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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: September 29, 2008 @ 12:01 pm

    How to become US President: smile, stay away from specifics

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    It looks like John McCain’s intervention in the bailout crisis – when he suspended his  campaign and made a dash to Washington - hasn’t  had the desired effect. Latest opinion poll evidence shows Obama ahead by eight points.  Sometimes in politics masterly inactivity is the best approach.

    In fact, Obama has a very good line in looking good, smiling broadly (he has a marvellous warm smile, a great advantage in American or indeed any politics) and not saying anything very specific. His candidacy is in some ways a cultural rather than political phenomenon.

    Firstly, given the state of the economy and the whole subprime-bailout mess, any candidate for the Democrats has a natural advantage. You can get votes just by being there.

    Secondly, entering into specifics might win over one constituency but it will alienate another. Keep on keeping on and talking in vague generalities. It’s about winning and, as broadcaster George Hook said in his private briefing (well, it was supposed to be private until we journos heard about it) to the recent Fine Gael think-in, coming second is irrelevant. Sorry if it sounds cynical but these are the hard facts of political life.

     The appeal of Obama is that he is a new face with a new style. He gives us to  understand that he would be more conciliatory than his predecessor in international affairs. The assumption is there would be no more adventures like the Iraq invasion.

    As with JFK, if Obama wins it will be said that “the torch has been passed to a new generation”. But every political leader has to contend with what Macmillan called “events, dear boy” and it was Kennedy who got the US embroiled in Vietnam. And who would  have thought Blair would be the one to get Britain caught up in the former Mesopotamia again?

    A friend of mine who was recently in Iraq reports that the country is settling down. The “surge” seems to have worked. But at what cost. One would still find it very hard to argue that the invasion was justified in the first place. Sure, it would be painful for the Americans to have to listen to loudmouth Saddam and see him strutting the stage if he were still around but was it worth all that blood and treasure to get rid of him?

    The enthusiasm for Obama in Ireland is almost universal, stretching from the right in the form of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to the near-left in the Labour Party and the Greens, not to mention innumerable dinner-parties in South Dublin and other parts.

    The Democrats have suggested that US firms opting to set up in places like Ireland which offer low corporate tax rates should be penalised because of the consequent job-losses back home. Speaking on RTE’s Questions and Answers, US Ambassador Thomas Foley said this was unlikely but, if it did, the effect could be “dramatic”. It also looks as if McCain would be better for the undocumented Irish in the US, judging from the comments of lobbyist Ciarán Staunton. 

    Apart from Iraq — where the disagreement is becoming more and more historical — and abortion, there don’t seem to be any massive divergences of policy between the two candidates. No doubt the race will have further ups and downs before polling day and the result cannot be safely predicted as yet. Meanwhile, if you want a smile check out the Sarah Palin take-off on Saturday Night Live

    Deaglán de Bréadún, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times

    • Hapless Yankee says:

      You’re figuring out what most Americans already know, the one who is the best speaker normally represents the best liar. Europeans will get their wish in a few weeks when Obama wins the election. Americans will just get another high-priced liar who will tax us straight to poverty. The bail-out just cost us more then both wars we’re currently fighting. Where’s the money coming from, news flash, CHINA!

    • enda says:

      Well, they’re essentially two actors competing to see who can do the best impression of a president, while avoiding any of the real issues like the plague. Ralpha Nader discussed this over at the Onion AV club recently…
      “This business of blurring is fantastic. They both are playing the politics of avoidance. They avoid all the issues on corporate power, Iraq, Palestine, Israel, so on and so forth. They avoid all those. That’s the politics of avoidance. All the major issues that are so much on people’s minds—health care, living wage, public works, jobs—they avoid. The other thing they’re into is politics of identification. ‘Well, I’m just one of the guys,’ says Joe Biden. Eat a cheeseburger, drink a beer. Sarah Palin, she’s got five kids, she’s a hockey-mom, her son’s going off to Iraq, she’s an NRA member, she used to get up at 3 a.m. and go moose-hunting with her daddy! It’s politics of proletariat identification and the politics of corporate power avoidance. And if you print that, my friend, you’ll be the first journalist in America to do so.”

