This week's editor

Heather McRobie

Heather McRobie is an editor at 5050.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Obama's speech in Cairo: live blog

**UPDATE** In summary -- Obama began compellingly, but somewhere in the later half the speech began to drag, its thrust lost in rhetoric that was at best earnest, at worst hackneyed. There were other weaknesses: he asked Arabs and Muslims not to be imprisoned by history, but at the same time justified America's support for Israel with evocations of the excesses of the past. Critics will also have expected sterner stuff on women's issues and on democracy in the Arab world, both of which Obama treated swiftly.

Nevertheless, after eight years of arrogance and error, the speech should go some way in convincing many people around the world that Obama's administration is serious about rehabilitating its role on the global stage. Melding ideas and detail with his typical fluency, Obama was the picture of a cool, informed leader. His systematic parsing of the issues also promised an energetic approach to policy-making. Of course, Obama will be judged by his accomplishments more than his words, but as he said early on, the goal of his speech was to shift perceptions. The audience of elite students in Cairo University gave him a resounding ovation; how his speech fared in dustier parts of the "Arab and Muslim world" will be the better measure of its success.

1303 in Cairo Less than ten minutes to go ahead of one of the most anticipated speeches in recent memory (Read Nader Hashemi's build-up on openDemocracy). President Barack Obama has braved criticism from many fronts in his bid to speak directly to the "Muslim world". How will he spin US involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict? Will he make a dig at his host, Hosni Mubarak, and other American-backed dictators? Will he apologise for the gross blunders of invasion and torture? Stay tuned for live updates and commentary.

1310 And we're off in Cairo University. Takes Obama a few seconds to speak in Arabic ("shukraan"). He now parses the history of relations between "Islam" and the "west", and accounts for American Islamophobia. 

1316 "America and Islam are not exclusive... they share common principles." Nation-state is akin to transcendental global faith? Mohammad Iqbal must be rolling in his grave.

1317 Shout out to the Koran! Took seven minutes.

1320 The historian in me is pleased: Obama mentions that it was Morocco that first recognised the independent thirteen colonies. Good detail. Less impressed by paeans to Islamic learning fuelling the Renaissance. Neverthless, this is typical Obama on good form, moving smoothly from rich theme to illuminating fact. 

1323 Obama subtly distinguishes the US from the secularists of Europe; the US protects the veil and the hijab, maintains a mosque in every state, and punishes religious intolerance.

1327 Human history, Obama says, is a record of self-interest, but not anymore. We are now in an era of interdependence, "our progress must be shared". Yet there's steel here: "we must face these tensions squarely". He's warmed up.

1330 He now defends military engagement in Afghanistan, playing a bit to the home audience. Faint echoes of Bush in the evocation of a coalition of "46 countries."

Time for a lovely quote from the Koran: "Whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind."

1334 Describes the Iraq war as one of "choice", not necessity. He doesn't apologise or strongly condemn the invasion, but reaffirms commitment to diplomacy and Iraqi sovereignty, and spells out a timeline of withdrawal. All troops out by 2012.

1335 "Unequivocal" about stopping torture and closure of Guantanamo. He's covered most of the bases. Israel-Palestine up next.

1336 "America's bond with Israel is unbreakable." He firmly backs the need for the Israeli state, reminding viewers that he's going to visit Buchenwald after Cairo. A bit too baldly strategic for my liking.

1340 Reaffirms commitment to two-state solution, and like the good doctor he is, lays out prescriptions. Compares the history of African American resistance to slavery and bigotry and nonviolent resistance to apartheid in South Africa to the struggle in Palestinian, arguing that violence is not the way. Many Israelis will bristle at that. Strong of Obama to make the parallel. He's now slamming settlements, and demanding that Israelis must make life more livable for Palestinians. He also demands more compromise from Arab states.

1344  "We will say in public what we say in private." Only Obama can sound credible saying that.

1346 On to Iran. Recognises US involvement in the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953, and subsequent decades of mistrust. But now it is no time to be beholden to the past: "we are ready to move ahead without any preconditions." Urges Tehran to come to the table.

1350 To the meat of the matter: the issue of democracy ("not an American idea, but a human right") in the Arab world. Are you watching, Hosni?

1351 Takes a dig at both autocrats and neo-cons by affirming that elections alone don't a democracy make. 

1353 He's advocating "freedom of religion", and doing well to mention the religious diversity of the Arab world. 

Delivers another rebuke to the likes of Turkey and France, that would prevent women from wearing Muslim garb.

1355 Excellent move: he separates the issue of women's dress (above) from women's rights. Eat your heart out, Martin Amis, Jack Straw et al. 

1358 "There need not be contradictions between development and tradition." We've returned to opening theme, of moving forward and closer together while remaining rooted (and respecting each other's roots). 

1401 A litany of initiatives and partnerships that will tighten cooperation in a blizzard of areas (lost track) between the US and Muslim-majority countries. Obama does soft power.

1403 We've reached the denouement. Fluffy stuff that rises above the bile of "clash of civilisations", but it's still fluffy. 

1406 Ends with a comp lit lesson; Obama paraphrases the Koran, Torah and Bible, drawing out their common message of peace. He stumbles over his last line; saying "May God be upon you" instead of "May peace be upon you". The audience doesn't care, as students raucously take up an Obama chant.

 

Jindal only offers more of the same

On paper, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal would appear to be the perfect candidate to help shepherd the Republican Party out of its post-election mire. A Rhodes scholar of Indian descent, who became the youngest governor in the country upon assuming office in 2007 at the age of 36, Jindal possesses the intellect, youth, and philosophical outlook to both satisfy the whims of the party's base and court the interest of young and non-white voters--demographic groups which the GOP has been haemorrhaging to the Democrats in recent election cycles.

As such, it should come as no real surprise that the Republican leadership saw it fit to hand Jindal the fillip of presenting the party's official televised rebuttal to President Barack Obama's first speech to Congress: a perfect opportunity to introduce himself to a national audience, articulate a distinct vision for America's present and future, and lay the foundations for an already-mooted presidential run in less than four years' time.

However, if Tuesday's address truly was the first litmus test of a potential Jindal candidacy, then perhaps he would be better off sticking to his pledge (made on last week's edition of 'Meet the Press') to focus solely on getting re-elected as governor in 2011.

Jindal's performance has drawn widespread criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike, and rightly so. With the country in the midst of a historically unprecedented economic implosion, and its citizens eagerly looking towards their democracy's political elders for both leadership and solace, the Louisiana governor comprehensively failed to substantively address the Presidential speech that preceded him, or perhaps more importantly discuss the topic of the economic crisis itself in a meaningful or engaging way.

Instead, the GOP's spokesman chose to deliver an oft-heard and well-trodden diatribe on why Republicans favoured a diminutive role for the state in government, punctuated with a catchphrase--"Americans can do anything"--which undoubtedly appeared rousing on paper but was sapped of any inspirational potency by Jindal's awkward, uneven and surprisingly unpolished delivery.

