It’s the economy, stupid. Or not?
Forum with Andrew Arato, Benjamin Barber and Jim Sleeper (Part 2) 8 July 2008

The text is a transcription of a debate held on June 4th in Istanbul, during the Istanbul Seminars organised by Resetdoc. Andrew Arato is a Dorothy Hirshon Professor in Political and Social Theory at the Graduate Faculty, New School University, and also the editor of Constellations. Benjamin Barber is the Gershon and Carol Kekst Professor of Civil Society at University of Maryland, a former advisor to President Clinton and author of “Jihad vs. McWorld” and “Consumed”. Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of “Liberal Racism”. The forum was coordinated by Daniele Castellani Perelli, Online Editor for

Daniele Castellani Perelli: Even Hillary Clinton has played the card of fear with the famous advertisement showing a phone ringing at three o’clock in the morning and the question about who is going to answer. How can an American Democrat be effective on issues like terrorism without playing the fear card.

Andrew Arato: Will it work? I mean, the terror issue has been vastly overemphasized, and in fact not much has happened in terms of attacks, and one should redefine that as a policy matter. But will this work? It did not work for Kerry, and I am not sure if Obama will try it now a second time. I think if I were doing it I would put together a strong security team; what else can he do? He himself is not going to have the credentials, so he needs a group of advisers around him providing them, and he will never be as strong as McCain in the eyes of the press. I do not know why McCain is so strong in this sense, or why McCain would be so much better in reality. But somehow in the eyes of the press and in the eyes of the voters today he is stronger. And so the only way to do that is to diminish the issue, to some extent. A vice-presidential candidate I think may one of the ways, but if for other reasons he chooses Clinton, which is still good, then he has to be ready to announce pretty much his foreign policy and security team. He has to do something to indicate that he will have a tough and strong team.

Benjamin Barber: I do think the most effective way Democrats have always done this is to change the subject, ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, and that I think will work, because unless there is another incident in the United States which puts all the focus on that, the fact is that it is the economy, after the housing crisis and a consumer credit crisis, it is the economy that will be the issue, and that is the only Obama’s strength and the Democrats’ strength. It is the Republican’s and in particular McCain’s weakness, even if – as I think may happen – he chooses Romney as his vice president, he is somebody who is supposed to be a business man. So I think that is going to be a very large part of it. It is true that it is always hard for the Democrats, no matter who they are, even for Hillary Clinton, who is trying to act as someone who has more experience in this area in some ways…

Jim Sleeper: You can’t minimize the “war on terror”, you have to run to the extent you have to engage the subject, by saying that the Republicans so far have acted so badly, so inaptly. If there is another attack between now and November, I would say that in some way this would prove how badly we have spent all this treasure, all this money. And what did it get us? We have sacrificed all these liberties and what did it really get us? That is the line the Democrats should pursue if there were other attacks.

Benjamin Barber: We know that the stupidity and narcissism of the terrorist minority in the world is such that they are fearing Obama, because Obama actually would take the rug out from under them. He will remove the kind of tacit support they have, so from their point of view a McCain presidency is probably a much better claim for continuing, and for that reason – as always – they are more likely to try to do something at a time….

Andrew Arato: I think that they are rational on self-interest. I think that they would definitely be hurt by an Obama presidency. I think that they prefer Bush. I mean Bin Laden actually released a tape on the eve of presidential elections previously, and he criticized Bush. He knows that this is not going to hurt Bush. If he criticizes Bush and if he seems to indicate a preference for the Democrats indirectly, they might try to do something. I am not so sure they can.

Daniele Castellani Perelli: Is Obama right when he says that America can talk to Iran, and do you think that Obama would have a more balanced perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Can he resist the pressure of the so-called Israeli lobby (if you think it exists)?

Jim Sleeper: He cannot go against Israel during the campaign. The questions are sort of separate. It is very interesting, because when Robert Kagan, one of the neoconservative historians and pundits, came out a few months ago and said we have to talk to Iran, there was a shocked silence from a lot of the neoconservative. I think that is something Obama can play on, although not so much in the campaign. On Israel-Palestine, I do not know….

Benjamin Barber: I think there are two issues. I think Obama has gotten into some trouble over it and I think he has to find a way out. Not because he said ‘We will talk to anybody, friends or enemies’, that was wise. It’s the way he made it seem as if the thing to do is to say: ‘Let’s see if we can talk this through and find the solution’, whereas in fact every meeting, even with friends takes careful and extensive preparation, you never go to a meeting unless you know to some degree what the possible outcome is going to be.

Daniele Castellani Perelli: So he made a mistake…

Benjamin Barber: In his tactics, not his strategy. Strategically to say ‘We are open to talking to friends and enemies around the world’ is a prudent, good policy: But tactically to imply that that means you simply go and do it… He has always pulled back from that, he has always said that of course that would be after preparatory talk. But on the second question concerning Iran and Israel as well as Cuba and Venezuela, all American adversaries, he has got the Nixon in-reverse problem. Nixon could go to China, and only Nixon could go to China because if anyone else went to China, Nixon would have called them a Communist! So when Nixon went there was no Nixon to call him a Communist. It is much easier in some ways for people whose national security and pro-Israeli and anti-Castro and anti-Iranian credentials are very strong to say ‘I will go and talk’. But somebody who has constantly been asked to prove that he is tough on Cuba, tough on Iran, on Hezbollah or Hamas, is going to be in a position – even after the elections – where it is hard for him to make a move without people saying “Ah, that is what he is here, he is soft, he is soft on Palestine, he is soft on Iran…”. So I think this is going to be a difficult problem for him, I think his temperament and his vision will push him in that direction, but it will make it somewhat harder for him, at least during the first year or so, to take the steps that need to be taken.