    • paul m says:

      I’m sorry, Hapless Yankee, but your name really does sum up the state of the nation, the phrase ‘not knowing your arse from your elbow’ could also be used to describe the state of politics there at the moment.

      Americans haven’t figured anything out, and saying the best speaker is usually the best liar is a bit obvious, considering politics is based on spinning the story to your party’s advantage. What Americans do have to contend with is which sort of ‘liar’ they want to get them out of the mess – a septuagenarian fossil (fuel drilling), Bush-policy-approving clone with a VP whose passport ink hasn’t yet dried and who comes from the one of the smallest, introspective outpost fringes of America, or an inexperienced slick-talking Kennedy clone who wants to try and change America’s economic and foreign policy but somehow will do this on a shoestring with a budget defecit the size of the GNP of a small country who carries an aged gaffe-prone VP as backup?

      They’re both trying to tell America at large what she thinks she wants to hear in as vague and broad a fashion as possible. And with Bush telling the nation that they’re in for a long-term problem, you’d put your money on youth and inexperience over age and inexperience. But then again what would an African-American man of immigrant descent, who worked his way up the political and social grapevine through his own efforts and quickly moved through the Democratic ranks, know about hardships of the aspiring working man ,above a white senator who married into huge wealth and whose hardships came from abroad while volunteering for his country and not (like most immigrants and African-Americans) from the country he lives in?

    • RRB52 says:

      It has been my experience that most American voters do not follow the news and political developments, and are unwilling to invest the time and effort necessary for an understanding of critical issues. Hapless Yankee fears that taxes will rise in the future but is apparently unconcerned that the national debt has risen from $5.7 trillion in January, 2001 to $9.8 trillion today. Of course, that number will rise significantly when the bailout plan is approved by Congress. Over the past eight years Republicans have convinced many voters that it is possible to increase domestic spending and fight wars on two fronts while cutting taxes repeatedly. They have done so by insisting that tax-cuts pay for themselves despite all evidence to the contrary. And people have believed and continue to believe in such nonsense. It comes as no surprise that the candidates would avoid specifics – the average American voter doesn’t want to hear bad news, even if it is honest and accurate.

    • festinog says:

      RRB52 – The level of interest in this years election is unprecedented, as is shown by the record numbers of new voters that have registered as democrats or independents. The apathy you speak of is for the moment, a thing of the past. There is an underlying belief here that this election is pivotal. Many feel there is yet time to recover from the mistakes of the Bush years, but should McCain win, these mistakes will become cemented. Hence a sense of urgency has developed amongst many, who feel a McCain victory with a “hockey mom” as Veep, will become the benchmark that future historians will point to and say “this is the point the American Empire ended”. It will represent a victory of the old “know-nothing” isolationist, conservative, and bellicose America over the America as envisioned by JFK and RFK.

      Some argue that there is little to chose from between both candidates, other than their styles of speaking. I heartily disagree. If one is basing one’s opinion on nothing more than the side of the election portrayed by the media: Obama the muslim, McCain the septuagenarian, the endless tv debates, etc., then one could be forgiven for this mistake. However if one takes the time to engage with each candidate’s policies, which if elected either candidate would be in an excellent position to implement, one cannot but be struck by the fundamental differences between the two.

