The Preposterous Obama: The Pendulum Swing, the President-elect, and the Coming American Push

The following interview was conducted in November 2008, part of a series of discussions called “44,” with people of varied background about their reactions to the 2008 election of Barack Obama. This interview was with Arthur Stahnke, Professor Emeritus, who has taught political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville since 1963. Dr. Stahnke’s areas of scholarship include Soviet and Soviet Bloc Politics, Politics of Soviet-Type Economies, Comparative Politics and International Relations.

To me the interesting thing was that the election result wasn’t a surprise. It would have been a surprise if Barack Obama had lost. And of course the fact of being an Afro-American rated the extent of whether that would be a factor.

Beyond that it was gratifying for me. I supported Obama; he was my candidate by the end of the primary process. It came out just about the way it was predicted. It played out well. John McCain delivered a very gracious concession speech, and with Obama it was all lovey-dovey.

                            Sen. John McCain conceding in Phoenix, AZ, November 4, 2008

And I think that’s important. We’ve been in some very partisan times, and at least for a few moments, we can be non-partisan as part of the results of the election.

What trends did you see that led you to your conclusion of an Obama win?

There was no way that a Republican could have won this year, given the issues. That was even before the economy went south. The real question for the American voter was the extent they could be comfortable with a relative unknown. I mean, it is just preposterous that a guy with four years in the Senate, couple of years in the Illinois state legislature could—

As far as elected executives with minimal experience, I can only think of Lincoln with his two years in the House.

Yeah, but it’s preposterous. It stretches the—I mean, the whole experience question is a very complicated one. It is in my view. Experience isn’t everything, and experience had often not been sufficient, even with very experienced people. But on the other hand, you hate to go with someone who—I mean, over the course of eighteen months or so, starting with the primaries, Obama showed himself to be a very able guy. But being president is not something you can train for. So that was the issue in the election, and over the course of the campaign he became more acceptable to those who worried about the experience factor.

McCain, given the economy, probably couldn’t have won no matter what. But he made some bad mistakes. I think Sarah Palin was a significant mistake as far as extending the appeal of the party. Choosing her shot down McCain’s best argument, that Obama wasn’t ready. If Obama’s not ready to be president why does he pick someone who doesn’t even know the first thing about foreign affairs as a running mate? He ran a less than perfect campaign, certainly, although I, again, don’t think it would have made any difference. It was just ordained that the Democrats were going to win this year. If Hillary Clinton had been the candidate she might have won a little bigger, but not much.

It reminds me of 2004, in which the election was not about the Democratic candidate, but a referendum on Bush’s first term. This cycle McCain himself was less a determining factor than it was a referendum on the economy and Obama’s possibilities.

Yeah, I think that’s right. I wouldn’t have voted for McCain regardless of the Democrat because I don’t like where he stands on the issues. But certainly I have a high regard for him—although he lowered that regard during the campaign, doing what he had to do.

Some people see a campaign as personal, but tactics are done to win; would it have been better for McCain to have had a more detached, professional stance?

I understand that, but to talk about Obama being the most liberal of all, and being a socialist, and being the furthest left in the history of the Republic and so forth—I mean, that’s pretty far—and the continued argument that he was going to raise taxes on virtually everybody was just wrong. I mean it wasn’t true.

                           Senator John McCain, left, with Rev. Jerry Falwell at Liberty University, 2006

And the larger question for me was that, in 2000, McCain said Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell were “agents of intolerance.” Which I think they are. And then he had to court them this year, with the Republican base. But to court the Republican base is to deny who McCain is. He was such an attractive candidate for us in 2000, despite his conservatism.

Who was he if he was not running as himself?

He was running as a Republican—so he was trying to do the impossible. One the one had he wasn’t Bush, but on the other hand he wanted all of Bush’s people to support him. The majority of Republicans like Bush, and McCain needed them to win. And that’s why he chose Palin, clearly. But then in the general he had to runagainst Bush and Republicans. He had to run against the issues, he couldn’t run on the issues.

Bush’s got a war going on seven years after it was started, against a third-rate power, and we still haven’t finished it. It’s got no end in sight. “Victory” is in sight, but he doesn’t describe it. You’ve got deficit spending as well. Even if you’re a conservative, it seems to me that this is an unsuccessful presidency. So if the Republicans come and say, “We really screwed up the last eight years, vote for our candidate, he’s going to be a lot better,” that’s not a very powerful argument. And this was the position McCain was in.

We now find a Democratic president-elect and a Democratic-majority Congress, with some of the most important issues being the economy and international relations. Where does this go?

I think there is a larger, over-arching issue, and that is whether we should take Obama seriously. Whether he’ll deliver on his style of politics. And we don’t know. My guess is yes. What I take to be the “new style” of politics is that he will be the antithesis of George W. Bush.