At a time when the vast majority of Americans now face uncertainty and trepidation on a daily basis due to the current economic crisis, those looking towards the Republican Party for leadership or solace on Tuesday night must have been sorely disappointed. The entire country has just experienced a two-year presidential race that was publicized and scrutinized to its last breath by the media--does the GOP really believe that there's anyone in the country in doubt as to what each party stands for? Do they think that voter confusion was the root of John McCain's defeat in the fall? Bipartisan governance is strongly desired by the electorate now more than ever--why shun the possibility of co-operation and return instead to the tired talking points of the last eight years at the very first opportunity?

While Jindal's performance was poor, the content of his message also deserves much criticism. Yes, there is need for stringent oversight on such a large and contrived spending package as the one in question to avoid a return to the pork-barrel politics that has become synonymous with Washington, unquestionably. However, if the Republican Party want to follow Barack Obama's lead and turn this theme into a communications strategy that really resonates with the American people, they first need to dilute down their obvious distaste for large, centralized government. There is an appetite across the developed world for an expanded fiscal role for government that only the most serious of crises can create: however inconvenient it may be, Republicans ignore this sentiment at their peril.

Governor Jindal's speech on Tuesday night did nothing to dispel the perception among liberals and conservatives alike that the Republican Party has become a party lacking in ideas. If anything, it should have sent alarm bells ringing within the party, and forced many who watched it to reconsider whether the comparisons frequently made between Jindal and President Obama are rooted more in superficiality than substance.

The peril of parodying Obama

Last week, Carol Thatcher unwittingly illustrated how an archaic word from a different generation retains much of its racially-charged potency to this day - and rightly drew condemnation for it. This week, it was the turn of imagery to dredge up the unseemly spectre of the past.

A storm of publicity has gathered around the offices of the New York Post, after a cartoon published in Wednesday's edition of the newspaper - depicting the author of the recently-approved economic stimulus as a dead, crazed chimpanzee - was accused of being a not so subtle exercise in jingoism by both commentators in the media and civil rights activists.

Speaking to the media, Reverend Al Sharpton declared that "the cartoon in today's New York Post is troubling at best given the historic racist attacks of African-Americans as being synonymous with monkeys."

"One has to question whether the cartoonist is making a less than casual reference to this when in the cartoon they have police saying after shooting a chimpanzee that ‘Now they will have to find someone else to write the stimulus bill,'" he added.

A press release was quickly issued by the newspaper, defending its cartoon as "a clear parody of a current news event" - the shooting dead by police of a chimpanzee in Connecticut on Monday after the creature mauled its owner's friend - and denouncing Rev. Sharpton for being "nothing more than a publicity opportunist."

However, with the furore over the cartoon refusing to abate, and a group of protestors converging on the newspaper's headquarters, the Post softened its stance in a Friday editorial, saying that "to those who were offended by the image, we apologise."

Whether simply a poorly executed sketch that was misconstrued - as the Guardian's USA blog rightly points out, the author of the stimulus package referenced in the cartoon would be the Democratic congressional leadership, not President Obama himself - or something more sinister, the controversy surrounding Sean Delonas's work highlights an interesting dilemma: the challenge now facing the professional satirists whose job it is to subvert the image of the first African-American president of the United States.

Distorting facial features as a means of highlighting the excesses and frailties of our public figures has been a staple of political satirists' trade in the western press since Thomas Nast's pioneering work during the Tammany Hall era, providing some iconic and enduring images: from the defiance of Winston Churchill's bulldoggish scowl to, more recently, Tony Blair's unnervingly large and perfectly-formed dentures and the increasingly simian features of George W Bush.

However, as highlighted recently in an article on the Huffington Post, cartoonists in the American press now find themselves in unchartered waters, as they try to tread an increasingly thin line between caricature and stereotype when penning their work: draw President Obama's lips too large, or his ears too big, and an artist may inadvertently face the same charges of racism and xenophobia levelled at the New York Post this week.

As CNN columnist Roland S. Martin succinctly put it: "What could be seen as silly humour if President George W Bush were in the White House has to be seen through the lens of America's racist past."

Tell Rall, president of the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, summed up the difficulty this paradigmatic moment in American history has invariably posed for his organisations' members, noting that, "without a doubt, people are stepping more gingerly. People are tiptoeing their way through this."

The alarm bells should have sounded for many during the general election. Seeking to poke fun at the right-wing media's continued chatter over Obama's "true" religious beliefs and purported affiliation with terrorist organisations, The New Yorker magazine placed on its front cover a depiction of Obama and his wife standing in the Oval Office: replete with turban, salwar kameez, camouflage pants and an AK-47 rifle. The cartoon, while playing on the issue of religion rather than race, was quickly rounded upon by critics who believed it reinforced popular misconceptions about the Democratic candidate - including his own campaign, which denounced it as "tasteless and offensive."

With more than 45 months left in President Obama's tenure, it seems inevitable this issue will arise again; particularly given that interest groups such as the NAACP are set to become even more vigilant in their monitoring of the media's output after this week's incident.

Consequently, political cartoonists now face the unenviable challenge of marrying outrageous and provocative iconography with political correctness: a damning restriction of free speech, which may, ironically, provoke a self-fulfilling creative backlash that results in the production of more vitriolic and jingoistic works.

As decorated American cartoonist Jules Feiffer noted, "outside of basic intelligence, there is nothing more important to a good political cartoonist than ill will." American political cartoonists are starting to get tetchy.

"If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press"

It appears that MSNBC may have finally made their much-anticipated decision as to who will succeed the late Tim Russert as the next host of Meet the Press: the most watched Sunday talk show in America and the longest-running television show in broadcast history. In an article posted Monday, The Huffington Post is reporting with some confidence that David Gregory has seen off stiff competition to land the coveted anchor role when Tom Brokaw's run as interim host wraps up in January.

While widely respected within the media world, and viewed by many as a rising star, the prospect of Gregory being handed the keys to arguably NBC's most prized broadcasting possession has actually appeared increasingly slim in recent months. Unable to carve out a slot for himself amongst MSNBC's stellar cast of polemicists, Gregory found himself saddled with Race for the White House in March of this year: a bland panel show covering the American presidential race that clearly lacked a creative direction and suffered from its tendency to recycle talking heads chosen largely from MSNBC's own in-house pool of talent. The decision to renew the show into the New Year--under the revised and equally uninspiring moniker 1600 Pennsylvania Drive--only cast further doubt as to whether Gregory would ultimately be handed an opportunity by the network to truly shine.

However, the decision to choose Gregory over flashier and more high profile candidates such as Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow is a huge vote of confidence for the Los Angeles native--and one that is justly deserved. Having engaged in a number of fiery exchanges with members of the Bush administration--the President himself included--while a member of the White House press corps, Gregory has quickly carved out a reputation for possessing excellent journalistic instincts, a rare ability to clearly identify "the story behind the story," and a tenacious and unrelenting style of interrogative pursuit: assets that would all mesh perfectly with the format of the highly decorated Sunday talk show.

