Obama's Victory Analysed
‘I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever’ George Wallace, when Alabama candidate for governor 1962.
[in 2008 Alabama Democrats chose Obama as their candidate]
‘If there is anyone out there who still doubts America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy- tonight is your answer’ Barack Obama Victory Address, 5th November 2008
A Historic Victory
1. Democratic Renewal: In The Guardian, 5th November 2008, Gary Younge wrote (surprisingly, given his expertise) that blacks did not even get the vote in the US until three years after Obama was born. This was not the case as the 1870 15th Amendment delivered this right. This is not to say that at the time of his birth Obama’s parents would not have been able to marry in certain southern states where segregation was in full swing and blacks could not eat with whites or ride on the same bus. However, many African Americans failed to register for voting for a number of reasons and continued to do so right up to the present day. Obama’s campaign however, focused on mobilising this section of the black population and encouraged hundreds of thousands to vote and to believe it mattered.
2. Primacy of the Spoken Word: when Obama first appeared as a candidate, few gave him much chance (including this writer)- he was too inexperienced, America was not ready to vote in a black man, he was opposed by the mighty Clinton machine and so forth. However, right from the start, in the Iowa Caucuses, he showed that, in his own phrase: ‘something’s going on’. His rallies were attended by thousands and the atmosphere was ecstatic, like revivalist religious meetings but adapted to politics. Obama’s gift for the language was soon revealed to be natural- he did not employ speech writers or autocues- and drawing on a deep well of intrinsic oratory .
3. Healing of Racial Divide: anyone familiar with the USA, knows its racism runs deep; even ordinary liberal apparently families could shock with the ferocity of their views on their black minority and the fears they felt of the threat they posed to the white population. Ever since the ending of slavery blacks have been a poor and often impoverished minority of some ten percent, its members frequently comprising the urban underclass and being disproportionately involved in crime. The Oscar winning film Crash, directed by Paul Haggis, 2004, centred on this theme, suggesting all aspects of US life were affected by its racism.
4. US People Becoming Multiracial: the US has always been a melting pot of different races, all of whom had been attracted by the freedom and opportunity America offered. African Americans had no choice in the matter but successive waves of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America, chose to join this society in the belief they would achieve prosperity and freedom for themselves, families and their future descendants. Much immigration from south of the Mexico border was and remains illegal but once in the country, there is a strong tendency for immigrants to find their niche, become established and eventually become legal. White Americans are being out produced biologically and by 20409 will be in the minority. Obama’s victory is one of the first manifestations of this transformation. Rove urged Bush to woo Hispanics if the Republicans were to have any future and he even supported, against his instincts, a liberal immigration policy to do just that.
5. Recapture of the South: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 split voters in the south away from their traditional Democratic loyalties so that southern states became solidly Republican. This has damaged Democratic chances for several decades but now this seems to be reversing. Danny Finkelstein in The Times attributes this to an emergent ‘chattering’ middle class- richer and more educated than before which has markedly different views than previous recent generations.
6. Republican Agenda Outdated: this agenda of cutting taxes, fighting crime, reform social security, oppose abortion and support marriage, seems to have run its course. 29 million pay no taxes anyway, prosperity has taken the edge off crime worries and women generally tend to be opposed to the party’s stance on abortion. To even have a chance in the election Republicans needed to select a ‘maverick’ not associated with this old agenda.
7. Obama had Near Perfect Conditions for his Run: Obama would probably have lost had it not been for the huge unpopularity of Bush with 70% unhappy with his performance and only 30% giving him a positive rating. 50% believed McCain would continued Bush policies. The Republicans moreover, had eased American into the idea of black authority with Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice. Moreover the 80% in polls who felt the country had lost its way, indicated a huge majority for Obama’s famous but comfortably nebulous notion of ‘change’. 60% felt McCain was more experienced but the positives outweighed the negatives for Obama in this contest. Finally, there was no credible third party candidate this time, unlike 2000 when Nader arguably cost Gore the contest.
