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Q+A: Interview with Professor Simon Schama

Published: 1:43PM Sunday November 07, 2010 Source: Q+A

Paul Holmes interviews Professor Simon Schama.

PAUL Welcome back to Professor Simon Schama, one of the world's most widely read historians.  An Englishman who lives in New York, he is Professor of History and the History of Art at Columbia University, he's also a writer and television presenter.  He's responsible for the books and the TV series Obama's America and The American Future.  Professor Schama is a political commentator for the BBC and CNN, amongst others, and so he's got tremendous insight into President Obama and how and why America voted as it did last week.  Obama himself described the Democrats' loss last week as 'a shellacking', so I asked Professor Schama when I spoke to him exactly how big a thumping it was.

Barack Obama says he got 'a shellacking'.  How big a thumping is it, Simon Schama?

SIMON SCHAMA - Professor of History
Well, there's no doubt that the overused word 'historic' for once is absolutely appropriate.  I mean, when Ronald Reagan was wallowing around in the trough of a recession in 1982, he just lost 25 seats in the House of Representatives, and that was thought to be a serious setback, and Reagan knew that his chances of being re-elected would only correspond to the degree to which there was an economic recovery.  It was much, much, much worse for Barack Obama.  Which isn't to say that he doesn't have certain cards to play.  Um, there was a time when it seemed a distinct possibility that he would lose both Houses of Congress, both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  He not only didn't lose the Senate; there were crucial moments when the most rabid element of the Tea Party actually went down to defeat - in Delaware, in Nevada, and even in Colorado.  So he has some cards to play.  The performance in the press conference yesterday was pretty much what was expected.  He needed to present a spectacle of a chastened, sobered-up occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The American style, remember, whether you're starting out at Alcoholics Anonymous or whether you're a president who's been beaten up a bit, is confessional.  You confess to all the sins you might possibly have transgressed, and then you pick yourself up and start all over again.  Now, we will know by the New Year when the incoming Congress really is there - we'll probably know before that - whether Obama can actually play what hands he's got left with a good deal less ineptness than has been the case in the last year or so.

PAUL Why did it happen the way it did this week?  Last time we spoke, you said expectations about Barack Obama had been too great.  Is that fundamentally the reason?

SIMON  I think so.  I think just simply the objective facts of a deep, deep, ongoing economic crisis were always gonna make it very tough.  All the opinion polls show, in fact, people in the country do not blame Barack Obama, they're not that stupid at all.  They don't blame him for the economic crisis, they blame the presidency of George Bush and/or Wall Street bankers or whoever.  But, you know, enough of that.  Barack Obama came in, not making promises that he would solve the economic recession overnight, but saying, 'We can roll up  our sleeves and hope to see recovery speed up at least to the point where an unemployment rate of nearly 10% actually goes down to something like 8%,' and that hasn't happened.  One in four people in the United States actually is in a terrible position with their mortgage.  One in four mortgage holders are discovering that their debt is 30% higher than the value of their house.  So these are objectively ferocious problems which are, I don't know, sort of a combo of Jesus Christ, Frank Sinatra and Socrates couldn't really probably solve, much less Barack Obama.  So he does really have to somehow be a little more realistic in what can and can't be done, especially now that he has less control over Congress.  One of my colleagues was saying to me today it would have been better if he'd have said, 'You know it's going to take three years before we see serious inroads into the recession.'  He didn't do that.  So a lot of what we saw was a mixture of anger, fear and brutal disappointment.

PAUL I wonder, though, watching him at the press conference at the White House, I wonder just watching him recently, whether there is something missing from what was there from him during the campaign.  One senses that he is forgetting to connect somehow.  The humour's gone, he's not& You said last time that you were worried he was going to become a bit professorial.  Is that what's happening to him?

SIMON Yes, it's happened to an almost arthritic degree, really.  He was never on the stump, Paul, he was never really much of a wisecracker, in fact.  It did happen every so often.  He didn't have Jack Kennedy's gift for being able to toss repartee over a press conference as easily as he could in the bar.  And if you remember the last television debates, oddly enough, Barack Obama came over as rather stiff, if composed, compared for example to Hillary Clinton.  So he's always had a tin ear for the street, even when the streets have been South Chicago.  And what he failed to do, which is astonishing, I think, was to give regular Joes and Janes out there in Peoria and Duluth - not the people who read the New York Times like me - a sense of what had happened, how the roof had fallen in on them over a period of years and what actually could be done to pick them up.  You have to explain that what seemed like a massive attack of unwonted federal power was what Franklin Roosevelt called 'the moral equivalent of war'.  You had, at that moment, to take command and control of the economy or else high-street banks would have closed, there would have been nothing left of the American automobile industry, and so on and so forth.

PAUL Is it just communication, though, or are the policies wrong?  Is that it?

SIMON Well, you are talking to someone who mostly supports the policies.  I think there's a justification for TARP.  If I'd been in Congress I'd have voted for TARP.  Would I have voted for the stimulus package?  I would have voted for a much bigger stimulus package.  Objective sources like the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office have said without the stimulus package we would have had an even higher unemployment rate than we do now - we'd be in a depression rather than a recession.  So, you know, I think he was right.  He said, 'I may have some regrets about the way in which I communicated the policies, but the bulk of the policies, really, Je ne regrette rien,' and I think that's right.  I don't think he's going to-Let me take the most notorious issue of all, health-care reform.  The Republicans, and particularly the Tea Party, ran on the, as one of them called it, 'monstrosity of health-care reform' being so iniquitous that the first business of the Republican Party in the House was to repeal it.  Now, the figures do not show an overwhelming majority of Americans want that repeal to happen.  It's roughly even - 48% of Americans want to repeal it, but a good 47% of them don't want to repeal it.  And my guess is, as the economic crisis or the sluggish recovery goes on tottering along, Americans aren't really going to be that interested in a dramatic act of negativity.  Certainly Barack Obama has to hope not.  What he can do is to tweak certain elements that the Republicans have said they most object to.  For example, cuts in Medicaid programme.  There's no way a Democratic president is going to object to that, particularly.

