Hopes for Obama's Second Term
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BILL MOYERS: During the final weeks of the campaign I found some welcome diversion from all the political rhetoric and ads by reading the latest book from James Fallows, he's one of our most informed and prolific journalists. The title is “China Airborne.” It's about why more than two-thirds of the new airports under construction today are being built in China -- and what this tells us of the Chinese determination to modernize and innovate, and how their ambition is going to impact America’s role in the world and our lives. It's a book I hope official Washington is reading.
For 40 years as a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, James Fallows was based in Washington -- covering politics and culture -- while also traveling and living in Asia, including several years in Japan and China.
Once the chief speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and editor of U.S. News and World Report, he's received both the National Book Award. You can read his blog at TheAtlantic.com.
Jim Fallows, it's good to see you.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you so much, Bill. Honor and pleasure to be here.
BILL MOYERS: What surprised you about this election?
JAMES FALLOWS: I guess what surprised me is, as the results sink in in the days after the election, how thorough going was the repudiation of what had seemed the unstoppable Tea Party momentum of the previous two years. And I think the fact also that in the days before the election, essentially, the right wing is saying, "Yes, this is going to go our way again, as it did in 2010." I was in touch with lots of people in the Romney campaign who really thought they were going to win and win big.
It's been fascinating. There's been very little of the narrative from the right saying, "This was stolen, it was all fraud," et cetera, et cetera. And I think they may be sinking on them that they were out of touch with the actual nature of the U.S. now.
BILL MOYERS: You wrote the other day that the reelection of Obama is actually more impressive and maybe more important than his election for years ago. Why?
JAMES FALLOWS: The impressiveness because, number one, we know the goods and bads of Barack Obama now. Four years ago, everybody could project his or her own ideal hopes onto Barack Obama. The Nobel Peace Prize committee did too right after the election. So we know it's the marriage versus first date proposition.
Second, four years ago the economic collapse helped him. Now, he was there to save it. Now the economic collapse hurt him and he was able to say, "Look, it's been bad but it's going to get better. Or it could have been worse." And third, I think in the racial dynamics, the fact that he was able to overcome them is impressive.
A very sophisticated Republican ad was, "It's okay if you don't vote for him again this time." You know, you gave him a chance. We gave these people their opportunity. We see how they're doing. And I think there was a sort of permission to white Americans to not feel racist in voting against him this time. And he was able to overcome that too.
BILL MOYERS: You said it was important for African Americans that Obama in particular was reelected. Why?
JAMES FALLOWS: My colleague and friend Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic, who's a wonderful African American writer based here in New York argued that of course there was this historic frontier of electing the first non-white president as the country did four years ago. And even though 53 percent of the public voted for Obama, he had 70 percent approval by the time of his inauguration. There was something that people felt good about America for having crossed this frontier.
But the reelection was a sense, sort of the normalization of success for an African American president. And not just saying, "Okay, yeah, we tried, but you saw how that went. You know, he wasn't really up to the job." That was, again, this great Republican ad. You know, you tried, he tried, it's not working. Let's, you know, let's go back to the way things are done.
There was a fascinating comment by somebody on election eve who said with a straight face that, "This election, 'cause they're changing demographics, will be the last time there are four white males on the national ticket." And, you know, wait a minute, that's a sign of sort of the normalization of Barack Obama, like Colin Powell, as an American, as opposed to an African American.
BILL MOYERS: Well, he is as much white as he is black.
JAMES FALLOWS: Exactly. Exactly. But, as you well know, in the long travailed American race relations, if you are any black, you are black. And so he is, a fascinating part of his autobiography is that he'd been raised outside the country, as we know from the right wing. The first time he had to decide whether he was either black or white is when he came back to college in the United States and realized there was this black, white grid in the United States, as opposed to being multi-racial, as most of the rest of the world is.
BILL MOYERS: People are talking about the fight within the Republican Party over their future. But there's a fight already starting within the Democratic Party between the progressives and liberals and the Clinton Democrats who look upon themself as centrist. And there're a lot of articles as we speak appearing on the web and in the press about Obama's really a centrist. He's really a corporate Democrat. He is, and William Saletan and Slate Magazine has a piece saying he is, in fact, a moderate Republican at heart. What do you think about that?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think, on the one hand, that's true. The moderate Republicans still exist, they're just Democrats now. And that's why the Republican Party has been distilled to its extreme. Second, it certainly is true that, as you've written about and broadcasted about, there's a huge cleavage in the Democratic Party between essentially the Wall Street Democrats and the more progressive Democrats.
