Hail to the new chief
ANUMBER of books have set the standard for coverage of US presidential elections: Theodore White’s The Making of the President , about the election of Kennedy in 1960; Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago , about the tumultuous campaigns of 1968; and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail in 1972.
Already bookshops have display racks for books about Obama’s election and, for the first time, an incoming President’s autobiography — Dreams From My Father — is the best read around. Obligatory background reading includes Doris Goodwin’s study of Abraham Lincoln, which appears to have influenced both Obama and the present crop of pundits, who see in Lincoln a model for bringing together a divided nation and restoring morality rather than selfrighteousness to politics.
No previous election stirred such interest overseas and Guy Rundle’s reports from the US during much of last year provided a particularly Australian take on the campaigns. Usually it is a mistake to republish old newspaper columns, but Rundle’s firsthand accounts supplement the already acute observations Don Watson made the previous year in his American Journeys . In light of events, it is fascinating to read that last September Rundle wrote, sober, of ‘‘ the stunning, endless, utter ineptitude of the Obama campaign’’.
Politically, Rundle is a loose cannon: he veers from distrust to adulation of Obama in a single page. If you want consistency and some insider gossip read Evan Thomas, who as a Newsweek editor has access to everyone. If you want a gritty view of an American campaign, written in the sort of motels favoured by Humbert Humbert, read Rundle.
Both books capture some of the telenovella quality of last year’s campaigns, but Rundle relishes the truly bizarre moments, highlighted by his mission to Alaska in search of Palinland.
Rundle is both a skilled humorist ( he writes scripts for Max Gillies) and a Left thinker ( he was editor for a time of the journal Arena ). Down to the Crossroads reads as if an old Trotskyist had suddenly wandered on to the set of The Chaser , has some wonderful lines, and is, inevitably, repetitive and at times gratuitously offensive. But Rundle is capable of making one laugh out loud, not a skill shared by Thomas.
Obama’s victory was in part a product of the financial collapse, which occurred once the official campaign got under way. Had the crisis come six months earlier he may well not have been the Democratic nominee. Had the economy rather than Iraq dominated political debate during the primaries Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney would have looked stronger candidates.
Much of the hype over Obama compares him to John F. Kennedy, which may not be altogether complimentary. Kennedy was intelligent, eloquent and charming, but he prevaricated on civil rights and laid the groundwork for what would become the disastrous interventions in Indochina. Had he not been assassinated he would have faced a tough re-election campaign in 1964, and is now rated by most scholars as less successful than Dwight Eisenhower.
It is commonplace to argue that Obama faces challenges greater than any incoming president since Franklin Roosevelt. This is debatable: Harry Truman came to power at the end of World War II and almost immediately had to decide whether or not to use the atomic bomb. Lyndon Johnson succeeded an assassinated president and faced growing unrest over civil rights and crucial decisions about escalation in Vietnam.
There is no shortage of advice to the new President, who is presumably, like Roosevelt and Clinton ( but not Bush) a keen reader of vast amounts of material. Possibly he will come across Robert Kuttner’s book. Kuttner is a progressive insider, an editor of The American Prospect , and an affiliate of the British think tank Demos. His book articulates the widespread hope of many Americans that Obama ‘‘ could be the first chief executive since Lyndon Johnson to be a transformative progressive president’’.
In the various rankings of US presidents, Johnson rates poorly, despite his real achievements in domestic policies. His presidency was increasingly haunted by the Vietnam War, and internal dissent within his own party forced him not to seek re-election in 1968. Odd that Kushner, despite his considerable interest in Johnson, says so little about the challenges faced by Obama overseas.
The focus of Kuttner’s book is almost entirely on domestic economic policies. He argues that Obama needs to restore a sense of the possibility of collective responsibility, possibility and trust in government, an American version of Kevin Rudd’s social democracy. His book is a useful background to the President’s most recent messages on his proposed economic stimulus package, which the Republicans criticised for its spending on education and family planning.
The underlying premise of Kuttner’s book is that active government is necessary, and he is critical of Bill Clinton for following Ronald Reagan in the belief that market forces could solve most problems. What a year ago would have seemed a radical analysis now seems common sense: ‘‘ The pendulum has swung and power has moved back to governments,’’ said Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum.
Economists such as John Maynard Keynes and J. K. Galbraith, regarded as out of date in the exuberance of the 1990s, are now being reread.
As Rundle toured the US last year he was constantly puzzled by American acceptance of lousy pay, conditions and services while simultaneously believing theirs was the greatest country on earth. Whether Obama can change this contradiction goes to the heart of the paradox that Kuttner poses. Dennis Altman is professor of politics and director of the Institute for Human Security at La Trobe University, Melbourne.