The day after — Panel debate on the elections, their results and Obama’s coming challenges
In spite of a seemingly never-ending presidential campaign, a long election night and a tension-induced shortness of sleep for many of the U.S.-interested students in Lund, the small Room 128 in the Department of Political Science was at lunch time solidly packed with people collectively letting out a sigh of relief over Obama’s victory. Interested in hearing more insights on the campaign and Obama’s coming challenges, the surprisingly many who managed to mobilize the energy to once again brave the dense air and the elbow-bruising in Eden required a few minutes to settle down, but soon enough the panel consisting of the Department’s Magnus Jerneck (professor), Håkan Magnusson (associate professor) and Jacob Sohlberg (assistant professor), together with moderator Maria Green (Harvard; Full Bright Lund Chair at the Raoul Wallenberg Institute), was able to start enlightening the audience.
By: Tim Isaksson
The three panel members were each given time to share their strongest impressions of the presidential election. First out was Sohlberg, whose account focused mainly on the lack of surprises: it was almost a given that Obama would win and it was widely anticipated that the divided Congress would in large part remain as it was in terms of the Democratic-Republican balance (the Senate still held, barely, by Democrats and the House of Representatives held by Republicans). The reason this status quo-leaning result in itself wasn’t surprising considering the highly confrontational and intense campaigns is, quote, a victory for political science. The high accuracy of the polling and the statistical exercises are very impressive, according to Sohlberg. Replying to a question from Green regarding the huge discrepancy in predictions coming from ”mass media pundits” and ”number crunchers”, respectively, Sohlberg also celebrates how wrong the pundits turned out to be and how right the crunchers were, because this should mean that people will start to listen more to the scientific analysts, like The New York Times’s Nate Silver. Even if this means that those local pollsters that high-impact people like Silver ”cannibalize” won’t receive as much publicity as they deserve, this is a good development. Statistics aside, Sohlberg argued that the very fact that the U.S. is still knee-deep in an economic crisis made certain Obama’s victory simply because the economy matters most and most people realize that Obama and his party has made slow but important strides towards alleviating the situation and move the country closer to a strong economic comeback — and they realize Romney would put this in jeopardy. So much so in fact that any Democrat candidate would have beaten Romney, is Sohlberg’s conviction (some in the audience expressed doubt on this point).
Next up was Magnusson. Focusing mainly on some of the more unexpected turnovers of Senate seats (all the while undermining, including directly, Sohlberg’s claim that not much will change in the workings of Congress during the coming two years), Magnusson exemplified with the two Republicans running for Senate who next to Obama and Romney have received most media attention during the election campaign, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. Both were defeated yesterday, probably in large part due to their very crude and extremely ill-recieved statements about rape and abortion. In so doing, some commentators argue that they threw away what previously looked to become Republican control of the Senate. Magnusson also emphasized how especially Akin’s behavior also was negative for Romney, since the Romney campaign didn’t distance itself as much from Akin as they ought to have. Regarding Mourdock, Magnusson spoke of how his defeat surely must give Republicans a lot to think about how healthy their affiliation with the Tea Party might be in the long run, since Mourdock defeated long-time Republican incumbent Indiana-Senator Richard Lugar, who is more moderate and often has been praised for his ability to be able to reach across the aisle and get things done in Washington — a quality that can’t be expected to be present in most Tea Partyists.
On a question (highly connected to Magnussons whole account) from Green about if the Congress might become less obstructive towards Obama due to the new make-up of elected representatives in it, Magnusson replies that yes, there will be a big change both for the simple reason that there has been a big change in the people making it up and because Republicans should now be able to realize (if for no other reason than the big and swiftly approaching challenges facing the U.S.) that their current strategy of doing all in their power to make Obama’s presidency hell is just not viable in the eyes of the electorate. Also, Obama stated in this morning’s victory speech that he in a couple of weeks will want to sit down and talk with Romney (at which moment in the speech the audience were at their most quiet) and is thereby signalling, much as he did in the 2008 election, that he wants to lead the whole nation and is willing to compromise and work hard to reach consensus on important issues. On this note, Green pointed out her personal reflection that Obama said he wanted to sit down with Romney and not with the man who is more likely to have a continuing political career, Ryan (who is also more conservative, should be mentioned). Magnusson also said that Democrat Nancy Pelosi’s hinting at maybe retiring might also ease efforts towards bipartisanship in Congress, since the former House speaker is seen by Republicans as very hard to work with.
