Wednesday, November 05, 2008

That's President "That One" to you, Senator

Here's some quick thoughts on the Obama victory. I'll put together something meatier and more formal during the next week, when we've learnt a bit more.
In some ways, Obama's a hard one to pin down. Look at his background and he's left-liberal. I heard an radio interview with him the other day, recorded several years ago when he was teaching law at Chicago uni, where he gave a very thoughtful account of how black people had lost out in the original US constitutional settlement two hundred years ago, and assessed how that might be rectified going forward through the courts or through legislation. With his measured consideration of a serious social justice issue, the guy sounded really impressive. If I'd read a transcript of that without knowing who it was, I'd instantly want to hear more from this smart young academic.
At one level, that's Obama. But then as a politician he's clearly prepared to adopt some pretty right-wing positions, maybe because he feels he has to or maybe because his thinking is genuinely moving in that direction. Take foreign policy. His stance on the Palestinians, for example, is just as cruel as any adopted by Bush or Clinton. And he's surrounded by advisers from the Clinton era, during which time US foreign policy was far from enlightened. For the next 4-8 years the US is still going to be an imperial power with its policy-making dominated by elite interests. Obama would have trouble changing that even if he was a committed revolutionary, and he's definitely not one of those.
But then, nor is he of the McCain/Bush "give war a chance" mold. His approach will be less impetuous, less willfully ignorant, and less agressive. Yes its still imperialism, albeit with different tactics. And yes Arundhati Roy was basically right when she said that debating the pros and cons of imperialism is like debating the pros and cons of rape, because the coercion that's intrinisc to imperialism is immoral in its essence, not purely on the basis of outcomes. But a reduction in the amount of wars being fought or threatened is obviously a good thing, whatever the reasons for that happening, because more human beings will get to live.
The Republican party of McCain/Palin/Bush/Cheney was borderline demented on foreign affairs, as Tom Engelhardt expertly documents here. The world's a safer place with them gone, and that's not something that should be overlooked no matter how cautious we are about Obama.

Another positive thing is that the right-wing politics of race-baiting, militarism and extreme Reaganite economics have just been trounced at the polls. That's a big message to the political class. The question is the extent to which they choose to heed it, but its not something they'll be able to ignore.
Has anyone thought to mention that Obama is black?
In all seriousness, this is no small thing. Plainly we won't see racism eradicated overnight. There's been a black Secretary of State for the past eight years, during which time African-Americans gained precious little (and Katrina happened, of course). But Obama's victory is still an important step. Fifty years ago you could pretty much lynch black people with impunity in the southern states. Now a black man is President.
For the next 4-8 years, its going to be harder for those white Americans who harbour softer racial prejudices (always a bigger problem than the hardline racists) to cognitively maintain that mindset, at least so long as they perceive the Obama administration to be basically competant and decent. This will contribute to an erosion of American racism, and thus an expansion the life-chances of many African American people. There are black kids today who are going to have futures that their parents would have been denied. That this is not a trivial thing is well understood by those at the sharp end. Many of the survivors of the 60s civil rights struggle are visibly moved by last nights events and their feelings should not be belittled. Taking this aspect alone, anyone claiming to be of the left who dismisses Obama's election as meaningless is simply exposing themselves as an unthinking fraud.

Another point on prejudice. There was an attempt by sections of the right to draw on the racism that exists in the US against Arabs and Muslims - a bigotry which sees these people not as a large and disparate group of human beings but as a baying, bloodthirsty mob of neo-Nazis. This attempt was made using various devices to remind people of Obama's links to Islam through his father and through his middle name, Hussein - a part of a general strategy of 'othering' Obama which the increasingly odious McCain did precious little to stop.
Sadly for the GOP, there don't seem to be enough racists in America to make that one stick. And again, those that harbour softer prejudices are going to have 4-8 years to get to know, and possibly like, a man whose middle name is Hussein, whose father was a Muslim, and who spent some of his formative years growing up in a Muslim country, Indonesia. Bigotry depends on your ability not to see the people you're prejudiced against as human beings, which is harder to sustain when you get to know someone. And when soft bigotry against the people of the Middle East erodes, imperial aggression against that region becomes far harder to sustain and justify as well. Another non-trivial aspect to consider.

One could argue that McCain ended up betting everything on the 'othering' strategy. Remember that by the final few weeks he needed to win every safe Republican state, every toss-up state and at least one major safe Democrat state to pass the 270 electoral college vote milestone that gets you into the White House. Running short of cash he bet everything on Pennsylvania, probably on the assumption that blue-collar white Democrats would be fairly easy to scare off the black liberal with the funny name and the "questionable associations". McCain campaigned hard with the 'Joe the Plumbers' of Pennsylvania, and in the end Obama thumped him 54-44. McCain was campaigning in the wrong America - the one in his mind. That's another of many big messages sent to the political class last night. Again, the question is the extent to which they choose to heed it, but its not something they'll be able to ignore.
Obviously the power-structures of the United States, which are the real problem, remain firmly in place. As I say, Obama is no radical. Far from it. The endorsements he's received reveal him as very establishment-friendly, as does his stance on many issues. But at the level of the US Presidency, even small differences can make for big outcomes. Both the continuities and the differences, from Bush to Obama, are worthy of our attention.
Change? It'll probably be non-structural and therefore insufficient. But at the same time, it will be far from meaningless. If its turns out to be more than that, it'll be because people didn't go home and go to sleep on November 5th, but kept up the campaigning that began under Bush, as Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel points out in this excellent essay. If the public stays mobilised, changes really do become possible.
More soon.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"They still call it the White House, but that's a temporary condition too.."

The GOP is toast and an African American is President. I say we're allowed to enjoy that. For today at least.



Critical faculties to be fully re-engaged in due course.

Labels: , ,

Election day: nervous?

If John McCain wins today's election it will be nothing short of a miracle. Its a possibility only in the most technical of senses.

Its not just that Obama leads by an average of 7 percentage points across the opinion polls. That can seem close enough for some slight discomfort given, say, individual polls like the latest from CNN which gives Obama a lead of 7 per cent with a margin of error of 3.5. McCain could potentially turn around what is effectively a 3.5 percent lead in the last few hours, if complacent Obama voters stay at home or for whatever other reason. Perhaps. But then, that's not how this works.

The national polls are misleading because the President isn't elected by a simple majority of the total population. The US has a state-based electoral college system under which - put simply - the candidate who wins the most votes in an individual state wins a certain number of points (calculated on the basis of the state's population) and the candidate with the most of those points at the end of the night wins the presidency.
So win the vote in California and you get its 55 points (called electoral college votes), win Texas and you get 34, Indiana and you get 11, and so on. There are a total of 538 electoral college votes up for grabs. Win 270 and you're the President.

What's relevant therefore is not the national poll but the state polls. And if the outcome of the election is as it is currently predicted at state level then Obama wins enough states to take the Presidency by 338 electoral college votes to McCain's 200.

Of course, the polls in some states are closer than in others. California is solid Democrat, with Obama 24 per cent ahead. McCain can count on Texas where he has a 13 per cent lead. But ten states are too close to call, including Florida with its 27 electorial college votes to play for, and North Carolina with 15. In Florida, Obama is a mere 1.8 per cent ahead. In North Carolina, McCain is 0.4 per cent ahead.

But here's the thing. Even if you assume that McCain wins all those toss up states - a big assumption since Obama is narrowly ahead in most of them - Obama would still win enough states to gain 278 electoral college votes and the White House. There aren't enough close-run states to play for. To turn this around, McCain would have to win all the toss-up states and at least one fairly solid Obama state.
In the event, McCain has chosen to bet everything on Pennsylvania, and pour his campaigning resources in there. The rest of the Obama states are either not worth enough electoral college votes or just considered a lost cause by the McCain camp. But Obama has an average 7.3 per cent lead in Pennsylvania. Is McCain really going to turn that around in the next few hours, as well as his smaller deficits in 9 or so other states?

Put it this way. Throughout the last five months of this election race, state opinion polls have translated into a McCain win in the electoral college for a total of 4 days, between the 19th and the 23rd of August. For the other 4 months 3 and a half weeks, Obama has been in the lead. Under what circumstates does that change now?

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Red Peril

"Sarah Palin, who has lately taken to calling Obama “Barack the Wealth Spreader,” seems to be something of a suspect character herself. She is, at the very least, a fellow-traveller of what might be called socialism with an Alaskan face. The state that she governs has no income or sales tax. Instead, it imposes huge levies on the oil companies that lease its oil fields. The proceeds finance the government’s activities and enable it to issue a four-figure annual check to every man, woman, and child in the state. One of the reasons Palin has been a popular governor is that she added an extra twelve hundred dollars to this year’s check, bringing the per-person total to $3,269. A few weeks before she was nominated for Vice-President, she told a visiting journalist—Philip Gourevitch, of this magazine—that “we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs.” Perhaps there is some meaningful distinction between spreading the wealth and sharing it (“collectively,” no less), but finding it would require the analytic skills of Karl the Marxist."

Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, October 26, 2008

In Defense of White Americans

"[W]hite Americans are not remotely the bigots the G.O.P. would have us believe. Just because a campaign trades in racism doesn’t mean that the country is racist. It’s past time to come to the unfairly maligned white America’s defense."

"[D]espite the months-long drumbeat of punditry to the contrary, there are not and have never been enough racists in 2008 to flip this election. In the latest New York Times/CBS News and Pew national polls, Obama is now pulling even with McCain among white men, a feat accomplished by no Democratic presidential candidate in three decades, Bill Clinton included. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey finds age doing more damage to McCain than race to Obama."

"Nor is America’s remaining racism all that it once was, or that the McCain camp has been hoping for it to be. There are even “racists for Obama,” as Politico labels the phenomenon: White Americans whose distrust of black people in general crumbles when they actually get to know specific black people, including a presidential candidate who extends a genuine helping hand in a time of national crisis. "

"Such human nuances are lost on conservative warriors of the Allen-McCain-Palin ilk. They see all Americans as only white or black, as either us or them. The dirty little secret of such divisive politicians has always been that their rage toward the Others is exceeded only by their cynical conviction that Real Americans are a benighted bunch of easily manipulated bigots. This seems to be the election year when voters in most of our myriad Americas are figuring that out."

Frank Rich in the NYT. For more on "racists for Obama" see this and this. Apparently McCain is so incompetant he's persuading racists to vote for a black man.

Here's MSNBC's Rachel Maddow talking with Melissa Harris-Lacewell on the declining influence of racism in America.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Naomi Klein on crisis economics


If you haven't already, check out Klein's magisterial deconstruction of neo-liberal capitalism, "The Shock Doctrine". Its hard to overstate just how good that book is.

Video courtesy of The Nation; a treasure-trove of smart and thoughtful political writing from the US. Also worthy of your attention.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Chomsky on the US elections and the financial crisis

As ever, Noam Chomsky has the goods; on the US elections....


...and on the global economic crisis.


You'll get more insight, background and perspective from 10 minutes of Chomsky on either of these subjects than you would from a week of opinion articles in the broadsheet newspapers on either side of the Atlantic.

Courtesy of The Real News Network, a very important project.

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Iraq War comes to Santa Monica

Here's the group Iraq Veterans Against the War recreating their experiences in Iraq for the people of Santa Monica.
The group's campaigning offers an intelligent and powerful corrective to the pro-war mythology. And unlike some opponents of the war who only talk about how it has hurt America, IVAW aren't shy of talking about the terrible costs borne by the Iraqi people.
Check out their website.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Goodbye John McCain? Why the White House is now Obama's to lose

There’s just a few weeks to go until the US Presidential election, and Barack Obama is moving into a clear lead in the polls. And yet ….. some of you are still nervous, aren’t you? Don’t deny it, I can tell. You think it’s all somehow going to go wrong at the last minute; that the world’s going to be lumbered with another White House stuffed with half-wits and dogmatists who never saw a war they didn’t like.