And that's an important issue that affected our views the first Obama administration and the second too. However, I would contend that in most of my conscious lifetime, this is the most coherent the Democratic Party has been. I mean, compared to the Republicans.
The Republicans are falling part and in complete, you know, clan war. Whereas, as you had the previous Democratic incumbent being the most impressive advocate for this Democratic incumbent. Whereas the Republicans can't mention the guy who was their previous incumbent. And so I think--
BILL MOYERS: George W.
JAMES FALLOWS: George W., yeah, who just, you know, didn't come within a thousand miles of the convention or wasn't mentioned in the speeches. So I think that the Democrats, they do have these tensions. But at least they can have some sense of a majority party, which they hadn't thought of themselves as for a long time. Being able to say, "Okay, how do we address the basically progressive narrative we have that's not just tax cuts and it's not just the top one percent?"
BILL MOYERS: Before this campaign began, I picked up and reread your book you wrote many years ago on the press called Breaking the News, right?
And I read it, I watched the campaign informed by it. You were tough on the media in that book, and had been in many of your long articles. So what did we miss in this campaign? The mainstream press?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that there is the mainstream press, there is a tropism that we both talked about towards the horserace of politics. And we did better in that part of the coverage than the right wing press, which I think is now shocked to realize they created a bubble for themselves which, until now, has been a message advantage. They could sort of discipline their troops. Now they're realizing it's a strategic disadvantage 'cause they didn't know what was going on in the world. They were caught by surprise.
BILL MOYERS: Talk about that bubble.
JAMES FALLOWS: I have a beloved family member who is a loyal, whose information intake is entirely from Fox News. This is an older woman who I'm related to. And she honestly believed that Obama was not born in the United States or think that's an open question. That it is a socialist agenda.
And I think that people in this bubble really did think that Romney was certain to win because everybody they knew supported him and opposed Obama. It's like the flip side of the old unfair joke about Pauline Kael who said, "How could Nixon win in '72?
"Everybody I know voted for McGovern." Apparently, she never actually said that. But we know the attitude it exemplifies. The right is now in that bubble. Everybody they know hates Obama. So how could all these people be voting for Obama?
BILL MOYERS: In the hours leading up to the election, Fox News devoted itself to speculation about Romney's win. Newt Gingrich and others were talking about how big the Romney landslide was going to be. Gingrich thought it would be 300 electoral votes at least.
NEWT GINGRICH on Fox News: I believe the minimum result will be 53-47 Romney, over 300 electoral votes, and the republicans will pick up the Senate.
BILL MOYERS: So are you suggesting that they, a conservative propaganda machine, was blindsided by its own ideology?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think that is so. And I think we may have seen a tipping point in this election because in all previous elections, notably the 2010 midterms, we were impressed by the way the conservative propaganda machine was able to really mobilize people who thought that the deficit was the greatest threat to the nation, et cetera, et cetera. And now, it seems to have shifted to the liability question 'cause they didn't know what country they were operating in, which was the way they would've caricatured liberals over the last couple of generations.
They don't know what the real America is like. Peggy Noonan, whom we both like. She wrote this before the election. "Now if I know anything about the real America, you know, the real America is coming together. We're--" and the real America did come together. And it wasn't the one they thought was there.
BILL MOYERS: You've been tough on those pundits whose chief claim to fame is that they know something so special, that their predictions are more credible than the rest of us. George Will, Michael Barone, Dick Morris all predicted a landslide for Romney. Are any of them likely to pay for being wrong?
JAMES FALLOWS: That's the why bookies are sort of morally preferable for pundits. The bookies have to pay. And I guess I have been heartened, I was heartened by at least the initial reaction in right wing pundit world, that some of them seemed shell-shocked, as opposed to being in denial and saying, the election, the win for the progressive side generally seemed to be so profound, that they were able to kind of move beyond what they would've preferred to say, which I think somehow this is all a fraud. Somehow it didn't really happen. So, we'll see if they pay, including Karl Rove with his consultant fees.
BILL MOYERS: You were candid over the three years of the Obama administration about his weaknesses, his failures and his flaws. But a few months ago, you wrote that you saw Obama improving and you thought he would be a better second term president. Why?
