Nov 6th 2008

Why the White House will now tilt center-left

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

Europeans breathed a sigh of relief at the election of Democrat Barack Obama as the first black U.S. president, ending eight years of growing anxiety over the veiled unilateralism of George W. Bush's administration. The result promised to restore hope that a new and more enlightened U.S. vision of the world will take shape under Obama's charismatic leadership.

Celebrations rang out across Europe, congratulatory messages poured into Obama's headquarters from European leaders and mainstream news media from London and Paris to Berlin and Rome were still leading with the story two days later.

French writer Bernard Henri Lévy said he believed Obama incarnated the styles and talents of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King - a highly appealing combination at this juncture.

In the United States, Republicans tried to take heart from the fact that Democratic majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives fell slightly short of epic proportions. Nevertheless the electoral college ended in a two-thirds majority for Obama, a landslide by any measure. Obama has the mandate he will need to enact his liberal agenda.

The Democratic euphoria was palpable. An American friend travelling on a plane toward the West Coast when Obama passed the 270-electoral college victory line said the pilot announced the news to the passengers. "We all went nuts -- then at home in Portland there were car horns honking and fireworks and parties, parties! We are one happy nation."

I met with French media at the U.S. Consulate in Bordeaux on the day after Obama's victory and noted the Bordeaux press was as excited as any registered Democrat over the coming changes in U.S. policies.

As Obama's transition team prepares to select and announce a series of cabinet and other appointees, voters on both sides are assessing the long-term implications for the U.S. and the world at large and weighing options for confronting a long list of major problems.

But first, how did it happen?

Analysts will study the 20-month campaign and the shifting strengths of the two contenders for years to come but the numbers show clearly that Obama's support grew - and Republican John McCain's began to shrink - after the CBS television interview with vice presidential running-mate Sarah Palin in which she displayed surprising ignorance of the national scene and international affairs. The major factors in the electoral outcome:

THE PALIN PROBLEM - John McCain's polls were lagging in the weeks prior to the Republican convention in August when he hand-picked the brash governor of Alaska Sarah Palin as his vice presidential partner. She seemed to revitalize the campaign with her edgy and unpredictable style and her appeal to the right wing of the party - notably the Christian evangelists. McCain's numbers surged into the lead. But eventually Palin was revealed by the media as deeply ignorant of the outside world. In the opinion of many, including Republican leaders, this rendered her unsuitable as the automatic successor to the presidency in the event McCain would be incapacitated. Behind-the-scenes stories have begun leaking out saying she did not know what countries are in the North America Free Trade Agreement (U.S., Canada and Mexico) and thought Africa was a country. Aides privately describe her as subject to temper tantrums and lack of discipline in message delivery.

BUSH FATIGUE - U.S. politics tends to swing like a pendulum between center-right and center-left, and this was the time for a leftward tilt. Eight years of George W. Bush's administration had worn out even his supporters. Public rejection of mishandled military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, his management of the U.S. economy and a succession of unpopular collaborators such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleeza Rice took its toll. His public approval rating plunged to 31 percent over his handling of the presidency as hopes rose for a possible Obama administration.

ISSUES - The ranking of issues - health care, foreign policy, the U.S. economy, education - fluctuated through the campaign but in the final six weeks the economy was No. 1. McCain favoured tax reforms that would continue the Bush policy of a lighter load on the wealthy, not a popular stance among the general public. Obama openly advocated shifting the tax load back to levels in force during the Clinton administration, easing the burden on the middle class, where incidentally most of the votes were to be had.

McCAIN's HEALTH - Although McCain remained remarkably robust throughout the gruelling campaign, his bout with melanoma cancer and his advanced age - at 72, the oldest contender for a first term president - worried undecided voters and many Republicans. Combined with the Palin role as possible accidental president, his candidacy was privately questioned. Worse, contrasted to the youthful Barack Obama, 47, he began to look like yesterday's man.

OBAMA THE MAN - For 10 years, Democratic leaders have been tracking Barack Obama as a potential national leader, and this was his moment. Even earlier in his life he was singled out as a man with an extraordinary mind. At Harvard Law School, his professors recall his unique gifts. One professor says he did not assign Obama the usual donkey work of studying legal precedents, but rather kept him on a high place of legal thought. He was the first black president of the respected Harvard Law Review. As he emerged on the national scene, his ability to sway crowds as an orator became evident. In his acceptance speech, the crowd in Chicago sat rapt, many in tears (including black leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson), as he looked ahead to a new dawn.

OBAMA'S CAMPAIGN - Obama's campaign managers and speechwriters kept him on a high rhetorical plane, above the innuendo and personal deprecations coming from his two adversaries. His nationwide organization, involving more than a million volunteers, will be a model for future presidential campaigns. His use of modern communications tools - text messaging on mobile telephones and the internet as a fund-raising channel - broke new ground.

LEHMAN BROTHERS - Already weakening as a result of the Palin problem, the McCain campaign stumbled on the news of the collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers. McCain made the mistake of claiming the fundamentals of the U.S. economy remained strong, a misstep that proved progressively more erroneous in the following days and weeks as the subprime mortgage crisis turned into a catastrophic financial crisis. Polls from then onward gave Obama a widening lead, ending with a Gallup poll on election eve of 11 points. It was all over before election day, and both McCain and Palin knew it.


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