southernbeau

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.

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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

Hillary Rodham Clinton – La Reine Soleil

Hillary Clinton confirmed last week what breathing folks have known since she lost the 2008 Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in spectacularly stunning fashion: she is running for president again in 2016. High drama, this was not. It did not approach the theatrics surrounding another prominent decision – The Decision – Lebron James’ 2010 made-for-television pronouncement that he was bolting his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the greener (and far warmer) pastures of Miami. To the contrary, the pre-recorded video formally announcing Clinton’s candidacy was notable for its humility and for being remarkably understated, lacking the flair and bravado of her ’08 leap of faith (and certainly that of Lebron’s). The more subdued, and less entitled, approach this time around is ultimately wise, in my view. As was the now famous choice to lunch at Chipotle – particularly the bold move to add guacamole to her chicken burrito bowl (at extra cost, no less) – which must be popular with voters, and many non-voters, given the frustratingly long lines at every store I’ve frequented circa lunch or dinner time.

In this campaign, Hillary – first name sufficing – wields the proverbial double-edged sword: name recognition. Unlike most other candidates, Hillary Clinton does not need an introduction to the American people. We know her, and intimately. We watched as she transformed the role of first lady, for better or worse, during the presidency of her husband. We continued to watch as she represented New Yorkers, a newly-minted resident of the state herself, as their junior senator for 8 years in the United States Congress. We came along for the often bumpy ride as she joined, perhaps surprisingly, President Obama’s “Team of Rivals” cabinet – leading the State Department, and presenting the face of American foreign policy to the world, during the president’s first term. Grass, it’s safe to say, does not grow under Mrs. Clinton’s pumps-clad feet.

I write this column to neither proclaim my support for Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy nor deny it. It is far too early for that, despite the ridiculously premature endorsements she, and others, have already received. I do, however, write in support of her running – whatever the outcome. On its face, this is not a particularly controversial position to take. Since Mrs. Clinton declared her candidacy, however, I have read and heard copious commentary lamenting the fact that there could be, God forbid, another Clinton in the White House. Putting an exclamation point on the hyperbole, one commentator even suggested that we must be living in 18th century France or some other European-style monarchy. As if Hillary is a modern day Louis XIV – our very own la reine soleil.

What comes next, I presume, will be more controversial. It is this: I believe the American people will, or won’t, elect Hillary Clinton the next president of the United States irrespective of the fact that her husband previously served in the same capacity. Further, I submit that Bill’s being president – not Bill himself – will effectively play no vital role in Hillary’s effort to do the same. Let me be clear: Bill Clinton’s acute political acumen, general intelligence and unique ability to communicate policy in layman’s terms – he was, after all, dubbed the Secretary of Explaining Stuff during President Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012 – will be an invaluable asset for Hillary. However, if Hillary Clinton is hauling her vast pant-suit collection to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January 2017, it will be at the behest of the American electorate. There will have been no coronation. Her surname will not have been relevant. She will have earned the right to live there, and decorate accordingly, on her own merits.

Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton are, obviously, two different people. Though married, I am certain that there are policy differences which exist between them, often dramatically so. My own observations are that Hillary, for example, is more hawkish from a foreign policy standpoint. Moreover, Hillary seems more comfortable addressing foreign policy issues, while Bill seems far more knowledgeable about – and interested in – the nuances and intricacies of economic policy. ’08 Hillary competed with then-Senator Obama in the primary to determine which candidate was more virulently anti-trade, even though President Clinton famously (or infamously, depending upon your point of view) signed NAFTA. Some political observers view Hillary as more ideological, Bill more pragmatic.  The list, I’m sure, goes on.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not so, this same election will see yet another Bush run for the presidency as well. I feel the same way concerning Jeb’s campaign for president as I do Hillary’s. Jeb should not suffer, or gain, from the previous presidencies of his father and brother. Simply put, he is not them. In a recent interview with Politico, George W. Bush candidly surmised that he would pose an obstacle to Jeb’s candidacy. While likely true, he should not be. What is to say that Jeb Bush would not be a far better president than his brother? Or far worse, for that matter?

