Republicans are not the only politicians desperately trying to work out what Barack Obama’s re-election means for their future electoral prospects: party leaders across Europe are also searching for clues and nowhere is that hunt more forensic than in the UK. British politicians love to cross the Atlantic in search of the latest trend that they believe can lead to success at home. The Labour Party’s successful reinvention as New Labour in the mid-1990s was, in part, based on Bill Clinton’s transformation of the Democratic Party in 1992. Likewise, George W Bush’s compassionate conservatism was an inspiration for modern Tories trying to subsequently oust New Labour.
Having just returned from New York I believe there are five decent reasons for Labour to feel optimistic and one big reason to make David Cameron more comfortable.
The candidate pledging tax rises for the rich won Obama was abundantly clear: the wealthy should pay more (or “a little more,” as he put it in his ads). For decades we’ve been told that left-of-centre politicians who campaign on tax rises for the rich will lose; it’s the politics of envy, cry the right. Turns out they’re wrong. Tax rises for the rich are not necessarily electoral suicide.
The candidate who believes in active government won Obama was abundantly clear about this too: government can be a force for good. From his healthcare reforms to his stimulus package to the bailout of the car industry – which we’ll come back to in a moment – the role of government was seen as positive. The candidate associated with austerity lost.
Bold leadership worked The bailout of the car industry undeniably helped Obama win several crucial states, not least Ohio. But it’s worth remembering that when it was first proposed it was far from popular. As David Axelrod points out, the polling his team conducted said “it would be a disaster”. Obama thought it was necessary to revive the economy; he was right and he was rewarded.
The candidate who fired up his base won Ignore those who say Obama’s victory proves the election is won on the centre ground. Obama lost the independents but it didn’t matter: he persuaded more Democrats to come to the polls than Romney managed from his party. Obama also had the far superior ground game: his get-out-the-vote operation was the most technologically advanced of any political party in any political campaign ever.
The out-of-touch rich guy lost If there is one statistic that will make David Cameron quiver it’s this: 81 per cent of voters believed that Obama cared about “people like me”. Granted, Cameron has more personality in his little finger than Romney has in his entire body but the Tories are in danger of being painted as out of touch and Romney’s defeat shows how dangerous that can be.
But before Ed Miliband starts day-dreaming about bilaterals in the White House he needs to bear this in mind:
The incumbent viewed as clearing up the last guy’s mess won The American voters still blame Bush for the state of the economy. They respect what Obama has tried to do and though it’s still not in great shape they seem to think it’s heading in the right direction and are willing to give him more time. As Obama puts it, when your car is stuck in a ditch you don’t give the keys to the guys who drove you in there.
And that, perhaps, is why David Cameron may still be smiling.