Moreover, by choosing Gregory over Matthews and company--the pioneers of MSNBC's newfound strategy of jettisoning objectivity for opinion, which has seen the network mimic Fox News's rating success at the cost of drawing strong criticism during the presidential campaign season--MSNBC executives would ensure that the reputation of one of the few last great bastion's of balanced objectivity within the American third estate remains intact. Anyone who questions whether such an edifying description is truly merited need only look at Colin Powell's decision to announce his endorsement of Barack Obama's candidacy on the show a few weeks ago--and the almost country-wide outpouring of grief following Russert's death in June of this year

The real story of Thanksgiving

In November 1863, President Lincoln made Thanksgiving Day (up till then rather unofficial and only vaguely celebrated) a National Holiday, inviting his "fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

As an American sojourning abroad, Thanksgiving has always been a bit difficult to explain. If asked, most Americans would mention pilgrims and native Americans - because that is what we learned in school. The mythology goes: the pilgrims at Plymouth survived a long and arduous winter in their rather poorly chosen location because the local Wampanoag, among them Squanto, taught them how to grow corn and fish for eels, among other essential survival skills. A feast was had to celebrate this neighbourliness and give thanks to God that everyone made it through. And that was the first Thanksgiving.

As schoolchildren, we commemorated this story by making little pilgrim collars and feathered hats (yes, really) out of construction paper. That all seems a bit trivial now, more about a safe America we fantasise about rather than the complicated America we have - and always have had.

One feast becomes a tradition only over time, and Thanksgiving was celebrated haphazardly throughout the United States up until the Civil War, with different states observing some sort of semi-religious feast at different times.

When Lincoln asked his citizens to take pause, it was only three months after 50,000 people died, on both sides, in a three day period at Gettysburg. Notably, he asked Americans not just to reflect and give thanks for their "singular deliverances and blessings," of the past year but also to have "humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience." You have much to be thankful for, Lincoln reminded us, but there is much to regret - and much to get done, "to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it ... to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."

There is much to regret. There is much to be done. This is Thanksgiving. Its history - like our history - is not something you would find in a storybook (and there are no convenient costumes) but is borne out of the best hopes of our dark, divided heart.

Change we don't really need

The Obama campaign pioneered the use of 21st century social networking in American electoral politics. Its My.BarackObama.com website was a small miracle of technology and tact, building a platform that at once spread information, enlarged the supporter base, directed energy and, most importantly, raised money. Barack's Twitter feed kept thousands of supporters (and foes) abreast of his latest speeches and rallies. Obama's campaign even deployed text messages on its path to victory, considerably defter and more modern than McCain's much maligned robo-calls.

I got my last "tweet" from Obama on the morning of the 5th: "We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks". My.BarackObama.com now offers it services as a blank and vague portal for "local organising"; activity has slowed markedly on the site. Electoral victory put an end to the campaigning purpose of such tools, which in the previous months had been meticulous in their direction. Once the means achieve their desired end, they end themselves.

Yet the President-elect rolled out a new website, Change.gov, aimed at making the process of transition more transparent. A noble intention, of course, but when that intention is bolstered by such saccharine and cringe-worthy blog posts as this, it seems risible at best, propagandist at worst. We don't need the organ of the President-elect to tell us that "Words like 'brilliant,' 'sharp,' 'energetic,' and 'visionary' are coming from across the political spectrum in praise for President-elect Barack Obama's choices to lead his economic team." As a friend pointed out, much of the site reads like official Chinese Communist Party newspapers.

It is disappointing that the energy and dynamism of the previous months seems lost on Change.gov. In the hands of Obama's campaign, the internet was perfectly harnessed to build momentum and galvanise support. His new venture on the internet is on the path to becoming a reminder of the stultifying effect of power.

Uncharacteristically feverish rhetoric from Minnesota

Tempers are flaring in Minnesota, a state that has long prided itself on what its residents call 'Minnesota nice' (for an amusing portrayal of this style of behaviour, look no further than Fargo, perhaps the best film the Coen brothers have made to date). The pyrogen is the still unsettled Senate race between incumbent Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger, Al Franken. As of today, Coleman is only 215 votes in the lead. Yesterday, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com projected - with startlingly confident precision - that Franken would manage to push 27 votes into the lead by the end of the recount.

With the margins that small, the one thing we can be sure of is that the eventual victor - whoever he may be - will have a hard time convincing his opponents that he won fair and square. For a taster of what is to come, take a look at politico.com's latest article on the subject. It is an extremely biased piece of work entitled 'Sloppy Dems may spell Franken advantage' (the title alone cries out for the attention of an editor). It relies heavily on the opinions of a "veteran Minnesota election law attorney" named Robert Hentges, who has this to say:

“Democrats are [thought to be] more creative, free-spirited, so the idea is that they’re more likely to make a mistake that the optical scan won’t pick up. But when they recount the hard copy, those votes will be counted for Franken. If you talk to Republicans, they say it will be Franken’s advantage, because Democrats are stupid and will screw up ballots more often.”

Since the Politico reporter seems to take Hentges' suggestions at face value, it's a fair bet that this meme will have legs. Of course, many Minnesota Democrats are poorer than the average citizen, and so often have to deal with longer lines to vote, and less reliable equipment when they do. But that was also true in Florida eight years ago, and didn't stop Republicans from labelling Al Gore's supporters as undereducated African-Americans and senile old fools. The suggestion was, of course, that these voters didn't really deserve their votes in the first place. Expect to hear more of that if Franken manages a victory.

Update: It turns out that the headline of the Politico piece genuinely was in need of some editing. I e-mailed the author, Daniel Libit, with my concerns, and he agreed that the piece's title - which he didn't choose - was inappropriate. It has now changed to 'Franken hopes may turn on absentee issue', which is decidedly more neutral.

Hillary Clinton: a good Secretary of State?

A picture of Barack Obama's cabinet is starting to emerge, and it is not pleasing his more left-wing supporters. Some of them were already unhappy about the appointment of Clintonites like Rahm Emmanuel. Now, the New York Times is reporting that Hillary Clinton will almost certainly become Secretary of State. That is disturbing for some Obama supporters, who were told during the primaries that her foreign policy views disqualified her from the nomination.How you feel about Clinton's appointment - assuming that it does come to pass - will depend on how legitimate you feel those criticisms were. Central among them was the charge that she showed bad judgement in supporting the Iraq war. That may well be so, but she had a lot of company in this. Many liberals, myself included, thought in 2003 that regime change was the lesser of two evils, only to change our minds when we saw the nature of the regime change we got. I would readily admit that was bad judgement on my part. Clinton refused to say that it was bad judgement on hers - this may, in fact, have been what cost her the Democratic nomination. Perhaps she was privy to special intelligence before the war which added support to Bush's arguments. But I find it hard to believe that she had any such excuse, given that she reportedly failed to thoroughly study the briefings given to her at the time.Nonetheless, that is all in the past. What matters is what sort of Secretary of State she will be over the next four years. It is clear why many on the left are concerned about this. She has been decidedly hawkish on Iran, supporting the controversial Kyl-Lieberman amendment that classified that country's Quds Force as a terrorist organisation. She also has a reputation for pandering to the more extreme elements of the soi-disant 'pro-Israel vote' in the States - and since this voting block's favoured policies would actually harm Israel and the peace process, this is concerning.However, this history may allow her to play the role of Nixon in China on these questions, providing Obama cover against those who would claim that his positions on these issues are too 'soft'. She and her husband have almost unparalleled knowledge and experience of dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian question in particular. There are already rumours that Obama has charged her with finding a solution to this, and given her substantial autonomy in doing so. If she can accomplish this, few will or should regret her selection.

