Transcript

Obama's First 100 with Nick Bisley

Matt Smith:

You're listening to the La Trobe University podcast. I'd be your host, Matt Smith, and I'm joined today by Associate Professor Nick Bisley from the Politics Department. Thank you for joining me, Nick.

Nick Bisley:

Pleasure, Matt.

Matt Smith:

And we're here to talk today about Obama's presidency so far, thus far.

Nick Bisley:

The 36 days or whatever it is exactly, right?

Matt Smith:

Is that what it is officially?

Nick Bisley:

Something. That's a little bit more than that. It's about…

Matt Smith:

It feels so long now.

Nick Bisley:

About three and a bit months.

Matt Smith:

It feels a lot longer because we've had Obama mania —

Nick Bisley:

Yeah. But we did also have that period where, after he was elected and before he was sworn in, in which we had the financial crisis. And there was this weird situation in which Bush is, effectively, the lame duck, but the lamest of lame ducks in that final three-month period, but you've got this crisis that needed attending to and so, you had this sort of odd, "Who's the president?" Obama kept saying there's only one president at one time, but, I think there is that sense that he's been around really since November whereas normally, yeah, presidents start at the end of January and they tend to keep a fairly low profile, but, you know global financial crisis has prevented that, so…

Matt Smith:

Yeah, yeah. What sort of situation has he stepped into so far? It's very much too early to say what sort of president he's going to be really.

Nick Bisley:

Oh, it's extraordinarily early days and you know, but one shouldn't be too swift to pass judgment on these things, but, yeah, he's chosen an extraordinarily difficult time to be president, or chosen, and it was chosen for him. But, America's got two wars, both of which look very hard to win in two very difficult parts of the world, both parts of the world that are fairly considerable strategic importance, the worst financial crisis in 70 years, which is largely America's own making, plus a series of ongoing domestic economic, social problems that, absent the other things, should've been themselves fairly substantial problems to do with health care, education and other sort of fraying infrastructure and the like. So, it's a very, very, very difficult position he's in.

Matt Smith:

And I know from an earlier podcast, well, at the time when we recorded that, you were actually picking the opposition to win.

Nick Bisley:

Yeah, I think it was… The timing of that was rather unfortunate. We must remember that in… That was…when was that…that was mid-September, and at the time the polling was very even. It really looked as if it was going to go down to the wire. And my sense is still that if it had gotten close, I think he probably would've gotten up. The obvious thing there was it didn't get close.

And in hindsight, it seems to me to have been pretty clear that in the election, once the debates started, and I think Dennis Altman, whom we talked with at the time, said that the debates are really going to matter. And I think he was right in that what became very clear was that once the debate was held, the American electorate sensed a degree of comfort with the idea of Obama, whether that idea is a black president, a young president, whatever it is, and I felt that during the debates, he carried himself as a president.

He had a real statesman-like demeanor and presence in a way that McCain didn't have. And I think that — not that it explains the result, but the timing of the shift in the polls fits very clearly with the debates, so I think that mattered a great deal. But, yeah, I know, I picked the wrong — I picked the loser.

Matt Smith:

Because that was at the time that, I think the first debate had just been…

Nick Bisley:

Yeah, I think it was that morning or the day before, or something like that.

Matt Smith:

So it was right around that point. And if it helps, Dennis Altman said McCain as well in that podcast.

Nick Bisley:

Yeah, all right. I mean, to hedge myself, I did say I thought if it was close, McCain.

Matt Smith:

You were very hedgy!

Nick Bisley:

I said if it was close, I thought McCain was going to edge it. But if it wasn't close, Obama was going to win by a mile, which is what happened. But that's, you know, a complete cop-out, so… But I did predict about a week after, I thought Obama's going to win by a mile, so…

Matt Smith:

I do know that when Bill Clinton left his presidency, he put through a lot of… What are they called? Are they called 11th Hour Decisions or…

Nick Bisley:

Executive Orders —

Matt Smith:

Executive Orders.

Nick Bisley:

— I think, is what you're referring to, where —

Matt Smith:

And that he put through quite a lot, which is stuff that's put through at the last minute so that they can't be changed by the incoming presidency.

Nick Bisley:

Yeah. Executive Orders can be done at any time. They don't quite have the way that statutes, but they're kind of an equivalent, and if it's within purview of the Executive, the departments and main departments, the bureaucracy, then you can shape all the policy. I mean, they can be undone, but —

Matt Smith:

So a lot has to be gone through to undo them.

Nick Bisley:

It depends on what it is, and it's… unfortunately it's kind of messy. But a typical example from the Bush presidency was the torture stuff, the torture memos, permitting the use of torture by the CIA and other parts of the American government was issued by Executive Order. And, in return, one of the first things that the Obama administration did was to issue its own Executive Orders overturning that. So, there's…and I picked it quite quickly that the torture stuff, but then if you go — they issued another one, I think they were separate, relating to Guantanamo Bay, so we're going to close Guantanamo Bay. That's proven to be an idea that it's pretty difficult to put into practice. And they find it just technically hard to work out: how to shut it down, where to put the people, what to do with them.

