Expert Qian LiWei on Obama's Victory

Edited by Louis Standish

Host : Dear netziens, a very warm welcome to XinHua Interview on Global Issues. Obama has won the much-followed US election to become the first black president ever elected in the country. We are happy to have with us Professor Qian Liwei, a specialist on U.S. issues from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), to talk about 2008 U.S. Election.

Qian Liwei (Qian) : Thank you.

Host: In your view, what are the key characteristics of the 2008 U.S. Election?

Qian: The 2008 U.S. Election was distinctive, even in relation to the 2004 U.S. Election. Firstly, there were clear signs pointing to the outcome of the election. Obama has been beating McCain in opinion polling right from the beginning. As of now, we know that Obama was leading McCain by a decisive margin in terms of electoral vote. This surprised many. Secondly, the 2008 U.S. election will create history, regardless of its outcome. If Obama won, the U.S. would have its first black president whilst if McCain and Palin had won, the U.S. would have seen its oldest president and its first woman vice president. Last but not least, this election aroused interest from all over the world. It had a huge following among young adults in China. I remember reading an article in the recent issue on the election in the “Economist.” It likened the election to a gamble one has to take with either McCain or Obama to tackle the financial turmoil after Bush steps down. There is no answer to which of the two candidates could do a better job pulling the U.S. and the world out of the current chaos. However, there were more people willing to bet on Obama than McCain.

Host: Some have credited the use of Internet for Obama’s victory. What do you think?

Qian: The Internet has been gaining importance and popularity. In fact, the Internet has been employed since the 2004 U.S. election. In the 1960s, Kennedy made good use of the popular TV media to up his popularity which eventually led to his success in the election. I read somewhere that Obama and his campaign team have made innovative use of the Internet. They set up a website appealing for donations of any amount. As you draw donations, you win votes from the donors. This deviation from traditional campaign activities of propagating proposed policy stances, making whistle stops and raising political funds help Obama to reach out to young voters who are adverse to politics. Obama must have found the Internet to be a cool tool for his campaign. In fact, I believe that no politician in the U.S. will ignore the Internet and it would be more widely used in the future. Compared to Obama, McCain may not even have surfed the Internet himself. While McCain’s colleagues have helped him to set up a website, its pull is less than Obama’s as McCain failed to appreciate the beauty of Internet.

Host: What do you think are Obama’s key success factors?

Qian : As I look back at the campaign, I feel that Obama’s greatest challenge came not from McCain but from his party rival Hillary Clinton who was also campaigning for the nomination. Hillary announced her White House bid before Obama. During the race, Obama kept a relatively low profile in relation to Hillary. While she has enjoyed a certain degree of popularity among the American, people hold extreme views about her. For those who support her, they love her wholeheartedly; for those who don’t, they oppose her wholeheartedly. As a result, Hillary finds it difficult to win more supporters. On the other hand, Obama is more versatile and he builds on his popularity. Hillary started her race with great splendor. She is no stranger to the electorate given her exposure in Washington. However, she lost out to Obama in terms of youth and dynamism. In his show own with McCain, Obama has outshone his opponent in the areas of youth, political positions and campaign lines. Financial turmoil has enhanced Obama’s advantage. Prior to September, the electorates were more concerned about Iraq. Things took a turn when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. All eyes are now on the financial turmoil triggered by sub-prime crisis and the potential of US sliding into recession. US economy saw a decline in the third quarter. Should it sink further in the fourth quarter, US would enter into recession.

There have been wide speculations that Obama might not win despite his popularity as evident in the straw polls. These have been invalidated by Obama’s victory. As a dynamic country, the U.S. is open to new ideas. At the crux of the reforms, it embraces its first black president, putting aside discriminations against race and gender. In this aspect, the U.S. is a nation full of hope.

Specifically, Obama makes it to White House because of the following reasons: first of all, timing is conducive for Obama. The incumbents are not running for election. At the same time, the majority of Americans consider Bush administration as “leading the nation in the wrong direction” over the past eight years. Such negative connotations have affected Bush’s opponent McCain unfavorably. Second, Obama managed to distinct himself from McCain as one who was smarter, younger, more energetic, more vibrant, more appealing, more level-headed and more willing to listen. In addition, Obama’s legendary life story presented an embodiment of the American Dream. Third, Obama has made his moves wisely. To Obama, Hillary was a tougher opponent than McCain. Obama has leveraged on his versatility as a newbie and made good use of Hillary’s weakness as a stale politician and a polarizing figure among Americans. His campaign calls for changes to the American society offered hope to the voters. In addition, Obama has made the right decision to choose Biden who would complement his lack of diplomacy experience. At the same time, Biden helps to allay concerns of many white voters. Four, Obama’s victory reflects changes in the American society. Gender and race are no longer key stumbling blocks. This marks a noteworthy stride made by America and its people.

