Playing Hardball: The Challenges Facing Barack Obama

Scotland on Sunday, 2 September 2012

‘Barack Obama doesn’t have a lot to run on so he will have to get dirty’

THE emails tell their own story. In 2008, supporters of Barack Obama were galvanised by daily inbox updates from the Democrat candidate, full of soaring hope and rhetorical references to “change”. Today, the emails still come thick and fast from Obama, beeping on iPhones and buzzing on Blackberries across the United States, but the message has changed.

A note of urgency, just this side of desperation, has crept in. “I’m counting on you to help us keep pace in spite of unprecedented spending on the other side,” the president wrote in a campaign email on Friday. The inspirational, mould-breaking candidate, praised for running the first joined-up election campaign of the internet age, is now a grizzled president frantically fighting to hold on to his job.

With 65 days to go until America goes to the polls, and with seven in ten voters saying the country is on the wrong track, Obama faces a dilemma which is existential as much as political. How should a candidate whose mantra has always been “change”, campaign for re-election? If he argues that his changes need another term to bed in, is he implicitly campaigning against the failures of his own first term? Has the president who promised an end to politics as usual become a politician like all the rest?

That uncertainty may explain why a key ingredient is missing from the Obama campaign so far. Since his opponent Mitt Romney threw Republicans some red meat by announcing Paul Ryan as a running mate, the Republican base has been buzzing with energy and enthusiasm. But four years after his triumphant election, Obama-mania has all but gone, evaporated along with millions of American jobs and foreclosed homes.

The promised “hope and change” have largely failed to materialise. The economy has stalled, the unemployment rate is stubbornly stuck at 8.3 per cent and the US federal budget deficit is on track to top $1 trillion for the fourth year in a row. With time running out, Obama must – yet again – pull off the performance of a lifetime and convince America that he has what it takes to deliver on his early promises.

“Obama needs to energise the base. A lot of liberals are disappointed with Obama. ­Republicans are much more excited about this election than the Democrats,” says John Geer, a professor of political ­science at Vanderbilt University.

Obama’s big opportunity to inject some much-needed excitement into his campaign comes this week as delegates and the world’s media descend on North Carolina for the Democratic National Convention.

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