US elections: the end of great expectations?

Sunday 21 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Garden Room

In 2008, in the middle of an economic crisis, Barack Obama was elected Forty-Fourth President of the United States. He promised ‘hope and change’ and a new era of bipartisan government to rebuild the nation. Despite his lack of specificity with regard to policy, Obama’s biography as an African-American, church-going, family man, promising to unite both sides of the aisle, inspired millions of Americans to vote for him. Four years on, policies have stalled and, more fundamentally, there has been little progress to turn the economy around. Yet Obama faces the November presidential election as the default Democratic Party candidate. Many of his former liberal critics have reconciled themselves to the thought that he ‘is doing the best he can do’, while others are already suggesting suitable candidates for the 2016 race. Meanwhile, the question is whether the 2012 campaign will see an end to any hope of bipartisanship or even constructive political struggle, as America’s perennial ‘culture wars’ are reignited.

During primaries and caucuses across the US, the Republican Party appeared incapable of capitalising on Obama’s failures. The Tea Party was talked up by liberal commentators as well as sympathetic conservatives as a movement capable of revitalising the party base, and many Democrats felt their best hope was that the Republicans would nominate a right-wing culture warrior who would alienate independent voters. But in the end it was the unloved Mitt Romney who took the nomination. The Mormon millionaire is no liberal, but it is reckoned that he has the best chance of uniting the country behind the right rather than just playing to the party base. But with Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage coming after legislation requiring even Catholic hospitals and schools to include contraception in employee healthcare plans, might it be liberals going on the offensive this time? How have the culture wars moved on in the four years since Sarah Palin ran for VP?

Several other themes have been raised by prospective candidates and commentators: taxes, income inequality in the wake of the Occupy movement, racism (allegedly of the Republican Party’s white working-class base) and foreign policy (to bomb or not to bomb Iran) as well as the ability of candidates to empathise with ‘ordinary’ Americans. But neither of the candidates has yet shown themselves capable of engaging the American public in a discussion about the type of country we would like to live in. Can this election come to life and shape the future of the USA, or will it lead only to a further lowering of political expectations and greater cynicism about the political process.

Brian M Carney
editorial page editor, Wall Street Journal Europe; co-author, Freedom, Inc; winner, Gerald Loeb Award business-journalism and Frederic Bastiat Prize for Journalism

Wendy Kaminer
US-based writer on law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture; author, Worst Instincts: cowardice, conformity and the ACLU

James Matthews
management consultant; founding member, NY Salon; writer on economics and business

Gideon Rachman
chief foreign affairs commentator, Financial Times; author, Zero-sum World: politics, power and prosperity after the crash

Jean Smith
specialist development consultant; co-founder and director, NY Salon

Produced by
Jean Smith specialist development consultant; co-founder and director, NY Salon
Recommended readings
Vice Presidential Debate

Vice President Joe Biden and Republican challenger Paul Ryan hit the campaign trail on Friday after a combative debate in which they challenged each other's facts and claims while offering starkly different visions for the direction the country should follow.

ABC, 13 October 2012

President Obama: The Democrats' Ronald Reagan

With his first term behind him, Obama is poised to be as significant a president as Reagan—tackling the deficit, spearheading immigration reform, and jolting the GOP back to sanity.

Andrew Sullivan, Daily Beast, 25 September 2012

The real losers in this election are the voters

Romney’s videotaped dismissal of swathes of the electorate will hurt him, but Obama remains a lame duck, too.

Sean Collins, spiked, 20 September 2012

US politics: a punch-up between mythmakers

It’s ‘the economy, stupid’, James Carville famously advised Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, and 20 years later, in 2012, it’s ‘the economy, stupid’ once again. Given the unemployment crisis and a growing wealth gap, candidates would have to be stupid not to focus on the slow, unsteady recovery. I just wish they wouldn’t focus on it almost exclusively.

Wendy Kaminer, spiked, 10 September 2012

Romney calls Obama a 'disappointment' Stephanie Kirchgaessner, Financial Times, 31 August 2012

Obama’s Gotta Go

Why does Paul Ryan scare the president so much? Because Obama has broken his promises, and it’s clear that the GOP ticket’s path to prosperity is our only hope.

Niall Ferguson, Daily Beast, 20 August 2012

Session partners