A black president, but America remains troubled

Watching President Obama’s acceptance speech in the early hours of that November morning, one had the feeling that history, for one of those seldom moments in life, was tangible, material… almost touchable.

It could have been the lateness of the hour or the cheap wine, but I was sure this was a demarcation point in American history – just as significant as the Gettysburg address or the falling of the Berlin Wall.

Its true impact is the remit of historians yet to come, though even the most dismissive of their discipline will surely note the general and widespread welcome that accompanied Obama’s victory. When else has the world rallied so universally around the story of one man?

However, lost behind the placards and crowds, overlooked by a media carouselled by the public mood were those who felt not so much the comforting hand of history, but a sharp jab to the stomach.

Racists from the wrong end of the Republic were dismayed. Those of equally bigoted bent around the globe no doubt felt the same. Yet a more subtle form of racism has since emanated from a hard-right fringe of political commentators for whom Obama’s election sticks in the craw.

We all winced at those moments during John McCain’s campaign when Republican housewives offered the microphone would use the moment to question Obama’s heritage.

“He’s a Muslim and an Arab,” was an oft repeated charge from the flag-waving throng.

These allegations have wandered even further down an intellectual cul-de-sac in recent months with a small group of conservatives actively seeking to delegitimise the election through increasingly wild claims about Obama’s birthplace.

Know as Birthers, the attackers are directly questioning Obama’s eligibility to be president by suggesting the Hawaiian-born Democrat was, in fact, born in Kenya, despite firm evidence to the contrary, including Obama’s birth certificate, issued by the Republican-held state.

The White House press office has even taken the step of placing the certificate online, making it freely available to download. However, the Birthers maintain the certificate is a forgery, thus making his presidency illegal under Article II of the U.S. constitution.

These claims have been widely vilified in the American press, yet the whispering campaign continues, some going as far as to suggest Obama is a plant, a Muslim agent, the centrepiece of an international conspiracy to take over the USA. Would the far right go down this road if Obama were anything but black? If Arnie, a non US-born white Republican, was to suggest a change in the constitution allowing him to run for the top job, it would be interesting to see what, if any, outcry would follow.

Unfortunately the Birthers – a collection of activists and conspiracy kooks – have received encouragement from some quarters with popular commentators, including radio host Rush Limbaugh and CNN’s Lou Dobbs, adding credence to their claims.

Recent weeks have seen plenty of disenchantment with the current administration, with conservatives rallying around town hall meetings to protest at healthcare reform. Is it Obama who is the source of their angst or his reforms? For the majority, it is probably the latter. Having been preached to about the evils of socialism since the end of the Second World War, is it any surprise that your average American is voicing concern over Obama’s proposed healthcare plans?

The Birthers have clearly benefited from a credulous population, many of whom will turn automatically to a conspiracy theory, comforted by the feeling that at least they know “the truth”. You hardly need to trawl the internet to find thousands of sites dedicated to ill-considered theories surrounding 9/11, the holocaust, the moon landings and now Obama’s birth.

During the election, many analysts felt uncomfortable predicting the outcome because of the Bradley Effect – a theory suggesting that some white voters wouldn’t vote for Obama simply because he is black. That Obama was elected suggests that the effect was minimal, though we’ll never truly know.

As such, the current town hall challenges facing the administration are more likely to be a result of the president’s progressive policies (warped by Republicans shouting “communism” at every opportunity) than the colour of his skin.

But the fact a conspiracy theory as bizarre as the Birthers’ can take root in the U.S. shows that, for all the optimism surrounding Obama’s win, America remains a society deeply troubled by race.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

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The election descends into farce

Comedy has played an important role in the 2008 race for the white House. Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live has delighted the coasts as much as it has irritated those in between.

Indeed, the Republican running mate’s folksy-style has provided constant sustenance for the satirists who gorge on each “doggone it”, “gee-wizz” and “you-betcha”. Yet there is also something tragic about the way Palin has been used by her Republic paymasters. McCain, even now, portrays himself as a candidate determined to fight the good fight without resorting to the gutter politics of previous Republican campaigns. That hasn’t stopped Palin, no doubt under strict instruction, from making remarks that play to the more base instincts of the white working class.

