News & Current Affairs

November 5, 2008

Obama wins historic US election

Democratic Senator Barack Obama has been elected the first black president of the United States.

“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight… change has come to America,” the president-elect told a jubilant crowd at a park in Chicago.

His rival John McCain accepted defeat, saying “I deeply admire and commend” Mr Obama. He called on his supporters to lend the next president their goodwill.

The BBC’s Justin Webb said the result would have a profound impact on the US.

“On every level America will be changed by this result… [it] will never be the same,” he said.

Mr Obama appeared with his family, and his running mate Joe Biden, before a crowd of tens of thousands in Grant Park, Chicago.

“If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” he said.

He said he had received an “extraordinarily gracious” call from Mr McCain.

He praised the former Vietnam prisoner of war as a “brave and selfless leader”.

“He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine,” the victor said.

He had warm words for his family, announcing to his daughters: “Sasha and Malia, I love you both more than you can imagine, and you have earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.”

Congratulations… You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life
President George W Bush

But he added: “Even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.

“The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep… But America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.”

From red to blue

Mr Obama captured the key battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, before breaking through the winning threshold of 270 electoral college votes at 0400 GMT, when projections showed he had also taken California and a slew of other states.

HAVE YOUR SAY

I find myself strangely emotional about this. I want to go wake up my neighbours and hug them

Amy Scullane, Boston

Then came the news that he had also seized Florida, Virginia and Colorado – all of which voted Republican in 2004 – turning swathes of the map from red to blue.

Several other key swing states are hanging in the balance.

In Indiana and North Carolina, with most of the vote counted, there was less than 0.5% between the two candidates.

However, the popular vote remains close. At 0600 GMT it stood at 51.3% for the Democratic Senator from Illinois, against 47.4% for Arizona Senator McCain.

The main developments include:

  • Mr Obama is projected to have seized Ohio, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia, Florida, Colorado and Nevada – all Republican wins in 2004.
  • He is also projected to have won: Vermont, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Delaware, Massachusetts, District of Columbia, Maryland, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, Rhode Island, California, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon.
  • Mr McCain is projected to have won: Kentucky, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming, Georgia, Louisiana, West Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, Utah, Arizona, Idaho, South Dakota.
  • Turnout was reported to be extremely high – in some places “unprecedented”.
  • The Democrats made gains in the Senate race, seizing seats from the Republicans in Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Colorado. They also increased their majority of the House of Representatives.
  • Exit polls suggest the economy was the major deciding factor for six out of 10 voters.
  • Nine out of 10 said the candidates’ race was not important to their vote, the Associated Press reported. Almost as many said age did not matter.

LOSSES AND GAINS
Key states
Projected gains for Obama in former Republican states of Ohio, New Mexico, Iowa, Virginia, Florida, Colorado, Nevada
Senate seats
Virginia: Democrat Mark Warner replaces retiring Republican John Warner
New Hampshire: Democrat Jeanne Shaheen unseats Republican John Sununu
North Carolina: Democrat Kay Hagan replaces Republican Elizabeth Dole
New Mexico: Democrat Tom Udall replaces retiring Republican Pete Domenici

Several states reported very high turnout. It was predicted 130 million Americans, or more, would vote – more than for any election since 1960.

Many people said they felt they had voted in a historic election – and for many African-Americans the moment was especially poignant.

John Lewis, an activist in the civil rights era who was left beaten on an Alabama bridge 40 years ago, told Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church: “This is a great night. It is an unbelievable night. It is a night of thanksgiving.”

Besides winning the presidency, the Democrats tightened their grip on Congress.

The entire US House of Representatives and a third of US Senate seats were up for grabs.

Democrats won several Senate seats from the Republicans, but seemed unlikely to to gain the nine extra they wanted to reach the 60-seat “super-majority”, that could prevent Republicans blocking legislation.

