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FIRING LINE: Lessons from US poll

FIRING LINE: Lessons from US poll

By Shantal Munro Knight | Sun, November 11, 2012 - 12:00 AM

I must admit I was a bit nervous. It looked too close to call in some areas and all of the indications before had suggested that perhaps it would be a narrow victory, if at all.

So for me, President Barack Obama’s overwhelming victory was hoped for but somewhat unexpected. His sweep of the Electoral College as well as the popular vote cemented his mandate as a second-term black president. Of course, the hard work now begins but before we get to that, perhaps there are some good lessons that can be drawn from the American election.

A number of things struck me as I reflected on the victory. It is interesting to note that prior to the election, President Obama’s popularity was said to be at an all-time low.

For a variety of reasons his leadership was called into question. His handling of the economy and international relations, as well as his policies on health care, were all fodder for his opponent, who attempted to show that Obama was a weak leader whose policies were unfit to address the current problems facing the economy. Does the script sound familiar?  

I am sure that the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and its supporters will find some comfort in this level of analysis, given that the party also faces the prospects of going into an election with a comparatively less than popular leader, according to the polls.

The DLP’s economic policies have also come under severe attack, given the ever declining fortunes of the Barbados economy. However, I suggest that perhaps it would be overly optimistic to draw too much comfort from this level of analysis of Obama’s victory.  

He is decidedly a different type of leader. He is, among other things, a charismatic as well as a populist leader who was able to win over marginal groups and speak to a variety of audiences.

Moreover, as good as he is, the Obama victory, from all accounts, was won because of a sophisticated, well focused and managed electoral machine on the ground which did not dismiss polls out of hand, but systematically set up a system to address deficits identified. I am not sure what parallels at this level are to be found in the DLP camp.   

Obama has the distinction of an overwhelming victory in the face of a protracted economic recession which has cut deep into employment and the growth of the American economy.

In Barbados rising food prices, an increasing debt burden and looming difficult decisions about public sector employment face the DLP. Luckily for the party, it faces the same lack of clarity in solutions offered by the Opposition Barbados Labour Party as those proffered by Mitt Romney in the United States election.  

Leader of the Opposition Owen Arthur’s 15-point plan was disappointing as it lacked believability. The assumption is that Mr Arthur was perhaps so caught up in the pronouncements of his own popularity that he misjudged the mood of the population [when outlining what he thought were] rational and realistic solutions.

Happily, the reaction to the announced policies showed that Barbadians are aware that populist economic pronouncements are good for political platforms but must have some real depth if they are going to address the deep and systemic problems facing the country.

At the same time, the Obama platform was forced to enunciate its own specific economic policies and plans. It could not get away with curt and vague responses to issues of national concern. They had to demonstrate they were prepared to engage in national debate and answer frontally the questions and concerns of the day. They were held to a high level of accountability for their pronouncements by a vigilant Press and a no-nonsense public.

Hopefully, this coming election will provide an opportunity for the Barbadian public to be treated to the same level of forthrightness and clarity of vision from both political parties.

I contend that the current moment is too critical for the public to accept the traditional diet of corned beef and biscuit and rum shop politics. If we want good leadership, then we must also be prepared to demand it – or else we will get the Government we deserve.

• Shantal Munro Knight is a development specialist and executive coordinator at the Caribbean Policy Development Centre.

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