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Obama could yet make New Labour’s mistake

MOST liberal post-mortems of the US presidential contest have been pretty upbeat; many comfortingly assert that the Republicans can never win again.

The GOP is said to be irretrievably out of sync with the new America of openly lesbian senators, women who know their bodies cannot shut down rape pregnancies, and ever-increasing numbers of Latinos with no plans to ‘self-deport’ any time soon.

Google quickly brings up dozens of gleeful and triumphalist variations on this basic theme. The clearest example, at least on this side of the pond, emanates from Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian, who hails the result as confirmation of ‘the arrival of the Obama nation’.

Even some front line figures on the US right realise that a strategy of clinging to religion and guns no longer passes muster:

“The demographics race we’re losing badly,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

But there is one trend that liberals either have not noticed, or are at least strangely reluctant to factor in. While I have seen differing figures quoted for each candidate’s overall final tally, Obama lost at least six million votes compared to his haul in 2008, while Romney came within a few hundred thousand of McCain’s support level four years ago.

The main reason for that will be readily obvious to those who can remember the tremendous enthusiasm brought about by the victory of New Labour in 1997.

While nobody believed that Blair would institute the New Jerusalem overnight, many Labour supporters desperately wanted to believe that the stances he adopted as leader of the opposition were largely a con trick designed to anaesthetise the British equivalent of the red states.

Unlike Obama, Blair went easy on offering much by way of hopey-changey stuff in the first place. But there was so much to be done; surely any Labour government would take the chance to enact a social democratic agenda after almost two decades of Thatcher and Major?

Instead, Tory anti-union laws stayed in place, and Tory privatisation measures were often pushed further. Cuts in corporation tax cut were financed by tuition fees, reductions in benefits for single mothers and the disabled, and tough measures against asylum seekers.

Income inequality continued to grow, in an atmosphere of intense relaxation about the filthy rich. Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded and Trident renewed.

Over three parliamentary terms, New Labour shed five million votes – the bulk of them lost to mass abstention – and by 2010, it effectively handed the Tories and the Lib Dems victory by default.

The Obama story offers a frighteningly similar script. After whipping up initial euphoria widely compared with that last witnessed during the Kennedy era, he did nothing to sustain it.

Unemployment rose sharply in his first years at the White House, and even now it remains higher than it was under Bush. While Wall Street and General Motors have an awful lot to be thankful for, the gap between rich and poor continues to get ever greater.

There was no meaningful action on climate change, and despite clear majority support for universal health care, the Obama administration water down its initial plans at the behest of the healthcare majors, to a point where the changes will be nugatory for many.

While the Iraq war was finally declared over, the US is still embroiled in propping up the openly crooked regime of Karzai in Afghanistan, and operations in that conflict have spilled over into Pakistan. In clear contravention of a 2008 campaign pledge, Guantanamo remains open.

Obama has secured a second term, even though he has parted company with millions of those he once so enthused. I am glad about that.

Unfortunately, if he stays within the parameters that have constrained him until now and sticks to policies that will create mass disillusion, the predictions of an ‘Obama nation’ may prove hollow sooner than some pundits anticipate.

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