The electoral repudiation of President Barack Obama in the mid-term elections raises some interesting comparative questions about the nature of electorates in a democracy and the factors that animate them. It reminds us of the sheer contingency of politics: the president who won a watershed victory now being spurned by his own party and the electorate. The sheer contingency of politics should also be a warning never to read permanent meanings into any election: the people can easily take away what they give in the first place. There is also, no doubt, a story particular to this election. Many of the races in the south were in Republican strongholds. The Obama administration’s own missteps were considerable. This time, the Republicans got together a better organisational machinery and avoided gaffes that might have consolidated their opponents.
Still, it is worth reflecting on the seeming unravelling of Obama, his journey from unchallenged charisma to being the object of widespread contempt. As often in democracies, the scale of repudiation is far in excess of his sins. In Obama’s case, it could be argued provocatively that nothing fails like success. Here was a president who was dealt one of the worst economic hands in history. The American economy was teetering on the brink of a catastrophe when he took office. The recession has been prolonged, and to some eyes, the recovery not as strong as many would like.
Nevertheless, the US is not looking like Europe or even Japan; the rescue act was a significant historical achievement. And it is hard to argue that Republicans have won on a platform that offers more economic hope. Healthcare reform had eluded every administration in the US. But low jokes apart, Obamacare has been successful enough that few want to repudiate it. Unlike former US President Bill Clinton’s, his administration has not been plagued by scandals. He was even lucky enough to make America energy independent. Here was a president who promised disengagement from war, and to a considerable extent, delivered on it. He promised a certain kind of bipartisanship. He was rebuffed by Congress. But in ideological terms at least, contrary to what many feared, he did not lurch to the far left. So what is the nature of his failure? Are there some interesting lessons for the political discourse?
In democratic politics, your credibility is often most grievously wounded by your own supporters. Small sections of the right had barely disguised contempt for Obama, and the racial undertone has, in some sections of American politics, not gone away. But the biggest damage to him came from the fact that many of his supporters felt a sense of betrayal. The most scorching writing on Obama has come from the left, as it were, rather than the right. Their sense of betrayal and anger has often meant that they would rather see him punished for not delivering on utopia than counter the Republicans in any serious way. In a deeper sense, they, more than the Republicans, created the climate of opinion where Obama looked weak. Scorned supporters are more dangerous than dogged opponents.
Part of this was a consequence of Obama’s own charisma. It was not so much what he said, but his own persona that raised expectations of a radically new order. It was easier to judge him harshly because he was being judged against his own measure. The sentiment, “you were not the Obama we thought you were going to be”, dominated any consideration of his record much more than Republican alternatives or even other presidencies. When you aim high and promise much, the sense of betrayal also comes easier and more deeply.
In our democratic age, the smaller mistakes can define you and fix your image far in excess of their significance. In political terms, the technical glitches in the early days of the rollout of Obamacare seem to have provided a firmer political handle to its opponents than its aggregate benefits provided to the Democrats. It is hard to live down mistakes in the age of media. It is perhaps a feature of all democracies that the top leadership will be held responsible for outcomes, no matter what. They are elected to fix things, and no amount of structural explanations or alibis will compensate for any shortcoming. It can be argued that Obama’s sometimes cold intellectualism has not been the most skilful at managing Congress. But it is hard to argue that Republicans were anything but obstructionist. Much like in India, the strategy that if you obstruct, whoever is in charge will get blamed, seems to have paid off. But Obama seems to have got the blame for the gridlock. No top leader can ever have the luxury of an excuse.
In international affairs, there is a sense that Obama cuts a sorry figure. But, arguably, this is in part a consequence of what he was seemingly elected for. There is no doubt that in political terms, the Libya intervention was a huge mistake. It got America the worst of both worlds. It took away from the idea that Obama really was trying to carve out a presidency not founded on American global hubris. For interventionists, on the other hand, it raised the expectation of more to come, in places like Syria. And when those interventions did not come, the charge that he had made America look weak followed swiftly. In a way, Obama was elected on the promise that America would not be the policeman of the world, and he was then punished for trying to show what that actually looks like. One of the curious features of large democracies is that they don’t like the exercise of power. But they see the lack of exercise of power as a sign of failure. Obama failed to navigate this thin line with finesse.
But there is an underlying paradox. There has been much talk of the declining fortunes of the middle class and the concentration of wealth. Thomas Piketty is, after all, a best seller. Yet this is exactly the moment where America lurches a little to the right, as it were. Immigration was a big sub-theme in this election, and it seems even the threat of Ebola was exaggerated out of proportion as a sign of the administration’s failures. In a moment of deep crisis, Obama looked like a steady hand of hope. But now that concerns over survival have dissipated, the first order of business is to look for someone to blame. Obama is far more visible than nameless plutocrats and oligarchs, who were never under threat, but are now even more secure.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’
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