JAMES FALLOWS: Part of my argument is that everybody fails in the first term as president because it's too big a job. And so, you sort of reveal what the weakness is and what particular lack a president has. And we've seen some of those with President Obama. I think one way in which he'll certainly be different is that he knows who he is dealing with now. The first two years of the administration, he thought that they were going to be able to make sort of a split the loaf deal with the current Republican Party. And they weren't interested in that.
So I think he will have a firmer approach from the get-go. He now doesn't have to worry about reelection, as we all know. I think he's become more sophisticated as a judge of executive talent around him and just sort of knows what he is doing. You know, he spent four years making hard decisions, after no executive experience, essentially. So I think he has shown only growth that I've seen, rather than a regression. And I hope that continues.
BILL MOYERS: You have lived much of the last three years in China and you've spent a lot of time since I first knew you, in China. How do you think Obama's reelection is being seen there?
JAMES FALLOWS: Interestingly, they were appalled by his election by and large four years ago. Among other reasons, because he was not white. And they thought, "You know, how can you do this? We're used to dealing with these George W. Bush, you know, father and son figures, Nixon, Kissinger and all the rest." So there was some shock.
The Chinese have their preference would always be more of the same, whatever the American policy is. So they didn't like Mitt Romney because of this fairly crude anti-China threats, which he would never have carried out. They like the idea it's going to be a familiar team now with Obama.
And I think, interestingly, to telescope a long argument, the area of greatest continuity in U.S. foreign policy since the time of Nixon has been our dealings with China. Where, on the one hand, we think it's better if they grow than if they don't. On the other hand, we have all sorts of problems with them. I think that is the way Obama has pursued it and will keep pursuing it. So I think they actually are relieved to have a second term.
BILL MOYERS: What do they want from us?
JAMES FALLOWS: They want essentially a chance to develop. I--
BILL MOYERS: You mean develop economically?
JAMES FALLOWS: Develop economically. And just to sort of breathe. When I lived in Japan, I was quite alarmed, and remain so, about sort of the zero-sumness of many of Japan's economic ambitions, which sort of came out of American achievement. In China's case, I think it's different. It's a gigantic poor country where most people are still poor.
The per capita income is still, like, one-fifth what it is in the United States. A lot of really rich people, but still they have more farmers than we have people. And it's a giant challenge. And so I think what they want is it's better for them for the foreseeable future, for our lifetimes, for our children's lifetimes, that China just have a chance to kind of make people richer. And so they would like for the U.S. to basically give them space to do that.
BILL MOYERS: What do we want from them?
JAMES FALLOWS: We want them to become more liberal and responsible as they become richer. We want them not to destroy the world's environment, which they will do if other things being equal.
And so we want to work with them on avoiding environmental just destruction. We want them to continue bringing people from rural poverty to sort of urban working classness, which is what they've been doing. We want them to grow up in both international and domestic ways. Grow up internationally in having a foreign policy that's not just whatever's good for them commercially, which is what their foreign policy is now.
And to say, "Okay, you have to play a role in Iran and Syria or whatever, being responsible." Domestically, we want them to gain confidence so they don't have to have their foot on their people's neck. Most of the time in China you don't know the government's around. Just kind of a sort of state of chaos--
BILL MOYERS: Really?
JAMES FALLOWS: And, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, not like Russia, the Soviet Union--
JAMES FALLOWS: Oh, it's--
BILL MOYERS: --not that blanket--
JAMES FALLOWS: --entirely different. It's most of the time the areas the government cares about, the internet, democratic protest or whatever, Taiwan, Tibet, they're all over. When it doesn't involve that, you know, you can basically do what you want. You start a business, et cetera. So we want them to allow their people to have more a sort of liberal, normal life, as times goes on, which I-- and the government it's a country becoming more confident with a government that's still sort of nervous antique.
It's a Dick Cheney government with-- if not a Barack Obama, an FDR type nation behind it. Here's an illustration. Before the Olympics, the foreign ministry said, "We're going to have an authorized protest zone so that everybody can say," you know, the Beijing Olympics, four years ago, "we're going to show the world we can tolerate protest." When people applied to protest, they were all arrested. So there's parts of the government that say, "This would look good, to allow a protest." There's parts that say, "We can't tolerate this. We're going to arrest people."
