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.

July 10th, 2008 by Rightsideup

(back from vacation so likely to be posting slightly more frequently again)

CNN has a story about a Gallup poll relating to John McCain’s age and Barack Obama’s race, and it draws some strong conclusions from the poll. But it seems to me that the poll is asking the wrong questions:

The question should be, “does John McCain’s age / Barack Obama’s race make you any less likely to vote for him?” The numbers of people who say these facts are a problem in both cases are pretty tiny anyway, but nowhere in this question are voters asked to rank these concerns against other factors that may influence the way they vote. All 11% of those saying McCain’s age is a problem may think that other factors outweigh it (or may be Democratic voters who wouldn’t vote for him in the first place), while many of the 9% who think Obama’s race is a problem are probably systemic racists who would be unlikely to vote for a black man for president regardless of other factors. Don’t we need more information here to draw the kind of conclusion CNN does?

June 23rd, 2008 by Rightsideup

The problem with attempting to grab the moral high ground, as Barack Obama has sought to do in the presidential election, is that – unless you’re really serious about it and can live up to it – you essentially raise the bar for your own behavior to the point where it’s very hard to live up to the expectations you’ve created. On the other hand, if you do live up to your own billing for a period of time, you can create an aura of respectability that will cover you even when your actions are very much in contrast to your supposed ideals.

Such has been the case for Obama so far, as he is immunized against much of the fallout from his various misdeeds and missteps by the adulation of his supporters and segments of the media. However, at some point his luck will run out, and he’ll find out whether the American public prefers a man who talks a good talk but can’t live up to it, or a man who makes little claim to be anything other than a straight shooter but generally lives up to that characterization.

There are early signs that at least some Obama supporters are willing to hold him to his word. This YouTube video features an Obama supporter who is disappointed in his candidate’s abandonment both of public financing itself and of a previously stated promise to use it. It’s well worth watching, as I think this could be a sign of things to come from supporters who’ve been swept up in the oratory and grand promises and who will eventually come to realize that the actions of the candidate don’t live up to the vision he sets out. The question is whether these people will then switch to the McCain camp or simply withdraw from the political process in a negation of one of Obama’s supposed greatest achievements – the ability to get ordinary people, and especially young people, engaged in that process.

June 21st, 2008 by Rightsideup

It appears the Obama campaign has adopted a version of the Presidential Seal as a sort of logo to sit on the podium when he speaks at events, and it looks something like this:

There are several objections to this, not the least of which is that it appears to be illegal. But even more than that technical objection, there’s the issue of what it means that he has this seal. It implies a desire to appear to be the president before he’s been through the appropriate process. It suggests an unseriousness, since the Latin motto means, roughly translated, “yes we can”. But above all it’s a betrayal of one of the fundamental principles of American constitutional government – that the nation and its people are sovereign, and not the President. In other countries, including my own home country of the United Kingdom, people swear allegiance to the head of state – a King, Queen or President. But in the United States people swear allegiance to the Flag and the “republic for which it stands”.

Yes, there is a great seal that belongs to the President, but it belongs to the office, and is unchanging regardless of who holds that office. It’s a symbol of permanence and a reminder that the office and not the individual is the one to be reverenced. Obama’s very personal knock-off seems to betray several of those principles, putting his “O” at the center, his own personal (and meaningless) motto where E Pluribus Unum (again, those sovereign people) should normally sit. Even the preservation of the arrows in one of the eagle’s claws is oddly incongruous with Obama’s pacifist positions on foreign policy.

The whole thing is oddly symbolic of the Obama campaign – lack of respect for the United States, the cult of personality, meaningless slogans and conflicting messages. 

June 20th, 2008 by Rightsideup

The media’s going easy on Obama again (contrary to his bizarre suggestion here that the media has been going easy on McCain). This time it’s in relation to his incredible about-face on taking public financing. He and John McCain had made a deal (publicly announced at the time) that they would both take public financing, which is supposed to make the whole process fairer, more transparent and so on (if you’re into that kind of thing). Now he’s dumped the deal, without even talking to the McCain campaign about it first, something else they had promised to do.

