Back then we had something called Obamania, named after none other than the coolest guy on earth that year: Barack Obama.
Obama was so cool that rumour had it he could turn water into Bud Light (okay, so maybe that is not that much of a miracle) and single-handedly stop global warming. In fact, Obama was so cool in the eyes of the Norwegian Nobel Committee that they awarded him the 2009 Peace Prize for … euh … not being George W. Bush. Or something.
Myth aside, reality was more complex and just as fascinating.
Obama in many ways embodies some central elements of today’s global society and in becoming first US senator and then US president undoubtedly broke a lot of barriers. In a country where race does play a massive role, he was the first African-American president and despite all talk of the white working class turning against the Democrats because of Obama’s race, he did in fact manage to mobilise the traditional Democratic constituency of white collar workers and minorities. And quite a few other voters.
Obviously, by being African-American in the direct sense (Kenyan father, American mother) rather than the descendent of slaves, Obama was not troubled by the prejudices directed at “ordinary” African-Americans. But his election still came as the culmination of a trend where (white) Americans were becoming used to seeing African-Americans and Hispanics acting in high-profile political positions.
Besides his parental background, Obama also grew up in a multicultural setting as he spent some of his childhood in Indonesia. Much has been said about the rise of Asia (most of it nonsense), but Obama still unlike any earlier US president has a first-hand experience of one of the major Asian cultures.
When he entered office in January 2009, Obama was in many ways untested. Unlike most other US presidents in the past century he had not held executive office at either state or federal level and he had only been a US senator for little less than four years. Some of the hype around Obama was also exaggerated: His performance at the 2008 presidential election was convincing but given the state of the US economy not outstanding. In fact, the outcome of the 2008 election pretty much matched the predictions based on historical evidence about the correlation between the state of the economy and vote shares for incumbent and opposition candidates.1
Still, Obama started off on a high note enjoying good approval ratings during the first half of 2009. Then the mood changed and for much of 2010 his approval ratings have looked like those of George W. Bush in the early part of his second term. Bush, of course, would plunge to even worse values and following the disaster of the 2010 mid-term elections, avoiding the fate of George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter or, for that matter, Herbert Hoover and becoming a single-term president is Obama’s main political problem.
But, we may ask, didn’t Obama deliver?
Yes and no.
Despite the attempts by the Republican party to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, there can be no doubt that Obama succeeded where previous Democratic presidents failed: He did promise to introduce a general health care reform and even if the programme included in the Affordable Care Act is in many ways complicated and opaque, he delivered on his promise. Sure, he had the benefit of working with a comfortable majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives which meant that Republican attempts at sabotaging the legislative process eventually failed. Should Obama lose at the 2012 election, health care reform will be his legacy and given the quirks and dysfunctionalites of the US political system, this has in face been an impressive performance.
The undoing of Obama and the Democratic party has been the economy. The 2008-2009 recession was the longest and deepest in the US since the Great Depression of the 1930s and the continuing poor employment figures indicates that the Obama administration so far hasn’t succeeded in finding the proper response to the fundamental problems in the US economy.
There may be many reasons for this. In the past two decades the US has increasingly turned into a plutocracy where the 1 percent (or perhaps even 0.1 percent) at the top of the income distribution have reaped the gains while the traditional middle classes in particular have witnessed a stagnation in economic development. Wall Street has managed to avoid taking the responsibility for its role in the process leading up to the 2008 collapse. Economic policy both before and after 2008 has been designed to benefit the super-rich and the middle classes have responded with frustration and anger.
The Democrats never really managed to tap into this frustration and engineer an electoral realignment. Instead, the Club for Growth and later the Tea Party have managed to channel frustrations into anti-government sentiment. To outside observers it is as if the Democratic leaders have never really understood the nature of their opponent: These days an incoherent Democratic coalition is facing a slick, tightly organised and politically radical Republican Party. The Democrats rely on luck, the Republicans on organisation.
Curiously, just as Obama may be the most American of presidents, the Republican Party of 2010 is in many ways the most European party the US has ever seen in terms of organisational and ideological cohesion.
The Obama balloon still has little under two years to take off again. The question is if the Obama administration, which is now facing a hostile House of Representatives and the tiniest of majorities in the Senate, will be able to design and implement a sustainable economic policy which will benefit working and middle class Americans.
- On the other hand it may be argued that Al Gore in 2000 and George W. Bush in 2004 both underperformed. Gore due to a lacklustre campaign and Bush due to the controversies surrounding the Iraq war. [↩]