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The power of personality - why we all follow the soap opera of American politics

Barack Obama’s life may be fascinating, but he isn’t as powerful as we think. AFP/Saul Loeb

Sarah Palin’s voice, both in sound and content, still has the power to stop me dead in my tracks with fear and bewilderment. Her game of will she/won’t she run for the US Presidency has ended, but not without the world’s media following every twist and turn.

From her youthful attempts to become Miss Alaska, to her teenage daughter’s pregnancy, there isn’t much we haven’t learned about her since she stepped into the spotlight three years ago.

Whoever wins the Republican nomination in 2012 will have their lives scrutinised in similarly agonising detail by the media. They must compete with one of the most fascinating politicians of modern times - Barack Obama.

Politics of personality

Each US election cycle politicians like Obama and Palin grab our attention not only because of their personalities but also because of their potential role as agents of change.

But the power of individual actors in US politics is constantly overestimated.

For all the fanfare about their personalities and biographies and how these will affect the way they rule, such individuals are often just surfers on the waves of American politics.

Surfing – whether done well or badly – is fascinating to watch but it is the waves that largely determine unemployment and growth rates; the passing of taxation reform or policies to tackle global warming; or America’s lack of support for the Palestinian bid for statehood in the Security Council of the UN.

Limits of power

You do not have to be a Structural Marxist or an Institutionalist to accept these grown up realities about politics.

The last few years have provided copious evidence of the limits of the President of the United States to change his own nation, let alone the world.

Many of us would like to believe the global financial crisis could have been avoided if governments had not been fooled by the mania for deregulation.

Instead they could have achieved better banking regulation; legislation that separated high risk investing from the day-to-day saving and loans activities within individual banks; rules that prevented British councils from investing in Icelandic banks or German banks investing in Greek holiday resorts run by corrupt priests; and the better monitoring and management of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac by regulators so the subprime crisis did not spread like a virus across the globe.

The reality is that while all of this could have helped, greed, bad luck, and the nature of modern financial and credit markets made a crash likely at some point. And fixing this meltdown has required much more than great speeches.

Structural reform

In terms of structural reform, the start made by Obama on the American health system’s great failings offer some hope.

When Obama and Congress addressed the lack of health cover for many Americans in 2010, it was one of the great achievements made by any set of politicians since the 1960s, and one of the few examples in the last twenty years of Congress passing a major piece of broadly social democratic legislation.

While health care reforms may enliven those hankering for structural reform, the 2011 debt crisis offers nothing but grounds for pessimism in this regard.

Addressing America’s significant federal government debt needs to be accompanied by structural changes: the restructuring of domestic income tax, major federal spending cuts and changes in eligibility for government health care support and old age pensions.

Barack Obama can do very little to achieve the type of change necessary to fix the deeper structural spending problems.

The one major exception is that, at the end of 2012, he can choose not to extend the so-called George W Bush tax cuts to wealthy Americans.

Broken politics

Obama so often looks politically impotent on these issues because he can achieve little without the support of the US Congress and Congress is a broken institution.

As America has faced one crisis after another in recent years, the focus has not been on policies or the dysfunctional nature of the relationship between the Congress and the presidency.

Instead since 2007 the most alluring show in American politics has been the selection of the next presidential candidates.

Soap opera

Sarah Palin’s soap opera rolled into towns all over America before she announced she isn’t going to run in 2012. AFP/Paul J. Richards

Academics frequently criticise the media for treating politics like a circus sideshow (even ex-politicians are joining the chorus here) or a horse race.

When it comes to US electoral politics the best analogy for this coverage (and our interests) is a soap opera. Of course individuals are important in politics but this power is constantly overstated.

As a result, the “cult of personality” style of US political coverage sees the expectations of the public raised with each new president.

After the election, the lack of real change leads to a cycle of public disillusionment in America.

This is also discernible abroad, usually following the election of conservative presidents.

Foreign engagement

If the media deserves blame for a lack of focus on structural problems, it cannot be faulted for maintaining the premier place of American politics globally.

Foreigners are engaged to an astounding extent with the coverage of American politics, the soap opera quality of which is enhanced by the peculiar drawn out voting process for the president.

The conventional explanation for our interest is US power: this is half right but way too high minded. We care because we are soap opera junkies.

Global influence

The fascinating part of the media’s obsession with American political personality is that this soap opera significantly helps America maintain its global influence and deal with one of its major structural problems: its relative global decline.

It gives the US power as an agenda setter and as a shaper of what is deemed possible and impossible in world politics.

In no small part our familiarity with US leaders ensures that the American position on key issues is presented in the media.

Of course the wheels of change are turning but US decline will be a long time coming, precisely because American political and cultural power and influence will long outlive America’s status as the largest economy in the world.

In Australia, our long standing familiarity with American culture and American politics is thus a blessing and a curse: it helps us understand the world around us a little better, but gives America too much of a hold on our political imaginations.

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