Fortunately for Obama, the economic crisis has dominated the last few weeks of the campaign, rendering mostly redundant questions about race or religion. Instead the republicans have been forced to fight on the ailing economy, sparing the electorate from any Willie-Horton-style adverts that manipulate racial fear.

The economy has proved unfertile ground for McCain; in the early weeks of the financial crisis the Republican strategists searched desperately for a new stick with which to beat their rival. Enter Joe Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the plumber, a native of Toledo who was propelled into the spotlight during the third presidential debate, an event in which Bill Ayers, the former US dissident turned teacher and, according to the Republicans, long-time associate of Obama, was expected to take centre stage.

Ayers certainly got a mention, as McCain, flagging in the polls, went on the attack.  But it was Wurzelbacher who stole the show, collecting 26 separate mentions.

“Spread the wealth,” was the message from the Illinois senator when he met Joe a few days before the debate. “It sound like socialism,” replied the plumber.

Socialism – a dirty world in US discourse, sullied by the Cold War, now reduced to a synonym for evil. The McCain strategists seized upon the exchange, boiling down the trails of the working man into an emblem, an easily identifiable motif that will play with the masses – Joe the plumber. The irony – using Soviet-style iconography to accuse their opponent of being a socialist – was no doubt lost to those shouting “traitor” and “kill him” at the Republican rallies.

Joe, now the embodiment of the small businessman desperate for lower taxes, became the poster boy for the McCain campaign, offering his insight into life under a repressive Obama regime on Talk radio and Fox News. Joe should be careful – if Obama does win next week, he might find himself first on the bus to the gulag.

Not that Joe will be alone; he’ll be accompanied by Tito the Builder. Yes – Tito the builder, as introduced by Palin at yesterday’s rally in Leesburg. Tito, it transpires, is Tito Munoz a Columbian-born contractor now living in Virginia. Wearing a yellow jacket and a hard hat, he is the new incarnation of the plight of the American working man. A plumber, a builder – how about a policeman, a cowboy, an American Indian?

Republican lapdog Fox News was quick to give Tito airtime as comedy descended into farce. “Tito the builder: Attacks on Joe the Plumber are unfair,” ran the news bar across the bottom of the screen. Meanwhile, reports suggest that Joe is seriously considering a run for Congress in 2010.

Less than a week before the electorate go to the polls, you simply couldn’t make it up.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

McCain’s last chance to change the course of history

Tomorrow the two presidential campaigns will intersect for the third and final debate at Hofstra University, New York with Barak Obama likely to be ahead anywhere from two to ten points in the polls. Yet US elections, especially in recent history, have been tight affairs and with no one quite sure what impact race or the economic crisis will have at the ballot box, the outcome for November 4th remains far from clear.

Should John McCain defy current thinking and become the 44th president of the United States it will be on a pledge of low taxation, strong military leadership and an end to excessive Government spending. A McCain election promise that hasn’t been as trumpeted is a pledge to introduce an equivalent of Prime Ministers Questions to US politics.

Judging by the first two presidential debates and the vice-presidential contest between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, it would be a welcome and worthwhile measure. Due to the vagaries of the election process, teams of negotiators from both sides set about boiling down the Live TV Debate format to what is essentially a shared 90 minute advert, each candidate given the minimal amount of time to speak on any particular subject.
This lessens the opportunity for candidates to stray off-message or, more ruinously, make an election-defining faux pas. The reasons for this are understandable; a face-to-face debate is an uncontrollable set-up, anathema to the political kingmakers behind the scenes.

Great debaters don’t necessarily make good leaders (William Hague is testament to that). However, a more open format might offer greater insight into the candidate’s character as well as their suitability to rule. It would also make the events far more compelling for the vast numbers that tune in. Unfortunately, direct confrontation is not part of the entertainment.

The first debate in Mississippi between Obama and McCain was staid, even sedate.  Both candidates remained stridently on-message; self-regulation avoided even the briefest sojourn from the script. When a clash did look imminent (courtesy of a question on foreign relations) the spark was quickly doused by a format that required candidates to move swiftly onto the next issue. This was debate in name only.

