When I was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland I was subjected to a harsh but funny cartoon in The Scotsman’s sister paper, the Evening News. Cartoonist Frank Boyle contrasted Barack Obama bringing hope to America with the Lib Dems having no hope. Ouch!
It was the only moment I was compared to President Obama, who demonstrated again last night his real ability is to rally his supporters and the country through the spoken word. Managerial politics of the kind that dominates this devolved Scotland leaves the public lukewarm at best. The Scottish Government asserts that it is competent. That claim is taking something of a beating at the moment and will not survive a third election.
Obama does not just do deeds but words. His handling of super-storm Sandy was a deed. Americans in New York and New Jersey endorsed his active role by voting for him this week.
But when Obama is on song, the speeches he delivers fly. In Chicago four years ago, he delivered a devastatingly effective acceptance speech. In front of 200,000 people he declared: “At this defining moment, change has come to America.” The 2008 election was one of change after eight years of George W Bush and the Iraq war.
This week, Obama’s rhetorical ability, or at least that of his speech writers, broke new ground. He has to cross the political divide. So instead of consigning Mitt Romney to the political dustbin, he invited him to the White House. Instead of blue Democrat states and red Republican ones, he highlighted “these United States of America”. And the best, Obama declared, is yet to come.
Campaigns are about winning. In our system you can win and lose. As I held Shetland in the 2011 Scottish general election, I watched friends washed away by the Nationalist tide. In a presidential system the popularity of the person at the top of the ballot paper matters. Alex Salmond ensured that every list SNP MSP elected in 2011 owes their seat to him. But a first-past-the-post system is different: an individual candidate can buck the national trend.
The ever more right-wing position of the Republicans cost them in these US elections. Latinos, blacks and women in huge numbers said no to extreme politics. Republican Senate candidates who would ban abortion even in rape situations lost. Thank goodness.
My faith in the American people was restored by this week’s vote. Obama had a tough sell on the economy. The US is coming out of recession but the green shoots are few and far between. Defending a record with high unemployment is tough. Republicans who stuck to the economy and not right-wing, socially conservative positions on marriage or abortion won. But candidates who made moral issues their defining position found the electorate unwilling to play ball.
Barack Obama now has four years to stamp his place on history. The world hopes the president’s deeds now match his fine words. I think he will deliver.
l Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland