Tate: Media ‘misled Europe’ on US elections

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The US media favoured Barack Obama during the campaign and made fun of Sarah Palin, but the governor of Alaska will remain a force to be reckoned with in the future, Sheila Tate, the vice-chairman of Powell Tate (Weber Shandwick’s Washington, DC office) told EURACTIV in an interview.

Sheila Tate, who has held high office in Republican administrations, is now co-chairing a bipartisan strategic communications firm. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

You have been the press secretary to Nancy Reagan, and also a press officer to George H.W. Bush, during his campaign and before his inauguration in 1988. You have not been actively involved in the last campaign, but still watched it, under a Republican perspective. Do you admit Barack Obama’s communication was better? 

Much better! He had a stronger message and never deviated from his “change” message. That’s why he’d be pulled off on issues, but he was always tying back to change. A very smart, very disciplined approach, and that’s what resonated with people. That’s what people wanted. 

It was also an extremely expensive campaign? 

I don’t think anyone ever thought people would spend that much money on a presidential campaign. It’s a shocking amount of money. 

Is it good for the American democracy? Not every candidate can mobilise such amounts. 

It’s the American way… How can you argue it’s bad for politics, if the American people were free to give him money in small amounts, and they did, all across the country. 

Here in Europe, when a politician overspends on a campaign, it can backfire. 

That can happen in the US as well, especially if it’s money from special interests, or if it’s a politician from one state that’s getting his money from New York City, that happens a lot, and rises eyebrows and causes criticicsm. 

What did Europe failed to understand in this US campaign? 

The best thing on the Republican side was to nominate Sarah Palin as candidate for Vice President. Here in Europe many say it was a mistake, but it’s because they are influenced by quite abusive media coverage. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a campaign where the media truly favoured one person. They favoured Obama from the beginning, they favoured him over Hillary Clinton, and they favoured him over John McCain. And the commentators were just vicious with regard to Sarah Palin. And it is because she isn’t a Washington insider. And the American press influenced the European press. And it became the smart thing to do, to make fun of her. But I think she’s a force to be reckoned in the future. 

Do you really imagine her running for President in 2012? 

Possible. Possible. That’s what the people were cheering when she landed back in Alaska. She has between 60 and 80 percent approval rate in Alaska. No other Governor enjoys that kind of a rating. She’s very smart and she’s got a good sense of politics. 

That’s extremely surprising from a European perspective. Here we had European conservatives who said that, this time for the first time, their sympathies went to the Democrats, because of the Republican ticket with Palin. 

That’s in a way irrelevant, because [the personality of the] vice president has never affected the outcome in any US elections. But Palin has so many qualities that remind me of Ronald Reagan and I think in four years she could very well melt a significant campaign. 

So you say Palin is the person to watch, even from Europe. Do you see her in the meantime traveling, visiting Europe, other countries? 

She needs to travel the entire United States, she needs to be out and about and meeting people in all the States, she needs to build on the connections she now has and build her base around the United States.

Back to the elected president, you are familiar with the process he is now undergoing. It must be some kind of high-level training and reading the country’s secrets, isn’t it? 

Yes, and gets resumes from anyone he meets, who want jobs. 

I noticed a paper from your company Powell Tate, of which you are one of the two partners, stating that between 50 000 and 75 000 resumes are expected. 

I’ve actually taken a taxi to go a television and do an early morning interview, and the driver, who knew who I am, gave me his resume… That’s the way it is, you are under siege… The President’s first responsibility is to organize his government. But he is not moving very fast now. He ought to have a Treasury team already. 

That’s precisely what Europe expected from him, to send his economic team to Saturday’s G20 summit in Washington. 

He needs to do that, and the most important focus will be on our economy, at least in the first 18 months. At least! 

Does a President change after reading his country’s secrets? 

I’m sure he becomes more careful about what he says. I can only imagine the reality of challenges he [president Obama] is now facing have to be sobering. 

Here in Europe the missile shield is a big issue, maybe more than in the US, and the new President was expected to have a different approach. Maybe this is over expectation? 

Expectations from him are so incredibly overblown by now, that he is going somehow to solve every problem, that if Obama was a stock, trading at the New York Sock exchange, and if you believe in the old adage of “buy low, sell high”, you should sell your Obama stock right now. Because it’s never go to be as high in the future. 

Europeans expect him to deliver on major issues, like climate change. Do you foresee him to become more middle-of-the-road, to revert from promises? 

I don’t know. But if he veers left, it will be a big mistake. And it’s going to be a huge pressure on him to veer left. He’s got a liberal Senate and a House now, that are chaffing at the bit to get everything they want. And if he doesn’t rein them in, he’s going to have a backlash from the American public. And if he gets off focus on the economy, as Bill Clinton, when he came in, that was supposed to be his focus, but right away he got to gaze in the military, and that threw him off course for eight, ten months, it was a huge strategic blunder… Obama hopefully learns from that and stay on course at that point, so he can build some momentum on what he wants to do. 

At least the Europeans hope the Transatlantic relations to improve… 

…only as long as our interests are protected. What you mean by “relations” is open to interpretation. If Obama comes to you and says “We are going to improve relations by you sending more troops to Afghanistan”, what’s going to happen? And he has alluded to that a number of times. 

In any case in Europe there is an expectation for a new climate of dialogue… 

You know, George [W] Bush will be judged more kindly by history than by the current opinion polls. 

The New York Times recently called him the worst president in US history… 

I don’t read The New York Times, for the very reason they became so completely biased in favour of liberal thinking… 

But the New York Times is very respected in Europe… 

The Washington Post at least are not strident on one position, but the New York Times has embarrassed himself so many times… It sad, it was once the grand old lady. 

Were you active during this campaign, if only at grassroot level? 

No, I was never a big McCain supporter. And I became convinced that Obama will win in the spring. 

Do you personally know Republicans who voted for Obama? 

Yes. I call them squishy. They are Republicans without a strong core belief. 

Here in Europe we see it differently, we see merit in those who vote differently, according to the circumstances. 

There are people who are less political and make up their mind based on different things. In my experience they tend to vote for person they like the best, and it has a lot to do with the personality, and how they come across on television, and Obama certainly does win that contest.

How important is the racial factor? Is America different since it elected a black president? 

Overnight nobody is ever different. But America has come a long, long way over the last 30-40 years. There is a wide, deep experience, that is far more color-blind in America, in the South and in the North. The stereotypes do not apply. This is exciting, because it gets rid of a lot of those arguments. But it puts an enormous burden on him. He’s got to succeed. 

It probably puts a burden also to the Secret Service. They say a black president is a target. 

I even don’t want to talk about it. Presidents are targets, first ladies are target… I was with Nancy Reagan when he was shot at… Look at that Looney Tune. He thought he could impress Jodie Foster by doing that… He ruined a lot of lives. Jim Bradey’s life [his press secretary who became permanently disabled], his whole family. There was a police officer named Dala Handy who was shot and he had to take disability, he never worked again… 

But you don’t regret the time you worked for Nancy Reagan? 

It was a wonderful period of my life, for four and a half years. I saw the world, made friendships that I have to this day. I recommend government service to anybody, especially if they are young. 

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