Will Obama govern from the left?

The tea leaves are ready, and the crystal balls are out. Now that the campaign is over, everyone's attention is focused on predicting what sort of president Barack Obama will be. The real answer is that it is too early to tell: the degree to which he moves the country to the left will be limited not by his plans but by what is politically feasible, and that will be revealed by events yet to come.

It is true that some of Obama's recent actions seem almost designed to test his left-wing base's patience. He has reportedly offered the position of secretary of state to Hillary Clinton, who he pilloried in the primaries as a symbol of nineties triangulation. Clinton was never popular with the party's left wing or 'netroots', and Ben Smith at Politico reports that they are reacting to her reemergence with some dismay.

Likewise, the possibility of Lawrence Summers becoming Treasury Secretary is generating anger among feminists; they reacted badly (and in my opinion unfairly) to a notorious remark he made mentioning the possibility of gender differences in aptitude and interest in science. Obama's tolerant attitude towards Joe Lieberman, which yesterday resulted in the Connecticut Senator earning only the mildest of punishments, has also irritated some on the left.

However, these actions tell us more about Obama's attitude to HR than about his governing agenda. Neither Clinton nor Summers would drag the administration notably towards the left; both show signs of having moved away from the centrist nineties. As for the Democrats' leniency towards Lieberman, I argued earlier this week that it was the smart political choice, and this consideration appears to have been what drove Obama's decision.

The "celestial" president

The New Yorker's recent issue boasts a particularly arresting cover (pasted below). Obama's "O" moon waxes high over the Lincoln Memorial, casting a pale reflection in the pool beneath. Still months before his inauguration, Obama finds himself in the longest of shadows, that of the president who steered the United States through bloody division and great crisis. It's a mantle that Obama has, in effect, placed upon himself. He quoted Abraham Lincoln extensively throughout his campaign. And in his first interview since the election, Obama told CBS' Steve Kroft that he'd been preparing for the months ahead by returning to the works of Lincoln: "I’ve been spending a lot of time reading Lincoln. There is a wisdom there and a humility about his approach to government, even before he was president, that I just find very helpful."

The reflection of the memorial - eerily reminiscent of the pillars of light that all too briefly replaced the World Trade Centre after 9/11 - tells a cautionary tale. Even the brightest alabaster of presidential grandeur has its dark side. He probably knows this. Obama's performance on 60 Minutes was low-key and almost pedestrian, belying the tremendous anticipation weighted on the President-elect. On display was not only Obama's famous calm, but his deep respect for the office and the moment he has risen to. Perhaps he has imbibed the "wisdom" of Lincoln. The "greatness" expected of him, Obama knows, will only materialise if it ultimately draws from a deeper reserve of modesty.  

 

Hat-tip to BAGnewsNotes.

The week of pragmatic transition

The significance of the transition period for an incoming presidential administration cannot be overstated: not only does it offer the opportunity for the President-elect to identify the priorities within his or her legislative and policy agenda for the forthcoming term, but it also represents the first true test of managerial acumen at the highest governmental level; just ask Bill Clinton, who endured a number of early and largely self-inflicted blows to his executive authority as a result of tardy mobilization and ill-judged selections for his supporting cast (cf. Zoe Baird).

As such, the actions of the Obama transition team in the coming weeks should not be observered merely for the sake of palace intrigue. Instead, like a candidate's general election campaign, transition offers a fleeting glimpse as to how well prepared a future Obama administration is to meet the challenges ahead, while at the same time acting as a rough indicator as to what the President-elect's advisers believe are the key issues that need to be addressed internally between now and January 20th 2009. Over the brief but fervent period of time that has elapsed since Obama's electoral victory, I would suggest that the following has rung true:

The pariah-to-messiah moment

The Obama Moment in America reminds the Chicago anthropologist John Comaroff of the Mandela Moment in his native South Africa in the early 1990s. The whole world has embraced the Obama Moment as its own, Comaroff says, because it marks “the reentry of a pariah nation into the world” on the terms of a revived democracy.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with John Comaroff. (52 minutes, 24 mb mp3)

There’s a bracing analysis here from a man who makes it his business to jar our perspective — whose definition of anthropology boils down to “critical estrangement.” Anthropology won the election, Comaroff says, only half kidding. He means not just that Barack Obama is the son of an anthropologist but has a mind to stand outside the consensus when he must.

Democrats ask: "Will no one rid us of Joe Lieberman?"

Senator Joe Lieberman has been a thorn in the Democrats' side for a long time, but relations have only worsened since Connecticut primary voters booted him off the party ticket in 2006. Lieberman reacted by separating himself from the party and running as an independent, despite his earlier promises not to do so. Having campaigned for him in the primaries, many of his Democratic colleagues switched their support to the official party nominee, much to Lieberman's chagrin. He won re-election anyway, and since then has repeatedly broken his campaign promise to be loyal to the Democrats, stumping for his old friend John McCain, smearing Barack Obama, and delivering the keynote address at the Republican convention.

It's no surprise, then, that the party base want revenge. There is already outrage at the gentle approach President-elect Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have taken thus far. However, they ought to remember the proverb about not cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. Kicking Lieberman out of the party might send a message that disloyalty will be punished, but other than that it would accomplish precious little. It would be far wiser for Democrats to send a forgiving and non-partisan message, and keep Lieberman on board for important Senate votes. There is currently a real prospect of their controlling a 60-seat majority in the Senate, which would let them stop Republican filibusters derailing their legislative goals. These are still goals that Lieberman shares, despite his alienation from the party. Here's hoping Democrats don't give him more reason to subvert these goals. Lieberman is the one who has been cutting off his nose to spite his face, and there is still a chance that he will come to see that.

Only in America (part VI)

In the sixth part of his exchange with KA Dilday, Anthony Barnett realises that Obama's victory was hardly as comprehensive as it seemed. Catch up with part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5

Dear Kay,

You are right to mull it over. There are big issues to be addressed, from celebrity to Afghanistan not to speak of the recession. But not immediately. I had a shock about 36 hours afterwards. I'd known - I'd put it as strongly as that - since January that Barack Obama could win and that in his case his race would not prevent this. I suppose I must have been too confident that he would. It was only afterwards that I suddenly saw how close it was. Obama needed Lehman Brothers to turn all the "palling around with terrorists" junk into froth.

