Interview with Ms. Aleisha Woodward, U.S. Consul-General to Perth

State Magazine was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to interview Aleisha Woodward, the U.S. Consul General to Perth. As part of her job as the U.S. Consul General to Perth, she is responsible for maintaining contact with senior Australia officials (both State and Federal), keeping the United States Embassy and Washington informed of any political, social and economic developments affecting U.S. interests, and representing the United States at public functions.

 UWA Politics Club President, Angus Duncan and Publications Officer, Amanda Robideau met with Ms Woodward to discuss the upcoming United States Presidential Election.


STATE: As an overview what have been the key issues of this election?

“Well I think the main one is the issue that fundamentally divides Republicans from Democrats – and that’s a difference what each party believes the role of the Federal Government should be, or how big the role of the Federal Government should be. In general, Democrats believe that the government needs to step in to get people to do the right thing, and the free-market isn’t going to solve all problems. Whereas Republicans believe the government is part of the problem, and if government would just step aside and let people get on with things, the free-market will be able to solve most problems.

And so I think you are seeing this played out in this election in many ways – I think that’s what is underlying the discussion of healthcare, in response to President Obama’s passing of the Affordable Healthcare Act. I don’t know if you noticed in the debates, one of the things that Governor Romney talked about was the fact that this issue should be left to the individual states. The Republicans in general, argue that the Federal Government should do as few things as possible, and that as many rights and responsibilities as possible should be reserved for the states. So it’s a difference in philosophy, and I think that’s similar to every Presidential Election for the last 50-60 years.

The big issue in every election is, of course, the economy. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. The unemployment figures came out last week – it’s dipped below 8% to 7.8%, but the economy is not doing as well as we would all like it to. So people are going to be looking at their pocketbook and saying “Am I better off now than I was four years ago?” That has a big impact; we call it the pocketbook vote. It has a huge impact on what people will vote for. ”


STATE: Is this really an election that will determine the future of America as Romney put it or is that just political spin?

“To some degree it’s hyperbole, but every election matters. If we didn’t believe that elections matter, we wouldn’t live in a democracy – we would find some other form of government. We believe that elections matter, and through choosing our leaders we shape the path that our country is going to take. I think every single election matters – whether it is the defining moment of America? I don’t know, fifty years someone will be able to determine that. One of the reasons that Governor Romney is talking in those terms is that American’s don’t have compulsory voting. You have to motivate your party members to actually get them to the polls and vote. So Romney has to motivate people and make them think it really matters for them to get in their cars, drive to the polling station and vote”.


STATE: What criticisms has President Obama had to deal with during this election?

“I think there are a number of people who have commented on this, the first is obviously the economy. The President has been the first to say that the economy has not recovered as quickly as we would have all liked. That is going to be one of the biggest things he is fighting against. If you look at the history of unemployment and favourability ratings – if President Obama wins, he wins with the worst statistics in living memory. He is, in some ways, an uphill battle. According to the polls, he seems to be doing okay.

Another thing that is going to be a challenge, especially for President Obama is motivating people to go vote. In 2008 we saw unprecedented turnout from groups that are traditionally underrepresented – young people and African Americans. It is going to be a challenge for the President to encourage them to get out and vote again. Perhaps a little bit of apathy has set back in. Back in 2008, the President was running as the ‘change candidate’, but you can’t be the change candidate when you are the incumbent. It’s a little bit more difficult to inspire people that things are going to change when you’re running as an incumbent on your record”.


STATE: Is voter turnout going to have an impact on the election? How does each party get people out to vote?

“I think there are a number of ways – a lot of phone calls are made, a lot of door knocking, a lot of reminding people that “Hey everyone, remember the election is November 6th”. With younger people there are rock concerts like Rock the Vote campaign, and many things like that. Voter turnout is a big deal. Traditionally lower voter turnout favours the Republican Party, because some of the most underrepresented groups are the young people and minorities that tend to vote for the Democratic Party. But both of them have to get in and inspire their people to vote. In the United States, voting day is on a Tuesday. The first Tuesday after the first Monday – it’s written in. A lot of people have asked me why they don’t change it to a Saturday or a Sunday? Because it’s written into the Constitution, and changing the Constitution isn’t an easy thing. The polls are open early in the morning, and they close relatively late in the evening. Employers are required to give time off to vote. You come back from lunch with a little ‘I Voted’ sticker. There’s an effort to make it socially valued if you do go and vote. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do.”


