Changing Perspectives in American Politics

For decades there has been an accepted maxim in American politics: when the American people felt secure internationally they voted in a Mummy president who would keep any eye on the store and ensure that domestic issues were addressed. However, when they felt uneasy, insecure or altogether threatened, they would vote for a Daddy candidate who would stand tall on the world stage, face down any adversary and defend the nation, come what may. Throughout the past 40 years, Democrats have been cast as the Mummy Party and Republicans as the Daddy. It has been the Republican Party that has managed to successfully wrap itself in the flag and campaign successfully on national security issues, portraying the Democratic Party as being weak and unreliable on foreign affairs. For much of that time they were also able to portray the Democrats as being financially irresponsible and as being advocates of tax and spend approaches to government.

Events of the past two administrations have altered this perceived reality.

During the 1990s the Clinton administration did much to end the perception of the Democrats as being poor handlers of the economy, as the United States entered the 21st century with a debate over what to do with the almighty surplus that had built up in the government coffers. The administration’s handling of foreign affairs was more mixed, but essentially Bill Clinton bequeathed his successor a nation that was prosperous and at peace.

His successor, of course, was George W. Bush, who continued to invert the perceived wisdom in relation to the role of American political parties. The apparent economic prudence of former Republican administration’s was replaced by a tax cut in time of war, which saw the eradication of the surplus, as the administration sought to have guns and butter. If its economic legacy was poor, its foreign policy was worse, as it deliberately ignored previous Republican strategies that had been successfully implemented as recently as 1991.

The inversion of previous perceptions has continued under President Obama. With his team drawn largely from the former Clinton Administration, this is perhaps to be expected. However, Obama has not been able to replicate Bill Clinton’s economic polices, which saw vast reductions in the US debt. Instead, the debt level has increased substantially, to an eye-watering $16 trillion dollars. The scale of the debt is such that easy remedies appear no longer to be an option. The scale of the debt, coupled with an unemployment rate stuck stubbornly above 8% should have spelt doom for the incumbent, but so far it has not.

Unusually, voters are not yet registering their overwhelming disenchantment with the Obama presidency, despite the usual maxim that people vote according to the contents of their purses or wallets; President Reagan’s question remains pertinent today: “Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?”

Instead of running on his economic record, or his groundbreaking (however you view it) decision to implement healthcare reform (initiated, like the Bush tax cut, at precisely the time that it was least affordable), President Obama is instead taking the battle to his opponents, casting them as naives with insufficient experience, indifferent to the plight of normal Americans and ill-prepared for high office. Intriguingly, Four years ago, many of the same accusations were made of Senator Obama.

A key area that Obama is exploiting is the difference in terms of experience in foreign policy. Continuing to defy accepted maxims, the president is portraying himself as the steady, experienced Commander in Chief, and his Republican opponents as woefully unprepared for global leadership. The Republicans have done much to aid him in this. Neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan have served in the military, or focused upon military or defence affairs during their careers in government service. Neither has a record of addressing foreign or military affairs in any manner of note. For a Republican ticket this is unheard of. A quick stroll through past tickets confirms that on all occasions either the top or bottom of the ticket had a recognised appreciation of foreign or military affairs that would be brought to bear in the White House. That is not the case in 2012.

Instead, President Obama has been able to portray himself as the man who killed bin Laden. He has successfully managed to avoid being ‘swiftboated’ on this issue so far, despite many efforts, not least of which is the new book ‘No Easy Day.’ His efforts have been aided by Mitt Romney’s recent overseas trip to Europe and Israel, where he at best did little to impress and at worst did much to reinforce a negative image of his candidacy. Developments in recent days have exacerbated this situation. Despite the potential problems that the numerous embassy storming could have posed politically for the president, Mitt Romney’s poor handling of the issue has actually eased the pressure on the administration.

With a little over 7 weeks to go until Election Day, Obama continues to lead in the polls, both nationally and in key swing states. He has noticeably opened up a lead in the key swing states following the convention. This is not over yet, and the debates could be crucial. A key blunder, an indiscretion and this could all turn on a dime. Yet, as this week’s events have demonstrated, when opportunity presents itself, Romney’s reaction has been far from beneficial to the Republican ticket, and he still has all of the heavy lifting to do if he is to have any chance of securing what at this point would looks like an unlikely victory come November.

