This is a sometimes 'cheesey' blog about British and American politics and anything else which tickles my fancy!

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

The Obstacles Facing Obama.

So we're off.

The race to be the next President of the United States has begun.

Both McCain and Obama have been out campaigning in the last two days. Obama intends to spend the next two weeks in the Appalachians - places like West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee - in the hope that he can persuade white voters (who supported Clinton) to switch to him. It won't be as easy as some people expect.

This will be a ferociously fought campaign and I think closer than many people believe.

As I see it, Obama faces many obstacles on the road to the White House, but I think they can be broadly grouped into two categories:

1. Race.

Race has been the most important electoral cleavage in American politics for the last thirty years. Every successful Republican candidate has used the issue of race to win the Presidency. It was a tactic first used by Goldwater in 1964 and then subsequently by George Wallace in his bid to become President. Both failed in their attempts but their method of using race to win over disgruntled white voters was developed by subsequent candidates. If the explicit racism of Wallace and the Right is no longer part of the public sphere, then it certainly remains a more subtle part of the political discourse. The 'White Backlash' which has partly fuelled the conservative movement since the 1970s will respond well to Republican messages that stress race as the most important electoral factor. This means we should expect to hear questions raised over Obama's Kenyan background, his education in a Muslim school, his links with Jeremiah Wright and his wife's African-American heritage to name but a few.

America is the only place in the world that could elect a Black man like Barack Obama, it is a model to the rest of us, but some areas of the United States are still racist and Obama will have to overcome this if he is to succeed.

2. Liberalism.

It was the historian Richard Hofstadter who first wrote of an anti-intellectualism in American life in the 1960s. It was as true then as it is today. The Republicans will paint Obama as an intellectual, northern, liberal elitist who does not share 'mainstream' America's values. They will portray him as out of touch and unconnected from the real world - an ivory tower sort of figure. The same trick they played on Adlai Stevenson, George McGovern, Al Gore and John Kerry. This means we should expect to hear questions raised over Obama's Senate voting record, his community work in Chicago, his social policies and his educational background to name but a few.

When taken together, race and liberalism will be a potent mixture for the Republicans. For example, let's take an issue like welfare reform - a hot topic for both candidates. The Republicans will argue that Obama's liberal policies will see a return to the permissiveness of the 1960s and increases in federal expenditure - or big government - as they will put it. They will argue that Obama's reforms only help the undeserving poor i.e. urban, poor Blacks. When most Americans think of welfare, they also think of African Americans in the same category. It is not hard to see how white working class voters, already anxious about Obama, will respond to this Republican message. Obama as the candidate for 'welfare cheats', single moms and poor Blacks - all at the expense of themselves.

John McCain is not racist. He is a decent and honourable man. But this won't stop his party using the combination of race and liberalism to rally its supporters and attack Obama.

I am also concerned about the latest polling. Politics Today calculated that Obama was 3% above McCain in the national polls this morning. However, this is well within the margin of error. Also, at this stage in the electoral cycle Jimmy Carter was 20 points ahead of Gerald Ford in 1976 and Michael Dukakis was 16 points ahead of George Bush in 1988 and he still lost. I have every expectation that they will improve now that the election has started properly but they must start doing so soon.

These are big challenges. Big mountains to climb. If anything, the primary season has shown us that Obama can pretty much cope with what is thrown at him. But a northern liberal Democrat has not been elected to the Presidency since 1932 (John Kennedy ran to the right in his 1960 Presidential campaign and does not count.)

So its hard work from now on and full steam ahead for Obama.
His journey to the White House has only really just begun.

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