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Obama's midterm report card

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Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast with myself Matt Smith and joining me today is Professor Nick Bisley from the Politics Program. Thank you for joining me, Nick.

Nick Bisley:

Thanks, Matt.

Matt Smith:

Over the course of the last year or so now, more than a year, you've been talking to me about the US President Barack Obama and this is kind of like a midterm report card for Barack to see how he's going. Now, what has been your opinion of his presidency and the best way to start this podcast, it's hard not to start it like this, is to ask what went wrong?

Nick Bisley:

What went wrong? A couple of big things that you could point to is the obvious one which is this is a president who inherited, as a few people have said, the in-tray from hell and most particularly an American economy in its worst state since the depression. It's very, very clear that bad economy equals bad electoral results for government in all the pro-democracies.

And so, it was always going to be difficult I think for Obama to ride the economic ship and this big problems of the economy were always going to be things that it was going to take a bit of an electoral pounding on, because it was pretty unrealistic to expect even in a kind of best case scenario that from January 2009 through until November 2010, he could turn the economy around in a way which would assuage people's concerns.

So that's the sort of big structural problem I think that he faced. Then there is this politics of it and that is there's been a lot of talk and I think some of it right that the Obama administration kind of got the politics of the recession wrong and seemed to be first a bit aloof from the population, certainly aloof from the concerns of your average American, so that is this cosmopolitan intellectual president who surrounds himself with similar sorts of people.

Most of his advisors are super-bright-policy wonks either from academia or from think tanks and notably you know, not from business, not from traditional sector, those parts of economy where you often pull advisors out of to bridge that link between the real world and politics. And he's also going to fit the aloof manner I think.

So that managing the kind of politics of riding the economic ship has been difficult. They also did a couple of things wrong in that they thought that the economy is going to get better than it was. They had economic policy which assumed that unemployment would be around 8% at this point where it's at 10% and that's 2 or 3 percentage points when you're talking about working population about a 150 to 120 million that's a lot of people out of jobs. Well, they are out of jobs in swing states. There are no people out of jobs in California or in New York, the safe democrats, nor are they out of jobs in the Red heartland. There are out of jobs in places like Ohio and Indiana and Illinois and these are states that flipped and flopped by the presidential level but also at the congressional level.

I think he's also faced a remarkably hostile Congress in the face of the Republicans that have been emboldened and enlivened by the Tea Party. And so, grassroots mobilization of white middle class frustration that has energized the Republican Party that seemed to be two years ago absolutely in the wilderness.

I mean Bush was voted out of office obviously but the Bush legacy was clearly repeated with the election of Obama and also in the two years, 2006 and 2008 Congressional Elections where Republicans were thrown out and barely two years on with the legacy of the policies that the Bush administration put in place still visible, messy economy, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Republicans are back at least at the congressional level and very emboldened and feeling very optimistic about their prospects in 2012. And this is partly about Obama but it's partly also about The Republican Party and about the discipline about funding, getting their funding levels up, about mobilizing party electorate that was seemed disenfranchised in the sense of there are groups that just weren't coming out to vote. Then the other thing of course is with congressional results. Presidents always get voted against in their first term. There's a way to swing. It's just don't know when it's quite so big.

It was 63 seats. I hear there's one that's still up in the air but it's certainly a huge turnaround. It's quite striking I think that well it looked bad for Obama than it is. This is not a good result. What is interesting is just how volatile Congressional Elections have become. There used to be things where a dozen sage would move here or there every two years from 2004 in which you have a Republican-controlled House of Representatives to now 2010. It's changed control twice. That's very unusual and the preceding 50 years have changed twice. There used to always be a little bit of movement round the margins but not this big flip flops.

When you're looking at these things, you got to say, "OK, Obama and the democrats were generally have suffered" but also old parties have to recognize just how volatile the electoral landscape is and you know, they didn't lose the Senate. It's not as bad as it could have been the way projections that they're going to lose both the Senate and House Representatives.

