Wednesday 12 November 2008

Understanding Obama

What can we expect from an Obama administration? What does his victory mean for US politics? How is it going to affect the rest of the world? These are some of the questions a number of Keele American politics experts attempted to answer at tonight's mini symposium on Obama's historic election victory.

Mike Tappin came first to soften the audience up with some factoids and stats. Because of the 22nd Amendment, the Oval Office was open; the last two years of Bush's presidency had been affected by divided government, and Dick Cheney was the first vice president not to seek the party nomination for president since 1928. The Republicans tried to make hay with Obama's lack of "experience" (while conveniently overlooking the incompetence of their own vice presidential nominee), but in Tappin's opinion the meat grinder of the primaries and the election battle are enough to test the qualities of any candidate. We also saw the GOP try to benefit from the animus Hillary Clinton supporters felt toward Obama via Sarah Palin's selection, but the division, such as it existed, wasn't decisive. Hillary put on a good show of being reconciled, appearing some 72 times during Obama's campaign. Bitter old Bill managed it once, and that was on the final day.

Undoubtedly the
Democrats benefited from being in chime with the popular political agenda. At a time when economy was the burning issue for the majority of Americans, Obama looked calm and spoke a language that chimed with most, while the McCain camp were wallowing the gutter with red baiting, guilt-by-association attacks, and clueless responses to events.

At 62.5 per cent, this was the highest turn out for a presidential election since 1908. As nearly everyone has seen, 95 per cent of black voters supported Obama (up seven per cent from Kerry's result, and African-Americans now count for 13 per cent of the population - up from 10 in 1980), as did two thirds of Hispanic Americans. Men overall (just) preferred McCain to Obama (49 to 48), though there was decisive support for the Democrats among women (56 to 43). Much has been made of Obama's failure to win over white men, but here the story isn't as bad as one might suppose. It is true the 30-44, 45-65, 66+ age groups polled 41, 42 and 40 per cent for Obama respectively, but the 18-29s backed him to the tune of 54 per cent. A shape of things to come? Maybe. The first time voter pool scored 69 to 30 per cent for Obama. In addition, of the 63 per cent who reported the economy was their primary issue, 80 per cent went for Obama, a point that underlies the strategic hopelessness of McCain's team. Still, the Republicans can find succour in their (largely) undiminished base. 54 per cent of Protestants recorded a preference for McCain, as did 74 per cent of Evangelicals (fundamentalists to you and me).

In conclusion, what can be said about this election? Tappin hedged his bets and said it was too early to say. There may be signs of demographic shifts in the Democrats favour, particularly the declining proportion of whites ( 1980 - 88 per cent, 2008 - 74 per cent) combined with Obama's support among the young, but nothing suggestive of a definite conclusion. The smart money however is on the incoming administration serving the full two terms, unless it is seriously thrown off the tracks by events.

Chris Bailey wanted to look into the demographics a bit further. Change was the watchword of Obama's campaign, so much so that McCain was forced to ape the rhetoric. But does it mean anything? Does it signify a change in American race relations? Has there been a shift in the patterns of partisanship? And doe it mean an eclipsing of conservatism?

Firstly on race, is there evidence of profound demographic changes? In his concessionary speech, McCain heralded the result as "historic" and held "special significance" for African-Americans. Indeed, some 33 per cent of Americans hail it as the single most important advance for civil rights since the abolition of slavery. For another 34 per cent it is in the top three events. But with all the talk of this being a watershed moment, we have to ask if there's any evidence of advances for African-Americans lower down the government. In 2007-8, there were 650 elected officials at state level, only two governors, and one senator ... who's just about to enter the White House. So an Obama presidency, though welcome from the standpoint of civil rights, can mask the work that still needs to be done. That said, there is evidence racism is becoming less of a factor in mainstream politics. Of the state-level representatives, the number of African-Americans representing all white or majority white constituencies has increased from 91 in 2001 to 189 in 2007. In addition, several African-American congressmen were elected in a similar fashion.

Accepting that racial dynamics are changing, are we seeing the beginning of a new demographic majority that will favour the Democrats? Well, Obama is the first northern urban president to have been elected since John F. Kennedy, but the result is by no means a landslide, especially when compared with Ronald Reagan's 1984
triumph (58.8 to 40.6 per cent, compared to Obama's 52.7 to 46.0 per cent). Nevertheless, we have seen that (so far) the Democrats are appealing more to the young than their opponents and have started to make serious inroads into the sorts of suburban areas that have piled up votes for the Republicans in the past.

