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

The Hand Iowans Were Dealt

It’s easy to complain about the Iowa caucuses – easy and completely justifiable. Iowa’s caucus-goers have given us the presidency of Jimmy Carter, lent credibility to Pat Robertson’s political ambitions and created a permanent constituency for ethanol subsidies among Democrats and Republicans alike. As friendly and civic-minded as Iowans may be, there’s no reason why a low-turnout contest in a small, rural state should play such an outsize role in every presidential nominating process.

But in the wake of Tuesday night’s Romney-Santorum photo finish and Ron Paul’s strong third-place showing, it must be said that this time around Iowans have discharged their responsibility impressively. Presented with the weakest presidential field of any major party in a generation, they made the best of a bad situation, punching the three most deserving tickets without handing any of them a decisive victory.  It’s as if Iowa collectively screamed, “this year, all you other states have to help us put lipstick on this pig!”

This isn’t what you’ll hear from the many disappointed conservatives who dislike all of Iowa’s top finishers – Romney because he’s too moderate, boring and phony, Paul because he’s too libertarian and anti-interventionist, and Santorum for all sorts of reasons (his aggrieved personality, his lack of electability, the taint of Bush-era “big government conservatism,” to name three). But on substance and strategy alike, Iowa’s top three deserved their joint quasi-victory, and the losers likewise deserved their plight.

This was particularly true of Rick Perry, who managed to spend $6 million advertising in Iowa without laying a glove on his competition, and whose reputation as a stud campaigner evaporated in the dead air of his atrocious debate performances. But Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich also squandered significant opportunities: Bachmann by never finding a message more compelling than her promise to make Barack Obama a one-term president, and Gingrich by wallowing in the mix of grandiosity and disorganization that his former colleagues in Congress remember all too well.

At one time or another, all three of these also-rans – as well as Herman Cain, lest we forget – seemed well-positioned to win the caucuses. In ultimately rejecting their candidacies, Iowans rejected a cascade of gimmicky tax plans, flagrant pandering (Gingrich’s denunciation of “big city attacks” on ethanol subsidies took the cake), and desperate appeals to identity politics. And they rejected, as well, the attempt to dress up in the mantle of True Conservatism records that were either threadbare or checkered by cronyism and corruption.

It’s not that Romney, Santorum and Paul ran campaigns free of gimmicks or pandering or that they boast untainted conservative records. And do your best here to separate the fact that it is slightly unnerving that Rick Santorum could fare so well in any election – even if it is the Republican caucuses in Iowa!  But at least Santorum and Paul had a message that set them apart from the rest of the field.

For all the talk about how Santorum’s social conservatism was ill-suited to a campaign focused on the economy, the former Pennsylvania senator’s emphasis on social mobility, family breakdown and blue-collar struggles spoke more directly to the challenges facing working Americans than any 9-9-9 fantasy or flat-tax gambit. From the opposite wing of the party, Paul’s libertarian and anti-war campaign scrambled partisan categories in useful and unexpected ways and supplied an alternative to the ritual chest-thumping that sometimes passes for Republican foreign policy debate.

Meanwhile, Romney’s cautious, calculating campaign managed to simultaneously stake out a plausible domestic agenda while ruthlessly exploiting the weaknesses first of Perry and then of Gingrich. Romney took few risks and inspired almost nobody, but his mix of substance and savvy largely confirmed the impression that he would be both the field’s most effective general election candidate and its most plausible president.

In an ideal world, Romney’s coronation would be postponed long enough to have a vigorous argument between Romney, Paul and Santorum (with Jon Huntsman getting in on the action as well, perhaps). They would debate foreign policy, domestic policy and the future of conservatism, with the recent losers and their gimmicks cleared off stage. In the real world, however, some of the defeated will hang around – like that clingy friend that can never take the hint to leave the party – and last night’s results probably just set the stage for the swift Romney victory that’s been coming all along.

But give the people of Iowa credit: They did their best with the hand dealt.

