Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

The Obama Presidency: The Case for the “T” Word

The older I get the more time seems to get away. What are now distant events still jostle around in my mind as recent memories. Time flies, as they say. I don’t know that it matters much whether one is having fun. Somehow, though, a two-term presidency can seem like an eternity, and not just for the loyal opposition. For me, Bush’s 8 years in office were interminable, but so, too, have been Obama’s 6 1/2. The modern president – thanks to the modern media – is one with whom we have daily contact. Like sand at the beach or morning fog in San Francisco, the president is virtually unavoidable.

Each president enjoys euphoric highs and experiences devastating lows; celebrates uplifting successes and suffers crushing defeat; and inevitably surfs the wave of fluctuating popularity, varying in degree dependent upon who is occupying the office. Obama’s presidency has proven no exception. At the time of this writing, however, President Obama resides at the crest of his popularity wave as a result of several recent high profile policy victories and Supreme Court decisions. Given the late stage of his presidency and considering his significant accomplishments, I feel compelled to explore the sacrosanct question: has the Obama presidency moved into the realm of the transformational?

The “T” word would have been unthinkable perhaps only months ago. Even many of my Democratic friends have lamented what in their view has been a weak presidency – one characterized by broken campaign promises, a feckless foreign policy that has seen America shrink from the world stage, an unwillingness to fight for domestic priorities, and, bluntly, a lack of the “change” we envisioned. To this, my simple reply is that the evidence does not support the claims. President Obama has fought for, and largely achieved, the policy priorities for which he campaigned.

Upon arriving in office, President Obama faced a financial and economic crisis the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression. With Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, the president was able to shepherd a comprehensive fiscal stimulus package totaling approximately $800 billion to passage. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (2009) directly invested in infrastructure, education, the health and energy sectors, provided federal tax incentives, and expanded unemployment benefits and other social welfare programs. While I would have preferred additional stimulus to address such a catastrophic downturn, the president squeezed as much blood from that Congressional turnip as was humanly possible.

The road to recovery from the Great Recession was long, uneven and often painful. Without the ARRA, though, the road might be one we still travel. Instead, an unemployment rate that ballooned to over 10% during the height of the recession has been trimmed to an impressive 5.3%. The economy is in the midst of 64 straight weeks of private sector job growth, adding a total of 12.8 million jobs during that span. The economy is expanding at its fastest rate in over a decade, which has helped slice the deficit by two-thirds since 2009. What’s more, the Dow is chugging smoothly along at around 18,000, roughly double the number when Obama took office. While wages are stagnant and there is undoubtedly more work to do, it would be difficult to reasonably make the argument that we are worse off than we were 4 (or 6 ½, in this case) years ago.

The crowning achievement of President Obama’s first term – and perhaps the measure by which history will most acutely judge him – was the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Every Democratic president since Harry S. Truman and his Fair Deal has attempted to pass universal health care. Famously, the Clinton Administration – led by first lady Hillary Clinton – made health care reform a chief policy initiative of its first term. Not only would that effort crash and burn, it paved the way for an electoral thrashing at the hands of the Republicans in the 1994 mid-terms. My point here is that passing health care reform is not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for a “weak” president. Adhering to his campaign promises, President Obama faced these headwinds head on and passed a universal health care bill without one single, solitary, stinking Republican vote in either the House or Senate. Weak, it is clear, he was not.

Even for advocates of the health care law, myself included, the performance of the policy has drastically exceeded expectations. In March 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the average number of uninsured during the period from January to September 2014 was reduced by 11.4 million compared to the average in 2010. In April 2015, Gallup concluded that the percentage of adults who were uninsured dropped from 18% in the third quarter of 2013 to 11.4% in the second quarter of 2015. The two primary goals of the health care law were to increase access and lower costs. Irrefutably, the number of uninsured persons has been greatly reduced, checking goal box #1. To put the icing on this legislative cake, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports that the estimated cost of the health care law is $142 billion, or 11 percent, less than originally predicted due primarily, and notably, to health insurance premiums rising more slowly. Thus, satisfying stated goal #2.

