BBC BLOGS - Justin Webb's America

Archives for April 2009

Obama's improved performance

Justin Webb | 17:54 UK time, Thursday, 30 April 2009

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Sitting in the East Room last night, I felt the president had conquered some of the demons that made him so prolix at his last news conference, including his desire to over-explain himself, but mainly his sheer exhaustion.

He looked perkier. The jokes were good. Some suggested that he laboured the issue of the sheer number of problems he faces, but I felt he was making light of them - none of that tedious stuff about the loneliness of the office etc etc.

Is this his secret foreign policy - or at least the underpinning of it?

UPDATE:
That's certainly the view of the Republicans whose foreign affairs attack is re-launched with this ad.

100 days in 100 words

Justin Webb | 08:14 UK time, Wednesday, 29 April 2009

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Pluses: intelligence (nobody denies it); tranquillity (Nixon was intelligent); doggedness (yes he can); joyousness (W had this important trait but was arguably lacking in other spheres); cussedness necessary for world leadership (has he read The Prince - yes he has!).

Minuses: intelligence (and he's so proud not to have been in the Special Olympics); tranquillity (that stuff about how angry he was over AIG suggested to me that he wasn't); doggedness (his head is in the long term, while the short term goes to hell); joyousness (go to Detroit); cussedness (he is taking on the Catholic Church and may lose).

Over to you. What is your 100-word take on these 100 days?

What Specter's defection means

Justin Webb | 20:19 UK time, Tuesday, 28 April 2009

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The really interesting story with Arlen Specter is not so much the parliamentary stuff that has caught so much attention today, but the deeper issue of what it says about change in America. Or change in Pennsylvania to be precise.

If Arlen Specter could have won as a Republican he would have stayed a Republican - but Pennsylvania voters have been on a trajectory that takes them further and further away from the causes and concerns of the Bush-era Republican party, in particular on issues of religious social conservatism (whose strange death I chronicled in my book).

Remember Rick Santorum? Who could forget. But where is he now? Sarah Palin? Ditto.

This is where I take issue with the thesis of my friend Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist, who writes that God is Back.

If God were back, Mr Specter would still be a Republican...

The view from rural South Carolina

Justin Webb | 22:36 UK time, Monday, 27 April 2009

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In preparation for President Obama's 100th day, I have spent some time today with South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford whose relatively lonely hold-out against the stimulus spending orgy has attracted some talk of future presidential bids if it all goes wrong for Mr Obama.

We left Mr Sanford on a tractor on a patch of land near Beaufort in the state's gorgeous lowland region - looking very at home on his own soil as it were.

Mr Obama tills no sod. He never has - not in Hawaii and not at Harvard and certainly not in Chicago.

I cannot think of another president who has not at least pretended to have a love of the great American outdoors. If Mr Obama goes down in one term it will be the revenge of the rural folks rather than a right/left thing.

At a gun shop, we heard lurid tales of ammunition-buying in the wake of the growth of the power of the federal government. Sounds daft? Maybe - and of course he lost South Carolina in the election anyway, so his relative unpopularity here is no great surprise - but South Carolina is only irrelevant if he manages to rescue the economy and then deal with the inflationary consequences of the rescue.

If it does not work, Mr Sanford is ready with the Big Chill that might be necessary.

Sell Palin (if you are still crazy enough to be holding this currency), keep Jindal, buy Sanford, at least as a hedge...

More philosophical question about torture

Justin Webb | 21:50 UK time, Friday, 24 April 2009

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The nice people at this website (whose torture discussion I linked to the other day) may be in further demand for advice following the news that more photos of abuse of prisoners are to be released by the Pentagon.

The issue is whether anyone has the right not to prosecute if it turns out that the abuses were policy as well as practice.

Barack Hussain Obama may need more than his middle name to assist in the project he has begun of wooing the sceptical/hostile world. Legal proceedings may be the only option - however much he had hoped to avoid them.

The Obama-Catholic row continues

Justin Webb | 22:31 UK time, Wednesday, 22 April 2009

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Sunday 17 May is still D-day in the war between Barack Obama and the Catholic hierachy, with neither side standing down, in fact rather the opposite.

I hope this has nothing to do with it - Notre Dame as the Kent State de nos jours?

But it is a war, and in a war vice-presidents are not the only human beings who convince themselves that special measures are acceptable.

