Obama's legacy spans to Europe

MARK LEONARD
Last updated 05:00 25/02/2014
Matteo Renzi
Getty Images
MAN OF THE MOMENT: Italian Prime Minister is one of the many political leaders in Europe looking to follow in the footsteps of Barack Obama.

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This week the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, was invited by his party to form a government in Rome.

If he succeeds, he will be Italy's youngest-ever prime minister. Renzi has never had a job in central government or even been a member of parliament.

His governing record in Florence is paper-thin. But lack of experience was not a setback in his quest for the top job in Italian politics. It was, in fact, his main qualification.

Renzi's rapid ascent shows how completely Barack Obama has changed the global political playbook. Although the US president is often accused by his detractors of being European in style, the reality is that it is European politics that are being "Obamafied."

In the UK, and you can see the youthful Labour Party leader Ed Miliband painstakingly mirroring Obama's campaign tactics. A new generation of center-left leaders in Europe is trying to replicate Obama's three laws of politics.

The starting point is Obama's first law: Have no political past. It's not just that every first-term senator thinks he can be president.

Now that senator realises that in this anti-elitist age his chances of success will diminish in line with his growing experience.

Part of Miliband's appeal to his party was that he was not his more experienced brother, the former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, whose closeness to Prime Minister Tony Blair and refusal to disavow the Iraq war cost him crucial votes in the leadership election.

Obama's second law of politics: Create a new electorate. Renzi's election to the head of the Democratic Party (PD) in Italy was a reaction against the old-school PD leader Pier-Luigi Bersani, who relied on traditional constituencies at the expense of younger voters.

When he took over the leadership of the party this week, Renzi called for the old guard of Italian politics to be "scrapped" and reveled in the nickname "demolition man."

"This is not the end of the left, it is the end for a group of the left's political leaders," said Renzi upon his election as party leader. The same was true for 44 year-old Miliband, who won election as Labour Party leader in 2010 on the promise of generational change.

When Miliband launched his leadership campaign in 2010, he quoted the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and talked about turning Labour into a cause that brings new people into politics.

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"All the great political movements of history," he said, "have been built from the bottom up; house by house, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community."

Although Obama made his political reputation with a pledge of bipartisanship, his genius was his third law of politics: Use new technologies, big data and old-fashioned community organisation to maximise the turnout of your followers.

In Italy, Renzi hopes to replicate this feat. His sweeping victory for the Democratic Party candidate was thanks to a campaign heavily based on social networks and grassroots mobilisation.

In 2012, before launching an unsuccessful campaign in the national primaries for leadership of the Centre-left coalition, Renzi visited Charlotte, North Carolina, to take part in the Democratic National Convention, where he spoke of his deep admiration for Obama. Renzi has promised to challenge old-fashioned networks of patronage with new social networks. He has 806,000 Twitter followers, compared with his predecessor Enrico Letta's 303,000.

Although Miliband's favorite political slogan is "One Nation," he is in reality pursuing what his aides call a "40 percent strategy." Rather than focusing on the political center and trimming his policies to attract its voters, he wants to use political organisation to build an electoral majority by mobilising the left to turn out in greater numbers.

As Marcus Roberts, the former Field Director of the Ed Miliband for Leader campaign,  points out in a paper for the Fabian Society on "Labour's next Majority," Labour can count on a core vote of 27.5 percent to which it could add 6.5 percent of center-left defectors from the Liberal Democrats and 5 percent from first-time and new voters. For the final 1 percent, Miliband will try to recruit Conservative Party supporters to switch.

This is quite a contrast to Blair's New Labour strategy in 1997 in which the mainstay was an attempt to woo the "Tory switchers" of the political center.

Since his elevation to leadership, much of the press coverage has sought to portray Renzi as an Italian Blair. He undoubtedly shares some features with the New Labour leader, such as a desire to break with the past and abandon some of the orthodoxies of his party.

The Italian party system means that Renzi needs to rely on center-right parties to come to power, unlike Obama, Miliband or even Blair (who succeeded in making a coalition within the Labour party rather than sharing power with others). The elevation of Renzi and Miliband shows that today's leaders are moving beyond the Blair Agenda.

Of course, Obama's laws spring from a particular set of circumstances. Race politics is far from playing the role in Europe that it plays in the US. 

Although all European societies are becoming more atomised, they have more of a political center and a national media than the US Europe's privacy laws are also likely to curb the use of big data in elections. Obama used his community organising experience to try to create a permanent political movement, but in Europe, permanent political parties have been a fixture for over a century.

But Obama's star is so bright in Europe that new leaders are shaping themselves in his image. If you want to see Obama's political legacy, you could look to healthcare, the welfare of America's middle class and détente with Iran. But to see where he has had the most transformative effect, look to European politics.

- Fairfax Media

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