Well you need to pull yourselves together. Snap out of it. Its not 2000 and its not 2004. Its 2008, things are different, and as it happens, I may just have some good news for you.

Obviously no one can rule out a McCain/Palin victory. A lot can happen in a month. But its becoming increasingly clear that this election is now Obama’s to lose. In fact there is now a serious possibility, if not a probability, that he could win by a big margin.

Not convinced? Then let me explain what I’m basing that on.

About a month ago, when Obama and John McCain were neck and neck and many were beginning to seriously panic about a Republican victory, I said that (a) Obama was still better placed to win, and (b) we should not discount the possibility, however small, of his winning by a landslide. Amongst other reasons I gave for saying this, I noted:

  • First, that McCain would have problems mobilising his lukewarm Republican support to come out and vote for him in numbers, and the choice of Sarah Palin as running mate may not make much difference to that; and
  • Second, that McCain's perceived strength, Iraq, will do him little good as Americans made their mind up about that issue a long time ago. Now they're more worried about the economy, which favours Obama.

Recent polls appear to bear out and even reinforce what I was saying a month ago. Obama has now broken clear of McCain, with his lead outside the margin of statistical error. But what's more important is that when we drill down into the detail we see much going well for Obama and next to nothing going right for McCain. Obama is building on his strengths while McCain's are shrinking or being nullified. In other words, there are many reasons to think that Obama's lead still has room to grow and few reasons to think that McCain could make a comeback.

There are a million polls flying about at the moment. I’ve concentrated on two from CBS News dated 26 September and 1 October 2008. I go through the poll findings in detail in a separate post. Read that to see just how bad things are for McCain. Here, I’ll cover the most important points.

Obama has fought the election on domestic issues while McCain has tried either to talk about Iraq, national security and his own experience, or just attack voters’ confidence in Obama. That puts Obama on far stronger ground than McCain, according to these figures.

Voters are much, much more concerned by the economy than they are by Iraq and national security, and Obama is strong on the economy, whereas McCain has a serious image problem on this topic.

61 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in Obama's ability to handle the economy, while 39 per cent are not too or not at all confident. 49 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in McCain's ability to handle the economy (only 15 say "very" against 26 for Obama). 50 per cent - one half of the electorate - say they are not confident that McCain can handle the economy.

So, on the absolute number one election issue Obama is seen positively and McCain is seen negatively. On polling day, this could well be the bottom line.

McCain’s strong suit is supposed to be foreign policy. Indeed, he polls better than his rival in terms of who understands these issues and who is more ready to be commander in chief of the US military. But voters also have confidence in Obama in this area, albeit less than for McCain. Obama does not score negative here, as McCain does on the economy. He scores positive.

Moreover, voters are (quite rightly) not convinced by McCain’s big foreign policy line that the “surge” of additional US troops into Iraq is bringing “victory”. Nor do they share McCain’s hawkish views on diplomacy, Iran, and the “war on terror”. And they view McCain as having lost the first presidential debate – whose topic was foreign policy – to Obama. McCain actually lost supporters over that. If this is McCain’s strong area, then he doesn’t have a great deal to go on.

Then there’s George Bush. The sheer depth of Bush’s unpopularity is historic, and the financial crisis has made this even worse. The Democrats can credibly link McCain closely to the Bush presidency in people's minds by saying that McCain has voted with Bush 90 per cent of the time, and Biden and Obama have been hammering away at this theme. This could be electoral poison for McCain, who effectively has no answer to the charge.

How does all this translate into the voters’ view of the candidates? The latest CBS poll gives Obama a 9 point advantage, but to get the true picture we have to look at the nature and strength as well as the level of support.

Obama's supporters are far more enthusiastic than McCain's, which means that on the day they're more likely to make the effort to go out and vote. 61 per cent of Obama supporters are enthusiastic about their candidate (up 8 in a week) while 29 per cent (down 4) have reservations. Only 36 per cent of McCain supporters are enthusiastic (no change) while 47 per cent (down 2) have reservations. Turnout is a big deal in elections, and it doesn't look at all good for McCain. His supporters are stuck in a state of ambivalence, while Obama’s are getting more and more enthusiastic.

Asked whether Obama understands their needs and problems 67 per cent of voters said yes and 28 per cent said no (both up 1). For McCain, 46 said yes (down 3) and 49 said no (up 4). That's decisive for Obama and ambiguous (and getting worse) for McCain. Not good for the Republican in a national economic crisis.

Obama's favourability rating amongst voters was 3 per cent better than McCain's a couple of weeks ago; by last Friday it was 19 per cent better. McCain, whose rating is minus 3, is not in a good position to personally attack Obama, whose rating is plus 16. Yet this is the tactic the Republicans are now starting to accentuate, apparently in desperation.

The choice of Sarah Palin was a gamble on McCain’s part, an attempt at pulling a dramatic game-changer. It hasn’t paid off. Palin's approval rating was plus 10 two and a half weeks ago. By the time of the vice-Presidential debate it was minus 1. Joe Biden's approval dipped over the same period, but remained solid. It was plus 21 two and a half weeks ago, and by Friday just gone it was plus 15.

What about the vice-Presidential debate? As with the first Obama/McCain debate, the pundits called the Biden/Palin clash a draw. This on the absurd grounds that Palin had exceeded expectations by managing to speak in coherent sentences. That's clearly an achievement for her, but not for someone who plans to be a heartbeat away from running the world's most powerful country. At least that was the view US voters apparently took, with snap polls giving the debate to Biden by a distance. Its fair to say that Palin hasn’t recovered that early excitement around her, and probably isn’t going to.

Now of course, polls can never be exact. But nor are they a licked finger in the breeze; not if they are done properly. These polls look pretty professional, and in serious polling, a lot of careful work is done to get the numbers right.

But will the issues even matter? Won’t they be shunted aside in favour of trivialities (which of the candidates you’d prefer to have a beer with; whether one of the candidates “looks French”) thus favouring the Republicans? That’s the view of Noam Chomsky, the political commentator I have most respect for, but here I personally think he’s wrong. Yes the Republicans are desperate to avoid the issues, for reasons that are obvious. But there are limits to how successful that tactic can be. Can you convince Americans who are losing their homes and jobs that they should care instead about the personalities and trivia? Michael Tomasky argues very persuasively here that this election is just too big for people to be distracted. I think he's right, and the polling figures seem to support him, at least for now.

Another important note of caution would be that there is still a month to go before polling day and a lot can happen in that time. Obama could make a mistake or gaffe, or have something he says convincingly portrayed as such in the media. There could be a major terrorist attack, which might shift the debate onto McCain’s marginally stronger suit.

But McCain doesn’t want to be left hoping for a bolt from the blue at this stage. He needs a tangible chance of getting back in the game, and its hard to see where that comes from based on these numbers. The fact that McCain has abandoned campaigning in Michigan, a key swing state, speaks volumes, as does the fact that Obama is now competitive even in North Carolina and Virginia. There has been a seismic shift over the last two weeks, due in part to the collapse of the investment banking industry and McCain’s gimmicky and erratic response to the crisis. That was a test of Presidential character which he failed and Obama passed. He probably won’t get another chance like it.

I’ve criticised Obama in the past – strongly - and I’ll certainly do so again. But it cannot be claimed that there is no difference between these two candidates. Its right to hope for an Obama victory and now legitimate to believe, albeit still with caution, that that’s what we’re about to witness.

Labels: , , , , ,

US Presidential Election: Analysis of Polling Data

Unless otherwise indicated, the following analysis is based on two opinion polls from CBS News dated 26 September and 1 October 2008. I talk about the main points and the implications for next month’s election in a separate post. Here, I’ll talk about the poll findings in detail, bringing out the points that I think are relevant.


Obama has fought the election on domestic issues while McCain has tried to either talk about Iraq, national security and his own experience, or just attack voters confidence in Obama. As we will see, Obama's strategy has a lot of mileage in it while McCain's has not a lot.

Voters were asked which will be the most important issue to them in choosing the next President.
52 per cent said the economy, 41 per cent clear of the next most important issue.

After the economy, you have 5 issues clustered round the 10 per cent mark. Terrorism and national security on 11, gas prices and energy policy on 10, and healthcare and Iraq tied on 9. Voters care much more about Obama's chosen specialist subject than McCain.

So if Obama wins on his turf and McCain wins
on his, it is not a draw: Obama comes out better.

The Economy

Voters are very concerned about the state of the economy, making it the number one issue by a huge margin.

At the time of the credit crunch, 7 per cent of voters thought the US economy was doing very well, 45 thought fairly well, 32 thought fairly bad and 14 tho
ught very bad: a net positive rating of plus 6. Now the net rating is minus 64.

46 per cent think the economy is doing very badly, 34 think fairly badly, 17 think fairly well. There is a dash, rather than a number, in the "very well" column for only the second time since 1992 (the last time was in April 08).

Voters are also worried by the direction of the economy. 70 per cent think it is getting worse against 2 per cent (statistical zero) who think it is improving.

Moreover, voters do not see these problems in abstract. They are acutely aware of what the financial crisis means to them. 45 per cent say they have been affected by the decline in property values, 58 per cent are concerned that their home will lose value over the next year, 48 per cent are concerned about their ability to pay their mortgage. One in five say they don't make enough to make the bills, with another 44 per cent on top of that saying they can only just make ends meet.

Which o
f the candidates addresses these concerns? 61 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in Obama's ability to handle the economy, while 39 per cent are not too or not at all confident. 49 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in McCain's ability to handle the economy (only 15 say "very" against 26 for Obama). 50 per cent - one half of the electorate - say they are not confident that McCain can handle the economy.

Can I get an award for understatement by saying that McCain does not want to be seen like this at this particular point in history?

This is a big lead for Obama, and a massive weakness for McCain, on what will probably be the defining issue of the election (barring a second 9/11).

Specifically on the financial crisis, 44 per cent approve and 32 disapprove of Obama's handling of the situation - a net approval of plus 12. McCain's net approval is minus 11, with 46 per cent disapproving of his approach. On a major test of Presidential ability and a key issue for voters, Obama passes and McCain fails.

A major aspect of this question for the candidates is "whose side are you on?", and McCain has problems here because voters associate him with those factors they blame for the crisis: big business and deregulation.

Asked to what they attributed the problems in the banking industry, 46 per cent said bad business management and 27 say a lack of government oversight. On business regulation, 21 per cent say there is too much, while 45 per cent say too little. Obama and Biden have portrayed themselves as the champions of regulation, while drawing attention to McCain's record of advocating deregulation on behalf of wealthy elites. This will resonate. Asked whom each candidate ca
res more about protecting - ordinary people or large corporations - 73 per cent said Obama cared more about ordinary people (up 3 in a week) and 13 (down 3) said he cared more about the corporations. 31 per cent said McCain cared more about ordinary people (down 1) and 57 (up 5) said he cared more about the corporations.

Bottom line: this election is overwhelmingly about economic issues, and McCain has a very serious public image problem in that regard.


McCain's strong suit is supposed to be foreign policy, especially the mythical success of the recent
"surge" of extra US troops, which he and Palin claim are bringing "victory" in Iraq. But McCain's strength here is pretty marginal.

As I said last month, the US public has made up its mind about Iraq. The war has not enjoyed clear support since late 2004. Those saying it was the right thing to do have amounted to mid-forties or less as a percentage since summer 2006, with those saying the invasion should not have occurred numbering around half of voters since late 2004. Currently, 55 per cent think the invasion was wrong against 39 who say it was right, and by now that's very much the established picture. Opposing the war from the start has worked very well for Obama, and supporting it from the start is a big weakness for McCain.

But what about the surge? McCain and Palin have been relentless in demanding that Obama acknowledge the "success" of the surge and the "coming victory" in Iraq. There is no clear reason to think that this will ring true with voters. 7 per cent think the war is going well and 39 somewhat well. 51 per cent think it is going very or somewhat badly. 44 per cent think the surge has made things better but the same number think it has made things worse or had no impact (11 and 33 respectively).

Going at Obama aggressively and sarcastically on his failure to back the surge is effectively to go hard and aggressive on half the electorate. A bad move.

31 per cent of voters are very confident in McCain's decision making on Iraq, while Obama's figure is 25. But if you add those that are "very" and "somewhat confident" in the candidate's decision making its 54 for McCain and 53 for Obama, while 45 are not confident in McCain and 46 are not confident in Obama. Statistically, that's no difference at all.

Bottom line: Iraq is at best a marginal strength for McCain. In many respects, the candidates are tied.

Actually both have lost a little voter confidence on this issue in the past fortnight, but McCain has lost more.

National security

There seems to be an assumption amongst many people that US voters are in tune with right wing neo-conservativism on foreign policy, and neither know nor care what the rest of the world
thinks about their nation's actions abroad. This is factually incorrect, and if its what McCain's banking on, he's misguided.

57 per cent of voters say it is very important that the US improves its image in the world. 53 per cent think Obama will improve their national image, with 12 per cent saying it will get worse and 29 that it will have no effect. Only 23 per cent think McCain will improve America's image after the Bush years. 26 per cent think he'll make things worse and 43 think he'll have no effect.

So 69 per cent think McCain will fail on a foreign policy goal that they consider to be very important.

In respect of terrorism, will the US be safer if it confronts certain groups and countries in the Middle East or if it stays out of the Middle East's affairs? 38 per cent say the US should intervene. 51 per cent say it would be safer to stay out.

Do these American voters realise how anti-American they are?

10 per cent think Iran is a threat to the US, while 20 per cent think it is not. 61 per cent think it is a containable threat. Banging on about Ahmedinejad is not necessarily a crowd pleaser.

When asked whether they were more concerned by having tough security laws than by any erosion of civil liberties, 51 per cent of voters said they were most concerned by the loss of civil liberties against 31 who preferred tough security measures. A false choice in my view, but still, so much for the baying right-wing mob. So much for the death of liberal America.

When asked if the US should try to "democratise" other countries, or whether it should stay out of their affairs (for now lets put aside the fact that US democracy promotion is a mirage) 15 per cent said the US should intervene against 65 who said it should stay out. 65 per cent of Americans reject the central principle of neo-conservativism, yet the neo-cons call themselves patriots and their opponents anti-American.

Will McCain make the better "Commander in Chief" of the nation's military? 73 per cent (down 8 in a week) say he is very or somewhat likely to be effective in the role against 61 (down 1) that say Obama will be effective. 37 per cent (up 1) say Obama is not likely to be effective against 25 (up 6) for McCain.

So while McCain has a solid lead here, both candidates have the confidence of the majority. McCain's standing is slipping while Obama's remains unchanged. This is an issue that McCain has been pushing hard. But again, he doesn't have much of an advantage because Obama is still rated positive, not negative as McCain is rated on the economy.

The Republicans have attacked Obama for his willingness to meet with the leaders of design
ated enemy countries. This will not resonate with the electorate, 73 per cent of whom think it is a good idea to do so, while 20 per cent agree with McCain and Palin that it is not. When they paint Obama and stupid and naive for taking this stance, they only insult the public. No one likes being insulted.

In the first Presidential debate, McCain said several times "Obama doesn't understand" this or that foreign policy issue. He had clearly decided to repeat this theme over and over. But what McCain doesn't understand is that 73 per cent of voters think Obama is very or somewhat knowledgeable about foreign affairs against 22 per cent who say he is not. McCain has much more of the voters' confidence on this (87-10), but Obama is by no means disapproved of. Any weakness for Obama here is relative rather than absolute, and McCain may be overplaying his hand. His jibes are unlikely to ring true.

Here’s the strange thing. Voters rank both candidates positively but McCain more positively on foreign affairs. Yet when you ask them about the issues, they’re strongly on the side of Obama.

Bottom line: McCain's has been campaigning on the basis that Obama has a weakness on foreign policy and national security. He doesn't. McCain sometimes polls better on these issues, but Obama is not distrusted. McCain's advantage is far from clear, and this is a secondary issue for voters anyway - they care much more about the economy. Also, as we shall see below, McCain lost the presidential debate on foreign policy in the eyes of the voters.

George W Bush

Oh dear, oh dear

Lets not forget the current President. Obama and Biden certainly haven't. They've relentlessly hammered away at McCain's closeness with Bush, saying that he's voted with Bush 90 per cent of the time and saying that voting for McCain would be like voting for another 4 years like the last 8. This is a very, very strong suit for the Democrats because Bush is stupendously unpopular and you have to look at the numbers to realise how damaging this could be for McCain.

Just after 9/11 Bush's approval ratings were stratospheric. 89 per cent approved of the job he was doing and 7 per cent disapproved; a net rating of plus 82. But Bush hasn't scored net positive for nearly 3 years. In January 2005 he dropped from plus 7 to minus 3, and in the next 10 months he dropped to minus 20. By the time of the Congressional elections two years ago he was at minus 24,
and from this time last year until now he's veered between minus 31 and minus 40, with only 26 per cent of voters approving of his performance.

