Let’s talk: making peace in the Middle East

Visitors to the West Wing are greeted by a series of ‘jumbos’ – giant photos of Barack Obama’s latest events and visits, carefully selected to show the power and personality of the US president.

There’s no doubting that his first trip to the Middle East in office – which concluded in the stunning surroundings of Petra at the weekend – will have generated some amazing images. But it will take some time to see if any results develop.

As someone who spent nearly five years travelling to the region, working for Tony Blair in his role as Quartet representative, it was fascinating to watch the statecraft before, during and after the visit.

But behind all the bonhomie for the cameras with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the US president still managed to deliver a very sharp message about the importance of getting moving with the Middle East peace process.

In his keynote speech to ‘the people of Israel’ – going for the Clinton–Blair tactic of reaching over the head of the deadlocked politicians to a wider audience – he combined a strong endorsement of Zionism with a powerful call for the justice and dignity of Palestinian statehood.

But what now? For too long both the Palestinian and Israeli politicians have been stuck in a narrative of: ‘I’m serious about peace, it’s just the other side isn’t.’

The fact is that there will only be a deal when the parties themselves want one, or feel enough heat from their people to achieve one. But that doesn’t mean simply crossing our fingers leaving them to it. Otherwise they would have got a deal already.

All analogies are flawed, but, as we saw in Northern Ireland, it requires intensive work, patience, creativity, time and ingenuity. If Obama’s trip is to bear fruit, the heavy-lifting will fall to someone who was a close student of that process, US secretary of state John Kerry, as well as one of its key participants, Tony Blair.

Now is the time to get negotiations started again and ensure we can take some new photos of Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in security and peace, because, in the words of Obama, ‘the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realisation of an independent and viable Palestine.’

You can read the full article for Progress here

US elections: the morning after the night before

President Obama’s emphatic second term victory makes history in many ways, but the real legacy of last night is the opportunity to embed progressive change in America.

Before you think I’ve got high on the fumes of victory or had a few too many cocktails at Obama HQ, the challenges are obviously still great. America remains a divided country, as the closeness of the popular vote shows. The House stays Republican, so therefore does the deadlock.

But anyone who saw Karl Rove’s meltdown on Fox News last night will know just how much defeating President Obama meant to the right.

Defeat would have meant 2008 could have been written off as a blip, a post George W Bush quirk that had no significance after all.

Sure, Obama would still have been the first black president, but on the substance, the notion of hope rather than fear, the politics of optimism and inclusion, would have been defeated.

Now Obamacare is secure. Some House Republicans will no doubt spend time attacking it, but with the Senate remaining Democrat, any such moves will continue to be futile.

But one crucial element of the presidency isn’t just the legislation you pass, it’s the tone that can be set from the bully pulpit of office. And that’s how a second term can also embed change, even if the legislative route remains challenging.

As President Obama said repeatedly on the stump, he believes ‘no matter who you are, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, no matter who you love, you can pursue your own happiness and you can make it here in America if you try.’

It’s that social change where the nature of the national debate is felt. Just compare the ballot initiatives of 2012 with 2004.

Marriage equality was supported in referendums in Washington, Minnesota, Maine, Maryland – the first time the law has been changed by a vote of the people rather than decision by the courts or state legislature. And by electing Tammy Baldwin to the Senate, Wisconsin has returned the first openly gay member of the US Senate.

New Hampshire voters were responsible for another first: the entire Congressional and Senate delegation are now women. It was also a treat to see the two Senate candidates who had made the most egregious comments about women’s rights, Todd Aikin (Missouri) and Richard Mourdock (Indiana) both lose their races.

But, here’s the problem. Even today’s papers are speculating on who the runners and riders are going to be in 2016. Obama will be hoping now the campaigning over, he will actually be able to get to do some governing.

So, for his second term, Obama needs a defining narrative of what he wants to use the next four years for. This will be his best defence against claims of being a lame duck president as soon as he in inaugurated next January.

One that manages expectations, that acknowledges change will be incremental, but still shows leadership at home and abroad on the economy, immigration, education, equality and a foreign policy.

It’s a daunting agenda. But as we know, winning sure beats the hell out of losing.

PS My prediction for Obama’s total in the electoral college was 303 or more. Florida may provide us with the ‘or more’, but one thing is certain: fortunately it doesn’t have the significance of my first election night in the States, standing in the rain in Nashville, not knowing what on earth would happen next. Little did we know.

Not enough white men: an existential question for Republicans

Now Mitt Romney’s defeat is certain, the Republican party will have to face up to their existential problem: winning votes among Latinos and reforming their position on immigration.

With this year’s GOP platform taking a more extreme position on immigration than even the modest reforms President George W Bush tried and failed to pass when he was in office, a Republican victory will remain elusive without a fundamental policy change.
Of course, one of the Republicans who gets this – and who many outside the Tea Party see as the future for the GOP – is President Bush’s brother Jeb. Among immigration moderates there is a real hope that the Bush brand will have recovered enough for him  to run in four years’ time.But the Republicans have a deep bench, and need to take advantage of that choice to have that fundamental debate about their future they have avoided for too long.Meantime, the only logical conclusion from the 2012 election is that even if the Republican party can’t embrace immigration reform ideologically, they should do out of simple maths. Demographics have shored up states like Nevada, Colorado and Virginia as swing states. In four years, Arizona could well be in that category, and in a couple more cycles, so too could be Texas.

Unless the Republicans recognise there just aren’t enough white men to win them an election and they need to broaden their current coalition, they are doomed to further defeat.

You can read my full article for Progress here


Remembering Philip Gould, election nights and floral shirts

I’m in the United States for my fourth presidential election in a row. After disappointments Nashville and Boston, it’s back to Chicago for a second time. And although the euphoria might not be the same as four years ago, the final result will be.

But as we wait for the results, there is a poignancy to being here on Philip Gould’s anniversary. As has been said by so many, he was so much more than a pollster. He was a friend and mentor, and just such a decent person, which is all to rare in the skulduggery of politics.

He is much missed and you can read more about my many election night memories of Philip on the link below.

You can read the full article for Progress here


A fool’s game: predicting an Obama win with two weeks to go

Ever since Henry Kissinger’s announcement of a peace deal in Vietnam just before the 1972 presidential election, politicians have lived in fear of the infamous ‘October surprise’. For Democrats this year, that surprise arrived in spades with the first presidential debate in Denver, which saw a race that had been looking predictable thrown a ‘curve ball’.

In an article for Progress magazine, I’ve spoken to pollsters from both sides to throw caution to the wind and predict an Obama victory on November 6th. The reason that any doubt remains is the Barack Obama’s enigma: while he is undoubtedly the best public speaker of his generation, the president is not a natural populist. And that is a problem in a polarised nation where subtlety will struggle to win through.

The Zen-like calm he exuded in the primaries when 20 points behind Hillary Clinton freaks people out. And now, Obama’s style as president, while praised by academics as truer to the vision the founding fathers had of the office, has infuriated many on his own side with a real lack of ‘red meat’ politics.

But just as he triumphed over Hillary, Democrats will hope the October surprise has passed and, as the president is freed from the White House in the campaign’s closing days, voters will remember why they loved him the first time around and ensure that second Obama term progressives so desperately want.

You can read the full article for Progress here