20 January, 2009

Predicting Obama

On the eve of Barack Obama's inauguration, everyone wants to speculate about how his administration is going to go. The chants of "Our long national nightmare is over," come with almost every change of office now, to the point where it's become clichéd. Anyone who thinks everything is going to get better in a couple of months is kidding themselves and Obama himself has quietly moved to calm high expectations. While it's certainly nice to hear someone talk about hope after eight years of Republicans saying, "Be afraid. Be very afraid!" this can all too easily lead to false hope.

I think we can get an idea of how Obama will fare with the public from Tony Blair. He was another young, energetic leader who swept away a deeply unpopular conservative government. They both realised that their respective parties already had as many habitual voters as they were ever going to have and knew the had to appeal (though, crucially, not pander) to the other side. Both were described as lefties by their opponents but by any objective measure were moderate conservative pragmatists. Both won the endorsements of people and institutions that traditionally favoured the other side. Both were considered equal-parts politicians and rock stars. Both were seen as the great hope to usher in a new era. (Beyond the new era that naturally comes with any change of government.)

So I think we can probably tell a little about how the Obama administration will be perceived after a year or so from what happened to the Blair government. After the obligatory honeymoon period, feelings towards Blair soured as he began to collapse under the weight of expectations. As people realised that their day-to-day lives hadn't changed much, they began to turn on him. Not in huge numbers of course. Many who were disillusioned still felt he was better than the alternative but the massive wave of hope had dissipated. Then, Blair hitched his reputation to George W Bush's invasion or Iraq, and his legacy was sealed. However much he may defend the decision, Blair understood that he had made a grave miscalculation. This is evident in the way Blair talked of being "forgiven" by history at a time when his US counterparts were insisting that nothing had gone wrong, and to this day, are sure that history will vindicate them.

There are not many leaders who, after a few years, do not have to beg history's forgiveness for something. It's unlikely that Obama will be any exception. Although, it's clear that he has learnt from the mistakes not only of the Bush administration and previous Democratic challengers but also of the Blair government. Despite his slogan of Hope, he has been keen to dispell any false hope. It's not clear if his supporters are hearing it though. They will be all too keen to blame any early problems on the previous administration, just as Blair's supporters were. And any way you look at it, Obama inherits a far bigger steaming pile of dung than Blair ever did. He will be lucky if his honeymoon period lasts until Wednesday. But as Obama's term continues, it's rather likely that his popularity will wane as Blair's did when it becomes evident that he can't fix every problem in a couple of years.

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