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Obama's Campaign Manager Sells Out for Austerity

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The news that Jim Messina, who masterminded President Obama’s re-election last year, is to advise Britain’s conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in the run-up to the 2015 general election, has taken commentators on both sides of the Atlantic by surprise. “WTF?” exclaimed Michael Tomasky, labelling Messina’s move as “insanity.” Meanwhile Labour supporters seem more jealous and disappointed than disgusted that Obama's campaign guru would go to work for a party that celebrates the austerity politics Obama has battled at home.

It shouldn’t have come as such a shock. On so many issues — gun control, socialised medicine, capital punishment, the role of religion and the welfare state — nearly all European politicians look like dang socialists. Despite Messina’s alleged link to a homophobic ad during a Senate race, and Cameron’s plans to “export gay marriage throughout the world,” there’s much in the modern Tory party that makes it look distinctly more Democratic than Republican these days.

That Obama would prefer a more bi-partisan approach is obvious from his campaign statements, and his reading list. According to reports, one of the president’s "must-go-to" blogs is Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish. Certainly, the expatriate post-Thatcherite sees nothing contradictory between his fervent support for Obama in his adopted country, and for Cameron in his motherland. Last year Sullivan described Obama as “America’s First Tory President.”

To be fair, there is also some genuine policy overlap in this cross-Atlantic trade. The "libertarian paternalist" theories of Cass Sunstein, one of Obama’s closest friends, have taken root among Cameron’s conservatives. The government has even created a ‘Nudge Unit’ to try out the behavioural insights suggested by Sunstein’s influential book, Nudge, co-authored with Richard Thaler. (When I met Thaler at Sunstein’s marriage to Samantha Power in Ireland five years ago, he was en route to talk to David Cameron.)

This was a sign of Cameron’s early modernization programme, which entailed deliberate and distinct shifts to the centre. His first foreign policy speech in 2006, the year after he was elected Tory party leader, was to distance himself from the Blair/Bush axis, and implicitly to decry the U.K. becoming the U.S.’s “poodle”—usually the rallying call of the left.

Then Obama came along, and Cameron, who had previously modelled himself as an “heir to Blair,” found a telegenic new role model. Forget the fact that the Tory party leader is the son of a rich banker, and an alumnus of the country’s most exclusive private school, Eton; whatever the incongruities between Cameron’s personal story, and the president’s (whose father was a Kenyan and mother lived a while on food stamps) Cameron’s closest advisors, such as the recently ennobled Times columnist Danny Finkelstein, tried to co-opt Obama’s message of "change" against 13 years of Labour Party rule.

As was famously revealed by the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, the CEO of News International, Rebekah Brooks, was instrumental in the campaign to depict Cameron as the fresh new face of hope and change. Brooks explained to Lord Justice Brian Leveson last year how she cried during his 2009 conference speech, and texted back immediately "Yes, we Cam!"

This Tory "Obamania" continued throughout the election of 2010. Obama adviser Anita Dunn coached the Tory leader during the first ever television leadership debates during the campaign, and Brooks ensured that Shepherd Fairey’s iconic Obama campaign poster was duly reprised on the front page of her best-selling daily tabloid The Sun. On the eve of the general election, Cameron was stencilled in beige, red and blue with the caption “Our Only Hope.”

(Within minutes of it being published, online situationists photoshopped the front page to read “Our only Dope” or “Our Only Nope”)

But for all the odd complementary policies and matching colour schemes, there are still key policy differences which explain why—though it was perfunctory and through gritted teeth—Cameron actually supported McCain and Romney in the last two presidential campaigns.

Immigration is the most visible at this moment. While Obama is a personal product of global social mobility, and has campaigned for a pathway to citizenship for America’s estimated 11 million illegal migrants, Cameron’s has decided to make immigration a red-meat issue, to stop the haemorrhaging of support to the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) on his right.

In the last week alone, the Coalition government has promoted some very high-profile campaigns of this particularly wedge issue (most of European thinks of immigrations like Arizona does) including a government van–mounted billboard telling illegal immigrants "To Go Home or Face Arrest."

The so-called "Racist Van" now faces a legal challenge, but that didn’t stop the Home Office Twitter account from celebrating the arrest of hundreds of alleged illegal workers outside London Underground stations last Friday. Most of this anti-immigration rhetoric can be attributed to Messina’s new boss at Tory Campaign HQ, Lynton Crosby. As Hopi Sen has pointed out, the fact that the Conservatives are employing an Australian and an American to attack foreign workers might look a little opportunist. But then again, immigration is one of those issues where old world Europeans are radically, and irrationally, to the right of our new world cousins.

But it’s on the economy where policy contortions get really bizarre. While, after the 2008 meltdown, Obama continued with a general economic stimulus plan, the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition that came to power in 2010 decided to institute one of the deepest cuts in government expenditure of any large Western economy, proposing to get rid of the structural deficit in government spending in one term.

The net result, as in Keynes’ paradox of thrift, is that a moribund economy has led to less tax revenues and more welfare payments. By the end of its fixed term in office, even Tory supporters point out, the government’s deficit will be bigger than the one they inherited.

The relatively parlous state of the British economy is partly due to our over-reliance on the City of London and the risky derivatives of the financial sector. But it’s also a complete cock-up by the highly paid experts at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), who insisted on stringent "austerity" three years ago, calculating that only 50 cents of private spending would be lost for every government dollar cut. They now tell us their multiplier turns out to be more like $1.70 off by a factor of more three. Thanks IMF! This is what we call failure. But while the "Gnomes of Zurich" now spend most of their time telling the U.K. government to spend more and reflate, this is something Cameron—and his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg—apparently refuses to contemplate, as it would undermine the entire economic rationale of their government.

On the other hand, as the Messina appointment proves, political opportunism often trumps principle in the long run. If this opportunism finally leads the coalition to abandon its austerity dogma, finally pump in some new economic stimulus and prime more job opportunities, few are going to complain about it.