When it was Jerneck’s turn, he first agreed on and stressed the need for bipartisanship rather than partisanship in Congress from now on, especially considering the big fiscal challenge threatening goverment spending that needs to be resolved in just a couple of months time from now. This need for cooperation is not well served by Obama’s reputation of being a bad negotiatior, and Jerneck therefore calls upon Obama to learn from Bill Clinton, who was outstanding in this regard. Then, Jerneck turned to foreign policy, starting off with somewhat of a ”we dodged a bullet”-type of statement on how a global adressing of climate change now at least won’t be made even harder. Obama’s key foreign policy issues will foremost be found in the Middle East, but also in assuring ”Asian peace” in and between the trio China, Japan and Korea. In the Middle East in general Obama will be better greeted than Romney ever would, but the opposite rings true in Israel, a fact that will pose a significant difficulty in the top-priority question of Iran’s nuclear weapons program; it is doubtful whether Obama wields the power needed to stop an Israeli-exclusive preemptive attack on Iran if that day should come — in the U.S. Obama has repeatedly been accused of being too soft on Iran.
This is connected to the larger accusation of Obama being risk-averse in his world diplomacy. Jerneck believes Obama will need to prove the naysayers wrong by projecting an even more realist foreign policy combining military pressure with soft politics, in order not only to be succesful in putting the break on the shrinking of U.S. hegemony or to not sabotage the next Democrat presidential candidate, but also in order to ensure his presidency will be remembered in a positive light (a motivation not to be underestimated). American presidents should be tough at the outset and apply soft politics only later in their terms, and this holds also for the much-talked about relationship with China’s new leadership coming into place tomorrow. A final issue Jerneck discussed in his short adress was that of drones. Obama has ordered seven times more drone attacks than Bush ever did (which Panorama wrote about in its U.S. Election Special Edition, see the right column) and considering that American politicians now after Iraq and Afghanistan see another land war as a near impossibility, Jerneck passionately states that drone usage is a moral issue of highest importance and needs to be put on the table, big time.
The discussion then continued with Green putting forth a topic to the panel members: what are your views on this campaign’s maybe most evident trend, the drowning of facts in money, leading to apparent lying, both from the candidates (especially Romney) and the media? To this, Magnusson answered that this trend is not only due to money and the media but actually has become part and parcel of ”the Republican machine”, i.e. the very workings of the Republican Party makes lies necessary for it to function — to enjoy popular votes at any meaningful rate at all. The problem is that this web of deception is just so opaque, sophisticated and well-spun that the Republicans are able to continue pushing through this undemocratic and depressing change. Magnusson didn’t go into details but praised the book Den amerikanska högern: republikanernas revolution och USA:s framtid by Martin Gelin for those interested in learning more about what for us seems to be a very strangedirection for a society to head in.
Sohlberg then jumped into the issue and put forward American mentality as an alternative or at least a complementary explanation for the lying situation. The American celebration of ”my opinion” is so strong, he argued, that it enables people to say whatever they want without having to back it up by fact. Green protested this statement and asked that if the exit polls show that people are tired of the kind of made-up-accusations language of Romney, doesn’t that mean that the American public are in fact desiring political campaigning more to the point and less to the character traits, however fictional? Sohlberg replied that no, if the exit polls show this that is just an expression of their dislike towards the man they didn’t vote for, ergo a kind of biased processing of information. Yes, and, interjected Jerneck, Obama has actually praised the confrontational way the campaign has been run, cherishing its intensity and equating it with the essence of politics; in general, Obama seems to think that the harshness of conversation we’ve seen is an integral part of democracy. Presenting the apparent truth that making people angry towards the other candidate increases voter turnout and support for the instigator more than any other feeling, Sohlberg effectively ended this particular discussion.
Since the audience was too tired to chip in at all, Magnusson took the last word and used it to paint the picture of the Republican Party’s supporters using an all-white vocabulary. Ever since Nixon’s strategy of taking over the South, Republicans have been supported almost exclusively by white people. This year is probably the last time a strategy so informed was demographically feasible — just look at the Democrats: in the Senate they now have a ”majority of women and minorities”. Granted, some change within the Republican Party must be acknowledged, seeing as they now have a black woman, a gay man and a Hindu in Congress, but the party has a long way to go.
The audience also had a long way to go too, namely back to their beds. Nevertheless, it stood clear that the event was highly appreciated by all involved.
by Tim Isaksson
For a comment on the election by Maria Green, see this video clip