The position of the Catholic Chuch in President Obama's America is going to be one of the fascinating sub-plots to the main story over the next few years. There is a quite brilliant book just out (full disclosure: I know one of the authors) which argues that American religion - or more precisely the American approach to religion, as a set of choices in a spiritual market-place - is being exported successfully around the world.

But the book also makes the point that within the US, the Catholic Church is in many ways a failing institution:

"The Catholic Church has lost more people to other denominations or to no religion at all than any other religious group," it says.

The shortfall is made up, of course, by South American immigrants. Socially conservative immigrants.

So the Obama-friendly wing of the Church is in decline, and the hard-line anti-Obama wing is on the up.

Dissenting voices on torture covered up?

Justin Webb | 22:18 UK time, Tuesday, 21 April 2009

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This is big news, I think. Basically, a Bush administration official is claiming that there was a cover-up of attempted opposition to the legal advice.

This is the money quote:

"At the time, in 2005, I circulated an opposing view of the legal reasoning. My bureaucratic position, as counselor to the secretary of state, didn't entitle me to offer a legal opinion. But I felt obliged to put an alternative view in front of my colleagues at other agencies, warning them that other lawyers (and judges) might find the OLC views unsustainable. My colleagues were entitled to ignore my views. They did more than that: The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo. I expect that one or two are still at least in the State Department's archives."

As for your comments on my last post, I am fascinated by the idea that watching Fox is torture (as gunsandreligion has suggested). That Sean Hannity fellow is actually rather amusing - did I detect a faint wiff of effort to out-Limbaugh the master in order to take on the mantle of leader of the right?

Anyway, in his interview with Dick Cheney last night, he certainly had the ex-VP held in a few positions which may or may not have been legal in some states. But they were more intimate than stressful I felt...

Livinginlalaland hits it on the head for me: waterboarding is always wrong except when it might not be.

The real question about waterboarding

Justin Webb | 06:06 UK time, Tuesday, 21 April 2009

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So Dick Cheney says waterboarding worked. He is dripping on Obama's nose. The real question - of course - is whether waterboarding is justified under any circumstances, including the rescue of thousands of lives, including, indeed, the saving of the world. They didn't get to that on Fox but a good discussion here.

Obama's Catholic difficulties

Justin Webb | 20:51 UK time, Friday, 17 April 2009

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Before turning to the Catholic Church, a brief word about me. Or actually you. This is a validation of your decision to come here!

It is a testament to the quality of discussion, and we should all bathe in the glory of what an American organisation calls an honor (everyone shall have prizes!) but we Brits would probably refer to as a "long list". Anyway, I take the American view...

As for the Catholic Church: the row over whether or not the US ambassador to the Holy See ought to be Caroline Kennedy seems to me to be dwarfed in political significance by the 17 May appearance of President Obama at Notre Dame University, the most Catholic of Catholic institutions in the US.

Protests are growing and a compromise is desperately required for both sides.

This is one suggestion and it may well be attractive to all concerned (if you have been to Columbia and Harvard you do not really need the extra degree), but I put my money on a big Obama moment in the speech - a chance to speak to the nation about tolerance and bigotry again as he did after the Rev Wright controversy.

Protests could actually be helpful - Nixon and friends used to love speaking at university campuses in order to look reasonable and cool in the face of impolite crowds...

Will we now get the truth about military adventures?

Justin Webb | 21:38 UK time, Tuesday, 14 April 2009

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Those who were hoping to use the Somali Pirates issue as a metaphor for an already failing presidency have had a tough time explaining the apparent measured and successful approach taken by the Obama team to what their enemies were hoping was a Khrushchev moment.

The real point is this, though. Under President Bush, tales of military daring sometimes turned out to be exaggerated, and in some cases unforgivably false.

Under President Obama, are we to learn the unvarnished truth even when politics tempts the administration to dress things up? They made a good start with the pirates by refusing to engage in breast-beating before or after. If the generally acknowledged truth of the encounter (that the pirates had to be killed) turns out to be unchallenged, then this event is not just a decent little piece of steel for the Obama spine; it is also a very important readjustment from the days of serial overstatement.

This is not to say that killing them was right or wrong (morally or practically) but just that a war story, calmly told, unadorned and un-politicised, will burnish Mr Obama's image more than a thousand gung-ho tales that turn out to be tall. This is the lesson of the Bush years.