One American in three did not vote at all! Most Americans did not vote for Obama. He got 66 million to McCain's 58 million votes. Nearly a quarter of the US's 300 million plus population are under 18, still leaving over 230 million of which less than 130 million voted. Obama got the actual votes of barely more than one in four American adults. He and his supporters must do something about the extent of what remains, in effect, a form of disenfanchisement in the USA.

"Obama's Afghan challenge"

Elsewhere in openDemocracy, Anita Inder Singh explores the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which poses one of the toughest foreign policy challenges facing the next president. Singh paints a bleak picture: "The Taliban now control at least one-third of the country; President Karzai's fledging elected government struggles to extend its authority beyond the capital Kabul; and wracked by growing divisions and doubts, NATO seems to be at risk of losing a seven-year old war." Read the rest of the article here.

 

Only in America (part V)

In the wake of Obama's victory, KA Dilday begins to digest an unprecedented result. Catch up with the earlier segments of her conversation wtih Anthony Barnett: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.  

Dear Anthony:

From the moment the news was announced at about 4 am in London, and I heard the triumphant roar of the Harlem, New York City residents through the phone as I spoke to my sister overseas, I've been in a state of shock.  A black man with a funny name, and Hussein as a middle name no less, was elected president by more than half of the Americans who voted in the largest voter turnout in 100 years.

I never believed that enough of my fellow citizens would feel comfortable voting for a black man to be president for Obama to win. In a time of Islamophobia, I never believed that enough of my fellow citizens would feel comfortable voting for a man who had Muslim relatives for Obama to win. Until the moment when it became an irrefutable fact, I had underestimated my country.

So I consumed my dish of crow with relish.

One nagging concern though: while John McCain's concession speech was gracious, I inferred that he thought Barack Obama's success heralded the end of racism in America. Just as Thatcher's tenure as prime minister didn't mean the end of sexism in Britain, or Lula's and Morales' triumphs don't mean the end of classism in their respective countries, nor does Obama's success mean that racism no longer exists. But it does mean that for any one person with determination, anything is possible. And that is a powerful piece of knowledge to hold.

I think I'm going to take a few days to mull this over, Anthony, before we continue our conversation.

Kay

KA Dilday was recently a France-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She covered integration and immigration in France and traveled frequently to North Africa. She has written and edited for many American publications. She was an editor for the New York Times opinion page. 

 

Lost in the moment: ballot measures

While the world celebrates Barack Obama's historic victory over John McCain, many ballot measures on the state level also deserve our attention (overview). Most controversial among them were the decisions on same-sex marriage and abortion that were up in several states.

Is this what a landslide looks like?

With almost all states called, we have a pretty good picture of the electoral map. It looks like this:

Though not quite the stuff of Democrats' wildest fantasies (which featured Georgia and even Montana), this is about as good as they could have hoped for. It is already being called a "landslide" by the often restrained New York Times. Nonetheless, it looks somewhat less impressive than this:

Or this:

However,  those sorts of landslides look to be things of the past. America is now much more evenly split, with both parties calibrating their message so as to win 51% of the electorate. The Democrats in particular have moved to the centre ever since Bill Clinton, scarred by the experience of the 1984 and 1988 elections depicted above, in which their candidates were widely seen as too liberal. Of course, some commentators, like John Judis of the New Republic, are already interpreting this election as part of a leftward shift in the nation. They may well be right, and I am sure we shall be discussing this at openUSA over the coming weeks. But there is no missing the fact that many of the new congressmen the Democrats have gained are more conservative than their old colleagues. This is the result of a deliberate and apparently highly successful strategy of recruiting candidates in tune with their districts. It will help keep the Democrats close to the centre, and perhaps even mark the return of a South in which both parties are competitive. Perhaps then we may see an electoral map which is more uniformly blue.

Only in America (part I)

In the first segment of a multi-part exchange, KA Dilday reminds Anthony Barnett of how Barack Obama's rise is very un-European. Read on: part II, part III, and part IV

Dear Anthony:

It's been several months since I told you that Barack Obama's nomination as the presidential candidate for a major political party, could only happen in America . But even as I said that, I also insisted that he would never be elected president because of his race, particularly since he was running against a patrician white man. Now, and I say this with a cautious optimism, it seems that on the night of 4 November (EST of course) I may be eating a dish of crow, and relishing every bite.

I've lived in three countries in Europe - France, The Netherlands and now the United Kingdom - and despite the western European belief, particularly in France, that their countries are more liberal and tolerant than the United States, none of them have ever voted someone from an ethnic minority to a major position in national government. France, despite having a Muslim population (mostly of north and sub-Saharan African descent) of nearly ten percent, has never elected any Muslims to their National Assembly, the directly-elected body of their bi-cameral parliament.

In a way I'm embarrassed that my excitement is based on a politics of identity - Obama's black, I'm black, hooray for the race! - because as a thoughtful person, I've always tried to base my decisions on a candidate's ideas and policies. And despite that I've always been registered as a political independent, unaffiliated with either major party, I didn't vote for another black man, Jesse Jackson, when he ran as an independent candidate for president in 1988. But I can't deny the thrill I felt when I colored in the dot next to Barack Obama's name on the absentee ballot that I scoured the mail for each day until it finally came last Monday. I'm still expecting an unpleasant surprise. I don't think the exposure of Obama's aunt as an illegal alien will derail him, but who knows what the Republican's dirty tricks strategists will throw up. They're fiendishly clever and unabashedly dissolute when it comes to winning elections. But could it be? A black man, president of the United States! Who would have thought it in my lifetime?

Optimistically yours,

Kay

KA Dilday was recently a France-based fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. She covered integration and immigration in France and traveled frequently to North Africa. She has written and edited for many American publications. She was an editor for the New York Times opinion page. 

Barack Obama will be the next President

The networks are calling crucial state after crucial state for Obama, and Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight.com has just called the whole race. Upsets can always happen, but I think we can rely on his judgement. There will be more on this historic result tomorrow at openUSA.

Senate races to watch

If the Presidential race provides insufficient drama tonight, watch out for the results of the Senate races also taking place. There look likely to be some real nail-biters. Foremost among these is the match-up in Georgia between incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin. The race looks so close that it may end up in a December runoff, prolonging the election season yet further. Another close race is in Minnesota, with comedian Al Franken challenging Republican Senator Norm Coleman. This should have been a solid Democratic gain this year, but Franken has proved to be a less than ideal candidate, with the race essentially tied in the polls.

The outcome of these races should interest us all, even if we are not Minnesotans or Georgians. The workings of the Senate mean that a minority of over 40 can effectively stall any legislation, so the Democrats are desperately hoping they can reach 60 seats. It looks unlikely at the moment, but if this is truly a landslide for Obama, he may have sufficiently long coat-tails to get his party there. Amid all the excitement and triumphalism that would surround an Obama victory, we should not forget that he may have a difficult time bringing about the change he has promised.

Update: The Democrats have managed to win Elizabeth Dole's seat in North Carolina, a pleasing result for them...