Jim Sleeper: The precedent on that is of course John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was perceived as a democrat, so he had to prove how tough he was by campaigning on the Missile Gap, and then he ordered the Bay of Pigs disaster, he felt he had to do that. We like to think that Obama would not do something like that.

Andrew Arato: On the first question, obviously, when he said ‘we’, this was interpreted as the president himself and this I think indicates he is following Kennedy’s example, and there is no need to do it that way. You put together a tough team, and you go through all the steps. But I think the idea that you talk to everybody is basically a really fundamental one. Appeasement was a rather different matter and to call that appeasement is absurd. There is not going to be any Iraq solution when he actually tries to deal with Iraq. That is going to be the most immediate problem to deal with given his campaign promise. There has to be a deal with Iran over that, because otherwise there is not even a beginning to an Iraq solution. But on the Near East I would say that actually, surprisingly in terms of what you said before, that “Nixon in China”, is right, but on the other hand Carter and Clinton did rather well in terms of the Near East. I mean one huge deal was negotiated by Carter, Clinton did especially well at the Taba process, they got close, very very close to a deal. It just didn’t happen because the Israeli election was so close. So I think that actually eight years of Bush really have been extremely harmful for the peace process, and I think the fact that the United States absolutely puts no pressure on Israel has become a really serious issue. No American president before has done that, and, as you say, Obama has not announced any change of policy now.

Jim Sleeper: McCain has drawn around himself all of the neoconservatives, they are all working full-time for him. You can make an issue of the fact, forgetting Israel. These are the people who brought us into Iraq and here they are close and tight with McCain. You do not want to say these are the people who are the Israel lobby, I do not think you can say that, but there is something in the making.

Andrew Arato: They really pushed the Iraq war, they made promises that were ridiculous, that did not happen…

Benjamin Barber: We are three American intellectuals sitting in Istanbul talking about international affairs, about Israel, about Cuba, talking about international terrorism and so on. But if you look at the key states that will decide this election, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Mexico and Missouri, the swing states that could go one way or the other… The critical votes there will probably not be on the issues we are talking about, except perhaps race. For them it really will be the economy, because that is what they live and that is what they breathe and that is what they are suffering. That is why I say, perhaps a little more optimistically than Jim does, that I think this will be a sweeping landslide victory in both houses of Congress with the White House going to the Democrats, because I believe the economy is in such tragic shape that when the critical time comes to pull that lever, they will pull the lever not for Obama but for the Democrats, for change.

Andrew Arato: He’d better play all the cards. For example, Obama has gone to Florida and you would think he would not dare to do this, but in fact – I think that he was based on polling – he knows the Cuban community is actually somewhat split now. There is the younger generation coming along that is not so clear about continuing the old policy, especially the policy which actually very much resents how little money you can transfer to your relatives. And so he announced a partial change. It is very clever because of course most of the community votes Republican anyway. Florida could be close, if you shift part of the Cuban vote. This idea of negotiating in the case of Ahmadinejad is not getting a single vote. I do not see that this in itself gains anything, although some people may want in general to improve the United States position in the world. But in Cuba this actually might get something, of course it is very rational that the United States should begin to talk to the Cuban government because actually the policies we have had in place for how long now, have actually not changed anything inside of Cuba one bit. So we should be doing something else. To some extent I agree that he must win on the economy first and foremost. But some changes of foreign policy I think are expected. I mean, it is my fear that McCain will sound more convincing on Iraq than actually he should be sounding. That is what I fear, simply because of the drop of the level of violence.

Benjamin Barber: I think the first thing Obama will have to address, if he is elected president, is to figure out how to take back everything he said in the campaign, because there is no way American troops are going to be redeployed in six-to-twelve months.

Jim Sleeper: Maybe we are three intellectuals in a room, but you may be underestimating the impact of service in the war on families, everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who is in Iraq….

Daniele Castellani Perelli: So who is going to win?

Jim Sleeper: Obama by a squeaker.

Benjamin Barber: Obama by a landslide.

Andrew Arato: I am so unsure, because the point is that I can see a 20 per cent chance for an Obama landslide, and I see a 20 per cent chance for a McCain victory. Then the rest is a squeaker and unfortunately I see 20 per cent. I have been very disappointed with the American electorate already since the last elections, because I just could not believe that they could re-elect Bush after that kind of tax-cut which destroyed the budget already then. And the Iraq war was going unbelievably badly, so why was he re-elected against a very creditable, reasonable candidate with a good war record? So if that was possible, then I think you cannot just say there is no chance for McCain to win. So I am worried.

Benjamin Barber: But do not worry about the Nader factor.

Andrew Arato: I am worried.

Benjamin Barber: Nader will get 73 votes of amnesiacs.

Jim Sleeper: You can fool all of the people some of time, some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.

Andrew Arato: But McCain is a different guy from Bush, and the press is too kind with him. The press is unbelievably kind with him.

Benjamin Barber: You can fool some of the people all the time, all of the people for some of the time, but you can fool CNN all of the time.

Part One of the Forum here.