TB: How would you summarise your personal experience as a Washington correspondent during this historic election?
RG: Hard work. I followed the candidates at least intermittently for two years–long before they formally declared that they were running. From January 2008 it was utterly frenetic.
John McCain was more fun to cover than Barack Obama. He would chat for hours in the back of the bus, tell bad jokes, wander off-message, hold small rallies and knock off in time for a civilised dinner. Obama, by contrast, seldom answered questions, never said anything unscripted and held enormous rallies on freezing fairgrounds that would drag on past mid-night. Of course, the things that made McCain more fun to report on also made it pretty obvious that he was going to lose.
But he would have lost even if he had been a disciplined campaigner. George Bush has seriously tarnished the Republican brand. People felt it was time for a change. Given an unpopular war, a recession and financial collapse, a stick of celery with a Democratic label on it could have won. And McCain didn’t help his case by sounding clueless about economics.
TB: What would you say were the defining features of the Obama campaign?
RG: People wanted something new, and Obama had almost no track record at all. He spoke eloquently, but mostly in such general terms that people projected their own beliefs onto him. He has a knack for making people with conflicting views think he agrees with them.
He also ran a brilliant ground campaign. I recall chatting to McCain’s people in North Carolina, who had barely mastered email, and contrasting them with the armies of earnest Obama-ites who were organising their door-knocking schedules via their own social networking site.
TB: Obama rose from obscurity to the Presidency almost within a single election cycle – is this typical of Washington politics, if not how do you explain it?
RG: It’s unprecedented. I can’t think of another president who has risen so fast from such obscurity. I don’t think he could have won the Democratic nomination without the internet. Hot new things go viral much quicker than they used to.
TB: What does this Inauguration mean to America, and to African Americans?
RG: I’ve talked to a lot of black southerners who grew up knowing they could get their house burned down if they tried to register to vote. Obviously, they’re elated.
TB: Do you feel the election and the Inauguration mark a significant shift in race relations in America, or is this a freak event?
RG: It’s a symptom of a steady improvement in race relations over the past half-century. I’d guess that Americans were ready to elect a black president 20 years ago. They just weren’t ready to vote for a buffoon like Jesse Jackson. So it’s not a freak event. Young Americans have relatively few hang-ups about race. Some older folk are still bigots, but their prejudices won’t outlive them.
TB: It’s often remarked that there is a paradoxically high level of expectation upon American Presidents given the limitations of the office – this seems especially true for Obama. Do you think he has a chance of living up to these expectations?
RG: People who think he is the Messiah are going to be disappointed-and it never ceases to amaze me how many such people there are. The same goes for people who think he is going to govern like he’s president of the world rather than a politician answerable to an American electorate.
That said, he has a huge mandate. An American president has surprisingly little formal power, but he can set the agenda and get laws through Congress so long as he remains popular.
First he has to enact a stimulus package to soften the recession. That will happen quickly. Then he has to grapple with health care and climate change. Those are immense challenges. I have no idea if he’s up to the job. The signs are good so far: he’s making all the right noises and surrounding himself with clever, centrist advisers. But his only previous executive experience was his campaign. He did that well, but the federal government is a bit bigger than a campaign. And whereas campaign staffers have to do what you tell them, Congress can tell you to get stuffed.
TB: Many of Obama’s campaign promises, such as universal health care, are set to be incredibly costly- do you think they are viable given the current economic climate?
RG: It’s going to be hard. Obama himself admits that a lot of his promises will have to be delayed. Whether that means by a year or a decade, I can’t say.
TB: Though you are currently Washington Correspondent, you covered Africa for seven years. Africans, and in particular Kenyans, seem to have high hopes for Obama. However, Africa was not a campaign issue. Is it likely that Obama will make Africa any more of a priority than the Bush administration?
RG: Africa is never a campaign issue. Why would it be? Nothing that happens there is likely to affect Americans.
I’d expect Obama’s Africa policy to be quite similar to George Bush’s, which was actually not bad. He massively increased funding for AIDS, for example. One area where Obama might improve matters is by getting rid of the foolish emphasis on abstinence-only education to curb the spread of HIV.
TB: Before taking office, Obama was already under fire from some quarters for his response (or lack thereof) to the conflict in Gaza- do you feel his approach to the situation was reasonable?
RG: I think he was wisely keeping his powder dry. I expect he’ll appoint a Middle East peace emissary to do the hard work and only step in personally if it looks like a deal is possible. Right now, I don’t think it is.
TB: President Lincoln has been a recurring symbolic theme for Obama – in the Inauguration he will be sworn in using the same bible as Lincoln. Do you feel there are links to Lincoln beyond the symbolic that might come out during the Obama Presidency?
RG: Steady on. Lincoln freed the slaves and won the civil war. Obama’s main accomplishment so far is to have been elected. It’s good to set ambitious goals, but the time to carve a guy’s face on Mount Rushmore is after he’s achieved them.
TB: Do you feel there will be a significant difference, as a member of the press, in covering the Obama administration, as opposed to the Bush administration?
RG: Bush seldom answered questions. Obama seldom answers questions. On that score, there’s not much difference. But a president is judged by how well he governs, not by whether he makes life easy for hacks like me.