The subsequent vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden held in St Louis was an equally tepid offering, despite the unpredictable nature of both candidates. Both were seen as potential liabilities by their parent campaigns as the garrulous, gaff-prone Democrat took on the inexperienced and increasingly bewildered Republican.

More than 70 million tuned in expecting a car crash; the only question was who would spin off first. Yet both Palin and Biden exited 90-minutes later unscathed. Again, a format designed to limit opportunity for direct verbal sparring resulted in banality, neither candidate offering more than media-friendly sound bites and mangled syntax. Palin did offer up one bizarre moment of note suggesting that environmental problems were cyclical rather than anthropogenic; yet this may not have proved such a strange assertion to the less environmentally-conscious viewers in heartland USA.

Biden emphasised the need for fundamental change in economic and foreign policy. Palin was less specific, suggesting that troubled nation need only adopt small-town values to once again become Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill”. Nothing was exposed by either candidate. Most importantly for the respective campaigns both left the podium without mishap, leaving the circus to pack up and roll on to Nashville for the second debate between Obama and McCain.

The first presidential debate to be broadcast live on TV was in September 1960, when John F Kennedy stood opposite Richard Nixon in a New York studio. The event offered a portentous insight into the role TV was to play in future elections. The first debate focused on domestic issues, with Nixon offering far more substance than his young rival from Massachusetts. Indeed, the radio audience almost universally agreed that Nixon had won. Yet the 70million who watched the debate on TV (a record at the time) saw it very differently.

Nixon had refused to wear makeup for the cameras, leaving him looking haggard, sweating, ill and old. In contrast, Kennedy came across as young, vibrant and healthy. It provided an early political victory for style over substance. Kennedy went on to win the election (by as little as 100,000), with most commentators agreeing that the debate had played a decisive role.

During the early months of the McCain campaign, the Arizona senator had revelled in the small, “town hall-style” meetings, which allow for greater interaction with the audience. This was the format agreed to for the second debate, offering McCain an opportunity to claw back Obama’s advantage. However, Nashville’s “town hall” proved a fickle friend.

Parallels can be drawn with the Nixon/Kennedy debate. While Obama strode confidently about the platform or perched casually on his chair, his opponent tended to shuffle, appeared uncomfortable and, most damagingly, looked every one of his 72-years. Although unlikely to be decisive, this was not the big performance McCain supporters had expected.

In regards to substance, the event was nondescript, almost dull with neither offering any advance of what had previously been said. The highlight, a McCain finger pointed towards Obama, referring to him as “that one,” offered the Democrats scant ammunition, but it was nothing more than a manufactured controversy.

With four weeks to go, McCain is now clearly positioning himself as the underdog, with the debate in New York his last chance to convince the American electorate that he should be given the reigns of office. The Republicans should take heart from historical precedent. In October 2000 Al Gore led George Bush in the polls by 11 points; eight years later and Bush is still in the White House.

The question remains can a debate, particularly one in which verbal repartee is deliberately hamstrung, offer McCain any hope? Again, historical precedent suggests the Republican has a chance. In 1980, one week before the election, Jimmy Carter debated Ronald Reagan leading by five points in the polls. After the debate the numbers had switched and Reagan went on to win the election.

With less than a month to go and one debate left the race for the Whitehouse remains wide open.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

Time for Palin to deliver

The eyes of a nation will focus on Washington University in St Louis this Thursday for what could be a decisive night in the US presidential election. Despite briefly reinvigorating the Republican campaign, the selection of Sarah Palin as vice presidential running mate has looked an increasingly perilous decision in recent weeks following a flatfooted interview on CBS, an email scandal and several potentially damaging revelations about her faith and family.

The Republican ticket is also being hampered by its association with the incumbent regime, currently presiding over the worst economic downturn since the 1929 Wall Street crash. So much rides on Palin’s performance this week that last Friday’s bout between Obama and McCain in Mississippi, the first of three debates for the presidential candidates, felt like an undercard.

