Saturday, August 2, 2008

DAT in The Nation -- Obama Excitement Extends to the Beer and Barbecues of Bangkok

DAT had a very, very successful event on 26 July at the Roadhouse Barbecue, where we talked about the party platform (and sent ideas to the Obama campaign) -- and The Nation sent a reporter who produced the following story:

The Nation (Bangkok), August 2, 2008

Obama excitement extends to the beer and barbecues of Bangkok

By Anthony Audi
The Nation

While Barack Obama spent last week meeting with foreign dignitaries in the Middle East and Europe, Democrats in Bangkok gathered at Roadhouse BBQ to discuss party platform over beer, baked potatoes and ribs. At least 30 people attended the discussion, and their enthusiasm underscored both the strong overseas interest in the upcoming election and a push by Barack Obama to draw faraway voters into the political process.

With unprecedented sums of money at his disposal, the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party is running a worldwide campaign, working vigorously to court not only Americans at home but also citizens overseas. As the first candidate to open offices in all 50 states, Obama is extending his "leave no constituency behind" approach to the greater world, hiring 10 full-time staffers to work outside of the US.

The effectiveness of this strategy remains unclear in a state like Utah, where a Democrat cannot conceivably win, but in Bangkok, at least, the effort has garnered enthusiasm. Phil Robertson, Chair of Democrats Abroad in Thailand, believes Obama's strategy reflects the candidate's beginnings as a community organiser in Chicago. "He realises the importance of organising," Robertson said. "In an era of razor-thin elections, every single vote centre counts, and Obama knows that he has to leave no stone unturned."

Austin, a Bangkok-based American who has designed trendy T-shirts with the slogan "Bangkok for Obama", sees the overseas vote as a rare unknown in a political process where nothing is left to chance. "All the votes in the 50 states have been X-rayed," he said, "but the big questions is Americans overseas. This is an area where the parties haven't done that much".

If this year's election results are as tightly contested as in 2000 and 2004, votes cast abroad could make a crucial difference in the final result. In 2000, some credited the overseas vote with tipping Florida - and the election - in Bush's favour, and in 2004, many believe overseas ballots that were not counted in swing states like Ohio could have won the election for John Kerry. Though exact figures are not available, estimates place the number of Americans abroad somewhere between 4.3 and 7.2 million, roughly the population of states like Massachusetts and Minnesota. The US embassy estimates that 20,000 of those expatriates currently reside in Thailand.

The overseas vote has also been a source of controversy, with as many as half of America's voters complaining that they received their ballot too late or not at all in the 2004 election. This year, Democrats Abroad are hoping to make the process easier, with such efforts as, a website that automatically fills out the form to request a ballot from overseas.

Chris Kimble, the Thailand Chair for Republicans Abroad, recognises that Democrats Abroad have done a great deal to raise their visibility. "In Thailand, Democrats are a lot more visible, they're a lot more organised, a lot more vocal than we are," he said. Kimble also expressed worry that votes from abroad might push the upcoming election in Obama's favour.

With only 20 per cent of Americans believing their country is "on the right track", the mood seems ripe for a Democratic takeover this November, and the desire for different leadership is particularly noticeable among Americans overseas. "We've been over here six years and I have travelled abroad a lot," said Henry, an American currently based in Thailand, "and in the last few years, because of Bush, the minute people realised I'm American, I've got a big public-relations job to do".

Phil Robertson went even further, describing what he sees as "a real popular revulsion towards a president who has denigrated and destroyed goodwill in the international community".

During the Democratic debate at the Roadhouse BBQ this past Saturday, the lively crowd of expatriates disagreed on several issues, whether timetables for Iraq or America's relationship with Israel, but their opinions converged when it came to their country's current president. One impassioned speaker, who wore a Super Bowl baseball cap and a Bluetooth earpiece throughout the discussion, received hearty applause after declaring that he wants "everybody in Bush's administration in jail". Another gentleman joined in, to emphasise a different, more restrained approach. "I think we should stay positive," he said. "Let's leave the bitter angry old man stuff to John McCain."

If Bush hating seems to have reached an all-time high for Americans overseas, so has Obama loving. Most Democrats in Bangkok seem to agree that unlike John Kerry, this year's presumptive nominee has voters excited about his candidacy. "The feeling of the election in 2004 was 'How can we stop Bush?'" Robertson recalled, "And in this election it has been 'How can we elect Obama'".

Moreover, aspects of Obama's heritage that have drawn scepticism from certain Americans back home - Obama lived in Indonesia for six years, is the son of a Muslim from Kenya and his middle name is Hussein - are seen as assets by Americans abroad. As a middle-aged Democrat named Betsy opined, "he's going to be a good American ambassador, because he looks more international. He looks more like the rest of the world."

Though it is not as organised and seemingly less optimistic than its Democratic counterpart, Republicans Abroad remains a potentially significant force for Obama's opponent John McCain. Chris Kimble, who described the Republican constituency overseas as "guys in the military and guys in business", sees these professions are part of the reason for Republicans Abroad's low profile. "Guys in business are busy," he explained, "so we don't do a good job getting organised". For voters like Kimble, the important election issues are financial, and in that respect, they will almost all vote for McCain. "The big concern among Republicans right now is the tax policies, and McCain is right on those issues," Kimble said.

The dynamic in Bangkok reflects the greater trend of this presidential election. Barack Obama has become the highly visible, rock-star candidate, while McCain looms quietly in the background. In the Thai capital, enthusiastic Obama supporters have made T-shirts, organised events, and created a fan group on the social networking site Facebook. When one searches the words McCain and Thailand on that same website, the only result is a group comparing the senator's face to a body part that cannot be named in this newspaper.

What does this all mean for the upcoming election? "I think there is a lot of time between now and November," said Kimble, "but it's going to be a tough year for Republicans".

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