When the latest American presidential election campaign started with pre-primaries two years ago, the central issue was: what to do about Iraq.
However, by the time campaign ended last Tuesday with Barack Obama’s historic victory, Iraq had all but faded as an issue while a new question dominated the debate: what to do about America?
At the start of the campaign, the debate was about the past eight years, described by Democrats, still smarting from their defeat in 2000, as the darkest chapter in contemporary US history. At the end of the campaign, however, the debate had shifted to put the focus on the future.
This was the first time since 1979 that Americans were invited to reconsider their country’s place in the world and the role of government in setting the agenda in a society based on individual freedom and enterprise.
Several factors helped this shift of focus.
The first was the debate that had started in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. At that time, a majority of Americans were persuaded that their country had been attacked because of the values it upheld. A minority, on the other hand, argued that the US had been attacked because of its “aggressive” foreign policy.
The first group claimed, “We were attacked because of who we are.”
The second group asserted, “We were attacked because of what we do.”
In reality, the two views represented the two sides of the same coin. For, like individuals, nations are what they do.
As Aristotle noted, action is character!
By the end of the campaign, almost everyone had understood that truth.
This was why Barack Obama, the Democrat candidate, was able to advocate what amounted to “regime change” rather than mere changes of policy.
The second factor that helped shift the focus was the readiness of both Obama and his Republican rival Senator John McCain to offer platforms that no candidate since 1979 would have dared defend for fear of being branded too ideological. Normally, in American presidential campaigns the two main candidates start at opposite ideological poles but end up rubbing shoulders at the centre.
This time, however, both started from the centre and ended up being poles apart. McCain, the self-styled “maverick” who had cultivated his image as a centrist, ended up as a champion of the conservative right especially by selecting Governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate. Obama, who had been careful not to be branded “liberal”, let alone a closet communist, ended the campaign as a standard-bearer of an American version of social democracy.
McCain ended up defending a populist image of America as the land of free individuals, using their creativity and hard work to produce economic growth and general prosperity. This America was proud of itself, self-confident and self-righteous. It cherished relations with other nations- especially in free trade; but it would not allow others to dictate its foreign and security policies. If necessary, this America was prepared to ride, and fight, alone.
Obama offered his own populist version of America.
His was an America of collective solidarity and unity in diversity. In that America, government plays a central role in regulating the economy, ensuring minimum services for all, and redistributing income to help the more vulnerable. Obama had the courage to present a European-style social market model, something that no other Democrat candidate had dared hint at since the perennial William Jennings Bryan 100 years ago.
The third factor that helped shift the focus was the so-called financial meltdown. The collapse of Wall Street shook the very basis of American self-confidence. Americans might have doubted everyone and everything but had never lost confidence in the ability of their financial industry to make miracles. The idea that the smaller the government the better for the country, had been based on the dogma that only the private sector was capable of “the wise management of money.”
Even a year ago, the spectacle of US government nationalizing a huge chunk of the American financial industry and pumping in almost a trillion dollars into ailing banks and mortgage companies would have looked like scenes from science fiction. And, yet, just weeks before polling day, angry Americans saw government in control of the biggest chunk of the national economy since the 1930s. As one disappointed Republican Congressman put it, this was “Socialism, with a vengeance.”
The experience helped Obama argue the case for greater government intervention and regulatory supervision not only in emergencies, but as a matter of course. In contrast, McCain promised as quick a return as possible to the original American capitalist model in which the role of government is limited.
Obama was the most left-wing presidential candidate from either of the two main parties since the Democrats fielded Senator George McGovern in 1972. The fact that millions of Americans showed no qualms about that is a sure sign of how the US has changed.
The campaign showed that this election was as much about a vision of America’s future rather as the personality of the candidates.
Attempts at making an issue of Obama’s race, or his association with extremist individuals in his youth, produced little results. Nor did the fact that he had an Islamic background and Arabic-Islamic names produce enough tension to undermine his candidacy.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Democrats’ efforts to portray McCain and his wife as wealthy individuals who did not understand the poor also failed to make an impact. A campaign of character assassination against Governor Palin was equally unsuccessful. Beyond the personality of the candidates, the voters kept their focus on what kind of America they hoped to see in the next four years.
Culminating in Obama’s dramatic victory, the 2008 presidential campaign has brought the US closer to the Western European model of democracy in which two broad camps of Right and Left are easily recognizable, offering the electorate a clear choice. If only in that sense, one could describe the experience as historic.