First published online by Gary Younge in Chicago.
“You want to run for president?” asked the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni in his book Ambling into History. “Here’s what you need to do.
“Have someone write you a lovely speech that stakes out popular positions in unwavering language – and less popular positions in fuzzier terms. Better yet, if it bows to God and country at every turn: that’s called uplift. Make it rife with optimism, a trumpet blast not just about morning in America but about a perpetual dazzling dawn. Avoid talk of hard choices and daunting challenges; nobody wants those. Nod to people on all points of the political spectrum … Add a soupcon of alliteration. Sprinkle with a few personal observations or stories: it humanises you. Stir with enthusiasm.”
So it was at the beginning of the year, as the Republicans competed to see who could paint the gloomiest picture of Barack Obama’s America, that Obama reached back for the signature theme of his 2008 campaign: hope. Seeking to channel Ronald Reagan’s re-election theme of 1984, when the nation was emerging from economic crisis, he used his state of the union speech in January to claim: “America is back”. “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline, or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.
He test-drove the phrase in a range of settings. “I placed my bet on the American worker,” he told a union conference in DC a month later. “The American auto industry is back.” A month after that, at a fundraiser in Houston, he told donors: “The recovery is accelerating. America is coming back.”
This was by no means an absurd claim. By February there had been three straight months of employment growth; the final quarter of 2011 showed a spike in consumer borrowing, signalling more consumption and more lending. In the spring, many felt they witnessed the green shoots of economic recovery. And electorally it seemed like a smart claim, too. American voters may want politicians to ponder their fragility, but they’ve never been particularly keen on them actually reflecting it. The country was emerging from two failed wars and the most severe recession since the Great Depression. Confidence in America’s political and financial classes was shattered; assumptions about its military supremacy were dented. According to Gallup, the last time most Americans were satisfied with the direction the country was heading in was January 2004 – and that stint of optimism lasted less than a week. The Republicans were wedded to the notion that under Obama America was in decline. Rick Santorum claimed it was an election “to save the soul of America” – prompting the question: well, then, who had lost it? – while Mitt Romney insisted he’d return the nation to a day when “each of us could walk a little taller and stand a little straighter”. Obama’s message was: “Walk tall. We’re on our way.”
There was only one problem. People did not believe it. In February, Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research focus-grouped four different ways of framing the nation’s economic trajectory. Two concentrated on the enduring struggles of American middle-class families, and two claimed recovery was under way. The two that did best argued: “This is a make-or-break time for the middle class, and for all those trying to get into it.” The one that tested worst, by a considerable margin, claimed: “America is back”.
“America is not back,” Stanley Greenberg, GQR’s chief executive, told the New York Times. “We have long-term fundamental problems. If you look at our data and history, it takes a long time before job numbers translate into accepting at a personal level that things are better.”
Indeed, if anything, Americans felt they were going backwards. Most believe young people will have a worse life than their parents, and a third think the country’s best days are behind it. It’s not difficult to see why. For 90% of Americans, wages have been effectively stagnant for the last 40 years, while median house prices have slumped 20% since 2006. Over the past decade, the cost of tuition has risen 32%, and the average healthcare premiums have rocketed 113%. A report earlier this year revealed that between 2007 and 2010, the median American family lost a generation of wealth. With figures like that, insisting that America is back sounds more like happy talk than fighting talk.
In a race where there will be few undecideds and a lot of cash sloshing around, Obama’s challenge is to rally his base. This will be no simple task. Obama has considerable work to do on this front. Unlike four years ago, Republican voters are more likely to say it really matters who wins this election, to say they have given quite a lot of thought to the election and to have paid close attention to news about the election. Their base – white, wealthy, older people – is also more likely to turn out. The good news for the Democrats is that voters are more enthusiastic about their candidate. The percentage of people who said they strongly supported Obama was both higher than any Democratic candidate since 1988, including himself in 2008, and almost double those who strongly support Mitt Romney. The only candidate who’s ever scored higher was George Bush in 2004.
