Monthly Archives: November 2008

Obama the Eskimo

We are experiencing an extraordinary collective moment in American history.  The Bush economy is driving many people to despair and the stock market is matching that by exhibiting all the symptoms of a nervous breakdown.  After watching President Bush’s empty performance at the world economic summit last weekend, the market has plunged all week.  However, it turns out that hedge fund managers and IRA-owners alike are waiting to be saved by one man: President-elect Barack Obama.  Perhaps we should set it to music:

Everybody’s building the big ships and the boats — Some are building monuments –Others, jotting down notes — Everybody’s in despair — Every girl and boy — But when Quinn the Eskimo gets here — Everybody’s gonna jump for joy — Come all without, come all within — You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Quinn!  (Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes)

How is it that a dangerous socialist radical, a scary multi-racial man, an elite lawyer from Harvard, a first-term Senator, has suddenly become The Answer?  Who knows, but when word leaked that Obama was choosing Tim Geithner, currently head of the NY Federal Reserve, to be Secretary of the Treasury (not a very surprising choice) the stock market rose 500 points IN ONE HOUR.  Rarely has a new president been so eagerly awaited, never before have people wailed and moaned about the terribly long time between election day in November and inauguration day in January.  It seems to me that he is being given an extraordinary opportunity to propose bold new steps in both domestic and foreign policy – let’s hope he seizes this historic moment.

But when Obama the President gets here — Everybody’s gonna run to him — Come all without, come all within — You’ll not see nothing like the mighty Obama!

Obama’s Afghan Promise

While we often complain about candidates not keeping their campaign promises, when it comes to difficult, complex issues, a campaign promise can become a ball and chain around a new President’s neck.  This happened to Bill Clinton when he promised to immediately ban persecution of gays in the military during his 1992 campaign.  Instead of working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to introduce a suitable shift in military policy, Clinton issued an Executive Order on his first day in office, abolishing rules against gays serving in the military.  This placed him in a high-profile conflict with war hero and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell.  Clinton took an enormous amount of flack from right-wing and Congressional critics, Powell refused to buckle under Presidential pressure, and the public perceived Clinton as imposing an extreme “liberal” position on the highly praised military that had just won Gulf War I.  The new President was forced to accept a humiliating defeat, agreeing to the ridiculous “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy that actually made things worse for gay individuals in the service.

I bring up this sorry episode as a warning when we consider Obama’s repeated promises during the fall debates to hunt down Osama bin Ladin and kill him, with or without the help of the Pakistani government.  It is unclear to me how he can carry out this promise without continuing the new American policy of unannounced cruise missle strikes in the mountainous areas of western Pakistan, a policy cooked up by the Bush administration this summer.  Not surprisingly, these attacks on a sovereign country are destabilizing our relationship with the new Pakistani President and the country’s largest political party.  To frost the cake, Obama also explicitly and repeatedly said he would send more U.S. combat troops to Afghanistan in order to defeat the Taliban.  He has created very high expectations and will have a difficult time backing out of these commitments – commitments that could lead to the collapse of civilian rule in Pakistan and the creation of a new quagmire in the remote hills of Afghanistan.

Leaving aside the folly of adopting any policy created by the Bush Administration, I believe these Osama-Afghanistan promises are a classic example of how the Democrats have historically been drawn into defending the American empire.  In the heat of an election campaign, Obama felt he had to show how tough he is, how he would be a vigorous Commander-in-Chief.  Just like Kennedy and Johnson had to show how tough they were by keeping the commies out of Vietnam.  These military promises are powerful because they fit right into the imperial job description that so many military, journalistic, academic, and political leaders attach to the Presidency.  It is a job description that many Democratic and Republican voters believe in as well.  As such, they are the policy equivalent of painting yourself into a corner and then claiming you are free to go anywhere you want.  The appropriate response is – Yes, within your little box.

Of course, Obama is not as trigger-happy as McCain, but the criticism from Hillary Clinton this spring and then McCain and the media about his “credentials” to be Commander-in-Chief (see my posting in September) have forced him to become much more militaristic than he was when he started the campaign.  We are actually watching, in real time, how the dynamics and pressures of empire shape individuals who become leaders.  No matter what their pre-presidential ideas about foreign policy, the pressures of the political system puts them in a position where, in order to advance to the presidency, they must commit to defending the empire.  In Perils of Empire, I explain in detail how the dynamics of the Roman political system consistently generated leaders who sought war and expansion of territory – and the American political system has been doing a similar thing since at least the end of WWII.  Without a powerful peace movement that opposes wars and treaties the promote the empire, Democrats get pushed into the imperial system, even those who begin with good intentions.

Inside Obama’s Election Strategy

In spite of media stories about a tightening race, Barack Obama has all but locked up an Electoral College majority.  He has held solid leads in New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia since the beginning of October and the website ‘Real Clear Politics,’ which has the best electoral college map on the internet, shows him pulling into a commanding lead in Nevada.  This means that the attention being paid to Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, and Missouri are beside the point.  Obama can claim 291 electoral votes without winning any of these “swing” states.  Essentially, the campaign is now being waged around the size of Obama’s mandate.

Obama has assembled this commanding lead by combining the strategies advocated in two “big picture” books by Democratic political strategists.  The first, The Emerging Democratic Majority, written in 2001 by John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, said the Democrats could become the dominant party in the 21st century by appealing to people who live in urban areas with predominantly information/high tech economies – areas that are generally multi-cultural, socially liberal, and internationalist.  Their research showed that urban areas with these characteristics are growing in electoral importance in many states that traditionally have leaned Republican.  For example, the metro-Denver area in Colorado; the fast-growing suburban areas of northern Virginia; the Las Vegas-Reno area in Nevada, and the sprawling metro areas of Phoenix, Arizona and Santa Fe, New Mexico now have more voters than the conservative rural areas that have previously defined politics in those states.  They pointed out that several states considered swing states in the 1960s and 70s, for example Washington and California, had already become Democratic strongholds by 2001 because of the rising importance of metro-Seattle and the cultural transformation of the metro-Los Angeles area.

The second book, Whistling Past Dixie, written in 2006 by Thomas Schaller, says that the Democrats should focus on capturing western and northern states with culturally diverse populations rather than becoming more conservative on racial or cultural issues in a vain attempt to best the GOP in the south.  He specifically pointed to the southwestern states of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, but included states with tight presidential races in 2004 like Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Oregon.  His strategy is to confine the GOP to the conservative, religious, non-urban states of the deep South, Texas, and the lightly populated Great Plains.

Note that in both of these portraits of the American electorate, Ohio is a swing state outlier in the North because it doesn’t have a high tech urban area and southern Ohio is culturally similar to Kentucky and Tennessee.  In addition, Florida is a swing state outlier in the South because it has some high tech areas and a diverse mix of people due to immigration and retirement communities.

The attention and false claims of a McCain surge directed toward Pennsylvania reveal the nature of Obama’s success.  Unless McCain can somehow come from behind to win in Pennsylvania, victories in Ohio, Florida or other “swing states” of the past will make no difference.  We will know quickly on Tuesday night whether the Obama strategy of winning in the west and in multi-cultural urban areas has succeeded.  If he captures the eastern time zone states of Pennsylvania and Virginia then it will be time to discuss color patterns for the Obama White House drapes.