As Governor of Florida, Jeb was well-known to be intensely interested and involved in the minutia of policymaking. He took great pains to understand the nuances of policy about which he had to make decisions. Nuanced is not a term with which his brother would likely be mistaken. Further, Jeb is widely considered to be more intellectual and serious-minded relative to his brother. Undoubtedly, Jeb’s life experiences are divergent from that of George’s, and certainly those of his father’s. Consequently, it could very well be that his worldview is different as well.

Most Americans identify (read: stigmatize) George W. Bush with his 2003 decision to invade Iraq based largely on the erroneous conclusion that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. But who is to say that Jeb, considering the same objective facts, would have come to the same conclusion? Accordingly, this should not be held as an electoral albatross around Jeb’s neck. Admittedly, I have long been a big fan of Bill Clinton, but this truth would never form the basis for my supporting his wife for president. Nor should the inverse be true. Likewise, I am hopeful that George Bush supporters (junior or senior) do not plan to vote for Jeb based on that reason alone. Or vice versa.

Furthermore, I plainly reject the notion of “two for one” concerning a Hillary Clinton presidency. I do not believe that a First Man Bill Clinton will act as a quasi co-president, nor should he. That being said, I am not naïve enough to believe that Bill would have no influence on a Hillary presidency. Of course, to some degree, he would. Just as George W. and/or George H. W. might have some influence on a Jeb presidency. The effect, though, would be miniscule as compared to the advisers they hire and with which they associate.

In my view, then, instead of fretting over the prospects of another Clinton or Bush occupying the White House, it would be far more useful to focus on Hillary, Jeb, their associates, their advisers, their policies, their qualifications and their experiences. Oh, and their challengers. There is a nasty little rumor that there might be other candidates who dare to join the race – carelessly and rudely jeopardizing our bid for an American monarchy. And our very own la reine soleil.

April 24, 2015 Posted by | 2016 Presidential Election, Bill Clinton, Democratic Party, Democratic Primary, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dean Smith, Basketball & Me

Growing up in North Carolina, along Tobacco Road, I could hardly help but become a life-long and ardent fan of the game of basketball. ACC basketball, in particular, was etched into my soul long before I was even aware. My childhood pictures bear the proof – me dressed from head to toe by mom in Tar Heels garb, presumably against my will. From a national perspective, North Carolina – along with Kentucky and Indiana – is known in large measure due to its sustained excellence in the sport. In addition to UNC – Duke, NC State, Wake Forest, Davidson and Charlotte have all enjoyed varying degrees of success on the national level.

When I became old enough to make my own fashion decisions, basketball-related attire did not fade from, and indeed still dominated, my wardrobe. After being introduced to most sports by my father, I quickly gravitated to basketball as my true love. Being a baseball man, this might have dismayed my dad to a certain extent; but, if so, he never let on. Many a night, we would shoot hoops in our paved driveway long after the Carolina blue skies had faded to dark. Supper, often times, would have to wait, despite mom’s objections. Put simply, I was hooked, and over time, wasn’t half bad. In fact, in our neighborhood, I respectfully (but not so humbly) submit that my jump shot was the purest of them all.

To further amplify the significance of ACC basketball in North Carolina, I can remember my teachers in school being permitted to tune the TV to the ACC Tournament on the Friday that it began. (In those days, before conference expansion, the tournament did not begin in earnest until Friday.) That same day, I would race home from school to watch the afternoon and night games with my dad. The weekend of the ACC Tournament – serving as the capstone to the conference season and a precursor to the Big Dance – was always a magical one, win or lose. That weekend has produced highlights from some of the sport’s most prominent names – including Michael Jordan, David Thompson, Ralph Sampson, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Tim Duncan, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter, to name a scant few.

To me, however, ACC basketball always revolved around one central figure: Dean Smith. From very early on, I remember being awestruck by the professional way in which he marched his troops into battle. There always seemed to be such order and formality. The sense of purpose was palpable. Churchillian, no doubt. Watching Coach Smith lead his team in a game was like watching a great conductor direct his orchestra. Precision. Composure. Incredible power, yet supreme control. Coach Smith’s teams seemed to be just that – a team – moving together as if on a string, of which Smith was the master puppeteer. But above all this, there was a grace, humility and poignancy to his leadership that seemed to command the utmost respect from his players.

