Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Racial barrier falls as change comes to America

Business Times - 06 Nov 2008
Obama sweeps to victory as markets, war, demographics produce an electoral earthquake


RACIAL prejudices were swept aside as Barack Obama won the White House yesterday - an event whose historic magnitude recalls the landing of the first man on the moon. The Democrat defeated Republican John McCain and will be sworn in on Jan 20 next year as the 44th US president - and the first African-American one.

His march became a rout as he captured not only battleground states like Ohio and Florida but also scooped up traditional Republican-leaning 'red' states like Virginia and Colorado. With 349 electoral votes against Senator McCain's 173, it wasn't even close.

'Even as we celebrate tonight, we know that the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest in our lifetime,' said the president-elect. But the change he has repeatedly promised has already signalled itself.

The election of the 47-year-old Mr Obama marks the end of the reign of Baby Boomers like Bill and Hillary Clinton and George W Bush and the coming to power of a new and young generation of Americans who are more diverse in their ethnic and cultural origin and more tolerant in terms of their cultural attitude.

At the same time, the election on Tuesday also turned out to be what political experts refer to as a 'wave election'. It helped sweep more Democrats into both the Senate and the House of Representatives and will provide Mr Obama with a solid base of support on Capitol Hill to advance his agenda at home and abroad.

It was symbolic perhaps that Mr Obama's landslide victory took place on the same week that American manufacturing activity dropped to its lowest level in more than 25 years with the US auto industry facing the threat of possible extinction. Indeed, it is against the backdrop of rising economic problems - home foreclosures, a credit crunch, growing unemployment, falling consumer spending, and an economic recession that could develop into another Great Depression - that the young and inexperienced first- term Senator from Chicago succeeded in winning the support of a majority of American voters who were intent in challenging the political status-quo in Washington.

In fact, there is little doubt that it was the collapse of Lehman Brothers and other major financial institutions and the dramatic move by Washington to come to the assistance of Wall Street that demonstrated to many white middle class Americans that the economic policies pursued by the Bush Administration and the Republican Party have reached a dead-end.

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Click here for the full text of Mr Obama's victory speech

Members of the new 'investor class' that came to being during the roaring 1990s have suddenly discovered that they lost about a third of the value of their homes and the pension plans they had invested in the stock market.

And many of them decided to vote for the Democratic candidate this week, hoping that his leadership qualities and his proposed policies will help save the American economy and prevent a re-run of the Great Depression.

That depressing economic reality explains why both yuppies who reside in the more prosperous suburbs of New York City, Washington, DC, Pennsylvania and Seattle as well as blue-collar workers who live in decaying factory towns in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Minnesota - many of whom have traditionally voted for Republican candidates - decided to switch to the Democratic candidate this year.

In a way, the economic problems that the US is now facing are seen by many Americans as part of the failed Republican agenda that has been pursued by President George W Bush in the last eight years and that have been backed by Senator McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, including the decision to invade Iraq, the handling of Hurricane Katrina disaster, and the mismanagement of many other domestic and foreign policies.

With close to 90 per cent of Americans telling pollsters that they believe that America is now heading on the wrong track, it was inevitable that voters would be attracted to an 'agent of change' like Mr Obama and the more progressive policies that the Democratic party represents.

But this week's dramatic victory by an African-American politician with an exotic background can only be understood in the context of the major demographic changes that have taken place in America in recent years that include not only the strengthening electoral power of African-Americans and the growing population of Hispanics around the country.

Mr Obama and the Democrats are also benefiting from the rising involvement in the political process of thousands of new young voters.

Hence the fact that for the first time since the 1964 presidential election, a Democratic presidential candidate - who also happens to be an African-American - has won the southern state of Virginia, whose capital Richmond had served the capital of the Confederacy during the civil war, was a reflection of these revolutionary demographic changes.

The state has attracted many young high-tech workers and other professionals as well as Hispanic immigrants who together with the members of a large African-American community in Virginia provided Mr Obama with the margin of victory he needed.

The president-elect's main challenge now would be to form a winning Democratic electoral majority that would bring together blue-collar workers, well-to-do and educated yuppies, Hispanics and African-Americans.

At the same time, the election's outcome highlighted the failure of the Republican Party to adapt to the new political and demographic realities of the era.

The Republicans have been gradually transformed into a minority political party that represents the mostly shrinking population of conservative white voters in the South and a few small Western states.

