Kate’s Corner – A “Banana Split” for the Ambassador

By Kate Doak.

It’s not often one gets the opportunity to meet with a close, long-term friend of a sitting US President, a US Ambassador or one of the finest legal minds around. So when I was offered the chance to interview US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich just before he addressed the Media 140 conference in Canberra earlier this week, it was an experience well worth savouring.

Audio Interview with US Ambassador to Australia – Jeffrey Bleich – Media140 – 23-9-2010

Having known President Barack Hussein Obama since attempting to recruit him as a Clerk to the US Appellate Court from Harvard Law School, Ambassador Bleich has an insight on one of the most powerful men in the world that not many people have. When asked about how he first met the future President, the Ambassador responded with a genuine level of fondness in his voice for a time that would have been considerably less stressful for the both of them. This is important as it shows the level of humanity behind politics, that the public often either isn’t exposed to by the media or refuses to acknowledge.

With even the Ambassador himself admitting that during his youth he thought that Diplomats only drank beverages on verandahs in foreign locations, it’s evident that not many people are familiar with ins and outs of diplomatic service. Not only does the Ambassador have to be the US representative to the Australian Government, he also has to keep himself apprised of the well-being of all Americans whom are currently residing within Australia, business negotiations which are taking place between various multi-national organisations that might influence the Australian-US relationship and the perspectives of the President on various issues. It is due to this the Ambassador argued, that Diplomats will retain their status as extremely important people, as reassuring factors in foreign affairs such as a firm handshake, direct eye-contact and confident body language can’t be reproduced by electronic means.

Ambassador Bleich also offered a key insight into American politics and the unique role that the media plays during US elections. Unlike the US, Australia requires all of it’s citizens of voting age to participate in State and Federal elections. That means that everyone has to vote in Australian elections, whether they are disenfranchised with the political climate or not.

In saying that there are things that the United States could learn from Australia’s use of Compulsory Voting, the Ambassador inadvertently touched upon the role that the media has upon the US electoral system. Under the “Voluntary Voting” system, the Public can easily become disenfranchised with an incumbent Politician and refuse to vote if a given media outlet within their electorate decides not to report on the Politician’s accomplishments. Like-wise, the public can quickly become enfranchised with a politician if the media only reports upon their accomplishments. This in turn could create a situation where a media outlet and the advertisers that support them can directly influence the result of an election, by manipulating their audience to support a specific type of candidate.

By briefly stating his interest in studying Australia’s electoral system, it is also evident that the Ambassador is interested in learning from Australia’s democratic experience. Given that democracy always needs to be nurtured if it is going to survive, both Conservatives and Progressives within the United States and Australia alike would benefit from the insight that Academics with “Real-World” knowledge such as Ambassador Bleich have to offer.

In closing, I asked the Ambassador if he could define his position as an Ice Cream flavour. Needless to say, I doubt that the US State Department has ever been described as a Banana Split, with sauce covering Vanilla Ice cream, on top of a layer of Rocky Road and Fudge.

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Kate Doak is a Postgraduate student at the University of New England, Australia. Since 2004 she’s changed career paths twice, genders once and has developed a major interest in radio. These days, Kate mostly focuses on Modern History and International Politics.

Kate’s Corner – Social Media: Political Tools or Campaign Nightmares?

By Kate Doak.

During the Media 140 conference in Canberra this week, I had the privilege of hearing US Ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich, give a lecture on the impact of Social Media on the 2008 US Presidential Campaign. Given the Ambassador’s role as a key organiser of the “Obama for America” movement , his close friendship of over 20 years with President Obama, not to mention his previous position of Special Legal Advisor to the President in the Obama Administration, it was a non-partisan lecture on campaign politics that was well worth attending.

Note: Podcast of Ambassador Bleich’s speech and all “Media 140 Canberra” panels available here

With the media being dominated by organisations like Fox News on the right, the Gay media on the left, as well as NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC somewhere in-between, it is evident that there is a healthy range of voices present within the United States. By highlighting the pros and cons of the conventional media, as well as those of social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and online Bloggers, Ambassador Bleich was able to describe how Obama was able to use both forms of media to their utmost advantage during the campaign. By calling upon his experience as a Community Organiser, Bleich stated that Obama was able to rally those around him to accomplish feats using Social Media that seasoned Campaign Strategists on all sides of politics had previously thought impossible.

This in turn explains why the Obama Campaign used Social Media so heavily during the lead-up to the 2008 Presidential Election. Unlike in previous campaigns, social media gave the Democrats the opportunity to counter many of the stories that were being released by conservative elements of the campaign, while championing the stories that were promoting their cause. This not only strengthened support for Obama within the Democratic base, but also provided an open-resource for any swinging Independents who were interested in fact checking stories before they went to the Polls. In contrast, the McCain-Palin campaign had relatively few interests in online media, culminating in McCain saying that he doesn’t even know how to turn a computer on.

In a strange twist of fate, Ambassador Bleich then highlighted the emergence of Social Media as being one of the key reasons as to why some Democrats are now disenfranchised with the Obama administration in the lead-up to the Congressional Mid-term Elections. To paraphrase the Ambassador: The 2008 Democratic Presidential campaign had a “High School Friendship” effect upon the Democratic base and various Independents. Just as High School friends drift apart over time, so do some relationships in politics. While such political relationships are easy to maintain in a campaign, it’s harder to do so once in government.

No-where is this fact more evident than in the Democratic faction of the Lesbian and Gay Community. Even though President Obama promoted LGBT personnel into key positions within the US Government, while also helping pass an amendment to the Hate Crimes Act, he has experienced a drop in popularity amongst LGBT activists. Due to the “Glass Half Empty” mentality that’s rampant within parts of the Gay community, this is to be expected given the fact that their agenda hasn’t been fulfilled within the short span of two years. This has been particularly evident within prominent Gay blogs such as Pam’s House Blend, AmericaBlog and Towleroad, as well as Gay rights organisations such as SLDN, Servicemembers United and GetEqual over the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.   As a result, many of the President’s victories on issues surrounding Transgender rights and Equal Opportunity within civilian Federal organisations have either been ignored, or criticised as only being enough to promote fund-raising.

Ambassador Bleich also stated that while some people may act abusively online, the fact that there are others there to challenge such behaviour from all sides of politics equals things out. In an effort to protect the President for the 2012 Campaign, maybe this more than anything explains why the Obama Administration have rarely challenged their critics, or had interviews with members of the LGBT media who would otherwise force them to do so.

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Kate Doak is a Postgraduate student at the University of New England, Australia. Since 2004 she’s changed career paths twice, genders once and has developed a major interest in radio. These days, Kate mostly focuses on Modern History and International Politics.