I moved from Sydney to Seattle, Washington in January 2009 – just in time to watch President Obama’s first inauguration live on TV. He had been elected by the largest turn-out of voters in American history, and for many people it was a signpost of a better time to come. The vice grip of the Bush-Cheney era, their warmongering and tampering with the world’s economy, was over. As I watched Obama take the presidential oath, I felt like I was letting my breath out after holding it a really long time. I wasn’t alone.
Obama stepped in to lead the most powerful nation on earth, and it looked like real change was on the horizon. Early in his second year, he made this pointed remark about the Republicans’ economic policies:
“So after they drove the car into the ditch, made it as difficult as possible for us to pull it back, now they want the keys back. (Laughter.) No! (Laughter and applause.) You can’t drive! (Applause.) We don’t want to have to go back into the ditch! We just got the car out! (Applause.)” – May 13, 2010
Over the months and years, I watched as the Democrats lost their seats in congress, and the president was left to lead a discordant group who battled his policies on every front. The hostile congress created an impasse; Obama couldn’t get anything done. And it was frustrating. He was frustrated. That charismatic smile was nowhere to be seen; in its place was a taut line of exasperation.
And of course when Obama entered the next election to secure his second term, the Republicans jumped all over his inability to get anything done, all of his ‘broken promises’. A lot of people bought into that rhetoric. Other camps painted him with the ‘socialist’ brush, because socialism is a dirty word to many Americans – those people equate it with fascism.
I watched nervously, along with millions of Americans as his opponent, Romney, gained traction. On the surface, Romney may have seemed like a good guy – a religious family man who had worked hard to earn his vast fortunes – but his policies soon revealed him to be misogynistic, racist and classist. As well as wanting to repeal the law that gives women reproductive freedoms, Romney advocated trickle-down economics. This is the theory that if the rich get richer, their wealth trickles down in the form of more jobs for the poor. It’s been debunked by the International Monetary Fund and world-renowned economists, but try telling that to Romney – or to Mr Trump for that matter.
In the first presidential debate, Romney trounced Obama. It was as though Obama had given up the fight; at times, he just sat there and said nothing. It was terrifying. In the second debate, Obama showed up. This was the whip-smart, charismatic and likeable leader who’d won the last election.
At one point in the debate Romney carried on and on about a recent attack on an American embassy, and how the president had failed to call it out as an act of terrorism. Obama let Romney hang himself. “Go ahead, governor,” he said, and Romney started to doubt himself. The fact was that Obama had called it an act of terrorism, and Romney looked like a fool when the moderator corrected him. He never quite recovered and Obama won the debate.
But that was just one debate in a series; it was one battle in a war. When Romney was secretly filmed stating that 47% of the country were what we’d call here in Australia, ‘bludgers’, his disdain for the working and middle classes of the American people was undeniable – and yet his polling remained strong. We’re seeing this phenomenon in the current election. Every time Trump seems to make a misstep, he gains more supporters. This phenomenon is both baffling and alarming.
On election day in November 2012, my partner and I watched anxiously as the polls closed from east to west. States were either designated blue (Democrats – Obama) or red (Republicans – Romney). It’s a complicated voting system, but essentially, it does come down to numbers. If you have the most votes in the Electoral College, you win. I knew that the states with the last polls to close – Washington, California and Oregon – were all expected to ‘turn blue’, and that as the most populous state, California, was expected to call a very close election one way or the other.
When the election was finally called for Obama I actually cried with relief. I did not want to live in a country – or a world, for that matter – with that man at the helm.
Seeing a presidential election up close, my biggest take away is that US elections are exhausting. And not just for the candidates – how do they do all of that campaigning? – but also for the people living there. As we’re seeing right now, the lead up takes more than 18 months. 18 Months! That’s nearly as long as our last Prime Minister was in office. Thank goodness for the daily doses of Steven Colbert and John Stewart to ease the tensions. Australian readers, think Shaun Micallif, Waleed Aly, and Carrie Bickmore, if you’re not familiar with Colbert and Stewart – clever, often hilarious, commentators who make the unbearable bearable.
I am watching the current election with as much interest as the last one, even though I now live in Melbourne, because as we know, whatever happens in US politics affects the rest of the world in countless ways. President Trump? Trump makes Romney look like the sweetest, most charitable and forward-thinking politician ever.