So much for the Democrats. What does it mean for the GOP and conservatism? We must remember US conservatism is not a monolithic bloc but rather a coalition of different constituencies and interests, and this is a coalition less than impressed with the performance of George W. Bush - in fact he has been more or less disowned by its ideologues. He has presided over a tenfold increase in the national debt ($1 trillion to $10 trillion in eight years!), an introduction of 7,000(!) new regulations, and increase in federal government employment and an expansion of
Medicare - and this was before the measures demanded by the economic crisis! Bush has never eschewed the Reaganite small government rhetoric but his record sits uneasily with the ideology that dribbles from his mouth. This shows Reaganism as a governing principle has long been on its way out, a trend underlined by a slight majority of Americans reporting they were in favour of the government "doing more". Nevertheless, the so-called "values people" (the religious right, fundamentalist activists, etc.) won't be going away, and results from referendums they force on states around issues of gay marriage and abortion don't indicate movement from conservative values.

Whatever happens to the right, at least you could say about Bush and his cronies was that they stood for something, even if it was reaction and imperialism. Obama however appears to have no ideology. He may have a fairly liberal voting
record in the Senate, but there's no guiding thread or philosophy, as yet. In fact Obama is keen to portray himself as a "post-partisan" figure, which in practice will be no different from Bill Clinton's administration. Pragmatism will be the order of the day. So, Change? Perhaps ... but don't hold your breath, concluded Bailey.

John Parker decided to take on one myth that has emerged from the campaign - that the media was biased in Obama's favour. Is there any truth in this? Amazingly, there is a popular tacit belief that professional journalism should be neutral when it comes to politics, which is perhaps why Fox News, without any shame, claims to be 'fair and balanced'. Despite this 39 per cent of Americans agree their media has a liberal bias, while 20 per cent think it leans toward conservatism. Looking specifically at Fox, 31 per cent thought it had a conservative bias and 15 per cent thought it was liberal! This idea of liberal bias is a common meme on the right, but it's worth noting the Republicans only wheel it out if they're under fire, or their candidate is losing. McCain, Palin and their hangers on might be moaning about it, but Dubya never complained!

Having performed content analysis of the press between July and mid-October, Obama received 38 per cent more coverage between July and August. 31 per cent were negative, compared to 33 per cent bad press for McCain. No significant difference there then. But the gap widened between September and October 16th. Obama's press was 36 per cent favourable, 29 per cent negative. But for McCain only 14 per cent was favourable, 57 per cent negative. So the media was biased, right? Why did McCain attract hostile comment? Partly it was due to the Republican's campaigning strategy - without a doubt McCain's suspension of his campaign to head back to Washington to deal with the economic crisis just made him look ineffective, especially as it was his Republican colleagues that voted down the $700 billion rescue package. But that can only go so far.

For Parker, the "bias", generally speaking, is in fact a structural feature of media coverage and not its preference for a given candidate. Its coverage tends to treat the presidential election as a horse race - they look at who's in the leads in the polls and they ask why that is the case. The same is true of their opponent, who is lagging behind. 53 per cent of media comment falls into this category. As McCain was trailing, it therefore follows that the majority of news stories about this would be negative. It didn't really matter what else the candidates did - policy issues encompassed 20 per cent of coverage, advertising and spending 10 per cent, and personal stories just five per cent.

Looking at the break down for each candidate, 57 per cent on polls, 77 per cent on strategy, 36 per cent on economy and 44 per cent on McCain's suspension of coverage on each of these issues were positive for Obama. For McCain, the numbers respectively were 14, 10, 15 and 11 per cent. Factoring in the horse race effect and the Republican's strategic ineptitude (
wardrobe gate anyone?), this is not so much an instance of bias, more a case of following the issues. If you're winning, the media are favourable toward you. If not, they will attack. For Parker, this has shown to be the case consistently across all modern presidential campaigns. It respects no party labels.

