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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Europeans and Americans Debate Obama
Robert M. Shrum, Senior Fellow, NYU Wagner
La Pietra Dialogues
March 5, 2009

Just weeks after the most exciting election in modern American history, La Pietra Dialogues convened a two-day conference to explore what had happened--and where the new President was likely to lead the country.

Italian political consultant Roberto D’Alimonte and I debated, agreed, and disagreed about the forces that propelled Barack Obama to victory. There was no dispute about the critical role of the economy, but there was a lively exchange about changes in turnout that had made the difference between 2004 and 2008--especially in the youth vote. We both saw Hillary Clinton’s strategic misreading of the year as decisive in the Democratic primaries. Until it was too late, she ran as the “establishment” candidate in a year of change. Tactically, the Clinton campaign failed to prepare for the states that voted after February 5th where delegate allocations are determined in caucus meetings, not in state-wide primaries. In discussing the Republican contest, I argued that the GOP in effect nominates by primogeniture--the winner is always the next candidate in line--and despite his early stumbles, that was clearly John McCain.

As D’Alimonte suggested, McCain lacked a compelling message for the general election--a problem that was exacerbated when the economic crisis hit just after McCain said that he knew very little about economics. I pointed out that he had his temporary tactical upticks, most apparent when he picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. But her selection didn’t provide a lasting bounce; it proved to be a bubble that burst as she stumbled through her interviews with the national press.

I predicted an activist presidency in which Obama would deal with major issues simultaneously not sequentially. The new President did not see himself as elected to do small things. So for example, he would not postpone health reform, but move swiftly on the issue in his first year because he understood the lesson of recent history, that that is when Presidents are most likely to achieve major change.

The role of the press was dissected by the New York Times chief political correspondent Adam Nagourney and by Italian journalist Mario Calabresi, the New York Correspondent of La Repubblica and recently appointed director of La Stampa. Nagourney emphasized not only the skill of Obama’s overall press operation, but the qualities of character that enabled him to overcome crises and controversies that ranged from his large gap in the polls with Hillary Clinton in the fall of 2007 to the media firestorm surrounding the pastor of his church, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama had a steady commitment to his own political strategy, and an unusual capacity to respond to unexpected events. Both Nagourney and Calabresi agreed that McCain was in a nearly impossible position, given the dissatisfaction with Bush and the deterioration of the financial sector and the economy.

Nagourney resisted the suggestion that the press had leaned toward Obama. That perception, he contended, was both a product of objective events on the ground--and a press operation that was as skillful as it was tightly controlled. He noted how difficult it was to report the inside story of the Obama campaign--the disputes, the personality clashes, the rivalries for power, assuming there were some--because it was nearly impossible to elicit such stories from campaign operatives. It was very different from past Democratic campaigns--and very different from the McCain enterprise.

Finally, Calabresi described the unprecedented attention to the Obama candidacy overseas, how closely readers followed the race and how high their expectations were for the new President. This provoked a comment about the global asymmetry of political power: The U.S. President was in a very real sense the President of the world; everybody had an important stake in the outcome--but only Americans could cast a vote.

Wagner Associate Dean Rogan Kersh and European University Institute professor Sven Steinmo addressed the larger context of 2008. Kersh began by noting the dismal election results for Republicans. Besides losing the presidency (for only the third time in the past 28 years), the GOP faces large deficits in both houses of Congress, and since 2006 has seen Republican control of U.S. governorships fall from 28 to just 17.

Whether 2008 marks a historic “realigning” election will depend on how Obama and Congressional Democrats wield their governing majority. Steinmo observed that from a European perspective, Democratic and Republican policy positions often look essentially the same—the range of solutions offered by either party’s platform is far more limited than in most EU countries.

Both Kersh and Steinmo addressed the urgent U.S. economic crisis. Democrats face an internal policy and ideological split, Kersh said. An emerging “Paul Krugman - Russ Feingold” wing is likely to promote New Deal-style programs of public works and massive government intervention, while adherents to Bill Clinton-era “Rubinomics” will insist on a more moderate, deficit-reducing strategy. Steinmo predicted little successful government intervention: both the deep internal splits in the American electorate and the essentially local orientation of U.S. Members of Congress, he said, will severely limit any mandate for substantive change.

Two features distinguish the La Pietra Dialogues. First, they are designed to encourage a lively exchange between the speakers and the audience; indeed the back and forth during the post-election panels was as spirited as it was insightful and informative. Second, the Dialogues are intended to foster continuous conversation and a constantly deepening understanding. So the post-election conference was a beginning, not an end. This October, the La Pietra Dialogues will examine the politics, policy making and impact of the first year of the Obama Administration. In addition to Rogan Kersh and myself, the speakers will feature distinguished observers and analysts from both the United States and Europe, including Stanley Greenberg, the internationally renowned pollster for President Bill Clinton, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and South African President Nelson Mandela.

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