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20 November 2017 11:50 (South Africa)
Politics

The least surprising announcement of 2011: Barack Obama is running for re-election

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Politics
obama announces

US President Barack Obama is now officially running for his second term. “Yes we can” and “Change you can believe in” are no longer the rallying cries. This time the campaign to re-elect Barack Obama was launched with an email to millions of supporters and an Internet video entitled “It Begins with Us”. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

This web video was a soft-focus montage of average Americans who got all dewy-eyed at the very mention of Barack Obama’s upcoming effort to keep the White House in Democratic hands next year. Obama election campaign loyalist Jim Messina now heads up the official campaign to be headquartered in Chicago, Illinois - Obama’s adopted home state. (New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny recently wrote that Messina is “the most influential person in the president’s inner circle whom many people have never heard of”.)

In response, the Republicans countered with their own web message – a usual vivid scare-a-thon of the spectres of unemployment, drift, a spending-the-country-into-the-poorhouse and a lack of leadership. From their side, the Democrats plan to build upon their massive investment in 2008 in Internet-based fundraising and the use of social networking to mobilise voters and campaign workers – and they hope to raise as much as $1 billion in campaign contributions (versus $750 million in 2008) to re-elect Obama, or roughly $5/potential voter.

Just a few months ago it looked like the Obama administration might be headed for a second trip to the woodshed as a resurgent Republican Party – goaded on by those presumably angry, disaffected “Tea Party-iers” – carried out an electoral coup that displaced a major Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, put Republican governors and state legislators in charge in a clutch of state capitals and very nearly captured the Senate from the Democrats as a bonus.

Watch It Begins with Us video:

But, that was then; this is now. Unemployment has fallen to its two-year low at 8.8% from nearly 10% and the Obama administration has continued its stated plans to wind down those pesky, distracting military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even as it entered a new, less well understood, tactically limited military campaign in Libya, Obama’s personal popularity has stabilised above 50%, and even his “doing a good job” ratings, despite all the flak he has taken from his opposition, are over the mid-point line.

In response, the Republican Party’s potential candidates have, to a considerable degree, remained just that – potential candidates.  As The New York Times’ resident conservative columnist, Ross Douthat wrote on Monday: “A month from now, the contenders for the 2012 Republican nomination were supposed to appear at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., for the first of their primary debates. But the list of declared candidates is so pitifully short that last week the debate was postponed until September, to avoid the embarrassment of a stage potentially populated only by Tim Pawlenty and the pizza magnate Herman Cain….When it comes to challenging Barack Obama for the presidency, the Party of Lincoln looks increasingly like a party of Mario Cuomos [sometimes called the ‘Hamlet on the Hudson’ for his inability to decide to run for the presidency when he was governor of New York, despite his uncontested rhetorical and inspirational gifts]. Its biggest names and brightest lights are mainly competing to offer excuses for why they won’t be running in 2012.

“Fifteen years ago, in the wake of the 1994 Republican revolution, conservatives were in a similar position [as now] – fresh from a mid-term victory, but politically overextended, struggling to persuade a wary public to embrace limited government in practice as well as theory. Out of a mediocre primary field, they ended up with Bob Dole as their standard bearer. Their cause did not soon recover.”

So far, while some experienced – and some not-so-experienced – Republican politicians have publicly explored their potential interest in becoming the party’s candidates, only former governor of Minnesota Tom Pawlenty (the bland, good, limited government but totally “whitebread”-style candidate) has really crossed over into declared candidate territory.

Others, like Newt Gingrich (the former Speaker of the House in Congress with that complex private life story that is offering boundless entertainment), Mitt Romney (the former governor of Massachusetts, successful businessman, but seriously limited by his numerous flip-flops and Mormon religious faith), Mike Huckabee (the former governor of Arkansas, evangelical preacher and down-home, just folks aphorist and a man who once proudly deep-fried a squirrel), Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (the one with that disturbing penchant for over-hyper-extra-apocalyptic-exaggeration about terrorism or when speaking about the costs for Obama’s foreign trips), Rand and Ron Paul (the son and father team of the new libertarian senator and the old libertarian congressman), a self-aggrandising businessman and hair model Donald Trump (no, really!) and that guy who made millions of dollars selling frozen pizzas have all edged closer to formal declarations, but each has held back at the final step for a variety of strategic or tactical reasons.

