The test of our progress is not adding to those who have much

November 14, 2012

Here is the best quote of the week, originally spoken by Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his Second Inaugural Address, on Wednesday 20 January 1937:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

The quote seems particularly important, given that last week’s re-election of Barack Obama and Joseph Biden has confirmed that the majority of Americans do, after all, consider the needs of the “community” to be equal – if not more important than – the individualism put forward by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.  The American election was indeed a choice between two competing ideologies:  the importance of government and the triumph of the private sector.  It was close, but those who favour government were (and are) in the majority.


Hurricane Sandy – Did it make a difference to Obama’s election?

November 11, 2012

There has been much speculation about Hurricane Sandy and did it make a difference in the American election.

My view is that the difference was very slightly positive for Obama, but did not impact the results in any state.  Why do I say this?

First, Obama had already been re-bounding in the polls, consistently so since early October.

Second, the Mmajor impact of the storm was primarily in states that are solidly democratic, particularly New York and New Jersey (they were voting for Obama no matter what).  So while the storm may have encouraged more of them to vote for the President and lift his total numbers, the impact on the actual race is not significant.

Third, the response to the storm certainly made Obama look more Presidential – and particularly positive in comparison with George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  The warm embrace by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a significant national Republican figure, certainly helped.  Romney was on the record of saying that FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency – should be abolished, not a popular move in the aftermath of the storm.

But this is countered by the difficulties which many people may have in voting because of power outages, lack of petrol and general destruction.  It is the poor people and minority groups who are affected by these problems more so than the rich – and the poor are much more likely to vote for Obama.

On balance – a slight plus for Obama, but no real impact on the electoral college.


Australian media coverage of US election aftermath – part 1

November 11, 2012

The Sydney Morning Herald journalist Paul McGeough’s analysis of why Mitt Romney lost the American Presidential election (Thursday 8 November 2012; entitled “Defeat for a man of contradictions” online) provides an excellent summary of Romney’s “flip-flopping”.  McGeough analyses the man’s actions well, but comes to the wrong conclusion.

Yes, Romney’s inability to know what he actually stands for made it almost impossible for him to overcome the well-targeted Democratic campaign to paint him as a heartless job-destroyer, thereby neutralising his successful career as management consultant, saviour of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and Governor of Massachusetts.  But as former President Bill Clinton famously pointed out to Democratic strategists many months ago, it would be much easier to run a campaign against a “hard Right” Republican candidate than against one who kept changing his mind.  (The history of party leaders changing their mind on major issues, in both the USA and here in Australia, is a long one – and includes just about everyone.)

In fact, Mitt Romney’s greatest boost in the polls came immediately after the Denver debate with President Obama, when Romney unveiled himself as a “centrist” candidate after all.  The so-called “low information” voters (people just “tuning in”) didn’t care about his previous positions, and many others didn’t care either.

The reasons why Romney lost are much more complicated, deep-seated and profound.  They include the ability of the Democrats to overcome massive Republican fundraising from the uber-wealthy by highly organised and efficient voter-targeting, the Republicans’ war against women on abortion and rape issues (women heard, for sure, and voted for Obama in significant numbers), the Republicans’ insistence on maintaining an anti-immigration policy that leaves them with only one-third of Hispanic voters, the Democrats’ successful bail-out of the car industry (famously opposed by Romney in his November 2008 statement to “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”) that assisted in upper Midwest states – notably Ohio, and the continuing improvement, however slight, in American economic conditions.


US Election Watch Down Under – the view from Australia on election day

November 7, 2012

Australians remained confused on Election Day, with almost everyone I spoke to genuinely wondering who would win – at least until CNN “called” the election at about 3.20pm Sydney time.  The Australian news media continued to do a major dis-service by ignoring real interpretations of the polls.  Typical was Nick O’Malley’s article (front page, The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 November 2012 Australia time) which read “So close the result could take weeks”.  The online version of this article – which also appeared in other Fairfax Press papers – was re-titled to read “Lawyers at 10 paces as US election goes down to the wire”, removing the reference to “take weeks” in the title (although leaving the phrase unchanged in the first paragraph of the article).

