News & Current Affairs

November 4, 2008

No apathy as US election day looms

No apathy as US election day looms

After nearly two years of digesting speeches and slogans, of being bombarded with adverts and requests for money, of coming to terms with the possibility of the first non-white or female president, Americans are nearly there.

Pedestrians walk along a pavement that is lined with dozens of election signs

One thing is certain: Americans are ready for this election

They voted in record numbers in the primary elections and now look poised to do the same in the general election. In fact, they already have been.

In more than 30 states, early voting began several weeks ago. It has not been uncommon to see large lines snaking around entrances to libraries, community centres and other voting locations.

If there is one thing that can confidently be said, it is that Americans are ready for this election.

At a time of economic crisis, with opinion polls consistently showing that large numbers of people are unhappy with the direction their country is taking, there is little sense of apathy.

‘Mind-boggling’ costs

And, after eight years of an increasingly unpopular Republican presidency, the advantage is with the Democratic Party – and the party’s candidate, Barack Obama.

Barack Obama campaigns in Ohio

Mr Obama has mustered a record-breaking fundraising operation

He has raised mind-boggling amounts of cash – far in excess of even the most generous estimates – enabling him to compete across the country and to afford extravagant amounts of advertising in these final few weeks, culminating in the half hour “infomercial” which aired at prime time on several US networks last week.

Of course, it’s not just the money. Throughout the months that I’ve covered this election, the levels of excitement and enthusiasm at Obama rallies have consistently outstripped those of his opponents, both Democratic and Republican.

Only Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin – both historic candidates, in their differing ways, have managed to inspire crowds, in a similar fashion.

Transformational

But the question is: Will this enthusiasm, enhanced voter registration and substantial financial advantage be carried over into the polling stations?

If it is, Sen Obama has a real chance of winning many of the states, which have crossed from safe Republican territory into the “toss up” column; places like Indiana and Virginia, which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate when the current one was just three years old.

The election could be transformational, not just in terms of bringing a non-white president to the White House, but in re-drawing the electoral map, at the same time.

John McCain campaigns in Florida

Behind in the polls, Mr McCain insists will be the comeback kid

There are plenty of potential obstacles, though. Some are visceral.

When it comes down to it, how many Americans will find it hard to put a cross next to a man with an exotic name and mixed-race background?

Will Mr Obama, for all his inspiring rhetoric and calm demeanour be seen as too aloof and professorial?

Will Americans prefer the earthier, more “familiar-looking”, Mr McCain; a feature of public life for several decades, with an inspiring story of war time heroism – and reputation for bridging partisan divides?

And what of the polls, which have shown a fairly consistent Obama lead for the past few weeks? Will that keep Democratic voters away, through a sense of complacency, or, perhaps, discourage Republicans?

Palin effect

Certainly, the McCain campaign has made much of the tightening numbers in recent days and in places, such as Pennsylvania – a must win state for the Republican candidate.

There, the Arizona senator’s argument that Mr Obama is too inexperienced in foreign affairs and too left-wing in his economic views is gaining traction.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Higher than usual number of voters leads to long queues
First-time voters are confused by the process, adding to delays
Voters are challenged over their registration or identity at the polls
Polling stations experience problems with voting machines
High turn-out leads to shortage of ballot papers
Householders with a repossession notice denied right to vote

Another big unknown is the Palin effect. Mr McCain’s running mate has inspired and disappointed in equal measure. She is likely to be a reason for many on both sides to turn out.

So, will the pro or anti forces be the most energised?

And whose get out the vote efforts will be the most successful? The Republicans have a good track record in this and the McCain camp seems to have kept cash aside for the final push, but the Obama campaign has broken new ground in its organisational powers.

The experience of the long primary campaign is likely to come in very handy.

Undecided voters

And what of those undecided voters? The sense I get, is that many are people who voted for President Bush four years ago, but are still unconvinced by Mr McCain – either for reasons of ideology or temperament.

If that’s the case, Mr Obama doesn’t need to win them over. He’d be happy if they simply stayed at home.

At this point, the odds remain in favour of an Obama win. But it’s not the bookmakers who will decide the result of the election; it’s the American people.

And after the longest, most expensive – and, according to many veteran observers – most inspiring election campaign in living memory, they are about to make that decision.

Rarely can their choice have seemed so consequential for the country, or the world.

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September 14, 2008

Record donations month for Obama

Record donations month for Obama

Barack Obama campaigning in Concord, New Hampshire, on 12 September

Barack Obama’s previous best monthly total was in February

US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama raised $66m (£37m) in August, making it his best month in terms of election fund raising.

The amount raised makes it likely Mr Obama will have more to spend than Republican rival John McCain in the final two months before the vote.

Donations were lifted by half a million new donors signing up, an aide said.