BILL MOYERS: Did it strike you during the campaign, Jim, that neither Romney nor Obama mentioned human rights in China?
JAMES FALLOWS: They didn't, which is part of the-- nobody mentioned climate change, they didn't mention the Supreme Court. There's all sorts of things. You could write 20 books on things that didn't come up in the campaign. On Obama's side, in a way, he didn't need to because his policy-- the Chinese know his policy is as it has been for the U.S., we want to work with China, but there's things we're not going to give up.
We're going to-- the president will meet the Dalai Lama, even though you hate that. We will send arms to-- sell arms to Taiwan, even though you view that as Casus belli, et cetera. So I think Obama could say, "Okay, I've had four years of a balanced approach." Romney, his currency-- bluster was sort of proxy for saying, you know, he would be blustery in all ways.
BILL MOYERS: Tough on China currency manipulation. First day in office, he would accuse them of-- bring them to the court of public opinion--
JAMES FALLOWS: Which he would not do. We'll never know that for sure, but I tell you that for sure.
BILL MOYERS: There was an interesting little ad that kept running over and over in the weeks leading up to this campaign, about China. Let me play it for you.
CHINESE LANGUAGE CAMPIAGN AD BEGINS
NARRATOR: Why do great nations fail? The Ancient Greeks…the Roman Empire…the British Empire…and the United States of America. They all make the same mistakes, turning their back on the principles that made them great. America tried to spend and tax itself out of a great recession. Enormous so-called “stimulus” spending, massive changes to healthcare, government takeovers of private industries and crushing debt. Of course, we owned most of their debt…so now they work for us.
CHINESE LANGUAGE CAMPIAGN AD BEGINS
NARRATOR: America can determine our own future, but only if we own it. For American independence, we must cut spending and waste.
BILL MOYERS: Unpack that for me.
JAMES FALLOWS: I actually love that ad. I first saw that ad two years ago when it was run in the 2010 midterms. I did an article at The Atlantic site calling it “The Wonderful Chinese Professor Ad." Here's what I loved about it. Number one, it's evident from minute, second one of that, it's not filmed in China 'cause these people just they're all-- and in fact, it was some junior college in California or someplace. Or maybe in northern Virginia suburbs. They advertise--
BILL MOYERS: What a world.
JAMES FALLOWS: --American, because they just look so healthy and their teeth are not what Chinese people's teeth look like and all the rest. So it was Asian Americans, the audience who didn't really know how that was going to be used, and didn't understand the narrative. But the actor, who is the Chinese actor who was professor. Number two, I thought it was actually a skillful use of the foreign menace in this sense.
The professor is saying, "These empires rise and fall for their own reasons." He didn't say, "We push them over." He was saying, you know, they undid themselves. I disagree with his narrative about how we undid ourselves. I don't think health care would undo us. I don't think foreign debt would undo us. But I thought it was part of good side of the foreign menace tradition in our life of saying we should do better, as opposed to these foreign rats. You know, they're tricking us--
BILL MOYERS: That's what the ads that used to run many years ago against the Chinese menace, you know?
JAMES FALLOWS: Yeah, exactly--
BILL MOYERS: They're coming, their hoards are going to overtake America and appeal to people's fear. This doesn't appeal directly or explicitly to fear.
JAMES FALLOWS: Well, it ends with that of their chuckling. You know, now they work for us. Now, you know, they ask for jobs for us. And so, that final part you could say is sort of China menace bashing. But I thought it actually was a very interesting snapshot of the American psyche. Now, that ad was not about China. It was about America.
BILL MOYERS: Us.
JAMES FALLOWS: And how feel we feel that we're-- this is the latest foe that's going to overtake us.
BILL MOYERS: Do the Chinese think America's in decline?
JAMES FALLOWS: Some of them do. Some of them follow the same rhetoric. And that feeling's more about China than about the U.S. So I think that there is--
BILL MOYERS: Why? How so?
JAMES FALLOWS: There is a confidence in what China has done the last 30 years, as there should be. That any family there, if it looks back 30 years, their prospects are unimaginably better off than they were 30 years ago, when they didn't have a refrigerator or any of that stuff. And so they're confident in that. There're tremendous opportunities. But there is tremendous cynicism in China, a tremendous dissatisfaction.
