View from Australia: Things done changed

By Jonathan Bradley

I'm not in the business of making predictions. Crystal ball-gazing is for clairvoyants. Anyone who tells you they know who will win next year's presidential election is making a shot in the dark and hoping you won't notice if they turn out to be wrong.

What I can do, however, is look at what's happening in America right now, and consider how that may affect the future. This, then, is not a prediction, but an observation on which the way winds are blowing: Over the past few weeks, it's looked more likely that Barack Obama will be a one term president.

Now, don't get me wrong. Prognostication is a mug's game, and it's too easy to be misled by impressive but empty statistics. I've heard good reasons why Obama may win: The Republican field is weak. If Mitt Romney gets the nomination, religious conservatives suspicious of his Mormonism might stay home. In an attempt to appeal to an increasingly extreme Republican base, whichever candidate gains the nomination will probably have said some crazy things during the primaries, even if he or she doesn't believe them. Despite Obama's low poll ratings, Republicans in Congress, as well as the Republican Party in general, poll even lower. Out-party challengers rarely defeat incumbent presidents.

There are good reasons why Obama may lose, as well. Unemployment is high. Economic growth and wage growth are both anemic. The surge of young and minority voters who made the President's 2008 campaign such a success will have had four years of political disappointment to convince them that Hope and Change are concepts easier conjured in a campaign speech than in Washington, D.C. 

But all of that has been true for some time. Yet somewhere between the debt-ceiling dispute of early August and the Occupy Wall Street protests of September and October, the task facing Barack Obama next year began looking a lot more imposing. In the words of Biggie Smalls, "Things done changed." This ain't back in the day.

The last time I was in America was February of this year. I'd been living in the States since December 2009, first in D.C., and then in Seattle, Washington, and certainly, I could tell that life was rough for a lot of people. In Seattle, I first came across a construction site toward the end of 2010. In Sydney, cranes are an ever-present sight on the horizon, but it wasn't until I saw this lone city block in Seattle being torn up that I'd realised how unusual the scene was. The entire time I was there, America had not been building anything.

There were other signs of how rough things were as well. Seattle has always had homeless people, but I began, every now and then, seeing entire homeless families, including children. They looked new to the street as well; not the ragged and disshevelled vagrants that were a more familiar sight in the city. And, of course, everywhere you went, people talked about how weak the economy was. Students at the University of Washington, where I was studying, knew it was better to be at school than on the job market right now. 

Despite all this though, life went on for the vast majority of people. It could be better, but they were getting by, and the country seemed most concerned with enduring the rough times as best they could. The angriest folks around, actually, were the Tea Party types, who tended to be from white, middle to upper-middle class backgrounds. Their grievance was that the government was trying to help the down-at-luck — by expanding access to health care, attempting to help those who owed more money than the value of their house, and lengthening the time the unemployed could access welfare.

I haven't seen what's going on in America with my own eyes lately, but I have been getting a sense that the nation's resigned stoicism is wearing thin. A month or so ago, my fellow American Review contributor James Fallows, whom I consider to be both level-headed and generally optimistic, wrote a series of posts along the theme of "people are close to revolt." 

A bit later, when the Occupy Wall Street protests started gaining attention, I began asking around: Have things deteriorated that much since I was last in the country? The answer I heard was "Yes."

The reaction of Americans to Occupy Wall Street has surprised me. The appeal of vocal lefty demonstrations doesn't usually extend far beyond vocal lefties, but according to a United Technologies/National Journal poll, 59 per cent of Americans support the protesters, with 31 per cent against. That support extends to blue collar whites, who might have been supposed to be suspicious of protesters with which they share little in common culturally. A Time poll has support of the protesters at 54-36. Incidentally, that same poll finds that 81 per cent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. Just 14 per cent think it's headed in the right direction. 

I'm hearing the same thing anecdotally, as well. I remember back in 2009, a friend in Portland, Oregon joked about Stalinist overtones when a local café put up a portrait of the newly elected President Obama on its wall. Last week, I watched a video on YouTube, of that same friend standing in front of a large crowd in Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square and shouting angrily into a megaphone. I've heard another friend, in Miami, whom I once considered a moderate Republican, speak approvingly of the protests.

A significant proportion of Americans seem to have decided that government has stopped working for them. US Studies Centre alumna Erin Riley describes it as a feeling that "the social contract is broken: that the promise once that if you apply yourself and work hard, you’ll do OK no longer exists." I don't know how representative the stories told at the We Are The 99 Percent blog are, but that's certainly the feeling those folks same to have.

When members of the population begin thinking the social contract is breaking down, it's a bad time to be an incumbent politician. But who knows? Occupy Wall Street could be the revival of Barack Obama's and congressional Democrats' fortunes. Perhaps this is the start of a push-back against the sort of Republican nihilism that prefers cuts to jobs and cheers the proposition that the unemployed have only themselves to blame. But I also wonder if people this angry will be willing to support a president with whom they may once have found affinity. Occupying Wall Street is not the same as occupying a polling booth. Perhaps in November 2012, too many Americans will decide that turning out to vote is an investment in government they can't bring themselves to make.

20 October 2011