THE BIG READ: Hope springs leak in US - Times LIVE
Tue Apr 25 14:25:36 SAST 2017

THE BIG READ: Hope springs leak in US

Andrew Marr | 2012-11-06 00:10:40.0
A t-shirt features an image of U.S. President Barack Obama during an election campaign rally at McArthur High School in Florida
A T-shirt features an image of US President Barack Obama during an election campaign rally at McArthur High School in Hollywood, Florida at the weekend

So Sandy arrived right in the last act, smashing and thrashing, killing and ripping. Has this latest tempestuous eruption been the deus ex machina - or the deus ex Atlantic - to settle one of America's most extraordinary and bitterly fought presidential elections?

It won Barack Obama an endorsement from one of America's most popular Republicans, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who fears climate change is to blame; and an embrace from another admired Republican governor, Chris Christie of New Jersey.

But will the Sandy Effect really sway votes in swing states thousands of miles away? Obama has not had a good campaign. His hugs and his rousing words after the hurricane were one thing, but his low-energy, stumbling performance in the first presidential debate left supporters aghast and Mitt Romney's team suddenly emboldened.

It has been a savage campaign, and for good reason. America's culture wars have never been angrier. The country remains mired in debt - $16-trillion (about R139-trillion), up $6-trillion under Obama - of which $1.4-trillion is owned by America's new existential rival, China. The US Treasury said the legal debt ceiling will be hit by the end of the year.

Jobs have been exported in huge numbers. The middle classes have been getting poorer for years. Only the super-rich have experienced a rise in real incomes.

As a passionate admirer of the US, I have to admit that to visitors, America no longer feels quite like the future. There are the potholed roads and tired-looking airports and malls. Natural disasters aside, this is beginning to feel like a nation needing a lick of paint.

I went with a film crew from President Obama's home base of Chicago, through Washington and New York, talking to people who knew him and some of his sharper critics. We carried with us a simple question: whatever happened to hope? How could someone with such a tailwind of popular enthusiasm fall so far in public esteem?

Part of the answer goes back to the consequences of the banking crisis when Obama was first elected. Talking to Austan Goolsbee, the Chicago economist at Obama's side during the 2008 campaign and the first period in office, you get a vivid picture of the near panic as atrocious figures poured in. It wasn't simply Wall Street in trouble. There was a pervasive sense that US capitalism was facing a crisis at least as big as that of the Great Depression.

At one point, Goolsbee said to President-elect Obama that he thought no president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, or perhaps Lincoln in 1861, had faced such a grim background briefing. Obama said: "Goolsbee, that's not even my worst briefing this week." By pouring money in, many believe Obama saved America from economic collapse. But there are others who question whether it produced the right effect.

Nothing has divided the US as deeply as the "Obamacare" changes to health funding. What seems from a European perspective a civilised amelioration of injustice in the hugely expensive US health market, feels to millions of Americans like a socialist big-state intrusion into their personal affairs.

We spoke to people on all sides - Chicago Republicans who felt an inexperienced president had been so obsessed with healthcare he had taken his eye off the economy, and Democrats baffled by the fury such a moderate change had brought.

Two things became clear. The first was that both sides were no longer hearing each other. Perhaps there is nothing much Obama could have done about that. But the second conclusion is that he proved a poor persuader in his own case. The first presidential debate rammed that home. Good at soaring speeches; less good at looking voters in the eye and winning them over on the detail. Pulpit, yes. Bear pit, no.

America faces huge challenges to modernise its economy, dealing with debt, joblessness, infrastructure and inequality. It is impossible to avoid a sense of almost existential insecurity, dark shadows in the still-bright American dream.

That will mean harder choices than either Obama or Romney have articulated in the campaign.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs blamed Obama for the lack of real change offered to a country not in good shape. He went back to the original stimulus.

"Starting from a $1-trillion deficit at that point, the government was proposing to raise it to about $1.5-trillion and I thought, that's rather shocking. What's the plan?"

Obama came in at a tough time and has faced a divided country. Republicans in Congress never cut him much slack and after the 2010 mid-term elections he was hamstrung. Then again, he hasn't proved good at winning arguments or reaching across the divide.

This has caused a rethink among Democratic strategists. Cornell Belcher, the black pollster who helped to create Obama's 2008 movement and is a strategist for the current campaign, complained "there is an unprecedented level of disrespect for this president. And they know it is because he doesn't look like any other president we've ever had". Is this about race, I ask. "Yes, but also about culture - about a group of people uncomfortable with the changes in America."

This drove Obama to indulge in attack ads on Romney of a kind he abjured four years ago. They don't seem to have had the effect his strategists hoped for. Another Democratic pollster, Anna Greenberg, feels middle-of-the-road voters don't regard Obama as the miracle-worker he once seemed: "People like him, but they don't love him the way they loved him in 2008. He's a human being now."

He is hardly the first leader to over-promise, then under-deliver. I met plenty of people still illuminated by the half-light of "hope", who think in a second term Obama will bring real change. He remains a symbol of America's ability continually to reinvent itself.

It's fine to believe in revivalist rhetoric and miracles; less fine if you choose to worship a politician. - © The Sunday Telegraph


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