PAUL So the Republicans, a handsome victory, particularly in the House, but not in the Senate, of course.  But they've got their own problems.  Who are the Tea Party?

SIMON Well, the Tea Party is a genuine grass-roots movement of a kind that's happened before in American politics.  Happened in the early 19th century with the Abolitionist movement focussed on getting rid of slavery; it happened at the end of the 19th century with agrarian populism, which was a genuine grass-roots movement which hated currency manipulation, as they saw it, in the east.  And it's happened again.  You have to remember that politics sometimes is an extension of religious passion, almost in the United States, and that can always actually happen, it has happened this time.  What the Tea Partiers want, however, their religious document is the Constitution, their reading of the Constitution which is, you know, to a large extent almost a kind of Utopian, fantastic version of what they believe the founding fathers want, is that the Constitution really is averse to any kind of central government, federal government action other than taking responsibility for the country's defence.  So there is the strong sense that somehow there once was an America that was proud, strong, walked tall, that was dominant in the world, and now somehow it's all gone down the sinkhole and it's a response of an almost secret conspiracy to convert the United States into some sort of top-down government-heavy quasi-socialist welfare state.  Some polls say that between 30% and 40% of Americans either think of themselves as Tea Partiers or actually approve of the Tea Party.  That's not enough ever to win an election. 

But what it has done is shake up the Republican establishment, helped by huge infusions of money from billionaires like the Koch brothers, and helped by tremendous kind of ferocious demagogic eloquence on right-wing talk radio by people like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh.  What it's done is to shake up the bosses, in effect, the oligarchs of the Republican Party.  So in the Senate, for example, now, Paul, we have really not one leader.  The official leader is Mitch McConnell from Kentucky, whose own endorsed candidate for the state was defeated in the primary by the incoming senator Rand Paul.  But then we have Senator Jim DeMint in South Carolina who already sees himself as the kingmaker, really, of Republican power.  So there is going to be a civil war, almost, inside the Republicans about how far they cater to the passions of the Tea Party or not.  The verdict was very mixed in this election.  Some of the strongest Tea Party candidates like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada actually lost.  It looks like Sarah Palin's endorsed figure Joe Miller might actually lose to Lisa Merkowski in Alaska as well.  So, you know, the verdict is out on whether the Tea Party is a god or bad idea if you're trying to run an effective and powerful Opposition inside Congress.

PAUL You mentioned Sarah Palin.  She's a fascinating figure in these midterm elections.  She backed 34 candidates; only 15 of those won, but some of those were giant-killers.  We have to acknowledge, don't we, the reascendancy of Sarah Palin in these midterms.

SIMON  Well, I wonder if we do.  I thought you were gonna say the ascendancy of Sarah Palin, and if you were gonna end the sentence there I would have heartily agreed.  There is no one quite like Sarah Palin for having an audience in the palm of her hand.  The idiosyncrasies which grand liberals like to make fun of, her 'gee, gollying' and 'gosh-darning' actually go down very very well in the heartland of the United States.  She's absolutely confident, she now has her own spot on Fox cable network.  She's an extraordinary communicator in that way.  just a week or so ago the great engineer of Republican power Karl Rove, who was behind George W Bush's ascendancy to power, made a swingeing attack on Sarah Palin, saying he didn't think she was the kind of person-He said that she was about to have a reality show on television, which she isn't, in fact, she's having a documentary about Alaska, no reason why she shouldn't do that.  But the fact that Karl Rove from the right wing of the Republican Party took time off to sneer at Sarah Palin can be seen either as a backhand compliment or a real worry in the Republican Party that she'll do more damage to their prospects than good, and they have already, in one Tea Party-endorsed candidate, who seems to be much more pragmatic than most people think - Marco Rubio in Florida, who also defeated the person, Charlie Crist, who'd been officially blessed by the Republican Party - Rubio is already being held as the great hope of the Republicans. He's handsome, eloquent.  Seems to me a mistake to say we want someone who is the right wing's Barack Obama, but he is already, one feels, being groomed as an anti-Palin, charismatic candidate for the immediate future, probably as a vice-presidential candidate in 2012.

PAUL So a big thumping for Barack Obama.  What's he got to do now to win re-election?

SIMON Well, he can't just stand back and watch what I've been describing as  a Republican blood-letting.  He really has to position himself somehow as presidentially above the fray, someone who is willing - even though it sure didn't work out in his first term - someone who is willing on specific issues to reach out across-There are things that Barack Obama and the Republicans can agree on, like deficit reduction.  Obama is entitled to say, 'I would love us to balance the books, even though we're in a tough state economically and we can't suck too much juice out of the economy otherwise we threaten a double-dip recession.'  But Barack Obama is not against doing something about a shockingly unsustainable deficit.  But he can actually turn the screws a little bit on the Republicans, call their bluff, and say, 'Fine.  Tell me what it is you are prepared to cut in the budget other than simply extending the Bush tax cuts.'  And it's a fine thing for the Republicans really to talk the talk; we have to see whether they can actually walk the walk.

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