Back inside Blair’s tent with Obama
In the normal run of things, you’d expect to find British spin doctors taking their seats in the convention stalls for America’s big election, then taking notes. Anything you can
do, we can steal better.
But this year the cycle seems to have spun into reverse as what went around comes around again. In short, eerily enough, Obama 2008 begins to trail memories of Blair 1997.
This isn’t a tidy thesis to turn into some quick book, instantly remaindered before Christmas. But consider: our principals are both young, slim, wonderfully eloquent lawyers (who never really practised), and both won by walloping margins, replacing leaders wracked by financial calamity and ideological exhaustion. New Labour, New Britain. New Barack, New Change, the change we need, the yes-we-can mantra. Gently, however, remember what comes next.
The president-elect has filled 35 of his most important administration jobs already: he’s gone further and faster than any of his immediate predecessors. And nothing signals
more clearly the true nature of the man, and his intended course, than the people choices he makes.
What we see, here assembling, is a team of the honed, the tried, the tested, the effortlessly superior: talented centrists going on total pragmatists. Blair, almost 12 years ago, didn’t possess such reserves to draw on. Old Labour had been out of office much too long. But the essential thrust of what he did was exactly similar. He erected a big tent in the middle of the park.
He drove his opponents to the periphery. He gave the defeated Tories no room to breathe, just as Obama now seeks to suffocate the vanquished, leaderless Republicans.
Obama has erected his own big tent and begun filling it with Clinton people. Score one for prudent continuity. Those who aren’t Clintonites are mostly Ivy League presidents or Harvard chums. You can see the brightest and the best flocking to his colours. You can salute a recruitment policy that throws everything — brains and cross-party power — at an economic inheritance that makes 1997 seem a walk in the park. Yet the shrewdness of the picks inevitably raises as many problems as it settles. Blair made some similarly smart moves from the start.
He had rich Britain, intellectual Britain, hopeful Britain lusting for change all signed up. He was
best friends with Bill Clinton. He camped on the same central plain. He aimed to run things with a smooth reforming touch. Nothing wrong there, until gross mistakes and George W happened.
Most early histories would major on disappointment. Here, broadly speaking, was a decade of holding the ring in reasonable shape on both sides of the Atlantic, the mild left in a modest holding pattern. Is that what we’ll have to settle for too, from President Obama?
It may be no bad thing if we do. Eight competent years of recovery look pretty desirable now. Clinton stock deserved to soar higher again. Ambition restrained can be ambition fulfilled. But there is, in the dog days of 2008, still a promise for something more, just as there was in 1997 as the years of Thatcher and Major staggered into history.
Here came something different, infinitely promising, from a fresh generation. Here was the passion to set a new direction. And here were the people to do it, the agents of change. — The Guardian