2006: McCain 510-Obama 28

The Huffington Post is carrying an intriguing story regarding a survey conducted exactly two years ago by polling company SurveyNow, gauging the balance of voter support across the country in the event of a hypothetical Barack Obama-John McCain presidential showdown in 2008.

Interviewing 600 voters in each state, SurveyUSA was able to extrapolate that an Obama candidacy would take Illinois, Hawaii and the District of Columbia-and that's it. This would have left him with a grand total of 28 total electoral votes, and culminated in a landslide victory for John McCain.

If Howard Wilson was right in his assertion that a week is a long time in politics, then this should prove ample evidence that two years is a very very long time indeed.

2006 SurveyUSA Electoral College Map

Only in America (part IV)

In the fourth part of his exchange with KA Dilday, Anthony Barnett argues that Obama sees the US as part of the world, not apart from it. Catch up with part 1, part 2, and part 3.  

Dear Kay,

Senator Obama - and I SO hope by tomorrow morning it will be "President-elect" Obama - agrees with you. In an otherwise masterful opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, he writes, 

I'll finally finish the fight against bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century, and restore our moral standing so that America remains the last, best hope of Earth.

Right up to the implication of your last clause I agree with you that 

What Obama has demonstrated goes beyond the example that, no matter how far-fetched it seems, one can achieve one's dreams. He has shown people that there are many different ways to be black; that one can be comfortable and at home with people of all races and religions; that intellectualism is valuable to anyone of any race; and that America has done it again.

I'd say he has done more in that he has shown people of all colours, including white, that there are many different ways of being themselves, that their skin and background is not their fate. (And intellectualism is valuable - hurray! Have you tried to say that here in Britain?)

Here is the main point: America is special, yes. It is different. It is unique in its own way. But so too in their ways are all other countries. America is especially special because it is so powerful. But this is not inspiring - look what it has done with its power, from Vietnam to Iraq. Yes, Obama represents another America from Bush. The immense importance of his campaign is that it means one cannot say about George W Bush's Guantanamo-USA, "That's it folks - there is no other America".

Only in America (part III)

In the third portion of her exchange with Anthony Barnett, KA Dilday argues that majority-minority dynamics in the US would make an Obama presidency unique and incomparable to the rise of Lula, Bachelet and Morales in South America. Previous letters: part I and part II. Read on: part IV.   

Dear Anthony:

It's the day of reckoning and I am taut with nervousness, so I'm pleased to be distracted by our discussion.

You question whether Barack Obama's success makes American exceptional. I still believe that it does. But I do acknowledge several of your points: blacks in America have a much longer history than the dominant ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom or in France or in most of Western Europe for that matter. And I agree that the US is woefully behind in matters of gender. Just witness the "taming" of Michelle Obama and Hillary (then Rodham, forced to change her name to) Clinton, both of whom had to downplay their own intelligence and accomplishments to fit into Americans' notion of a potential first lady.

So why does Obama's success make the United States exceptional?

Obama vs. McCain: the view from the anti-war Left

The Stop the War Coalition was founded seven years ago in response to the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent attack on Iraq, gathering immense popular support as it brought over one million people into the streets of London on 15 February 2003. These heights have not been reached since; even as the war has dragged on, the anti-war left in the UK (as well as its counterpart in the US) has somewhat dropped off the radar. The recent financial crisis further crowds out the anti-war agenda in the public arena. But as I discovered last night at a meeting on the subject "the US election, the economic crisis and the war", the group is still going strong and working hard towards peace, naturally maintaining its own interests in the outcome of today's election.

There was an assumption running throughout most of the discussion that Barack Obama will win, however Moazzam Begg (ex-Guantanamo detainee) said, "surely, whether it's Obama or McCain, things can only get better".

Despite flashes of high praise for Barack Obama ("Let's recognise that Obama will be far and away the most intelligent President in thirty, maybe forty, years") there was an air of scepticism, both generally ("I don't think problems are solved by leaders no matter how good they are") and specifically - regarding his foreign policy.

Jonathan Steele summed it up, saying, "Barack Obama made a principled objection to the war - it's true that he has made concessions on that stance since becoming a candidate but I think that he does want to get out of Iraq with some kind of dignity." He then went on to criticise Obama's pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq within sixteen months of attaining office as only referring to combat troops. A large number of troops would remain to train Iraqi troops (Steele points out that UK forces are doing this already, and that it doesn't have to be undertaken within the country) and defend the embassy (one of the largest in the world). There is also the problem that all of the troops taken out of Iraq would be sent to Afghanistan, and that Obama could send some into Pakistan. There was further criticism that "he still seems to be talking about a military solution not a political one."

The general consensus was unremarkable in concluding that an Obama victory would be the best thing for Iran, herald some change in Iraq, while raising major concerns about the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Shy Tories and Misleading Polls

There's been much talk this year of the Bradley Effect, or the Wilder Effect, or whatever name you want to give to the phenomenon of polls overstating a black candidate's support. It is bound to be one of the things which keeps anxious Democrats up tonight. But, as Harvard's David Hopkins has shown, there is no convincing evidence that this effect still exists.

So, for those left-leaning readers looking for another reason to worry, I submit the Shy Tory Factor. British readers will remember that the pollsters badly overestimated Labour support in the 1992 general election. Even the exit polls got the result wrong: this strongly suggested that Tory voters were either failing to speak to pollsters or lying about their choice. The most widely-accepted explanation for this was that the Conservatives had become 'politically incorrect'.

This is simply my own speculation, backed up by a handful of anecdotes, but it is possible that the same thing is going on in America today. In many (though certainly not all) parts of the country, Barack Obama is the 'politically correct' choice, for a variety of reasons - not just race, but also Bush's abysmal approval ratings and the cultural image of the Republican party. This is certainly something to bear in mind if the exit polls show an Obama lead. They also had Kerry ahead in 2004, and we all know how that turned out.

Election Night: When will we know the victor?

International viewers of the US elections will be hoping that the outcome is decided soon. If it is not, some of us will lose any chance of sleep as we suffer for our time zones. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of early-voting states which may foreshadow the eventual results.

The polls close first (11pm GMT) in Indiana and Kentucky. Both states have historically been Republican, but if Indiana seems close, that will at least be an indication that Obama's support in the polls has not been misleading - something many Democrats are fretting about right now. If John McCain loses Indiana, that may be the first fall in a landslide.

Next come Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia, with polls closing at 12am GMT. Unfortunately, many of these states may be too close for the networks to call any time soon. Victories in Virginia or Florida would give Barack Obama an almost impregnable lead in the electoral college. Success in New Hampshire would give John McCain cause for cheer - the state has voted for the eventual victor in every election since 1964, with the exception of the last one.

Then, at 12:30am GMT, the polls close in North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. This is where it gets interesting: any of these states could flip, and a flip in any one of them would be telling. If North Carolina votes Democratic for the first time since 1976, Obama will have made deep inroads into the South. If he loses Ohio and West Virginia, he will have failed to close the deal with the Clinton Democrats he needs.

