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Tag: "barack obama"

The Washington Playbook

[ 323 ] March 10, 2016 |


Jeffrey Goldberg’s profile of Barack Obama’s foreign policy is enlightening, showing the president’s great personal confidence in bucking “the Washington playbook” that had dominated administrations from both parties since the Reagan years. Rejecting those who would draw lines in sand and start wars to defend American prestige–including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Joe Biden, among many, many others–Obama instead has operated at a higher level than most of his advisors, seeking to defuse conflicts and, in his words, “not do stupid shit.” This is the post-Bush presidency we needed. Of course, Hillary Clinton is all about doing some stupid shit.

Obama’s reticence frustrated Power and others on his national-security team who had a preference for action. Hillary Clinton, when she was Obama’s secretary of state, argued for an early and assertive response to Assad’s violence. In 2014, after she left office, Clinton told me that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad … left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” When The Atlantic published this statement, and also published Clinton’s assessment that “great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle,” Obama became “rip-shit angry,” according to one of his senior advisers. The president did not understand how “Don’t do stupid shit” could be considered a controversial slogan. Ben Rhodes recalls that “the questions we were asking in the White House were ‘Who exactly is in the stupid-shit caucus? Who is pro–stupid shit?’ ” The Iraq invasion, Obama believed, should have taught Democratic interventionists like Clinton, who had voted for its authorization, the dangers of doing stupid shit. (Clinton quickly apologized to Obama for her comments, and a Clinton spokesman announced that the two would “hug it out” on Martha’s Vineyard when they crossed paths there later.)

Given the fairly high likelihood (or at least reasonable possibility) that Power would be Clinton’s Secretary of State, we can likely expect a return to the older version of American interventionism, which will probably do harm in the world and to the U.S. Ah, if only Bernie Sanders had any articulated foreign policy at all to which we could reasonably compare this.

The transformational issue for Obama was bombing Syria, where he declared a “red line” and then didn’t bomb when Assad crossed it. But does anyone think Syria would be better off today if the U.S. bombed it to smithereens? When has that worked? When has the supposed hit to American prestige if we didn’t bomb actually manifested itself? Seems to me the hit to American prestige was starting a stupid war in Iraq that we weren’t even prepared enough for to understand the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. Obama went down this road in Libya. It didn’t work. And unlike Hillary, he learned from it.

And, my God, he even has a clue about the history of America’s terrible foreign policy of the past and it influences his actions.

The president also seems to believe that sharing leadership with other countries is a way to check America’s more unruly impulses. “One of the reasons I am so focused on taking action multilaterally where our direct interests are not at stake is that multilateralism regulates hubris,” he explained. He consistently invokes what he understands to be America’s past failures overseas as a means of checking American self-righteousness. “We have history,” he said. “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening, and understand the source of other people’s suspicions.”

Now, I certainly have my criticism of Obama’s foreign policy, especially around trade. But when was the last president with a better foreign policy? Grover Cleveland, who for all his faults was at least anti-imperialist? FDR I suppose is the better answer. But it’s been a long, long time. It may be a low bar but Obama has easily cleared it. The deals with Cuba and Iran are tremendously important and change the trajectory of the nation.


Republicans Fall in Line, Democrats Fall in Love

[ 124 ] July 30, 2014 |

I’m certainly interested in Rick Perlstein’s new book, although who knows when I will have time to read it. While it sounds like he probably gives more transformative agency to Reagan than I am really comfortable with, I have no doubt the insights will be very useful. I did think a bit of his interview with David Dayen worth mentioning here:

And that was true on both sides of the political aisle, right? You talk about Jimmy Carter as just this smile, someone who was an empty vessel for everyone’s beliefs that they projected onto him. You use this phrase, “they yearned to believe,” to describe liberal feelings toward Carter.

Could you believe that Dems could be attracted like iron filings to a magnet to a blank-slate candidate where everyone sees what they want to see? Yes, how about Barack Obama? It’s very similar. Of course, there’s this old adage, Republicans fall in line, Democrats fall in love. But I hope people see the parallel between liberals’ love of Carter, who was not a liberal, and who studiously declined during the campaign to commit himself to any liberal policy, and the present day. Remember in late 2006, Ken Silverstein wrote this article in Harper’s, talking about how Obama was in bed with agribusiness, in bed with local energy interests in Illinois, and not to be trusted? Well, in this time I’m writing about, also in Harper’s, there was an article by Steven Brill called “The Pathetic Lies of Jimmy Carter,” pointing out all of his flaws and misstatements, and it went nowhere. Because they yearned to believe. That’s something I put in throughout the book, they yearned to believe. And it’s a powerful force.