STATE: Turning to foreign policy, are we likely to see any drastic changes in American foreign policy under a Romney regime?

“No, in a word. I don’t think that there will be a dramatic difference. The saying has always been that ‘politics stops at the waters edge’. In the United States, politics are a domestic thing, but once you get to the waters edge, i.e. the coastline, it’s national interest. National interest is the same whether you are Republican or Democrat. Of course you’ll see a shift in areas of focus, a shift in some of the rhetoric and some of the programs, but it won’t fundamentally change our foreign policy because of our national interest will be the same regardless.

I don’t want it to sound like there will be no impact, because the President sets the agenda, chooses the Cabinet and the politically appointed leadership in every Executive department has an impact, but it’s not a black and white change”.


STATE: Medicare has been a hot topic this election, why do both of the major parties have such differing views on health care?

 “It is important to understand how we got here. My understanding is, that healthcare became tied to employment in the United States in World War II. There were caps on salaries that could be paid. So companies were looking for innovative ways to attract and retain quality workers, while working within these salary caps. So someone got this great idea of paying their health insurance. So from then on, health insurance has been tied to employment in the United States. Because we did have a reasonable system of health insurance for the vast majority of people, there was never a huge ground swell of support to nationalize healthcare as there is here in Australia.

If you watch the first Presidential Debate, they spoke about this to some degree. It gets back to the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats believe the government needs to step in to solve some problems, Republicans believe that if you leave it to the market it can figure it out, or in the issue of healthcare, it’s an issue for the states to decide. It gets back to the fundamental difference in philosophy”.


STATE: What have the Presidential Debates demonstrated to American voters?

“There is a lot of literature about ‘do the debates matter?’ ‘Do they have any impact on the election?’ Do debates win elections? Probably not. But it’s one of the few times that large sections of the American population gets to see the Presidential candidates unfiltered, for significant amounts of time. If you go to a campaign event, or see media coverage, it’s snippets or sound bites. You don’t get to see how they interact with someone they don’t agree with. In essence, it’s a ninety-minute job interview with the next candidate right there next to you. Sixty seven million American’s tuned into the first Presidential Debate – that’s 40% of the American population. I think that American’s like that opportunity to check out the candidates in their authentic, unscripted environment.

The thing that seems to have most of an impact from the debates isn’t what they say; it’s the non-verbal interaction. There was a debate, the Gore-Bush debate, where Gore continually interrupted Bush and at one point was seen to be rolling his eyes. I think he had a significant lead before the debate, but over the next few weeks it dissolved. People were able to see that non-verbal interaction and were turned off by it. I don’t think anyone would argue that there is a direct correlation between performance in the debate and the performance of the election, but it’s one of the few opportunities American’s get to see their candidates unfiltered and unscripted”.


STATE: Where are the key battle states?

“This year there are a number of them, but based on the recent polling, it looks like Ohio is no longer in the swinging-state category. It looks like Colorado is going to be a big one – Iowa, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. This is going to be where the election is going to be decided.


STATE: What have been some of the highlights of the times you have gone to vote on Election Day?

“Actually, I have only been in the United States for one Presidential Election. Since I have been able to vote, I have been outside of the United States for the vast majority of the elections – I vote by mail. It was only in 2008 that I was able to go down to my polling station. My friends thought I was weird because I was so excited, but it was nice to be there and get my little sticker. Of course, a lot of the impetus behind the American Revolution was the fact that we didn’t get the opportunity to vote in elections for the British Parliament. So it’s always been a huge emphasis in the United States to make voting available for everybody. Voting by mail, absentee ballots, has always been an integral part of the American election process.

You register with your county, because you don’t just vote for President for Vice President, but also your House of Representatives Member. A third of the people are voting for their Senate member, half are voting for their Governor, most people are voting for their State Legislator, all the way down to things like the Supreme Court Justice or the Public Utility District Commissioner. These are all the things that I am supposed to vote on. To be honest, I don’t stay very well abreast of a lot of local issues, so I end up voting just on statewide or Federal issues. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into Election Day that a lot of people don’t realize.


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