I have argued elsewhere in this blog (here and here) that the Australian papers have simply missed the game.  As I told everyone I met this morning (Sydney time) that Obama would win, later in the day some people looked at me like I was a true genius for my “risky” prediction.  I am not a political genius, just a careful reader of polls.

I gave two words as to why I knew Obama would win:  “Ohio” and “Pennsylvania”.  To that I could have added two more: “Chris Christie”.

Why Ohio?  Because Obama had been consistently ahead in the polls in that state for so long.  And because 538 blogger Nate Silver was so convincing about how Obama would win Ohio.

Why Pennsylvania? Because it was not even a “swing” state, but yet Romney made a last-minute visit to the state – referred to by some commentators as a “Hail Mary pass”.  His plane did not need to land there.  Obviously internal Republican polling was telling them that his campaign was having problems elsewhere, presumably Ohio (yes), Virginia (as it turns out, surprising me) and even Florida (surprised again).

Why Chris Christie?  Because this politically astute Republican Governor of New Jersey said some very nice things about Obama last week in the aftermath of “Superstorm Sandy” and allowed himself to have this photo taken of him shaking hands with Obama:

This could have only happened for one reason:  Christie already knew that Obama was going to win; in other words he knew that his party’s nominee Mitt Romney would lose.  So politically this “endorsement by proximity” of Obama would not have a significant political impact.


Eight reasons why Obama won the election

November 7, 2012

Obama’s win was not a fluke, based on trends and activities underway for a number of years.

1. The USA has had positive job news generally.  When unemployment dropped below 8% nationally, this was a very significant moment.

2. Unemployment has been particularly improving in important “swing” states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan: this improved Obama’s support with many middle-class families and white working class men, where he was weak

3. The 2009 auto industry bail-out of Chrysler and General Motors “saved” much of the Midwest, especially Ohio.  Romney’s famous November 2008 “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” Op-Ed in The New York Times was well-remembered.

4. Obama approval rating is around 50% – and has been growing for many months.

5. Republicans lost the “we are better at foreign policy” and “making war” arguments when Obama approved the successful killing of Osama Bin Laden and other terrorist operatives through drone killings.

6. The Democrats did an excellent job at labelling Romney the successful businessman as heartless and a job-destroyer, thus neutralising his strong management career as CEO of Bain Capital, Governor of Massachusetts and saviour of Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.  The Obama campaign defined him, exactly what you must not let your opponent to do.  Romney had the major difficulty of not really knowing himself what he stands for, thus had a hard time redefining himself to the public.

7. The Republican Party has moved substantially to the right of the American mainstream, especially on immigration (substantial loss of Hispanic voters since 2004 – and they are the fastest growing group of voters) and abortion rights and the so-called “legitimate rape” issue, resulting in a substantial loss of women voters.

8. Democrat voter-targeting and get-out-the vote efforts appear to be better than the Republicans, who have been much better at obtaining large amounts of money.  You can see that by the number of narrow wins in marginal or “swing” states – despite the massive Republican expenditure on advertising.


US Election Watch Down Under

November 6, 2012

All power to The Australian newspaper for continuing to give such coverage to US affairs and the election (better than Fairfax – The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age).  If only they had represented what was really happening.  Belatedly, The Australian has acknowledged reality, with correspondent Brad Norington’s article in today’s paper (6 November, entitled “The nine states deciding a president as Barack Obama leads”.

In this article, Norington notes that “Barack Obama has a slight edge over Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the closing days of the US presidential election campaign” and predicts a win for Obama with 332 electoral college votes (out of 538).

On Monday 5 November, remarkably The Australian also published (both print and online) unedited “vote for me” viewpoint articles by both President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.  This gives further evidence as to why some Australians are confused about which country they live in – when American political leaders appear to be directly asking us, here in Australia, to vote for them.

