Presidential Election Week 2008 Weblog – Day 4

Day 4, Wednesday November 5, 2008: A Change Has Come

Following the historic victory of Barack Obama, the thread that runs through all our meetings today is what President-elect Obama’s foreign policy and security policy will be. Our first meetings take us to the State Department; we then meet an Assistant to President Bush who is also Advisor to the National Security Council; have lunch with former US Ambassador to the United Nations and former Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering; and finally, we meet with Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution and foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama.

At the State Department we first learn about the challenges of combining policy with public diplomacy, how do you communicate policy to the public, how can you react timely to news from Europe (which is more than 6 hours ahead of the US), how do you know what kind of information to put out there (what is it that people need to hear); how do you reach so many people in so many countries? One of the solutions was to go to Brussels where so much press is already gathered and talk to them there, but that too has its limitations. A new media center with state of the art facilities was a solution as was using new media such as the State Department web site. A web log is kept there; Facebook is used for State Department alumni; some Embassies (e.g. Turkey) use text messaging to reach journalists; web chats are used as well as Youtube. More challenges are discussed in our second presentation at the State Department, the ones in the Middle East, the i-countries: Iraq, Iran and Israel. Our speaker cannot predict what Obama will do (differently) once he takes office and explains that transition teams are already being prepared. In fact, our meeting room is surrounded by offices for these transition teams. Our Third speaker focuses on Afghanistan (more challenges!) and the common interest we (the Netherlands and the USA) have there. The level of violence seems to be on the rise but we are assured that the Taliban can only create the perception of insecurity. They don’t have the power to do any real damage. New measures have already been taken to increase security and training of police and army continues. Our speaker expects that once Obama takes office, he will look to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. There are currently 60,000 troops there half of which are American. We could see an increase in troops by as much 10,000, but most will have to come out of Iraq. This is merely speculation of course. These troops would mainly be used for holding space won from the Taliban which is currently one of the biggest problems. Our speaker does see some good signs as well: 60 new clinics have been built (about 85% of the population now have access to health care); schools are being opened; and, electricity is becoming more widely available through several projects (a water dam, new generators and electricity lines from neighboring states). Our final speaker, Dan Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, talks to us about his expectations for the Obama administration. His foreign policy team has yet to be named but he expects it will be people “we know”, their views on Europe will be no mystery. He expects they will do “less of Bush I and more of Bush II” which is to reach out to Europe and embrace the EU as a strategic partner. As stated before he will do more in Afghanistan and he will ‘reach out’ to Iran. He hopes that Iran will use the new administration as an excuse to be more constructive. Fried warns Obama about Russia, however, as the problems with Russia are serious at the moment, and they may be charming at first but “don’t be fooled”.

During our meeting at the White House we continue to talk about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis and the upcoming transition period. As most of the staff there are political appointees, most will lose their jobs on January 20, 2009 making the upcoming period a very interesting one. Our host doesn’t think the position of the NSC within the next administration will change much as the current situation calls for an active NSC, and as a coordinating body it will be very much needed. Unfortunately on our way out the building, we could not have a look inside the Vice President’s office, which was just around the corner, as the doors were closed. Who knows, he may have been in there himself.
 
Over lunch, Mr. Pickering, author of “America’s Role in the World, Foreign Policy Choices for the Next President” took us on a whirlwind tour of what those foreign and security policies ought to be. The most urgent priority is dealing with the management of the worldwide economic system. Secondly, he names the development nexus: funding foreign aid and helping other countries build prosperity. Thirdly, energy, climate change and the environment will need to be dealt with as a whole and not separately. And lastly, there’s the security question: disarmament, arms control and nuclear proliferation.
 
Before heading to a reception graciously hosted by the Dutch Ambassador, we meet with Ivo Daalder who, as advisor to Obama, is able to explain to us how the elections played out and what to expect in the coming 77 days until the inauguration. For once, the outcome of the popular vote matched the polls: 52% for Obama, 46% for McCain. With some of the states still not called, Obama could go up to as much as 375 electoral votes, which constitutes a landslide victory. With the gains in the House and Senate added, it is the biggest victory for the Democrats since 1932. How did he achieve this victory? By turning out more African American voters than ever before (3 million more than in the previous elections), by winning the young vote by 75%, by winning two out of three of every Hispanic and Asian vote. An important factor was also the unpopularity of President Bush (war in Iraq and the economy). Quite frankly, anybody running for the Democrats should have won. Added to that was Obama’s personality of course, and the fact that he hardly made any mistakes. Whereas his opponent ran the worst campaign ever: focused too much on Iraq still being important, admitting to not understanding the economy and then there was Palin stripping him of the possibility of playing the ‘inexperienced card’ against Obama. And now what? Bush still has all the power until January 20, he could even start a war, his father did in the transitional phase. Technically Obama is only still Senator until the inauguration but he has of course already started the transition. His people are looking at all the agencies and trying to find out who to keep and who to fire. The most important place is the White House where around 900 people will lose their jobs. Upon leaving they will take all documents, files and hard drives with them since they are technically the property of the President and not of the country. This, however, is not true for the other government agencies and departments. Therefore, the transition will be very important; Obama’s people will need to figure out as much as possible before they take over. Mr. Daalder is not quite sure what the role of ‘Vice President Biden’ will be. He has described himself as a ‘free-lance advisor’. The official task of the VP is to ‘preside over the Senate and vote when the Senate is split’, for the rest it is not specified. The fact that he did not come out until after Obama’s speech was very significant, he is not expected to take up many formal roles.

Brookings

We ask him if he has ever witnessed such excitement and craziness in the streets after a Presidential election. He has to admit that he hasn’t but bear in mind, 95% of Washington DC voters voted for Obama! Yesterday it seemed as if all of those voters were out on the streets. A fantastic sight to behold…

(To read previous entries, please go to the News page)

Rick Bezemer
Program Manager
Atlantic & Pacific Exchange Program