The final contribution of the evening came from
Jon Herbert. His task was to sketch out what we could reasonably expect from an Obama presidency, and turned to an influential model of predicting policy change. According to Paul C. Light in his 1999 book, The President's Agenda, he argues the implementation of a policy agenda depends on the amount of 'presidential capital' a successful candidate has managed to accumulate. This is calculated from the level of party support, public approval (and margin of victory), and reputation. Taken in turn, Obama's support among the Democrats is good and far greater than that enjoyed by McCain. His margin of victory wasn't particularly spectacular, but he has a good reputation in popular consciousness and among the media. So the constraints on an Obama presidency are not particularly great. But then again, has he really got a mandate for his (empty) 'change' agenda? Perhaps, but only in certain areas. According to polls, the numbers who said the economy was their number one concern has grown from 15-18 per cent in mid-2007 to some 60 per cent. There's more wiggle room for bold initiatives here than say health care or energy independence.

That said, there are a number of constraints Obama will have to manage. There is what Herbert calls the 'unleash effect' of Democratic congress members seeing the presidency as an opportunity to get their pet policies through, such as updating the benefits system, expanding health care, etc. There may come a time when this section of the party will be able to extract concessions from Obama in return for support for his policies. But also there's a new factor Obama's strategic management will have to take into account: the so-called "netroots". This is the (mainly young, mainly first-time voting) constituency his campaign was able to mobilise. They are at once the most enthusiastic and most demanding, and are least aware of the constraints bearing down on the presidency. The netroots are also the incoming administration's biggest potential headache. Disillusionment and criticism, if it sets in, will be rapidly disseminated among the media networks (forums, blogs, social networking) that have been built up. Democrat strategists are also aware their support will be most crucial for securing the second term, and to this end are going to keep the paths of communication the campaign built up open. If that wasn't enough, Obama must keep the Congress and Senate Democrat leaderships onside and head off opposition that may come from the more conservative sections of the party.

What about Obama's philosophy? As we have seen there's very little that can pin him down. The Senate voting record is liberal-leaning but has shown his pragmatic colours. For example, he has a paper position of public financing of election campaigns, but abandoned it as soon as the private monies started flowing into his. He has made noises about reducing the dependence on fossil fuels, and then forgot it when the Republicans started running with off-shore drilling. But he has been consistent on class, albeit his constant evoking of America's middle class. His is a narrative that has median income earners as the most short-changed by Bush's administration in all sorts of ways. He strikes a populist pose by championing "Main Street" over Wall Street. But that's as far as it goes.

Obama has already indicated his desire to be a post-partisan figure, but will there be opportunities? Notwithstanding the split in the Democrats between conservatives and liberals, there seems to be little mileage in overcoming this by reaching out to moderate Republicans as this has become something of an oxymoron of late. The march of the right in American society has seen centre-right conservatives increasingly squeezed out by the ideologues (imagine your David Camerons and George Osbornes replaced by the
John Redwoods and Nadine Dorries). Bipartisan action might be possible in the face of crisis, as a winning over of sufficient Republicans to pass the $700 billion bail out second time round showed, or on matters of mutual interest such as energy independence. The same is true of the military budget (Obama plans to maintain Bush's level of spending). But if Obama is going to tackle health care, then he faces a protracted struggle - especially as the Republicans appear to be well prepared to launch a media offensive against any such moves.

Foreign policy-wise, it's worth noting that Bush's clumsy unilateralism was merely an extension of trends in Clinton's approach to international relations. Like many at home, there's plenty of people outside of the United States who've projected their own hopes on to Obama. But there will be temptations for him to go it alone, as seems likely with his stated intention of having to deal with the tribal groupings in Pakistan's frontier province who are sheltering and supporting the remnants of Al Qaida and the Taliban. It seems the command staff put in place by Bush, particularly General David Petraeus and Admiral Michael Mullen agree with Obama on this. But where they vehemently disagree is on a timetable of withdrawal from Iraq. Furthermore they simply cannot be moved aside by Obama place men - he is stuck with them. the ingredients are there for a high profile conflict - it remains to be seen whether the incoming administration accede to their position on Iraq or somehow out manoeuvres them.

These are some of the difficulties and opportunities facing the 44th president. For those of us concerned with advancing socialist politics in the USA, there could be considerable opportunities around the "netroots" movement that put Obama into office. I have (briefly)
discussed the possibility that millions of people activated by Obama's candidacy could start channelling their energies into other movements. Also, if the Democrats are taking the problem of disillusionment among this constituency seriously, so should we. Obama may have promised little but the huge amount of expectation in him is bound to enter into crisis at some point. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, could start casting around for an alternative, and we have to be ready if this comes to fruition.

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