Bush's approval rating on foreign policy has been net negative since he beat John Kerry four years ago and now stands at minus 38. His rating on the economy is something else entirely. Since July
2003 there have only been two polls where less than half of Americans disapproved of Bush's economic performance. There was a fortnight in December that year when the figure was 43 and a fortnight in October 2004 when it was 49. Apart from that first fortnight its been net negative since April 2003 - over 5 years. It was minus 16 at the last Congressional elections in 2006, minus 21 when the credit crunch started in summer 07, and is now.....wait for it....minus sixty per cent.


If Obama were running against Bush, Bush would have handed him the keys months ago. And getting the public to memorise the slogan "McCain voted with Bush 90 per cent of the time" is an immensely powerful weapon. Why vote for more of what you clearly despise?

Bottom line: George W Bush is incredibly unpopular, and Obama can credibly link McCain closely to the Bush presidency in people's minds. This could be electoral poison for the GOP candidate.

Strength/ nature of support

So that's the state of play on the main issues. What are the implications for the standing of the two candidates? We know Obama's now ahead by 9 points (in the latest of these two CBS polls). What else do we know about how the public see him and McCain?

Obama's supporters are more enthusiastic than McCain's, which means when it comes to the crunch, they're more likely to get up off their sofas and go out to vote. 61 per cent of Obama supporters are enthusiastic about their candidate (up 8 in a week) while 29 per cent (down 4) have reservations. Only 36 per cent of McCain supporters are enthusiastic (no change) while 47 per cent (down 2) have reservations.

So on enthusiasm, Obama's net rating is plus 32 per cent and improving markedly, while McCain's is stuck on minus 11. Turnout is a big deal in elections, and it doesn't look at all good for McCain.

What difference did the first presidential debate make? Most pundits called it a draw, but voters saw it differently.

Of those who watched it 51 per cent thought Obama won, while 26 thought McCain won. Two thirds of voters said the debate had made no difference to how they'd vote, but 28 per cent were left with a better impression of Obama and 6 per cent with a worse impression of him. Against that net change of plus 22 per cent for Obama, McCain scores minus 4. While 13 per cent were left with a better impression of the Republican candidate, 17 per cent were left with a worse impression of him.

Remember that this was the foreign policy debate, supposedly McCain's strongest suit. Even here he lost more votes than he won.

Which of the two candidates is more ready to be President? This question is another supposed Obama weakness that the Republicans have been focusing on. 60 per cent say McCain is ready (down 2 in a week) against 34 who say he is not (up 4). 52 say Obama is ready (up 6) against 43 who say he is not (down 2). So McCain has a lead here, but both candidates are seen as ready for the job, and Obama is improving on this measure while McCain is slipping.

Whether or not the voters think a candidate has their interests at heart is a key question, as we could see from Sarah Palin's cringe-inducing attempts to play the ordinary gal in the vice-Presidential debate. Asked whether Obama understands their needs and problems 67 said yes and 28 said no (both up 1). For McCain, 46 said yes (down 3) and 49 said no (up 4). That's decisive for Obama and ambiguous (and getting worse) for McCain. Not good at all for the Republican, given the state of the economy.

How are the candidates seen overall? 48 per cent have a favourable view of Obama and 32 per cent have an unfavourable view; a net rating of plus 16. It was plus 13 a week previously and plus 10 a week before that.

McCain's rating is minus 3.

It was plus 3 a week previously and plus 7 a week before that.

Put another way, Obama's favourability rating amongst voters was 3 per cent better than McCain's two weeks ago (which statistically is identical); now its 19 per cent better.

Bottom line: Obama's overall support amongst voters is strong while McCain's is weak. That is to say that Obama supporters are far less likely than McCain supporters to ditch their candidate. Obama is 9 points ahead now, but he may have further to rise, while McCain may have further, perhaps much further, to fall.

Biden / Palin

Sarah Palin was supposed to be the big game changer for John McCain, and she may yet be, albeit not in the way he'd hoped.

Palin's approval rating was plus 10 two weeks ago. By the time of the VP debate it was minus 1. Joe Biden's approval has dipped, but remained solid. It was plus 21 two weeks ago, and by last Friday it was plus 15.

As with the first Obama/McCain debate, the pundits called the Biden/Palin clash a draw. This on the absurd grounds that Palin had exceeded expectations by managing to speak in coherent sentences. That's clearly an achievement for her, but not for someone who plans to be a heartbeat away from running the world's most powerful country. At least that's the view US voters apparently took, with snap polls giving the debate to Biden. Snap polls are less reliable than others, but remember that they called the Obama/McCain debate correctly.

Bottom line: choosing Palin was a reckless throw of the dice from McCain. It had to pay off in a big way. It hasn't. At best she will make no difference, but at worse she will seriously damage him. Biden, by contrast, is an asset to Obama in the public mind.

See here for more analysis on what this means for the Presidential race.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Victory in Iraq? Not so much

“They create a desolation and call it ‘peace’” - Tacitus

US Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin last week accused Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama of failing to recognise the "coming victory in Iraq". What's the nature of this "victory" that Palin's talking about? Has the US finally won the Iraq War?

Not so much.

For the last few months its been taken as read by many in the political mainstream that the "surge" of extra US troops into Iraq "worked" in quelling the violence that had been reaching cataclysmic levels by late 2006. In fact, this is a vast over-simplification, if not a self-serving lie put about by the war's supporters. A number of other factors have contributed to bringing down the levels of daily killings (which still remain extraordinarily high). The “surge” is merely one of these, at best is possibly the least of them, and at worst has in some respects been a countervailing force.

The principal factors behind the decline in violence are:

1/ the unilateral ceasefire of Moqtada al-Sadr's anti-occupation Shia militia;
2/ the decision made by nationalist Sunni insurgents, before the “surge” was conceived of, to concentrate their fire on the extremist "al-Qaeda" elements amongst them that had been responsible for the major attacks on Shia civilians; and
3/ the fact that the civil war in Baghdad has essentially played itself out, with Sunnis and Shia respectively expelled from mixed communities, the two groups divided, and no more 'sectarian cleansing' to be done (the outcome being a net win for the Shia forces).

