Saturday, January 24, 2009

Charisma alone is not enough

Can Barack Obama restore the American public's faith in politics? And can David Cameron restore the British public's faith in the Tory Party? Here's today's Journal column.

Politicians are ultimately frail vessels for the hopes they are meant to bear. They are only human, yet sometimes we invest them with such superhuman qualities as to practically invite disappointment.

Tony Blair certainly fell into that category. When he took over as Prime Minister in May 1997 after a dismal period of Tory misrule, the sense of a new beginning in the country was almost palpable.

As the man himself memorably said on that bright morning at London’s Royal Festival Hall as Labour activists gathered to celebrate their victory: “A new dawn has broken, has it not?”

Nearly twelve years on, another politician finds himself in a similar position. Barack Obama this week took over from quite possibly the worst president in 200 years of American history, and once again a country is filled with new hope and optimism.

As George W. Bush leaves office after eight tumultuous years, it is interesting to reflect on the part he played in souring the British public’s relationship with Mr Blair.

We will, of course, never know what might have happened had Mr Bush not decided to go to war with Iraq, and Britain not been dragged into the imbroglio, but the suspicion persists that the course of the Blair premiership would have been rather different.

As the late Robin Cook noted in his resignation speech in the Commons in March 2003, had the hanging chads in Florida fallen the other way and Al Gore become president instead, the whole debacle would probably never have happened.

Would Mr Blair still be Prime Minister even now? It will, I suspect, go down as one of the great modern political counterfactuals, alongside "What would have happened if John Smith had lived?"

Our experiences over the past decade have perhaps caused us to distrust “charisma” as a political commodity. Certainly we seem as a nation to be less easily persuaded by Tory leader David Cameron’s easy charm than we were by Mr Blair’s in the mid-1990s.

American voters, though, have always been more star-struck, even though they have suffered far deeper and more bitter disillusionments over the past 40 years than we have on this side of the pond.

Yet despite the national humiliation of the Watergate scandal and the sheer, downright sleaziness of the Monica Lewinsky affair, they have never quite given up on their search for someone capable of stepping into the shoes of their lost leader, John F. Kennedy.

Mr Obama is the kind of politician who has it in him to fill that void in the American psyche, to renew their faith in politics and political leadership, but of course, the corollary of that is he also has it in him to further deepen that disillusionment – as Mr Blair ultimately did in the UK.

President Obama has at least made a positive start. The promised dismantling of Guantanamo Bay has already begun, and moves are already under way to bring an end to the Iraq adventure.

But if anything, the new leader of the western world seems to be intent on playing down those great expectations that surround him.

The inauguration speech did not last an hour and a half. It contained little soaring rhetoric. And there were no compelling soundbites of the magnitude of "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Instead, the watchword was "responsibility" as Mr Obama sought to present himself perhaps less in the mould of JFK and more in the mould of Gordon Brown - less a Hollywood-style superstar and more a “serious man for serious times."

Indeed, Mr Obama’s use of the phrase “a new era of responsibility” on Tuesday carried uncanny echoes of our own Prime Minister’s attacks on “the age of irresponsibility.”

While as a soundbite, this is not quite in the league of “we have nothing to fear but fear itself,” it will probably go down as the defining message of Mr Obama’s inaugural address.

Back home, though, the other big political story of the week was the return of Ken Clarke to the Tory frontbench as Shadow Business Secretary after nearly 12 years in the wilderness.

This too was in part a consequence of the economic downturn, but in the broader political picture, it is a recognition of the fact that the Tories have not been making the best use of their available talents.

Much has already been written about the head-to-head between Mr Clarke and Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, two politicians as different as chalk and cheese.

With Mr Clarke, what you see is by and large what you get, but the former Hartlepool MP has always been a much more elusive figure, ultimately more at home operating in the shadows than in front of the camera.

They do, however, have two very important things in common. They are both very divisive figures within their respective parties, and they are both wildly pro-European.

It will doubtless be a fascinating contest, but I personally think the 68-year-old former Chancellor has sold himself short. He should be back as Shadow Chancellor, flaying Labour for its squandering of the golden economic legacy he left them in 1997.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Mr Clarke’s return is what it says about Mr Cameron.

His undoubted charisma won him the party leadership after he wowed the 2005 conference with his oratory, and it has won him a generally positive public image, but it has not been enough to create that sense of inevitability behind a Tory election victory that Mr Blair enjoyed in the mid-90s.

The return of Mr Clarke has given the Cameron team a much-needed injection of experience and gravitas at a time when it has been struggling to establish itself as a government-in-waiting.

Like Mr Obama, perhaps Mr Cameron too is recognising that charisma alone is not enough.

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The Half-Blood Welshman said...

Two points about American presidents;

JFK only became a legend after he was shot. Without that the lies about his war record, his womanizing, his illegal recording of Congressional committees and his efforts to start a war in Vietnam (never mind his wafer-thin electoral victory in 1960 which is generally thought to have been accompanied by widespread fraud) would all have left a poisonous taste. Surprisingly, perhaps, he was not a certainty to be re-elected in 1964 according to the polls, which suggests that his image was not quite as glitzy as is retrospectively assumed.

Al Gore might or might not have invaded Iraq - it depends on what the real reasons for the invasion were (certainly they were nothing to do with oil or WMD). However, he would almost certainly have made every single other mistake the Bush administration has, only probably rather more so. The real reason he lost is because he was regarded outside Democratic heartlands as a somewhat slippery lightweight, tainted by the scandals of the Clinton years (especially Whitewater) and he failed to compensate by putting together a good party machine in the crucial states of Ohio and Florida to get his vote out, instead piling up large majorities in safe Democratic states where it didn't matter. This lack of perspicacity alone suggests that he would have been a still worse President than Bush (however improbable that may seem).

I really do pity Obama though - how does he live up to these expectations, as you say? Maybe David Cameron is wise in not promising a bright new dawn!

ascotinlessables said...

What an absolute load of tripe!
As a fan, I have to say that you seem to have travelled to another planet. Paul, come back down to earth: Obama has all to prove, his acomplishment thus far, zero. Let us wait and see.He got himself elected that's all! Bush, let history decide whether he is as bad as you think (Carter!). On this UK planet even with the most positive spin one would have to say it is not about Mandleson or Clarke it is, however, very much about the shower that purport to lead us in our current situation. If you have solid views on the current political
scene then pen some words on the sheer impompetance of Brown et al in getting this country into the mess it is in.
Why don't you go back to writing on the things that relate to every day people, their fears, their aspirations and their daily lives. In all truth the political games at Westminster are of little real value to us poor sods that have to pay our bills.
Sorry Paul, but come back to the REAL world!

Our Man in Abiko said...

Obama talks a good game and is clearly a smart cookie, especially compared to the former chap, but look at the centrists he has surrounded himself with. They will make sensible decisions and all, but you don't get radical change with pragmatists. Don't forget there is still another Bush out there - Jeb. Lost leader Kennedy? He was the first to put US troops into Vietnam, as the halfblood Welshman correctly states. And Gitmo is still in operation for another year, read the fine print.