|This year’s race for the White House has been “full of surprises” [GALLO/GETTY]|
In our first such discussion, Al Jazeera’s senior Washington correspondent, Rob Reynolds, has sat down to chat with Al Jazeera viewers about the US election via the programme Livestation.
You can join Riz Khan every Monday to Thursday evenings at 20:30 GMT for half an hour of discussion.
Rob Reynolds will be doing another chat after the election, so stay tuned. For now, here are some of the highlights from the chat.
Al Jazeera moderator: Hello, we’ll be looking at all aspects of the campaign, starting off with a general overview of the last few weeks. Also looking at issues of race and class, and a look ahead to what happens with a new administration and anything else you want to ask about on the election.
Tune in to live coverage of the US election
OK, let me start by introducing you all to Al Jazeera’s senior Washington correspondent, Rob Reynolds.
Rob Reynolds: Hello, welcome to all of you. It’s a real pleasure to participate in this live chat.
Mandelbrot: Pleasure to see a worthwhile journalist chatting.
Al Jazeera moderator: Let’s start by asking a quick question – Rob how do you think the past few weeks have been on the campaign trail?
Rob Reynolds: The past few weeks have been full of surprises. It seems now that Obama has solidified a pretty substantial lead. But it didn’t have to turn out that way. I think the McCain campaign has made a series of serious miscalculations.
Al Jazeera moderator: In what sense?
Rob Reynolds: They started with the choice of Sarah Palin, which initially seemed to be a brilliant stroke but then, as she gave interviews and revealed a tenuous grasp of policy issues, people began to have doubts about her. Then McCains performance during the financial crisis, which struck a lot of voters as erratic and finally, McCain veered from one message or “narrative” to another without consistency, whereas Obama stayed on course.
Viewer: What’s that one message he veered from?
Rob Reynolds: First, he was the “experienced hand”, the one who would keep the country safe as compared with the untested Obama.
Viewer: Yes, and then?
Rob Reynolds: Choosing Palin undercut that, so the campaign switched to emphasis on the “maverick” aspect and tried to dramatise that with the decision to jump into the financial bailout negotiations, but that backfired when Republicans nixed the bailout creating further chaos.
Viewer: Do you think that the next president will have the biggest job to do compared to any other president since all that is happening with the economy, then Iraq, Afghanistan etc … ?
Rob Reynolds: Well, if you are talking about more than 200 years of American history there have been many crisis moments – the Civil War, the Depression, the Second World War etc. But there’s no question that the next president is facing multiple challenges and he will not have a lot of time to get down to dealing with them. It’s important that whoever he is, he moves fast as soon as he gets into office on January 20.
Gary from Taiwan: There will be no honeymoon period for the new president because the overall economy and the political problems have been stalled long enough.
Rob Reynolds: Not at all, Gary. He will have to put his stamp on the economic crisis immediately and I think he may – whoever he is – take a page from the past, for example emulating FDR [President Franklin Delano Roosevelt] who said, famously, “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” and try to regain some confidence.
But I think the economy will be first, followed by moves on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I wouldn’t be surprised when the next president announces he will close Guantanamo within a very short time of taking office.
David: Rob, who do you think is best placed to improve the perception of America from non-Americans around the world?
Rob Reynolds: Clearly, Obama with his multiethnic background would, I think, boost the US image abroad, David. I think there have been polls in Europe that indicate if Obama were running there he’d win by a landslide.
In the Middle East however his popularity may be less, because while he would make changes in the situation with regard to Iraq, he has indicated already he will continue very strong traditional American support for Israel. That may not make people in Arab lands very happy.
Gary from Taiwan: I’m from Taiwan. And as far as I know, a lot of people here are in favour of Obama.
Mjismail, Birmingham: How much do you think the media has influenced this years election?
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Rob Reynolds: I think there has been more media attention to this election than any other and one of the ways that has developed is online. The Obama campaign in particular has been very adept at using the ‘Net to circumvent the mainstream US media.
Helmut, Austria: [Could Obama] do a few positive things regarding the Palestinians?