Reflecting on delay

Justin Webb | 04:21 UK time, Sunday, 12 April 2009

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Arriving back in the US I see my colleagues on the trip have been keeping eveyone up to date on our difficulties leaving Turkey (Suzanne has to explain that Turkish Delight is a local delicacy! - CNN readers plainly not as travelled as Christiane Amanpour).
But none that I have seen has broached the topic of why we endured a further delay even after the captain's chair was fixed. The issue - seriously - was that the chair had not been properly certified, so we were kept on the ground for three hours while senior administration figures at first gripped their FTs and dreamed of being on Air Force One and then took control of the situation as diplomats are meant to and called everyone they had ever known who knew anything about Turkey to get us out. It was quite a scene: "We have xxxxxxx on board and I know he will be personally grateful to whoever clears up this mess" among the lines I heard; a nice mixture of carrot and (implied) stick. Some discussion about whether all of it was a plot by the French to punish the Obama team for being so keen on getting Turkey into the EU when their airports are still run with, shall we say, the inflexibility of the closed market.

Still stuck in Istanbul

Justin Webb | 20:24 UK time, Tuesday, 7 April 2009

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I can answer the question about how much we know (or knew) about the Iraq trip: nothing.

One or two people travelling in the pool will have known, but they kept it admirably quiet.

But at least Air Force One works: our press plane is still stuck so we may now be in the Ritz forever. The part ordered from London never showed up.

By the way I agree with those who have written in praise of Istanbul - it is a fabulous place.

The Blue Mosque at dusk was glorious: I went to stand outside for the Six O'Clock News and felt most privileged to be there.

UPDATE: Final word on the travel issue - we are stuck and some members of the press have been moved by the White House to alternative accomodation (still rather fancy, I think) but - and this really does bring home to you the way the bubble works - some cannot get cabs because they have no money!

Give the drivers dollars, I suggest, or change some money, but no: they have no cash at all!

They have come on a tour of 50 nations (give or take) with no money! That is travelling with the White House...

In the end, buses are brought so that they do not have to worry.

Stuck in Istanbul

Justin Webb | 16:35 UK time, Tuesday, 7 April 2009

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Our departure has been further delayed now by a mysterious development - the motor on the captain's chair on our charter plane is reported to be broken. Much hilarity in Istanbul - parts are being flown by F-16 from London. (I made that up - at least the F-16 bit...)

Nobody here knows why a captain's chair has a motor - are there any pilots reading the blog?

Some reporters are demanding a per diem. Others are hoping to stay and become Ritz-based local reporters...

Obama in Iraq

Justin Webb | 15:59 UK time, Tuesday, 7 April 2009

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The Iraq visit is being described as a surprise when it is anything but. The only issue was whether it would be Afghanistan or Iraq; Iraq won simply because it was closer.

Sadly, neither the BBC nor most of the other media folks on the trip have been able to go there with the President. It would have been nice to see somewhere new...

My previous trip on Air Force One was to Teesside in Northeast England, so Iraq would have been a glamorous addition, but it was not to be. Although the Ritz Hotel Istanbul (the media centre for the White House) has its attractions. An extra dinner has been ordered, you will be pleased to hear.

Looking back on Obama's tour of Europe

Justin Webb | 15:29 UK time, Tuesday, 7 April 2009

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So what of the Europe and Turkey visit?

Traditionally American presidents turn their attentions to the outside world when everything at home goes to hell. For Mr Obama you could argue that things at home were already pretty dire so the normal rules were easy to break.

But he has taken to world diplomacy as if he were made for it. Which in a way, he was.

He is tall with long arms: this allows LBJ-style use of stature to impose power and will.

And he has a fine mind: diplomats value this. In a meeting in Prague, a diplomat told a colleague that the entire room was wowed by him - he had such a grasp of subjects. But just as importantly, he has an easy and self-effacing style that caused the Euro crowd to swoon.

But has he achieved anything? The David Axelrod line - that it is all about tomorrow or the day after - could be interpreted as a terrible cop-out.

But this project is huge. So the fact that North Korea is still the subject of international disagreement or that Turkey has not acceded to the EU or that Afghanistan has not been pacified by Belgian gendarmes with feathers in their caps should not surprise us.