Host: Would Obama bring some fresh air to the U.S.?

Qian: First of all, Obama is a breath of fresh air himself. Since then 1960s, there have been discussions on when would the Americans accept a black or a woman president. I read that most Americans are open to the idea of a black or a woman president if the candidate is outstanding. From my experience with Americans, their attitudes towards race have been far from clear cut. However, the Americans have shown that they have crossed this hurdle and spoke with their actions. This is something new.

Second, with Obama winning the election, Democrats are back in the White House again. Obama would be setting his agenda and making good on his promise of reform to his voters. Obama is different from Clinton. He is facing different circumstances. However, there are affinities between two of them : smart, vibrant, energetic, quick and a high IQ. Obama may not perform as well as Clinton was in handling crisis as a new president. Clinton had two years as governor to fall back on whilet Obama has nothing. Nevertheless, Obama has a strong team. All eyes will be watching to see whether Obama, with the help of his team, will be able to usher in a new era in the American political arena. Can he move America out of the woods faster and/or with less pain? We have to wait and see. I personally think that Obama is capable of accomplishing the above. But he would face pressures, including from within the Democrats, the Republicans and the blue-collar workers. Many blue-collar workers have failed to identify with Obama.

Host: Would you think that Obama may find it difficult to cope in view of the financial turmoil, impending recession and political/diplomacy liabilities, courtesy of the Bush administration?

Qian : We should acknowledge that Bush has left the Democrats with more liabilities than assets. According to a straw poll, 90% of American feels that the nation has shifted to the wrong path. Since Obama has built his support on the call for reform, he has to deliver part, if not all, of his promises. It has to do with not only his ability but also the external forces. I feel that the well-being of the people is the key thing. Such issues are more specific and more tangible than economic issues, especially for the middle- and lower-income classes. There is little impact of financial and economic turmoil on the jet set. However, the same could not be said for the middle- and lower-income families. The threats of foreclosure, joblessness and the halving of their pension and retirement funds are very real. These are things that would deprive them of even a subsistent living. Where should I live after selling the house? Who is going to support my children if I lose my job? These are burning questions for Obama. On the other hand, the American economy is facing great difficulty. The U.S/ deficit is close to US$500 billion today; if it chooses not to withdraw from Iraq, it will face a recurring cost running into the billions every year. This does not look too appealing given current economic conditions. I have made an estimation of what it would cost to implement Obama’s proposal keeping tax rate for families with annual income less than US$250,000 and increasing tax rate for families with annual income more than US$250,000. With the economy in recession, tax revenue is likely to decrease. The decrease would be aggravated by the tax cuts. At the same time, government spending on healthcare and social security is likely to increase with military spending likely to stay constant. Where would the money come from? Issue bonds to foreign investors and Americans? Obama’s hands are tied. Take Clinton for example: he promised tax cuts for the middle- and low-income during his first presidential campaign. In the end, Clinton went against his promise and imposed more taxes on the middle- and low-income groups to achieve the targeted reduction in the budget deficit. Would Obama do the same? If he doesn’t, how is he going to tackle the abyss of the budget deficit? Does he have the wisdom and capability required? It’s full of question marks. His people have laid their hopes on Obama. Does he have the means to fulfill them?

Host: What would be the changes and shifts in U.S.’ diplomacy stance after Obama takes office?

