INTERVIEW WITH NORMAN BIRNBAUM
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 14 Dec 2008
‘Americans Currently Don’t Care about the Iranian Bomb’
The American left is criticizing Barack Obama’s cabinet choices by saying his administration will continue many Bush policies. Prominent intellectual Norman Birnbaum defends Obama’s choices in a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview. Obama, he says, needs people with experience.
Norman Birnbaum, born in 1926, is one of the most important voices on the American left. He is also intimately familiar with Europe. A professor emeritus from Georgetown, Birnbaum has taught at a number of European universities, including the London School of Economics and Oxford. He has also taught and researched in Germany, France and Italy. The sociologist was an advisor to the US President Jimmy Carter.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Birnbaum, please remind us: What was Barack Obama’s campaign slogan?
NORMAN BIRNBAUM: Change. Why?
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Because looking at his cabinet choices, that change seems a distant memory. Obama is retaining Republican Robert Gates as Defense Secretary, he wants to appoint Jim Jones, a friend of John McCain, as his National Security Adviser and Hillary Clinton is going to be in charge of the State Department.
BIRNBAUM: Sure, some cynics even argue that we are seeing a continuation of the Bush course, just with a human face in the White House. They refer not just to the cabinet members but also to some of the policy statements made by Obama so far. He seems inclined to continue the hawkish US strategy in Afghanistan or Pakistan, for instance. I, and many people on the left, believe the idea to impose women’s rights in Afghanistan by military force is like sending NATO to Alabama to eradicate protestant fundamentalism. On the other hand, Obama has proven with his promise of a large infrastructure program and his focus on environmental issues that he pursues a very progressive agenda. He seems to plan a great deal of intervention and state activity for which the left has been calling for a long time, even under Bill Clinton.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But why does Obama surround himself with so many Washington insiders?
BIRNBAUM: He knows that he must focus on the domestic front. He can’t spend his time calling world leaders, he must get a grip on the domestic agenda because he knows: The American voters currently do not care about the Iranian bomb, they care about the money they need to send their kids to college. The people he has nominated so far understand these constraints. Also, every president has to fight the apparatus in Washington. His cabinet choices are more experienced in dealing with this apparatus. That helps a lot. However, it is certainly a sign of a considerable amount of self-confidence that Obama thinks he can control these experienced players around him.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Now, though, the left which supported Obama so passionately during the campaign is starting to grumble. Progressive bloggers are already fuming about Obama’s centrist course.
BIRNBAUM: The American left is dispersed. There are bloggers, there are unions, there are politicians and activist groups. If you look more closely, you will find that the further people are from an integrated presence in Washington, the less inclined they are to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. Some leftists already argue he is not a liberal after all. This is totally overblown. As a historian, I know it’s silly to judge a president before he has taken office. That this has already begun is a sign of the growing desperation of the US media to find something to write about. The Obama kids have found a school in Washington, and now the reporters are jumping on this story about the disillusionment of the left.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is there any reason at all for the Obama team to be concerned about the complaints from the left?
BIRNBAUM: They take this very seriously. Remember: Obama is being watched not just by the somehow anonymous bloggers or the editors of leftist magazines like The Nation. There are also powerful and very ambitious representatives of the left wing of the Democratic Party who scrutinize his every step. The Obama team is concerned about an alliance of such activist movements with leaders from the left establishment who might want to raise their profile by taking on the president. There are many people with ambitions who might give this criticism a voice.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: You yourself are a proud member of the American left. Did you actually ever believe in Obama’s promise of "change in Washington"?
BIRNBAUM: The culture of the White House is terribly important for all of American politics. So I was inclined to give Obama’s doctrine of change the benefit of the doubt — because it seemed to energize so many people in our country. In the past, we have seen powerful examples for the impact of such leadership: When John F. Kennedy told Americans to ask themselves what they can do for their country, he thought more about international engagement than domestic policies, but his inspiration also mobilized more political and social commitment within the US. I still think Obama can usher in similar change: His openness to scientific advice, for instance, is a modern version of Kennedy’s idea to bring the "best and the brightest" into government. After eight years of Bush’s anti-intellectualism many US intellectuals are breathing a sigh of relief to see a thoughtful leader in the White House who is open to arguments and to debate.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does Obama even have a chance to be a successful president given the severity of the current crisis?
BIRNBAUM: That depends on your definition of success. A successful president is not necessarily one who solves all the problems — it’s one who gives the people the impression he is on their side. Look at Franklin D. Roosevelt: He did not solve the unemployment problem with his "New Deal" program. But he gave the impression he cared and was determined to act and that brought him the popular support which made his great projects feasible. If Obama can give the impression he is not just being tossed around by events, he can be a successful president.
Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz
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