While Obama is still hailed around the world in almost messianic tones, recent polls indicate his approval rate is below 50% in the U.S. How could a man who aroused so much hope be losing support so dramatically? And what lessons can be learned for politicians all around the world?
Obama was swept to office precisely because he spoke to the deepest aspirations of the American electorate. He made "change" his major campaign mantra, and when people said that significant change was impossible, he added the mantra "Yes we can." He captured the Democratic Party nomination by contrasting his own anti-war perspective to that of Hillary Clinton who had voted for the war in Iraq. And his very being as a progressive African-American in a society that has not yet overcome its racism, coupled with his history as a community organizer, led tens of millions of Americans to believe that this time there was really something new happening.
Most people on the planet, of course, have heard a story about human reality that portrays us as surrounded by selfish others whose commitment to advancing their own interests has led them to seek to dominate or control everyone else, lest they themselves be dominated. This worldview, floating around the world for the past several thousand years, got even greater prominence in the past few decades when the ethos of solidarity that had prevailed for a few decades in the labor movement began to fade as globalization weakened the capacity of workers' to resist the pressures of the capitalist marketplace. Increasingly working people began to experience their work world as filled with co-workers who were seeking to advance their own interests without regard to the consequences for others. And political leaders used the Cold War, and then the rise of militant Islam, to convince many that the world was filled with evil forces and that our only protection would be to dominate them before they succeeded in wiping out our way of life. The worldview of fear and the consequent need to dominate and control others gave new strength to the old stories of an unsafe world.
Yet there has always been a competing vision of human beings that emphasizes the possibility of love and caring for each other. None of us would have survived our first few years without receiving the love and caring of a mothering-other whose generous outpouring of love to us was not based on a rational assessment of likely "good return" on her/his investment of time and energy. That experience lent credence to the picture that emerged in spiritual and religious communities of human beings as capable of building loving connections, and of security as achievable through mutual caring and cooperation on the individual, national and global levels.
Both of these worldviews contend in most of us all the time, and the power of Obama was that he was willing to challenge the worldview of fear and domination and suggest that policies could actually be based on love and generosity and mutual caring.
No wonder, then, that many Americans have felt deeply betrayed when Obama supported pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the existing banking system without requiring reform, without legislating a freeze on expelling people from their homes who could not meet mortgage payments, or creating a national bank to provide interest-free loans to small businesses that could employ the rising army of the unemployed. Things got worse when instead of embracing "Medicare for All" or some system that would eliminate the profiteers from health care, he allowed the lobbyists whom he had promised to eliminate from government to pour millions into shaping a very problematic heatlh care reform. He backed an environmental "And then Obama turned his promise to chase Bin Laden and capture him in Pakistan or Afghanistan into a full-scale war with human and economic costs that could be enormous.
Obama had enormous political credibility that could have been used to put forward a new vision for homeland security based on generosity and a Global Marshall Plan, could have chased the profiteers out of health care, could have could have used the economic meltdown to once and for all expose the false promises of the competitive capitalist marketplace. Failing to do that, many Americans reverted to the more fearful worldview, and on that terrain, the Right often seems to be more consistent. Ironically, the political Right is now able to present itself as the populist voice of anger at a Democratic Party which promised real change and then has legislated policies that actually largely continued the status quo. This is a ticket for political backlash that may be felt not only in the 2010 Congressional elections but in the Presidential race in 2012.