No knockout blows were landed in Ole Miss; however the live TV showdown between the vastly experienced Joe Biden and his increasingly shaky opposite number could be a more brutal affair. Should Palin stumble on Thursday, McCain, already behind in the polls, will find it hard to rally. Should she turn in a performance, the gap between McCain and Obama will suddenly seem very small. The White House has been won and lost at such events.

Honours were declared even after last week’s banal encounter between Obama and McCain, an event that was watched by 52 million American, 16 per cent fewer viewers than watched the Bush-Kerry contest four years earlier. Despite talking for 90 minutes, neither side drew blood, leaving the spin doctors behind the scenes to declare victory for their respective candidates.

The debate focused on foreign policy and security, and the growing economic crisis engulfing America. On the former, McCain played on his experience, painting his opponent as too green and untested for the role of Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, the senator’s war record is one of the few points of leverage for the GOP advisors masterminding the Republican campaign.

On the latter, Obama allied McCain with the policies of George W Bush, and the Republican commitment to free market fundamentals, both seen as culpable for America’s current financial predicament. Obama looked relaxed and urbane, almost detached at times. McCain looked jittery, ill at ease with the format, occasionally angry, despite a fixed grin.

Obama addressed his opponent as “John”, turning towards the senator to speak. McCain’s glare remained fixed on the adjudicator, referring only to his rival as Senator Obama. This wasn’t just Republicans versus Democrats; it was generation versus generation, as the young media-savvy lawyer took on the ageing war veteran in a battle of quips, badinage and sound bites.

Earlier in the day the debate looked in jeopardy when McCain proposed he remain in Washington to help construct a bailout bill for Wall Street. It proved political gamesmanship, as both took to the stage. McCain was quick to go on the offensive offering strong rhetoric on Vladimir Putin and a resurgent Russia: “I looked into his eyes and I saw three letters – KGB”. It was a sturdy stuff from the Arizona senator, sentiments that will sit well with vast swathes of the American electorate. It was also instructive. McCain is, after all, a product of the Cold War, a man with an almost absolute view of right and wrong forged in the POW camps of the Vietnam War. That experience now informs the framework of the 72-year-olds world view.

“We are winning in Iraq and we will come home with victory and with honour,” argued McCain. Obama countered suggesting that a bad war was not worth fighting.

“Senator Obama won’t admit that the Surge is working,” continued McCain.

“John seems to think the war started in 2007, not 2003,” countered Obama. The Iraq debate proved the highlight of the night.

Events on Wall Street have overshadowed security issues in recent weeks, yet most Americans agree that electing a strong and security-minded leader is paramount. It’s not hard to see why – an aggressive Russia, China’s dramatic growth, an Iraqi conflict into its fifth year, a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan, problems on the Pakistani border, sabre rattling from Iran, North Korea threatening to restart its nuclear programme and the ongoing issue of Islamic fanaticism, the followers of which see America as the architect-in-chief of an unholy world.

Such fears should play into the hands of the military veteran, yet Obama remains ahead in the polls, suggesting that doubts about his foreign policy credentials may have been assuaged. Yesterday’s collapse of the legislative package on Capitol Hill, shot down by a Republican majority, may also benefit the Democrats over the coming weeks, though Obama failed to capitalise on the current economic distress during the debate, embroiling himself instead in an argument about tax cuts.

“Senator Obama simply doesn’t get it,” was McCain’s oft repeated response to his opponent’s practical, even prosaic assessments during the contest.

It’s unlikely that Palin will adopt similar tactics when she faces Joe Biden on Thursday. The Democratic running-mate must tread carefully, though. Should he browbeat his inexperienced opponent too heavily he may come across as sexist and a bully. Yet the pressure remains markedly on Palin. Political commentators are already suggesting the Republicans need a “game-changer”, an event that shifts support in their favour before November 4th.

Sarah Palin was appointed to ostensibly provide just that. Should she fall on Thursday, the hockey mom’s selection may well have handed the game to the other side.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

God will win the US election

There have been plenty of subplots to the 2008 American election, the two most obvious being gender and race. Women, it seems, have finally arrived at the sharp end of US politics, while the Democratic nomination of an African American could be prove a watershed in US history.