By 1am GMT, enough votes should have been cast to settle the race, with 18 states closing their polling stations. That does not mean that we will know the outcome yet - although the earlier results may have given us a pretty good idea. If not, this will be the time that for us to hang onto our sofas as the election workers tally the votes in Pennsylvania - a crucial 'swing' state, and one of McCain's few paths to the White House.

Here's hoping all readers have an enjoyable election night - and return to openUSA well-rested in the morning, for analysis of what the outcome means, and what lies in America's future.

Only in America (part II)

In the second part of an exchange with KA Dilday, Anthony Barnett argues that the novelty of Obama's candidacy places the Democratic nominee in the company of leaders across the Americas. Kay's first letter can be read here, as well as part III, and part IV.

Dear Kay,

I well remember our conversation. I also recall how I first started to listen to and read Obama in January and thought, "Damn, he really means to win and can." It was because of his deliberate appeal to conservatism. It meant he was genuinely serious about the presidency - and not in running as a radical, let alone as a "black" (as Jessie Jackson, at least in part, did). So here is to your dish of crow! May I garnish it in just two evenings time! 

But will - or would - Obama's election mean that the US is exceptional? Or that it is the beacon for humankind? Or at least that it is more liberal or tolerant than western Europe as you suggest? Here also we argued. First things first. It was not even slavery in America that was so exceptional. It was the civil war. Without the civil war the South would surely have abandoned slavery of its own accord. Instead, it suffered its appalling devastation and long aftermath as revenge was administered on the coloured through Jim Crow. To overcome this is to become normal. 

Obama presents himself as a candidate who will heal division. Like all good doctors, he joins exceptional self-belief and a measure of modesty. The immediate division he seeks to heal is also the civil war of the Sixties - in a word, "Vietnam" - that echoed your original civil war. But I want to emphasise that this healing, if it happens, will make America more healthy and normal, not boost its exceptionalism.

Europe's unrealistic expectations

In an open letter to the next occupant of the White House, Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform called for a change of American direction. Europe was concerned, he wrote, at US failure to boldly commit to climate change initiatives, and the lack of US support for the International Criminal Court. Grant also hoped for the more restrained use of hard power after attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. In short the letter called for a leader who would heal transatlantic relations, widened by excessive US unilateralism. "Dear George Bush," the letter began, dated January 2001.

Europe must be suffering from an acute case of political déjà vu right now; eight years after the end of Clinton's presidency the message from the "Old Continent" is depressingly familiar. Europeans expect the next American president to reorient US foreign policy, engaging seriously with multilateral institutions and forging close partnerships with Europe on a range of important issues, from curbing greenhouse emissions to curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Across the continent, excitement at the end of the Bush presidency is palpable. From inauguration countdowns on Facebook to the huge crowds Obama drew in Paris and Berlin, Europeans are looking forward to the next American presidency with relish. Implicit is the assumption that a change in American leadership equals a convergence of US and European policies. Optimists highlight Obama's lofty "citizen of the world" rhetoric or McCain's criticism of excessive "lone ranger" diplomacy. Yet the stark similarities between Charles Grants' letter and contemporary European criticism of the US should caution against such hopeful expectations.

Why Democrats should pray that they win, and Republicans should want to lose

Every four years, Republican and Democratic loyalists work themselves to the bone trying to get their Presidential candidate elected. On the decisive night, they stay up late, waiting for the returns and exit polls, offering religious and secular prayers. Millions in America and Europe, myself included, will be doing just this on November the 4th.

In light of this, it seems almost churlish to suggest that we should not always want our chosen candidate to win. Nonetheless, I would argue that this is so.
 
Exhibit A is Kerry's loss in 2004. At the time, it devastated many liberals and Democrats. But with hindsight we can see that it allowed the depth of George Bush's failures to sink in with the American public, potentially leading to what Karl suggests will be a generational shift in the US's politics. There was a cost for that, of course - the failures were allowed to continue, in Afghanistan, New Orleans and, at least early on, in Iraq. But after the Republicans botched their reforms of social security and then lost control of congress, they were not able to accomplish much for good or ill. At the risk of going out on a limb, I think that Democrats should be glad of Kerry's loss.

Many commentators have suggested that this is also an election one shouldn't want to win, due to the dire state of the nation's finances and the economic downturn that looms. Fairly or unfairly, parties tend to get blamed when they are in charge during recessions, and, if the experts are to be believed, the one on the horizon will be long and deep. However, I doubt that this will hold if Obama is elected. The Republicans appear to own these troubles in the public's mind. If on the other hand McCain won, a sharp downturn in his first term could damage his party's brand yet further. I hope that affords some comfort to his supporters if he loses on Tuesday.

There is potentially another factor partisans should take into account, though. Parties do not exist simply to maximise their years in office, whatever the aims of some individual politicians may be. Their theoretical purpose is to bring their vision of change to the country. Crippled though the next President may be by a skyrocketing national debt and tough economic times, he will have an almost unparalleled opportunity to alter America's direction. Two long years of campaigning have shown that the voters want change. The original meaning of 'crisis' was a decisive situation or turning point. If America is facing a crisis then Democrats - and those of us rooting for them from abroad - should hope that they are the ones who get the chance to determine its outcome.

2008: The fifth 'pivot point' in US history?

Given that the barriers of race and gender have been progressively eroded throughout the prolonged campaign season, many people have argued that this year's general election is something extraordinary by most measures.

For Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, however, the 2008 election represents a potentially profound turning-point in American history.

As Richard Reeves reports, the New York Historical Society recently hosted a conference entitled "Do Elections Matter?" To kick-off the event, Amar put forth his thesis that the United States has experienced four "pivot point" elections in the 219 years since the founding fathers forged the country's constitution: 1800, 1860, 1932, and either 1968 or 1980.

In each case, Amar argued, socio-historical forces conspired to ensure that the outcome of each election shaped the direction of the country and the dynamics of its politics for generations to come.

For example, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams in 1800, and over the next six decades the foundations for the Democratic Party in its current form began to emerge; Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860 marked the beginning of Republican dominance well into the next century; FDR and the socialist New Deal Democrats set the agenda for much of the post-War era; finally, Nixon's presidency (or Reagan's, depending on your personal perspective) coincided with a golden era for conservatives, which now appears to be steadily waning.

A crucial catalyst to these elections all having the impact on the direction of American society  that they did is that they all occured against a backdrop of three important trends: economic decline, over-reactive wars, or a climate of paranoia based on perceived enemies abroad which subsequently results in the repression of civil liberties at home.

As Amar points out, these very issues resonate as strongly in this year's election as the four pivot point elections that preceded it--given the recent economic meltdown in Wall Street and looming recession on Main Street, the high cost and unpopularity of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars amongst the general public, and the repeal of a number of civil liberties via legislative measures, deemed necessary as part of President Bush's ‘War on Terror'. Consequently, in years to come we may expect to see the 2008 presidential election prove as influential an electoral event as these aforementioned elections.