JDB and Sky News

As some of you may have seen, I was on Sky News this morning, discussing President Obama’s trip to Europe. The conversation concentrated on his initial stop-over in Eire, where he will apparently revel in his Irish ancestry. I must admit that one doesn’t really look at Obama and immediately think of the Emerald Isle, but I guess that he is just the latest in a long line of president’s claiming Irish ancestry to bolster their domestic standing with the Irish community in the United States.

I seem to remember when Obama used to be from Kenya and Hawaii? Apparently that was soooo yesterday! I know he campaigned on a platform of ‘Change’ but I didn’t think that changing his ancestry was what he had in mind.

In London from Tuesday, Obama will hold meetings at Downing Street with the PM David Cameron to discuss Afghanistan and UK/US foreign policy. Doubtless to say questions of the Special Relationship will come up, along with issues pertaining to the demise of Osama bin Laden.

Obama will be staying as a guest of Her Majesty the Queen and will also address both houses of Parliament. A press briefing is expected at the FCO. The president will be accompanied by Secretary of State Clinton who is expected to hold meetings with her opposite number, William Hague.

Suffice to say, getting around central London may be a little tricky with the heightened security this week!

I will be returning to the airwaves through the week as the president spends his State Visit here in London, so watch this space for more news.

On Obama and Osama

So, after the better part of a decade the deed is done and the greatest manhunt in history is over. Finally, questions pertaining to whether bin Laden is dead or alive can cease and more substantive questions can be addressed.

How did the operation proceed? How could bin Laden have survived so long under the nose of Pakistani intelligence? What role did the Pakistani authorities play in the operation? What condition was bin Laden in when he was apprehended? Could he have been taken alive? Why the burial at sea? Expect answers to these questions in Bob Woodward’s next exposé.

No doubt the conspiracy theories will continue and be ramped up in the coming months. No doubt Donald Trump will be seeking publication Osama’s Death Certificate as he once sought Obama’s Birth Certificate.

This is a time for contemplation as to what this means on many fronts. It would be fantastic high upon which Defence Secretary Bob Gates could stand down. It does much to bolster the reputation of the US military and its Special Forces.

Domestically the timing is remarkable for President Obama. With numerous Republicans putting their toes in the water to test for a potential campaign in 2012, the timing could not have been better. This incident appears to have inoculated Obama against charges from the right that he is soft on Terrorism. How can they complain now that he has delivered what W. was unable to produce? With few Republicans focusing on domestic issues (except to overturn health care, something local courts will no doubt manage without them) there appears to be little incentive to run. As such the stage is set for a repeat of 1992, with potential opponents choosing to sit out the race in anticipation of an unbeatable incumbent. Clearly Bill Clinton proved that not to be the case, so it will be fascinating to see who chooses to enter the fray and who decides that Obama is a shoe-in.

Obama’s re-election odds are greatly helped by the news for another reason; it further removes any chance of a challenge from within his own party. The simple, salient fact is that incumbents who avoid a challenge from their own party go on to win re-election. Those who have to fight a rearguard action for their own party’s nomination, lose. What democrat could possibly challenge Obama now, having delivered Health Care and the head of Osama bin Laden? To do so would be to redefine the word ‘churlish.’

Let us be clear, however, this is not the end of the struggle against political violence. Bin Laden was the poster boy for international bad behaviour, but a bigger fish remains to be fried; Ayman alZawahiri. Incorrectly identified as bin Laden’s second in command amongst headline writers, alZawahiri’s capture would be far more detrimental to the operational capability of those who perpetuate political violence in the name of Jihad. For more on him and his place in the history of political violence, head straight to the work of Jason Burke. A potential down side to this is that with the death of bin Laden, interest in defeating proponents of political violence will wane until the next wake up call. Perhaps we should all heed the warning of history, that ‘Eternal Vigilance is the price of freedom.’

One death does not a victory make, but today’s news is a vital, symbolic step towards a goal that was established in the aftermath of the attacks of September 2001. Somewhere, George W. Bush can smile a little wider and sleep a little easier, as his legacy becomes easier to spin.