January 6, 2012 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Iowa Caucuses, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Politics, Republican Party, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Obama’s Resurgence: A Credit To Republicans

During the summer, I wrote extensively about the political battle between President Obama and House Republicans regarding the debt ceiling.  At that time, I predicted that the reluctance to compromise on any level by House Republicans would ultimately benefit Mr. Obama.  Fast forward to the present and it’s deja vu all over again.  The President, the Congress and, more importantly, the country at large are being held hostage by an intransigent and frankly childish House Republican Caucus.

The Senate – by a bipartisan vote of 89-10 – passed a measure to extend the payroll tax cut for another two months to allow negotiations to continue regarding how to pay for a full one year extension of the tax cut.  The House – led by Tea Party ideologues – rejected the bill.  Obviously, this stop gap measure is far from perfect, but without it, taxes will increase for 160 million Americans come January 1st.  The New Year’s Eve hangover will quickly be supplanted by a far more severe, longer lasting headache. 

I submit that these two political events taken together have strengthened President Obama’s position and alternately badly tarnished that of the Republicans.  Republican disarray over the debt ceiling debate and extending a payroll tax cut has quickly become part of a bigger political story that has been unfolding for months: the resurrection of President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats heading into the 2012 elections.

After the debt ceiling debacle of last summer, the conventional wisdom among many political analysts was that Obama would go the way of President Jimmy Carter, that Republicans would lose a few seats in the House but retain control, and that the GOP would surge into power in the Senate. In short, Republicans were looking for a clean sweep. That is now a scenario that looks virtually impossible for Republicans to obtain.  Obama is still vulnerable and could lose, but the most recent CNN poll reveals a remarkable turnaround, especially in the past month.

In a mid-November survey, when asked which candidate they were more likely to support, registered voters gave Mitt Romney a lead of 4 percentage points over Obama, 51% to 47%. The mid-December survey found an 11-point switch; Obama now has a 52%-45% edge over Romney. Against Newt Gingrich, Obama has a 16-point lead, 56%-40%. (Ironically, the one Republican candidate who does as well against Obama as Romney is Rep Ron Paul, trailing by the same 52%-45% margin.)  Obviously, polls are but a fleeting snapshot in time; however, this marked  shift toward Obama is significant.

It is too early to tell how much Democratic prospects for the Senate and House have improved, but senior Republicans are worried. Case in point: the Massachusetts Senate race, where a poll has shown Democratic populist Elizabeth Warren grabbing an unexpected lead over Republican populist Scott Brown. Only a few months ago, the Brown forces were supremely confident. Brown has seen how much danger the payroll tax mess can pose for his re-election and was one of the first to condemn House Republicans for rejecting a Senate compromise that had overwhelming, bipartisan support.

For Brown and other GOP candidates in blue and purple states, the hard-liners in the House are playing directly into a narrative that Democrats have been promoting for months: that Washington is broken because the GOP has become hostage to the tea party. With sentiment toward the tea party now running 49%-33% unfavorable in CNN polling, that is potent stuff.  Republican congressional leaders have so grossly mishandled the payroll tax issue that they have made it easy for the charge to stick.

As The Wall Street Journal said in its scathing editorial, the GOP has also strengthened Obama’s central argument that he is the protector of the middle class and Republicans can only be counted on to protect the rich. No wonder the White House is quietly clammering with excitement at these recent developments, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is calling on House Republicans to pass the two-month extension.  For the Obama White House, Republican incompetence with respect to the payroll tax issue has truly been the proverbial early Christmas (or holiday) present.

Of course, there is another major force at work that has been lifting Democratic hopes, namely, the quality of the Republican presidential race. With less than two weeks left before the Iowa caucuses, it is apparent that no one has captured the imagination of GOP voters. Essentially, we are back to where we started: a prevailing sense that the field is weak while pundits speculate as to whether a Jeb Bush or Chris Christie will get off the sidelines and enter the race.

All primary campaigns draw candidates toward the extreme end of their parties, but this year, with so many debates, there has been a danger all along for Republicans that moderates and independents would also be driven off. (In the CNN poll, moderates now give Obama a sizable lead against every GOP candidate.)

