Why have they become so unpopular so quickly ?
by James Robinson
New Zealand has long been out of ideological sync with the USA. Labour Prime Minister David Lange crumpled ANZUS and threw out nuclear ships during the Reagan years. Helen Clark decried the war on Iraq, and said it wouldn’t have happened “if Al Gore had won” during the Bush II era. Across the pond, Australia has benefited from the opposite. Hawke and Reagan, Keating and Clinton. John Howard was an easy partner in neo-con antics for Bush II. Now we have Rudd and Obama – who seem to have extended this pattern of mimicry, into a resounding echo.
Both Rudd and Obama came in on the heels of two abhorred and ineffectual leaders. Probably the defining irony of the Bush/Howard reigns is that they were ideologically pointless – despite the neo-conservative clarion call, Government was no smaller by the end. Bush II extended Government spending beyond its comfort zone, and Howard passed just as much legislation as his predecessor, leaving government exactly the same size. In addition – there are also the raft of political, ethical and moral failings of each government (historically these will weigh a lot heavier on the future perceptions of Bush II).
Rudd in 2007, and Obama in 2008, were two exalted changes in course. The Ruddslide that bought about a five and a half percent swing away from Howard in 2007 was so strong that it chased John Howard out of his own electorate seat. Obama’s now clichéd ‘Yes we can’ rhetoric was refreshing when considered in direct countenance to eight years of fear-mongering and immorality. Under a well-organised front of opposition to eight years of ineffectual direction, Republicans crumpled, Independents flocked en masse, and Obama won the election by six points, and cemented majorities in the House, and the Senate.
But, like the grimy ‘Where are they now” pages from any tabloid, the political outcomes have been less pleasant for both Rudd, and Obama. Obama is now the most divisive first year president ever, more divisive even than Bush II, a man who finished his eight years in office with a 23 percent approval rating. From an approval rating north of 70 percent, Obama’s job approval sat at 46 percent before his recent health-care success. Rudd’s approval rating sits at a near identical 47 percent, down 50 percent from a solid run of 70 percent plus approval in 2008.
Both are dealing with the consequences of electoral defeats. Rudd faces the hammer this year, a lot sooner than Obama, holding a one and half percent lead when all polls are averaged out. Recent elections in South Australia resulted in a notable Labour plummet, and Liberal upswing – even if this hostility (some of it, to be fair, was directed at the state premier) largely came through in safe seats, and didn’t do much to change the balance of power. Even so, the press have started to desert Rudd, and are the breeding ground of all populist movements. Forbes labeled Rudd the “Poor man’s Obama”, while The Australian ran a notably black article titled “The curious case of the friendless and unpopular Prime Minister”.
Obama’s troubles are equally clear, and summarized no better by a Republican uprising in Massachusetts, with Scott Brown winning the revered Democrat Teddy Kennedy’s long held seat amidst a frenzy of health-care resentment. Independents have started to desert him (he now polls at less than 50 percent consistently amongst independents), and Republicans appear in a frothy mouthed daze when decrying new legislation. This eroding of support is further exemplified by recent elections in New Jersey and Virginia going against him. Democratic party support has fallen beneath 50 percent across the country.
These troubles receive a lot of media attention. But what is not given a lot of attention is why is there such resentment of these two very new leaders? One might assume they were both doing a horrible job. But political reality, and actual truth don’t always overlap. What is to one person “saving 45,000 lives” is to another “a government takeover of healthcare.”
Considering the policies Rudd and Obama were voted in on, they’ve stayed relatively close to their word. Closer than our own Prime Minister, and much closer than Bush II stayed to his 2000 election claim of “compassionate conservatism”. Rudd has lost his way on delivering on his climate change promises (however, who hasn’t?) but has reversed negative industrial relations legislation, maintained a moderate line on Iraq, kept a stable hand on the economy, and even given a long awaited apology to the stolen generations
Obama has been even busier. As promised he has delivered a healthcare bill, shifted military emphasis to Afghanistan, and begun the process of closing down Guantanamo Bay. He has delivered a stimulus package that has stopped the rot in the economy, and will soon be looking to bring in new regulations on Wall Street and the financial sector. He has placed incentives on environmentally friendly retro fitting of government buildings and taken a clear line on climate change.
As a Rudd, or an Obama voter I can’t see how either leader has bankrupted their promises. Sure, in the depths of the political system, wishy-washy promises of bipartisanship are less practicable when the other side sees little gain of playing ball. But the accomplishments of each administration reads close to what you would have guessed.
These two leaders who were elected at a stroll amidst hope of a “new era”, but that glorious momentum of yesterday seems a trifle wounded. Each has lost control of the narrative to opposition parties who are coming across as selling nothing but vitriol. But maybe, that is the better story?
Australia and the United States have closely mimicked each other ideologically. Yet with Obama and Rudd facing a similar pattern of resistance to attempts at positive change, it seems this pattern is about to take a somewhat tragic turn. The experience of each leader points towards a fickle and impatient voting population, more interested in being pushed around from viewpoint to viewpoint in habitual dissatisfaction than in getting behind the change that they themselves voted for.