Democrat supporters also appear more engaged. A survey of web and social media usage by Pew found that the Obama campaign posted nearly four times as much content as the Romney campaign on the web, was active on nearly twice as many platforms and prompted twice the number of shares, views and comments.
In 2008, Obama’s victory was due, in no small part, to his ability to expand the electorate by attracting constituencies that had previously been under-represented at the polls – particularly young, black and Latino voters. He did not just win them by huge margins, but managed to amplify their electoral clout by motivating them to turn out in huge numbers.
But those are the very groups who have suffered most under his presidency. Unemployment for 18- to 19-year-olds is 23.5%; for those 20 to 24 it’s lower at 12.9%, but still significantly higher than the national rate of 8.2%. Black unemployment is at 14.1% – a 10% increase on when he was inaugurated. While Hispanic unemployment has remained steady, Obama has deported more undocumented immigrants than any president since the 1950s.
Polls show Obama still holds a significant advantage among all three groups, attracting 89% of the black vote and 60% of both the Latino vote and the 18-to-29 age group. The issue is less whether those people will vote for him but how many will show up, since all three groups are less reliable voters. “We haven’t seen much of the stimulus trickle down to our people here,” Mark Allen, a Chicago-based community organiser who used to work alongside Obama, told the Washington Post. “I liked the community organizer Obama better than President Obama … Democrats say Barack has got 90% or whatever of the black vote wrapped up. What they don’t tell you is it’s 90% of those who actually come out and vote. What if it’s 90% of just 30 or 40% who vote?”
In fact, the black turnout is the one part of his base that remains solid, but Democrats are less certain of Latinos and the young. In a base election, enthusiasm is key. Since black, Latino and young people live everywhere, there is not a single swing state where this is not an issue, and arguably only New Hampshire and Iowa – two of the whitest states in the country – where it is not key. This in no small part explains his decision to use the power of his office in June to halt the deportation of thousands of young undocumented immigrants – something he could have done at any time during his presidency. In an executive order he ruled that young immigrants who arrived in the US illegally before age 16 and spent at least five continuous years here would be allowed to stay and apply for work permits, providing they had no criminal history and met other criteria, such as graduating from high school or serving honorably in the military.
This time around, he is also seeking to make inroads among white women, many of whom are turned off by Republican views on abortion and contraception, pensioners, who may be nervous about Republican plans for Medicare (both of which he lost by 53-45 in 2008), and gay voters, buoyed by his support for gay marriage and motivated by Republican opposition to it. If there is any volatility in this race, it is not about the breadth of his support but the depth of it. National polls of registered voters may mostly show him with a narrow lead; but polls of likely voters often show him trailing.
The one thing that hasn’t changed since 2008 is the Democrats’ emphasis on the “ground game” – sending volunteers out to collect information, persuade and, ultimately, ferry people to the polls. One Washington Post survey showed 20% of registered voters had been contacted by the Obama campaign, compared to 13% who’d been contacted by Mitt Romney’s campaign. And Democrats had been particularly effective at reaching their base. Forty-two percent of liberal Democrats said they’d been contacted, as well as 24% non-whites and 31% of the people who voted for Obama last time.
“This is light years ahead of where we were in 2008,” said Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, during a forum in Charlotte. “We are going to make 2008, on the ground, look like Jurassic Park.” They plan to knock on more than twice as many doors and register twice as many voters as they did last time. In North Carolina they have twice as many field offices as the Romney campaign. In Ohio they have three times as many.
If Obama were only running against Romney, his victory would be all but assured by this stage. But he isn’t. He’s running against the economy, and on his promise to be a transformative president in tough times. To the extent that a second-term election is a referendum on the incumbent, Obama is losing. Too many voters think he’s not done enough. To the degree, however, to which any election is a choice between at least two candidates, he is winning. Enough voters feel he is better than his opponent. For now, at least, he is not so much the change they can believe in as the change agent they most believe in. And while the semantic difference is minimal, the rhetorical difference could hardly be greater.