Alex Massie

Obama and the Blair Succession

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There was the pretence that all government spending is "investment" and there was some familiar-sounding talk of "bubble and bust" but most of all Barack Obama's press conference was designed to send the message that, look, "I'm a pretty straight kind of guy". As we know, that's what Tony Blair said once upon a time and as we also know the public, more or less, believed him. So no wonder something in Obama's demeanour seemed so oddly familiar to British viewers. There are differences - there always are when comparing British and American politics - but Obama has essentially spent recent days imploring the public to ignore the details and embrace the bigger picture. This too was an essential element of Blairism. Dont sweat the small stuff, feel the ambition. And, above all, trust us.

In fact the similarities between Blair and Obama don't end there. Each has perplexed, even confounded, his opponents who've had difficulty deciding just how to attack them. Is he an extremist or a moderate and a sell-out? Like Blair, Obama is opposed by some on the right who think tht he's a dangerous socialist intent upon destroying everything that is sweet and profitable about the American. Remember the "New Labour, New Danger" campaign and the "Demon Eyes" poster of Blair? Well there's a lot of stuff like that swilling around on the American right.

It didn't work in Britain and, in this instance, I'm as yet unpersuaded it will triumph in America either. Equally, while the left of the Labour party always distrusted Blair (a distrust he was able to leverage to good effect) so some on the Democratic left have their own suspicions about Obama (not least over health policy and tade) even if, in other areas, he's shown himself to be a pretty orthodox liberal.

Not that he cares for such labels - another trait he shares with Blair. In fact both men resist labels both because fitting into a given ideological pigeon-hole makes it easier for your emies to attack you but also because each doesn't think think of himself in traditional left-right terms. The right thing to do is the thing that works. It is a pragmatic, even managerialist approach to government that dislikes ideological language even as it pursues goals that are often actually strikingly ideological.

But that's not how they see themselves. That is, while its true that Obama is a liberal (in the American sense and standard of the term) and an ambitious one to boot, he's also operating in a different era. Put it this way, you woudn't have had so many Goldman Sachs alumni in many senior positions during the Carter or Johnson administrations. Obama is no devotee of Milton Friedman but he is a University of Chicago Democrat which, in this instance, might put him on the right wing of the British labour party: the market is a good and necessary thing but there are limits to what it can be expected to achieve. There are limits to what government can do too, but government's role is to step in where the market fails and to create the conditions or set the rules by which our society operates, guaranteeing everyone a fair shake and a decent chance. Something like that anyway.

This isn't triangulation, it's an attempt to reclad, indeed revitalise, liberalism at the fag end of the Age of Reagan. Like Blair, Obama arrives in office with an impressive mandate and replaces a party that was exhausted, complacent and arrogant. These are propititious circumstances for a new administration. Unlike Blair, however, Obama believes in the scale of his victory and the opportunity it gives him. Blair couldn't quite believe that Labour had won and was always conscious that (outside the BBC and the usual left-wing papers) most of the press were reluctant allies who could turn on him at any moment. That meant that Blair - handicapped by his Chancellor of the Exchequer - squandered his first couple of years in office. Obama is trying to avoid the same mistake: hence the push for a trillion dollar healthcare reform.

Will it work? Perhaps. A large segment of the public rather craves boldness and ambition. What about the political costs? A key moment in Obama's press conference came when he was asked about the prospects for getting his budget through Congress  -especially a budget with such huge deficits. His response?

"Now, we never expected, when we printed out our budget, that [Congress] would simply Xerox it and vote on it….The bottom line is—is that I want to see health care, energy, education and serious efforts to reduce our budget deficit.”

Keep an eye on the big picture and don't get deflected by press brickbats or worried by losing the occasional fiscal skirmish. Concentrate on the big picture and remember that we're going to pass a budget that will begin the process of Changing America. The American people want us to navigate a path through this economic crisis but they also want to see health care reform and action on the environment and, yes, in the long-term, the budget deficit. But that's not the immediate priority even if Washington reporters think anyone who do. The details on all this can be worked out later. Trust me.

Losing a few battles that amount to 1% of what we're trying to do is no reason for panic, remember that we're going to win on 90% of the agenda. Trust me. Right?

That was, in essence, the way Tony Blair approached the Northern Ireland peace process (questions about the details were always "unhelpful") and, for that matter, the war in Iraq. If Blair's "Trust me" brand of politics eventually wore thin that was at least in part because it was yoked to both an unpopular war and an unpopular, bitter and vengeful Chancellor whose baleful influence frustrated most efforts at serious public sector reform. Obama at least does not suffer from having a comparable Gordon Brown-style rival. (Hillary is parked at State: this year the job is to keep foreign policy as quiet as possible.)

In the end the dysfunctional core of the Blair ministry left New Labour as a more efficient election-winning machine than as a long-term answer. That in part owed something to Blair's winning personality and his own ability to rescue seemingly lost positions. Labour is still looking - or rather will be once the Brown interregnum is over - for a successor to Blair to take the party forward (not backwards!) in the future (not the past!). In the end, Labour in government lacked bottom and depended too much upon Blair himself. That too is part of the Blair example that Obama will learn from.

The problem, as Blair discovered, is that charm runs out pretty quickly and just being a pretty straight kind of guy isn't always enough. Sometimes, in fact, it's the least the public expects. No wonder, then, that Obama is betting big on achieving big goals this year, not waiting cautiously to see what happens or to hope for a more propitious moment. It's risky but, hey, look, you can trust me. Right?

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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