Why the crisis-rattled elite is banking on Obama

The endorsement of Obama by every liberal’s favourite Republican, Colin Powell, springs from disarray and desperation in DC circles.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Republican Colin Powell’s endorsement of Democrat Barack Obama for president was rumoured for a long time. Yet when it finally came yesterday it still felt like something of a shock and a major landmark in the election race. Powell called Obama a ‘transformational figure’ and said he would be supporting him because of his ‘ability to inspire’, ‘the inclusive nature of his campaign’, his ‘rhetorical abilities’, and his ‘substance’. Powell also said that over the past seven weeks, and in particular during the economic crisis, Obama had ‘displayed a steadiness, an intellectual curiosity, a depth of knowledge’.

But what made the Powell endorsement seem like a milestone was his scathing and comprehensive criticism of Republican John McCain. In fact, Powell spent far more time saying what he didn’t like about McCain than he did identifying what he liked about Obama. He attacked McCain’s ‘unsure’ response to the financial markets, his selection of Sarah Palin as running mate, his ‘narrow’ right-wing Republican approach, including his focus on William Ayers and intimating that Obama was somehow linked with terrorism and Islam. One Republican official claimed that Powell’s indictment of the McCain campaign was ‘the nail in the coffin’ (1).

Despite Powell’s role in the unpopular Bush administration, he is still highly respected among Washington’s policy elite and the punditry. His endorsement of Obama is noteworthy for a number of reasons. As Powell is a Republican, his support shows that Obama is able to win over those from the other side, and it might have the effect of persuading other Republicans and independents to vote for Obama. As America’s most prominent military figure, Powell buttresses Obama, who some have argued lacks the experience to be trusted as commander-in-chief. And as an esteemed statesman, Powell neutralises the McCain campaign’s attacks on Obama’s questionable ‘associates’ like Ayers, and eases doubts about Obama’s readiness generally.

How influential the Powell endorsement will be remains to be seen, but so far it has caused quite a stir. Politico.com, one of the most popular websites covering the election, says that not since the Palin selection has its ‘Arena’ comments page received so many messages.

Some people might discount Powell’s endorsement and put it down to simply one African-American supporting another (Powell was at one time thought of as a likely candidate to be the first black president). But race solidarity doesn’t seem to be of overriding importance for him, if indeed it’s a factor at all. While Powell mentioned that electing an African-American would be ‘historic’ for ‘all Americans’, it came after a much more substantial and broader criticism of McCain that stands on its own.

Also, his endorsement of Obama may have been not unexpected given that he has always been seen as a moderate Republican, taking a liberal line on abortion, gun control and affirmative action. He and his wife launched and are actively involved in America’s Promise, an organisation that aims to help children through educational and other initiatives. Powell has always been a middle-of-the-road, almost above-politics figure, and when asked about party politics he often says: ‘I’m an American, first and foremost.’ So, in other words, it may not seem that far for a liberal Republican to cross over to Obama’s side.

But Powell’s endorsement is important. Its real significance is that it highlights a broader movement among the American establishment in abandoning McCain and moving towards Obama. Through his endorsement, Powell has become the highest- profile figure to join the ‘Obamacans’ (that is, Republican for Obama); others include foreign policy experts Susan Eisenhower and Jim Leach, and former Senator Lincoln Chafee. Among Republican ideologues, Andrew Sullivan has long backed Obama, and Christopher Buckley, son of the godfather of modern conservatism and National Review founder William F Buckley, recently announced his support for Obama (and left the National Review). And it’s said that many more Republicans are privately behind the Democratic candidate. Indeed, what’s probably more indicative of the state of affairs is the lack of enthusiastic, vocal support for McCain coming from traditional Republican circles.

Historically the differences between Republicans and Democrats have been narrow (especially by European standards). And in challenging times, such as war, politicians from both sides have come together. Today, both parties have abandoned their old principles and have lost a sense of direction. Consequently, when it’s not clear exactly what it means to be a Republican or a Democrat, the meaning of party membership does not carry the same significance as before. The Powell endorsement of Obama shows that the shrill politicisation of lifestyle in this election contest masks an ongoing erosion of substantial political difference between the Republican and Democratic leaderships.

More to the point, the financial crisis has shaken the confidence of the American establishment. Over the past few weeks we’ve seen an entire political class (not just the Bush administration) panicking and floundering to find a response. In this situation, a number of leading figures, such as Powell, have concluded that McCain is not up to the task and is too big a risk. At a time like this, the cross-party elite wants adults in charge, from whatever party. McCain, with his one-a-day economic prescriptions and gimmicks like new mascot Joe the Plumber, doesn’t seem to fit the description. Obama might not have much to say about the financial mess either, but at least he seems to take it seriously and to have an ability to calm the public.

While everyone is asking why Powell is backing Obama, perhaps the more interesting question is: why does Obama welcome his endorsement? Obama responded to the news by saying he was ‘honoured and deeply humbled’, and indicated that Powell would be an adviser of some kind in his administration. It may seem obvious, given the potential electoral benefits already mentioned, why Obama embraced Powell’s support. But one of the central arguments Obama deploys during his campaigning is that he had the foresight to oppose the Iraq war, and yet Powell was intimately involved in that war and the entire Bush foreign policy. Powell is the one who put forward the case for war to the United Nations with his speech on bogus weapons of mass destruction.

Obama’s welcoming of Powell’s endorsement – and suggestion that he would use him as an adviser – indicates that he really will not represent a decisive break from Bush, as he claims. Obama’s main criticism of McCain is that he follows Bush, and yet here we have Obama aligning himself with one of Bush’s main lieutenants. In fact, with regard to Afghanistan, if anything Obama outdoes both Bush and McCain in bellicosity.

Many liberals have had a soft spot for Powell, and will be over the moon about his endorsement for their candidate. In particular, it is often liberals who have drawn the sharpest distinctions between the ideologically driven, hawkish ‘neoconservatives’ and supposedly less militaristic ‘pragmatists’ such as Powell within the Bush administration. Oliver Stone’s newly-released movie W, which is said to portray Powell in a sympathetic light, is an example of this. But in fact the differences between the two cliques are more formal than substantive, and Powell is entirely complicit in the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, as well as all the other US military interventions since he first joined Ronald Reagan’s administration in 1987 as national security adviser. Despite his claims of disagreements with Bush over Iraq, Powell remained in his cabinet until 2004, well after the start of the war in early 2003.

Likewise, the Guardian puts a positive liberal spin on Powell. Its ‘In Praise of… Colin Powell’ leader column depicts Powell as a tribune of the people, arguing that: ‘Mr Powell is manifestly speaking for many other Americans.’ But rather than being representative of people’s interests and views, Powell’s stand is a decision born of an elite falling out and desperation to survive, rather than an expression of democratic concerns.

During the interview in which he announced his support for Obama, Powell said a key objective for the next president is ‘restoring a sense of purpose, a sense of confidence in the American people, and in the international community in America’. But it was notable that, in his brief list of Obama’s attributes, Powell did not elaborate upon the new ‘sense of purpose’ Obama would introduce, or how Obama would go about restoring a ‘sense of confidence’. He could not, because Obama has not. Powell may help Obama reach the White House, but the real issue is whether Obama will have the answers to the big questions once he gets there.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

(1) Powell endorses Obama, politico.com, 20 October 2008

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