Four years ago, Barack Obama and his rival, John McCain, both embodied the American idea of nobility in their respective campaigns.
This time Obama enjoys the power of incumbency, and he will fight on his record.
While all political figures become repositories of hope by virtue of taking office, Obama had built his entire campaign in 2008 around this nebulous theme.
On taking office, however, “Yes We Can” soon became “I Will”. He, as most political leaders do, fed the ‘myth of leadership as the lone warrior’: the solitary individual whose brilliance and courage enable him to lead. Then again, Obama’s ability to externalise conflict, and to distinguish himself from his role, might befit these lean times.
This is to not say that Obama has not struck any rhetorical high notes. His election helped dispel negative stereotypes of a closed American political system built upon dollars and family dynasties. One poll of brand values suggested that the Obama brand was worth $2-trillion in brand equity.
He, tantalisingly, has hinted at a new liberal agenda to replace the detritus of Reaganomics and Thatcherism. The GOP has long championed minimalist government.
(As an aside, have you noticed how economic libertarians in America – and closet Tories who masquerade as liberals in South Africa – talk about reducing the cost of the public service, but never offer to take a pay cut themselves or refund a portion of their salary to the state?)
The Troubled Assets Relief Programme (TARP) and taking General Motors into public ownership makes a solid case that government activism can work in some circumstances. Arguably, the US recovery might have posted a stronger recovery with a bigger stimulus package.
Time will tell if these reflexive interventions will be drawn together to write a new liberal economic template. “Confidence,” as Larry Summers recently put it at the Kennedy School of Government, “is the best stimulus.”
Obama provided economic confidence by his cerebral approach to rational decision-making. One of his biggest economic challenges remains banking reform.
Obama may feel that he failed in trying to reach outside the Democrat demesne for support and ideas. He should not. The GOP has been obstinate and obtuse at every turn.
Reagan unabashedly raised the debt ceiling numerous times. Obama had to do so because of the debt ratcheted up by his predecessor’s $2-trillion wars, a man who may well have believed that thrift was a suburb of Dallas.
Abroad, Obama is carving out a new kind of statecraft by reading the changing times. The administration has incorporated Joe Nye’s concept of smart power (a combination of hard and soft power) into its diplomacy.
Obama’s administration correctly sees an America that remains a military superpower in a multipolar world – one characterised by a diffusion power away from all states to non-state actors like multinational corporations and transnational institutions. The numerous zero-sum articles about China’s rise in the South African media seem blind to this reality.
China may be testing a rival to the F22 fighter aircraft, but both are likely to be the last ‘Top Gun’ stealth planes to be manufactured. The threat today is less kinetic, and more cyber. This, and the ‘privatisation of war, will require some degree of Sino-US military co-operation.
Obama inherited a nation exhausted from fighting two prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to be drawn into intervening in Libya last year. It is widely known that Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who wrote her PhD on Zimbabwe, were persuasive voices to the president on Libya.
While liberal interventionists took heart, this intervention is likely to prove to be an exception. There is scant appetite to intervene militarily in Syria, and much less in Iran. The latter remains a stubborn failure of US diplomacy. Few state department diplomats, for example, speak Farsi.
Last year, Obama wisely avoided his predecessor’s triumphalist ‘Mission Accomplished’ rhetoric when Osama Bin Laden was dispatched by the Seals.
At home and abroad, Obama has made a good start, although one that fell short of expectations. Now, he must invoke the spirit of 2008 to not only defeat Mitt Romney, but to thrash the forces of conservatism once and for all.