This is a useful lesson. I’ve said this before, but there is no reason to think Democratic presidents are going to create the change you want. They are a necessary tool to sign the bills legislating that change, but just choosing the right president and–poof–everything changes is never, ever going to happen and Democrats are far better off understanding this. Barack Obama was never going to lead a transformative movement and it was silly to think so. Even if Elizabeth Warren was elected president, she wouldn’t either. The constraints are far too great. That change has to come through grassroots organizing that make cowardly politicians afraid to resist or try to buy you off through compromise measures that are victories in themselves. There are of course areas where disappointment in Obama is quite justified–education, public lands, energy development, etc–but these are areas where executive authority dominate policy making. Even in these areas, there was no evidence in 2008 that he’d be any different. It’s not as if Arne Duncan appeared out of thin air.

In Which Erik Hangs Himself

[ 129 ] May 25, 2013 |

Ugh, ugh, ugh.

President Obama held a private meeting with top national security journalists on Thursday afternoon following his national security policy address at the National Defense University in Washington, POLITICO has learned.

Present at the meeting were Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist; Gerald Seib, The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau chief; Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post; David Igantius, The Washington Post columnist; Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic correspondent and Bloomberg View columnist; and Joe Klein, the Time magazine columnist.

The meeting, which was scheduled to last for one hour but lasted for two, was held in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Where’s the rope?

Luckily for myself, I don’t know how to tie a knot.

The Environmental President?

[ 27 ] May 7, 2013 |

Jonathan Chait makes an interesting argument for Obama as “the environmental president,” but I think it is the wrong question to ask.

Chait’s argument is that despite the failure of the 2010 cap and trade bill, the almost certain approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, and other disappointments to environmentalists, Obama has actually done a great deal behind the scenes to fight climate change. That includes increasing mileage standards for automobiles, energy efficiency in appliances, and emissions standards for power plants. These are all good things.

In some ways, Chait is right, but I think the article also reflects a larger problem of focusing too much on the legacy of presdients. First, Obama may well apply the Clean Air Act aggressively. I hope he does. It might create massive changes. But executive authority without legislative backing and court appointments to uphold challenges is a very tenuous and perhaps temporary way to create change. I think the auto industry is just waiting for the next Republican to take the Oval Office to challenge those mileage standards. I think Republican-dominated federal courts will overturn much that Obama can do.

In other words, the issue is not Obama’s legacy. It’s the national response to the greatest environmental crisis in world history. Obama is a major player here, but the nation as a whole has done so little to fight climate change and what has happened on the executive level can be reversed by another executive. At the same time, Obama should not be blamed too much for the failure of climate change legislation to pass because he can’t just wish it to be true. The real problem with the nation making the necessary improvements on climate change issues is the intransigence of the Republican Party with assists from coal state Democrats. Obama can do what he wants, but without a broad legislative commitment, I am skeptical about how much real change he or any other president can really create long term.

Similarly, there’s no question that the Keystone pipeline is a symbol since it alone is not going to make or break the climate, but it’s also a very important symbol. Here is an opportunity for the president to stand up and say that his administration will fight climate change, even at political cost. It’s clear he won’t do that, even though mining oil sands are about the worst thing we can do to the climate.

It is also worth noting that environmentalists themselves are devastated by the failure of cap and trade. Chait cites a Nicholas Lemann New Yorker piece on the bill’s failure. I haven’t read that. But I was a guest at an event at Harvard in February that Lemann moderated. Organized by Theda Skocpol, it was a general discussion about the bill’s failure that included some of the nation’s leading environmentalists. They were despondent. I felt like I was in a meeting of the labor movement about how no one listens to the AFL-CIO anymore. The entire environmentalist structure of creating legislative change–marshaling scientific expertise, professional testimony, lobbying, and funding politicians–completely failed. Environmentalists are becoming the next labor movement–easy for Democrats to ignore because they know that enviros will still write checks in the end.

So I don’t think Chait can so easily say that environmentalists are off base in their criticism of the Obama Administration to do enough on climate change, given how universal and deeply held their feelings are about the failure of that bill.