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September 8, 2008

White House race enters high gear

White House race enters high gear

Barack Obama and John McCain, 5 September 2008

Candidates often see a surge in popularity after the party conventions

The US presidential rivals have begun campaigning in earnest, as a new opinion poll put Republican John McCain ahead of Democrat Barack Obama.

Fresh from being nominated at their party conventions, the two men are now gearing up for the 4 November poll.

A USA Today-Gallup poll put Mr McCain ahead for the first time in months.

Candidates often see a bounce in the polls after the conventions but Mr McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as running mate is being seen as key.

Mr McCain has tried to strike a balance between distancing himself from an unpopular presidency and rallying the party’s conservative base.

Mrs Palin wowed the Republican convention crowd with her speech, helping to re-energize his campaign.

Major test

Mr McCain said that “the electricity has been incredible” at rallies ever since he invited the Alaskan governor to join his ticket.

“She has excited people all over the country. I would love to say it was all because of the charisma of John McCain, but it is not,” he told CBS on Sunday.

Sarah Palin and John McCain (6 September)

Mr McCain said that “the electricity has been incredible” at rallies

Mrs Palin will face a major test this week when she gives her first nationally televised interview, following intense media scrutiny over her personal life and credentials for the ticket.

The USA Today-Gallup poll, which was released on Sunday, showed Mr McCain leading Mr Obama by four percentage points, 50 to 46.

A USA Today poll taken before the Republican convention showed Mr McCain trailing Mr Obama by seven points.

The latest poll had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

The results of a Reuters/Zogby poll, also released over the weekend, gave Mr McCain the edge, with 50 percentage points to 46.

The Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll showed John McCain with a one-point lead.

Mr McCain and Mrs Palin are scheduled to be in Missouri on Monday.

Mr Obama is campaigning in the crucial swing state of Michigan. His vice-president, Joe Biden, was appearing in Wisconsin and Iowa, while Hillary Clinton is on the campaign trail in Florida.

Despite the frenetic pace of the presidential race, the candidates will stop campaigning on Thursday to appear together in New York on the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks.

They said they would put aside politics to honour the memory of the nearly 3,000 people who died.

September 6, 2008

US campaign reaches final phase

US campaign reaches final phase

Barack Obama at a factory in Duryea, Pennsylvania, on 5 September 2008.

Republicans can’t be trusted with the economy, Mr Obama says

US presidential rivals Barack Obama and John McCain have begun the final phase of their campaigns following their anointment by the party conventions.

Mr Obama, the Democratic candidate, seized on high unemployment figures to tell a rally that Republicans must be driven from the White House.

Republican John McCain promised to work to fix the economy.

Both candidates are focusing on key battleground states ahead of the presidential election in November.

Campaigning in the industrial north-east, Mr Obama criticized Mr McCain’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention on Thursday, citing the country’s economic woes.

“If you watched the Republican National Convention over the last three days, you wouldn’t know that we have the highest unemployment in five years,” Mr Obama told workers at a factory near Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Friday.

“They didn’t say a thing about what is going on with the middle class.”

John McCain (5 September 2008)
They’re tough times in Wisconsin, they’re tough times in Ohio, tough times all over America
John McCain

Government figures show that the jobless rate reached 6.1% in August.

Mr McCain told supporters in Wisconsin – another swing state – that the sagging economy had squeezed everyone in the country.

“These are tough times,” he said. “They’re tough times in Wisconsin, they’re tough times in Ohio, tough times all over America.”

But he promised that “change is coming”.

The candidates were gearing up for the last weeks of campaigning up to the 4 November election.

They used their respective party conventions to address vulnerabilities in their campaigns.

Mr McCain – who has a reputation as a maverick – tried to strike a balance between distancing himself from an unpopular presidency and rallying the party’s conservative base.

His selection of conservative Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential running mate helped rally supporters of President George W Bush.