Should Obama lose on November 4th, the election will be viewed in hindsight as entirely about race. However, beneath gender and race is another even larger undercurrent, a river of division soaked into the soul of American society – that of religion. God, it seems, has the casting vote. In a country founded on Puritanism, religion has provided a backdrop to every US election in history, even more so in recent times thanks to the political mobilisation of the evangelical Right.

There’s a widely held belief in the States that a non-believer could never be elected to the White House. This is not necessarily true. A non-believer could easily get elected to the White House… as long as they pretended to be a Christian. Bill Clinton is the most recent example. It is probably no coincidence that his wife, Hilary, looked most insincere when discussing matters of God. As long as you profess to be Christian, whether that requires cognitive dissonance or not, you’ve got a chance at the top job.

Not that it needs to be a specific Christian belief – McCain is a Southern Baptist brought up Episcopalian; Barak Obama is a mainline protestant (if you dismiss rumours of a clandestine allegiance to Islam). Even candidate Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which until 1978 was officially a racist organisation, managed to secure plenty of support during his campaign. Christian ecumenism is the key. As long as you have faith, the flavour is up to you.

It is a paradox that a country in which a separation of church and state is written into the constitution requires its politicians to fawn so desperately over the bible and those who purport to speak with its authority. Earlier in the campaign we witnessed Obama and McCain paying due reverence at a faith forum hosted by Rick Warren, a pastor and self-styled leader of the evangelicals whose influence stretches out to the thousands of Megachurches scattered from coast to coast.

Billed by Fox News as the Saddleback Showdown, the candidates went separately to answer questions of leadership, stewardship, world view and international concerns. Playing to the audience, Warren was quick to set the discussion with a Christian framework, swaddling the conversation with religious motifs.

He stopped short of asking who Jesus would vote for, but not by much. It was all good knock-about stuff, as both candidates fell over themselves to kow-tow to the conservative throng. McCain seemed more at home, but neither appeared entirely comfortable opposite such overt religious posturing. Even the selection of Joe Biden as Democratic running mate had a religious slant. Although added to the ticket to add international experience, the Obama camp also hope to appeal to Roman Catholics, as well as the blue collar vote – two areas of weakness for the Illinois senator.

Yet the election took a more sinister turn this week with revelations on CNN about the religious affiliation of the Republican running mate Sarah Palin. The Alaskan Governor, brought in by McCain to help convert some of the disillusioned Hilary voters has enjoyed a mixed start to her Vice Presidential campaign. Several strong speeches early on were tempered by an obvious naivety when it came to international relations (she only recently acquired a passport).

News of her 17-year-old daughter being pregnant out of wedlock also sullied the sheen, though the impact this will have on the core social conservatives of the GOP come November 4th is probably negligible. Far more worrying is Palin’s long-time membership of a Pentecostal church in her home town of Wasilla in which the congregation speak in Tongues, the practise of making unintelligible sounds as if being relayed a message from God (or as some practitioners believe speaking in the language of angels).

The church is also known to practise faith healing and, most troubling of all, believe in End of Days, a cataclysmic event that precedes the return of the Messiah and an ushering of believers to up to heaven. Palin left the church six years ago, yet most Republicans remain quiet on her faith. Whatever her current belief, it doesn’t take a savvy political operator to spot that a person who thinks they can speak directly to the Almighty might unease potential voters.

And the prospect having the second in line to the presidency delighting in a forthcoming Doomsday and a subsequent rapture to heaven should leave more than US residents shifting uneasily in their seats. Palin has gone on record describing US soldiers in Iraq as “on a task from God”. It’s a dangerous sentiment, the kind often peddled by Osama Bin Laden or the mullahs of Iran.

Such comparisons may seem severe, particularly as religious fanaticism manifests itself in different ways. Yet there is no doubting the real danger to the world is fanaticism itself, whether that originates in America, Afghanistan or the Middle East.

“What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a bulldog?” Palin quipped at the recent Republican convention. The answer? “Lipstick”.

So what separates a hockey mom from the other crackpot leaders with a direct ear to God? Let’s hope in this instance it’s a little more than lip gloss.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.