There is no chorus of Hail to the Chief, no bellowed introduction from the platform. In fact, there is no platform. Instead, Barack Obama simply and suddenly appears, emerging without entourage or fanfare from between a wall of large cardboard boxes and some kind of shelving unit, into a cleared area on the factory floor. With no jacket, just a plain white shirt and tie, he offers a modest “Hello, everyone” as he moves toward the lectern set up for the occasion. His audience are taken by surprise: they had been expecting more build-up. They leap to their feet anyway and applaud warmly. But there are fewer than a hundred of them, arranged in just five rows of seats. The only hint of grandeur comes from the seal just below the two microphones, the crest of the President of the United States.
Obama is visiting American Cord & Webbing, a family-owned firm in the small town of Woonsocket, Rhode Island. He glances down at his text to note that the company makes “webbing, cords, buckles, plastic and metal hardware for sporting goods” and to praise its survival of the recession as a “testament to American ingenuity”. His 11-minute address focuses on the administration’s efforts on behalf of small business. It is a low-key affair, full of technical detail about a new “Small Business Lending Fund” and altered tax arrangements for “equipment investments”. There’s the odd, charming moment of humour, as when he praises the buckle-making firm for having “buckled down” during the downturn: “That was a pun. You got that? You catch that one?” And when he flashes his gigawatt smile, you could keep the lights on in Woonsocket for a week. But mostly the register of the visit is solid and steady, grounded in the workaday business of jobs. At his side, the factory’s large machines stand temporarily idle, their name, embossed in clear bold letters, seeming to say it all: Econogrind.
The contrast with the glory days of 2008, when stadium-sized rallies echoed to “Yes, we can!”, could not be sharper. If the old saw holds that you campaign in poetry, but govern in prose, then this is government at its most prosaic. Tomorrow, the depth of the contrast will be revealed, as American voters deliver their interim verdict in midterm elections. The president’s name is not on the ballot — it’s all 435 members of the House of Representatives, a third of the Senate and a slew of state governorships that are up for grabs — but few deny that tomorrow represents, in part, a referendum on Obama.
The polls suggest defeat is on the way, with Democrats trailing Republicans badly and most pundits forecasting that the president’s party will lose its current control over the House and see most of its majority wiped out in the Senate. Obama’s day in Rhode Island, in the final week of campaigning, showed something of what he’s up against.
First, his visit was largely overshadowed by a denunciation from the Democratic candidate for the governorship of the small, loyally Democratic state. Frank Caprio, miffed that Obama had failed to back him in the race, told interviewers the president could “take his endorsement and really shove it”. Caprio’s poll numbers have slid since that outburst, but for 24 hours it trod all over Obama’s message.
‘You don’t know how to drive’
Next, the president addressed two fundraising gatherings of wealthy supporters in the state capital, Providence. At one, he adapted the metaphor he has relied on throughout this midterm campaign, suggesting that since the Republicans were the ones who had driven the car into the ditch — by wrecking the US economy under George Bush — it made no sense to hand them back the keys. “You don’t know how to drive!” he said to laughter, adding, “They can come for the ride, but they got to sit in back.”
Within hours, the talking heads on Fox News were whipping themselves up into a lather about Obama’s racially “insensitive” language, slamming him for telling Republicans they had “to ride in the back of the bus”. It didn’t matter that the clips showed the president saying something completely different; the Fox crowd now had their theme and they ran with it, ad nauseam. Division on his own side, evidence-free rancour from his opponents — these are the headwinds Obama has been battling.
It’s all happened so quickly. Just two years ago, Obama was treated as a near-deity — in Germany, the cover of Stern magazine asked if he was the “saviour” — whose election seemed to delight even those who opposed him. Now an electronic photo-frame in the West Wing of the White House offers a slideshow of changing images. Most show Obama as a world leader, bestriding the global stage — towering over Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel in one, clinking beers with David Cameron in another. But several depict Obama alone, his expression sombre, even weary.
What’s gone wrong? To quote the battle cry of the previous Democratic president, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The central explanation for Obama’s woes is that he inherited a dire economic situation and it hasn’t gone away: unemployment still stands at 9.6%. Administration officials insist that almost all of that damage was done under Bush, with three million jobs lost in just the six months before Obama took over. But, says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg — who crunched the numbers for Bill Clinton — you can’t keep saying that, even though voters know it’s true. It sounds too much like “whining”.
‘Hard message to sell’
Nor can you can tell the electorate that it would have been far, far worse without the action the administration took — that the Great Recession could well have spiralled into a second Great Depression — even though that’s true too. Be grateful for what didn’t happen is, one senior White House official sighs, “a hard message to sell”.
The political failure has been the inability to find an alternative. The president hailed as the most gifted communicator since Ronald Reagan has suffered chiefly from the inability to tell a convincing story. “Inept” is one senior Democrat’s word for it.
