Obama's first year


You can also listen to the interview (MP3 15.6MB).

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University podcast. I will be your host, Matt Smith and I’m here today with Associate Professor Nick Bisley from the Politics program. Thank you for joining me Nick.

Nick Bisley:

Thanks Matt.

Matt Smith:

Now, we’re here today to talk about Obama’s first year in the presidency of the United States of America. And I would like to know from you, do you think he is a symbol or a man of substance? He’s now got a music video. He’s got a Nobel Peace Prize. The word ‘change’ is being thrown around quite a lot. So, what has your impression on his first year of power been?

Nick Bisley:

As an academic, you’re always going to disappoint your crowd by saying it’s a little bit of both. In the sense that I think he’s done a considerable amount in the first year. And he set out a map, if you like, of policy programs that are extremely ambitious which I think if he can deliver will really make a big difference and really make his name in the longer run in the pantheon of American presidents.

The question of course is whether he can. In the first year, I think most people who are sort of ardent Obama supporters who are hoping for an instant wind of fresh change to kind of blow over America and to deliver a handful of big changes were always going to be a bit disappointed.

And as Obama discovered, there’s the big difference between announcing you’re going to close Guantanamo Bay and actually being able literally to do it. On the other hand, there are some very obvious disappointments in the sense that his rhetorical flair and his very obvious charisma does seem to be something at odds with his ability to produce the goods.

Now, partly that can be to do with political obstruction and the division of powers within the United States and the blocks that Congress can always impose. But also I think there’s been some indecisiveness from himself and I think that’s probably one of the criticisms which in my mind seems to be closest to the mark.

I think the sort of Republicans who say he gives a great speech but he’s not much of a politician. I don’t think that’s quite right. He looks like he’ll get something to do with healthcare through, to get a bill through the House of Representatives on healthcare however compromised is a serious achievement. Even if it only just got over and will probably get further amended in the Senate.

Pessimists think it will get completely gutted but we’ll wait and see, but still he’s making some headway and I think the idea that there’s nothing there is wrong. But if you look at Afghanistan and I think Afghanistan is where I see the clearest example of weakness in his political style.

He came in and made very clear that Afghanistan was going to be his major foreign policy priority. Make good the wrongs in Iraq, but Afghanistan is where the real concern is. We’ve got to get Afghanistan right. I think staked his foreign policy credibility on it.

Afghanistan is the war that will be my war and we’ll sort it out. He commissioned a review and has now been sitting on the review. Reviewing the review for at least four or five weeks. Press secretary was asked last week, “How many troops are going to go? What’s going to happen?” “We’ll let you know soon.” And I think there’s a real indecisiveness there that I think speaks to some of his weakness.

Matt Smith:

Is it a problem of trying to address too much too fast? It seems like his trying to live up to the image that people have gotten of him?

Nick Bisley:

That’s right to some degree. I think he’s extraordinarily ambitious. To be president of the United States you have to be by definition ambitious but even in that competition, people who observe him up close have told me that he has a remarkable calmness within the office.

He doesn’t seem overawed by it. He seems very comfortable with himself as president which most presidents evidently don’t do in their first year. They feel, “Am I big enough for this?” that sort of thing.

And he set out healthcare reform. This is a multigenerational problem in the US. He’s got two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq which he’s going to try to win. He's trying to ban nuclear weapons, resolve the Middle East peace, fix the education system, save the climate.

Yeah this is a big stuff which he is not going to be in the position to deliver on. I think there is that sense that he has this confidence in himself that matches his ambition. But it’s one which is somewhat at odds with the realities of the position.

It’s the most powerful office in the world, which it sort of is, in the sense you got nuclear weapons, all that sort of stuff. But it’s also very heavily constrained by a range of factors. Most obvious of which is he's got to get reelected.

And I think if you look at his policy the past year, there’s an odd mix of things going on whereby on the one hand, as you said there’s this soaring ambition and a massive agenda, but then there’s this kind of occasional nod to well we've got to get reelected in a few years time.

Actually that aspect of things maybe being neglected to some degree. The other problem he’s got which again demonstrates the limitations of the office is the economy. And this is stuff that is not in his control, how markets operate, financial regulation, this sort of stuff.

He will find, no matter how popular he may be personally, the guy who’s in charge of the country, when the economy is going badly always suffers electorally. He will find that a huge liability I think going to next election and on the whole, most informed economists and economic analysts think that the Obama presidency has handled the financial crisis about as well as it could have.

The reality is the American economy will hurt for a long time. He’s going to find the next election will be tough, I suspect. And it’s been a very hard year. When we spoke a little while ago, we reflect on the fact that when he came in, he came in at a time in which, it’s a good time to be President, difficult times make for famous presidents, if you want to make a name in history and he’s got that.

So far he’s doing reasonably well, but it’s still early days. It’s one year in. He’s got three years to go.

Matt Smith:

What do you think of President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize which kind of surprised everybody including himself?