Coach Smith’s accomplishments speak for themselves – 879 victories, 17 ACC Regular Season Championships, 13 ACC Tournament Championships, 11 Final Fours, 2 National Championships. But this was simply basketball – a game, after all. Much later in life, I would learn that Dean Smith was an even taller figure in the game of life. Most of the stories are well known and documented, because Smith was unafraid, and unapologetic, to publicly serve as an agent for social change. Smith helped Howard Lee, a black graduate student, purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood in Chapel Hill. Interestingly, Lee would be elected Mayor of Chapel Hill three years later, and go on to become a NC Senator. In the late 1960’s, a difficult time in the South to be sure, Smith promoted desegregation by recruiting the first black athlete, Charlie Scott, to UNC, and would later take his black players to lunch at white-only establishments.

Smith was so adamantly against the death penalty that he made frequent trips to North Carolina death row, often befriending the inmates. Occasionally, he would take his teams to visit these hardened folks as well. Famously, it was reported that he got into a heated discussion with then-Governor Jim Hunt – otherwise a friend and political ally – in connection with his decision to deny a stay of the execution of a particular death row inmate. Smith argued, allegedly rather loudly, that not only was Governor Hunt a murderer, but so too was Smith himself, by association as a citizen of the State.

Publicly and bravely, Smith fought against nuclear disarmament during the Cold War when such a position was politically untenable. My guess is that these very public examples represent only a small fraction of Smith’s efforts to influence social policy, many of which were surreptitious and away from the spotlight. And though Smith’s positions were not always popular – and they often weren’t – they were, in his view, the right thing to do. Principled, above all else.

Coach Smith’s quick wit, extraordinary recall and elephantine memory are legendary; his fierce loyalty unequivocal and unquestioned. Since his death last week, the glowing tributes from former players – each seemingly with their own anecdote – paint the same picture of a man who cared deeply about each individual he came across, their lives and their livelihood, long after the ball stopped bouncing and the glare of the gym lights dimmed. By all accounts, this fatherly concern and care was delivered in equal parts whether the recipient was a family member, friend, former player, manager, ball boy, janitor, or someone Smith simply met on the street. And for this, Smith enjoyed, in return, the unbending loyalty from his former players, colleagues, and mere acquaintances. Listening to and reading the various stories this past week, it struck me that the deep feelings for Smith seemed to surpass loyalty and fondness; it was sheer reverence.

I certainly do not mean to speak of Dean Smith as if he were a deity. He, after all, would be the first to acknowledge that he was far from perfect. But for a boy, a basketball fan, growing up in North Carolina, along Tobacco Road, he was pretty darn close.

February 13, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The South Shall Rise Again – If We Fight For It

In contrast to many of my friends and colleagues, I was far from disconsolate immediately following the elections earlier this month. There is no shame, I figured, in losing an election from time to time, and, quite often, outside forces – macroeconomic factors, events in foreign countries, unforeseen domestic occurrences, etc. – can render a political party helpless at a particular point in history. Furthermore, it is well documented that the party of the sitting president most often loses seats in Congress in off-year elections, especially in the sixth year of a presidency. Unlike some, maybe most, I did not view the Republican wave as either a repudiation of Democratic principles or wholesale approval of Republican ones.

After all, where minimum wage increases were on the ballot (a Democratic policy priority), each referendum passed with flying colors. What’s more, it was four conservative states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – joining Illinois in supporting wage hikes while at the same time largely supporting Republicans for office in those same states. Put simply (and forgiving the schizophrenia), the elections were more a measure of the national political climate than policy preferences.

The more I delved into the results, however, the more unsettling the picture became. Let’s start with my home state: North Carolina. Admittedly, it was difficult to watch Sen. Kay Hagan lose her seat, but I was somewhat heartened that North Carolina provided such a close race despite the toxic political environment for Democrats, and despite watching other Democrats lose far worse in other states (often bluer ones).  Unfortunately, however, the “heartened” part of me quickly dampened in the knowledge that someone in the mold of Thom Tillis remains electable in North Carolina.

