Can Gillard drive home the Obama advantage?

Like Barack Obama, Julia Gillard has been subjected to vicious personal attacks simply because she does not fit the mould of a traditional white, middle-aged, male leader. Come election time, this may work in her favour.

There are parallels between Barack Obama and Julia Gillard. Obama was the subject of intense dislike – if not hatred – by sections of American society, especially those who get their take on the world from Fox News and from the shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Some of this hatred of Obama is because he is considered a socialist, if not a communist, by commentators on Fox News and by most of the commercial radio shock jocks. He is a protg of Joe Stalin. But part of the hatred of Obama is because he is a black man. The Birther movement of which Donald Trump is a leading member, is all about the illegitimacy in the eyes of some people, of a black president.

The Birthers and the 'Obama is a socialist or communist’ crowd, are not an insignificant segment of the American electorate. Some polls have suggested that up to a quarter of Americans believe Obama was not born in the US.

Some of these people work for Fox News, which is by far the highest rating cable news service in the US. Then there’s Rush Limbaugh and his fellow travellers who command radio audiences in the tens of millions.

If you think Alan Jones and his fellow radio populists are rabid, they are mild mannered, reality-based centrists, compared with Limbaugh and his ilk.

I was based in the US at the beginning of the primary campaigns in 2007 when both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama had declared their run for the Democratic Party nomination.

Listening to the radio talk back kings and watching the Fox News favourites like Anne Coulter, it was hard to figure out who they hated more, who spooked them more, the Lady Macbeth of American politics, Hilary Clinton, or Barack Obama, a re-incarnation of the black militant Muslim leader, Malcolm X.

Through that primary campaign and then on through the presidential election campaign, and on through the four years of his presidency, the panic about Obama, continued and it continued into this presidential campaign, the ferocity of it never did abate.

The Republican leadership in Congress did not overtly buy into this campaign, but nor did they ever repudiate it except in the most tepid, lukewarm terms. They did not repudiate the Birthers, not consistently and forthrightly anyway, nor did they really disown the nonsense about Obama’s communism or the allegation that he was a secret Muslim.

This meant that when the Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell publicly stated that the goal of congressional Republicans was to ensure that Barack Obama was a one-term president, there was a sort of dog whistle in that statement, a message that Obama was an illegitimate president.

To some extent, the polarisation of American politics during the Obama presidency, is about the fact that a significant number of Republicans, including tea partiers, have not accepted, cannot accept that Barack Hussein Obama is their president.

One of the most profound consequences of Obama’s re-election is that a majority of Americans – and perhaps most significantly, a clear majority of women – have rejected the notion that a black man can’t be president.

And given that Hilary Clinton, with 70 per cent support in the polls is the most popular figure in the Obama administration, they have also seemingly rejected the notion that a very ambitious, politically acute and clever woman, who has sacrificed much for her political career, is disqualified from becoming president.

No wonder the old stagers on Fox like Bill O’Reilly lamented, after it was clear that Obama had been re-elected, that the traditional America of 'our fathers’ no-longer exists.

What I think he meant was that not only are women and Latinos and blacks able to elect a president, but that they are likely in the future to help elect one of their own as president. The time of wall-to-wall middle-aged or elderly white presidents may well be over.

There are parallels between Julia Gillard and Barack Obama. Obama was hated and considered illegitimate by sections of the American media and the electorate in part because he was black: Julia Gillard is hated and considered illegitimate by some sections of the media and by their not inconsiderable audiences in part because she is a woman. She is a woman of a particular kind in their eyes – single, childless, ambitious and ruthless.

The viciousness with which some of the radio talkback kings around Australia – though not in Melbourne – have attacked Gillard has matched the viciousness with which their counterparts have attacked Obama in America.

The leadership of the coalition, including Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop – would not speak about Gillard the way Alan Jones speaks of her. But their condemnation of those who treat Gillard with sexist contempt is lukewarm and half-hearted.

This is why Gillard’s sexism and misogyny speech resonated with many people. It was not so much because Abbott is a sexist of the Alan Jones variety. He isn’t. But in his tepid response to the outrages against Gillard, he became a sort of fellow traveller of people whose support he must think he really needs. That’s why Gillard’s speech was such a difficult moment for Abbott and why, despite what the Canberra press gallery pundits thought of it, the speech spoke to many Australian women, including women who may not be great admirers of Gillard.

There’s more. On the question of whether Gillard is a legitimate prime minister, Abbott is probably not that far away from the Alan Jones view of Gillard’s legitimacy. This may have nothing to do with her gender as far as Abbott is concerned, but the lot of the fellow traveller can often be unfair.

Of course there are no exact parallels between the US and Australia, but the fact is Obama overcame the Obama haters in the media to win re-election – indeed their anti-Obama viciousness probably worked in his favour. So too might the sexism and even misogyny of the anti-Gillard brigade work in Gillard’s favour at the next election.

Especially with women.

Tony Abbott should unequivocally repudiate the sexism and misogyny of some of those who purport to be his supporters. He should do so at the first opportunity and he should do so as often as possible.

Being seen as a fellow traveller with Alan Jones and his crowd is a bad look. And politically stupid.


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