Rob Reynolds: Helmut, certainly with a new set of leaders at the top of both countries, whoever they may be, there are possibilities for changing the stalemate we see today in the region.
Sanjay: Obama, has run a very principled campaign. Where as McCain has thrown a lot of dirt around (Socialist, terrorist etc). Do you think this is a tactic or strategy and does it suggest anything about how they will run the country?
Rob Reynolds: Sanjay, I think you ask a good question. The McCain campaign has used a lot of techniques that have been very successful in the past, for example, President Bush and his political advisor Karl Rove used “wedge issues” productively against their opponent. By wedge issues I mean cultural things like abortion rights, gay marriage, gun control legislation, and the more nebulous concept of “elitism” or “otherness” that was used successfully against John Kerry in 2004.
This time that strategy/tactic (whatever you call it) hasn’t worked, and I think that’s a result of American voters getting tired of bickering and mudslinging and wanting their leaders to get serious.
Al Jazeera moderator: How do you think this election has compared to previous campaigns?
Rob Reynolds: Obviously, you have the factor of the first African-American running, but beyond that you have the unprecedented amounts of money spent, the intense interest from around the world (as evidenced by some of your questions), and the sense that the outcome will be really important in terms of how our country and the world move in the next several years.
Also, it’s interesting that for the first time since 1952, neither an incumbent president or vice president is running – just a historical titbit there.
Al Jazeera moderator: Has the campaigning been as bitter before?
Rob Reynolds: In past years, campaigns have gotten pretty nasty. I mean, if you look at the broad scope of US history, yeah, there’s been a lot of dirt flung around. I think the difference now is that the dirt shows up on YouTube 30 seconds after it was thrown.
Santa: Thank the gods for YouTube, and freedom to post up the truth.
Mjismail, Birmingham: How important is Barack Obama being an African American? Does it really affect the way people will vote in the 21st century?
Rob Reynolds: Mjsmail, the answer is yes. Lots of people are not inclined to vote for a black person for president. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. On the other hand, there are millions – not only African Americans – who believe that a vote for Obama will, in a sense, help to redress a historical wrong. But in fact I think the majority of voters are really making a judgement about who would do a better job with the economy.
Helmut, Austria: Is the vote rigging issue still an issue?
Santa: Would you not agree, it matters little who wins next Tuesday, USA is debt ridden, and finished [Philip, London, UK]
Rob Reynolds: That issue – the economy – dwarfs everything else right now.
Gary from Taiwan: From your observation and perspective, has McCain’s running mate been a plus or a minus for the election so far? She attracts a lot of media attention but also some controversy.
Rob Reynolds: Helmut, there have been issues with vote-suppression – not so much “rigging” in terms of fake votes, but more in terms of court-challenges to voter lists and rumours spread about, for example, if you have an outstanding traffic ticket you can’t go vote
Let me address Santa/Phillip: I think the word “finished” is much too strong …
Santa: (If I may add, $10.5 trillion sounds pretty finished to me)
Rob Reynolds: This country still has the world’s most powerful economy, most powerful military, and has, still, a leadership role in multinational organisations such as Nato, the UN, etc. So while the nature of American power will change, the implication that the country is all washed up is premature.
To Gary from Taiwan: Initially, Palin seemed a plus. People liked her, she energised the Republican “base”, but, as she began giving interviews, it became clear there were gaps in her experience and her views disturbed many people who might otherwise vote for McCain – for example …
Santa: “Gaps” … like the Grand Canyon size ?
Rob Reynolds: Well, lets just say there were some GAPS, but I will say I don’t think McCain would have revved up his base without her.
Gary from Taiwan: At least she lit up people’s enthusiasm for the election even more, I think.
Kaleab, Ottawa: Bill Clinton famously said, “there is nothing wrong with America, that can’t be fixed by what is right with America”. My sentiments are that the weight of America’s growing problems since the Clinton administration has grown too vast – what does the future hold for America?