They got trends in The House of Reps but actually didn't do quite so badly in the Senate. I think that's what a lot of people are saying that it's not as bad as it could have been but also by the same time it couldn't have really been much worse and how hard is it going to be from now on for Barack Obama to do anything effective now that he's lost The House of Representatives. Look it's going to be difficult, there's no doubt about that. The challenge you'll face is this, I mean, is really the same challenge that Bill Clinton faced in 1994.

A lot of people have spoken about the similarities between the two and that is you face a Congress that is not only not of your party but also actively seeking to thwart your move so that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is very loathe to give Obama any points on anything. He certainly not going to get an easy pass on just about any phase of legislation he puts forward let alone anything controversial. And he said that when they lasted this in '94 and play hardball with the White House, the report coming to a standstill and had to stand up over the budget and that was a huge political win for Clinton because the Republicans began to be seen as unrealistic ideologues and were doing things that were counterproductive.

So I think the extent to which both sides know that they can't go down that part and if they do Obama in the White House will have a strong opposition nationally then ,yeah, you've got to think this on prospects for getting things up. You have to think that Obama is being chastened by this and recognizes that he's got to change the way he does business in Washington that to say he needs to work out how to work with Congress more effectively. You know, once he can get things up that do control the Senate, you know, things are not going to be uniformly rejected in their entirety but it is going to be very, very difficult for him.

And I think the key difficulty is the extent to which the Republicans are hostile. The American political system is set up so that if parties are willing nothing could work because each party is seen to be equal. That means that we're in for interesting from our point of view is that observing a lot of stuff, difficult times if you're working in the White House trying to get laws passed through the Congress.

Matt Smith:

The way that he's been approaching being president so far seems to be he is being very much a details sort of man when dealing with the Congress and you say that he's got to change the way that he works with them but also isn't part of the problem that he hasn't really done enough that's being big impact that the people of America can see and judge him or invite him on?

Nick Bisley:

I think you're right in that he's a technical guy and something is part of the problem in that he's sort of fallen for the trap of being the policy wonk in getting the policy right while neglecting the politics of the policy and while it's admirable to say we'll take an electoral hit if we get the right policy, that's fine. But if that means you lose the White House and you lose the Congress, it's seemed a little bit pointless.

So on the right hand, is a kind of communication issue. If this all a hostility, for example, to the deficit into stimulus spending and the like then you got to do much better job at saying why this is happening and not giving Economics 101 lectures about moving supply lines away from points of disequilibrium in most of the stuff you got to get out there and say why putting money into the economy is necessary at this point in time and that things will work out.

There's also a perception of Obama that he is at best ambivalent about business, at worst, if not hostile. He certainly doesn't seem aware that this is a bad look in America that you need to have much better relations with Corporate America. And so, a lot of reporting saying that Corporate America even on the fairly democrat persuasion style of Corporate America are pretty disillusioned with the way which they just can't get face time with the president and whether you may think of it Corporate America drives jobs in United States and this is a country with 10% unemployment. You've got to get business on side or you got to sell what he's doing and explain in terms of resonate with people in a way that Clinton was able to do.

Matt Smith:

In a previous podcast, you said that Obama would maybe have trouble living up to the expectations that the American people have for him understandably so how much of that has led to his current situation and do you think he should maybe be trying to suddenly lower the expectations of the American people of him so that maybe they go a bit easier on him?

Nick Bisley:

Politics and expectations is huge. George Bush is a great player of this game in the sense that most people had this sort of sense of Bush that was so gap prone, so unable to string his senses together that when he actually came out and said something that you could understand and then, Oh, that's a very successful speech."

Matt Smith:

Well, do you think Obama needs to choke on a pretzel then?

Nick Bisley:

Something well… not so much then but I think the way which he presented himself and packaged himself and I think ultimately my sense is the way he thinks of himself is an unrealistic sell in terms of the reality of American politics. The presidency which portrays the most powerful office in the world which it sort of is but it's also an extremely limited office in the sense that you have a legislative agenda, you've got to get it through Congress.

