Billionaires, bigotry and Barack
The US elections may seem safely distant to outsiders but many American pundits are confidently predicting a struggle for Obama to survive the disappointed hopes and lack of change in his first term. Predictably, a central concern is the candidates’ relative war chests, and their capacity to raise huge sums of money quickly – formerly one of Obama’s marked strengths. Here the playing field has tilted significantly. Despite Congress’s recent attempts to reform campaign finance, political money has never been less constrained. This favoured Obama in 2008 but handicaps him severely today.
A 2010 Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United v Federal Election Commission) interpreted donations to Political Action Commitees (PACs) as a form of “political speech” and opened the door for the so-called Super-PACs, whose exorbitant budgets dwarf traditional financing. Wealthy Americans have not been slow to grasp the implications of the revolution and have given generously – mostly to the Republican Party. The New Yorker writer Jane Mayer recently noted that “[b]y August, at least thirty-three American billionaires had each given a quarter of a million dollars, or more, to groups whose aim is to defeat Obama” (30 more than the billionaires supporting Obama – who have also given much less lavishly). One month earlier, the two largest GOP Super PACs raised about US$122 million, more than four times as much as the corresponding Democratic Super PACs.
Mitt Romney, flush with his own sizable fortune from a career in private equity, has proved a reassuring candidate for the super-wealthy, while Obama (formerly a vocal critic of campaign finance abuses) has struggled to make them feel appreciated. This may speak volumes for Obama’s character and integrity, but Mayer notes that it could leave the Democrats dangerously short of television advertising time in the run up to the election. By then fundraising may be irrelevant since there will be no media time left for the President’s message.
Dominance of the airwaves is especially important when the central issue of the election is the economy. The conservative economic historian Niall Ferguson recently wrote a sharply critical overview of the Obama years for Newsweek magazine. Ferguson’s critics took issue with his choice, and presentation, of key economic statistics and claimed that Obama was being unfairly blamed for the consequences of a recession he didn’t cause. Their nuanced responses will interest the small segment of the American electorate with the time and resources to follow political conversations in detail, but a much larger portion will remember the carefully honed soundbites in Ferguson’s article, widely dispersed through the broadcast media, such as: “The voters now face a stark choice. They can let Barack Obama’s rambling, solipsistic narrative continue until they find themselves in some American version of Europe, with low growth, high unemployment, even higher debt – and real geopolitical decline. Or they can opt for real change…”
A more unsettling critique of the Obama years, by the Atlantic Monthly writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, focuses closely on the sources of Republican Party’s unrelenting hostility to the President throughout his first term. Coates persuasively argues that much of this stems from the great unmentionable in American politics: race. He isolates Obama’s statements on the shooting of Trayvon Martin as a watershed moment during the last few years and points out that: “Before President Obama spoke, the death of Trayvon Martin was generally regarded as a national tragedy. After Obama spoke, Martin became material for an Internet vendor flogging paper gun-range targets that mimicked his hoodie and his bag of Skittles. (The vendor sold out within a week.)”
Coates points out several ways in which Obama has been trapped by a culture that will accept, in the words of an Obama pollster “an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black” providing that he avoids acting like a black president – ie making any serious attempt to address, or rectify, injustices that disproportionately affect black Americans. Consequently Obama finds himself adrift in “acceptance [that] depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld.” Coates notes that this “constrict[s] Obama’s presidential potential in areas affected tangentially – or seemingly not at all – by race. Meanwhile, across the country, the community in which Obama is rooted sees this fraudulent equality, and quietly seethes.” Far from inaugurating a post-racial era in America, the Obama years have often been a painful reminder of how deep the country’s racial divide continues to run. The distrust and anger, on both sides of the equation, will undoubtedly affect the upcoming election. One distressing indicator of this development is the Republicans’ willingness, in moves reminiscent of the 2000 presidential election, to alter polling hours and tinker with other procedures that can depress black voter turnout in the November poll.
The man at the centre of all this speculation, the visibly aged and besieged Barack Obama, may yet surprise his doubters. The President has paid a huge price for his inexperience before coming to office: he dithered on healthcare, yielded too readily to insurance companies and, separately, to the titans of Wall Street; his use of drones is abhorrent and unethical, and his failure to deliver on the economy or to further the social justice that used to animate his life as a community organizer is all too well attested. Even so, the enormity of the task that fell to Obama when he took office makes this record look defensible, especially when both halves of the Republican ticket have such lacklustre personalities. For four years President Obama has been earthbound, deeply compromised and a frequent disappointment to his base. In many ways he has acted like a conservative in liberal clothing. But candidate Obama, who still has plenty of time to weave his rhetorical magic, is an irresistible force in the workaday world of American politics. If he shows up in the weeks ahead, no amount of money, mistrust or electoral manipulation will defeat him. The real issue that will determine the outcome of the next general election is whether this visionary character has survived the ravages of the first Obama presidency.