The record figure contradicts suggestions that Mr Obama’s fund raising appeal had been slipping.

His previous record, of $55m, was set in February.

The fund raising details are expected to be announced in the coming week when the rival campaigns file their monthly financial reports with the Federal Election Commission.

The public financing of presidential elections as it exists today is broken
Barack Obama
speaking in June

Mr Obama earlier decided not to accept public financing for the rest of his campaign and now has no spending limit.

He is the first candidate not to take public financing since the system was introduced in the mid-1970s.

Mr McCain did accept public financing, which limits his direct spending to about $84m after 1 September.

Recent opinion polls suggest Mr McCain has a lead of, on average, about 3% over Mr Obama, ahead of the 4 November vote.

Breaking the mould

Correspondents say Mr Obama raised more money than the Republican candidate partly because of the excitement generated by the Democratic nomination battle with Hillary Clinton, which ended on 7 June.

John McCain greets supporters at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia, on 10 September

Mr McCain currently leads Mr Obama in opinion polls

Mr McCain, by contrast, wrapped up the Republican nomination back in March.

The only donations he is accepting are those to his compliance fund – money to pay for lawyers, accountants and other expenses involved in maintaining compliance with federal election laws.

The Republican National Committee, however, can still raise money to support the McCain campaign.

The Obama campaign has also broken the mould of US election finance by making big efforts to attract small donors.

Mr Obama explained his decision to shun public finance in June by saying the system was “broken”.

“It’s not an easy decision, and especially because I support a robust system of public financing of elections,” Mr Obama said then in a video message to supporters.

August 29, 2008

Obama launches historic campaign

Obama launches historic campaign

Barack Obama has accepted the Democratic Party’s historic nomination to run for president of the US in front of a crowd of some 75,000 people.

In an address at the party’s national convention in Denver, he promised he would do his best to keep alive the American dream of opportunity for all.

“America, we are better than these last eight years,” he told cheering crowds. “We are a better country than this.”

Mr Obama is the first African-American to be nominated by a major US party.

In his speech at Denver’s Invesco stadium, Mr Obama promised to reverse the economic downturn afflicting the US and restore the nation’s standing in the world.

I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom
Barack Obama

“We are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look just like the last eight years,” he said.

He also attacked the record of the Bush administration and his Republican rival for the presidency, John McCain.

“This moment – this election – is our chance to keep, in the 21st Century, the American promise alive.”

Mr Obama criticized Mr McCain as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans and said he had failed to help them on issues such as the economy, health care and education.

He also stressed that he would call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, whereas Mr McCain stood “alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war”, he said.

“I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, who yearn for a better future,” he said.

Tens of thousands of people gathered to hear Mr Obama’s speech

He rejected criticism by the McCain campaign that he is a “celebrity”, pointing to his family’s past financial hardships, and said his rival should stop questioning his patriotism.

In a final rallying call, Mr Obama recalled the message of Martin Luther King, who – 45 years ago to the day – gave his “I have a dream” speech in his historic march on Washington.

“America, we cannot turn back,” he said. “We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to walk into the future.”

Joined on stage by his family and running-mate, Joe Biden, Mr Obama was given a standing ovation by the crowds.

‘Not ready’

Earlier in the day, Mr McCain ran a TV advert in which he congratulated Mr Obama on the historic nature – and date – of his nomination, saying it was “truly a good day for America”.

The political truce was short-lived, however, with a spokesman for the McCain campaign issuing a statement following Mr Obama’s address that dismissed his words as “misleading”.

Al Gore speaks at Invesco Field, Denver, 28 Aug
If you like the Bush-Cheney approach, John McCain’s your man. If you want change, then vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden
Former Vice-President Al Gore

“Tonight, Americans witnessed a misleading speech that was so fundamentally at odds with the meagre record of Barack Obama,” spokesman Tucker Bounds said.

“The fact remains, Barack Obama is still not ready to be president.”

The BBC’s Justin Webb in Denver says that this needed to be a serious speech by Mr Obama and it was.

One feature was that Mr Obama made frequent reference to the future, our correspondent says. The Obama camp knows that Americans are worried about Mr McCain’s age and ever so subtly they are making an allusion to it.

Martin Luther King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, had earlier told the convention that his father’s dream lived on in Mr Obama’s candidacy.

“He is in the hopes and dreams, the competence and courage, the rightness and readiness of Barack Obama.”

Former Vice-President Al Gore also called on the Democrats to “seize this opportunity for change” and elect Mr Obama.

Linking Mr McCain firmly to the policies of President George W Bush, Mr Gore said it was vital that Americans changed course if they wanted to tackle a “self-inflicted economic crisis”, protect the rights of every American and halt global warming.

Mr Gore added that the US was “facing a planetary emergency” and that the ties of Mr McCain and the Republicans to big oil firms meant they would not act to end the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

‘Open convention’

Mr Gore’s address, warmly received by the crowd, followed performances from singers Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and John Legend.

The Obama campaign took the unusual move of holding the closing night speeches in the sports stadium to allow ordinary voters, as well as party delegates, to attend.

Justin Webb
His supporters and those sympathetic to him are breathing a sigh of relief
BBC North America editor Justin Webb, on the Obama nomination

Mr Obama’s much-anticipated appearance was the highlight of the party’s carefully choreographed four-day event.

Questions remain as to whether Mr Obama can cement his standing within his own party, and reach out to those parts of the electorate that are yet to be convinced by him, the BBC’s Matthew Price in Denver notes.

He was resoundingly endorsed by ex-President Bill Clinton on Wednesday, which may help consolidate his standing.

Earlier that same day, in a moment of high drama, his defeated rival Hillary Clinton cut short a roll-call vote to endorse Mr Obama’s candidacy by acclamation, in a powerful gesture of unity.

The presidential election on 4 November will pit Mr Obama against Mr McCain, who will be nominated next week at his party’s convention in St Paul, Minnesota.

Republican officials say Mr McCain has chosen his running-mate, but the person’s identity has not yet been announced.

Mr McCain is due to hold a 10,000-strong rally in the swing state of Ohio on Friday, at which it was expected he would present his vice-presidential candidate.

August 24, 2008

Obama introduces Biden at rally

Obama introduces Biden at rally

US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has introduced veteran Senator Joe Biden as his running mate at a rally in Springfield, Illinois.

Mr Obama hailed Mr Biden as a “man with a distinguished record and a fundamental decency”.

Mr Obama confirmed his choice of running mate overnight on his website and with a text message after the news began to leak to the media.

The two men were making their first appearance following the announcement.

Senator Joe Biden (file image)

The Democratic campaign will be hoping Mr Biden’s presence will reassure voters who are concerned about Mr Obama’s relative inexperience, particularly in the international arena, says the BBC’s Rachel Harvey at the rally.

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain’s camp called the choice of Mr Biden an admission by Barack Obama that he was not ready to be president.

His spokesman also picked up on a slip of the tongue Mr Obama made on stage when he introduced his running-mate as “the next president”.

Hugs and cheers

At the place where he launched his presidential campaign a year and a half ago, Mr Obama outlined Mr Biden’s accomplishments in the Senate, his blue collar roots and – above all – his experience on foreign policy.

OFFICE OF THE VICE-PRESIDENT
Second-highest executive officer in the United States
Assumes the top role if the president cannot continue in office
One of four statutory members of the National Security Council

“He’s an expert on foreign policy whose heart and values are rooted firmly in the middle class,” Mr Obama said.

He also emphasized Mr Biden’s drive for change, despite his 30 years spent in the Capitol.

“For decades, he has brought change to Washington, but Washington hasn’t changed him,” Mr Obama said.

He recounted the personal tragedy that struck Mr Biden more than 30 years ago, within days of his election to the Senate, when his first wife and their daughter were killed in a car accident.

After being introduced, a shirt-sleeved Mr Biden ran on to the stage and was embraced by Mr Obama to cheers from the crowd.

In his speech, Mr Biden referred to his own short-lived bid for the White House against Mr Obama for the 2008 nomination, before dropping out in January:

“You learn about a man when you debate with him, you see how he thinks. Barack Obama has the vision and courage to make this a better place. He is a clear-eyed pragmatist who will get the job done.”

At one point, Mr Biden garbled Mr Obama’s name, calling him “Barack America”. The crowd yelled back “Obama”.

Veteran politician

Mr Biden, a 65-year-old veteran lawmaker, is highly respected on foreign policy and is a six-term senator who serves on the powerful Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

HAVE YOUR SAY

He brings a breadth of knowledge and experience unmatched amongst the crop of finalists Obama was said to be considering

David Seidman, Durham, NC, USA

He has represented the state of Delaware in the US Senate since 1972.

Crucially, Senator Biden appeals to working-class Americans and was born in Pennsylvania, a key swing state in this election, our correspondent says.

Hillary Clinton, the former first lady who narrowly lost to Mr Obama during the tense battle for the Democratic nomination, issued a statement calling Mr Biden “an exceptionally strong, experienced leader and devoted public servant”.

John McCain has reportedly not yet settled on a running mate.

Mr McCain’s spokesman, Ben Porritt, suggested that Mr Obama’s slip in describing his running-mate as “the next president” reflected on his own inexperience.

“Barack Obama sounded as though he turned over the top spot on the ticket today to his new mentor…” he said in a statement.

“The reality is that nothing has changed since Joe Biden first made his assessment that Barack Obama is not ready to lead,” Mr McCain’s spokesman said.

August 23, 2008

Obama hits McCain on homes gaffe

Obama hits McCain on homes gaffe

John McCain

Mr McCain accused Mr Obama getting a felon to help him buy his home

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama has hit out at opponent John McCain for being unable to tell an interviewer how many homes he owns.

Mr McCain’s staff later said that the Republican contender owned “at least four” houses, although Mr Obama claimed that Mr McCain actually owned seven.

The row started when a video was posted on the internet accusing Mr McCain of enjoying a lavish lifestyle.

The McCain camp said a convicted felon had helped Mr Obama to buy his home.

The BBC’s Katty Kay followed the makers of the video as it was being produced.

‘Lost track’

During an interview with reporters from the Politico website, Mr McCain was asked how many houses he owned:

“I think – I’ll have my staff get to you,” he said.

“It’s condominiums where – I’ll have them get to you.”

Seizing on Mr McCain’s remarks, Mr Obama’s campaign released an attack advert saying that if “Mr McCain has lost track of how many houses he owns… here’s one house America can’t afford to let John McCain into” over footage of the White House.

In a reference to recent positive remarks by Mr McCain about economic conditions, Mr Obama said in a speech to supporters: “If you don’t know how many houses you have, then it’s not surprising that you might think the economy is fundamentally strong.”

Mr McCain’s camp responded to the Obama campaign’s criticisms by releasing its own advert, accusing Mr Obama of “getting help” from convicted felon Tony Rezko to buy his million-dollar mansion in Chicago.

The independent internet video that triggered the row was produced by Robert Greenwald, an Obama supporter who has put together a number of web videos in support of the Democratic hopeful.

BBC correspondent Katty Kay spoke to Mr Greenwald as he was making the video, before the furore erupted.

He told the BBC that he spotted early on the potential of the internet as a means of getting across a political message.

“We said: ‘Let’s see if we can use the new technology, not where it had been primarily used – which was naked women falling down in showers and other high cultural events like that – but we could use it for political storytelling’. And we’ve just passed 23 million views on our videos.”

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.

August 4, 2008

US election at-a-glance: 26 July-1 Aug

US election at-a-glance: 26 July-1 Aug

WEEK IN A NUTSHELL

Barack Obama completes his tour of Europe with a visit to the UK, where he meets Prime Minister Gordon Brown and opposition leader David Cameron. John McCain’s campaign launches a number of attack adverts against Mr Obama, accusing him of cancelling a visit to wounded soldiers because “cameras” would not have been allowed (a charge dismissed as false by Pentagon officials), and of being “the biggest celebrity in the world” over footage of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.

KEY QUOTES
“There has been a long list. It seems to be getting shorter. And I’m still being mentioned. A lot can change day-to-day. But we’ll see.”
Democratic Virginia Governor Tim Kaine hints about his vice-presidential prospects

“Assuming that Governor Tim Kaine and Governor Kathleen Sebelius are both on Obama’s short-list, I wonder what the tight-lipped Obama world thinks about the leaks coming from Kaine allies as compared to the nada-nothing-bupkis coming from Sebelius’s orbit?”
Marc Ambinder, Atlantic monthly

“He’s the biggest celebrity in the world.”
Voice-over from a John McCain campaign advert, played over footage of Mr Obama’s fellow “celebrities”, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears

“We want to have a serious debate. But so far, we’ve been hearing about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. I do have to ask my opponent: is that the best you can come up with?”
Barack Obama

“There is legitimate mockery of a political campaign now, and it isn’t at Obama’s. For McCain’s sake, this tomfoolery needs to stop.”
Former McCain adviser John Weaver hits out at his former employer’s new team

“John McCain and the Republicans, they don’t have any new ideas… they’re going to try to say, ‘Well, you know, he’s got a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five dollar bills…”
Was Barack Obama playing the race card?

“A throng of adoring fans awaits Senator Obama in Paris – and that’s just the American press.”
John McCain

“Race wont have any role in my campaign, nor is there any place for it. I’m disappointed that [Mr Obama]’s used it [the race card].”
John McCain thinks so

NUMBER NEWS

Quinnipiac published polls from three of the key swing states this week – Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Although Barack Obama held leads in all three of them, they all suggested that Mr Obama’s lead has shrunk since June 18, when the company last published polls from the states.

In Florida, he fell from 47% to 46%, with his opponent John McCain rising from 43% to 44%.

In Ohio, Quinnipiac also had Mr Obama beating Mr McCain 46%-44%, but previously the pollster had had them at 48%-42%.

In Pennsylvania, Mr Obama’s 12-point lead in June has dropped to seven, according to the poll.

None of these shifts in the polls provides enough evidence on its own for us to conclude that Mr Obama’s lead is slipping, but taken together, they would appear to indicate a slight weakening for Mr Obama in the most important battleground states.

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