A week earlier, Mr Obama – who needed to heal Democratic divisions after his primary election battle with Hillary Clinton – got a boost when her husband, former President Bill Clinton, gave him unqualified backing in his convention speech.

August 8, 2008

US halt aid over Mauritania coup

US halt aid over Mauritania coup

General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz (r) with unidentified junta members in Mauritania

Gen Abdelaziz has promised to hold fresh elections

The United States has suspended more than $20m (£10m) in  non-humanitarian aid to Mauritania after a coup.

The US state department said it condemned in the strongest possible terms the overthrow of the country’s first democratically-elected president.

But General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, who led the military coup, said the army would safeguard democracy.

Meanwhile, the Arab League and the African Union have demanded the ousted president’s be released immediately.

Diplomats from both organisations are due in Mauritania on Friday to discuss the situation with the coup leaders.

President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi was detained by renegade soldiers on Wednesday after he tried to dismiss four senior army officers – including Mr Abdelaziz, the head of the presidential guard.

I’m very worried about his health and his security
Amal Cheikh Abdallahi
President’s daughter

Prime Minister Yahia Ould Ahmed El-Ouakef – who the coup leaders had also detained – was reported to have been taken to a barracks near the presidency.

The whereabouts of the president are still unclear, and his daughter, Amal Cheikh Abdallahi, said she did not know where her father was.

“I’m very worried about his health and his security,” she told the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme.

“He doesn’t have the right to move or to call. He doesn’t have a phone. He doesn’t have liberty,” she said.

Joking

The US aid suspended includes $15m (£7.5m) in military-to-military co-operation, more than $4m (£2m) in peacekeeping training, and more than $3m (£1.5m) in development assistance.

A demonstration in support of the coup leaders

Some MPs and parties have expressed support for the military intervention

Gen Abdelaziz said the new military council, which has promised to hold elections, would “solve the country’s problems”.

“The armed forces and the security forces will always stay with the people to deepen the democracy,” he said in the capital, Nouakchott.

“It’s them who brought the democracy here and it’s them who have always protected this democracy and they will always preserve it.”

On Thursday, there were demonstrations for and against the coup in Nouakchott.

But the BBC’s James Copnall, who arrived in the city on Thursday evening, the day after the takeover, says it is remarkably calm and relaxed.

He said some people at the airport were joking about the situation – possibly as it is not regarded as that out of the ordinary given the country’s history of coups.

The military has been involved in nearly every government since Mauritania’s independence from France in 1960.

The president transformed everything into a family business
Morsen Ould Al Haj
Senate vice-president

Presidential elections held in 2007 ended a two-year period of military rule – the product of a military coup in 2005.

Despite the widespread international condemnation of the takeover, many MPs and political parties have expressed their support for it.

Senate Vice-President Morsen Ould al-Haj said that the president had abused his powers and was particularly angered by the influence his daughter and wife wielded.

“He failed completely – he transformed everything into a family business. He became very stubborn; he started by installing his children all parts of the government,” he told the BBC.

“Each of his children consider themselves himself a prince ready to inherit the country. They are a real royal family.”

August 5, 2008

Money’s power marks US election

If Barack Obama wins his way to the White House, one quiet decision may turn out to have been crucial.

Towards the end of June, he announced that he would not participate in the system of public funding for elections in the United States.

That means he can raise – and spend – perhaps $300m (£150m) compared with the $84.1m (£43.6m) that Mr McCain will get from the tax-payer under the public funding system.

Under the rules, candidates who take public funding for the general election have their spending capped. Accordingly, Mr Obama will be free to spend – Mr McCain will be constrained, although he will be bolstered by the Republican National Committee, which has far more money than the Democratic National Committee.

Tad Devine, who was one of the main strategists for John Kerry in 2004, told the that Mr Obama had learnt from the “swift boating” that floored the Democratic contender.

(A group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran a series of adverts accusing Mr Kerry of lying about his service in Vietnam to get one of his medals for bravery and two of his three Purple Hearts.)