None of this is to say that Obama and Democrats have become clear favorites for next fall. The fluidity we have seen among Republican primary voters may well show up in the general electorate. As Romney has been arguing, the GOP is likely to close its ranks more fully once a nominee has been crowned. The improving tone of the economy — also a factor for Obama — could well be short-lived: As The New York Times reported Thursday, economists tend to think that growth could slow again next year. And that ominous, dark cloud called the euro zone is still hovering.

Even so, we are witnessing an important change in the political landscape — and it could be lasting. Republicans well remember the mid-1990s when they seized power in Congress and Speaker Newt Gingrich went mano-a-mano with President Bill Clinton. For a while, Gingrich had the upper hand, but Clinton then outmaneuvered him on two governmental shutdowns — and when the momentum turned in Clinton’s favor, he rode it to an easy re-election. No one should doubt that could happen again.  And Republicans would have no one to blame but themselves.

December 22, 2011 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Boehner, Obama, Payroll Tax, Politics, Republican Party | , , , , , , , | Leave a 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

Bachmann’s Waterloo Entry

Almost anti-climatically, Michele Bachmann officially joined the race for the Republican nomination for president yesterday in her birthplace of Waterloo, Iowa.  While I understand that Waterloo is Bachmann’s hometown and Iowa is an important state on the road to the nomination, I can’t help but be struck by the irony and symbolism of beginning a political campaign in a place called Waterloo.  Setting aside the unfortunate imagery, however, I would contend that Michele Bachmann is far from her political Waterloo as it relates to her quest for the Republican nomination for president.

Many political observers are prone to make the obvious comparisons between Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.  The most notable similarity between the two, of course, is that they are both conservative women.  Delving beyond gender, the pair both possess the ability to mobilize and excite the conservative base – both are Tea Party favorites – with their red meat rhetoric and often factually suspect, yet emotionally inspiring diatribes against the Obama Administration in particular and progressive causes more generally.  And, yes, it’s true that neither woman would be confused as an intellectual heavyweight (Palin has a propensity for making up new words, while Bachmann has a unique ability for making inaccurate historical references).  But I believe it would be a grave mistake to write off Mrs. Bachmann as this election’s Palin, and consequently, not take her seriously.

I contend that Michele Bachmann should be taken seriously in the fight for the Republican nomination because she is genuine, principled and uncompromising.  She is unfailingly conservative – taking a moderate position doesn’t seem to be an option regarding any policy discussion – in stark contrast to Jon Huntsman.  She will not waver in the face of shifting political realities as has become habit for Mitt Romney and Mr. Gingrich.  She is tough, steely and willing to seek out a fight unlike the surprisingly feckless Tim Pawlenty, her fellow Minnesotan.  Mrs. Bachmann seems unfazed by new facts or events that no longer support her positions – don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, seems to be her motto.  Put simply, she does not do nuance; she is what she is each and every day. 

In my view, most of the aforementioned qualities and characteristics possessed by Mrs. Bachmann are not desirable in a political leader.  While I admire her toughness, consistency and ability to remain principled, I think it is extremely important to constantly reassess one’s views on the issues as facts and human events evolve over time.  Furthermore, to be an effective leader one must always consider divergent opinions and be willing to compromise at just the right time to achieve the best possible policy outcome.  To be completely rigid and dogmatic is a sign of serious weakness in the general election.  But with respect to the Republican nomination, I submit that Mrs. Bachmann’s inflexibility and reflexive ideology are significant strengths.  Her biting tongue and creative one-liners will be extremely attractive to the Republican primary electorate.

But this same Republican primary electorate has a difficult decision to make – quite comparable to the decision the Democratic primary electorate had to make in 2004 concerning Howard Dean.  Dean was the principled progressive in that race with his stridently anti-war message and stinging quips directed at then-President Bush.  In the end, however, the Democrats nominated a far less inspiring and, yes, famously nuanced, candidate in John Kerry largely due to the belief that Kerry was more electable than Howard Dean. 

Will the Republicans fall in love with Michele Bachmann to such an extent that they are willing to risk any chance of ultimately defeating President Obama?  Or will they decide to hold their collective noses and nominate Mitt Romney or some other less inspiring figure because they are deemed to be more electable in the general election?  The answers to these questions will play a large role in the success or demise of Mrs. Bachmann’s campaign.

