La Pietra Dialogues’ U.S. Politics: Towards 2012 Conference brought together a group of American and European political strategists, journalists, and activists to discuss the upcoming United States presidential election. In a series of four panel discussions, the speakers covered current shifts occurring within the Republican Party, Obama’s upcoming fight for reelection, the transatlantic relationship, and the global effects of the current economic downturn. As the speakers discussed the changing political and economic climate both domestically and abroad, a question posed by Democratic consultant Steve McMahon stayed at the front of my mind: “What kind of country do we want to be?”
In 2008, America was a country searching for change. Barack Obama’s message of hope and unity promised Americans exactly what they needed after a long eight years under the Bush administration. After an historic inauguration, however, Obama began to falter. As the economy continued to slip and unemployment climbed to unprecedented levels, the American people grew more and more disheartened that the promised change would never come. In 2010, a Republican Congress came to power and Obama’s approval ratings only got worse. America had voted to turn a new political page, but instead had entered a four year term trapped in a world of extreme partisanship.
It’s no wonder voters are frustrated and protesting. Progressives have taken to occupying Wall Street while conservatives have opted for Tea Party rallies. These Americans voted for a strong rejuvenated country and instead are seeing a divided and exhausted nation. So we return to that question, “What kind of country do we want to be?” Clearly the status quo is not acceptable. Tea Partyists and Wall Street occupiers have broken from the system to fully emphasize that point. But what do they want instead?
The Republican panel of the conference discussed the search for a candidate who can be trusted to fix the economy. They explained that the American people will vote for the person who they know can take care of the current financial crisis, and in their view that does not seem to be Barack Obama. As Republican strategist, Steve Schmidt pointed out, “No president with an unemployment rating over 7.4% has ever been reelected. Right now we’re at 9.4%” From this discussion we can conclude that Americans wants to be a healing nation, lead by a strong president who they can trust to pragmatically return our economy to a state of prosperity. Based on the Republican debates and Obama’s poor showings in the polls, all fingers point to Mitt Romney to fill this position.
This all seems to make sense until the Democratic viewpoint comes in to play. Paul Begala, a Democratic consultant and commentator, explained that one of the strengths Obama needs to recognize is his story—he has truly lived the American dream, coming from humble beginnings and working his way to the White House. In order to reconnect with the American people, Begala says, Obama should reach out to them on a personal level. He needs to be the political figure they can relate to and aspire to, rather than the man behind the curtain who appears to be running the show. Hiding like the Wizard of Oz only disconnects a president from his constituents. Obama needs to present himself as more of an everyman and in that way earn back the trust and respect of the people. Again, we seem to be looking for a trustworthy president to help heal the nation. Only this time perhaps, we will trust him not for his economic and scholarly prowess, but by our ability to relate to him.
Journalist, Nicole Bacharan pointed out that the real “everyman” of society may not have a full understanding of economic rhetoric. Therefore, a candidate who spends his time working to build the trust of the American people by talking about the economy is not one the voters can relate to. And if voters cannot relate to a candidate, how can they trust him? Is it more important to be a scholarly candidate who will take the country by the hand and lead it through troubled waters, or an “everyman candidate” who will walk alongside the country, facing challenges together?
From the discussions at the conference, is seems the US is looking for a combination of the two. We want to be a powerful, united country where individuals can live out the American Dream. In order to do this, we require a president who can lead us to safe haven, but who can also relate to and speak with the people. Americans are frustrated with Washington. We need a president who understands that and is willing to work with us in order to make the United States the country we want to be.