There’s also the more minor issue that Obama has been downright disappointing to those who prioritize public land management, energy production, and other environmental issues. Although he has created a few wilderness areas, his administration has also approved a lot of new oil and gas drilling on public lands. His selection of Ken Salazar as his first Secretary of Interior was predictably bad. Basically, I just don’t think Obama much cares about public lands. Of course, presidents do tend to cement their public lands legacies in the last years of their administration. So while we might say that Obama has been good on climate change, he hasn’t been particularly good on most other environmental issues.

In the end, as Chait points out, the nation may have seen greenhouse gas emission reductions since Obama took power, but they are almost all for reasons outside of his climate agenda–the bad economy, low natural gas prices as a result of the fracking boom, young people driving less and living in cities. This might tell us more about how change is created than focusing on presidential power.

The Bad Politics of Obama’s Grand Bargain Fetish

[ 138 ] April 10, 2013 |

Obama’s caving on chained CPI and allowing reductions to Medicare so he can achieve his long-desired grand bargain is a terrible idea, not only on the merits but on the politics. It isn’t going to convince Republican fireeaters to bargain in good faith because their ultimate goal is to destroy his presidency, not run the country. It also opens Obama up to attacks from Republicans that he is hurting seniors. Greg Walden, chair of the House GOP reelection committee, is already doing just that, attacks that may well hurt Democratic candidates in 2014. Those attacks might be disingenuous from people want to do away with Social Security entirely (or privatize it, which is pretty much the same thing), but truth is not the name of the game here.

Bad policy, bad politics.

Here’s to Republican Fireeating

[ 262 ] April 5, 2013 |

Republican extremism and a complete unwillingness to deal with the Kenyan usurper is the one thing keeping us from cuts to Social Security:

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama’s proposed budget will call for reductions in the growth of Social Security and other benefit programs by including a proposal to lower cost-of-living adjustments to government social safety net spending, a senior administration official says.

The proposal attempts to strike a compromise with congressional Republicans on the Fiscal 2014 budget by combining the president’s demand for higher taxes with GOP insistence on reductions in entitlement programs.

The official, who spoke on a condition of anonymity to describe a budget that has yet to be released, said Obama would reduce the federal government deficit by $1.8 trillion over 10 years.

A key feature of the plan Obama is proposing for the federal budget year beginning Oct. 1 is a revised inflation adjustment called “chained CPI.” This new formula would effectively curb annual annual increases in a broad swath of government programs, but would have its biggest impact on Social Security.

It’d be nice if Obama realized for once that the Republicans will never compromise with him unless he completely capitulates to their agenda, with its ever rightward shifting goalposts. Pretending to be a nice moderate Republican is not going to work. Nor should it since if a Democratic president can’t stand up for Social Security, what can he stand up for?


[ 71 ] January 21, 2013 |

I have nothing of interest to add to the inauguration discussion. But I do want to link to Atrios on the shocking significance of Obama to anyone with an understanding of American history.

Whatever one thinks of Obama, it says something positive about our country that we actually managed to twice vote for an African-American man for president. More than that, I don’t think that anyone should doubt that we’d be ready to elect a woman president, too. I’m not saying the playing field is level and the country, or at least enough of it, is race- and gender- blind for these things, just that 20 years ago I would’ve put both in the near-impossible category.

About once a month, I sort of come to this realization that, holy moly, this country has voted a black dude president. Twice! That is hard for me to believe. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. And if it did, it would be a Republican.

Obama Embracing the Bully Pulpit?

[ 49 ] September 6, 2012 |

I am agnostic on the Bully Pulpit debate we frequently have on the blog. I think both Scott and those who disagree with him make good points. So I don’t link to this Peter Baker piece in the Times how Obama’s governing style has changed with any agenda except that I think it’s an interesting data point in this debate.

How has Mr. Obama applied the lessons he learned? One day last spring, aides told him interest rates on federal student loans would double on July 1 unless Congress acted. Early on in his presidency, Mr. Obama might have invited lawmakers to the White House.

Instead, he headed to Air Force One and flew to college campuses in North Carolina and Colorado to castigate Congress for not heading off the rate hike. There was never any debate about the strategy; no one, even Mr. Obama, thought about talking with Republicans.

“Our view on student loans was they wouldn’t do it without really putting their backs against the wall,” said David Plouffe, the president’s senior adviser. “He realized this was a simple thing, it was clear, it was something we could motivate people on.”

