A changed narrative
THE 2008 election results couldn’t have delivered a more crystal-clear message about the American desire for change — a yearning that President Barack Obama’s political strategists rightly tapped into with its core campaign theme: change we can believe in.
But more than the substance of his policy platform, Americans drew their support for Obama from two factors. First, the combination of his family background, personal history and achievements proved the American dream was possible.
Second, Obama was not George Bush, the folksy president hailing from a political family who went to war with Iraq over weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.
Electing the anti-Bush — even when Bush was not contesting the election — reflected just how fed up America was with status quo politics. Identity, opportunity and what it meant to be American. These were some of the most important ideas that shaped voter behaviour in 2008.
The Obama campaign is once again promoting the president’s non-establishment credentials. One campaign ad quotes Obama: “a mixed kid from Hawaii born to a single mom is not likely to become President of the United States but in America it can happen because of education.”
As a first-generation immigrant from Pakistan, I personally connect with this message but this narrative doesn’t seem to be resonating with most Americans the way it did in 2008. And despite a healthy list of domestic and foreign policy achievements, his lead in the polls is no more. Obama and Mitt Romney are now in dead heat.
What happened? Many think the Oct 3 presidential debate did Obama in. Historically, the first debate is tough for incumbents.
This one was no exception. Gallup polling revealed that 72 per cent believed Romney did a better job than Obama.
But changes emerged months before. Polls indicated a recognisable shift in support in March, unsurprisingly coinciding with rising gas and fuel prices and weaker confidence in the economy. The economy plays a role in voting behaviour but the relationship doesn’t exist in a vacuum. So what other forces are at work?
The answer goes back to those same ideas that were important in 2008 — identity, opportunities and what it means to be American.
But this time the Republican Party’s most conservative constituents dominate the narrative, challenging Obama’s suitability to represent “their country”. They have distorted his identity by claiming he is not an American citizen or is professionally unqualified to be president.
It is hard to ignore the racism, hyper-nationalism, or simple lack of education at the root of most of these comments — and we should not. Unfortunately, there is an audience for these views in the US, pointing to deep societal cleavages on issues — namely race inequality and immigration — that many thought the US had worked out.
Such ideas are also indicative of an extreme polarisation in public opinion and politics that is likely here to stay and will shape the outcome of Tuesday’s election. Whereas in 2008 a large segment of Americans came out to vote for Obama because of who he was, in just two days another large segment of the population could cast ballots against him also because of who he is.
Because the race is so close, it’s difficult to predict how many will turn out to vote against Obama — a question more easily answered if Pakistanis had a choice in voting for the new US president. A recent BBC poll found that 20 out of 21 countries preferred Obama over Romney. The only country in the world with a preference for Romney was Pakistan.
This finding suggests that Pakistanis believe a Romney government would better accommodate Pakistan’s interests. But history teaches us that relations will not be less conflicted under Republican leadership.
During the Reagan administration, the US provided aid through Islamabad for the anti-Soviet Mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan. The US was happy with this arrangement because it won the war against the Soviets. The military in Pakistan was equally sanguine because it received billions of dollars in US support and strengthened its influence in Afghanistan.
But recently declassified US government cables from the National Security Archive in Washington show a more tense relationship, strikingly similar to that of today.
American arms control officials wrote that Gen Ziaul Haq “has lied to us again” about Pakistan’s procurement of nuclear weapons-related technology. The White House and State Department, not wanting to jeopardise aid to the Mujahideen, pushed back in hopes that “building a strong bilateral relationship would dissuade Pakistan from building nuclear weapons”.
This sounds a lot like the early efforts of the Obama administration to build a strategic partnership to elicit more Pakistani cooperation on Afghanistan — and it is precisely the same view advocated by Romney’s foreign policy team. Romney adviser Mitchell Reiss stated in September that a Romney administration would treat Pakistan with a “little bit more respect” but as a means to get Pakistan to do more in Afghanistan.
The convergence on foreign policy was most evident in the Oct 22 presidential debate when Romney endorsed most of Obama’s positions.
Whether Romney or Obama wins on Tuesday, Pakistan will stay a priority and national security will still dominate the agenda.
The next American president will stay the course on counterterrorism as long as anti-American terrorist attacks are planned or financed from safe havens in Pakistan. He is going to take US troops out of Afghanistan because of the cost to the US taxpayer.
There is a chance that a Romney administration could prolong the troop drawdown. However, there is neither domestic
appetite for an extended military mission, nor do the conditions on the ground in Afghanistan support it. It’s hard to disagree when American lives and the economy are at stake.
The writer is an analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the White House National Security Council from 2010 to 2011.