The Republicans have succeeded in exploiting the cultural resentment that these 'real Americans' - as vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin described them during the campaign - feel towards the 'cosmopolitan' and liberal 'elites' in the large cities. But unless the Republicans expand their electoral base beyond white evangelical Christians to include more blacks, Hispanics, and young urban voters, they would find it more difficult to return to power in the White House and Congress any time soon.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

Business Times - 06 Nov 2008

Change trumps Experience


ON the Big-Picture level of analysis, Barack Obama's victory should, indeed, be considered 'historic' because, in many ways, it represented a turning-of-the-page in American history and reflected several dramatic transformations in American politics, economics and demographics.

One could apply a 'micro' level of analysis to examine the outcome of this election by focusing on the personalities of the two candidates and the way they managed their election campaigns. Hence, the performance by the two candidates on the campaign trail, and especially during the three televised presidential debates, probably had a major effect on the final choice of many voters.

Hence, the McCain campaign seemed to have lacked a coherent strategy and a consistent message as the Republican candidate and his handlers failed to agree whether to accentuate Mr McCain's 'experience' (as opposed to Obama's thin resume) or to market him to the voters as a 'maverick' who would (like Mr Obama) promote 'change' in Washington.

But trying to warn Americans not to vote for Mr Obama because of his lack of familiarity with national security issues became quite difficult after Mr McCain decided to select Alaska Governor Sarah ('I can see Russia from my window') Palin as his running mate. And while choosing Ms Palin may have helped Mr McCain to solidify his electoral base among conservative Republican voters, it alienated many independent white middle-class voters that the Republican needed in order to win. And it certainly didn't help him gain the support of the white women voters who had supported Senator Hillary Clinton during the Democratic presidential primaries.

At the same time, Mr McCain's decision to launch a set of nasty personal attacks against Mr Obama by focusing on his alleged 'ties' to a 1960s radical political activist (Bill Ayers) and an American-Palestinian professor (Rashid Khalidi) while giving a green light to his satellite political groups to try to persuade white middle-class voters that the bi-racial Barack Hussein Obama was not 'one of us' may have excited members of the religious Christian Right and a few neo-conservatives.

But the decision has also produced a political backlash among the more educated and professional white voters in the suburbs, many of whom had voted for George W Bush in the 2004 presidential election and who probably wondered why they should pay attention to Mr Ayers and Prof Khalidi when the American economy was going under.

There is no doubt that Mr McCain's erratic behaviour during the campaign (suspending his campaign to deal with the financial crisis only to restart it after several hours) and the indications that his old age was taking a toll on him - the irritation he exhibited during the debates and the many mistakes he made during his speeches and interviews (confusing Shiites with Sunnis and the moribund Czechoslovakia with the Czech Republic) - have raised questions among voters about whether the 72-year-old Mr McCain (who is also a cancer survivor) should occupy the White House in this time of crises, especially when the person who would replace him if he was incapacitated in office would have been the inexperienced and unworldly Ms Palin.

Ironically, it was the relatively young and untried Mr Obama who was seen by the majority of Americans as more being prepared for the challenging White House job than Mr McCain, the veteran Washington insider.

Starting with his political struggle against Mrs Clinton for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination and continuing with the battles with Mr McCain, Mr Obama and his aides have displayed a remarkable skill in managing an election campaign and especially in winning the support of young and first-time voters and in developing a large network of operators in all the electoral districts around the country who succeeded in registering thousands of new voters and in mobilising them to go out and vote during the Democratic primaries and again yesterday.

Mr Obama and his young 'geek' operators also proved their skills in utilising the new media of the Internet to spread the candidate's message on blogs and on YouTube and to raise million of dollars from individual contributors that provided the Democratic candidate with a powerful financial base that he was able to spend on television commercials and organising campaign events.

More important, Mr Obama's demeanour as a calm and studious public figure and his personal charisma seemed to have apparently convinced many Americans that 'Mr Cool' is exactly the kind of person they needed to have in the White House at this difficult time and that his commitment to change things in Washington was genuine and more crucial for resolving the nation's problems than the fact that he hasn't met all the major world leaders, something that Mr McCain and Mrs Clinton liked to brag about.

The fact that Mr Obama has defeated both Mrs Clinton and Mr McCain, two veteran political figures, suggests that Change had trumped Experience in this election race.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved

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