Qian: From what Obama has said so far, he is likely to act like a true-blue Democrat. The current priority of US diplomacy is to seek cooperation in resolving the economic calamity. Chairman Hu Jintao’s visit to US is just around the corner. Democrats subscribe to international cooperation, alliances and partnership, and working within the frameworks by supranational organizations. Hence, Obama is likely to give more weight to partnership with China, compared to Bush. One of the key diplomatic issues is related to the environment. What to do with Kyoto Protocol? Will the U.S. implement the necessary environment policies? The Iraqi issue has been close to Americans’ hearts. It is associated to anti-terrorist efforts. During the past eight years, there hasn’t been any major terrorist attack on American shores. Thus, the Americans are having stronger desire for reforms compared to 2004. Security issues have taken a back seat now. The people are more concerned with their day-to-day living. I think that Obama is likely to act faster than Bush when it comes to troop withdrawal from Iraq. Bush does promise to withdraw, but he is not likely to do it in the near future. There is no specific detail on the withdrawal yet as the U.S. needs to get it sort out internally first. Obama is likely to take a high profile on the issue. With the U.S. withdrawing from Iraq, European and Asian countries are likely to follow suit. Of course, Obama would attach strings to the withdrawal, such as building a relatively stable Iraq. It’s entirely up to his judgment. I expect specific and practical plans on the withdrawal to be out petty soon. There would be more gusto in handling the issue. No more flip-flops like Bush.

Host: So you think that Obama would embrace international cooperation and adopt a softer stance in diplomacy?

Qian: Yes. It will be extended to countries which the U.S. has identified as hostile. I feel that he would play it soft, like a net, wrapping it around you. His inclination would be towards multilateralism and a consultative approach. This will be different from the current way of doing things: if you defy me, I’ll whack. In contrast to the Bush administration, Obama is likely to be less intransigent in his dealings with other countries. He may approach it from a win-win angle and more willing to do horse-trading instead of playing hard ball. It would be a more pleasant U.S. to work with.

Host : Do you think Obama, as someone of African descent, would usher the U.S. to a new age?

Qian: The election of Obama as president is in itself a landmark event. The U.S. has undergone a substantial transformation over the years, especially post-1990. Let’s take a look at its demographically. The population is growing and following it is an underpinning change in composition. In particular, the Hispanic population has gone up whilst the Black population has gone down. When I was in Washington, I noticed its public buses carried wording in both English and Spanish, and mind you, this is not California. In twenty years’ time, the current minority group would form the majority of the population (> 50%). This will be more apparent in the South-western states. In some places, you will get stuck if you can’t speak a word of Spanish, and you must be wondering whether you are still in the U.S. Obama’s victory reflects this trend. It is a defining moment, and it even surpasses Kennedy’s accession to the White House. Like Kennedy, Obama could establish a milestone in history if he performs well during his term(s). The outcome of the 2008 U.S. election reflects the underlying changes in the American society in all aspects, including those pertaining to ethnic groups and population composition. As a result, would its mainstay be blurred? Would the concept of the White Protestant being the mainstream in America be challenged given the change in population composition? Such are the evolutions taking place in US currently.

Host: The U.S. election has attracted attention from around the world? Why is it arousing so much interest? Has it to do with the U.S.’ “soft power”?

Qian: This election is special as it started very early, lasting for around 21 months. It’s kind of like a mini-marathon. In general, it’s not surprising that the election drew global attention given the U.S.’ stature as a superpower. The U.S. accounts for a quarter of the global GDP. This is an understatement of the U.S.’ prowess when you take into consideration its standings in the areas of economic, technology, financial, military and other hard/soft powers. Take military spending. Its spending is larger than the combined spending of the second to the tenth largest spenders in the world. Its influence is way above its contribution to the world GDP. In addition, given that the U.S. is English- speaking, and with a large base of English learners around the world, there is little barrier in communication. Combine this with its soft power in culture, technology and institutions, the U.S.’ values are being spread to many countries. That’s why the world listens when the U.S. speaks. No other country can do that. Like it or hate it, for example, you may view the U.S. as a super-bully, but you just can’t ignore it. We love Hollywood movies. The U.S. elections have been featured in a thrilling and revelatory way in some of these movies. Hollywood blockbusters are catalysts for U.S. political events, pushing them closer to more people around the world. As a result, many non-Americans do not come to the U.S. election cold. In a way, the U.S. election could be deemed as a political show. I personally feel that there are elements of drama in this election. For example, the African-American’s or the old man’s politics, women’s participation, the Iraqi backdrop, the impact of financial tsunami etc, which could be made into a blockbuster. To a layman, it is neither heavy-going nor a simple educational stuff but something that condition your thoughts and passions imperceptibly. This is a form of soft power. Nevertheless, the end result is extremely popular. This is uniquely American. You think that it is not educational but it is enlightening. Overall, the packaging is excellent with a good blend of didactic and entertaining values.

Host: That’s why our country (China) is looking at building up its own brand of soft power in culture. As the time is up, we have to end our interview. We thank Prof. Qian for making time to confer with our netziens on the U.S. election.

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