There is a significant problem for the left in relating to this anger, however, and the problem is Obama. Obama has presided over the continuation and extension of inequality, escalated the Afghanistan war, forced concessions in the car industry and given way to the private insurance companies over healthcare. The weight of the crisis is being felt particularly sharply by those—especially poor, working class and black voters—at the core of Obama’s electoral support and his support, though still real, is eroding as disappointment sinks in. The impressive movement that the Obama campaign mobilised to deliver the election a year ago has not been marshalled to fight for a public option in healthcare, to fight for jobs or for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which would make it easier for workers to organise and join unions, and is opposed by much of US business, including Citigroup which was bailed out to the tune of $50 billion.
In the absence of a strong movement for reform from the left or pressure from a resistant working class, the louder voices are once more those of a minority of conservative politicians and radio presenters opposed to “big government”. The weakness of the Obama government in the face of deepening economic gloom is stoking that opposition, encapsulating as it does a degree of class anger among “ordinary” Americans which has no other obvious outlet.21
As a result, the Republicans made gains in the recent elections for state governor in Virginia—a state won by the Democrats for the first time since 1964 in the Obama election—and New Jersey. The results suggest, in addition to local factors, that those—mainly white—workers who came late to the Obama campaign have found little in the government’s priorities to alleviate their economic predicament.
The re-emergence of visible manifestations of conservative populism, however, are indicative of the weakness of the Republican Party as a political force; instead the likes of Sarah Palin and “shock-jock” Rush Limbaugh are increasingly vocal and are backing conservative candidates against those chosen by the party machine. The mobilisations of the right, such as those in opposition to healthcare reform, have been small but nonetheless illustrate the potential for anger over economic pain to be channelled by conservative forces if progressive forces sit on their hands.
Gary Younge makes this point about the healthcare protests: “The problem is not that the right were organised but that—with a few exceptions—the left has not been. At the very moment when he needed the ‘movement’ that got him elected most, it appears to have largely stopped moving”.22 It has stopped moving largely because Obama has refused to mobilise it and there is not sufficient confidence and pressure for independent action on a mass scale. It is not a surprise that the US president prefers not to revive a movement that may escape the control of the Democratic Party apparatus. But his equivocation risks alienating his own constituency and those who were pulled into his orbit by the tremendous power of his campaign for change, as well as reigniting cynicism of the “liberal” Democratic establishment that could well benefit the right.
The lesson from the Great Depression of the 1930s in the US is that reform and resistance to the effects of the crisis will ultimately depend on a significant movement from below pushing for them. At the moment that movement is absent. There are, however, other social and political processes taking place that suggest possibilities.
• Naomi Klein
The Bush administration's determination to mimic the hollow corporations it admired extended to its handling of the anger its actions inspired around the world. Rather than actually changing or even adjusting its policies, it launched a series of ill-fated campaigns to "rebrand America" for an increasingly hostile world. Watching these cringeful attempts, I was convinced that Price Floyd, former director of media relations at the State Department, had it right. After resigning in frustration, he said that the United States was facing mounting anger not because of the failure of its messaging but because of the failure of its policies. "I'd be in meetings with other public-affairs officials at State and the White House," Floyd told Slate magazine. "They'd say: 'We need to get our people out there on more media.' I'd say: 'It's not so much the packaging, it's the substance that's giving us trouble.'" A powerful, imperialist country is not like a hamburger or a running shoe. America didn't have a branding problem; it had a product problem.
I used to think that, but I may have been wrong. When Obama was sworn in as president, the American brand could scarcely have been more battered – Bush was to his country what New Coke was to Coca-Cola, what cyanide in the bottles had been to Tylenol. Yet Obama, in what was perhaps the most successful rebranding campaign of all time, managed to turn things around. Kevin Roberts, global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, set out to depict visually what the new president represented. In a full-page graphic commissioned by the stylish Paper Magazine, he showed the Statue of Liberty with her legs spread, giving birth to Barack Obama. America, reborn.