      The importance of health insurance in the US is something no European can truly appreciate until they have lived in a country where any access to health care is limited by what benefits, if any, your employer offers. Not all jobs come with benefits, so if you are fortunate enough to get good coverage you effectively become indentured to your employer. Employers are safe in the knowledge that your freedom to move between jobs, or make demands regarding pay are greatly stymied by the control they exert over your, and your family’s, access to adequate health care.
      McCain’s health plans will tighten this grip by floating health provision on the free market. Health insurance will get more expensive, and those with pre-existing conditions (i.e., who have already been diagnosed with an illness) will find themselves shut out of the market altogether.
      McCain has also taken to comparing US business tax rates with those of Ireland, comparing 16% against Irelands 11%. He argues that this difference attracts investment away from the US to Ireland. What he does not mention is that in Ireland the average taxpayer makes up the shortfall by paying between 20-41% income tax. In the US the average taxpayer only pays between 15-25% tax.
      McCain has made a great deal of his promise not to halt Bush’s tax cuts to the wealthy, so where, if he intends to make the US business tax competitive with Ireland’s, will he make up the shortfall in federal revenue? The middle classes.
      Of course there is no mention of this in his speeches. Only promises to maintain tax cuts for those who earn over $5 million a year! If an Irish politician openly ran on this mandate, they’d be tarred, feathered and run out of town!

    • Happless Yankee says:


      Its not that we don’t wish to hear bad news, but let’s put it in perspective. We have roughly 550, most wealthy, mostly white, Americans controlling the lives of 300 million Americans. We have very little input into how the debt is paid off, how folks pay for health care. Will social security be here for those of us who paid into it for years and when will we stop sending our troops to everyone else’s borders and guard our own?
      The American election draws roughly 60%, mainly due in large part to the fact we know our vote no longer counts. Our century was the last one. The 21st century now belongs to China, as the global economies expand, the world will see China as the “New America” and we will go the way of the British as far as our military and economic power is concerned. It’s begun and there is no stopping it.

    • Deaglán says:

      Irish corporate tax rate is 12.5 per cent, McCain was a bit off the mark but it does not detract from his basic point I suppose.

    • dublin says:

      With the help of the crisis, normally it’s going to be Obama … otherwise we will have another war!

    • RRB52 says:

      Festinog and Hapless Yankee: Thanks for your comments. Just so you’re aware, I’m an American citizen about to vote in my tenth presidential election. As Festinog noted, there is interest in this election, and the turnout will be
      fairly high.
      But interest in the election does not equate to knowledge of the issues, as demonstrated by the savage, mindless partisanship of many voters. I’ve reached my regrettable conclusions about the average American voter based on questions asked and conversations conducted over the past 36 years.
      To get an idea of the debased level of political discourse in the U.S., read the blogs at http://www.politico.com. Of course, there are other reasons for the relative political ignorance of the average American voter (and note that “average” implies that there are many who are not politically ignorant). While I have my own ideas in this regard, I would be pleased to hear yours. What are your thoughts?

    • festinog says:

      Just to play Devil’s Advocate, there is some circumstantial evidence to suggest that the electorate in many countries, and not just the US, have been dumbed down.

      Take for example the recent Lisbon Treaty vote in Ireland. The majority of ‘No’ voters did so because they didn’t understand the Treaty. The thought that they should take the time to educate themselves or else stay at home never seemed to cross their minds. Other reasons cited include a fear of the introduction of conscription!

      People are becoming increasingly dependent on the media to tell them which way to vote, and in a world of 24-hour news, internet news, blogs, etc., all competing for their slice of the news pie, undue focus is being placed on every single step, or mis-step the candidates take. Trivia become all-consuming, while serious discussion of more complex issues, which require more than a headline or snappy phrase to impart, are overlooked. Hence people unashamedly vote out of ignorance, rather than take the time to actually educate themselves.

    • I agree with Festinog that 24/7 news means there is now an extraordinary over-emphasis on trivia. Does it matter what Sarah Palin calls her kids, any more than Bob Geldof’s equally idiosyncratic choice of family nomenclature? But journos, particularly in the electronic media, are under pressure to come up with something new to feed the News Monster.
      And yet, as RRB52 suggests, the more ‘news’ the less understanding. Not so long ago, a poll of registered voters in the US showed that 13% thought Obama was actually a Muslim.

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