Despite consistently pro-Republican coverage,The Australian‘s editorial on Monday 5 November refrained from endorsing Romney, concluding the following:

American voters have to decide whether Mr Romney would be any better. There is no clear answer. He has been a far better candidate than expected and, contrary to Mr Obama’s studied disdain, appears no less qualified for the job. Like Mr Obama, however, he has done little to inspire confidence that he has the solutions the economy needs. He speaks of a 12-point plan that will create 12 million jobs, but details are scant. His 20 per cent tax scheme is unfunded and his opposition to the profligate Obamacare looks suspect in view of a similar scheme he set up during his governorship of Massachusetts.

In its coverage on Tuesday 6 November (remember – still Monday in the USA), The Australian‘s correspondent Brad Norington finally acknowledged the reality of this election, with the lead election article entitled “Polls and Superstorm Sandy put Barack Obama in front” .  As recently as last week The Australian was predicting a comfortable win.  What changed?  Actually, very little.  The reality of not appearing foolish is what happened.

By the way, the best Australian predictor for the Presidential race:  Malcolm Mackerras – writing in, yes The Australian on October 27, 2012 predicted:

On November 6 Romney will win all the states taken by McCain in 2008. He will also win North Carolina, Indiana, Florida and the Nebraska second district …. Consequently, I predict Romney will win 235 votes in the electoral college. That would leave Obama winning the election with 303 votes.

I agree.

Let the counting begin.


The American Democrats, David Weprin and Me

November 5, 2012

The absurdist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard (1967) takes place “in the wings” of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, elevating two minor characters to main roles.  In Stoppard’s play, two childhood friends of Hamlet wander around, seemingly aimlessly, unaware of larger events – and of course go to their eventual doom:  thus the play’s title, which is taken from the final scene of Hamlet.

One hilarious theme of the play is that if asked, these Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reinterpret events.  For them, Hamlet the play is actually about two guys (them) and they occasionally come across speeches and activities which simply mystify them.

That’s way volunteer participation in an electoral campaign can be.  What’s the campaign all about, someone might ask?  “Well,” the volunteer worker answers, “it’s about a campaign volunteer who sits at a desk with a telephone and makes lots of telephone calls, day after day, right?”

It felt that way to me.  I was Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?), sitting at a big table in an office building in Forest Hills, Queens.  Not an actual office building, really just a second floor (first floor, in the British/Australian lexicon) cramped walk-up above a grocery store on …, about a ten minute walk from the Forest Hills subway station in Queens.   The single toilet door did not close properly.  It had not been cleaned for months.  Here are some photos:

  

I was there in early September 2011, making telephone calls for David Weprin, a Democratic State Assembly member who was running in a by-election against cable television executive Bob Turner.  This was the Ninth Congressional District of New York – the one that had been held by disgraced (but still popular) Anthony Weiner, who resigned after a “sexting” scandal.

I heard the candidate speak just once – my own Rosencrantz and Guildenstern moment – as I stood outside the packed room in an equally packed corridor – while Weprin gave a speech to the campaign workers and Democratic Party stalwarts – accompanied by Christine Quinn, the politically powerful New York City Council President (and the leading Democratic candidate for mayor in the next election, to follow Bloomberg).  I couldn’t see Weprin but could hear him, and at the end he walked past me quickly, my one in-person fleeting glimpse of the candidate, on his way to his next event.

One late afternoon and evening I went to a different location for the phone calls, a campaign headquarters just west of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, in the low 20s, on the seventh floor of a small high-rise office building, which had been used by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand for her election campaign (she succeeded Hilary Clinton upon her elevation to Secretary of State in the Obama Administration, was elected to the seat in November 2010 and is running again in this week’s election – sure to win the “safe” seat).  The contrast in accommodation was notable:  sleek, new desks, the latest telephone handsets, nice cool air-conditioning, smart posters and stationery advertising the successful female senatorial candidate.

