Expect nothing and you won’t be disappointed. That’s the posture that Democrats, and sundry independents, should have adopted then. They chose not to, and disappointment is what they got.
Four years ago, a black man with an improbable ethnic name dazzled Americans, and mesmerised the rest of the world, with the lyric elan of his soaring rhetoric and lofty promises about change — change in how America works at home and change in how America operates abroad. To those who doubted him, he averred with confidence: Yes, we can! American voters believed him, and on January 20, 2009, Barack Hussain Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, the first African-American to occupy the White House, a mere four decades after the enactment of the 1964 Civil Right Act, that outlawed all major forms of discrimination against minorities, including unequal application of voter registration requirements.
It was a poignant moment in American political culture and, given America’s role as a key player in global affairs, a resonant moment for other peoples in other nations around the world, who convinced themselves that the US would now pursue a more benign, more even-handed foreign policy. One administration, that of George W. Bush, left the White House with a deeply damaged reputation and another, that of Obama, moved in with great expectation. That “audacity of hope” which Obama imbued the country with at the time was so palpably tactile you could almost touch it.
As Democrats held their party convention in Denver, Colorado, in 2008, there was hotness of blood, a sense of exuberance and exultation around them. That was then. All of it was replaced last week, in Charlotte, North Carolina, by a sense of unease that their party’s nominee, Obama, may, just may, be like Jimmy Carter — a one-term Democratic president.
It hasn’t helped that Republicans have hammered away at the president by asking voters to consider one implacable question, a question raised to the point of litany on the campaign trail: Are you better off now than you were four years ago, and should you expect the next four years to be any different? The Republicans raised it as a theme at their convention in Tampa, Florida, and the Democrats have dithered in answering it in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Watching the conventions these past two weeks? Well, enjoy. Enjoy the funny hats, the balloon drops, the roll call for the states’ nominations, with its child-like playfulness, the spirited political theatre, the octogenarian film icon addressing a chair, where an imaginary President Obama is presumed to be sitting, and the rest of it. Nothing else to enjoy there, to watch out for, to bite your nails over.
Party conventions do not determine who the presidential nominee will be. Primaries do. What happens at conventions does not translate into what happens on November 6. Polls do. And the popular vote does not clinch the result of a presidential election. The electoral college does. Party conventions are, well, a fun event, a wrap of a presidential campaign, where Republican hicks from Hopskenville, Kentucky, and Larence, Kansas, can wear outsize Swiss cheese hats, and Democratic smarty-pants delegates, say like Gov. Martin O’Malley can bring along his band, O’Malley’s March, a Celtic rock group for which he is the lead vocalist, where they are booked for two night gigs at local watering holes in Charlotte.
And don’t laugh, that’s the way it’s been since the first Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in 1832 and the first Republican National Convention in Pittsburgh in 1856. If Americans love to have a good time, to ‘party’, as they tell you, even at what should by all counts be a sombre event, well, it’s because they are encouraged to do just that, they tell you further with a straight face, by the Jeffersonian principle embedded in the Declaration of Independence that affirms the American people’s “inalienable right” to the “pursuit of happiness”.
Meanwhile, the sentiment that a lot of Americans who had voted for Obama four years ago is not happiness at all but dismay — dismay above all at his economic report card, at an economy that has grown by a feeble 2.2 per cent annual rate, at a burst real estate bubble that destroyed $6 trillion (Dh22 trillion) of housing value, at an 8.3 per cent unemployment rate, and at a poorly timed “universal health care” system. In the back of voters minds will be the nagging suspicion that in 2008 Obama promised but did not deliver. And for those who have tracked his foreign policy, he turned out to be a dud.
Look at it this way, when the prime minister of a small state like Israel lectures you in the Oval Office, and you knuckle under his demands one wonders if the man’s words, say in his Cairo speech in 2009, carried more weight and relevance than they deserved. Is it possible that Barack Obama will lose the presidential election in November? It’s possible. Very possible. But Mitt Romney in the White House for the next four or, God forbid, eight years? Oh, the horror, the horror!
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.