Nick Bisley:

Yeah. Apparently his press secretary when asked by journalists in the briefing room, “Have you heard that Obama has won the Peace Prize?” and he comments. The press secretary just went, “What?” Jaw dropped and said, “We’ll get back to you on that” was probably what happen. Very odd. Nobel Prize is an odd creature for one thing. And some very unpeaceful people have won it. But usually you don’t get it for ambition or aspiration or target setting. You usually get it for doing something.

Matt Smith:

The points being made that he done nothing to deserve it. But it’s also an interesting thing that just who he is and where he’s come from and what he’s been through makes him in essence a good ambassador for the United States.

In a recent podcast we do with Dr. Farish Noor, he said that the Indonesians love him and claim him as one of their own because he used to live there.

Nick Bisley:

Yeah, he lived there between about 5 and 10 or something like that, pretty formative period.

Matt Smith:

And just the fact that that’s happen, like they embrace him because of who he is. And the Indonesians aren’t the only country that can claim that.

Nick Bisley:

Oh yeah. Obama’s more popular out of America than in America without question. There’s a couple of countries where he’s not very popular. Russia is interestingly enough - they don't particularly buy Obama mania. There can be no question that the public perception globally of America has been instantly improved by Obama for the so many reasons. Realize he’s not George Bush.

The plastic chair would have been better in the sense from a lot of, the rest of the world’s perspective than Bush. So, being not Bush is one thing and some Republicans have said, “Yeah Nobel Prize committee gave it to him because he wasn’t George Bush?” which I don’t think is quite true.

The Peace Prize itself seemed to me to be something which he shouldn’t have accepted. If I had had a word here and quite a few people have said this, is “You don’t have to accept it.” There’s nothing that says they gave it to you, you have to take it.

And in fact, it’s often forgotten that when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for many activities, most of which were not especially peaceful.

It was jointly awarded to Kissinger and the Vietnamese general who was at the Paris Peace negotiations that led to the end of Vietnam War. And the Vietnamese general turned it down. Saying “I don’t want any of this.”

And I think Obama should have, I think it would have been extremely statesmanlike and would have gained him enormous amount of credibility abroad but also within America to sort of take this. You’re a cosmopolitan elitist foreigner and this kind of stuff that Republicans love to pin on Democrats who like the UN and do things like that.

What this means for Obama more generally though, I think you’re absolutely right. It reflects this wide ranging support he’s got in Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia. People love Obama. He’s got real star power. And not just because he’s the American president because he’s this charismatic, good looking, quite cosmopolitan guy. He’s got a charm about him that people like.

Is this a good thing? Unquestionably, it’s a good thing in the sense that we live in a world that’s dominated by America in which America’s military power is overwhelming. And to have a leader of that country that is less inclined to use that military force and is more widely liked by the rest of the world is unquestionably a good thing for all of us.

For Obama himself politically, I think it’s a bit of a mixed blessing. He cannot possibly hope to fulfill the ambitions that people outside of America have for him. And the fact that he’s loved by foreigners so much is something that can be under the right circumstances a lot of a liability within the United States when you get down to the grubby politics of winning the next election and going out, shake hands in the back blocks of Nebraska and these places.

This does not necessarily the sort of advantage that you might automatically assume that because the rest of the world loves you. That doesn’t mean that the Republican base will love you or the moderates in the middle who you are hoping to catch or love you. In fact, that could be a liability for him.

But I think the major problem I think for Obama and it’s really that which we spoke about earlier is that there’s this utterly unachievable expectation gap between what people want from him and what he could possibly deliver. And the question is whether that gap is so large that people then become disenchanted with him.

And I think at home that has very, a real electoral problem. Aboard, it speaks to a broader disenchantment with the United States. I think he’s had on the whole, a pretty successfully year. He has a tendency to be indecisive in certain points that seems to been brought out.

That in my mind, I think is a worry. He’s said to be a very good strategic thinker and very good at prioritizing and making tough decisions. Yet he’s got so much on his plate that he can’t be a great thinker across all issues all the time.

He is a great centralizer. Whether you like it or not Bush was a very much a delegating president. The Secretary of State had a lot of autonomy. The Vice President had a lot of autonomy and a lot of power, treasury. No major decision in cabinet is made without clear significant consultation with an involvement of Obama. For a country like United States, that makes for difficult decision making.

Matt Smith:

That point that you just made about Bush delegating quite a lot. His team didn’t work together very well. That’s something that have a lot of problems with whereas Obama’s team seems to be big on the teamwork.

Nick Bisley:

Yeah. I think that’s true. There seemed to be insiders and outsiders within the Bush White House. You have two administrations and the personnel changed quite a bit, but it did seem to divide between those who kind of had the presidency and were very influential and had a lot of autonomy and those who didn’t and were on the outside.

Classic example of this would be Colin Powell, Secretary of State for the first administration had basically lost the trust and faith of the president versus Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense who was very much of one mind with the president and spoke with his authority and had an enormous amount of leeway as of consequence.