By my calculation, I made more than 400 telephone calls for the Weprin campaign over four days of work.  The first two days, I knew who I was ringing, looking at details from the voting rolls, and so I could usually tell in advance what ethnicity and age the people were.  I used my full name (why not, whoever cared?) in introducing myself on the telephone.  Of particular interest to me were the Jews who seemed to constitute at least one third of those I telephoned.

One day I overheard a series of most curious telephone conversations of a woman sitting next to me.  She seemed to use two different surnames, one sounding somewhat Irish (McClusky) and the other very Jewish (Moskowitz).  I thought I was actually not hearing properly until I realised that she was purposefully changing her name, most likely depending on who she was ringing.  New York, I thought – where the Irish become Jews and the Jews become Irish, almost at will.  (Who am I to complain?  One of my grandfathers, upon his arrival in New York City from Poland in the early 1900s, changed his name from Perlgut to … Goldberg.  Not exactly the traditional assimilation we have come to expect.)

Weprin lost, in a very low turn-out election in a seat that had been held by a Democrat since March 1923, with past occupants including Charles Schumer (currently the senior senator from New York) and Geraldine Ferraro, the first female Vice Presidential candidate in American history.

New York’s (former) Ninth Congressional District (that district has since been abolished as the State of New York lost two districts in the last round of Congressional re-districting) had the fourth-largest Jewish population of any congressional district, with some 173,000 Jews, according to a 2009 report from the Mandell L. Berman Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank. Jerry Skurnik, a partner at the political consulting firm Prime New York, told The New York Times that about a third of the district’s active voters are Jewish.

There is some debate about the matter of how influential the support of former New York (Democratic) mayor Ed Koch was in this election.  Despite his age (then 86) and his distance from electoral politics (out of office 22 years at that time), some commentators claimed that Koch’s endorsement of Turner was a crucial factor in the loss.  Or perhaps it was the group of Orthodox rabbis who “halachically forbid” their followers from voting for Weprin – that’s right, rabbis opposing Weprin the Orthodox Jew, because of his support for gay rights.

The volunteers I came across were the young (university students and twentysomethings) and older – mostly retired.  Where was everyone in-between, from ages 23 to 60?  The answer might possibly have been “at work” (I only worked on the campaign on weekdays), but I wonder.  Those who were there were a fascinating mix – aside from me, a USA-born middle-aged white guy living in Australia, there were elderly African-American women, older Chinese men, a Hispanic mother-adult daughter (speaking a fluent Spanish), and a bunch of other Anglo types.  What I did not come across, considering the make-up of the district, were any volunteer Russian speakers – but I sure came across lots of them on the telephone, the majority of which could not speak English (and, I sensed, were not going to vote in the election).

This was a devastating loss for the Democrats at the time, and I feared that I was see the real middle of the end of the Obama era, a symbolic moment of loss of support in a Democratic district that foreshadowed much worse to come in November 2012.  I was wrong, as this Tuesday November 6, 2012 will show.


US Election down under: how Australia’s media outlets are covering Obama versus Romney

November 3, 2012

The American presidential election continues to fascinate and confuse Australians, with all major media outlets providing extensive coverage.  But what kind of coverage, and how are Australians viewing the close Obama versus Romney match-up?

First, let me acknowledge the biases:  I am a strong Obama supporter, and have been ever since he arrived on the national political scene in the USA in 2004.  That said, I was pleased that Romney became the Republican nominee for President, not because I thought he was the weakest candidate in the Republican field, but because I believe he was the best.

I will spare you my analysis of the other Republican candidates, but it was very clear (to me, at least) that Romney was the adult leader amongst them.  And in this year of persistently high unemployment in the USA, the Democrats were uniquely vulnerable.  If the Republicans were to win, I wanted it to be Romney – and not one of the others.