He says of the Kerry decision: “If we had not accepted public funding we would have had on hand enormous resources and when those Swift Boat attacks came, we would have dealt with them in the medium in which they came, which was paid advertising.”

Mr Obama had indicated that he wanted to stick with the public funding system. Renouncing it, accordingly brought Republican allegations of an about-turn.

Mr Devine, a Democrat, sees it differently.

“It’s a testament that this guy can make tough choices,” he says.

Democrats are still smarting from the mauling they got from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

They were a group of individuals who formed what is known as a 527, after the clause in the tax code that applies to such advocacy groups.

Under the rules, these 527s cannot be connected to a campaign.

But a connection to a campaign can be ambiguous, and where there is ambiguity there will be lawyers.

Democracy

Overlooking the corner of M Street NW and 26th Street in Washington DC is the office of the lawyer for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

He is one and the same man, Benjamin Ginsburg.

He told me: “There was not a direct link. The truth is that I provided legal functions for them.

“I didn’t deal with the messages and I was very careful to make sure there was no co-ordination between the two in terms of their messages and activities.”

Mr Ginsburg is a charming man with a mind like a laser. His office is a museum of mementos of big historical events in which he has been central.

In one corner, there is a metal voting booth from Palm Beach County in Florida in 2000, complete with chads, those small bits of paper – small bits of contentious paper – on which the presidency turned.

He is a great defender of 527s, the outside groups that are raucous and unpredictable in elections.

“This is a democracy,” he says. “People are allowed to express their views outside the political party structure.”

Another Republican, Michael Toner – who used to be chairman of the Federal Election Commission, which polices elections – says the imbalance in funds this time shows that the system is not working.

He wants more money to be available to candidates who take public funding.

Americans do not spend too much on elections, he thinks, but too little.

“Americans spent $3bn (£1.5bn) last year on potato chips. Isn’t the next leader of the free world worth at least that much?

Fair game

Democrats tend to see Swift Boat Veterans, and the campaign they ran last time, as way below the belt.

Republicans, in return, see it as pretty fair game and point their fingers back at campaigns run by MoveOn.org in particular, which has depicted the US military leader in Iraq, Gen Petraeus as General Betray Us.

Move On is a big web-based organisation that does take much money from ordinary people but also in the past from billionaires like George Soros. Ilyse Hogue, MoveOn’s campaigns director, defended the adverts.

“Raising that issue is critical to having a dialogue into how we responsibly and safely withdraw our troops,” she said. “We’re proud of our record.”

“MoveOn is member-driven, small donor driven. Over the past ten years, 90% of our fund-raising has been from small owners. The current average donation is $42 (£21).

“Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was all big donor funded. It was a couple of big donors calling the shots. That’s the antithesis of how MoveOn works and believes that civil society should work.”

One of the benefits for Mr Obama of raising his own money rather than relying on public funding may be that he can keep better control of his own message.

The reasoning runs that there is little point in giving to candidates if their spending is capped. Why give what cannot be spent?

So his hope may be that giving to his campaign directly might seem more effective for his supporters than giving to fringe groups. So runs the argument.

If that is so, he will be better able to meet whatever gets thrown at him, by fringe groups implying that he is a Muslim, for example.

“They will try that,” says Harold Ickes, one of the legendary political workers in Washington for the Democrats and formerly deputy chief of staff at the Clinton White House, where he earned the appellation “Garbage Man” because of his role as a cleaner up of political mess.

“If you’re talking about a tight election and enough people are convinced of that in Ohio, it can make Ohio slip into the Republican column.”

And race may surface – not formally from the McCain campaign, but from the outside groups.

As Mr Ickes said: “We’re going to find just how deep race cuts in this country.”

The first part of Steve Evans’s two-part investigation into the “The Billion Dollar Election” is broadcast on the World Service on Monday 4 August.

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