8. The Campaigns: Obama’s campaign is being hailed by some as the most masterful of recent times. Based on his extraordinary inspirational appeal, he was able to show ecstatic rallies every night on the television and gather huge amounts of funding via internet campaigns: 3.1 million donations and volunteers contributed to the campaign, a huge mobilisation which will help Democrats for years to come.. The bitter fight with Clinton probably did little harm, giving the lesser known Senator precious airtime and name recognition. He was amazingly courteous, steady and calm in the debates, compared to a jittery, volatile and mostly negative McCain. His trip to Europe to speak to 250,000 in Berlin did little to help him as at that time voters were undergoing ‘Obama fatigue’.
But his strategy of contesting every state enabled him to pull off some surprising wins and forced McCain to divert resources he could have used elsewhere.
McCain’s name recognition was good as he had tried for the presidency before and been around US politics for three decades. However, he seemed to be impulsive and indecisive at times and overly negative in his style. While less experienced than Obama, he was clearly les intelligent, except to the totally committed.
Sarah Palin: his decision to adopt Sarah Palin as his running mate proved initially a huge success then a disaster as voters realised she was so raw, eccentric and ill informed. It seems, according to an article in the ST that she was known to have hugely impressed a group of senior Republican ideologues on a cruise to Alaska in 2007; the obvious thought was that the maverick McCain needed someone to firm up the core vote. McCain had only spoken to her twice before her selection and relied on the views of others. However, Nicole Wallace, given responsibility for looking after Palin by the campaign, could not prevent her charge exposing her ignorance in foreign affairs in interviews and this hurt the Republican effort.
Nor could she stop her spending embarrassing amounts on clothes-‘tens of thousands’ above the $150,000 allowance made- behaving according to one aide like ‘small towjn hill-billies looting Nieman Marcus from coast to coast.’ Yet even after the disaster on poll shows 91% of Republicans have a good view of her and 64% think she would be the best candidate in 2012.
In 2000 and 2004 Republicans won by building a more effective campaigning machine but this time Obama had more money and more volunteers on the ground. In Ohio 53% of voters said they had been approached personally by Obama canvassers. Finally, events came to Obama’s aid: the economy came roaring into the campaign to make it by far the major issue while foreign policy, McCain’s strong-point declined in importance. Satire, via You-tube also played a role in ridiculing Bush and Palin throughout the campaign.
Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live did a brilliant impression of Palin and reinforced the idea that she was not really equipped to step up to the presidency should anything happen to McCain. It might be argued that anyone in a position of governing a state of the USA should, at the very least, know that Africa is a continent rather than a single country. The impression she gave of being exceptionally ill-informed was unfortunately reinforced by just about every interview she gave.
The Results Analysed
Final Polls: Obama 53-McCain 40
Votes cast: Obama 52 (first Democrat since Carter’s 50.1% to get more than half the votes; McCain 46. Obama managed to win Independents by 8 points, supposedly McCain’s power base.
Electoral College Delegates: Obama 364; McCain 174(270 is the winning number)
Gender: Men voted about 50-50 but woman were 56 to 43 in favour of Obama; some think it was the ‘choice’ or ‘no choice’ over abortion which was the chief factor.
Race: Obama, predictably won 95% of the back vote, 41% of the white male vote plus 50% of white women and, importantly, 75% of Hispanics [he won Florida with 15 points compared to Bush’s 12 in 2004]. Race was les of a factor among younger voters two thirds of whom voted Democrat. McCain garnered 55% of the white vote, suggesting a ‘Bradley Effect’ to some degree in that polls had shown Obama only one point behind his opponent among white voters while the result was a 12 point gap. [Bob Worcester, the Mori pollster, however, reckons that over the USA as a whole, the effect was not more than 2%.] However, Obama managed to collect a bigger slice of the white vote than Bill Clinton did. For the future the Republicans have to consider how they adapt to the multiracial nature of their country, otherwise they face a long period in the cold.
