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The lesson of the US election? Be kind to sub-editors, they’re powerful people. One just won the election for Barack Obama.
That is not an overstatement. Mr Obama’s victory came because his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, simply couldn’t dent the president’s lead in the Midwestern state of Ohio. Across America, Mr Romney had a strong lead with white working-class men; in de-industrialising Ohio, he never racked up the same commanding margin with his core constituency. Why? Because the Obama campaign targeted Ohio intensively with advertisements denouncing Mr Romney for an op-ed article he wrote for The New York Times in 2008.
The article, written in the week immediately after the 2008 election – when the 2012 race must have felt very far away indeed for Mr Romney, so he wasn’t watching his words – made a nuanced argument about the bailout Mr Obama was planning for America’s car makers. Mr Romney argued that, if the government shelled out, it should also insist that Detroit’s car companies correct the structural flaws in their high-cost business model that led to the problem in the first place. Perfectly reasonable — the argument that this newspaper, among many others, makes for most such government bailouts, for example of India’s power utilities.
However, the Times’ sub-editors unfairly and inaccurately headlined the article “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” — thereby sealing the fate of Mr Romney’s campaign, four years on. Mr Obama’s campaign viewed this as a gift from the short-attention-span gods, and hammered those four words into every Ohioan industrial and ex-industrial worker’s head. The four-year-old article shot to the top of the Times’ “most-read” list.
And, just in case you think that Mr Obama would disapprove of such tactics, go back and watch the third presidential debate. Mr Obama brought the article up, saying Mr Romney wanted to gut America’s auto sector; Mr Romney patiently corrected Mr Obama, calling that a “mischaracterisation” of his position; and then Mr Obama actually interrupted the explanation saying it “wasn’t true” that Mr Romney said companies could get government help. Except that was a barefaced lie. Mr Romney had used precisely those words.
Politicians lie to get elected. And, Mr Hope-and-Change Obama is not, in the least, an exception. Admittedly, I’ve expected this sort of thing from him ever since his campaign maligned Bill and Hillary Clinton as racists simply in order to take a lead among African-American voters – at that point still supporting Ms Clinton – in the must-win South Carolina Democratic primary in 2008. Yet when Mr Obama eventually came out on Wednesday and delivered a stirring victory speech, he effortlessly hit the soaring notes that convinced so many otherwise apolitical people in 2008 that this man was, somehow, different. That he was simultaneously a liberal messiah and someone capable of healing an apparently unbridgeable partisan divide.
How’d that work out for everyone? What happened once Mr Obama was in office, with a comfortable mandate and a majority in both houses of Congress? Well, the first thing he did was to officially close Guantanamo Bay, with a big “Mission Accomplished”-style photo-op signing and everything. Oops. Gitmo is still open.
He then allowed himself to be cowed into submission chasing ephemeral “moderate” Republicans in the Senate, squandering a House majority that unsurprisingly vanished in 2010. Washington in 2012 is exactly the same city it was in 2008, when Mr Obama denounced Ms Clinton as too much of insider to change it. Actually, it turns out that Mr Obama, with all his wonderful rhetoric, neither changed Washington nor was able to get too much done in it. His greatest achievement was passing a health care plan originally devised by a right-wing think-tank and first introduced by his Republican opponent. And he ran a more robust national-security state – a nightmarish, secret mish-mash of wiretaps, drones, assassinations and unlawful imprisonment – than his much-reviled Republican predecessor.
Yet you will forgive him all this, because he speaks so very, very well, doesn’t he? Some people think that his campaign deliberately kept his silver tongue under wraps for much of this campaign, so as to not remind voters of the 2008 campaign, and how disappointing Mr Obama’s presidency has been in comparison. I think that, actually, Mr Obama governed responsibly, by his lights: he is a centrist – significantly right of centre, actually, as the world judges these things — a pragmatist, and a detached, impersonal, unempathetic data geek. It is his campaigning that has always been, like against Ms Clinton in 2008 and Mr Romney in 2012, completely untrustworthy.
Of course, don’t get me wrong; I’m glad he won. Mr Romney’s campaign was even more fundamentally dishonest, presenting another unempathetic right-of-centre pragmatist as, instead, a robotic representative of the crazed loons that have taken over one of the two major parties in the world’s most powerful, and thus dangerous, country.
But there’s a lesson in Mr Obama’s disappointments and deceptions, one which everyone in democracies would do well to heed. We long for silver-tongued leaders who tell us about ourselves. But such people do not always serve us as they should. In fact, more often than not, they do worse than the alternative. Everyone in our country tends to mock the softly inarticulate man who leads us. Frankly, I’d rather have someone like him than the sort of guy who is accustomed to smooth-talking his way out of trouble.