The politics of change
Within a day of the US election results confirming that Barack Obama had beaten John McCain, a new official website had appeared: change.gov, the Office of the President-Elect.
I have no idea what technology it’s based on, but it to my eyes it has a certain WordPress look to it. And there is of course a newsroom/blog through which rolling news updates can be quickly published. There are signs of the haste that the site’s been put together, but all things considered it’s mighty impressive – and hard to know how any equivalent official site could be thrown up in the UK so quickly.
As far as I’m aware, the change.gov site is a first. There was no such website in 2000 because websites were still a novelty, an afterthought. Actually the ‘Office of the President-Elect’ has barely existed in any public form before – it feels disturbingly like an echo of the UK’s own ‘Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’ under John Prescott, now defunct. But there it was, emblazoned on Mr Obama’s press conference lectern on Friday along with the presidential seal, apparently in a conscious attempt to reassure the stock markets that there would be no transition slip-ups.
UPDATE: The BBC reports on change.gov, saying:
The site also solicits suggestions from US citizens about their vision for America, and lets them apply for a post with the new administration.
On its transition website, the US governmental watchdog has listed the 13 most urgent issues that will soon confront President-elect Obama. […]
The creation of the Change.gov website is seen by many as making good on Mr Obama’s stated aim to make the process of governing more transparent.
The first website we saw in 2001 from the incoming Bush administration was after the inauguration itself, when a sparse new whitehouse.gov website took its first steps to completely replace the Clinton-era one, so the speed and evident importance of such a website appearing in 2008 speaks volumes and shows that the web has been and continues to be one of the Obama transition team’s top priorities, a key part of maintaining the momentum that has swept Mr Obama into office. The awkward transition period between presidents – a 77 day state of suspended animation – is very odd in this day and age. Even in old fashioned Britain, elections are swift and very cruel: if you lose an election as Prime Minister, then the removal trucks are round the back of Number 10 within hours, and you’re expected to be out by the time your successor returns from their audience at Buckingham Palace. And yet in other ways, the UK system is programmed to resist change: the apolitical, impartial Civil Service remain in place from administration to administration, unlike in the States where – if the party in power changes – then all the political appointees take virtually everything out the door with them (including, in the Clinton-Bush transition, the ‘W’ keys from the office keyboards – at least according to folklore.)
The URL of the Obama transition team site is particularly brilliant, because “change” has been so very much the key theme of the US election. Mr Obama has been pledging change with a laser-like focus and intensity, and the promise of change is what won the day for the Democrats. Admittedly, John McCain was also talking about change – but sadly his campaign was imploding and the messages became confused and conflicted: he offered change but continuity; he distanced himself from Bush and yet supported all the incumbent’s key policies; he said he “knew what to do” because of his experience and yet tried to paint himself as an outsider; he derided Obama’s lack of proven experience … while chosing the wildly unprepared Sarah Palin as his running mate.
So McCain failed to sell himself as the agent of change and left it wide open for Obama. Similarly we’ve just seen the election results from New Zealand, where the Labour Party have been swept from power by an opposition promising change after nine years of the current government. The new Prime Minister – John Keys of the National Party – even tried to sound an Obama-esque note in his victory speech, saying “hundreds and thousands” of people across the country had “voted for change”, adding: “Today, New Zealanders have voted for action, for a safer, more prosperous and more ambitious New Zealand.”
The previous New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clark, had been in power for nine years – one of the world’s longest serving leaders. Her campaign was based around the claim that, with recession looming in NZ, you needed people with experience at the helm and not someone who is learning on the job. That’s a very familiar tactic – McCain used it against Obama, and Gordon Brown has been using it word-for-word against David Cameron. Unfortunately for Brown, the US and NZ elections have shown that it’s a strategy that cuts no ice whatsoever with the electorate.
Labour in the UK have already tried to blunt the allure of “change” on the electorate by replacing Tony Blair with Gordon Brown; and it got off to a good start initially, until the party’s standing in the polls fell off a cliff late in 2007. But are there now signs of a turnaround? This week, Labour held on to a seat in a by-election that most people expected them to lose, confirming what the polls have been saying – Labour’s support is on the rise. They may still be far behind the Conservatives, but the ‘bounce’ is much appreciated by a seriously spooked party nonetheless. And the bounce may genuinely be down to Brown – in particular, to his ten years’ successful tenure at the Treasury Department. With the credit crunch and global banking crisis erupting, people found Brown’s record as Chancellor to be comforting and reassuring – and he scored an undoubted victory when his own version of the banking bail-out plan was quickly adopted as a global rescue package. All of a sudden Britain was a world leader – world saviour, almost! – and Brown was looking pretty good to the voters once more.
Will this be enough to give Labour – and Gordon Brown – a realistic chance of winning the next election, likely in May 2010? Well it’s far from a done deal, and it may all go horribly wrong for Labour, but for the first time in almost a year it’s looking like the next election won’t be entirely a foregone conclusion. What Labour need to do in the meantime is temper this hunger – this mania – among the voters for change.
Just why is ‘change’ so alluring to everyone? It usually arises from a sense that what we have now isn’t working – and is actively going disastrously wrong, as many US voters felt about the last eight years under George Bush. But there really doesn’t seem that same sense in the UK: a few performance targets haven’t been met, but that sort of thing doesn’t change votes; and voters are grown up enough to know that the current economic situation is due to worldwide events and seem to think that Brown is doing as well as anyone possibly could in the circumstances. But still, no one’s claiming that these are good times. Some difficult decisions lie ahead. And as taxes and unemployment rise, the media will doubtless raise the call “Something must be done!” and expect a response. Labour were masters at jumping on command to the media calls for action under Blair, quickly doing something about it: didn’t matter what, but they did something, because in the UK in the last decade some activity – some sort of identifiable, radical change – has been perceived as better than doing nothing. In actual fact, doing something is not always better. Sometimes the best thing to do is plot a steady course and keep doing what you’re doing – and the worst thing you can do is to make abrupt and radical changes. A brilliant BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme on doubt and uncertainty in politics made exactly this point this week and demonstrated the harm it can do and is highly recommended for a listen (UK people can access the program as a podcast or through iPlayer until November 13.)
“Change” is an easy mantra – but can be very difficult to actually put into practice effectively. It will be interesting to see whether President-Elect Obama can pull off the trick or if “change” will prove to be mere campaign rhetoric. And the degree to which he succeeds (or not) may yet shape the outcome of the UK elections, since if “change” appears to be a mistake in the States then there’s every chance that the UK voters will play safe and stick with what they know. So the battleground for UK 2010 will be: stick or twist? Can David Cameron make a convincing argument that his idea of change is for the better, or would we be better treading water and adopting the medical principal “first do no harm” by staying with Brown?
At least the UK election scene is at least starting to look as though it will be an interesting eighteen months rather than a rout for either side.