Brazilian and U.S. Elections: Opposite Outcomes

Commentary No. 293, Nov. 15, 2010

On October 31, President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva won a sweeping victory in the Brazilian elections. On November 2, President Barack Obama was soundly defeated in the U.S. elections. The curious thing is that neither one of them was standing in the elections. In Brazil, Lula had had two terms, the maximum allowed, and was supporting Dilma Rousseff as his successor. In the United States, the 2010 elections were midterm legislative elections, not a presidential election.

There are some striking similarities in the two men and the two political situations. Lula was elected president of Brazil in 2002 as the candidate of hope and change. Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008 as the candidate of hope and change.

Both men were outsiders in terms of the traditional political processes of their countries. Lula was the first president of working-class background and of little formal education. Obama was the first African-American president of his country.

In their campaigns, both rallied large-scale popular support. In Lula’s case, this was not his first, but his third attempt to become president. He had been a trade-union leader and the leader of a workers’ party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT). Obama has been a community organizer and a senator with a very left (“liberal”) voting record in the legislature. Both received support from militants in social movements and appealed particularly to young voters. Both emphasized the misdeeds of the previous president in their country – Fernando Henrique Cardoso in the case of Brazil and George W. Bush in the case of the United States – and in both cases their election was seen as a repudiation of the policies of the previous president.

In neither case did the newly-elected president have a clear path in the legislature. In the Brazilian case, the electoral system led to a legislature with multiple parties and the PT had no more than a quarter of the seats. In the U.S. case, the rules of the U.S. Senate allowed the opposition party to block or force major concessions in any legislation the U.S. president wanted to see enacted. Both men felt they had to make political compromises.

In both cases, a major fear of the newly-elected president was that the already difficult economic situation of their countries would turn to disaster. Lula feared runaway inflation and runaway investors. Obama feared collapse of the banks and runaway unemployment. The way each responded to these fears was to turn to a relatively conservative (“neoliberal”) economic approach and the appointment of relatively conservative people in the key economic positions of their administration.

This almost immediate “neoliberal” approach dismayed a large part of their electoral base. In each case, the two men sought to reassure their more left supporters that this “neoliberal” approach was essential but transitional, and that they would see that eventually their hopes for more fundamental change would be realized.

These assurances were taken with increasing skepticism and public dissent by these supporters, and particularly by leading left intellectuals and leaders of social movements. In the Brazilian case, some of them publicly resigned from the PT and threw their support to smaller left-wing parties. The response of both Lula and Obama was to point to various kinds of programs they had put into effect which were intended to improve the lot of the poorer parts of the population, such as the campaign against hunger in the case of Brazil and the new health legislation in the case of the United States. The skeptics pointed in each case to the important benefits that had accrued to the wealthier segments of their countries.

When, however, the actual elections took place, many of the left skeptics returned to the fold. In Brazil, a group of very prominent left intellectuals issued a public appeal to vote for Dilma Rousseff 0n the grounds that her opponent would wreak disaster for Brazil. A similar position was taken by the most important social movement, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST), which had been badly let down by Lula but nonetheless thought that things would be still worse if Rousseff were not elected.

In the U.S. case, intellectuals who had supported the third-party candidacy of Ralph Nader in 2000 because they felt that there was no significant difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush publicly repented of this approach and argued for supporting Democrats in the legislative elections. So did leaders of social movements – among African-Americans, Latinos, and gays – despite their public disappointment with the limited fulfillment of Obama’s promises.

All this seems remarkably similar, yet the outcome could not have been more different. Rousseff won handily in Brazil and Obama, in his own words, received a “shellacking.” Why? It could not be clearer. There was one enormous difference in the two situations. Brazil’s economic situation had markedly improved in the past few years, and the U.S. economic situation had become markedly worse. There could not have been a clearer demonstration of the Carville thesis: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

It was not Obama’s “centrism” that explains why voters turned against him. Lula has been every bit as “centrist” in his politics. It was not Obama’s lack of charisma. He had seemed very “charismatic” in 2008. Lula was popular because things seemed to be going well. And Obama was unpopular because they seemed to be going badly. It is not that one sold out and the other did not. It was not a question of their true political convictions. Sometimes, the overall structural situation overwhelms the abilities of talented politicians to do much about them.