The long-term does matter. In a year, if the Euro crowd want out of Afghanistan then this trip failed. In 10 years, if North Korea has built a spaceship and colonised the moon then this trip failed. In a century, if Turkey is an Islamic Republic with a national day to celebrate Osama Bin Laden's birthday, then this visit will have failed.

But if, in a year, or 10 or 100, we see a more united effort in Afghanistan, a more concerted effort against the North Koreans, and a Turkey even more modern and diplomatically mature, then he can claim to have done well.

If he is still around...

Strategy and yet more strategy

Justin Webb | 08:08 UK time, Tuesday, 7 April 2009

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You plant, you cultivate, you harvest! This the Axelrod dictum - indeed the Obama Doctrine. David Axelrod (Obama's chief strategist) used that precise phrase at a meeting with journalists here today.

Strategy strategy strategy. Does not impress all the folks back home and even those folks who are more kindly disposed towards the Obama White House are worried that tactics are being ignored or confused while everyone on Air Force One sits and thinks.

American Exceptionalism

Justin Webb | 11:46 UK time, Monday, 6 April 2009

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One of the talking points on the bus as we arrived in Ankara was the Decline of America (there were other talking points as well, but I won't bore you with them) with the Brits, including me and Tom Baldwin, the mild-mannered but influential London Times correspondent, asked to give an assessment of how we see the post-Obama US.

Our replies I won't trouble you with, but the discussion was prompted in part by one of Obama's most interesting replies at a news conference - in Strasbourg half way through the trip - to a question asked by Mr Luce of the FT only moments after that vomiting incident but looking remarkably perky.

Does the president believe in American Exceptionalism, he asked.

The answer - yes, but in the same way as other nationalities (he mentioned Greece and Britain) believe in themselves - raised the spectre of Greek Exceptionalism but was nonetheless praised by some egghead journos as being rather wonderful.

Wrong I think. Greece is a country, America is an idea. True, there is Greek influence in the America idea but to compare patriotism with exceptionalism is to miss the point.

It was a great answer in that it was thoughtful and generous and patriotic all in one; but it was the wrong answer. American Exceptionalism stems not from love of country but from the universality of the values of the country.

Seducer-in-chief

Justin Webb | 16:34 UK time, Sunday, 5 April 2009

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This is a hard edged charm offensive. Again in Prague he has addressed a cheerful throng of Obamamaniacs but again he has told them things they received in stony (confused?) silence. This time it was on the missile defence shield that President Bush wanted to build and President Obama will... still build. This is what he said:

"Let me be clear: Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran's neighbors and our allies. The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we intend to go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven."

For most Czechs (though not the government) the missile defence shield (which of course is not yet built and might not work) is unpopular. Obama told them straight they were wrong. And yet still at the end they pressed forward to grasp him. Among the espostulations heard by a colleage, "Oh God I got so close - I actually touched him." This was a British journalist!

Obama is a seducer, in the nicest possible way of course. He smiles and refers to himself as Hussein and does all the other things that make Europeans swoon. Then he has his way. Or does he...?

Obama the strategician

Justin Webb | 15:41 UK time, Saturday, 4 April 2009

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Having been so sniffy about the gifts I am forced to eat my words. The French excel themselves with the provision of free food - to such an extent that my celebrated and cerebral colleague Ed Luce (read his thoughts here )seriously toys with the idea of making himself vomit back the White House's inferior lunch (chilli con carne, since you ask) in order to come and enjoy the taxpayer-funded version round the corner. The unluckiest man in Strasbourg is my good friend Robert Moore of ITV News: anarchists have burned down his hotel, or the bit of it where he was staying. Further proof that staying inside the White House bubble is always the safest option.

One matter of substance: to understand Obama you must study strategy. For tactics he cares nothing. Whether a few more continental gendarmes with feathers in their caps go to Afghanistan or don't go is not a matter he will care about. What he wants at this summit is to lay the ground for Europe to commit over time and as the circumstances become propitious, with elections over etc. He will do his best to help with that brutal reminder - imagine the upset it would have caused if it had come from George Bush - that the terrorists in Afghanistan threaten Europe more than they do America. But he will wait as well. Actually that is what diplomacy is. It is not one-to-one friendship or one-to-one falling out. It is a process of achieving long-term goals through persuasion and pressure. So this summit will not fail or succeed on the numbers. As with impact of the French Revolution, it is way to early to judge whether it has been successful.

