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Barack Obama: Where's the love?

Barack ObamaBy Nick Spicer

As he campaigns for members of his beleaguered Democratic party, the US president can no longer fill a stadium with enraptured Americans young and old.

The magic of Barack Obama’s mythopoeic come-from-behind campaign in 2008 has given way to the grim reality of governing a conflicted country, one whose entire economic model has been found wanting by the greatest recession since the 1930s.

And, as Obama stays the course with some of George Bush’s symbolic overseas policies – continuing drone strikes in Pakistan, and largely maintaining status quo on the human rights of “war on terror” detainees - the disenchantment of many American progressives has veered into bitterness.

But as the president loses touch with much of his base, the very man once derided by his presidential rivals as a phony-Jesus, peace-and-love political cream puff is forging a new public persona: Barack Obama, the angry president.

And it's not without good political reason.

The country itself is angry and not interested in “change” and “hope” anymore. The language that sells, the rhetoric that can best get Americans off the couch and into the voting booth, is all about being “mad as hell” and accusing your opponent of betraying the country.

So the “love” president is learning to paint with another palette of emotions: not quite the Big Government paranoia of his opponents on the Right, but certainly anger and fear.

“I’ll fight with everything I’ve got to stop those who would gamble your Social Security on Wall Street,” Obama said recently in his weekly radio address.

Social Security is the pension system in the US, a cherished programme created in 1935. While he was President, George Bush suggested it should be partially privatised, allowing people who chose to do so to invest some of their contributions on Wall Street.

The problem is most Republicans have given up on the idea, says

No matter.

Obama warned the nation:

“…you shouldn't be worried that a sudden downturn in the stock market will put all you’ve worked so hard for — all you’ve earned — at risk."

Accusing the Republican enemy of planning a public pension Armageddon is a good strategy because pension-age Americans should make up about 40 per cent of midterm voters, as young and minority constituencies refuse to repeat the record groundswell they gave Obama in 2008.

Because there is a big fear factor here: for most Americans, given recent stock market performances, putting all the government-held Social Security money into Wall Street these days is akin to starting a giant bonfire of hundred-dollar bills.

But for all his bogeyman efforts, Obama is frequently persona non grata on the campaign trail of the Democratic candidates he is trying to help.

Paradoxically, the president scares many in his own camp too.

All are grateful for the big money he so ably raises at fund-raising events. However many are reluctant to actually share a podium with a president that is rapidly losing popularity, and who often has a polarising effect on key constituencies in individual states.

More welcome – irony of ironies – is former president Bill Clinton, the same man who appeared to wander into doubtful racist territory (and then angrily denied it) while bitterly campaigning for his wife Hillary against Obama in 2008.

If there’s no love for Barack Obama, there is plenty for “Big Dog” Bill.

He is talking to disappointed Democrats like a mid-game coach trying to pull together the battered Democratic team and send them back to victory on the playing field.

This month he said:

“If you’re a Democrat, you need to hold your head up. I’m tired of reading about how we’re all belly-aching.”

The polls, however, do provide Democrats cause for some gastric upset.

They show that for now the Republicans have taken back the momentum.

They have done this by railing against Big Government and creeping “socialism,” all while actually proposing very little in terms of public policy, and generally indulging in what the late historian Richard Hosfstadter called the “paranoid style” of American politics.

So, with less than three months to go, Obama and the Democrats are going to accentuate the negative, and occasionally flirt with a little paranoia themselves.

They are (somewhat accurately) portraying the Republican Party as the party of “No,” one with no ideas of its own beyond trying to block whatever laws Democrats push through Congress: spending money to re-start the economy, or expanding health care to cover almost all Americans.

But they are also suggesting they plan to do things that are not actually on the party’s agenda, like destroying Social Security.

Obama has a popular car-as-notion metaphor to explain all this, suggesting to campaign audiences that the automatic transmission letters “D” and “R” have new meaning this year:

D = "Drive", of course, but also "Democrat".

R=  "Reverse" and ... "Republican".

Mr Obama told a fund-raising audience in Miami Beach recently:

"Remember our campaign slogan, 'Yes we can'?"

"This year, their campaign slogan is, 'No, we can't.' It's pretty inspiring, huh? You know, you wake up in the morning and you hear 'No!' That just puts a little pep in your step."

And Obama, no longer "walking on water" as he appeared to while a Messiah-like candidate himself, needs all the pep in his step he can possibly get.

He could also use a few more scary bedtime stories about Republicans to help his party's candidates win in November, and, somehow, to keep his "hope" and "change" agenda alive.

Nick Spicer has over 15 years of international reporting experience.

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