Significantly, the ACA has stood up to the scrutiny of the Land’s highest court. On June 28, 2012, deciding National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the ACA’s individual mandate as an exercise of Congress’s taxing power. Since the ruling, the law and its implementation have continued to face challenges in Congress and federal courts, and from some state governments, conservative advocacy groups, labor unions, and small business organizations. Just last month, in the case King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court provided the Obama administration, and the law, with a huge boost by affirming that the law’s federal subsidies to help individuals pay for health insurance are available in all states, not just in those which have set up state exchanges. Consequently, it is now highly likely that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, like it or not. Given the tumultuous history of health care reform in this country, that fact cannot be overstated as a prize achievement of the Obama years.

The foreign policy arena is where the president has garnered the most consternation from within his own party. As previously noted, there is a perception that the Obama Administration is feckless in foreign affairs, and has consequently caused the United States to lose critical standing and respect around the world. In addition to much of the progressive media, I have heard this sentiment anecdotally from several of my Democratic friends. I must admit that I am baffled by these criticisms. Did these folks pay any attention whatsoever to the 2008 campaign for president? If so, how are reasonable people surprised that an Obama Administration would pursue a more conciliatory foreign policy, one based on faith in diplomacy as the most rational way to resolve differences? The same folks who yearned for “change” and shouted in unison “yes we can” in 2008 are inexplicably skeptical, or downright dismissive, of the change that followed.

Let’s start with the most recent foreign policy achievement: the Iran nuclear deal. For years, Iran has been a rogue state, a pariah on the international stage. Iran has long been racing toward nuclear proliferation, promotes and thrives on regional instability, and is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Our policy of stiff and debilitating sanctions did not produce the intended results of altering Iran’s belligerent behavior. Indeed, it only seemed to exacerbate it. What it did do, on the other hand, was continue the vicious cycle of impoverishing its people. Then-candidate Obama made clear that a President Obama would be open to engaging the Iranians in direct talks to foster better understanding, increase trust and, ultimately, bring about a better reality for all involved – a policy proposal that was heretofore unfathomable. Clearly, the Obama Administration has done just that, culminated in the nuclear deal announced last week by the United States and its 5 world partners. Why, then, do so many supporters of the president seem so astonished by the deal?

It is important to note that neither the Republicans, nor anyone else, have proposed a viable alternative to this deal. Our skilled negotiators, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, were able to garner a great deal from the Iranians. The agreement delays Iran’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons for at least 10 years; it requires Tehran to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by 98 percent, disables the Arak facility from producing weapons-grade plutonium, reduces the number of centrifuges by two thirds, converts the Fordow facility into a research center, and allows for unprecedented intrusive inspections. Sure, Iran might cheat; perhaps they are likely to do so. But if they do, we will know, and we will have the time to act. That is more than we can now say. To me, this deal is infinitely superior to the status quo, which so many were willing to accept.

In other ways, I think the president has employed a robust and aggressive, yet measured, approach to national security. The dismantling of Al Qaeda and its leadership has been a signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama years. In addition to bin Laden, the leadership around the world has been decimated by strategic special operations missions and unmanned drone strikes. Mr. Obama avoided a boots on the ground war with Syria – opting instead for an agreement with the Assad regime, brokered by Russia, which saw the Syrian government destroy their vast chemical weapons stockpiles. Much to the dismay of the neoconservatives, Mr. Obama decided against ground support during the Libyan Civil War of 2011, instead supporting the opposition from the air, ultimately allowing for the capture and execution of Muammar Gaddafi. The president is displaying the same calculated restraint with respect to ISIS, the latest threat to United States interests around the world. While the hawks and neocons would prefer ground troops to combat ISIS, the Obama Administration is aggressively and systematically dismantling their capabilities in what promises to be a difficult and protracted fight.