Matt Smith:

Of course, yeah.

Nick Bisley:

So, yes, I think that's kind of a good example of how some Executive Orders can be fairly easy to do — stop torturing people — and other ones become difficult — shut down Guantanamo Bay.

Matt Smith:

There's actually a lot associated with it.

Nick Bisley:

Yeah. Politically, diplomatically, it's a hard thing to do, so…

Matt Smith:

Also, I also know that Bill Clinton removed all the W's from the keyboard around the White House.

Nick Bisley:

Oh, this is a rumor. This did not occur.

Matt Smith:

That did not occur?

Nick Bisley:

Yeah. This did not occur.

Matt Smith:

Oh, come on! That would've been great! I wish I didn't know that.

Nick Bisley:

This is one of the great Republican success stories, was that they spread around these rumors that after Clinton left — of course this is in the light of the Supreme Court decision that prevented the votes being counted that most likely would've resulted in Al Gore becoming president — so there's a great deal of animosity, and the Republicans themselves had been very strongly anti-Clinton for years and years and the Monica Lewinsky thing, I mean, the most obvious example of that.

So there's this story going around that the Bush team had arrived in the White House and all the keyboards had had the W keys removed and, yeah, things like they'd been lined up on top of door frames and all these things. This was absolute nonsense. This did not occur, but it was reported as facts, never… when the White House issued press releases saying this didn't occur, they were just ignored and not reported. So, it didn't happen. But it's a good story.

Matt Smith:

I suppose. That's why it's still around.

Nick Bisley:

Yeah, yeah.

Matt Smith:

I heard of it. One of the most defining things that — so far — that Obama's done is relaxing their laws on stem cell research. And there's been quite an uproar about that, largely because people don't entirely understand the issue —

Nick Bisley:

Yeah.

Matt Smith:

— because of the methods they've got for stem cell research. But the fact that you went through with that at all, do you think that's rather defining of the approach that he is going to take?

Nick Bisley:

Yeah. I mean, again, it's the sort of contrast with the Bush administration which had run a very hard line on all the social policy issues, over Iraq, wing line and the hard line, but the Obama decision to allow stem cell research, which is allowed in almost every other developed country. I mean, by saying 'allowed' we've got to remember this — to very strict ethical guidelines, it's not free-for-all, all these sorts of procedures you have to go through. So it was America kind of returning to the fold, if you like.

I think it's important to emphasize that the Bush administration here was very much out of keeping with majority of American opinion on this particular issue. It had just been a decision that the Bush administration had made to pacify a very important electoral block that had been key to supporting its position and a key financial supporter of the Republican ride.

So what would one take from this is I think it's fairly clear indication that Obama's a moderate. And I think we generally kind of do well to remember that Obama's not from the left of the Democratic party. He's very much from the center right. All of his major appointees, with probably the exception of the Environment secretary, seasoned Democratic operatives from Washington who are very much out of the center right of the party.

He's a pragmatist and politically not highly ideological in any respect. So stem cells, I think is, if that's in any way indicative of what we can expect to see, it's going to be… When these issues come up, you're going to likely see a fairly moderate, center-of-the-road, politically acceptable to your average American voter on the issue.

And abortion, you know, America is a funny place on abortion. In most countries it's not a big deal, politically, but in America it's this red-line issue for some. That particular reason that it's got a long history. You know, I think that Obama's on record is, yeah, supporting women's rights to choose, which has been the center Democrat position for a long time and popularly supported in public opinion polls, you know, consistently over a long period of time.

But equally, he's not going to make a big fight. If there's some piece of legislation or something that comes up in which the Republicans would, say, try to position him as an extremist, his response is always going to be pragmatic.

So, while it would be very hard to see him following a lot of the Bush policies in some of these things, it's equally unlikely to see him step out on a limb to really to make a legislative framework for the right to choose or something along those lines, so… But, you know, a decision that's — the recent decision was to overturn the Bush administration's policy whereby foreign aid would not be given to organizations that promoted…

Matt Smith:

Morales that the U.S. don't agree with?

Nick Bisley:

Yeah. There's an expression for it. Essentially, the Bush administration has ruled that foreign aid, NGOs, those sorts of things that did work in, such as in Africa or elsewhere in the developing world, had to promote abstinence instead of safe sex. If you accidentally get pregnant, you have a child, you don't have an abortion, and if you didn't commit to those then you don't get any money. And Obama's stopped that. So yes, again, it's a return that's kind of moderate stuff, and I expect to see more of those.

Matt Smith:

It sounds a bit like a Christian missionary approach, you know. Kind of like, we'll give you aid if you convert to the religion.

Nick Bisley:

I mean, they've got—they overtly called it a faith-based approach to foreign aid and they had this similar approach to domestic social welfare groups. And putting a lot of stock in faith-based organizations. Whatever that might mean.