With Karl Rove’s direction he governed with a 52–55% majority, without much regard for the minority party. The Democrats now have an even greater majority than Bush had, and they conceivably will try to do the same thing. My guess is that Obama’s not going to. My guess is that he will reach out, that he will make important appointments of Republicans to high-level positions. I hope he will appoint Richard Luger Secretary of State.

I heard yesterday—I don’t know whether it’s true or not—but this is interesting to me: Do you know the Joe Lieberman situation? You have a Democrat, Lieberman, who worked for McCain, and he’s been the chair of the Senate staffing committees. And he has that position because he’s the 51st senator voting for organizing the Senate. If he were to vote Republican the GOP would have control of the Senate, the majority leadership, the committee chairmanships, and so forth. But the Democrats cut a deal and made him Standing Committee Chair, then he would vote with them as he always had. Well, now he’s worked for McCain. And the question is are they going to let him keep his chairmanship when they don’t need his vote to organize the Senate. And a lot of Democrats are angry with him for working for McCain and spoke at the Republican convention. Anyway, I heard that Obama is going to recommend that Lieberman be retained as that committee chair. In other words they will let him to stay in the Democratic caucus despite his having worked against Obama. And if that is true, and where Obama stands, it would be pretty solid evidence that he does intend to govern beyond partisanship. Which in turn will help him from staying to the left. And that is my hope, that he will be inclusive, as he had argued he should be.

But as to the economy, who knows how to solve that problem? Economists are pulling their hair out trying to figure it out, and everything they do is inadequate. I don’t know what to say about that, except that it is very interesting that the free market types are the ones stuck with this government intervention in the last days of this administration.

Now, I have a real problem with Obama on Afghanistan. He talks about expanding our involvement there, and I think it’s a quagmire.* I don’t think it is winnable. Pakistan is a problematic safe-haven. The terrain there, the tradition. The Russians and the English have both tried to run that country. I don’t think we have the stomach for it. If in fact Obama wants a major investment in Afghanistan, I think that is a mistake. And I don’t have an alternative—I don’t know what to do there, but what we are doing doesn’t make any sense to me. And I think Pakistan is the biggest problem we’ve got there anyway. If Pakistan collapses they would be a weak, destabilized state to say the least, given that they have nuclear weapons.

Can you remember a time when we have been faced with so many challenges at a single juncture?

No. In my lifetime I have never been so fearful that we face problems that are insurmountable. Whether it is social security or Medicare and all those entitlements. Whether it’s budgets—I mean, we have a public that refuses to allow tax increases and we have deficits that are just out of control, even before all of this deficit spending in the last three, four months.

Then you have the energy problem. And I don’t know. Then again, maybe Obama will be the savior. He certainly is remarkable. If it can be done I would say I’d bet on him more than just about anybody else.

And of course no one man can ever-

Well obviously, I mean, it takes leadership. He’s going to have to sell unpopular programs. They are going to be expensive programs, there are going to be tax increases—but not on poor little people like us—while also trying to solve entitlement questions, solving Medicare. It’s just astronomical.

Do you see a backlash for the steps he will introduce?

That’s really the question. How far can you push? I mean, Bush never even tried, and it is not uncommon for people to use their popularity for something that isn’t going to work. The question of entitlements is going to take bipartisan work, so that ties back to whether Obama really is going to be bipartisan. Whether he is going to convince Republicans that it is worthwhile for them to come in and that they will have an impact. All of that is problematic at this point.

Have you also ever seen an outgoing president be less personally visible in stumping for his party’s nominee?

I don’t know that he’s really that much more unpopular than Jimmy Carter was, but Carter was also running for re-election when he lost to Reagan. I’ve never seen it, no, but it took a truly unique set of circumstances. It took a president in his second term, so to be a truly open election. Bill Clinton was a plus and a minus, not just a minus for Al Gore. But enough of a minus in 2000 that he didn’t involve Clinton much.

But President Bush’s probability is probably the lower than any since Truman.** And Truman ran for re-election in 1948 and won. Then he didn’t run again in 1952, but the situation wasn’t as dire then. But unpopular enough, no doubt, that he shot Adlai Stevenson’s chances down.

I’ll ask you to look ahead and try to project the makeup of the 112th Congress that President Obama will be working with after the 2010 midterms.

I can’t see how the Democrats could pick up any more seats with the gains they’ve already made this year in traditionally Republican districts. So I suspect it will swing to at least a more balanced legislature in 2011.

Let me give an historical example. In 1964 the Republicans get absolutely clobbered against Lyndon Johnson. And the Republicans lost terribly in the Congress as well. I happened to be going to school in Iowa at the time. Iowa had eight Congressional seats, and I think two had been Democratic. One was in Des Moines, the other in Dubuque. And four Republicans lost their seats, including the Congressman for Iowa City, which had been safely Republican for a long time. Well, two years later Republicans won at least two or three of those seats back—if not all for of them—because 1964 had been such an unusual year. And I think a little bit of that is present this time. Two straight really good cycles in the House of Democrats, so I’d expect them to lose some of those seats in two years.

