", and adopted the John Wayne posture and rhetoric they craved. Americans, he sensed, wanted a national story filled with moments of triumph - the sort of moment Mr Obama gave them last week when he oversaw the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

Republicans tend to be more intuitively connected than Democrats are to America's deeply nationalist political culture, in which it imagines itself as "God's own country" whose foreign wars are driven not by self-interest, but by the unselfish spread of freedom.

At the GOP convention that nominated George W Bush for a second term in 2004, New York's Madison Square Garden resounded repeatedly with chants of "USA! USA! USA!" The adversary at whom this chant was directed was not some foreign power; it was Senator John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War hero.

But nationalism tends to empower demagogues, and has little tolerance for the sort of nuanced thoughtfulness that Mr Obama exemplifies.

President George HW Bush was extremely moderate in comparison to today's Republicans, but when an American warship mistakenly shot down an Iranian commercial airliner in July of 1988, killing 290 civilians, then-Vice President Bush's response was nothing short of shocking: "I will never apologise for the United States - I don't care what the facts are... I'm not an apologise-for-America kind of guy." American voters made him their president four months later.

By killing bin Laden, Mr Obama has convinced many doubters that he, too, is not "an apologise for America" kind of guy. "Thank God for President Obama," enthused crackpot right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh last Monday, after two years of relentlessly questioning Mr Obama's legitimacy.

While the raid on Abottabad had no purpose other than eliminating the man who had become - as one student told a reporter last week - Lord Voldemort to a generation of Americans who'd grown up reading Harry Potter, it will certainly have a positive political effect. Dragon-slaying is a time-honoured route to political power.

Jimmy Carter is remembered as an apologetic president, but if his April 1980 attempt at a daring special forces operation to rescue 52 Americans held hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran had been a success, Reagan would probably have lost that year's presidential election.

Bin Laden's scalp has inoculated Mr Obama from the charge that has haunted every Democrat since Mr Carter - being soft on national security. That's a remarkable achievement for a president whose very legitimacy is still questioned by many Americans in the race-coded doubts about his citizenship.

Then again, the "birther" saga also plays into Mr Obama's hands: it's far preferable that the Republican voice in the national conversation right now be the buffoonish property tycoon Donald Trump banging on about Mr Obama being born outside of the US and therefore being ineligible to serve as president, than it is for the debate to be over the state of the economy.

Mr Obama knows his base is disappointed, and that the "Hope" he promised in 2008 has largely been dashed. By flexing his muscles on security, he parallels another strategy of Reagan's 1984 campaign. The centrepiece ad warned that there's a "bear in the woods" that could be dangerous and vicious (the Soviets, duh!) and America would need "to be as strong as the bear", implying that Democrats would not protect America.

Reagan was a pragmatist in reality, of course. He retreated from Lebanon after the 1983 Marine barracks bombing, although for a distraction he invaded the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada on a pretext so flimsy and so bogus that few Americans can recall it. And despite his tough talk on the Soviet Union, he gave Moscow more concessions on arms control than any of his predecessors.

With "Hope" no longer a credible theme amid economic despair, the "birther" issue - some white people simply refusing to accept that Obama is American, and therefore entitled to lead them - is an opportunity to mobilise his base on the basis of fear. It's not a "bear" out there, it's the Ku Klux Klan. You may not like many of the things I've done, but are you really going to let these guys reclaim the White House?

Obama's challenge, of course, will be to convert his moment of triumph into the political capital not only to get him re-elected, but to cover him as he begins disengaging America from its disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's what Reagan would have done, of course. But he'd have portrayed it as a victory.

 

Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Find him on Twitter @Tony Karon