November 17th, 2008 by Rightsideup

A thought has occurred to me in the last few days and has been percolating since then, and it is that Barack Obama is Tony Blair. No, obviously, Tony Blair was not the first black prime minister of the United Kingdom. He didn’t break down racial and cultural barriers in the way that Barack Obama has. But although it’s been exciting to focus on all that stuff since Obama’s election victory, I think it’s actually a lot less important in the long term than a number of other facets of Obama’s campaign and presidency, and those bear a much stronger resemblance to Tony Blair.

So what am I talking about? Try the following:

  • After an unpopular conservative government lasts much longer than anyone thought it would, partly thanks to the opposition trusting its fate several times in a row to leaders who have very little personal appeal, a charismatic leader finally brings the liberal party to power with a resounding victory [the unpopular leaders in the US were Al Gore and John Kerry; in the UK they were Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock]
  • The appeal of the new leader is based to a large extent on things separate from his party, and he has made a number of changes to his party’s usual platform, moving it to the center, in order to be elected. [Blair famously ditched Clause 4, calling for the nationalization of industry, in 1995, and engaged in a broader modernization of the Labour Party; Obama has promised to cut taxes and opposes gay marriage]
  • Personal charisma and a way with words is a major appeal for the candidate at the head of the ticket.
  • It is unclear what major policy changes will be made should the candidate be victorious – voters to some extent project their own hoped-for changes onto the candidate in a way that is likely to leave many disappointed by the reality.
  • The victor’s youth and hipness are also part of the appeal, bringing out young voters who haven’t voted before, and suggesting a broader takeover of key institutions by the young.

I could probably go on, but those strike me as the most important aspects of the comparison.

Now, here’s the point. Tony Blair’s story started well, and he solidified his appeal with a number of subsequent actions, notably (though not importantly, in the grand scheme of things) his handling of the death of Princess Diana. But over the next 10 years, his appeal waned and cracks began to show in the image that had been so carefully constructed, because Tony Blair was not the superhuman some imagined him to be, and because the very nature of his ‘Third Way’ political philosophy meant making compromises and so disappointing those on both ends of the political spectrum. Realpolitik also kicked in over issues like the war in Kosovo and subsequently the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which showed that idealism has its limits as a governing philosophy. He also failed to make a significant impact in the lives of ordinary citizens, with his main achievements being constitutional rather than everyday in nature – half-hearted and still unfinished reform of the House of Lords and devolution in Scotland and Wales. On the key issue of reform of the National Health Service – an interesting parallel to Obama’s promise to extend health coverage to more of the population – the approach was simply to throw more of taxpayers’ money at the issue without meaningful improvements – another disappointment.

I think Barack Obama’s course over the next four or eight years might well follow a similar trajectory. As with Tony Blair, the unpopularity of the government he is replacing and the sheer freshness of his approach will lend him an early imperviousness to criticism as he enjoys a sustained honeymoon period of 1-2 years. There will of course be small missteps (hopefully no big ones) and his opponents will no doubt criticise him consistently, as is their right. But the press and much of the population as a whole will largely give him a free pass for the first little while. However, after the honeymoon period people will begin to demand real results and changes. Although these will be relatively easy to make in the first few months, most will again be symbolic in nature and have little impact on the population as a whole – banning torture and closing Gitmo are among his first priorities according to his 60 Minutes interview but won’t affect any US citizens in a big way – while fixing the economy is a mammoth task started by the incumbent – his predecessor – and likely to take a long time.

The lack of substance which his opponents derided on the campaign trail but which his supporters seemed happy to overlook may eventually translate into a mistrust of anything he says, as they did with Tony Blair. There is no high-profile Alastair Campbell (Tony Blair’s spin doctor and something of an equivalent to Karl Rove and Dick Cheney combined) in the Obama camp as yet, but he may fall prey to the Emperor’s New Clothes phenomenon as Blair did. People stopped trusting Blair because they felt everything he did was about style and presentation rather than substance even when in office – and Obama needs to make sure he makes that transition after taking office – recognizing that people expect their president to do substantive things whereas style is an acceptable substitute in an election.

In four years’ time the honeymoon effect may still be strong enough, and Obama’s personal appeal lasting enough, that he will beat anyone but a really strong and charismatic opponent (unless he becomes another Jimmy Carter and really blows his first term). But by the end of a second term, it is quite possible that America will be very tired of Obama and his endless platitudes, lack of clear policy direction, feeble accomplishments and mishandling of key situations.

As a Republican, I hope the electorate quickly sees through the Obama charm and holds him fully accountable, and that the media does this too (they don’t like being manipulated any more than voters do). But I think this is unlikely to happen until at least midway through the first term, and I think the Republicans have to be very disciplined in finding leaders who can speak out articulately and clearly when Obama goes wrong while not simply defaulting to criticizing everything the man does, which makes voters discount everything they say. We need intelligent and well argued criticism of the Obama administration and cogent arguments for the alternative reality a Republican president would bring about.

The British Conservative Party unfortunately spent the first eight or so of its now 11 years out of power wandering around in the desert without a clear strategy for regaining power, seemingly powerless in the face of Tony Blair’s charm offensive. They have now apparently stumbled upon a winning strategy with another young and relatively charismatic leader willing to make changes. I don’t think the same solution will win it for the Republicans, but I certainly hope they reach the right conclusion much more quickly than their British counterparts.

Epilogue: this piece was entirely my idea and based on my original thinking, but as I began writing I did a Google search and found that I am not alone in reaching at least some of these conclusions. Among the others making the Blair/Obama comparison are:

The first of these does a nice job of ripping the Blair government’s legacy to shreds in a way I don’t have space to here – and may offer a preview of some of what the Obama presidency will bring. But it’s worth bearing in mind that the US and the UK are very different places with very different histories, so the parallels certainly have limitations.

November 17th, 2008 by Rightsideup

As predicted before the election, there’s been a massive round of post-mortem analysis focused on where the Republicans went wrong and the disastrous state the party is in at this point. Here’s a roundup of some of the pieces that have appeared on CNN.com on this topic recently (I tend to use CNN.com as my main source of main stream news – not because I think it’s particularly unbiased but simply because it often has the broadest coverage, and has recently added commentary from key figures on both sides – an interesting feature):

It’s a mix of stupid stuff, more thoughtful stuff (some of which is still wrong) and sensible thinking. The first post is just ridiculous, having as one of its main arguments that the Republican party doesn’t have a leader – did the Democratic party have a leader in 2000 or 2004? No – of course not – that’s just not the way US presidential elections work – unlike, say, UK general elections, where the leader of the losing party remains leader unless an explicit change is made.Zakaria makes some of the same arguments more thoughtfully, and though I think he’s wrong on most of what he says, it at least appears he’s thought about them.

On the other hand, I find Governor Sanford’s remarks (the second link in the list above) and those of Tony Perkins (in the last link) to be much closer to my own views on this subject, as expressed in my final pre-election thoughts a couple of weeks ago. I really think the issue for the GOP hasn’t been its ideas are stale or wrong, but that it hasn’t argued them cogently or governed accordingly when in power.

The whole ‘Joe the Plumber‘ episode towards the end of the election cycle proved that when GOP ideas are well articulated by the right people they have real appeal. Unfortunately, Joe the plumber made the case much better than John the politician, and there’s lots that the leaders of the Republican party can learn from him and those like him – and from Ronald Reagan, who was really the last leader of the GOP to do this well. Newt Gingrich has real potential in this department, but I think his role should be helping a presidential candidate formulate arguments along these lines rather than running for that office himself in 2012.