That may be in the future but the present Republican party finds themselves in a bit of a corner. Have you seen in the last week a Republican response to Obama begin to form?

Well, there’s no obvious future Republican candidate for president now. There’s really no good spokesman for the Republican party now. No, right now I think they’re just trying to figure out why they lost. And they haven’t concluding anything there. We’re still getting this stuff about McCain and Palin camps fighting amongst themselves. So there’s a lot of finger-pointing going on yet, and and I think that will continue for awhile.

You know, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, I don’t think he’s a very dynamic national leader, anymore than Harry Reid is for that matter. So the Senate leadership is not particularly strong at this moment. Maybe John Kyl would be better, the number two guy. I think there will be a generational change in leadership in the Republican party, if not this time then certainly not in the too distant future. McConnell might very well be pushed out, but he’s been around for quite some time.

But for president in 2012 there’s really nobody. You think about governors—of chose you’ve got the Terminator in California, but he can’t run anyway. In Texas, Florida, you’ve got Republicans there. But neither of them [Rick Perry and Charlie Crist, respectively] up to this point is a national figure. It’s hard to see Romney, but it’s just way too early. So, anyway, we’re likely to see new faces. They talk about the governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal. He’s still young.

As a young, Indian-American governor, he might be an interesting Republican response to Barack Obama. But outside of Washington what do you take to be to the national mood, or exceptions of citizens?

I think there’s kind of an unrealistic expectation of hope. We got some guy in there that’s gotta straighten things out for us.

Along those lines, he wrote in The Audacity of Hope, his campaign book, that people tend to project what they wish onto him. That’s a lot to live up to, perhaps too much.

Well, yeah, of course. He’s charismatic. And a good part of America, anyway, is willing to put their hopes into anybody. After 9/11 President Bush had a 90% approval rating. Everybody was for Bush at that point. This “we’re all in this together,” and if he can’t do it nobody can. We’ve always done it in the past.

                           Then-Sen. Obama with Sen. Edward Kennedy, January 2008

How much is the winner and loser of an election simply a fate of shifting forces, being at the right place at the right time?

Ted Kennedy allegedly told Obama that the pendulum only swings once in a while. You can’t predict. If Obama hadn’t run now, four years down the road he might be old news. Hillary would have presumably gotten it if not for Obama, And eight years from now she’s likely too old to be a viable candidate, so her book is likely closed. It is a matter of happenstance, certainly.

Can you tell me your expertise and length of tenure?

When I was an active faculty member I was interested in comparative politics, particularly the Communist world. I began teaching here the year Kennedy was assassinated. And Communism collapsed about the time I retired. Since then I have been teaching American government on the freshman level. That is what I have been interested in and focused on.

With your expertise in the Russian sphere, can you give me your take on the Georgian-Russian conflict of the late summer?

I think that Bush was absolutely idiotic making the statement about looking into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and seeing that he was a good man. That was about five years ago. And I think our policy towards Russia has been misguided pretty much from the beginning. In its position of weakness was have moved N.A.T.O right up to Russian’s boundaries.

This anti-ballistic missile system we’re moving from Poland and the Czech Republic is provocative. There is no question Russia wants to get back as much of its old empire as it can. So we should have been more understanding of Russia’s national interest. And, being more understanding, we should have been very business-like but serious when dealing with them.

As far as the thing with Georgia is concerned I think that the President of Georgia was a hot head. Everybody said Mikheil Saakashvili was a hot head, and he pushed the button and didn’t think the Bear would do anything. He thought we would come and—we’re not going to defend him. I assume we’re not going to go in and go to war with Russia for the sake of Georgia. So my view is Georgia should have understood they were dealing with a major power on their boundary. Just like the Latvians and the Lithuanians, and now we’ve got to worry about Ukraine. So I wasn’t in step with the rest of America with that.

Is there a route towards improved relations with Russia in the near future?

It will take time. I think they feel insulted, and we probably treated them as if “We’re not going to take advantage of you while you’re down.” Thinking that they would stay down, we didn’t realize that oil would be their salvation.

*In an attempt to have a “surge” in Afghanistan similar to the successful 2007 Iraq strategy, President Obama deployed an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan in February 2009, and reluctantly, again increased troop levels by 30,000 in December 2009. As of May 2016 the number of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan is expected to remain at 10,000 for the remainder of Obama’s tenure. Source: War in Afghanistan (2001–14)

**George W. Bush scored a 34% approval rating in his final poll in 2009. This tries him with Jimmy Carter, who left office in 1981 also with 34%. Harry Truman ended his term with a 32% in 1953. Richard Nixon has the lowest out-going approval rating, of 24%, when he resigned in 1974. Source: Final Presidential Job Approval Ratings

***For more oral history interviews concerning the 2008 election of Barack Obama, click here:

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