Sure Romney has problems, well-articulated by others.  He has chosen Paul Ryan, an ultra right-wing running mate who reportedly once held Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as his favourite books (hey, I did too – but I was back in high school in the 1960s).  Romney started a moderate Republican, but swerved sharply to the right in order to obtain the Republican nomination, and then – lo and behold – he quickly moved back to the centre at the first televised debate with President Obama.  This apparently took Obama by surprise, but certainly appealed to many undecideds in the centre.  What does Romney stand for?  Many have speculated:  go to Zerlina Maxwell in the New York Daily News (August 29, 2012, “the human Etch a Sketch”), Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker (October 23, 2012, “Romney’s Double Vision”) or The New York Times (editorial: “Mr. Romney Changes His Mind, Again”, July 5, 2012).  And perhaps Romney himself does not know.

But the purpose of this post is to review how those of us living in Australia are viewing the election.  Yes we are, in a word, fascinated.  I have already written about the slanted pro-Republican coverage by the national News Corp-owned paper The Australian.  As of today (Saturday 3 November), this shows no sign of abating, with a full coverage on page 11.  Their columnist Brad Norington ascribes Obama’s possible margin to “Superstorm Sandy” – (“President enjoys a storm surge as Romney beached”) despite consistently average high poll averages.  And the paper shows a map taken from The Wall Street Journal (copy below) which certainly undercounts the President’s likely winning states.  (You can try looking this up yourself at http://projects.wsj.com/campaign2012/maps/, but that page did not load for me – it may for you.)

Compare that map to the one on Nate Silver’s 538 blog on The New York Times website:  does it look different?  It sure does?  How can you explain that?  Lots more blue (Democrat) in the Silver version, isn’t there?  By the way, as of early Saturday morning New York time, this blog now predicts Obama’s chance of winning the election at 83.7%, +9.3 since October 26.  Here is Silver’s simple summary in response to those who deny that Obama is ahead:

Obama’s ahead in Ohio.  A somewhat-more-complicated version:  Mr. Obama is leading in the polls of Ohio and other states that would suffice for him to win 270 electoral votes, and by a margin that has historically translated into victory a fairly high percentage of the time.

Tell that to The Australian.  Not yet, though.  Because today’s paper also featured an article by Karl Rove (former George W. Bush adviser and key organiser of the political action committee American Crossroads) also taken from The Wall Street Journal and entitled “Sifting through the numbers for a winner”.  Rove asserts that Romney “maintains a small but persistent polling edge”.  And what poll does he quote?  Yes, you got it – Gallup, the major Republican-predictor “outlier” poll of the race.  Other coverage in The Australian:  a more realistic article by Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan (“Obama’s Debt to Sandy”) that acknowledges Obama’s lead but ascribes it to the superstorm – “Hurricane Sandy is, politically, the October surprise that just may have saved Barack Obama’s presidency”.

Hmmm, do I see the makings of a conservative rationale going on here?  Something that goes along the lines of “Romney would have won except the storm got in the way.”  Nate Silver – the pollster of pollsters – does not believe that.  Nor do I. But it may give conservatives comfort (“we were robbed” … by the storm).

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Nick O’Malley, page 15 “Spend and bend as poll goes down to the wire”) takes a more analytical approach.  He writes of how everyone is “trying to get a true sense of the two campaigns’ end strategy” and notes that “The paths they have plotted across the swing states do not fully match the two sides’ rhetoric.”  Both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age then come up with the reality:  Peter Hartcher (Political Editor) has a column entitled “Obama is storming home”.  He states it pretty much up front:

Barack Obama is likely to win. In spite of everything. In spite of the ruinous state of the economy, in spite of the record federal deficit, in spite of the fact that most Americans think their country is on the wrong track, the chances are that Obama will be re-elected on Tuesday for four more years.

The Australian ABC has a whole website devoted to the election.  So does the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney  Even The Australian Jewish News (which I write film reviews for) has gotten into the act, calling last week’s edition (November 2, 2012) a “special edition” of “America decides”, with a full seven pages of coverage (few of which are actually on their website).