Yet another watershed victory for the Obama Administration came just recently in the form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement – the sweeping trade and investment pact negotiated between the United States and 11 Pacific Rim nations. Congressional Democrats, led by high profile Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were vehemently and loudly opposed to this trade deal and proved to be a formidable thorn in Obama’s side. I am sure that some of the opposition is based on principle. I am guessing, however, that much of the opposition can be chalked up to politics back home as opposed to sound policy. In effect, trading prudent policy for votes (pun intended).

Admirably, Democratic politicians are keenly attuned to the American worker who have arguably been hurt by past trade deals. But it is no secret that those manufacturing jobs are not coming back, having been forever lost to technological advancements. These politicians are also rightly concerned with labor and environmental standards. And for me, that is the key point. It is wholly preferable for America to be writing these trade rules instead of the Chinese, which is who would have filled the void in our absence. It is also critical that we, as opposed to the Chinese, establish the rules for a postindustrial global economy, rules having to do with intellectual property, investment, antitrust and environmental protection. Additionally, my fellow liberals, another little secret: this trade deal will significantly improve the living standards of the poor in these Asian countries, Vietnam in particular. Isn’t this a worthy byproduct of the deal?

The president also catches significant grief from supporters concerning social issues, or his purported lack of attention and progress on these issues. Again, I don’t see it. During his administration, President Obama has ordered his Department of Defense to eliminate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” effectively bringing from the shadows countless LGBT Americans who honorably serve their country. Further, the president ordered his Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) when it appeared before the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Windsor in 2013. And, of course, the Obama Administration was outspoken, and indeed filed an amicus brief, in support of legalizing same-sex marriage in every state in connection with the recently decided case, Obergefell v. Hodges. On this particular issue, it is hard to imagine an administration doing more, or being a stronger and more vocal advocate and champion.

It is important to note that, outside of the TPP trade deal, President Obama has been faced with united, unrelenting, unprecedented and often nasty Republican opposition and obstruction. Compromise was thrown out the window seemingly on inauguration day, January 2009. Famously, now Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell callously and counterproductively pledged to make Obama a one term president. Failing that, the new strategy has been to prevent Obama from securing any policy victories of note. That is what makes the recent accomplishments all the more stunning and impressive. Due largely to Republican intransigence, Mr. Obama has been unable to accomplish much more in the areas of gun control (not for a lack of effort), comprehensive immigration reform (executive orders notwithstanding) and climate control. With Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress for Obama’s final push, these important issues, sadly, will have to be left to his successor.

Mr. Obama, as both a candidate and president, has been cautious to wade too deeply into American race relations. However, when he has spoken, he has done so with an eloquence, humanity and intelligence that has left a profound and lasting impact. From hosting the famous “beer summit” at the White House to bury the proverbial hatchet between Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley, to the powerful speech addressing the firestorm surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright in Philadelphia, to the moving eulogy delivered for Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney following the Charleston massacre in which the president led the congregation in Amazing Grace, President Obama has been at his most magnificent, unguarded and pure as a man, a leader, and a president. For this alone, his legacy will inarguably endure.

I will leave the way in which President Obama is viewed by posterity to the history books. Father time must work his magic several times over before we truly know how Obama performed as president. Fifty years hence, will Obamacare be viewed in the same positive light as Medicare and Social Security are now? Or will it have long since been dismantled? Will Obama and Iran be favorably compared to Reagan and the collapse of the Soviet Union or will the Iran nuclear deal be seen as the Great Appeasement in the mold of Hitler’s Germany? These questions will be long in the making, and neither I, nor anyone else, know the answers. But if the dominoes fall in President Obama’s favor, and I believe they are lined up to do just that, historians will write that he was not just a great president, but a transformational one.