Matt Smith:

I saw Obama's move on the stem cell research as kind of like when Rudd first came into power, the first thing he did, well, pretty much one of the first things he did to set himself apart from the previous administration was to apologize to the Aboriginals, in some ways a big act that will have a fast impact to set yourself apart, especially given the predecessor's stance on it.

Nick Bisley:

Yeah, and other range of issues. I mean, I think that Obama camp clearly, wanting to draw a very thick line between themselves and the predecessors. And you'd stay to read his inaugural speech to see that. You know, within about three paragraphs he's giving the Bush administration a stern kicking on a whole range of issues. And I think that was done not simply to say, "Here's what we're going to do," but to say, "What we're doing is in many ways very, very, very different from these guys." And I think that's… You know, you’re right that a lot of the early moves that they made were, to some more than symbolic, but ones which had a lot of very clear policy differentiation. So, you see, we're doing things but also we're doing things very differently.

Matt Smith:

Yeah.

Nick Bisley:

Whereas, you know, if you look at some of the economic policy, you need to be pretty aware of the technical policy differences to see and understand how and why there are the differences — I mean, they're there. But stem cell research, okay — Bush says bad. That's a very clear point of difference on economic policy and restructuring taxation breaks for middle class in what's 3-4 months in.

But, now we're thinking, right now, first and foremost about the Congressional elections, which will be held next November, and then of course his own re-election two years after that. So, it's kind of a permanent campaign in some degree.

Matt Smith:

So how do you think Obama's going to deal with Afghanistan and the war on terror?

Nick Bisley:

He's released recently, in the past few days, the new American policy on Afghanistan, which is essentially to say Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror, although they're clearly distancing themselves from that language, the one here I'm talking about, the war on terror. They'll talk directly about combating specific challenges. But they've made Afghanistan the priority, they're speaking in fairly long timelines and fairly open-ended ones about what they're going to be doing there.

They are immediately going to be sending about 20,000 more troops, they've currently got 60,000 troops in Afghanistan and they'll be upping that to about 80,000, and trying to get their allies, principally the European powers in NATO, to send more troops. The Europeans have about — well, NATO and the States have about 25,000 to 30,000 troops. It varies slightly, but around 25,000 to 30,000 troops. And they're trying to get them to do more. What they'd ideally like is something in the order of around 120,000, 130,000 troops there, but at the moment that's going to be pretty difficult to do, given Iraq is still a problem.

The view, I think, is that a stable, secure Afghanistan — ideally democratic but if not, you know, we can live with it — is what they want to have. How exactly they're going to do it is not entirely clear in the sense that the heavy military approach which is still the primary focus is clearly only going to be part of the equation. They need reconstruction, they need infrastructure, they need electricity, water, roads, bridges, schools, this sort of stuff.

In my view, and certainly people who know that part of the world much better than I do. This is a 20-year project. Whether they've got the stomach and the finances for that is not at all clear. He's committed very clearly to withdrawing troops in Iraq, timetable to the end of 2010 essentially to leave about 50,000 troops in the country in a non-combat role.

This is a smart move in the sense that Iraq is unwinnable. They can still get what they want, but they need the Iraqis to do it, they need to work out. And the Iraqis need to work out a way which they can learn to live with Iran.

America's interests in Iraq are going to be best served by opening up the diplomatic dialogue with Iran and realizing their common interests in a stable Iraq, even if it's a stable Iraq that's pro-Iran.

It would be nice if we could have a bit more liberalism and a little bit more human rights, but that's not realistic. What America, and indirectly what the rest of the world needs, is a stable, secure Iraq. And Iran, I think, has got a very important part to play in the story. This is the unfortunate life of diplomacy. Sometimes you have to make deals with countries with whom you don't see eye-to-eye.

And I think all signals thus far from the Obama administration on Iran and on Afghanistan seem positive in the sense that they're aware of the difficulties and they're prepared to talk to Iran. It'll be a difficult diplomatic slog for them, and a hard sell at home but I think they're aware of it, and it's a lot more productive, their approach to Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan, than the previous administration's approach. So, you know, difficult world, but I think in four months or so they've done a lot to do. I mean, of all the years to choose to be president…

Matt Smith:

It could've been an easier one.

Nick Bisley:

But it's funny as American presidents have this view… Clinton, in private moments, is said to really bemoan the fact that he was never tested. He was a president during a period of economic reform and revitalization but no bad, nasty things happened. September 11th didn't happen, the global financial crisis didn't happen. Apparently he feels as if he's sort of missed out because… And certainly in American history, the great presidents, the ones they put on the pedestal above all the others, Lincoln, Roosevelt, these are wartime presidents. Wars are what make you great. Barack's got two of them.

Matt Smith:

So, he's got a good time to prove himself as… It's not going to be easy for him.

Nick Bisley:

Yeah, I think it's entirely right. It's one of these… This is your opportunity to make your mark in history, but it's an extraordinarily difficult task to achieve.

Matt Smith:

Nick Bisley, thank you for your time today.

Nick Bisley:

Pleasure.

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