From Barack Obama to David Cameron the most powerful message that they have is also the least cerebral â€“ “Itâ€™s time for a change”. The electorate, when given the opportunity to make an election choice, will often and understandably respond positively when someone says that things will be better if they are in power because change is good. Tony Blair did it with skill in 1997 and so did Bill Clinton before him in 1992 each saying that after the long, long Thatcher/Major and Reagan/Bush years it was time for a fresh start. Blair was 44 and Clinton 46 when they gained power beating older and tireder looking incumbents. The attractiveness of the slogan for the aspirant leader is that it can be a very unspecific message. Each elector will surely deep down (and maybe not so deep down) have a feeling that something is amiss in the governance of his or her country. So for Obama for some it will be the disaster of Iraq that needs to be fixed and for others it will be the economic downturn or the mortgage mess. For David Cameron it will be the feeling that the “new” Prime Minister Gordon Brown isnâ€™t new at all and that he has already been around long enough. Obama beat Hillary Clintonâ€™s slick and well organised Primary campaign in part because whilst Hillary was in many ways an obvious break with the discredited Bush years she wasnâ€™t as much as a break as he was.
The challenge for Obama is probably rather greater that for David Cameron. Cameron, seen from the perspective of today with the last date for a British General Election two years away, just needs to keep out of trouble to win â€“ and probably to win big. Even if Brown rescues himself somewhat from his current depths (and he is an experienced enough politician to do this) he can hardly expect to recover sufficiently for Labour to be elected for another term. A hung parliament is the best that Brown can hope for and even that would see his political demise. One cannot see the Liberal Democrats or other smaller parties shoring up a Prime Minister who has lost his majority â€“ although they just might enter into a coalition with a fresh “new” Labour leader rather than negotiate an alliance with the devilish Tories. For Obama the challenge is that his opponent can claim that he also is representative of “change” and it is certainly true that although he is a much older political warhorse than his younger opponent McCain is not sullied by association with the Bushes â€“ except over Iraq. McCain has always been a maverick and whilst he is moving into the mainstream, as he needs to to win in November, he is far from the machine politician that the Bushes (and the Clintons for that matter) were.
Obama is genuine change both in style and in content. He actually proposes not more of the same (pragmatic government from the centre) but change in the very centre of political gravity itself. He is unashamedly a Liberal and if elected he would be the first President from the part of the political map for a very long time (maybe since Jimmy Carter, not an encouraging thought)! Whilst Obama has values Cameron is devoid of them but then unlike Obama he really doesnâ€™t need to have them in order to be elected. At the next General Election the electorate only really needs to be convinced that the Conservative leaders will look and sound different â€“ they donâ€™t need specifics too much. Cameron is riding high in the opinion polls not because of his policy proposals or ideas but because he isnâ€™t Gordon Brown.
Electorates tend to reject policy wonks in favour of leaders they feel they can broadly trust and who look good on TV. Al Gore and John Kerry were policy wonks as was Cameronâ€™s rather saturnine predecessor Michael Howard. They were comprehensively defeated by the lighter and folksier perceived charms of Tony Blair and George Bush. If you think that Bush looks a bit uncomfortable and absurd in a cowboy suit (he does) then think how much less credible were Gore and Kerry likely to have been in similar garb. Cameron is devoid of the common touch (hardly surprising given his privileged upbringing) but that doesnâ€™t matter too much. He may be a toff but he is an attractive, articulate and persuasive one. Gordon Brown is far more a man of the people than Cameron could ever be but he looks and sounds like the rather dull and austere (although clever) son of the manse he is. Cameron seems high church and colourful by comparison with the cold Calvinism of Brown. He is also fifteen years younger than the current Prime Minister and can perhaps persuade the electorate that to choose him means that the torch passes to a new generation. That is, of course, Barack Obamaâ€™s position as well and in that respect the 71 year old McCain looks an old man alongside the youthful Democrat who is a full quarter of a century his younger!
In the elections to come both sides of the pond change will be the slogan of choice. If you look the part and people basically like you and the other lot look old and tired then that should be enough. The policies can come later.