A Less Perfect Union
Obama’s next challenge
By Peter Conrad
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The morning after the American election, I allowed myself a spasm of relief: it was good to see the slick salesman Romney, his Barbie-brained wife and their factory-manufactured brood shunted off into oblivion. Then, almost as soon as Obama had finished his victory speech, I went back to worrying – not about him, but about the process that almost by mistake produced the right result, and about the ever more ungovernable society and unworkable political system with which he has struggled to cope.
The happy outcome didn’t atone for the absurdity or obscenity of the electoral campaign, which lasted for more than a year and consumed more than $2 billion. I don’t often find myself agreeing with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president whose harangues at the United Nations provoke Americans to apoplexy, but he got it right a few days later when he said, while in Bali attending what sounds like a luxurious and entirely unnecessary conference about democracy (co-chaired by Julia Gillard), that the election had been “a battleground for capitalists”. Romney’s wealth and his astute finagling of the tax laws remained a scandal to the end, but even Obama, who financed his 2008 campaign by attracting modest online donations from numberless admirers, this time wallowed in cash: the Democrats raised $114 million in August alone.
What the money paid for was advertising, which has transformed US elections into tawdry showbiz. At his victory rally, Obama strolled on to the sound of a Stevie Wonder song; the day before, campaigning in Ohio, he shared the stage with Bruce Springsteen and the rapper Jay-Z. I don’t object to a free concert, and am only grateful that Romney didn’t retaliate by marshalling the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but shouldn’t these occasions be about the discussion of ideas, not excuses for a singalong?
Advertising relies on slogans and mantras endlessly repeated until all meaning is pummelled out of them. This year Obama couldn’t claim to be the candidate of CHANGE since, thanks to an obstructive Congress, little has actually altered since 2008. His chosen buzzword was therefore FORWARD, which catered to the incorrigible American belief that everything will always go on getting better. Romney, having no ideas of his own, borrowed Obama’s previous battle cry and offered CHANGE FROM DAY ONE. No one seemed to remember that the promise about Day One – when Romney would certainly have been busy, because he intended in the first assiduous hours of his administration to repeal Obama’s health-care legislation and then brand China a currency manipulator – was purloined from one of Hillary Clinton’s commercials in the 2008 primaries, when she hoped to contrast her seasoned preparedness with the gawky inexperience of Obama.
The television debates should be a forum for expounding and examining policy. Instead, given the glossy logic of the medium that transmits them, they are visual spectacles, all about the wattage of personality that’s emitted. The candidates are trained to behave with a folksy ingratiation, as if they were hoping to be hired as the nation’s anchorman. In the first debate Obama occasionally paused for thought or switched off the evangelical smile that Americans esteem so highly – they must, after all, get some return for their expensive dental work – which was interpreted as weariness, indifference or hauteur, and that downcast gaze cost him his lead in the polls. In the vice-presidential debate, Joe Biden openly scorned Paul Ryan’s fantastical economics: his justified incredulity counted as bad manners, and the commentators asked why he was refusing to ‘play nice’. Against protests from the campaigns, the networks this year took to using a split screen, keeping both speaker and listener in view throughout. That tipped the balance from auditory to visual, from words to faces; the result was a physiognomic trial, like a poker game.
Given the skewed nature of American values, Obama may have been elected for the wrong reasons. Polls in October suggested that people would vote for him because they ‘liked’ him, not because they thought he would solve their problems. Aware of this predilection, the Republicans were desperate to vilify the man. One party boss emerged from his smoke-filled conspiratorial den to describe Obama as a highbrow loner who trusted no one. He had even, allegedly, watched the Super Bowl on his own, not with a gang of chugalugging, peanut-gnawing cronies. For a red-blooded American, that’s tantamount to autism.
As for ‘We, the People’, the anonymous mass of Americans whose aspirations are imprinted on the dollar bill, well, they were at best spectators. On the day of the election BBC News sent a camera trailing down a queue of voters at a polling station in Florida, while Huw Edwards marvelled at the “150 million people who are taking part in this contest”. To call the election a contest annexes it, perhaps aptly, to American Idol, but since the electoral college overrules the popular vote by allowing the winner in most states to take all, were those who turned out to exercise their franchise genuinely taking part? Given that polling has become such a precise science, the whole exhaustingly prolonged jamboree could be abbreviated, simplified and made more cost-efficient by allowing a focus group in Ohio to choose the next president, which in fact is what usually happens.
Obama of course gave a superb speech when claiming victory. Rhythmic repetitions of “forward” lifted it aloft; crowds of cheering believers produced the hot air required to keep it there. He must have known that the same obdurate Congress and the same divided country – split down the middle between red and blue states that demonise each other in an undeclared civil war – would surely continue to frustrate his efforts. He tried, guardedly, to tell the truth about the state of the nation, and started by saying that his task would be “perfecting our union”. But he later reverted to the usual prophetic fervour by declaring that “for the United States of America the best is yet to come”.
Really? The country is tiptoeing towards the dreaded fiscal cliff; the deficit increases faster than the blink rate of a felon; everything depends on how long the smiling, sapient Chinese are prepared to extend credit; in the red states, the fundamentalists impatiently await the cataclysm that will be the cue for their enraptured levitation. In 2011 the magazine Foreign Affairs asked a stark, shocking question on its cover: “Is America Over?” More recently Frank Rich sensed a “declinist panic” provoked by the continuing recession, and wrote a cover story for New York magazine that interred the American dream. More than 70 years after John Curtin said “Australia looks towards America”, even Julia Gillard has announced that she is looking towards Asia, too.
In March 2008, while campaigning in Philadelphia, Obama gave a brave, accusatory yet compassionate speech about race, which began with another riff about the imperfection of the American union. He went on to talk about the United States’ “improbable experiment in democracy” – as improbable as his own candidacy then seemed. He became probable, but the quarrelsomely disunited United States currently looks like an experiment that is failing. In this campaign Obama left the editorialising to Bill Clinton, whom he dubbed the “Secretary of State for Explaining Stuff”. It is time for him to do his own tough talking again, and to tell Americans some hard home truths.