Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)
Guest: Professor Scott Lucas
Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.
Andy: Hello, today I’m with Professor Scott Lucas, Professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham and founder and editor of EA WorldView, one of the leading news and analysis sites on US foreign policy and international affairs. Hello, Scott.
Scott: Hi, how are you doing today?
Andy: I should say for the sake of clarity that we’re recording this the morning after the world awoke to find that Barack Obama had secured a second term in office so we won’t delve too much into the past but just as an opening question, campaigns in previous elections have been accused of being run in a very aggressive manner, in a very negative manner. Just very quickly reflect on how you thought the Romney and Obama campaigns were run in the lead-up to this election.
Scott: I do think that negative campaigning was not only present again, the world of the 21st Century has sort of elevated this and that’s because not only through television but now through the internet you had these ads, there was nothing positive about them, they were just straight out attack ads which said, for example, or implied, that Obama was a socialist or said that Romney was a warmonger and the reason why it became more intense has to do with the funding question. Groups called Super Pacs raise millions of dollars but they don’t officially have any connection with the Romney campaign or the Obama campaign. They claim that they’re independent, just representing Americans. Those Super Pacs have really chosen, whether of their own accord or quietly through talking to the campaigns, to go negative. One of the more prominent is called American Crossroads which is with Karl Rove, a former advisor to George W Bush and by the time that they actually were implying that Obama in fact might raise certain “racial issues” for good white America, then you’ve really gone beyond the issues to what is a more intense polarising form of campaigning that will have damaging effects beyond this campaign.
Andy: Obama has that freedom that people talk about that there will be no third term. What do you think he will be looking to achieve over this next four years in office?
Scott: I’m not one who thinks that Obama will go for the legacy in the second term and the reason is that he faces a divided congress. So while the Democrats control the Senate, the Republicans control the House of Representatives and not just Republicans, there are a lot of hard-lined Republicans who are there. They’re hard-lined on social issues and they’re hard-lined on economic issues so the immediate issue that Obama faces for example is getting passage of the Federal Budget, but that brings in questions of tax cuts, it brings in questions about social spending, it brings in questions about entitlement programmes and the Republicans at least on past evidence have really spoiled for a fight. Two years ago the Federal Government almost came to a halt while the budget was being thrashed out and we could face the same thing in January. Now what makes this different is that the US Government faces a deadline to agree its debt ceiling and if it does not, it could have its credit rating downgraded. That’s the expression of confidence in the Government, you know, we’ve heard about that with Greece and with Spain. Not quite to that level but that immediate issue, that economic fight, is the reason why I think Obama’s not looking at any type of sweeping move on healthcare or on foreign policy in the second term.
Andy: Foreign policy is always going to be a big question in any election. There were big differences in the way Romney approached foreign policy and the way Obama intends to approach it. What do you think is going to be on his radar?
Scott: I think the immediate objective of the Obama administration will be ‘steady as she goes’. They will, for example, try to bring American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014 as they have reduced the American military presence in Iraq. They will hope that they get some type of stability across the Middle East and North Africa. I think they’ll pursue economic stability. That’s both through trade with China and it’s also through dealing with Europe in terms of the future of the Eurozone. But against that approach for stability there’s two issues that are going to complicate Obama’s foreign policy. The first is of the Americans’ own making. Because Obama is still continuing the war on terror, he says he isn’t but in fact it’s still being pursued, the Americans will continue drone strikes rather than invading countries on the ground as happened with Iraq or Afghanistan. They’ll hope that they can defeat ‘extremist terrorists’ with aerial attacks. That’s in Pakistan, that’s in Yemen, it could be in places in Africa such as Somalia or even North Africa. Now the problem with those drone strikes is that they create a lot of resentment on the ground, so especially in a case like Pakistan which is in a very sensitive area of the world, a nation that has nuclear weapons, which is a nation which has had a complicated relationship with Afghanistan and with India, you could find that the Americans get themselves into a lot of trouble there because of this and the same could happen in Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, even though we don’t hear as much about that country. The second factor that will complicate Obama’s approach are events that are really beyond American control. The so-called Arab Spring, what the movements across the Middle East and North Africa showed is that the United States can’t really determine who leads the Government, who deals with these popular uprisings, so they’re having to react to what happens in Egypt or in Libya. They are also having to react to some episodes we don’t hear as much about such as a very serious challenge to the regime in Bahrain. I think on top of all that the question of what happens in Syria where the United States is not really sure where it wants to go with the opposition of President Assad. Now beyond all of this I think there's one issue that will not be handled by the Americans. They will not handle the Israel/Palestine issue. Obama tried to do so in the first year of his first term, his envoy George Mitchell however was sabotaged from within by opponents within the administration and Obama never backed his man up. Because of the complicated relationship with Israel there are going to be no moves on an agreement with Palestine and quite frankly if you don’t get an agreement on that issue, there are effects, there are a number of other countries that will say ‘well if the Americans don’t deal with this, why should we work with them?’. So I see a lot of problems ahead for Obama and ‘steady as she goes’ is going to be easier to say than to achieve.
Andy: The Republicans are in a state of disarray at the moment. How do you think they can reorganise themselves over the next four years?
Scott: I never thought Romney would win and had said for weeks beforehand that Obama would win because he had a better organised campaign on the ground and that because he would win the so-called ‘swing states’. The real question that the Republicans have to confront is why and I think probably need to identify two issues. The first is that the Republicans chose, I think fatally, not to play to the centre on economic issues but they played to the base, the red meat Republicans. They kept talking about, for example, tax cuts rather than focusing on unemployment and on regeneration of American industry. When they did that it looked like they were catering for the elite. This emphasis that Government had no role except to cut taxes meant that Romney lost the centre. And then there was a second mistake which I didn’t see and that is that Obama took more than 70% of the vote amongst Hispanic Americans, he took more than 70% of the vote amongst Asian Americans, he probably took more than 90% of the vote amongst African Americans and that was probably the margin of victory in the key states. In other words, it was ethnic minorities who helped push Obama over the top as well as a higher than expected vote amongst young people and a higher than expected vote amongst women. Now why is that? That’s not because of the economic issues, it’s because of social issues. The red meat Republicans, some of their candidates came out to the point of opposing abortion where they said ‘even in cases of rape, women should go ahead with pregnancy because it was God’s gift’. That type of stance alienated female voters. Red meat Republicans took a hard line on immigration, insisting that so-called ‘illegals’ had to be sent back to their home countries. That lost a lot of Hispanic American votes. Other ethnic groups felt alienated because it looked like the Republican Party, with that emphasis on tax cuts and with those hard-line approaches to social issues, weren’t paying attention to the diversity of America. If the hard-line Republicans do not pay attention to these changes, they are going to walk into another nightmare scenario, not only in 2016 for the Presidency but in the next congressional elections in 2014. In other words, there’s been a big change in the narrative. In 2010, people kept claiming that the rise of a Conservative movement called the Tea Party would change American politics. No, it didn’t. It polarised American politics and it alienated a lot of people and because it alienated a lot of people, the Republicans forgot, you have to play to the centre and the centre in America is no longer a single white centre, it’s a diverse one. That’s a real challenge. The Republicans have to recognise that their old hard-line moral messages may not get them into office two years from now and indeed, may put them on the back foot politically for the next generation.
Andy: I’ll have to draw it to a close there. Thank you so much for all of your views and for joining me today.
Scott: Thank you very much and I look forward to continuing the conversation in another podcast sometime.
Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: www.ideaslabuk.com. On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Andy Tootell.