July 25, 2015 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Climate Change, Democratic Party, Gun Control, Iran Nuclear Deal, Obamacare, President Obama, Race Relations, Republican Party, TPP Trade Deal | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Charleston, the Confederate Flag & Guns

Growing up in North Carolina, a stone’s throw away from the South Carolina border, I have been profoundly affected by last week’s heartbreaking events in Charleston. Of course, one need not be familiar with the geographical location of the tragedy to have been acutely touched by it. Indeed, the entire country has been deeply moved by the senseless slaughter of nine of our fellow citizens as they worshipped together at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.   Once again, we as a nation are left grieving for lives lost much too soon, and in a manner much too horrific, to fully and rationally comprehend.

This unthinkable act of barbarism has sparked outrage from every corner of the country – from the citizenry to our political leadership, irrespective of political and ideological stripe. Of course, this heinous crime did not occur in a vacuum; we now know that it was one motivated solely on the basis of race. The church, one of the oldest black congregations in the United States, was targeted as a result of its being historically associated with the civil rights movement, and its parishioners being principally African American. The confessed killer, Dylann Roof, is a young, Caucasian male whose repulsive manifesto clearly indicates that he possesses a hatred and abhorrence toward the black race so vile that he deemed it necessary to foster a race war in this country.

Remarkably and hearteningly, just the opposite seems to be happening. The victims’ families have lovingly and graciously (yet unfathomably, to my mind) forgiven Dylann’s wayward soul for savagely executing their loved ones. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, flanked by the state’s two Republican Senators, publicly called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds. Indeed, much of the public discourse following the shooting has revolved around this much maligned and rightly ridiculed symbol still used in parts of the deep South. Let me be clear: I am delighted to see this debate materialize, and seemingly moving toward a broad consensus that this divisive symbol should be removed from public grounds. I support such a move unequivocally and wholeheartedly.

I am, however, dismayed and concerned that the discussion surrounding the Confederate flag has largely dwarfed and muted any substantive debate with respect to gun control in this country. As divisive and painful as the Confederate flag certainly is, it did not brutally end the lives of the nine prayerful souls in that church. It did not massacre the defenseless children in Newtown, CT, Columbine High School, Blacksburg, VA, the unsuspecting theatre-goers in Aurora, or the countless victims on the streets of Chicago and throughout America on a daily basis. The flag is a symbol; the gun is the murder weapon. The former hurts feelings; the latter shatters lives. Shouldn’t this fact at the very least render gun control worthy of debate, just as the Confederate flag is and should be?

In a nod to full disclosure, I readily admit that I have never held, let alone fired, a gun in my life; and, frankly, I do not understand the fascination with them. Notwithstanding this fact, I grew up in the South, and have countless family members and friends who engage in legal hunting of various types throughout the year. While I do not quite understand the “sport” or engage in it myself, I adamantly support and respect the right of others to do so. I am certainly familiar enough with hunting to know that one does not need an automatic or semi-automatic weapon to kill a deer. A shotgun or rifle will do just fine. To the contrary, the weapons of choice for the oft-occurring mass murders – including Newton, Columbine, Blacksburg, Aurora and Charleston – are almost exclusively automatic or semi-automatic firearms. Banning such lethal weapons would not impinge on any Americans ability or right to legally hunt. This seems like an awfully good place to start.

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, and the divergent interpretations thereof, poses a significant hurdle in the fight to reign in gun violence. It is difficult to overcome the entrenched conviction held by gun advocates that the Founding Fathers granted, by way of the 2nd Amendment, the individual right to keep and bear arms. Many Constitutional scholars and historians disagree vehemently with the view that it was the Framers’ intent for each American to possess the right to keep and bear arms for personal protection. Given the historical context within which the Framers were writing, it is most reasonable to conclude that the intent was to enshrine a state’s right to maintain and train formal militia units which could provide protection against an oppressive federal government. England, of course, was barely in the rear view mirror at the time of writing. Moreover, I am not sure how else to logically interpret the “well-regulated militia” clause other than to mean the right to bear arms should only be given to these organized groups.

