Barack Obama was re-elected to the presidency with 50.5 per cent of the popular vote and 303 of the electoral college votes, on a turn-out of about 60 per cent. His re-election has been welcomed throughout Europe, including in Britain. According to some estimates, if the rest of the world had been able to vote in the US election, Obama would have taken about 80 per cent of the vote. Here it would be true to say that his re-election was greeted by most people with satisfaction and relief. This was not because of any great enthusiasm for his record over the past four years, but largely because the prospect of a Romney victory was so alarming.
It is interesting to compare the 2012 presidential election with that of 2008. Then there was widespread enthusiasm for Obama in this country. Serious hostility to him was confined to a tiny minority of right-wing white racists and an even tinier minority of anarchistic-leftists, who either hated him because he was Black or dismissed him as just another representative of corporate capitalism. In some respects the demographic of urban British society resembles that of the United States. There are large minorities of African-Caribbean and Asian (mainly Pakistani and Indian) origin. In these communities, particularly the African-Caribbean, support for Obama was strong. But more generally, particularly after eight years of the execrable George W. Bush, Obama was greeted with great acclaim. Everyone realized that the election of the first Black president of the United States was an event of world-wide importance. The fact that he was highly intelligent, articulate, charismatic and an inspiring orator only added to the sense of excitement and expectation with which his election was greeted in 2008. All this was, of course, true to a far greater extent in the United States itself. But the election campaign there had also exposed something so ugly that it was almost beyond comprehension to most observers here: the visceral hatred for Obama on the Republican right, represented primarily by the Tea Party movement.
As perhaps in most countries, a majority of the people in Britain are not particularly interested in politics, especially the politics of other countries. But there is more interest in US politics here than, for example, in the politics of European countries. This is partly because the US is (still) the world’s number one super-power and, we are told, its president is ‘the most powerful man on earth’. It is also because the two countries share the English language and possibly because many believe in the ‘special relationship’ that is supposed to exist between us.
The violent anti-Obama sentiment that grips so many Republicans has no resonance here; actually it inspires something between laughter and horror. To hear members of John McCain’s audience at a 2008 election rally shouting ‘Kill Him’ at the mention of Obama’s name, was truly horrifying and could only raise the specter of Martin Luther-King’s assassination more than forty years before. Then there is the apparently widespread belief amongst white Republicans that Obama was not born in the United States, making his election unconstitutional and illegitimate. Presumably, such people believe that he should have been removed from office and prosecuted. Many are apparently convinced that he is a Muslim; others think he is a socialist, or a communist, or a Nazi – or all of them together. It is difficult to grasp how such cloud-cuckoo-land idiocy can be so widespread. It is not difficult to find representatives of such idiocy. On the morning of the 7th. November 2012, the BBC interviewed a woman in Las Vegas who expressed her dismay at the likely outcome of the election, and after referring to widespread poverty and unemployment, opined that Obama had turned the United States into a communist country. Such blinkered aversion to the facts and reality is also evident in Karl Rove’s refusal to accept Fox News’s call of Ohio for Obama. If one can make the effort to empathize with those Republican media pundits who seem so shattered by electoral defeat, there is a tragicomic element in Rush Limbaugh’s lament “I went to bed last night thinking we’re outnumbered. I went to bed last night thinking we’d lost our country”, or in the less prevaricating Fox News host Bill O’Reilly’s despairing: “The white establishment is now a minority…it’s not a traditional America any more.” For those of this mindset, it may be but one small step to supporting the ineffable billionaire-buffoon, Donald Trump, who apparently favors a march on Washington, presumably to reclaim the “traditional America” for the white race.
There is nothing to compare with this in Britain. This is not because the Tory party and its supporters in the print media are more liberal and tolerant than their counterparts in the USA. In most respects they are not. The right-wing of the Tory party, which is very influential, is supported by the Murdoch press and by at least four other influential newspapers. The domestic agenda of the Tory party, which is essentially the policy of the coalition government, is committed to intensification of the austerity measures that have already reduced the living standards of millions and led to the greatest social inequality seen in Britain since Victorian times. Right wing Tories, who are now the majority of the parliamentary party, are viscerally anti-European in an English nationalistic sense. But the Tories are essentially an English conservative party. Of the 650 parliamentary constituencies in Britain, excluding Northern Ireland there are only nine Tory MPs representing constituencies outside England (1 in Scotland; 8 in Wales). But for all this, there is little sign in Britain of the apocalyptic hysteria of a Rush Limbaugh or a Donald Trump. What is absent from the media here are the rabidly right-wing commercial television and radio channels such as Murdoch’s Fox News, with their millions of devotees. Their absence, and the still pre-eminent position of the BBC as a ‘public service’ broadcaster, makes for a tone of discourse very different from that in the USA. It doesn’t mean that the supposed balance and objectivity of the British broadcasting media have no ideological content; it is just that their bias in pursuit of ‘manufacturing consent’ is more subtle.
Much of the comment here on Obama’s victory has concluded that this election marks a turning point in US politics, in that the Republican Party will not be able to win elections in the future due largely to the changing demographics in America. Over 90% of the African-American vote and 70% of the Latino vote went to Obama. More than 50% of women voters opted for him too, as did the majority of younger voters. In the next ten years or so the percentages of these groups will continue to increase. The Republican Party is already becoming the party of a minority, which, according to some can be described as “angry white men”. While this is possibly overstated, there is some truth in it. It would seem to suggest that the Tea Party and the white evangelical Christians, backbone of the 21st century Republican Party, will either have to face up to reality or be sidelined. Unless the ideological fanaticism and religious fundamentalism that have driven them into this impasse give way to something more pragmatic, the predictions of their critics may come true, and they will remain powerless in their bunker. The Republicans could, of course, cause havoc very soon. If they use their majority in the House of Representatives, to cripple Obama in the months ahead by blocking his attempts to avert the “fiscal cliff” and to increase taxes for the
richest people, the country will be plunged into a double dip recession. It seems likely that this is exactly what they will do. The consequences for the United States, Europe and the world economy will be severe.
But none of this is certain. What is more certain is that his second term will not see many positive developments in foreign policy. US forces will be withdrawn from Afghanistan. This is because the US/NATO invasion of the country eleven years ago has failed in its objectives; a failed invasion that has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives, most of them Afghan. The aftermath will almost certainly lead to the domination of the country by the Taliban. All the indications are that he will continue to use drones, noted for their indiscriminate dealing of death and destruction over the skies of Pakistan, Yemen and wherever else supposed terrorists are thought to be lurking. Obama may be able to restrain the Israelis from attacking Iran, but if he fails to do so he will feel obliged to support them, with incalculable consequences for the Middle East and the world. There will be pressure from various quarters for a US intervention in the civil war in Syria. This would only pour oil onto a conflagration and guarantee that it spreads to engulf much of the Middle East.
The alliance of social forces in the United States that ensured Obama’s election supported him in the hope that he would fulfill the promises he made in 2008. His social base is strong, ethnically diverse, young and progressive. They have high hopes of him. And, watching his election victory and listening to his soaring rhetoric, it was difficult not to be thrilled. But, it is also true that Obama is president of what is still the most powerful military power in the world. His administration represents a corporate power elite which has for nearly seventy years dominated much of the globe. This power is now on the wane. Perhaps the best that can be hoped is that he may be able to manage this stage of its decline without plunging the world into new disastrous wars.