Lets look at each of these in turn.

The Mahdi Army ceasefire may have been called with one eye on the coming influx of US troops, but it was still a unilateral decision. The fact is that Moqtada al Sadr continues to defy the US, five years after the occupiers set out to "kill or capture" him; as we saw in March when attempts to go after his Mahdi Army met with humiliating defeat. The US always wanted al-Sadr out of the way. By now, he's more powerful than ever. No US "victory" here.

Then there's the decision of Sunni nationalist insurgents to turn on al Qaeda, i.e. the foreign religious extremists who had come to Iraq to wage jihad both on the US and the Shia population. This has been hugely significant, and one cannot discount the effect of the US decision to stop fighting these nationalists guerrillas (who were always the bulk of the insurgency) and to pay them to concentrate on fighting and killing off al Qaeda. But the Sunni backlash against the religious extremists was not a US invention. It began as far back as 2005, and US backing for the movement was as much a pragmatic recognition that (a) it could not defeat the nationalist insurgency and (b) only those nationalists could defeat al Qaeda. Paying people to stop shooting at you and to instead fight some other people that you can't beat either is not in anyone's definition of "victory" as far as I'm aware.

And as for the third and possibly most important factor - the final Shia victory in the sectarian "Battle of Baghdad" which saw mixed neighbourhoods purged and thousands driven out of their homes - this is not merely a question of the US not being able to take credit for the relative peace that came after the civil war burnt itself out. No small amount of blame attaches to the US military itself for these gruesome events. As Michael Schwartz has argued in this indispensible analysis of the "surge" in Baghdad, US tactics may actually have facilitated the sectarian cleansing and effective Shia takeover. Either way, violence appears to have petered out in large part because one group of armed thugs achieved victory over the other, at massive cost to the civilian population, and not because the US stepped in as peacekeeper to enforce an early end to the fighting.

So the US mostly isn't fighting the Shia nationalists anymore because the Shia nationalists stood down of their own accord. It
mostly isn't fighting the Sunni nationalists any more because (a) its paying them to fight Al Qaeda instead (which they were already doing) and (b) it couldn't beat them anyway, so its had to learn to live with them. It isn't fighting Al Qaeda anymore because its paying the Sunni nationalists to do that for it, since it couldn't beat Al Qaeda itself. And the Sunni and Shia aren't fighting each other anymore (or are doing so a lot less) because that battle's (mostly) over (at least in Baghdad) and the Shia won. The case for saying that US "surge" has "worked" and that Washington can soon declare "victory" is, therefore, a little on the thin side.

What's also misguided is the related insinuation that the Iraq has become in some way peaceful. Iraq is still one of the most violent places in the world, with levels of daily killing equivalent to those of the Lebanese civil war. Last month at least 360 civilians were killed and more than 470 wounded in violence. Adjust that for the size of the total population and you’re talking about the equivalent of 800 plus British deaths and over a thousand injuries in political/military violence over 31 days. Imagine that occurring in a Soviet-occupied United Kingdom, while Kremlin leaders prattle on about "victory" and “success”. And remember that these are just the deaths that journalists and officials know about and are able to verify.

Yes, things aren't as bad in Iraq as they were in 2006. But the fact that the blood now washes up to your waist, as opposed to your neck, doesn't make Iraq something other than a bloodbath. Demanding that people accept some of the worst levels of violence on earth as some sort of good news story displays a pretty low regard for human life on Palin's part.

The people best placed to judge the success of US military strategy are those who have to live with it on a daily basis: the Iraqi public. They don't get interviewed at length by the major news networks, or write op-eds for the Washington Post, but their opinions are relevant nonetheless. By March 2008, when this poll was taken, it was already close to being conventional wisdom in the West that the "surge had worked". Clearly a lot of Iraqis hadn't received the memo.

The poll asks whether the “surge” has helped in the five areas where beneficial effects were promised: security where troop levels have increased, security in other areas, conditions for political dialogue, the ability of the Iraqi government to operate, and the pace of economic development. On each of those areas, the proportion of Iraqis saying the “surge” had been beneficial ranged between 21 and 36 per cent. Between 42 and 53 per cent said it has made things worse. The balance was made up by those saying it had made no difference. So in each area, between 63 and 79 per cent of Iraqis say the “surge” had made things worse or made no difference. That's between 63 and 70 per cent in the case of security and 79 per cent in the case of political reconciliation (the latter of which we're given to understand was the overall purpose of the “surge”).

Of course, the real aim of the “surge” was for the US to get Iraq properly under its control, not to perform an act of altruism or humanitarian relief work from which it has nothing to gain for itself, though that is exactly how the “surge” has been described, practically without exception, in our media and amongst our politicians. The question of whether it is for one country to forcibly place another country under its control, for its own purposes and against the wishes of majority of people in the latter country, is hardly one that should be ignored - though it has been. In any event, the “surge” appears to have failed in this respect. With the Iraqi government apparently now moving to reject the US demand for a permanent military presence and privileged access to oil reserves, the real reason for the 2003 invasion. What was supposed to be an US-client government in Baghdad now thumbs its nose at Washington and sidles up to, of all people, the Iranians. Do Palin and McCain really call that success, even on their own warped terms? Apparently dishonesty and greed now battle it out with rank stupidity for control of the United States government.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq devastated the country, driving well over 4 million Iraqis out of their homes (or around one in every six of the population) and killing perhaps a million (or around one in every twenty-nine of the population) according to the best estimates available. The refugees included many of Iraq's former professional classes, driven into poverty and marginalisation in neighbouring countries, their children into malnutrition, their daughters into prostitution. Those left behind fare little better, be they the maimed, the bereaved, the unemployed, the impoverished, the imprisoned or the tortured. Nothing can erase the suffering that has taken place over the last five years, or return the hundreds of thousands of dead to their loved ones. This tsunami of grief was delivered to Iraq by an aggressive war of choice, instigated under a cloak of propaganda and straightforward lying, that was aimed at no more lofty a goal than the acquisition of greater wealth and power. To talk of "victory" in Iraq is obscene, as indeed is any reaction from anyone in Britain and America other than outright cringing shame.