The announcement was made in a video (available here on Obama’s website) to supporters. Under the video, the beg for additional funds comes under the heading, “Declare your independence from a broken system”. He just gets more audacious all the time, doesn’t he? The video thing is interesting – you can look at it from the cynical or non-cynical point of view. The cynical POV is that he did a video because when he says stuff people are swept along, but when you see the same words written down they leave you cold (apparently, it was the same with FDR). So when you have a tough message to get out, like this, you have the wonder-candidate speak it to camera instead of issuing a press release. The less cynical version is that he now needs to raise funds all the more, so they turned this into a beg for money, which is often delivered in this form. Which do you think it was?

Of course, Obama’s people have suggested that there was a negotiation with the McCain campaign, and they couldn’t come to an agreement, as per this CNN article:

Obama counsel Bob Bauer said Thursday he had met with Trevor Potter, his counterpart on the McCain team, on June 6 to discuss a possible joint townhall appearance later in the month, and that the two discussed the public funding issue for 45 minutes.

“I asked him to address a [series] of issues of concern to the Obama campaign–the McCain campaign’s active raising and spending of private money since February for a general election campaign, including for media, while we were still in the middle of a primary contest,” said Bauer in a statement. “He gave me his perspectives–the best arguments he could offer for an agreement on both sides to accept public financing–and it was clear to me that these offered no basis for any further exchange.”

The same article was subsequently updated to incorporate comment from the McCain campaign, as follows:

Trevor Potter disputed the Obama campaign’s account, telling CNN Thursday that he had met with Bauer on a completely unrelated subject, and that campaign financing had only been discussed in an abstract way.

“We then spoke in general terms about the public financing system, with Bob outlining reasons it could be considered ‘broken’ or irrelevant in 2008, and I explaining why Sen. McCain remained committed to it and thought it was good for the country,” said Potter.

“Other than this informal discussion, there have been no contacts between the two campaigns on the subject, and this discussion contained no negotiations or even offer to hold negotiations. I cannot begin to explain how the Obama campaign could twist my reiteration of Sen. McCain’s support of the system, and hope the two candidates would participate in it, into what they said today,” he added

“…An attempt to imply otherwise by any representative of the Obama campaign (and an attempt to turn an informal conversation between Bob Bauer and me into a discussion of negotiations between the campaigns) is a complete misrepresentation of the facts”

Another example of the man who talks so much about integrity in the process going against his own word and pursuing exactly the route to financing so derided by so many in his own party, and then lying about the circumstances until someone contradicts his version of events. Who knows where this will go next? So much for Obama’s “purity”.

June 14th, 2008 by Rightsideup

From a speech Obama gave in Philadelphia (you know, in Pennsylvania, where bitter people cling to guns and so on):

“They’re going to try to scare people. They’re going to try to say that ‘that Obama is a scary guy,’” he said. A donor yelled out a deep accented “Don’t give in!”

“I won’t but that sounded pretty scary. You’re a tough guy,” Obama said.

“If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” Obama said. “Because from what I understand folks in Philly like a good brawl. I’ve seen Eagles fans.”

Look at that second last line, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun”. Would anyone else – especially a Republican, get away with this? Would McCain? Wouldn’t people on the left be crying out that this was irresponsible rhetoric? Pointing out that there was a mass shooting less than 2 years ago in Pennsylvania? And so on? But Obama gets away with this scot-free. Another free ride for Mr Obama. And that’s going to be the story of the campaign, unfortunately. Which means McCain needs to be that much better because he has even more than the usual bias against him with this guy.

June 6th, 2008 by Rightsideup

Here’s another roundup of things I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks but haven’t had time to cover in depth.

