The Obama presidency – here’s where the story begins…
Robin Kolodny, Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University, Pennsylvania, and Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Sussex speaks to The Badger about Obama, his policies and assassination.
Firstly where were you for the election?
I was in the American Embassy in London.
And what was your reaction?
Happy, but mostly relieved that the polls were correct. Glad that the Congress went Democrat as well.
Should we be sceptical that Obama, as is often accused of Blair, will turn out to be all spin and no action?
That’s a difficult question. The system prevents him from making huge changes as he needs Congress and they have very diverse interests to protect. I predict wide policy steps in foreign policy and civil rights for gay Americans but the level of changes will be milder than some will want.
How much of a radical will Obama be?
Not that radical at all. Remember that he campaigned as mainstream democratic, and unlike Hillary Clinton he is not promising national healthcare but healthcare that supplements the private sector. There will be no wholesale nationalisation, just temporary measures to ensure the system stays afloat. Generally the Democrat party is much more to the right compared to what it was thirty years ago.
Who are the key people around Obama? Has he chosen well?
Its still too early to say with a lot of posts not announced yet. The one key announcement so far is Rahm Emanuel a Chief of Staff. He was close to the Clintons and has a much more direct management style – basically he thinks he’s right a lot! The flipside of this is that he will keep Obama focussed and I was impressed that he picked someone who no one can push around. More generally there is a lot of back-room jockeying to go on. The temptation for Obama is to take fellow senators that he knows well and has worked with before but he can’t drain the senate of its best people. And he promised to bring change so he needs to pick people from outside the normal sphere of politics, like Michael Bloomberg [the billionaire Mayor of New York] or for me, offering Al Gore Secretary of Energy is a no-brainer.
Does the worsening economy make it a bad time to take over?
Yes and no. It’s bad because the problems are so serious and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The American manufacturing collapse is the most immediately-pressing issue and the knock-on effects are huge. But it’s a good time as well, because after all, the American view of Bush’s presidency is so bad that the only way is up.
The global economic crisis will both give him options and tie his hands. It will mean that he can force China to improve its human rights as Americans won’t care if there are less disposable goods they can’t afford. But at the same time it ties his hands on aid. The piggybank is empty and Americans won’t care about starving Africans if they can’t afford to warm their homes!
What will the foreign policy of an Obama government look like?
Well for one he won’t be wearing the ‘world-policeman shield’ so prominently – certainly not the same unilateralism that we saw in the last eight years. He has no choice but for a sharp departure in Iraq and Afghanistan – expect Joe Biden [vice-president] to be leading the way on that, and rightly so.
The economic crisis will mean he has to be more respectful of the President’s impact on markets, and I genuinely believe that Obama has a consistent philosophy of humanitarianism.
Will he be able to through everything he wants even if he doesn’t get the 60 majority in Senate?
Of course not but he will get a version of it. In the US all laws from the President are transformative, and what the President sends to Congress is only the starting point. The more a policy is domestic-orientated, the more it will be changed. Something like healthcare or energy policy will be pounced on by politicians from all wings.
Obama looks set to veto Bush laws on stem cell and oil drilling policies. Is this the start of an uprooting of the Bush government’s laws?
Clinton did it too with the family medical leave act. It’s a great way for a new President to indicate a clean break from the last guy. Rewrite a new bill and sign it on the first day of his Presidency. The main thing for Obama now is the budget – its due on February the 1st and is the product of 18 months’ work by Bush’s advisors.
He has only 11 official days to change it [after taking the Presidency on January 20th] so will be working his hardest to get in there before then.
Does Obama’s victory mean the final victory for race relations?
Absolutely not. It’s a significant victory, yes, and it’s the dawn of a new era. But the same day that American’s voted in a black President, the state of Nebraska outlawed positive discrimination! It doesn’t wipe out prejudice, it doesn’t deal with residential segregation and it doesn’t deal with the fact that most American prisoners are black. It’s a turning point but he is not the messiah – he cannot do everything that the black community want. In some ways just having a black family in the White House is the best thing he can do to break stereotypes.
How will Obama deal with environmental concerns better than Bush?
Well, will he deal with them at all? Whatever he does on the first day he will be doing better than Bush. He’s not purely willing to cede to business demands. There may be lots of bold, new initiatives. For example, the collapse of the US manufacturing industry means Obama has more power; he can say “you want to be bailed out? Then all your cars have to be hybrid in 5 years.” He probably won’t be that bold, but it’s possible.
And finally, do you think he will be assassinated?
I don’t think so, no. This is not 1960. Since the assassination attempt on Reagan the secret service have improved massively. One test will be where he sends his kids to school. They currently go to a nice private school, but when the Clinton’s moved in to the White House they moved Chelsea from a public [state] school to the incredibly prestigious Sidwell Friends School, as the secret service convinced them that it was necessary for her protection. If when they move to Washington D.C the kids go somewhere with a history of looking after high-profile children then it shows they are worried about attacks.