Rob Reynolds: Well Kaleab, let me dust off my crystal ball. Actually I don’t do prophecy very well. But it’s going to be a difficult time for America and for a lot of other countries. We have the financial crisis, we are going into economic hard times, and the international situation remains unsettled, so I think the next president will have a lot of very big challenges. Can he overcome them? I don’t know.
Mjismail, Birmingham: There’s all this talk about “change” – but do you think things will really change?
Rob Reynolds: Mjismail, I think there will be a change from the style and policies of the Bush admin. That’s inevitable no matter who wins.
Mjismail, Birmingham: But will there be “big” changes?
Rob Reynolds: Will the fundamentals of human life change? No. But if Obama becomes president there will be a very interesting dynamic, particularly with regard to race in America, that will be very interesting to watch. I think potentially there could be BIG policy changes. Universal health care, for example. It seems as if we have reached a point at which the country has decided they want that change.
Santa: A socialist USA ? … spreading the wealth.
Dan: Who wouldn’t want universal health care? I just can’t fathom it.
Rob Reynolds: No, the capitalist system isn’t going to change, I don’t think, but there will certainly be tighter regulation and oversight, and it will be less cool to be an investment banker on Wall Street … at least for a while.
On health care, we have a strange system here whereby most people get health care from their employers, so lots of people think that if there is a universal system comparable to the UK’s system, for instance, taxpayers will have too large a burden. That’s why a lot of people don’t like the idea – they think it will cost them too much.
David: Rob, if Obama wins, do you think he will be at risk of physical attack from those who feel he threatens their way of life?
Rob Reynolds: David, certainly that is a danger – for any president, anytime. In US history, four president have been assassinated. But from what I have seen of Senator Obama’s security detail, its very tight, and it seems like the authorities have been zealous in picking up people who have talked about it in a threatening way. So we all hope nothing dreadful will happen.
Al Jazeera moderator: Do you think US voters think about how the world sees the US when they vote?
Rob Reynolds: Some of them certainly do. I was in California recently talking to elderly voters and several of them mentioned they felt bad that people abroad have such negative feelings toward the US and they don’t understand why, fully.
They are sort of hurt by it. They say that the US has done a lot of good around the world, why do people dislike us? So I think yes, many voters do have that in mind, though it’s probably not issue #1 for that many of them.
Al Jazeera moderator: Do you think the world will react very differently depending on who’s elected?
Rob Reynolds: I think the world inevitably will be somewhat relieved no matter who takes office in January – just because President Bush is so deeply unpopular. I don’t sense that many non-Americans have much of a “feeling” about Senator McCain, but I think whoever becomes president will make gestures and overtures to world public opinion to show that the cowboys have gone back home to the ranch.
Helmut, Austria: McCain seemed to be ok a few years back …
Rob Reynolds: He has moved rightward to accommodate the more conservative elements of his party. That’s what you have to do in politics.
David: Rob, I get the sense from talking to friends in the UK that people are surprised that the Republicans couldn’t come up with a stronger candidate.
Mjismail, Birmingham: How much influence [have] the lobbyists had in this years election? (Lobby groups such as AIPEC etc …)
Rob Reynolds: Given that President Bush essentially blighted the Republican “brand”, I think a lot of Republicans wanted to stay out of the race this time, but you did have Giuliani and Romney in the early stages of the campaign for the GOP nomination – they were formidable figures in the party.
Kaleab, Ottawa: I’ve often heard Barack Obama referred to as a modern day JFK [President John F Kennedy], do you think that Obama will bring about, an almost cultural revolution in America?
Rob Reynolds: Seriously, I don’t think Obama is about revolution. I think he is about basic competence. Returning the functions of government to a more basic level of working so that, for example, American cities don’t get washed away in storms, or that speculators don’t run totally wild. He doesn’t strike me as a revolutionary, although his very presence may be revolutionary.
R.Belgium: Will be there any differences in foreign policy if Obama becomes president?
Rob Reynolds: Yes. If he becomes president, I think you will see a more consultative foreign policy and less inclination to use military force, although none of us know what sorts of international crises the next president will face.
I hate to end on a “downer” note … but I have to go do a live shot, so I have to say goodbye and thanks to all of you – I really enjoyed it.
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