You can believe that everyone will be attempting to analyse this campaign for an awfully long time to come.  I can’t imagine such interest in the USA for any overseas election – nor in Australia about any election outside other than the USA.

Back on August 28, 2012 The Sydney Morning Herald’s Peter Hartcher wrote about how so many Australians get confused about the USA, noting the following story:

In the days after the terrorist attack on the US in 2001, a small group of Australian primary schoolchildren held a solemn candlelit moment of mourning and reflection for the dead. It was a touching scene.  But when questioned, it turned out that the children thought the attacks on New York and Washington had occurred in Australia.”

The context:  that day, the paper released the results of a poll showing that “an overwhelming 72 per cent of Australians would vote for the Democrats’ Barack Obama if they had a vote in the US presidential election while a mere 5 per cent would choose the Republicans’ Mitt Romney.”  Apparently support in Canada and Europe is even greater.  Makes you think, doesn’t it?


Obama’s popularity in Australia

August 28, 2012

It’s official.  If Barack Obama was running against Mitt Romney in Australia, Obama would win by an historic landslide.  As reported in The Sydney Morning Herald today (Tuesday, 28 August 2012), an online poll by UMR Research discovered that 72 percent of Australians would vote for Obama and a miniscule 5 percent for Romney.

I could have told you that.  As a long-resident Australian from the USA, I have found that Obama is possibly the most popular politician I have ever seen … in this country.   My public expressions of support for Obama – from the moment he entered Australian consciousness in early 2008 during the Democratic primary elections – have been met with universal approval here.  That’s never happened to me before. And it’s not like Australians actually like politicians.  Plenty of people here in Australia strongly dislike both the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

But Obama haters in Australia?  I have not found one yet.  In fact, the Herald article quotes Geoff Garrett, Head of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, reporting that during the 2008 American Presidential campaign, “Australia was the third-most pro-Obama country in the world, behind Kenya and Italy”.  (Kenya okay, but Italy?)

Why is this?  No one I know can give a satisfactory answer.  But the survey has stimulated renewed interest in US-Australia political comparisons, including one by Peter Hartcher, the International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.  In the same paper, Hartcher writes in an “op ed” that Australia is much more “left-leaning” than the US, is “the only country in the developed world that does not provide paid maternity leave” and “does not pay child support to all families”.  As proof of the triumph of conservatism in the US, he quotes John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, British commentators whose book The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America examines the phenomenon.

I think that Hartcher, Micklethwait and Wooldridge are missing an important point, one that is less about American politics and more about American society.  The USA is, at heart, a deeply individualistic country, from its very early settlement.  Thomas Frank wrote about this in What’s the Matter with Kansas? How the Conservatives Won the Hearts of America, and the late Joe Bageant wrote about this in Deerhunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. (Ironically, Bageant’s book was, per head of population, MORE popular in Australia than the USA.)  I think that many commentators are confusing America’s die-hard commitment to individualism with conservative politics, Australia and British style.  The success of American commitment to the individual is reflected in its popular movies, a large number of which are about individual achievement and triumph over adversity (let’s think The Blind Side)

Pop quiz:  Which country’s leader is publicly committed to gay marriage – the USA or Australia?  Not Australia, whose unmarried Prime Minister lives with her de facto partner, but implacably opposes gay marriage.  Hmmm. It’s President Obama who supports it.  Which country still has widespread rent controlled apartments (deemed true “socialism” by many commentators of a conservative bent)?  Last I looked, it was the USA, with numerous cities participating, notably New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington DC and numerous smaller communities.  The “Global Property Guide” deems the US far more “pro-tenant” than Australia.  So not everything fits so neatly into a British-Australian attempt to cast Americans as the conservatives in all things.  It’s far more complicated than that.

Postscript: Thursday 30 August 2012 – My letter to The Sydney Morning Herald responding to Hartcher’s Op Ed was published today.  Here is a link.  Mine is entitled “It’s complicated”, and is about 2/3 down the page.