I am not necessarily convinced that Kay Hagan has been a particularly effective freshman senator, but I do know that Thom Tillis is unapologetically regressive (not conservative), in the worst sense of the word, and was not, in my view, a viable alternative.  It was certainly a tough pill to swallow for those who participated in the various “Moral Monday” demonstrations specifically, but also for other North Carolinians who more generally lamented the way in which Tillis steered North Carolina back in time as Speaker of the North Carolina legislature.

Head due south from North Carolina down I-85, and the picture only grows bleaker.  In the Deep South, the Democratic Party is dying a slow and painful death, which has led many national observers to suggest that the Democrats give up on the South entirely. The statistics are stunning and unavoidable. According to the Associated Press, “South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas will not send a single white Democrat to Congress, if Mary Landrieu loses her runoff. The only Democrats in the House from Deep South states will be African-Americans.” In Mississippi in the 2012 election, 96 percent of blacks voted for the Democratic presidential ticket, while 89 percent of whites voted for the Republican ticket.  Separating ourselves into homogenous voting blocs is terrible for democracy, but even worse for the country. What does it say about our sameness as Americans?

Most cynics point to race as being the predominant factor contributing to this political phenomenon. There is some statistical evidence to support this contention. In March, Gallup reported, “Whites have become increasingly Republican, moving from an average 4.1-point Republican advantage under Clinton to an average 9.5-point advantage under Obama.” While acknowledging that race is a factor for some, I do not believe that it is the deciding factor for most. Though white, Hillary Clinton will not be winning any of these Deep South states, including Arkansas, in 2016. If recent trends hold, however, Ms. Clinton will do very well in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota – where Mr. Obama won quite handily in both 2008 and 2012. So what is the problem?

I believe the Democrats’ problems in the Deep South stem primarily from a lack of, or ineffective, communication and effort. Much like the Republican Party largely writes off the non-white vote, the Democratic Party has given up on Southern whites. They do so at their own political peril. Can the Democrats continue to win the White House without support in the Deep South? Obviously, yes; they have done so the past two elections (excluding, of course, North Carolina and Virginia from the Deep South), and by fairly healthy margins. But electoral politics shouldn’t be the sole driver of who a political party tries to reach.

Based on my experience, I would contend that Southern whites’ aversion to the Democratic Party is less about race and more about culture. I believe southern voters are uncomfortable being associated politically with voters in the Northeast and on the West Coast, whom they view as elitist and quacky. This might sound trite to some, but having grown up in the South, I can attest to the stigma that folks in these parts of the country possess in the eyes of southerners. Moreover, southerners feel as though Democrats, and liberals generally, talk down to them as somehow being inferior. Having spent the past 7 years in the North, I can attest that they are often right to feel this way.

The truth is, folks in the South care about the exact same issues as folks throughout America – the Northeast and West Coast included. They need a good (and fair) paying job, affordable healthcare, good schools for their kids to attend, and, yes, government to be there when adversity strikes. Traditionally, Democrats win on these kitchen table issues. We can win again, in the South, if we can articulate these values in a clear, coherent and persuasive way. But even more importantly, we must show the persistence, perseverance and, candidly, the care to take the fight to the people in the Deep South.

Finally, returning to the suggestion, as some national observers have espoused, that Democrats not waste their time and energies attracting white voters in the South. Perhaps I am biased, or even blinded, by my southern roots, but I emphatically contend that white voters in the South are worth the fight. These are decent, smart, hard-working people (not just my family and friends!) who are fully capable of being persuaded by a transformative message, if it resonates. The damage done is considerable, but not insurmountable. The odds are great, but the cause worthy. The South shall rise again – if we fight for it. And there ain’t nothing wrong with some BBQ and iced tea for our troubles along the way.

November 21, 2014 Posted by | 2014 Elections, Democratic Party, Obama, Politics, South | , , , | 1 Comment

Is Obama In Troubled Waters?

After spending valuable family time vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard and staying ahead of the destructive Irene, Barack Obama returns to Washington, DC this week amidst a campaign for his job that has long begun.  With little over a year until voters decide his fate regarding a second-term, it is high time that Obama join the fight.  Wounded by a stubborn economy, a gyrating stock market and high unemployment, Obama has lost his swagger, that typical lift in his voice.  Not surprisingly, I have read several recent columns that suggest President Obama has virtually no chance of winning re-election.  This assessment may well be accurate unless Obama can clearly and coherently delineate to the American people his impressive successes – contrary to popular belief, there have been many – along with a cogent plan to resuscitate the flailing economy and bring down unemployment.  By doing this, I believe that Obama can all but assure himself of a second-term.

