It does seem as though we’re seeing, in this Obama’s first major test as a President, several of the weaknesses of which conservatives warned. First, Obama has no experience dealing in an executive manner with a massive organization with multiple, competing power structures. Perhaps it was his intention all along to deliver a reasonably balanced outline of a bill (and thus make himself look good to Americans generally) with the understanding that Pelosi would lard it up into a hyper-partisan monstrosity (giving payback to Democrat special interests and solidifying their base). But I don’t think so, because I think Obama genuinely wanted to deliver a broadly popular product here. Which means he should not have entrusted the legislation to Pelosi, and that in turn means that he was wrong to trust her so wholeheartedly. He’s not used to dealing with major players whose personal interests may not be his own.
Second, Obama seems fascinated by the omnipotence of his personality and his spoken word. The adulation of the masses has gotten to him; he believes in his own hype. Notice how, in interviews, he begins half of his answers with “As I said before, and I’ll say it again…” Obama defines himself by his words, and he believes his words have transformative power. Obama seems to believe that his very presence will dispel “the old hatreds” and “the lines of tribe.” Obama does not really believe that conservatives are conservative because they have fundamentally different, and fully rational, beliefs and values. He believes they’re conservative because they’ve been deceived by talk radio, by Rush Limbaugh, and by “stale old arguments” and biases. So all he has to do is explain to them the liberal position, in his charming smile and pellucid voice, and the right will be moved leftward.
Posts For: January 30, 2009
We learn today:
The Obama administration on Friday made an emergency contribution of more than $20 million for urgent relief efforts in the Gazaa Strip, a day after the United Nations launched a flash appeal for $613 million to help Palestinians recover from Israel’s three-week military operation there.
This only emphasizes how misplaced and unwise were President Obama’s comments on Al Arabyia. Rather than apologizing for America, how much better it would have been for him to explain America’s ongoing efforts on behalf of Muslims, including its humanitarian support for the Palestinian people. Rather than harken back twenty or thirty years — to the nadir of American power — how much better it would have been to emphasize the dollars and lives expended to rescue Muslims from tyranny (e.g. Iraq, Bosnia) and poverty. And of course, the President’s comments lacked even a cursory appreciation for human rights. As Mark Steyn commented:
Well, you don’t have to be gay, an oppressed homosexual about to be executed. You don’t have to be a woman who’s being sold to an arranged child marriage. You just have to be a moderate, centrist Arab intellectual in, say, Cairo or Amman, and you listen to Obama sucking up to these creeps, and there’s nothing for you in it. What he’s doing is he says, he’s saying to hell with the Bush freedom agenda. We just want to get back to schmoozing the feted Arab dictatorships and the mullahs in Tehran all over again. And so if you’re a gay or a woman, you’re out of there. And as I said, if you’re a moderate Arab who just would like to have a free society in Cairo or Amman or wherever, you’re out of it, too. You’re on the Obama horizon. It was a pathetic, disgraceful Jimmy Carter speech.
Perhaps the swift rebuff from Ahmadinejad will be taken to heart. Groveling is unwise and counterproductive. America has a compelling case to present and the President should start presenting it.
President Obama wasted no time paying back his labor union supporters. He signed three executive orders today that he claims will level the playing field for organized labor. One of Obama’s executive orders will ensure that federal contractors be prohibited from doing anything to discourage unionization among their workers. Another is ostensibly aimed at informing workers of their rights to join a union. Both of these orders will encourage unionization in the private sector, which could be costly in this flailing economy. But their real intent is to reward unions for their help in getting him and his fellow Democrats in Congress elected.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, unions donated $68 million directly in the 2008 election cycle, 91 percent of which went to Democrats. But they also provided campaign volunteers (often paid union staff), printed campaign literature, and mobilized voters to get to the polls. It’s difficult to know exactly how much unions spent on these activities, but some estimates put the number at 10 times or more than what they give directly.