First, a post on Politico.com from Jonathan Martin, which compares the approaches to economic matters of Mike Huckabee and Tom Coburn, and illustrates why Huckabee was never really a serious candidate for the Republican nomination and should never be considered as one:

[From Huckabee]

The greatest threat to classic Republicanism is not liberalism; it’s this new brand of libertarianism, which is social liberalism and economic conservatism, but it’s a heartless, callous, soulless type of economic conservatism because it says, “Look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government. If it means that elderly people don’t get their Medicare drugs, so be it. If it means little kids go without education and health care, so be it.” Well, that might be a, quote, pure economic conservative message, but it’s not an American message. It doesn’t fly.

[From Coburn]
Compassionate conservatism’s starting point had merit. The essential argument that Republicans should orient policy around how our ideas will affect the poor, the widow, the orphan, the forgotten and the “other” is indisputable — particularly for those who claim, as I do, to submit to an authority higher than government. Yet conservatives are conservatives because our policies promote deliverance from poverty rather than dependence on government.

Compassionate conservatism’s next step — its implicit claim that charity or compassion translates into a particular style of activist government involving massive spending increases and entitlement expansion — was its undoing. Common sense and the Scriptures show that true giving and compassion require sacrifice by the giver. This is why Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell his possessions, not his neighbor’s possessions. Spending other people’s money is not compassionate.

Next, Jim Geraghty at National Review Online pokes fun at a recent introduction of Obama at one of his events, which is part Harry Potter, part Ephesians 6 (the parentheses are from Geraghty):

“The candidate of the people. Skinny young man. Big ears. Funny name. Armed with the experience of humble beginnings. Educated in Ivy League suites. Trained in legislative seats. Toughened in inner-city streets.”

(Okay, this is more like it.)

“Wearing the helmet of good judgment.”


“The breastplate of hope. Wielding the shield of unity. Carrying the sword of truth. And feet marching to the beat of change!”

Nice further evidence of the hysteria generated by the Obama charisma.

Thirdly, this piece from Hot Air, which takes a recent Washington Post article on Obama as its starting point. This is a topic I’ve covered before here and here. The summary at the end does a great job of capturing what’s going on here:

Obama doesn’t really have ideas of his own, not even an overarching governing philosophy as a prism through which policy could get made. He just wants to be President, and figures that he can charm his way to the White House.

Lastly, this ridiculous set of stories (once again captured by Hot Air) about the fact that Barack Obama and his wife did a “fist bump” at a rally. Watch the second video at that link and see how delighted Obama is when Williams asks him about it. “I got these guys hook, line and sinker” he seems to be thinking to himself… Is there anything this man does that the media doesn’t love?

May 31st, 2008 by Rightsideup

Obama finally has left the Church that’s been causing his campaign so many problems. Interestingly, despite all the problems with Jeremiah Wright, he didn’t feel the need to leave before now. Only when a second priest with extreme racist views showed up in the public consciousness did it become clear enough that the Church itself and not just one rogue cleric is the problem. Of course, if it isn’t just one rogue cleric, then it should have been clear to Obama long before it became clear to all the rest of us that this was not a good organization to be part of, and he should have left a long time ago.

You get the sense that he’s been trying to walk a fine line between appeasing those who agree with the teachings of the Church while not frightening off those who find its doctrines disturbing. And this is probably exactly what he has been doing. Will this lose him votes with the first group now? Does his making it clear that he’s really a mainstream politician and not a representative of the fringe that brings us Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton lose him votes? Or does the fact that he clearly has a tin ear to the negative impact of the kinds of things we’ve been hearing for months now cause problems for him with a different constituency? Will the press call him on any of it? Probably not. They more or less gave him a free pass when he gave the super-speech absolving himself of blame for Wright-gate and they’ll probably give him a free pass this time too, once again praising him for his eloquence along the way.

But with every event like this Obama becomes more damaged, and Hillary’s supporters have a little more weight behind their suggestion that it’s good for her to stay in the race.