My guess is that the Republican primary electorate will be far more willing than the Democrats were in 2004 to take a chance on the “principled” candidate.  Given the current friction in the Republican Party between the Establishment and the Tea Party, it may prove more difficult to stamp out what might otherwise be characterized as “fringe” candidacies.  With hard-line conservatives attempting to purify the Republican Party and purge it of any moderates whatsoever, Michele Bachmann may actually become the establishment candidate. 

For the Democrats in 2004, the one and only goal was to unseat President Bush.  The conservatives today seem more willing to endure another Barry Goldwater election circa 1964 – lose the general election while winning the soul of the Republican Party.  Given these dynamics, Michele Bachmann could be a major factor in the fight for the Republican nomination.  Indeed, Bachmann’s Waterloo may be somewhere far, far down the road….far away from Waterloo, Iowa.

June 28, 2011 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Michele Bachmann, Politics, Republican Party | , , , | 1 Comment

Huntsman is in, but without a snowball’s chance

Today, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman threw his hat in the muddled, ever-expanding Republican ring by officially declaring his candidacy for the presidency with the Statue of Liberty poignantly in the background.  I have to admit straight away that Huntsman is easily my favorite of the Republican contenders.  My admiration for Huntsman is based on my judgment that he is a thinker – and a reasonable one at that – and is far from an ideologue.  These are characteristics that are hardly shared by the rest of the field (except for maybe Ron Paul) – a field comprised of candidates who tend to be reflexively ideological, allergic to reason and prone to political opportunism.

There are several aspects of Jon Huntsman’s biography that I find interesting, not the least of which is the fact that he dropped out of high school to play in a rock band called Wizard.  Rock on!  My guess is that no other candidate in the field can make that claim.  I respect that out of his seven children two are adopted – one from China and one from India (although Michele Bachmann wears the crown in this category). 

I like that Huntsman lived in China, learned to speak Mandarin and, as a result, inherently understands our increasingly vital relationship with the Chinese.  I applaud Huntsman for accepting President Obama’s invitation to serve in his administration as Ambassador to China.  Unfortunately for Huntsman, while impressive on a resume, holding a job in the Obama Administration is highly unlikely to win him any votes in Republican primaries.

But let’s be completely honest and blunt here: Jon Huntsman has absolutely zero chance of winning the Republican nomination.  In addition to working in the Obama Administration, Huntsman has referred to the president in glowing terms, going so far as to refer to President Obama as a “remarkable leader.”  Strike one!  Furthermore, Huntsman has defied Republican orthodoxy and embraced reasonable analysis once again by proclaiming his belief that climate change is, in fact, a real phenomenon.  Strike two!  And just to drive the final nail in his own coffin, Huntsman has voiced his support in the past for civil unions granting equal rights to gay and lesbian couples, though without invoking the word marriage.  Strike three!  The fatal trifecta in any Republican primary election. 

Huntsman does possess a traditional Republican record on taxes and abortion and has come out in support of the Paul Ryan budget.  As governor of Utah, he cut taxes and was stridently pro-life.  But this will not be enough to undo the irreparable damage caused by his more moderate, reasonable positions.  At today’s announcement on the banks of the Hudson River, Huntsman said, “But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president, not who’s the better American.”  It is extremely refreshing to have a candidate in the Republican field who actually respects the president and intends to run a civil, issues-based campaign instead of questioning the president’s American credentials at every turn.

While he will not win the Republican nomination, Huntsman will provide an element of independence, civility and, yes, reason that is sorely lacking amongst the current Republican candidates for president.  I wish him well in his ill-fated, yet honorable decision to challenge the Republican dogma of divisiveness and unbridled anti-Obamaism.  Good luck, Mr. Huntsman – considering your final judge and jury will be the Republican primary electorate – you’re gonna need it!  But you can always count me as a fan….now if I could only vote in the Republican primary.

June 21, 2011 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Jon Huntsman, Politics, Republican Party | , , , | 2 Comments