Acclamation Reclamation

"So, how was it for you?"

"So, how was it for you?"

“…the nations of Europe and Asia exulted… nothing was to be seen throughout the cities but altars, oblations, sacrifices, men in white robes and crowned with garlands… goodwill, feasts, public meetings, musical contests, horse races, revels, nightlong frolics with harp and flutes, celebration, freedom, holiday-making and every kind of pleasure… Indeed the golden age pictured by the poets no longer seemed a myth, so great was the prosperity and happiness, the freedom from grief and fear, the joy which pervaded everywhere.”

There is an occasional phenomenon in politics of most stripes which sees the populace excited beyond reasonable expectation. It is a time during which old allegiances, and old saws, are discarded in favour of an illusory panacaea. The phenomenon may see the right person elected at the right time, but saddled by unmeetable demands (Barack Obama met Tony Blair only yesterday); and, when times are hard and any change is deemed worthwhile, it may also see the wrong person acclaimed. Above, the philosopher Philo of Alexandria describes the jubilation which greeted the accession of the Emperor Caligula, a startling political success perhaps best known for reputedly attempting to make his horse a consul and a
priest.

On Wednesday, the Charlotte Observer declared, “Two weeks into the Obama presidency, we like his campaign better than his administration.” This in a week of real trouble for the fledgling administration, which saw its best hope of real and lasting healthcare reform – former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle – ejected from contention thanks to dodgy tax dealings. On the same day, and as that editorial points out, it lost its nominee for chief performance officer for similar reasons. Even some of the administration’s confirmed nominees, like treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, have less than wholesome IRS records. “I screwed up,” Obama manfully admitted in a TV interview (one of many). Some of us would have preferred to hear that admission a little later in the running.

But, as Michael Tomasky points out, most people understand the personnel problems in the proper context: all new governments must make do with the talent on offer. Obama’s bigger headache is not his personnel but his policies. In typically combative style, House Republicans have given him a rough time on the economic stimulus package, and show no sign of rolling over for even this phenomenally popular president. (Tomasky also has something to say in that post about this early remobilisation of conservative forces against the Obama plan.)

One might ruefully ask why Republicans stand up to a new president whilst Democrats tend to scurry for cover (can anyone say ‘Patriot Act’?). We’re already getting back to the same old arguments about the Democrats’ hopeless track record in defining the political narrative, something I hoped Obama may be able to do – and, in his defense, something he appears to be doing his best to achieve.

And so the days of euphoria surrounding the inauguration already seem as far away as those halcyon days of May 1997, when Tony Blair and his family beamed on the steps of Downing Street, and the nation rejoiced in ditching the Tories after 18 years of Thatcherism. In an editorial, the Daily Telegraph today responds to Duncan Forgan’s new light on the Drake equation by postulating that our super-intelligent Galactic brethern may even have been clever enough to have “persuaded the top alien to relinquish office when he – or it – is no longer wanted.” Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s travails are much worse than drawing the expected opprobium of the Conservative Party’s house magazine, however.

In the past week, savers have been sent reeling yet again by a drop of the interest rates to 1%; wildcat strikers have been out in force against a Labour government, protesting the granting of new jobs to foreign workers as a result of European legislation; and the Prime Minister himself has used the word ‘depression’ in answer to the House at Prime Minister’s Questions. Brown’s team has proved adept at the tactical flourish, winning time for him again and again with a deft duck one way or the other; but strategically he is thoroughly failing to make the running – and thus, on questions such as these, cannot manage to define that elusive narrative. He rather desperately insists the Conservative party would do nothing whereas he and his government are acting, but David Cameron hangs around wearing a disapproving expression and simply pointing out that, for all his apparent expertise, Brown still let us get into this mess. When the Prime Minister defaults to complicated economic answers about world trends and globalisation, he loses the battle and the Tories set the terms of the debate.

When industrial workers in the north of England begin to think they might be better off if Labour are not re-elected in (at most) 15 months – when, that is, an unemployed rigger agrees with a Telegraph leader writer – the Conservative Party can probably start to choose the ministerial furnishings. Yet just this Wednesday all that ‘capitalism with a conscience’ nonsense was proven to be the false pleading of a professional marketing man when the Conservatives got together for the annual ‘Black and White Ball‘, a yearly splurge of the sort of extravagance you’d expect from the party of the privileged (the tickets cost a mere 450 quid a head). But – and this is classic Cameron – they renamed it a ‘party’, rather than calling it a ball, so that makes all the difference. This is the worst kind of window dressing, and Polly Toynbee is right to accuse Cameron of not meaning it: unlike some politcians over-optimistically greeted as saviours, his actions not only cannot match his words – they simply do not.

Last night on the BBC’s This Week [UK only], the peerless Billy Bragg sounded a grim warning that disaffected workers will turn to the wrong political masters if they are merely ignored. Disappointed and abandoned, yesterday’s revellers always have the potential to be tomorrow’s revolutionaries. At least today’s politicians, struggling to maintain or rekindle the enthusiasm they enjoyed upon accession, can only be hurt at the ballot box. Caligula was, of course, ultimately deposed by the terrible violence.

And then someone probably threw a party for Claudius.

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