What was needed was a narrative that might explain the situation Obama inherited, what he’s doing to remedy it and why it will take a lot longer than two years to come good. He’s had a go. In Woonsocket he told the factory workers, “It took us a long time to get into this economic hole that we’ve been in. And the recession that we inherited was so deep that it’s going to take some time to get out. But we are going to get out.” The trouble is, that has not been boiled down into a simple message seared deep into the American consciousness. When Reagan faced a midterm battering of his own during a less severe economic downturn in 1982, his slogan was, “Stay the course.” Obama has not matched that clarity.
Part of the problem, suggests Sidney Blumenthal, former adviser to president Clinton and a strong backer of Hillary in 2008, is the way Obama’s mind works. Reagan’s Hollywood background meant he saw life, even his own presidency, as a “three-reel movie”: the audience expects adversity in the middle, they just want to be reassured the ending is going to come out right. “Obama is a law professor,” says Blumenthal. He thinks in cases, not narrative.
And so he was left flailing before Jon Stewart when he appeared on the Daily Show last week. Asked if he would now amend the catchphrase that made him in 2008, Obama walked right into the satirist’s trap. What he should have said, he agreed, was “Yes, we can — but it’s not going to happen overnight.” Yes we can, but: that could be the bumper-sticker of this 2010 campaign.
The absence of an effective narrative on the Democratic side has allowed Republicans to fill the vacuum. They’ve done it by casting Obama as a quasi-socialist bent on forging an overmighty government and ever expanding state. The result is the incredible situation in which Republicans, energised by the footsoldiers of the Tea Party movement, both imply that the economy would be in better shape if nothing had been done and gloss over their own culpability in creating the crash of 2008 and the ballooning US deficit. A T-shirt now on sale in Washington has a smiling George W Bush alongside the slogan, “Are you starting to miss me yet?”
Does all this, and the results expected tomorrow, mean that Obama has permanently lost his mojo, that he might even be on his way to defeat in 2012? Those close to him make a powerful case to the contrary. It rests on the premise that what looks set to be played out tomorrow is “structural”, rather than a function of missteps by the president. For one thing, the Democrats went into these 2010 elections from an improbably high base, having made big congressional gains in both 2006 and 2008. Many of those were in what one White House adviser calls “rented seats” — naturally Republican districts that fell to the Democrats after the party recruited lots of “gun-loving, abortion-hating sheriffs” to run as their candidates. The Democrats were always going to struggle to hold on in those places; besides, presidents almost always see their party lose ground in their first midterms. Bush’s gains in 2002 were a post-9/11 anomaly.
Add to that a jobless rate of about 10% and any forecaster would anticipate heavy losses. This only counts as Obama’s failure if you believe that the economic situation is his fault — and few do. (Though plenty on the left wish his first stimulus had been bigger and bolder, rather than trimmed to accommodate Republican disapproval.) Nor should it be forgotten that the US remains a largely conservative country, its people sceptical of what would be seen as modest government action in most other democracies.
And, of course, as one senior administration official puts it, “expectations were impossibly high”. So high, in fact, that they obscure that Obama has already notched up a significant record of achievement. One close adviser says that “it stands comparison with any presidency since the war”; scholars have compared it to the legislative accomplishment of Lyndon Johnson. In just two years, Obama has passed healthcare legislation that eluded presidents for a century; reformed the financial regulation of Wall Street (though not nearly enough for those on the left who wanted to see an assault on the bankers and their inflated pay); bailed out and rescued the auto industry, thereby saving hundreds of thousands of jobs; and passed a $787-billion stimulus that may well have prevented wholesale economic collapse.
It’s true that the full benefits of those policies have not yet kicked in, with healthcare a prime example. It’s also the case that the communication failure means that, as one senior Democrat puts it, too many middle-class voters feel that the extra spending has not been for people like them, already in work and with healthcare coverage, but for others — that they are, in short, “being screwed by the government for the sake of poor people”. Scholars expect history to take a different view, but the White House is not waiting for history. It reckons things will look different by 2012.
The polls also provide some encouragement. Whatever trouble the Democrats are in, Obama’s personal ratings remain in the solid low 40s — higher than both Reagan and Clinton at this stage in their presidencies. And both were re-elected.
Much depends on the exact result tomorrow, the difference between a bad night and a wipeout. Assuming the House changes hands, the Obama presidency will now rest on his agility in dealing with a Republican majority. Will he show the political smarts of Clinton, whose jujitsu turned the Republicans’ strength back on them in the mid-1990s? In separate conversations, two White House officials used the same word to describe their opponents: how “crazy” will they be?
Above all, Obama needs the economy to brighten. If it does, then what began as an extraordinary story more than two years ago will have yet another twist. As Ronald Reagan, the president whose achievement Obama is so keen to emulate, might put it, this movie ain’t over yet. – guardian.co.uk