Their problems are worse than ours in every dimension, environmental, economic-- which is what I write about this book. Political legitimacy. There is more cynicism about the Chinese political system than we have about ours. And the contrast to the world's two great powers are changing their leadership November of 2012.
Everything about America is in the open, you know, to a fault. Everything about China is mysterious. You know, nobody knew the day before they started to do this process exactly who'd be in charge, how many people would be in charge, when it'd be announced, et cetera. So it's really a contrast--
BILL MOYERS: We took that off the Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers front group, off their website. Why would they be running this ad right it's an old ad, as you say, two years ago, running it again in 2012?
JAMES FALLOWS: It was part of the narrative that started with the Tea Party that these worst problem for America is the national deficit. Now I think that is a problem in the long run for America. The real economic problem for right now is joblessness and inequality. And so, I think it was part of a Republican Tea Party narrative that the way the big menace to America was the deficit.
Therefore, deficit spenders, who they allege to be Democrats, you know, not talking about the Bush administration or anything. That is why it was essentially a Republican Tea Party inspired narrative that happened to produce what I view as an artistically very interesting ad.
BILL MOYERS: Do we work for the Chinese? And if we even do to some extent, are they likely to use that to their advantage over us?
JAMES FALLOWS: We, no, we don't work for them. When Japan was rising, its companies were head to head competitors with American companies. It was Toyota versus GM. It was Toshiba versus IBM, et cetera, et cetera down the line. Chinese companies are subcontractors for American brands. Every Apple product is made in China. Two weeks ago, I was seeing where they were made.
But of the $1,000 for an Apple computer, only about $80 or $90 stays in China. The rest is with Apple and with the screen makers and advertisers and retailers and Fed Ex and all the rest. And so, we have a trade deficit with China. The debt that the Chinese hold over us actually they view as a weakness on our side for them, rather than us-- number one, it makes them hostage to the value of our dollar and to our financial markets.
If we're having a discussion in China, people would say, "What are we thinking, having all our savings in these U.S. treasury notes? You know, what if they default? What-- the interest, what if they have runaway inflation, et cetera, et cetera?" It's the imbalance between the two countries is a sign of imbalance in both of our systems.
We've been too debt dependent and too over consumptive. They have been too export dependent and they haven't lived as well as they should. A poor country is lending money to a rich country. That is odd and needs to change and will.
BILL MOYERS: If you were having this conversation with President Obama, he might ask you, he might say-- "Jim, you say that more than two thirds of the new airports under construction today are being built in China. You call your book China Airborne. Why should I, as president, why should our people think about China building airports?"
JAMES FALLOWS: I was using it as a proxy for the tech ambitions that China will need to ascend. The question I try to address in here is whether the miracle of the last 30 years in China, of going from being a peasant society to a Dickensian working class society, will it be able to take the next step, to becoming a truly modern society? Having their own Boeings, their own Apples, their own Googles, their own Mitsubishis, their own Mercedes.
And I argue that's going to be really hard for them. And there are three or four test case for it. Their ambition to become an aerospace power. Boeing is always our largest exporter. Aerospace is always our largest export industry. Are they going to be able to do that? Pharma is another one where they're trying hard. Info tech, things like Google.
So I look at all these test cases and I say, if they're going to be able to do this, it's going to have to become a different kind of country, with not so much censorship, with real universities, as opposed to these kind of diploma mills they have. And so, China's ambition to become, and they're going to have to reduce some of the military overhang and some of the security state. So if they can become a real rival to Boeing, if they can have a real rival to Google, they'll become a different kind of China in a way more threatening, but a way less threating 'cause a more sort of civilized country in the broadest sense.
BILL MOYERS: So if you were sitting there with President Obama, and he asked you for, "What should I say about China in my State of the Union message," what advice would you give him?
JAMES FALLOWS: Say that we the relationship between America and China matters to the entire world because we'll either destroy the world's environment, or have some chance for saving it together. Or else, if we don't work together on this, there's no hope. The two most strongly growing economies in the world need to help the world continue to grow and deal with inequality.
And the stability and sort of decency of China as an international player is something only the United States is in a position to effect, if at all. It matters to our children if China-- how China uses its power. And so, the greatest stake we have the greatest outside our own borders, the greatest stake we have in the conditions for our children and grandchildren is our relationship with China.
BILL MOYERS: So this then is a very timely and important book. China Airborne by James Fallows. Thank you very much for being with me.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you so much, Bill.