Yet not only is it a commonly accepted truth, here and in the US, that the "surge has worked", but early backers of the “surge” are now lauded as wise sages of military and foreign policy. A little over a year ago John McCain's bid for the White House was seen as little more than the quixotic last gasp of a failed militarist, his approval rating for the Republican candidate languishing in the single digits. McCain's subsequent political resurrection rested almost entirely on the notion that "the surge worked", as he had doggedly insisted it would, and it is in many ways to this misapprehension that we can attribute the now present danger of a McCain-Palin Presidency from January 2009, with all the chilling prospects that raises for the United States and the world.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Republican Election Strategy


Here's some decent analysis of the Republican election strategy on MSNBC's "Countdown"; about as good as it gets in the American mainstream media (host Rachel Maddow, by the way, is definitely one to watch).

Both the Republicans and the Democrats will be aiming to do two things in the campaign. First, mobilise their core supporters (their "base") both to vote in numbers and to persuade their neighbours to do the same. Second, win over as many as possible of those voters who consider themselves neither Republican nor Democrats. The Republicans have some work to do on both sides of that strategy.

Irrespective of the recent fall in violence in Iraq and the perception that a corner has been turned there (actually Iraq is still a horror show, but lets put that to one side for a moment), polls show that most Americans made up their minds about the war a long time ago. The US economy, as we know, is in deep trouble. Polls also show that 80 per cent of Americans think their country is going in the wrong direction. And President Bush has spent much of the last two years with approval ratings so low they occasionally exceed the historic depths plumbed by Richard "I am not a crook" Nixon. Winning over non-Republicans could not be more difficult for John McCain at this point in time.

As for mobilising the base, well the choice of hard-right Alaskan governor Sarah Palin was undoubtedly aimed at giving die-hard Republicans something to get passionate about. McCain may be the nominee, but he's not wildly popular amongst the evangelical Christians who have turned out in multitudes to vote for George W. Bush. They're decidedly lukewarm about a man who, unlike Bush, they do not consider one of their own. Palin, by contrast, is a big hit with the Republican hardcore. But how much of a difference can she make? Right-wing Christians are very disappointed with Bush for failing to use his 8 years in office to decisively ban abortion and bring creationism into the classroom. Now Palin or no, John McCain is the still Presidential candidate, and if the christian right is disillusioned even with Bush then I very much doubt that we'll see them turning out to vote for McCain in anything like the numbers we saw in 2000 or 2004.

Recall that their ability to energise their core support was a major factor in the last several Republican election victories. But in the 2006 congressional elections they got soundly beaten, partly because their disillusioned supporters stayed at home and partly because the Democrats were able to both mobilise their own base and reach out to independents by focusing their rhetoric on people's concerns about the economy (the adequacy of their actual policies is another subject for another time). The Democrats have clearly learned the lessons of that campaign, and the circumstances in which most ordinary Americans are living today are such that economic concerns may well seem far more pressing that the "culture wars" of liberal v conservative social values that so excite the Republican party.

Current polls show Obama and McCain neck and neck, but the campaign only starts in earnest now, and a lot can happen in two months. There are Presidential and Vice-Presidential TV debates coming up, and if Obama and his running mate Joe Biden play their cards correctly, they could wipe the floor with their opponents. Obama is clearly much brighter and sharper than McCain, but I suspect that what will really give him the advantage in these contests is his temperament. McCain is known for his propensity for losing it in public (including one vicious verbal assault on his wife), while Obama appears very calm and composed at all times. If McCain starts to look rattled or lost for a convincing answer at any point in the debates, that moment could define the election. If he lost his temper he would probably be sunk. Palin v Biden is trickier. Biden is pure Washington establishment while Palin is a fresh face (at least that's the narrative her handlers will want to stress), and if Biden appears to be patronising her he could do himself and Obama serious damage. But if he's civil and courteous and keeps the debate firmly on policy, then her spikey attempts to paint herself as the scourge of Washington will start to look very silly indeed.

But the major factor, as ever, will be the will of the people and institutions that really run the United States and its historic imperial project: the major corporations, investment banks, and concentrations of socio-economic power which, among other things, own the mass media that will be covering the election. The Bush presidency has been a historic disaster for US power. It is losing its grip on South America, challenged by a resurgent Russia, massively in debt to China, and humiliated in the Middle East by the defiance of Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Iraqi insurgents; the latter of whom fought the greatest military force of all time to a standstill with automatic rifles and rudimentary explosives. And it is still fighting the Afghan war 7 years after it began. In the imperialist euphoria post-9/11 the US ruling class threw everything behind a Bush administration drunk on the idea that the world could be subdued by the might of Washington; that a few punishment beatings meted out to the likes of Saddam, the Taliban, maybe Iran and Syria later on, would provide the necessary example to quickly bring the planet to heel, ushering in a "new American century". It didn't work out. Quite the opposite, in fact, and my suspicion is that when it comes to the crunch, the people and institutions that run the United States will come down strongly in favour of a return to the safety and pragmatism of the Clintonite status-quo, managed by Obama and Biden, over a continuation of the self-defeating recklessness of the Bush era under John McCain.

Its widely assumed that the final result of this election will be close. The Republicans are certainly formidable and utterly cynical campaigners who can make a lot out of what little they have going for them. But personally, I think too much is stacked against them this time. Its foolish to make predictions. But I would not write off the possibility McCain and Palin will be crushed in the polls come election day.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Naomi Klein on Barack Obama