Obama’s Long Game
By Michael MaherFebruary 6, 2012
He came to power amid soaring rhetoric and impossibly high expectations. Now, beset by a crippled economy, President Obama needs more than Republican infighting to win four more years in the White House.
Don Rose was schooled in the Chicago way. And there's no tougher political school in the United States. A 60-year veteran of the Windy City's knock 'em down, drag 'em out campaigns he was Martin Luther King Jr.'s press secretary, he helped elect the city's first black and first woman mayors, and, from the left, he fought the Daley clan, one of the country's most powerful and feared political dynasties, which ran Chicago for 43 years.
Along the way Don Rose also mentored a young journalist named David Axelrod. Axelrod, of course, went on to run what is widely regarded as one of the most successful campaigns waged in US political history, elevating a junior African-American senator from Illinois into the White House. He's now back in Chicago at the helm of the headquarters for President Barack Obama's re-election bid. "They'll be even better than 2008," predicts Rose. "This is Axelrod's last campaign, and he'll want to go out on a high note."
The Obama campaign is presently in a brief hiatus as the Republican Party does its work for it. The nomination process for the Republicans' presidential candidate has been a marathon in which the contestants' every conceivable weakness, foible and past slip-ups are paraded before the public. As Rose points out: "For the Obama team at the moment, it's a case of holding onto the Republicans' coat-tails and letting them fight." Such are the benefits of incumbency. But once a candidate is chosen - and at this stage it appears it will be Mitt Romney - the 2012 presidential campaign will begin in earnest.
According to Paul Kengor, a conservative commentator and author of a soon to be published book delving into Obama's left-wing past: "Obama's team wants to run against Romney and make him the poster boy for greed on Wall Street. Axelrod will frame him as Mr Wall Street," says Kengor, "and if he can't respond to that he's in real trouble."
Nine months out from the November poll, the Obama campaign is in a better position than it expected. In fact, a year ago, with unemployment at nearly 10 per cent, there was much talk about a one-term presidency. But now the sclerotic US economy is showing some small signs that its condition is improving. The critical unemployment figure is slowly declining and there is a sense that, so long as Europe doesn't implode, a gradual recovery may be underway.
In addition, the Republican Party has been engaged in an ideological battle between its newer, more conservative Tea Party rump and its older, more moderate establishment. The end result is a party, says Kengor, whose base is less engaged. "There's definitely some degree of pessimism among Republicans, a feeling that they could be nominating someone better." Kengor says, "there's a sense that in 2016 the field will be stronger."
That's not to say the Republicans won't be expending every bit of political firepower they have in 2012 to remove President Obama from the White House. And clearly he's vulnerable.
Yale University historian Professor Beverly Gage says, "The jury is still out on the Age of Obama. Americans really aren't sure what to think about his first term. A lot of Democrats think Obama - outside of healthcare - has squandered his first term."
Gage likens Obama to another Democratic president, Woodrow Wilson, elected 100 years ago: "Wilson didn't have a lot of political experience. He was a university professor who came in with big ideas. In his first two years there was a flurry of legislation, including the creation of the Federal Reserve, and then he was barely reelected."
Don Rose prefers to draw an analogy with Democratic president Harry Truman, who ran for re-election in 1948 amid widespread predictions that he would lose by a big margin. Truman ran a campaign against a Republican-controlled Congress which had stymied his "Fair Deal" package of reforms. "Obama is going to run a Trumanesque campaign against Congress," Rose predicts. "He'll say this is a Congress that voted to kill the popular Medicare program, to turn it into a voucher system. He will argue that the Republican candidate is beholden to the Republican Congress.
"Obama chose much too long to maintain the myth of bipartisanship," adds Rose. "He should have got off that hobby horse much earlier."
Ironically there's a view in some Republican circles, according to Paul Kengor, that the Congress has inadvertently helped Obama's election chances. Kengor says: "Axelrod will fire up the base with lots of class warfare talk, but Obama has been aided by the election of a Republican congress which has prevented him from implementing more left-wing policies."
In the coming months forests will be felled, TV cables burnt out and computers crashed covering what is without doubt the greatest political extravaganza on Earth. But how closely will Earth be watching?
Gone are the bedazzled early days when the Norwegians bestowed a Nobel Peace Prize on President Obama merely for being elected. On the foreign policy front there will be little to inspire the world's attention in the same manner as 2008. The Obama campaign will run heavily on the successful operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan. The underlying theme will be: The US is getting rid of as many of its foreign distractions as it can to focus full-time on reviving the economy.
"These days he 'owns' the economy," says Don Rose. "He's no longer walking on water." A jaundiced and disillusioned American electorate will have to be convinced that its political system can deliver the outcomes the nation needs to progress at a time when confidence in that system is at an historic low.
This is hardly the first time the US electorate has faced a crisis. Professor Gage, who writes and teaches early 20th century politics, points out that the early 1900s was a period of brutal labor conflict, economic downturns and the pressures associated with massive immigration. "Nonetheless," she says, "people still articulated their politics in terms of unbridled optimism despite the fact that conditions were more tumultuous then than they are now in the 21st century."
According to Gage: "You still hear politicians talking about a bright future, but that's now not part of the zeitgeist. Americans are less optimistic about the future."
Following two protracted wars, the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression and an enervating political gridlock in Washington, DC, the American electorate might be forgiven for feeling less optimistic about the future. In this presidential election few voters will be convinced by the soaring rhetoric of hope and change that carried Barack Obama to the White House in 2008. And for their part, the Republicans will have to contend with the perception that they are the Party of No, stymieing reform when and where its most needed.
Back in 2008 when Barack Obama's campaign was surprising everyone by cutting a swathe through US politics, Don Rose said his former boss Martin Luther King Jr would be "chortling to himself, sitting back and having a small glass of wine, as he would occasionally, and saying, 'My work is finally done.'"
Four years on, I asked Rose the same question and he replied: "I think he'd be looking down at the monument that was just created for him on the Mall in Washington, DC, and saying. 'This pile of rocks means nothing. I just wish they'd finish my work.'"