President Obama – and his communications team – should focus on two things with respect to his messaging plan during the upcoming campaign.  First, Obama should portray himself as an executive whose policies, with few exceptions, are supported by a majority of the American public, and are only opposed by Republicans who are beholden to the Tea Party and other fringe elements.  I often read that Obama is a radical and – even more outlandishly – the most liberal president America has ever seen.  For any objective observer, of course, this is ridiculous non-sense.  Many Republican presidents have led a more left-leaning government than has Obama – Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt not the least of which among them.  As president, he’s been a sober, cautious, tongue-shackled realist — a moderate Republican of the pre-Tea Party era.  As such, Obama’s policies have pretty much split the center.

When the Obama Administration reached a debt deal with Congress recently to make a dent in the national deficit, this was only the beginning of a much broader effort because only a small dent in the deficit does this deal make.  Consequently, President Obama has continued to suggest that revenues should be sought by closing tax loopholes coupled with returning the wealthy to Clinton and Reagan-era tax rates.  In fact, he has suggested extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class.  Tax cuts for wage-earners, but not for millionaires and billionaires, have deep, bipartisan support across the land, sensibly and eloquently articulated by billionaire investor Warren Buffet recently in the New York Times, who pointed to the absurdity of his secretary paying a higher tax rate than he.  If Obama can communicate this issue smartly and deftly, the Republicans running for president who collectively said that they would raise taxes under no circumstances even given $10 in spending cuts to every $1 in revenue will wish they had never made such a rigid pledge to extremism.  Take the fight to them, Mr. President, and make the Republicans defend the politics of gross  economic inequality.

Another fallacy that seems to haunt the Obama Administration is the assertion that the health care bill is a radical one.  Let’s be clear: it is not, and not by a long shot.  It falls far short of being a government-controlled program in the mold of most other civilized nations.  If they so choose, most Americans can keep their trusted private coverage.  The so-called individual mandate — requiring everyone to have at least some coverage — grew out of Republican think tanks, and, of course, was famously institutionalized in Massachusetts by Republican candidate Mitt Romney.  Again, Obama should take this fight directly to the Republicans who so readily criticize him for having the audacity to do something about the dire health care situation.   Approximately 50 million Americans live with no health care at all.  If that’s the status quo that Republicans are willing to accept, then Obama should make them own the injustice, highlighting Republican candidate Rick Perry’s Texas, where one in four citizens are without this basic human right, which the rest of the industrial world enjoys.

President Obama should also speak with clarity about his significant successes in foreign policy which have far surpassed those of President Bush.  The obvious success to which the president can point is his resolute determination to bring Osama bin Laden to justice; and incidentally, his brave decision to authorize the stealth attack which took the life of the world’s most wanted terrorist.  Now comes the news today that on August 22 a drone attack killed al Qaeda’s #2 in command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman.  Those same drone attacks for which Obama has been so roundly criticized from both the left and the right.  According to the Washington Post, al- Rahman was bin Laden’s channel to the world.  They talked about everything including strategy, personnel, operations and political setbacks.  Whatever thread still held al-Qaeda together passed from bin Laden through to Rahman.  President Obama has arguably made more progress against al-Qaeda in his short time in office than President Bush in his eight years. 

Perhaps President Obama has been most criticized by Republicans and Democrats alike regarding his policy toward Libya.  Liberals were disappointed that Obama was engaging America in yet another military engagement at all.  Republicans chided the president for not utilizing the full force of the American military to dispose of Qaddafi.  Instead, Obama decided to encourage the rebels in their revolutionary efforts and provided unwavering support for NATO intervention in Libya.  But most importantly from a strategic standpoint, Obama took care not to make America the face of the intervention (the bombings), thus the operation garnered broad world support including from other Arab nations.  As a result, the Libyan rebels were made to be the heroes and America wasn’t viewed as the enemy by the world at large.  This was the brilliance of the Obama strategy and the key difference between the Bush Doctrine and that of Obama.  