But even if it were their intention contemporaneously, it is highly implausible that they would have foreseen firearms capable of mass murder within the span of a few seconds, and, if so, would have sought to protect them. Much like the Founders, as brilliant as they irrefutably were, did not, in 1787, envision Americans flags being planted on the moon, the politics of climate change, the threat of nuclear war, an African American president, a woman on the ten dollar bill, iPhones replacing lighters at concerts, or endless selfies being annoyingly posted to Twitter and Facebook. Things change; our world evolves. Its inhabitants, ideally, evolve along with the changing world around them. And I believe that the genius of the Constitution, as a living document, is that it has the capability and flexibility to likewise evolve with societal changes. Justice Kennedy, in his majority opinion released just yesterday in Obergefell v. Hodges, alludes to this understanding of the Constitution: “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times…The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.” Of course, Kennedy is writing in support of the Constitution’s granting a fundamental right for same-sex couples to marry, but I would contend that his general point is applicable to our interpretation of the Second Amendment as well.

Accordingly, considering the current reality in which we live – one riddled with ubiquitous and widespread gun violence, it is beyond doubtful that the Framers would have sought to protect the individual right to bear semi- and automatic weapons within the framework of the US Constitution. To be blunt, this notion seems preposterous. Furthermore, given the undisputed brilliance of our Founders, it seems to me that they would have, if such was their intention, simply included in the Amendment the phrase “for the defense of themselves,” as was eloquently pointed out by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in his dissenting opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008). Why would such a clarifying phrase have been so clumsily omitted if it were the original intent?

Whatever the Framers’ intention, surely they would have expected our current leadership to possess the intelligence, independence and intestinal fortitude to adapt to our present reality. Surely they would not look kindly as politicians stick their collective heads in the sand, and hide behind an amendment written over 220 years ago – when slavery was legal, women could not vote and the Industrial Revolution was still in its infancy. Surely they would expect us, the people of this country, to engage in meaningful and reasonable debate to solve what is now clearly an epidemic, just as we seek to cure the maladies of cancer and poverty. Surely they would encourage us to act aggressively and expeditiously to remedy this stain on our culture. And, surely, for God’s sake, they would expect us to have the guts to stand up and confront the National Rifle Association, and its ferocious lobby.

The NRA argues, somehow seriously, that the solution to the gun violence epidemic is more guns. Really: a gun problem requires more guns? It is hard for me to fathom a more delusional and irrational solution. A doctor would not prescribe ice cream to someone fighting obesity, or cigarettes to a person suffering from emphysema. In their ideal world, all of us would be armed to the hilt in an effort to counteract the possibility (or certitude) of a deranged, gun-wielding psycho opening fire in the public square. If the NRA – and their allies – have their way, the new reality would be our constant intermingling with folks toting their guns to our schools, the grocery store, movie theaters, ball parks, churches, and any other public arena. This solution is one driven by paranoia and fear instead of addressing the problem. It is a resignation that the problem cannot be solved, so we might as well be prepared for the next, imminent tragedy lurking around every corner. It is reactionary, and speaks to the worst attributes of our nature. Is that the America in which we want to live and raise our children?

Ben Carson, a Republican presidential candidate, recently opined, “The heart of the matter is not guns, the heart of the matter is the heart.” Clever line and fair point; one I will cede. Obviously, it does, in fact, require a depraved, crazy and/or mentally ill person to use a gun for evil purposes. But I think it is safe to say that America does not have a monopoly on crazy people. I am guessing all countries have their fair share. All countries do not, however, suffer from consistent and pervasive gun violence.  Sadly, we stand alone in the civilized world in that dubious regard – as a country which tolerates such incomprehensible madness. My question is a simple one: for what? To this, Charleston deserves an answer.

June 27, 2015 Posted by | AME Church, Ben Carson, Charleston, Charleston Shooting, Confederate Flag, Gun Control, President Obama, South Carolina | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment