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Watching the enthused faces of tv commentators as they jabber on about Obama’s inspiring victory, you would have thought his defeated rival had been the victim of a mortifying electoral landslide. Whilst the incumbent candidate won 303 electoral college seats as against Mitt Romney’s pitiful 206, it now looks like Obama barely managed to scrape through in the popular vote. Far from having conducted a brilliant campaign, the fact is Obama was unable to win a resounding victory against possibly the most shambolic candidate ever fielded by the Republican Party.
The gushing appraisals coming in the wake of his win attest to the illusory appeal Obama seems to exude. In spite of his serial failings as President, his eloquent rhetoric is still enough to dispel doubt and excite fervent admiration among those harboring a residual sense of nostalgia for the heady days of 2008. Such people seem mainly to be found in the ranks of mainstream journalists, for whom the real world consequences of Obama’s insincerity loom less large than the rapturous rhetoric with which he seeks to obscure his record. For many Americans, however, the potency of the Obama image has given way to the unsightly realities of high unemployment and cringe-worthy obeisance to the diktats of the rich. The sham appeal of Obama is amply borne out by abysmal rates of voter turn out, and the unpalatable fact that, despite intensive campaigning, Obama could only secure two percent more of the popular vote (barely 50%) than a man who prides himself on his vulture capitalist credentials and dismissed half of the population as shameless scroungers.
Of course, his victory has been marred by the slight fact he won by a wafer thin margin, but this qualified criticism has not deterred some from designating it a ‘decisive’ win. Journalist Russell Goldman, writing on ABC’s website, depicted the result as ‘a validation, if not an overwhelming mandate, in support of the president’s policies of the last four years.’ CNN encapsulated the jubilant mood, running with the grandiose title ’Obama makes history, again.’ The sense of elation extended across the Atlantic, with the BBC similarly ruling it a ‘decisive re-election victory’, albeit with the small caveat that the margin of victory had been ‘much slimmer’ than in 2008. This, however, was of minor interest. In terms of electoral college votes, Obama administered a hard drubbing to Mitt Romney. And according to America’s antiquated system of indirect elections, it’s not people’s votes, but electoral college votes which really matter.
Contrast this with the treatment meted out by the western media to Hugo Chavez following his recent electoral win. In that case, criticism was far from qualified, but positively histrionic. Despite obtaining 55 percent of the vote and beating his rival by a ten percent margin, the Venezuelan leader was subjected to the kind of sniping which actual autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia rarely attract. Journalists gleefully lambasted Chavez for having failed to preserve his massive lead of 26%, artfully insinuating that the result was indicative of grave dissatisfaction with his rule. Never mind that Chavez had secured a margin of victory which would be the envy of most Western leaders, and that even Obama, amid all the fulsome support that attended his first bid for the White House, failed to gain. Never mind this was obtained in the face of vitriolic smear campaigns that have beset Hugo Chavez throughout his presidency. Never mind the fact that, despite Venezuela’s massive oil wealth, Chavez presides over a relatively poor economy and must contend with the machinations of an affluent elite which has already sought to forcibly depose him once. The fact he only managed to secure a mere 55% of the vote –less than he did last time- was touted as evidence of mounting opposition to his supposed authoritarian style. Indeed, the New York Times carped that though the race had been the closest Chavez had ever faced, he showed little sign of granting ‘concessions to the opposition’.
The question pundits should have been posing is why, after 14 years in power, Chavez was still able to command majority support for his policies. Could it be down to the fact he has succeeded in lifting millions out of poverty and empowering workers to a degree unheard of before in Venezuela? Similarly, the question journalists should be asking now of Obama is why, a mere 4 years into his Presidency, he has proven so woefully inept at fending off electoral challenges from a man who brazenly asserts the need for a reduced state and rampant, free-market capitalism to address the nation’s economic ills.
The answer to this question is readily apparent from Obama’s campaign style. In the aftermath of the election, commentators have effused about the scientific, ‘nitty-gritty’ approach Obama and his team adopted to winn votes– channeling funds to swing states, focusing on certain demographic bands, and actively seeking out and registering potential supporters. But it is clear such an arcane approach to collecting votes would have been rendered superfluous had Obama espoused genuinely popular positions that resonated with the American public. Polls consistently indicate vast majorities in favour of radical reform of healthcare, a far tougher approach to taxing the rich, tighter regulation of the financial sector, and a swift withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet Obama has chosen to forego this vast untapped reservoir of support, showing a marked reluctance to adopt positions which would naturally find favour with the electorate. The zealousness with which he and his campaign team have immersed themselves in the battle for a small fraction of American votes is symptomatic of their deep-seated aversion to genuinely populist programmes.
The damning indictments of Mitt Romney and the Republicans are no less deceptive than the laudatory hymns being sung to Obama. There seems to be an emergent consensus that if the Republican party is to avoid becoming a moribund electoral relic, it must shed its cartoonish right-wing aura and dissociate itself from tea-part fanatics. In particular, the Republican fixation on anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-immigration issues has been deeply detrimental to the party. But this analysis elides an important observation – that these are just about the only points on which the Republicans and Democrats differ, and the Republican fixation on these issues arises at least in part from an implicit acknowledgement of this fact. The essential agreement of the two major parties on a host of economic issues is shown by the fact Republican House Speaker John Boehner now talks openly of cooperation with the President to tackle the fiscal deficit.
Only if we reduce politics to a trivial game played out by rival personalities can the election therefore deemed a victory for Obama. The simple fact is, the election has been nothing if not a defeat for the American people.
Joseph Richardson is a freelance journalist for Voice of Russia radio station in London. He studied history at Merton College, Oxford.