So, you have this divisions. That doesn’t seem to be the case at all with the Obama administration. And I think within a year, significant figures within the Bush administration left and were writing kiss and tell memoires and we haven’t had that.

I mean, Paul O’Neill, who’s the Treasury Secretary lasted I think 14, 15 months before he wrote his kiss and tell memoir which most people would be very surprised at what occurred. There is a great deal of kind of teeny feeling, wee feeling, if you like amongst the Obama administration. But also, it’s very pyramidal. It all goes back to Obama. And that begs enormous amount on his time.

And the other thing in his first year that’s noticeable is how much he’s visibly aged. He’s aged 5 or 10 years I think in a year because he looked very youthful at the start, 12 months ago. And he already, he’s got a lot more gray hair. He’s visibly got lines. He's still got a lot of energy and pizzazz and he’s got this youthful vigor there, but physically it’s a tough job and it’s showing.

There’s a great cartoon in The Economist that kind of have the four ages of Obama. Year one, year two, year three and year four and by the year four, his corpse is aging so quickly.

But politics is a tough game. But being American president is the toughest game in town. And even for someone who’s got the confidence, the abilities, the charisma and the fitness. He’s a fit guy. He’s finding it physically, psychologically, emotionally demanding. That also shaped his administration.

Matt Smith:

So, what do you think about Obama’s attempt to get the 2012 Olympics in Chicago?

Nick Bisley:

Was a little glimmer of bad judgment. People have said on the whole, he makes very shrewd political judgments. But this one, this is surprising. I felt that he was hiding to nothing by backing the bid. He chose to do this, sort of shuttle run 40 hours out of the president’s time which is a lot of time, to jump on his Air Force One, fly to Copenhagen, try to wow the IOC. You know, notoriously difficult crowd to wow absent significant cash payments and fly back.

If they’d won, it would have been. OK, a bit of a feather in his cap. But mostly will look like a carpetbagger. But if they’d lost which is what happened, you come back looking like you’ve made a bad decision at the last minute. If you had really support of this, you should been doing what, the Brazilian guy, President Lula was doing which is being involved all the time and not just showing up at the last minute to shake the hands, close the deal and smile charmingly, a mixed bag of European royalty.

When pressed under the right circumstances, Obama can make pretty bad judgments.

Matt Smith:

So, probably counted against Chicago more than anything else?

Nick Bisley:

The view was generally Chicago was not going to win anyway. Obama should have realized that Chicago was not going to wind and kept it, sort of credible distance from it and the last minute appearance of the president to try to pave over the cracks of what apparently was a solid if unspectacular bid only serve the highlight them rather than cover them up. So, I think you’re right, it was counterproductive for Chicago and I think very counterproductive for Obama.

If I was a Republican running against a Democrat in Chicago, I’d be running around with pictures of Obama with Chicago 2012 T shirts on. It captures that the essence of what people say is wrong with him. He's superficial. Loves the hot limelight. Thinks he’s a celebrity. Thinks he can show up, shake hands and seal the deal when the reality of the politics and the situation is much more complex and much more difficult.

Matt Smith:

My last question is, what do you think of the war on Fox and of the conditions of it? It’s kind of, has gotten to, for the White House to actually make this sort of move to declare that they’re going to treat them like an enemy.

Nick Bisley:

I’m kind of glad in one regard. Those of us who watch this stuff with any degree of regularity know that Fox News is not news. It’s something else.

It’s a propaganda wing of the Murdoch empire and largely a propaganda wing of the sort of right with the United States. That’s not to denounce it as morally wrong. Politically, that’s what it is.

And getting the president to come out and say that is I think a good thing. To do it in the way they did it, probably not helpful. You don’t want the story to become a story. Probably treating them as an enemy that war on Fox probably not smart move.

But there’s studies that show you don’t lose anything electorally by getting people who don’t like you, further offside. They don’t influence swing voters. Elections are won or lost by swing voters. They excite the people who are already going to vote Republican and they may imagine to get one or two more of them to the polling booth.

Now, these guys reflect voter’s opinions. They don’t shape it. Not feeling that you have to kowtow to Fox, I think is probably a good thing. I think that the most helpful thing is to clear the air that this is not a news channel that seeks to be in some way presenting objective side. It’s a partisan, political package that’s unmistakable in it’s partisanship.

But they probably didn’t handle it as well as they could have. But the sort of politics of the media in the United States is curious. It’s funny. The Americans have this sense, that the right has this belief that the left controls the media.

The left believes the right controls the media. It’s funny, sort of perception game going on. It's certainly the case that a lot of journalists in and around Washington probably have Democrat preferences on the whole would probably largely vote Democrat.

How do most people get their news? From TV and the TV stations are probably slightly to the right but not hugely. I mean, Fox is, but that’s a small chunk of the viewership.

CBS, ABC, NBC, the three big networks and they’re all moderate, probably slightly to the right in their politically biased but not huge and like TV news here in Australia, increasingly infotainment rather than news and analysis.

Matt Smith:

Nick Bisley, thank you for your time.

Nick Bisley:

Thank you.