And even when Congress control by a party which he had in the first two years, that's a difficult game but presenting yourself as this white knight so to speak on a horse it's going to change the rules and change the game and bring about significant transformation of just about every form of life in America from rise, to environment, to the economy, to everything else.

When you fail to deliver that which you are going to fail by definition, it hurts you. And I think the problem for Obama is that the people who he seems to have lost most, to those who most inspired but are also ones are most fickle and they don't shout to vote. A big chunk of the vote for Obama in 2008 was the young vote, the 18 to 25. You can read that as unambiguously negative tick for Obama. That's to say these people feel down and disillusioned by Obama.

Interestingly, African Americans also feel quite disillusioned. This is what the poll link is telling us, yeah, there was huge block that voted for Obama and they're traditionally a then strong democratic block when they vote. The key thing is getting to vote.

And again, in summation, they didn't turn out to vote. So you've got to think to some degree some of that's to do with how Obama sells himself. Can Obama sell himself as normal man? I should now think again. If you're probably stranded as just that kind of expectations gap, it is always going to be there I think is something that will play on in the electoral campaign.

Matt Smith:

There's no real way of coming back from something like that. People didn't seem to have high expectations of Bush after a while. If Obama went and did that or if Obama wins and lost the missile support codes for six weeks like Clinton did.

Nick Bisley:

Ever since the election, you him attempt to be a bit more folksy but he doesn't do it well. He doesn't do folksy well. I keep thinking about it. If he had his time again he shouldn't have run in 2009.

I do think one thing has been shown, that two years so far has been political inexperience. He was a guy who shot to stardom from being a state senator in Illinois to being a Virginia senator in the National Senate for two years which is very, very brief period of time in the American electoral landscape.

I think we have seen that lack of political experience certainly that lack of political contact, that inability to play the Washington game in a way these two played into sort of think through, how not just you get a particular phase of legislation through but how the battle to get one phase of legislation, two phases of legislation then fits into the story, you got to tell them in the election campaign that they need to resonate with this sort of broader story trying to tell about why you are present and why you should be present again, that stuff is the part that don't seem to work as well as one might have expected given his series intellectual policy brand. So that I think he really would have benefitted from having a greater time in Washington learning the game of politics the Washington is before stepping up.

But I think the problem was in 2008, the Democrats were always guaranteed to win and that's why so many democrats put the hand up in the 2008 election and he was so surprised victory from the campaign but sometimes the prospects probably would be better to come a little further down the track particularly given how difficult being president 2009 was going to be.

Presidency makes your name history once you deal with very difficult times. I think Obama has found that in one sense to tell how the game is and how isolating it can be and how quickly you lose friends. What has been striking also within the Obama White House is how many people left. He's gone through six or seven senior staff in 18 months, sort of the Kevin Rudd style, to churn and burn the senior staff and by all accounts it is the White House that's a little dysfunctional but you never know whether to believe all this stuff and I think he's got difficult sell in his hands for the next two years but having said that orders prospects lack in 2012. I still think they're not bad.

You know, I still think they're not bad primarily because I think he's got two years. Being president is a big, big advantage in an election. It's a huge advantage, everything from the kind of symbolism, the big airplane, the money that you've got, the ability to raise funds all sorts of stuff. And the economy could well turn around in two years and I think the electoral volatility in the United States is such that could turn around the economy will have very real electoral consequences and there's always the chance the Republicans will put up a crazy, a very strong chance that Palin or someone else had this Tea Party yoke will put themselves up and I think if you had Obama, this is Palin. I think Obama will breeze in because Palin is frankly an electable in a lot of ways and I don't just mean that because she seems to be intellectually own up to the job in all those other things that a lot of people see but that it's pretty clear that the sort of policies such as now that she represents the sort of constituencies that she energizes is not enough to get you out of the line in a national election. That isn't going to change.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback you can send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au. Professor Nick Bisley, thanks for your time, today.

Nick Bisley:

Thanks, Matt.

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