While Amar's thesis is intriguing--if perhaps a little too quick to dismiss victories from figures such as Wilson, Carter and Clinton as arberrations simply because they polled below the 50 percent threshold--it also reflects a belief increasingly expressed by members of the media and academia alike that this year's election will bring a pronounced and quite profound sea-change in the social and political landscape in American culture.

More significantly however, in contrast to what Democrats and many members of the media may say, Amar's thesis suggests that this seismic historical shift will not nescessarily be on the condition of an Obama victory on November 4th.

Number crunching

Heading into the last weekend before the election, here's a handy tool to keep all the polls and predictions in perspective. The Takeaway condenses the spectrum of political projections in this "prediction tracker" below.

The spectre of the "second Holocaust"

A few months ago, the Washington Post published a story recounting the attempts of the African American political theorist Danielle Allen to get to the bottom of the false claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Allen's Internet archaeology turned out to be as interesting as the actual answer - the origin of the claim seems to be a rather odd and anti-Semitic character named Andy Martin, who has recently reappeared in the Fox News "documentary" "Obama & Friends: The History of Radicalism." Allen's quest helped bring to view how smears circulate in our "new media" environment.  

If you've been following the American elections as obsessively as I have, you might also have noticed another odd, and even more inexplicable meme that has been circulating in Republican circles: references to the possibility of a "second holocaust." Most recently, an email was sent by Pennsylvania Republicans to Jewish voters in the state warning that "Jewish Americans cannot afford to make the wrong decision on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008. Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake. Let's not make a similar one this year!"

According to the October 25 Associated Press story that reported this bizarre and offensive attempt to associate Obama with National Socialism and the genocide of Jews in World War II, the email further "warns ‘Fellow Jewish Voters' of the danger of a second Holocaust due to the threats to Israel from its neighbors and touts Republican presidential candidate John McCain's qualifications over those of Obama." 

Republicans have disavowed this particular email, but in fact the rhetoric it uses is consistent with statements that both McCain and Palin have been making in interviews and speeches. For instance, in a 19 September post on its "Political Radar" blog, ABC News reported that "Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin warned against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pursuit of nuclear weapons for a ‘second holocaust.'" According to Palin's remarks at a rally in Minnesota, "John McCain and I are committed to drawing attention to the danger posed by Iran's nuclear program and we will not waver in our commitment. I will continue to call for sustained action to prevent Iranian President Ahmadinejad from getting these weapons that he wants for a second holocaust."

Despite recent talk of Palin's tendency to "go rogue," it seems unlikely that she came up with this line of argument herself. Indeed, back in July, as MSNBC reports, John McCain went on Israeli television and, again a propos of Iran, declared, "I have to look you in the eye and tell you that the United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust."  

In the final week of the campaign the attempt to link Obama to Iran and alleged threats to Israel has become one of the McCain camp's central talking points (second only to the anachronistic attempt to portray Obama as a "socialist"). The "death to Israel" smear is being repeated in advertisements, direct mail campaigns, "Joe the Plumber" pronouncements, and other detritus of the campaign's last gasp efforts.  

Obama's 30-minute documercial

The Obama campaign dominated the airwaves yesterday, using its considerable financial muscle to buy half an hour of prime time programming on most of the major networks (as well as specialty channels like Black Entertainment Television - surely not the best use of resources?) The results can be seen here:

Having called Colin Powell's endorsement powerful, I risk revealing myself as a bit of a softy by admitting that the mawkish music and hard-luck stories worked on me as they were intended to. As Obama narrated the tales of hard-working families, struggling workers and retirees forced back into the workforce to get decent healthcare, one could be forgiven for thinking one was watching a tear-jerking documentary. Treacly? For sure. But also quite effective. Obama's documentary-cum-infomerical outperformed the usual programming in its 8 p.m. timeslot, drawing a total audience of 26.3 million. I doubt as many people would have been willing to listen to a politician lecture them for half an hour.

The advert took few risks - unlike McCain, Obama is not in a position where that would be necessary or wise. The four individuals and families chosen were spread evenly accross the crucial swing states and demographics, with a black couple and an Hispanic teacher sandwiched between two white households. None of them looked anything like the young acolytes whom some critics imagine Obama supporters to be. In between their stories, we heard moderate Democratic governors from midwestern swing states offer their endorsements. One could almost hear the boxes being ticked off as a retired Brigadier General reassured voters worried about Obama's credentials as Commander-in-Chief.

In the end, it is hard to imagine this commercial changing very much. Earlier in the campaign, it might have put to rest some voters' worries about a relatively unknown new figure on the political stage by showing him looking both moderate and presidential. But, if the breakdowns of the polling which followed them are anything to go by, it seems that the debates have already accomplished that. Nonetheless, it can hardly hurt to make Americans more comfortable with the man who in six days' time will likely be their President-Elect.

Update: According to the BBC's Friday night news bulletin, Obama's audience was in fact 33 million. 

Palin 2012: an update

A week ago, I wrote about the possibility of a Sarah Palin candidacy in 2012. Since then, Palin and those close to her appear to have brought this closer to reality by distancing themselves from John McCain. That makes sense if she wants to continue her ascent through the Republican ranks, because recriminations are sure to abound if McCain loses in six days' time. In fact, they have already begun. Joining a growing crowd of conservative commentators and intellectuals, moderate Republicans like Tom Ridge, the former Governor of Pennsylvania, have criticised the choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. (Ridge was widely believed to have been one of McCain's preferred VP picks before concerns about his base pushed him to choose someone more conservative.) Meanwhile, those further to the right have suggested that McCain's problem was that he was not conservative or aggressive enough.Palin has at times come close to voicing this latter critique, publicly urging McCain to "take the gloves off" and make Jeremiah Wright more of an issue. She would certainly not be the moderate wing's choice of candidate in 2012. I argued a week ago that moderates' criticism of her cannot fail to do some damage, but that non-moderates have a disproportionate influence in the primaries. Since then, discussion of her chances in 2012 has intensified, as evidenced by this summary in The Week.  I disagree with the dissenting voice quoted there, who suggests that people like me overestimate her political talents. Uneven though her performance has been this time around, she has shown an ability to draw huge crowds and intense support, and before her brand was tainted she enjoyed widespread popularity. Even more telling are her earlier achievements, which include unseating an incumbent governor in Alaska's Republican primaries, a truly impressive feat.This is not to deny that Palin would face significant challenges. Additional conservative critics may yet emerge once the campaign is over and the need for them to bite their tongues ceases. Assuming McCain loses, she is bound to attract some of the blame. Her popularity in Alaska shows signs of decreasing from its (very high) initial base, and events there may yet damage her. She will face formidable opponents, possibly including a better-funded Mike Huckabee and a re-energised Mitt Romney (whose former staffers have been involved in spreading anti-Palin spin to reporters, according to the American Spectator).  And, awkward though it is to say so, her looks - which constitute a significant part of her appeal for some people - will begin to fade as she goes from 44 to 48.

Syndicate content