Hope and Change Revisited

It has now been eight years since Barack Obama won the first Democratic primary in the 2008 election campaign, opening his victory speech that night in Iowa with reference to those who ‘said this day would never come’:

They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn’t do.

This was not portrayed as reason to gloat. Instead the time had come to ‘move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that’s consumed Washington’, and form a coalition to ‘meet the challenges that we face as a nation’. Surrounded by signs promising ‘Change We Can Believe In’, he summed up his message to a screaming, cheering crowd: ‘We are choosing hope over fear. We’re choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America’.

The two predominant concepts that night in Iowa, both in Obama’s speech and on the banners and buttons around him were ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’. Obama’s association with ‘Hope’ – both as a word and an idea – originated at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, when he first came to prominence. The keynote address he delivered that day spoke of the need to counter ‘the politics of cynicism’ with ‘the audacity of hope’ – a phrase he would reuse two years later as the title of his second book. By contrast, ‘Change We Can Believe In’ was new: a product of the campaign.

The two are often conflated, but the contrast is important. ‘Hope’ referred to Obama’s identity and his character – both that a non-white son of an immigrant could end up president of the United States, and that he could do so preaching positivity and opportunity, not fear and division. ‘Change’, however, spoke of what Obama would actually attempt to do in office. He would repair the partisan divisions that had proliferated under Bush, and usher in a new age of cooperation for the good of the country. While ‘Hope’ was a principle and a philosophy, ‘Change’ was a proposal and a promise.

This week, Obama delivered his final State of the Union address, and in so doing revealed ‘one of the few regrets’ of his presidency: that ‘the rancour and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better’. In other words, the ‘Change’ that he had promised to deliver had failed to materialise. This is not to say that he has not made significant changes in terms of policy – from healthcare to financial reform to foreign policy, Obama’s achievements have been extremely consequential. But his goal was to ‘fundamentally change the way that Washington works’, and this clearly has not happened. Far from ushering in a new age of bipartisanship, Obama is now officially the most polarising president ever.

Two days after Obama’s speech, the Republican candidates congregated for a debate in South Carolina to tussle for the chance to replace him. As expected, they reinforced the President’s admission that he had not managed to repair the nation’s partisan divisions, heaping attack after attack on Obama and likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. Importantly, however, while they stood as evidence of the failure of ‘Change’, each appeared also to have rejected the tactic of ‘Hope’.

In the debate, the candidates competed to outdo each other’s pessimism, with Donald Trump labelling the country ‘a mess’, the military ‘a disaster’, healthcare ‘a horror show’, and illegal immigration ‘beyond belief’. Nor was there hope for the future. Even if the country could survive the threats posed by Iran and ISIS, simply electing a Democrat would mean Armageddon. Marco Rubio warned that ‘if we don’t get this election right, there may be no turning back for America’, while for Ben Carson, if the Republicans lose, ‘this nation is over as we know it’.

It may seem obvious that these Republicans would adopt a different campaigning emphasis to Barack Obama, but a hope-based strategy is far from the sole reserve of Democrats. By far the most famous and successful hope-based campaign before 2008 was Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter on an unabashedly optimistic platform of national renewal. Amid economic problems and international insecurities, Reagan found ‘no national malaise’ and no problem that the country could not handle. ‘Reagan spoke the language of hope’, as Andrew Busch later put it, ‘In an age of the cynic, he spoke the language of idealism’.

It is this language that has been discarded by the current Republican field, replaced by words of fear and division, particularly by frontrunner Donald Trump. He has based his whole campaign around the idea of the dangerous ‘other’, most notably in his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. He speaks like a conspiracy theorist, casting ominous implications with purposely vague language. Whether his target is Islam (‘there’s something going on in the mosques’) or the President (‘there is something going on with him that we don’t know about’), the goal is to create a general feeling of unease and divide the world into a threatened ‘us’ and a sinister ‘them’.

Obama did not mention Trump by name in the State of the Union, but he clearly had him in mind when he rallied against the ‘voices urging us to fall back into our respective tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens’. Going down that path ‘diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. It betrays who we are as a country’. Simply, he said, ‘it’s just wrong’. The message, eight years after Iowa, seemed to be a plea to the nation. ‘Change’ might have failed, but don’t give up on ‘Hope’.

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About ourfriendsinthewest

A British take on American politics.

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