Republicans angrily accused the president of bad faith. “He was making a political argument,” said Representative John Kline of Minnesota, chairman of the education committee. “I never saw any engagement from the White House about what really to do about it.”

Maybe so, but Obama aides crowed that it worked because Republicans instantly came out against the rate increase, too. Republicans said they saw it the other way, arguing that they defused the Obama attack by reacting quickly. Either way, it was a sign of how much the president had changed.


The breakdown of last year’s grand bargain talks proved a turning point. “That was a searing experience,” Mr. Plouffe recalled. The lesson: Forget negotiations and use the bully pulpit. Policy is not about applying reason; it’s about applying power.

“You’re never going to convince them by sitting around the table and talk about what’s good for the country,” said John D. Podesta, who ran Mr. Obama’s transition and still advises him occasionally. “You had to demonstrate that there’s political pain if you don’t produce an acceptable outcome.”


Fear of a Black President

[ 49 ] August 25, 2012 |

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay, “Fear of a Black President,” is probably the best essay on this country I’ve read in 2012. It’s hard to even know what to excerpt here. Of many excellent passages, I’ll go with this one:

What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism that once rendered the best pickings of America the exclusive province of unblackness. Confronted by the thoroughly racialized backlash to Obama’s presidency, a stranger to American politics might conclude that Obama provoked the response by relentlessly pushing an agenda of radical racial reform. Hardly. Daniel Gillion, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race and politics, examined the Public Papers of the Presidents, a compilation of nearly all public presidential utterances—­proclamations, news-conference remarks, executive orders—and found that in his first two years as president, Obama talked less about race than any other Democratic president since 1961. Obama’s racial strategy has been, if anything, the opposite of radical: he declines to use his bully pulpit to address racism, using it instead to engage in the time-honored tradition of black self-hectoring, railing against the perceived failings of black culture.

His approach is not new. It is the approach of Booker T. Washington, who, amid a sea of white terrorists during the era of Jim Crow, endorsed segregation and proclaimed the South to be a land of black opportunity. It is the approach of L. Douglas Wilder, who, in 1986, not long before he became Virginia’s first black governor, kept his distance from Jesse Jackson and told an NAACP audience: “Yes, dear Brutus, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves … Some blacks don’t particularly care for me to say these things, to speak to values … Somebody’s got to. We’ve been too excusing.” It was even, at times, the approach of Jesse Jackson himself, who railed against “the rising use of drugs, and babies making babies, and violence … cutting away our opportunity.”

The strategy can work. Booker T.’s Tuskegee University still stands. Wilder became the first black governor in America since Reconstruction. Jackson’s campaign moved the Democratic nominating process toward proportional allocation of delegates, a shift that Obama exploited in the 2008 Democratic primaries by staying competitive enough in big states to rack up delegates even where he was losing, and rolling up huge vote margins (and delegate-count victories) in smaller ones.

And yet what are we to make of an integration premised, first, on the entire black community’s emulating the Huxt­ables? An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality—it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.

All I can say is that I am extremely excited for Coates’ book on African-Americans and Civil War memory to come out.

And if you haven’t read this essay, put down what you are doing and spend the next 10 minutes on it. It’s amazing.

The Long Arm of Woodrow Wilson

[ 53 ] February 27, 2012 |

Woodrow Wilson’s reputation has been torn to shreds in the last ten years. This can go a bit too far; in the end, regardless of his motives, Wilson did sign a lot of legislation the country really needed. Nevertheless, it’s easy to argue that, outside of JFK, Wilson is the most overrated president in American history. We can argue about the worst thing Wilson did, but I don’t think any of his actions have a more detrimental effect on American society today than the Espionage Act of 1917. Wilson first proposed this law in 1915, but with the entry of the U.S. into World War in April 1917, the Espionage Act, along with a lot of other very bad legislation, became law. The government intended to use the war to crack down on all the radicals threatening it, threats many Americans defined very broadly, mostly to include the “foreign” of various definitions, races, and ideologies. For instance, the 18th Amendment became law during these years after a sixty year temperance movement because alcohol became equated with foreigners in the minds of self-respecting Americans. In my own research, this law comes to bear upon the Industrial Workers of the World and the opening government repression gave to local communities to eliminate radicals once and for all, whether we are talking about the Bisbee Deportation of 1917 or the Centralia Massacre of 1919.