For some, the argument for hanging back is that a semi-sorta-kinda-almost status avoids the considerable expenses (and voluminous regulations) of a formally declared candidacy, even as it allows wannabe, would-be candidates to test those clichéd waters and fine-tune applause lines to see which ones may resonate with potential supporters. Doing this they are relying on free media coverage as print publications, the endless TV political talk shows and the relentless political blogosphere chase after these pseudo-candidates for comments on each other - and on Barack Obama and his administration.

Watch National Republican Senatorial Committee ad:

Still others, like Haley Barbour (the rotund, never-met-a-lobbyist-he-didn’t-like former governor of Mississippi and Republican National Committee chair), Sarah Palin (yeah, her), Indiana governor Mitch Daniels and former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, continue to do a more distant – now you see it, now you don’t – tease with voters, potential supporters and campaign contributors. This is to see if their supposed vulnerabilities are real or if they can still be overcome with a clever phrase, zinger of a campaign statement or even a thoughtful policy position or two.

However, the challenge for any Republican candidate now is that what worked in the party’s favour last November – campaign promises to rein in government spending, repeal what they have called the “Obamacare” health reform plan, and castigation of Obama’s reliance on multilateralism in international affairs - may come back to haunt Republicans. The sparring match between Republicans and Democrats over the 2011 budget, with Republican pledges to cut at first, $100 billion and now at least $66 billion in discretionary government spending in the new budget may play well with their base, the so-called movement conservatives. However, the Obama administration is now betting that the threat or the reality of a temporary closure of government will ultimately end up with Republicans catching the blame for the disruption of government programmes and projects.

Moreover, it is likely that any real shrinkage of government programmes from such a budget-cutting exercise would ultimately frighten potential voters who embrace each of the individual programmes to be cut more than it would cheer the Republican base. The reason is, in part, the so-called Washington Monument ploy – if you cut the budget of the National Parks Service administrators will decide to restrict the hours of entry to popular national parks and monuments rather than shrink less visible human resources training or the purchase of new photocopiers and paperclips. The Democrats made just such an effort work during the Clinton administration in the shutdown of 1995 and analysts agree that one result of that ploy was the loss of a Republican majority in Congress the following year when voters held them responsible for the disruptions. With a president who has the communication skills of a Barack Obama, the Democrats are betting they can make their case for smaller cuts much more effectively than the Republicans can make theirs for a draconian whack at the federal budget, and with electoral effects similar to those some 15 years ago.

It should be noted that neither party is really setting out the problem for voters so far – the major contributors to federal spending are not the discretionary programmes most people think of first such as foreign aid or grants to libraries. Rather, Social Security (old age pensions), Medicare (the medical plan for the elderly), Medicaid (the medical plan for the poverty-stricken), military spending and servicing the national debt are the real offenders. Cutting almost anything else is fiddling at the margins and few politicians, Democrat or Republican, really want to confront this unpleasant reality.

But, put together a reasonable chance for continuing declines in unemployment in the next 18 months, an increasingly likely revival of the overall economy, the growing promise of a military withdrawal from both Iraq and Afghanistan – and at least the possibility of a successful, short, and no-US-casualties campaign in Libya – and you have the basic makings of a resounding Democratic victory in November 2012. It is this uncomfortable current reality that is. so far, frightening away Republican candidates.

This means the eventual Republican presidential candidate will be someone prepared to be a sacrificial offering for the good of the party – somebody has to run, after all. This candidate becomes the type of person who will, very much like Bob Dole in 1996, clear the decks for the rebuilding needed for the 2016 campaign and a resurgence of new, interesting, fresh, attractive candidates. At this early stage, the 2012 GOP candidate sounds a lot like someone who looks a like Mitt Romney, a man who will tirelessly campaign for himself. Then again, there is only one way to find out. Strap yourself in and enjoy the greatest political ride on Earth. DM


For more, read and watch:

Photo: President Barack Obama reviews his prepared remarks on Egypt at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, Feb. 11, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • Politics

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