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How Obama could have achieved more real change

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Thursday, 18 November 2010

Hope and change are the words most associated with Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. His best selling campaign memoir was titled The Audacity of Hope. Shepard Fairey produced the iconic "Hope" posters featuring Obama's multi-coloured face, seen all across America during 2008.

"Change we can believe in" was the slogan most associated with the campaign and it was often displayed behind Obama when he spoke.

All this "hope" meant extremely high expectations were riding on Obama when he was elected. Despite this, I felt there was still potential for him to be American liberalism's last best hope.


My own hope was fuelled by his very impressive presidential campaign but I also had a number of reasons to harbour caution: Obama's short federal Senate political career, his negligible national legislative achievements and the fact that, apart from two insightful memoirs, little was known about Obama's political views, management style or leadership skills.

Was the recent election of a Republican majority in the US House of Representatives the death knell for "change we can believe in"?

Even if the short-lived epoch of "change and hope" is over, it is important to place my pessimism and criticisms of Obama in context. For me, Obama is the most heartening and agreeable president elected by Americans since the first half of the 1960s. Furthermore, as president his push to assure that 30 million more Americans are insured under a more just national healthcare scheme is a significant and worthy change.

Obama's comments about America's past foreign policy behaviour in Iran and Cuba show a very rare sense of presidential reflection on America's motives and image as seen abroad. His speeches about his aspirations regarding global poverty, Middle Eastern peace, and addressing global warming have been very admirable. In short the man's opinions seem more than one could reasonably hope for in a US president.

The criticisms I have of Obama are of his political tactics and strategy since becoming president. Undoubtedly the weight and volume of the problems he has confronted since being elected have made thinking strategically difficult. Furthermore, the aura and expectations which come with the role of President of the United States have made Obama seem too cautious.

The sheer weight of deciding what America should do in Afghanistan has not surprisingly consumed significant amounts of his energies over the last two years. Yet despite these acknowledged difficulties, there is no doubt in my mind that Obama and his Democratic Party have blown an enormous political opportunity to change the course of American politics.


The Republican Party brand was seriously damaged by the economic crisis, the failures in Iraq and incompetence at home (most notably during Hurricane Katrina). It is not surprising that partisans like James Carville were writing books with title such as The Next 40 Years: How Democrats will rule the next generation, because many more sober analysts were talking about a political realignment akin to the New Deal period of the 1930s or at least as significant as the ascendency of conservatism from the election of Reagan onwards in 1980. Both of these periods saw a demonization of the losing party and their ideas by the incumbent president.

Real change similar to what occurred in those two eras would have seen a realignment of American voting patterns in favour of the Democrats. There should have been at least a decade of liberal dominance of American policy making and a situation where Republicans found it very difficult to talk openly about the benefits of conservative ideas (it is worth remembering that this was generally the case from the 1930s to the 1970s in American politics).

Undoubtedly such a strategy would have been risky and would have received significant and loud opposition. Anti-government movements might have formed across the country and the president's party could have received a shellacking at the 2010 mid-term election. The fact that the Democrats did receive just such a pounding would suggest that Obama's more nuanced and conciliatory approach to his opponents is now looking like a serious error of judgement.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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