The Espionage Act gave the government broadly defined powers to crack down on any behavior that might be seen as undermining America’s military operations or to promote the success of its enemies. Wilson wanted the ability to censor the press, but at least Congress denied him this. It was followed by the even more terrible Sedition Act of 1918 which prohibited speech seen as detrimental to American interests, of course vaguely defined. The Sedition Act was repealed in 1921 but the Espionage Act remains on the books.

Usually, the Espionage Act is forgotten about but the government has occasionally brought it out to crack down on people it wanted to silence. It was the Espionage Act that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were charged with violating when they gave secrets to the Soviet Union. Nixon used it unsuccessfully to prosecute Daniel Ellsberg and others for leaking the Pentagon Papers.

Today, the Obama Administration has revived the Espionage Act in a broader way than probably any administration since Wilson. David Carr details how aggressively Obama has used the law to crack down on whistleblowers and leakers within the government. This is really unacceptable. The Obama Administration is completely hypocritical in praising freedom of the press overseas while using the Espionage Act to protect its own actions at home. I’m usually fairly unsympathetic to Glenn Greenwald’s argument that Democrats allow Democratic Administrations to get away scot free with actions that they would howl about if Republicans were doing them, but in this case, that line of argument makes sense. Were this the administration of George W. Bush and John Ashcroft, this would be a major story of how the Republicans don’t respect our basic rights. Instead, the use of the Espionage Act against leakers and whistleblowers is a blip on the radar of the Democratic public.

This is wrong. The Espionage Act needs to be repealed immediately and President Obama needs to be called to the carpet on his use of this loathsome law. Moreover, I don’t think historians look back kindly on any situation when the government has used this law. It always reeks of repression and is a black mark on any administration. I don’t want historians to look back on Obama in 50 years and see a president who used an antiquated and repressive law to eliminate low-level leaks in his administration. Alas, that is the road the president presently drives.

Paging Jack Cashill. Jack Cashill. Paging Jack Cashill.

[ 91 ] February 20, 2012 |

Jack Cashill’s annoyed that Media Matters for America (MMFA) “intimidate[d] editors into not assigning Deconstructing Obama for review.” His evidence?

To date, even though my thesis is widely accepted on the right, not a single conservative publication has reviewed it, not even to challenge the thesis.  Other than a quick MMFA-style hit in the Washington Post, no mainstream publication has reviewed the book either.

Now, I’m no mainstream publication, but I am a serious literary scholar—I have credentials and everything—and I did spend a fair amount of time giving his evidence a fair hearing. Suffice it to say that I’m a little hurt that Cashill’s never deigned to respond, especially now that he’s complaining that no one’s ever taken his work seriously. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to republish my strongest arguments against Cashill below the fold and invite him to read and respond to them. Only I’m not going to invite him—you are.

Please send a civil email in which you link to this post to jcashill (at) aol (dot) com.

Ask others to do so too. Feel free to link to this post. Who knows? Maybe if enough people ask politely, he’ll decide it’s worth his time to respond.

Moreover, because previous attempt to draw a response from him didn’t work, there’s no reason not to try a more direct approach . So, below the fold you’ll find my evidence. I hope that sooner or later we’ll find a response from Cashill himself in the comments.

Read more…

The 2008 Counterfactual

[ 84 ] August 19, 2011 |

Rebecca Traister has a terrific piece about counterfactuals and the 2008 primary. Amanda has some comments as well. Traister does a good job of outlining the where there may have differences — Obama’s coatails (which were likely decisive in the Hagan and Franken Senate races) versus the unlikelihood that Clinton would have played the debt ceiling hand as badly, for example. But the revisionism that has turned someone with an extensive history of centrist deal-cutting into the second coming of Eugene Debs notwithstanding, the differences would be marginal. (And there’s no doubt that had Obama lost the primary, his supporters would be imagining a left-wing Obama presidency that was never going to happen too.)

Particularly after Obama named Clinton his Secretary of State and adopted Clinton’s signature domestic issue in essentially the form that she advocated it — narrowing the nickel’s worth of difference between them to a penny — in policy terms the 2008 Democratic primary was about almost nothing. For reasons Traister’s excellent book explains, the primary was one of major political and cultural significance — and I don’t want to use the word “symbolic,” which trivializes the very real importance of a primary battle between strong candidates from historically underrepresented and marginalized groups — but not policy significance.

…I agree with a commenter that this is also a good point.

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