The Republicans, however, were in no mood to give the president any credit whatsoever for the major success in Libya.  Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina penned a letter last week in which they say the following:  “Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Qaddafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower.”  I suppose Senator McCain and Senator Graham have already forgotten how utterly ineffective this same approach proved to be in Iraq and Afghanistan.  An amnesia diagnosis is unlikely; I, on the other hand, detect a really bad case of sour grapes.  Either way, Obama should take this success directly to the American people and allow them to decide the preferable approach in foreign policy.  For me, it’s simple: it’s hard to argue with success.

The second tack for the Obama campaign is a simple one – highlight the lunacy of the opposition.  I will not use this space to once again argue against Republican policies that are, at least on some level, defensible.  I can understand that Republicans want smaller government (even if it means worse government) and lower taxes (even if it means an unequal tax structure).  Of course President Obama will differentiate himself from the Republicans from a policy standpoint on these issues.  But he should also address with the American people the issues by which the Republicans are simply fanatical.  For instance, the leading Republicans who are vying to take Obama’s job continually deny the existence of basic science, scoffing at everything from evolution to the global consensus on climate change.  Will they take on gravity next?   In the same week that scientists announced the discovery of fossils 3.4 billion years old, evidence of explosive growth of early life through evolution, Rick Perry referred to evolution as “a theory that’s out there.”  A theory?  Perhaps he still believes the Earth is flat and is the center of the universe.  Those were theories.

On social issues, most of the Republican candidates want to amend the constitution to take away rights from gays and pregnant women.  What’s more, in his book Rick Perry suggests that we eliminate the seventeenth amendment which grants American citizens the right to directly elect their senators.  And, of course, Perry famously suggested that the state he serves as governor, Texas, secede from the Union.   Furthermore, sensible business leaders are working with the Federal Reserve to help cure what ills a sick global economy.  Yet one leading Republican candidate, Ron Paul, wants to abolish the central bank.  Another, my favorite (as you know by now) Rick Perry, has threatened physical harm of some vague sort against the chairman, Ben Bernanke.  These types of irrational, irresponsible and somewhat strange positions should be used by the Obama campaign to their advantage.  I doubt the majority of the American people are going to give much credence to a candidate that can’t tell fact from fiction.

Undoubtedly, President Obama will face an incredibly difficult fight for his job over the next year and change.  And maybe I’m more optimistic about his chances than most, but I truly believe that the empirical evidence points to substantive successes for the Obama campaign to tout.  Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Clinton attempted to comprehensively reform our dysfunctional health care system.  Obama did it.  President Reagan tried to oust Qaddafi as Libya’s cruel dictator.  Obama did it.  President Bush claimed that he wanted to capture Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.”  Obama did it.  Obama repealed the archaic “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy, appointed two female Supreme Court justices, passed an important financial reform bill, a stimulus bill and compromised with Republicans to reduce the deficit.  Yes, admittedly, he has made mistakes and should focus intensely on job creation.  Yet given the circumstances present when he assumed office, President Obama deserves a second-term and he will get it if he can communicate his successes to the American people while highlighting the rigid ideology and irrationality of his Republican contenders.  The president, in my view, has all the cards.  The question now is how effectively he can play his hand.

August 29, 2011 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Libya, Obama, Politics, Republican Party, Rick Perry | , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Pragmatic Centrist

Over the last week, liberal politicians and commentators took to the airwaves and op-ed pages to criticize the debt deal that Congress reached in conjunction with the administration.  But their collective vitriol was directed not at the Tea Party – or even the Republicans –  but rather at Barack Obama, who they concluded had failed as a president because of his persistent tendency to compromise.  Actually, this has been a recurring theme ever since Obama took office.

As the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait brilliantly points out, there is an illogical liberal fantasy that if only the president would give a stirring speech, he would sweep the country along with the sheer power of his prose.  In this view, writes Chait, “Every known impediment to the legislative process – special interest lobbying, the filibuster, macroeconomic conditions, not to mention certain settled beliefs of public opinion – are but tiny stick huts trembling in the face of the atomic bomb of the presidential speech.”  In this way, many of my liberal friends are just as irrational, petty and thoughtless as their conservative counterparts.