Age: 69% of the 18-29 cohort voted Obama; 32% McCain. Among the over 65s the Republicans won 53-45, but for the future, older voters in future elections will have been part of the ‘convert’ election of 2008. First time voters went 68-31 to Obama reflecting the intense effort put into winning new voters and encouraging black voters to register.
Religion: Generally McCain did well among religious people in that: he won Protestants 54-45 and evangelical Christians, 74-24. However, he lost the Catholic vote 45-54 and the Jewish vote 21-78.
Urban-Rural Dwellers: Obama won:
63-35 among urban voters;
and lost out:
Small Towns: 53-45
Rural Voters: 53-45 (a 5% increase for Democrats on 2004).
Income: as usual lower income voters went democrat and Republicans picked up more of the wealthy. Obama won 73-25 of those earning under $15000; 55-43 among the $30-50,000 bracket but lost 48-51 among the $100-150,000 earners and 46-52 among those earning over $200,000.
Not high School Graduate: 28-63 Obama
High School Graduate: 47-52 Obama
Some College Education: 47-51 Obama
College graduate or More: 45-53 Obama
Issues Judged ‘Most Important’:
Battle ground states which went Democrat [9 Democrat wins]:
New Mexico 57-42
Virginia 52-48[home of the capital of the old Confederacy]
[of these Florida and Ohio were probably the biggest prizes]
Is a Corrective in Order? Some Democrats are envisaging the sort of swing to the right which Bush did even on his minuscule win in 2000, but others argue-for example Paul Harris in The Observer, 9th November, that whilst the right has been rejected the left has scarcely been embraced. Even with all his disadvantages McCain still managed to poll 46% of votes and some of the wins were by tiny margins. Only 22% of Americans describe themselves as ‘liberals’ and USA is still basically a right of centre electorate. This was no landslide like FDR’s 48 states in 1936 or Reagan’s 49 in 1984. Obama lost the white vote by 12 points and whites comprise 74% of voters. ‘I don’t think it’s a mandate for a New deal’ said Howard Dean of the Democratic National Committee. Obama indeed offered an essentially moderate programme and whatever he seeks to do wil be limited by the harsh economic climate.
President Palin in 2012? The Economist seriously thinks Palin is seen by many Republicans as a good bet for 2012. Despite her fluffing of lines and mistakes, she has ‘star power’ and is a ‘quick learner’. She is certainly the best known woman politician in the USA, rather than Hillary Clinton. The nearest challenge, thinks the journal, is Mike Huckabee, who now runs his own show on Fox News. What does seem possible is that the Republicans, traumatised by their rejection will withdraw to core values and enter a period in the wilderness. John Halpin, of the Centre for American Progress commented that the Republicans ‘will factionalise severely’, just as the Tories did in UK after 1997 and Labour after 1979.
Congressional Results: Good but not a ‘Landslide’
House of Representatives: Democrats held 235 and won 19 seats while the Republicans held 173.
Senate: The Democrats managed to improve on their previous standing by 6 seats leaving them with 56 seats to the Republicans’ 40, with 2 independents and 3 undecided.
Despite this excellent result for the Democrats, they did not get the landslide many had predicted. 60 seats are required to defeat a filibuster- the procedure which enables a single Senator to speak continuously until a measure loses time. However the democrats have enough seats to pass most things and so Obama faces an auspicious opening period as president.
Challenges facing Obama:
On 6th November, The Guardian’s leader read:
‘The weight of expectation that today rests upon the frame of a 47 year old senator with no real executive experience is too great for one man and, in all probability, too large for one term of office. The nearest parallels are Abraham Lincoln taking over on the brink of civil war or Franklin Roosevelt arriving in the Great Depression. America, it seems, often reaches for a great man in its greatest need.’
Russia: One of the most pressing challenges facing the new president must be represented by ‘Putin’s Russia’, if its former president can still be seen to be in charge of it. President Medvedev made a longish speech on 5th November which:
i) blamed the USA for the world’s economic crisis.
ii) Suggested it was the USA to make the first move in repairing relationships with Russia.
iii) Expressed his anger at the expansion of NATO-Russia has always had a fear of encirclement
iv) Challenged American placements of missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic-the claim that these are ‘defensive’ missiles must ring false in the Kremlin.
v) Suggested to one major expert on Russia, Alexander Golts, that Russia is deliberately to create a military threat to the west by placing its own 500 mile range Iskander missiles in Kalingrad on the border with Europe as well as installing a radio-electronic device to scramble US control communications.
vi) Attacked state bureaucracy interfering in the economy- pretty rich, says the Economist, considering the president is the creature of Putin, who did much meddling himself.
vii) The presidential term is to be extended from four to six years- a sure sign Putin is addicted to power and wants to consolidate it further. And the Duma’s terms are to be extended from four to five years. Putin will be allowed to stand for president again in 2012 and then can in theory look forward to another 12 years in power. The Duma’s extension is less significant as it is virtually a rubber stamp via the United Russia Party anyway.
Writing in The Guardian 7th December, Simon Jenkins, reckoned:
‘No service is done to Obama by overstating his revolution as a second coming.’
In respect of the Russian threat he went on to say:
“An early test will be his response to the extraordinary sabre-rattling by the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev's proposal to station missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania is a crude reaction to George Bush's location of defence installations in a number of former Warsaw pact countries. It is so clearly a challenge to Obama's resolve that it demands an immediate reply. The opportunity is for a classic show of firmness combined with an openness to negotiate. Kaliningrad could yet be Obama's Cuban missile crisis - the geographical parallel is eerily similar - before he has even taken office.”
Iraq: Obama plans to pull out of Iraq within 16 months but some argue that in practice this might be finessed differently. The idea then is to ‘surge’ in Afghanistan but some argue e.g. Simon Jenkins, that this too will end in many tragic tears for the west.
Syria: rumoured Obama will seek to separate Damascus from Iran with a deal seeking to give them Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Isreael.
Iran: Obama wants to open up dialogue with Iran once present president has moved on.
Climate Change: Obama in favour of emissions cap and charging system as advocated by Europe though including China and India as some experts argue should be exempted.
Nuclear Proliferation: seeks to prevent Iran from joining club and mutual reductions with Russian weaponry.
Challenges at Home
Economic: he must
i) Act to remedy the imminent economic recession which will probably be the worst for seventy years.
ii) Act to solve the world economic crisis set in train by US banks.
iii) Alleviate problems of unemployment and poverty at home which will accompany recession.
iv) He has promised to reduce taxes on the poor and increase them on the rich but no details have been offered as yet.
Health service: he is committed to extending the range of health insurance in US. This was the rock on which Clinton’s early presidential hopes foundered so it must be handled with real care.
Poverty: nowhere in US society is poverty more of a problem than within the black community. More than 70% of black babies born in America are to single mothers; a black baby girl is more than twice as likely to die in infancy than a white one; she is also more likely contract diseases like asthma and diabetes; more prone to obesity and to end up in an underfunded understaffed state school where grades do not compare with white schools.
His victory has enthused some blacks to think Obama will initiate a big payout for them but he made no special promises and any perception of special treatment will put his winning electoral coalition at risk. It seems clear the astonishingly successful Harlem Children’s Zone programme-where welfare services, combine with education, health and environmental programmes to transform a specific block to be followed by a contiguous one and so on- will be rolled out in a range of other US cities.
It seems Obama has worked hard to assemble a key group of advisers and aides to address these problems during the interregnum before 20th January; he will need all the wisdom his able team can provide.
Obama’s degree of success will depend on how the world responds to him. Right now he enjoys a honeymoon but this will soon end as problems emerge and people feel they have not been treated fairly. It is by no means unlikely that if we discuss US politics in a year’s time, President Obama will not be perceived in such a saintly light and that critics will be condemning his administration as a dangerous failure. That’s no more than politics.