In 2008, he became the first African-American man to assume the Presidency. This Tuesday, he also became the president with the highest unemployment rate to win a second term since Roosevelt, and the first since Ronald Reagan to win re-election with the jobless rate over 6%.
No one should underestimate the role of Obama’s campaign in achieving this feat, or the skill and charisma of the man himself. However, commentators also rightly point out that the attitudes of his fellow Americans, especially on the economy, helped him on the road back to the White House. Interestingly, more than half of Americans surveyed in exit polls last night blamed the depressed US economy not on the incumbent, but on Obama’s immediate predecessor, George Bush.
For the Democrat, this proved to be a valuable electoral boon, for while the state of the economy was cited by pollsters as the most pressing issue for voters, this failed to translate into a backlash against the incumbent.
However, on British shores these findings bode ill for the Labour Party. The outgoing Brown government was widely blamed by the Tories, and much of the press, for the parlous condition of the public finances in 2010. Two years on, the Prime Minister’s favourite counter-attack to Ed Miliband’s criticisms of his economic policies is still to pin responsibility for his troubles on Labour’s legacy. Cameron and Osborne revel in the role of righteous garbage men, clearing up the wreck left by Gordon Brown’s team. Boris Johnson himself recently got in on the act, dubbing Cameron “the broom…clearing up the mess left by the Labour government.”
The charge of fiscal incontinence levelled at Labour is, of course, grotesquely overblown. Research by the Fabian Society shows that public spending was in line with historical trends for both Labour and Conservative governments dating back to the mid-sixties. Second term public expenditure (2001-2005) in isolation was lower than any four-year period before 1997. Even in 2010, when public spending ballooned to 46.7% of GDP, this was still at a lower level than in the 1960s, and just 3% higher than the pre-1997 average.
However, Ed’s team has wisely conceded the battle here out of recognition that the Tory narrative holds sway over the electorate and will be nigh impossible to uproot at this stage in the parliamentary term.
Yet Labour will need to start writing a new story on the economy soon if it is to avoid the Republican’s fate in 2015. One Nation Labour offers a tantalizing means of achieving this. The idea that a country cannot prosper if it stands divided against itself is a powerful one, deftly uniting condemnation for the banking executives who crashed the economy with the (albeit occasionally unjustified and often distorted) resentment felt towards those who seem to get an easy ride from the state.
Obama himself made use of similar ideas in his victory speech, stating: “While each of us will pursue our own individual dreams, we are an American family and we rise or fall together as one nation and as one people.”
If Ed and co begin to flesh out the economic aspects of One Nation, make the case for an economy that serves the many, not the few, perhaps Labour can shake off the mud cast upon it by the Tories and look forward to its own election victory night in 2015.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog