Barack Obama was swept to office on a wave of optimism as America heeded his clarion call for change.
Just four years on, his agenda has been frustrated by a hostile senate and a faltering economy. The president’s bold “yes we can” has been replaced with a more cautious, “maybe we can, if …”.
In casting a much narrower net in his pitch for a second term, the president is seeking to overcome a challenge that has crippled the Australian Labor Government since its election in 2007: balancing the hope and aspiration of opposition with the cold, hard realities of office.
Much like president Obama, as prime minister, Kevin Rudd initially enjoyed remarkable support in the polls, but when it came to implementation, his reform agenda began to unravel.
The Rudd prime ministership got off to a promising start and through his apology to the stolen generations, Rudd showed the power of moral leadership. He gave one of the great speeches of our history as the nation finally began the process of reconciliation.
It was on “the greatest moral challenge of our time”, however, that Rudd failed the test of leadership. In brokering a deal with the conservative side of politics (which was later broken by the Coalition), Rudd ultimately succeeded in alienating climate change activists and sceptics. The defeat of his Emissions Trading Scheme in the Senate and decision to put climate change action in the too hard basket brought Rudd undone. His support in the polls crumbled and his caucus colleagues sharpened their knives.
As if traumatised by the experience, Labor under Gillard has sought to under-promise and over-deliver. The 2010 election was textbook ‘expectation management’ – no more lofty talk of “great moral challenges”, Labor was simply about “governing in the national interest”.
In the United States, president Obama has faced challenges of his own. His healthcare and economic reform plans have faced difficulties in the senate and been significantly revised as a result, while promises like abolishing Guantanamo Bay have been abandoned completely. Standing for re-election, Obama promises a diluted version of his ’08 manifesto.
Obama and Gillard’s opponents have not however sought to fill the inspiration gap. If Kevin07 and Obama ’08 raised expectations, Abbott and Romney are certainly a cold shower. No more promises of hope and change; it’s the ‘audacity of nope’ for these aspiring leaders as they pledge to dismantle and reverse much of their opponents’ agendas.
This is reflective of a broader pattern in world politics. By their very definition, centre-left governments seek to inspire and motivate the electorate with the promise of change. As a result they are often held to a much higher standard in office if their goals fail to materialise. Conversely, conservative governments offer stability, not change, and are thus unlikely to either delight or disappoint the electorate.
But for the centre-left there is a strategy even more dangerous than making promises that aren’t kept; that is, making no promises at all. To borrow a phrase embraced by both Obama and Gillard, how can you promise to move your nation “forward” if you won’t tell the voters where you want to take them?
Politics is not simply the art of the possible; rather, it is about making what once seemed impossible possible by challenging the status quo, moving beyond the reality and inspiring with the dream. After all, it is this hope that Obama offered not just America but the world when a black man finally challenged the ultimate symbol of Western power and privilege that is the US presidency. It was an outcome that seemed almost impossible just a few years earlier.
Paul Keating was right when he claimed that, “when you change the government, you change the nation”. But, conversely, why bother changing the government if it won’t change the nation? This is something Labor must not forget: in diluting so much of its agenda, it risks its “light on the hill” becoming nothing more than a fading candle in the wind.
There can be no doubt that the reality of government has been bruising for the US Democrats and the ALP, but as Obama and Gillard struggle to inspire their supporters, perhaps they should remember the famous words of another leader who also faced great challenges, Abraham Lincoln: “It is better to have tried and failed than to have never tried at all.”
This piece was first published on The Drum Opinion on the 1st of October 2012.