The disappointment over the debt deal is just the latest episode of liberal bewilderment regarding Obama.  Liberals now view the president as a parent might view a rogue child: I can hear my mother now, “At what point did that boy go so wrong?  And to think…such promise…”  The disdain for Obama amongst some liberal circles is almost palpable.  “I have no idea what Barack Obama … believes on virtually any issue,” Drew Westen writes in the New York Times, confused over Obama’s tendency to take “balanced” positions. Westen hints that his professional experience – he is a psychologist – suggests deep, traumatic causes for Obama’s disease.  I have a suggestion for Mr. Westen:  grow up already!

Let me offer a simpler explanation: Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good.  Yes, it is important to stand on principle; but it is more important to ultimately reach a deal that moves the country forward.  That is what leadership is all about.  President Obama doesn’t have the luxury to stand in the corner and whine about not getting his way as the Tea Party has so conveniently perfected.

Obama passed a large stimulus package within weeks of taking office. Perhaps, and in my opinion, it should have been bigger, but despite a Democratic House and Senate, it passed by only one vote.  He signed into law an unprecedented expansion of regulations in the financial-services industry, though one that did not break up the large banks.  He enacted universal health care, through a complex program modeled after Mitt Romney’s plan in Massachusetts.  And he has advocated a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines tax increases with spending cuts.

Maybe he believes in all these things.  But it’s far more likely he understands that with a budget deficit of 10% of GDP, the second highest in the industrialized world, and a debt that will rise to almost 100% of GDP in a few years, we cannot cavalierly spend another few trillion dollars in the hopes that will jump-start the economy.  Perhaps he believes that while banks need better regulations, America also needs a vibrant banking system, and that in a globalized economy, constraining American banks will only ensure that the world’s largest global financial institutions will be British, German, Swiss and Chinese.

He might understand that Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are smart people who, in long careers in public service, got some things wrong but also got many things right. Perhaps he understands that getting entitlement costs under control is in fact a crucial part of stabilizing our fiscal situation, and that we need both tax increases and spending cuts – cuts that are smaller than they appear because they all start with the 2010 budget, which was boosted by the stimulus.

In today’s New York Times, Jackie Calmes wrote an extremely revealing piece detailing the quickly increasing number of Republican economists who have to come to largely disagree with the current Republican leadership’s economic policy.  Calmes cites two in particular, Martin Feldstein, an economic adviser to President Ronald Reagan, and Henry M. Paulson Jr., Treasury secretary to President George W. Bush, who have publicly expressed their position that the most prudent and effective debt deal would have coupled deep spending cuts with revenue increases.

Several conservative economists have gone so far as to suggest that – at least in the short term – the flailing economy is in need of additional stimulus.  They contend that removing so much energy (spending) from the economy while it remains in such a fragile state will inevitably make the recovery a more painful and prolonged process.  I tend to subscribe to this view.  If I had my way, I would pass a targeted stimulus package that focuses on infrastructure and clean energy spending which would undoubtedly create copious and much needed jobs.  But with the Republicans in control of the House of Representatives, I recognize that any new stimulus spending is a political non-starter.

In their Iowa Debate last Thursday evening, the eight contenders for the Republican nomination were careful not to offend the Tea Party and its “no new revenues” pledge under any circumstances.  When asked who would reject a long-term debt reduction package that had $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue increases, all eight raised their obedient hands.  While I recognize and appreciate that the Republicans currently competing for the nomination are largely required to act silly so as to impress the rather unimpressive group of Republican primary voters, they certainly aren’t helping to shape the debate from a policy perspective.  Enlightening, they are not.  

In the end, then, was the “compromise” that produced a debt deal a good one?  No, not really.  I wasn’t particularly pleased that revenues weren’t part of a more balanced package.  I don’t believe the president was satisfied either.  But I also believe that Obama was left with literally no other viable options.  President Obama could have held tight to principle and refused to sign the deal while simultaneously watching the country default on its debt for the first time in history on his watch.  Instead, he signed the bill comforted by the knowledge that he does, indeed, live to fight another day.  It was the pragmatic route to take.  You can even call it centrist if you like.  For now, I’ll just call it the right thing to do.

August 13, 2011 Posted by | Budget Deficit, Debt Ceiling, Obama, Politics, Republican Party | , , , , , | 2 Comments