What they don't want to hear

Justin Webb | 14:34 UK time, Friday, 3 April 2009

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Oh, lordy: a girl in the audience asks Obama if he knows that his name in Hungarian means peach! He did not.

The question and answer session also reveals a passion for railways in the 44th president - he mentions train systems as among the things he admires in Europe. He also tells the crowd (which stays silent) that they should not think that everything is okay just because Barack Hussein Obama is president, and that respecting Muslims would not end the terrorist threat.

Big marks for saying what an audience doesn't want to hear. But other than that, I felt it was not Obama's finest hour - he was slightly tetchy with an American who asked a question (he wanted it to be locals) and staggeringly long-winded in his answers. Oddly, he seems more charming sometimes when that is not his principal aim.

Another summit, another media centre

Justin Webb | 13:10 UK time, Friday, 3 April 2009

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This is what happens when you are still feeling your way - which Obama's people are very much doing.

But with every fresh summit they are a little more experienced (check the numbers, check the numbers) and a little more worldly wise.

Grappling with the nervy police here in Strasbourg was testing for them but they have managed to get us into another cavernous media centre (great gifts: pictures of Strasbourg through the seasons, mine to be on eBay by tonight) where a woman sang "He's got the whole world in his hands" and people clapped and swayed as they waited for Him.

The press corps, very knackered now after a 4am start, is visibly sickened by the "whole world in his hands" stuff and none too pleased by the volume at which it is sung, as reporters tap out 1,500 word analyses of Afghanistan policy. Coffee is good though and I have high hopes of lunch...

Obama impresses at the press conference

Justin Webb | 22:36 UK time, Thursday, 2 April 2009

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The Obama press conference ended with camera people taking photos of themselves with him in the background - there was even a round of applause. This from folks who laugh at the White House press corps for standing when the president walks in...

He was professorial and his answers were way too long, but that was probably tiredness.

Earlier, at a behind-the-scenes briefing, an official had been talking about how marvellously Mr Obama had performed in the meetings and everyone including the official laughed at the sheer reckless joy of a White House person being able to make that case to the press with (initially) a straight face.

The point is that this man is not the creation of spin doctors. There is a basic veracity about him. He looks solid.

And he leaves London a bigger figure on the world stage.

Inside the G20 media centre

Justin Webb | 16:02 UK time, Thursday, 2 April 2009

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The media centre here at the ExCel Centre is a case study in the lunacy of summit journalism.

Around a million accredited reporters are spread out in a cavernous space (room does not adequately describe it) and all are tapping away at their laptops.

Since only a dozen or so have any hope of getting a question at the press conferences, most are here for no good reason at all. They could be watching the whole thing in a suite in the Dorchester, or, frankly, at home in Ulan Bator. Although here the sandwiches are free (given that everyone here is being paid for by media organisations -why?) and the Champagne too (joke).

The halls hum with conviviality as old friends meet and old rivals lock horns: "My dear chap, I see you splashed the Russia stuff, grave mistake" or "we knew about the iPod long before it was public" etc etc.

At European summits, they give away tacky mementos of the nation holding the meeting. I still have a Portuguese beach towel which leaves you wet however much you use it.

What should they have given away here, I wonder - money would have been rather welcome and rather apt...

Obama is not Kennedy to Medvedev's Krushchev

Justin Webb | 22:00 UK time, Wednesday, 1 April 2009

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There is no pleasing some folks, but the Obama stock is high as he sails into the G20 storm.

The agreement with Russia on nuclear negotiations is a feather in his cap. He is helped, I think, by the fact that President Medvedev looks even younger than he does - the Krushchev-Kennedy analogy does not really work.

Obamania - again

Justin Webb | 10:52 UK time, Wednesday, 1 April 2009

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Nothing as glamorous as this has happened in London since William the Conqueror arrived amid some controversy.

car_b226_getty.jpgMy normally down-to-earth colleages in the BBC are simply blown away by the Size of His Car. A BBC editor shouts at me across the room: "Did you see the three point turn?!"

You realise when you come abroad with him just how starved of day-to-day Obama moments everyone outside the US really is. They want to see his car. They want to touch his garments.

Back in America the mood is still positive - I am not suggesting the honeymoon is over - but it is tinged with greater realism. This piece is about domestic affairs but could become relevant abroad as well.

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