So, it seemed that the United States government could solve its reputation problems with branding – it's just that it needed a branding campaign and product spokesperson sufficiently hip, young and exciting to compete in today's tough market. The nation found that in Obama, a man who clearly has a natural feel for branding and who has surrounded himself with a team of top-flight marketers. His social networking guru, for instance, is Chris Hughes, one of the young founders of Facebook. His social secretary is Desirée Rogers, a glamorous Harvard MBA and former marketing executive. And David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, was formerly a partner in ASK Public Strategies, a PR firm which, according to Business Week, "has quarterbacked campaigns" for everyone from Cablevision to AT&T. Together, the team has marshalled every tool in the modem marketing arsenal to create and sustain the Obama brand: the perfectly calibrated logo (sunrise over stars and stripes); expert viral marketing (Obama ringtones); product placement (Obama ads in sports video games); a 30-minute infomercial (which could have been cheesy but was universally heralded as "authentic"); and the choice of strategic brand alliances (Oprah for maximum reach, the Kennedy family for gravitas, and no end of hip-hop stars for street cred).
The first time I saw the "Yes We Can" video, the one produced by Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am, featuring celebrities speaking and singing over a Martin Luther Kingesque Obama speech, I thought: finally, a politician with ads as cool as Nike. The ad industry agreed. A few weeks before he won the presidential elections, Obama beat Nike, Apple, Coors and Zappos to win the Association of National Advertisers' top annual award – Marketer of the Year. It was certainly a shift. In the 1990s, brands upstaged politics completely. Now corporate brands were rushing to piggyback on Obama's caché (Pepsi's "Choose Change" campaign, Ikea's "Embrace Change '09" and Southwest Airlines' offer of "Yes You Can" tickets).
Indeed everything Obama and his family touches turns to branding gold. J Crew saw its stock price increase 200% in the first six months of Obama's presidency, thanks in part to Michelle's well known fondness for the brand. Obama's much-discussed attachment to his BlackBerry has been similarly good news for Research In Motion. The surest way to sell magazines and newspapers in these difficult times is to have an Obama on the cover, and you only need to call three ounces of vodka and some fruit juice an Obamapolitan or a Barackatini and you can get $15 for it, easy. In February 2009, Portfolio magazine put the size of "the Obama economy" – the tourism he generates and the swag he inspires - at $2.5bn. Not at all bad in an economic crisis. Rogers got into trouble with some of her colleagues when she spoke too frankly with The Wall Street Journal. "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand," she said. "Our possibilities are endless."
The exploration of those possibilities did not end, or even slow, with the election victory. Bush had used his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a backdrop to perform his best impersonation of the Marlboro man, forever clearing brush, having cookouts and wearing cowboy boots. Obama has gone much further, turning the White House into a kind of never-ending reality show starring the lovable Obama clan. This too can be traced to the mid-90s branding craze, when marketers grew tired of the limitations of traditional advertising and began creating three-dimensional "experiences" – branded temples where shoppers could crawl inside the personality of their favourite brands. The problem is not that Obama is using the same tricks and tools as the superbrands; anyone wanting to move the culture these days pretty much has to do that. The problem is that, as with so many other lifestyle brands before him, his actions do not come close to living up to the hopes he has raised.
Though it's too soon to issue a verdict on the Obama presidency, we do know this: he favours the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time. So he will make a dramatic announcement about closing the notorious Guantánamo Bay prison – while going ahead with an expansion of the lower profile but frighteningly lawless Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and opposing accountability for Bush officials who authorised torture. He will boldly appoint the first Latina to the Supreme Court, while intensifying Bush-era enforcement measures in a new immigration crackdown. He will make investments in green energy, while championing the fantasy of "clean coal" and refusing to tax emissions, the only sure way to substantially reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Most importantly, he will claim to be ending the war in Iraq, and will retire the ugly "war on terror" phrase – even as the conflicts guided by that fatal logic escalate in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his "Yes We Can!" slogan from the migrant farmworkers – si se puede). These movements made unequivocal demands of existing power structures: for land distribution, higher wages, ambitious social programmes. Because of those high-cost demands, these movements had not only committed followers but serious enemies. Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone but the committed wing nuts (which, granted, constitute a not inconsequential demographic in the United States). Advertising Age had it right when it gushed that the Obama brand is "big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate enough feel to inspire advocacy". And then their highest compliment: "Mr Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player."
Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party monopoly through dogged organisation and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued "bipartisanship" with crazed Republicans once in the White House. (read more)
Obama, as is his nature I think, tried to take the fork in the road all year, making nice to his base while actually delivering to his money people, not realizing the two were perpetually in conflict. His failure to make a clear choice, or rather to make the right choice, is what has doomed him everywhere politically.
It will be interesting to see what comes next, whether this is just for show or not.