May 12th, 2008 by Rightsideup

When there were still two Primary races, Romney was accused several times of lacking a principled core – something which voters could point to and know that it would determine his views on policies or specific situations he would encounter as president. His pragmatic approach – gathering lots of smart people and a truckload of data and working things through to their logical conclusion – was said to be less than inspiring.

The irony, as I’ve come to realize in the last few days, is that Obama also lacks a principled core – but in his case it’s the very fact that he’s focusing on being inspiring that is masking this fact. Yes, he has a set of buzzwords which are the spine of his campaign – but they’re not about principles – they’re about abstract nouns: “change”, “hope”, “belief” etc. These are inspiring words indeed, but they tell us absolutely nothing about what moral, ethical or rational framework Obama would use to inform his policy decisions as president.

Romney at least had a set of specific proposals and policy positions that people knew about and could weigh up. Those positions also signaled how he would approach other, related issues. But Obama doesn’t have any policy positions either. All he has are those empty words that lift the spirit but provide no guidance on how he would make decisions. And because he’s also relatively unknown as a personality, too, he doesn’t even have that to fall back on. Other than his tendency to speak in lofty terms and to claim (though not actually to follow through on the claim) that he is above the usual political tactics, there’s nothing to define Obama the man either.

The comparison with Romney is an interesting one, but it’s not all that relevant at this point. What’s more relevant is to compare him with the other remaining candidates, and also to think about the implications if he does become president. McCain perhaps lacks an obvious principled core, too, but the force of his personality and his long service in the Senate give some pretty powerful pointers to how he would act as president. Hillary Clinton has less experience as a Senator, but has nonetheless been in the public eye for a long time and has a publicly perceived personality, and has also been much more specific about policy proposals than Obama. Both come off more favorably than Obama if you look at this particular issue (which not everyone is – so far the lack of substance hasn’t cost him too much).

What does this mean for an Obama presidency? Well, Newt Gingrich has some interesting thoughts in the “letter” to Obama he wrote for Newsweek this week:

The challenge you will face in the next few months is stark. Do you want to remain vague? You might win—but you might find that, in winning, you have a “victory of personality” with no real policy consequences. Or do you want to provide specifics? If so, your victory could be a clarion call from the American people to Congress to join you in achieving your goals.

A downfall of this approach is that people have little to measure Obama against other than idealism (which is always going to be an impossible bar to measure up to), and little to vote for next time except the personality (which will inevitably have been tarnished by four years in the White House). It’s in his own long-term interest to provide more than just his airy rhetoric, even though it might appear in his short-term interest to stick to it and so avoid losing support by being specific enough to offend some people.

May 7th, 2008 by Rightsideup

So, everyone wants Hillary to get out, and understandably so. She’s losing in such a way that it’s hard to see how she could come back. There are good arguments for dropping out now to allow the party to “heal” etc. But I think there are good reasons why she should stay in, which she could still deploy.

Look at what’s happened these past few weeks, which wouldn’t have happened if the Democratic race was sewn up. Obama’s Wright problem has been highlighted. His Michelle Obama problem has been highlighted. His “bitterness” / elitism problem has been highlighted. His inability to stay on message when going off script has been highlighted. None of that would have happened these last few weeks if there hadn’t been an intense fight going on on the Democratic side.

Why is that a good thing? Because all of these things would otherwise have come up in the general election. And why is that important? For two reasons. First, because these things coming up now means that our 24/7 news cycle burns them out as topics of conversation in a very short period. Yes, they’ll still be there to talk about later but they won’t have the same punch. And, if those concerns really are big, the Democrats get to really see them and chew them over while they still have a choice about whether he’s the candidate for them.

McCain’s baggage and Clinton’s baggage has been out there for so long that this part of the process doesn’t make that much difference at this point. But Obama is so untested and so relatively unknown that it’s actually really important for the Democrats to have this time to get to know their (presumptive) candidate. So, for all the Hillary is supposedly preventing Obama from taking on McCain head to head, I think she’s actually doing the Democrats a lot of good, and they should actually in a perverse way be grateful that Hillary’s as sore a loser as she is.