Obama copped it for too much, Gillard for too little
It is tempting to see parallels between federal Labor’s flat-lining election result and the drubbing Barack Obama’s Democratic Party received at this week’s mid-term elections.
But much of the skin Obama lost came from doing difficult things in his first two years whereas Labor’s collapse came from ducking them.
The Democratic Party lost 52 seats in Bill Clinton’s first term. The Republicans went backwards by 26 House seats under Ronald Reagan; by eight under George H W Bush (the father); and by 30 in George W’s second term. But all of these were dwarfed by the shellacking handed out to Democrats under presidents FDR and Harry S Truman who lost seats at the rate of 71 in his middle term (he had three of them) and 45 respectively. All were re-elected.
Still Obama’s setback feels dramatic given that just two years ago, he scored 53 per cent of the vote _ the most enthusiastic endorsement of a Democratic president since the 1960s. Now the same party is straining the record books in the other direction with north of 60 losses and genuine doubts as to Obama’s chances in 2012.
His phenomenally catchy ``Yes We Can’’ message of 2008 was returned with interest by Republicans and hard-right Tea Party candidates, reframed as ``oh no you don’t’’ and by millions of disillusioned ordinary Americans as ``thanks for nothing’‘.
Clearly, the corollary of high hopes is a correspondingly deep sense of disappointment.
The fact that home loan foreclosures are at record levels, unemployment remains at 9.5 per cent _ far higher in many places _ and even those who own a home often owe more on it than it’s worth, makes for a hostile political picture. Business refuses to invest and banks won’t lend despite the Reserve printing money, (so-called quantitative easing) and the injection of hundreds of billions in stimulus payments and bailouts.
On top of that, Obama himself continues to attract criticism not for doing too little but for doing too much. In fact his administration has been dubbed as an ``eat-your-peas-presidency’’ for doing worthy things but not explaining them well.
Imagine that in Australia: doing a lot of hard things in office but then failing to talk about it!
Here we have the opposite problem.
Labor’s anaemic showing at the August election had nothing to do with voters concluding that too much had been done and everything to do with hopes dashed, promises broken, and faith breached.
Voters are waking up to the fact that the government specialises in rhetorical over-reach _ witness the latest exchange of fire started by the PM no less about who is the greater reformer. Viewed against the genuine political stoush over Obama’s healthcare changes _ hard-won reform if anything ever was _ the Australian argument at present is an over-acted front-bar shouting match between a government whose reform record is pretty dismal and an alternative prime minister who sees no virtue in anything the government proposes. Ever.
That said, the Opposition’s arguments are at least consistent. Consider the following list.
Pink batts. Emission trading. Border protection. Banking reform. Debt and deficit. In all of these, the Opposition’s protestations have ended up being at least as persuasive as the Government’s. On pink batts, the Government initially said its multi-billion program was brilliant, visionary policy. The Opposition said it stank. Both now agree, it stank.
Emissions trading. The Government said it was the greatest moral challenge of our time. Remember, delay was denial? In the end, Tony Abbott’s great big new tax critique prevailed. The idea is now where the Opposition took it. Nowhere.
Border protection. Labor said the Howard Government’s off-shore third country processing was a disgrace and a moral abrogation. Yet now its East Timor idea is a slightly modified version of this approach. In fact, the only reason Nauru has not been re-opened is the political embarrassment it would cause Labor. Who knows, it may yet happen.
And of course, the most current example is banks. A fortnight ago Joe Hockey was absolutely eviscerated by the Government for suggesting competition reforms. Yet now after the RBA hiked rates again and the Commonwealth went even further, it is Labor scrambling to catch up.
It’s a fair bet that much of what Hockey was ridiculed for will be adopted by a Government lamely claiming it was already planning it. Why didn’t it say that in response to Hockey initially?
Even Labor’s budgetary claims, which the Opposition has always said were pure fiction, are being questioned as the the first official murmurings emerge that the high dollar is hitting revenue and putting the promised 2012-13 surplus under additional strain.
Obama’s mid-term shock derives mostly from the stubbornly sick economy he inherited and in part from a failure to communicate the work he has done.
For Labor though, the economy is not the problem. Its challenge is one of courage and belief. Internally and externally.
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