For all the professed interest in protecting workers’ right to choose, the Obama administration is not likely to care much about protecting the rights of workers who don’t want to be forced into a union. It is simply not in the Democrats’ self-interest to enforce the 1988 Beck decision, which gave workers covered by union contracts the right not to have to pay for the political activities of the union.
The Wall Street Journal editors chide President Obama for allowing Nancy Pelosi to draft the stimulus bill, thereby forfeiting his claim to a new era of bipartisanship:
House Democrats proceeded to ignore all GOP suggestions as they wrote the bill, shedding tax cuts while piling on spending for every imaginable interest group. The bipartisan opposition reflects how much the Pelosi bill became a vehicle for partisan social policy rather than economic stimulus.
Genuine bipartisanship means compromises on policy, not photo-ops and hand shakes. The last two Democratic Presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, also came to power with big Democratic majorities in Congress, veered far to the left on policy, and quickly came undone. To adapt White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s now famous line, a 70% approval rating is a terrible thing to waste on the ideas of Henry Waxman and Pete Stark.
There was, it seems, a good deal of miscalculation involved. The White House team bet Nancy Pelosi would come up with a bill that passed the smell test. They bet the Republicans, after a shellacking on Election Day, wouldn’t have the nerve to stand up to the President no matter what was in it. And they bet the public would support anything the President did. As it turned out, they were wrong on all three counts.
As to the first, the White House should have seen that Pelosi owes the President very little. She came to power before him and is secure for years to come. Her bigger concern is the Old Bulls of the House who want the interest groups repaid and their own power expanded. So she crafted a bill to satisfy the political needs of her Democratic caucus, not the President. After all, what’s he going to do — veto his own stimulus plan?
Then the President assumed that, like the media and country at large, the Republicans would swoon at his very appearance. He could go up to Capitol Hill, peel off some votes and claim the bill was bipartisan. Well, that didn’t work. House Republicans aren’t easily charmed, and even if they were, they aren’t going to forfeit an opportunity to re-establish their political identity and stand up against a bill this bad. (It’s rare that good politics and policy overlap this completely.)
And finally, the public likes this bill less and less, the more it learns about it. Rasmussen shows the public only narrowly supporting the bill ( 42-39%). That is, in large part, due to the rather fair media coverage of what’s in the bill. Sure the media is ga-ga over the President, but they have been telling the public about all the junk in the bill.
We can see by the accommodating language employed by Joe Biden (who has the worst poker face in politics) that the White House is scrambling to improve the bill and recover the high ground. That’s a very positive development. And then word comes that the Senate’s “Gang of 14″ may be back to rework the bill. It seems Democrat Ben Nelson doesn’t know how many Democrats would support the bill as it currently stands.
If the White House can admit error and work with the Senate to refashion the bill we’ll all be better off. And the Republicans can claim a good measure of the credit.
…that foreign aid to Gaza helps Hamas, just listen to one of Hamas’s senior leaders:
Khalil al-Hayya, one of three survivors of the five best known Hamas leaders, told supporters the group had achieved victory in the war and was now engaged in a political battle.
“We promised to come out to you either as martyrs or as victors,” Hayya told supporters. “Today I come out to you and you are victors.” …
Hayya tried to reassure Palestinians whose houses had been destroyed by Israel. “The reconstruction is coming, do not be worried about that,” he said, adding the Hamas government intended to pay the salaries of its employees.
“I tell the resistance fighters, I tell the Qassam fighters, do not drop your weapons, do not put your weapons aside and do not abandon your trenches,” Hayya said.
Hamas understands the purpose of foreign aid much better than do those who are handing out the money. Foreign aid allows Hamas to mollify public anger over the wars it starts, making the consequences of its militancy less acute. Europe and America are supporting both sides of a war while professing their hope that only one side wins. It’s head-spinning to realize that my tax money is helping to pay both for the Israeli bombs that destroy buildings in Gaza, and the reconstruction that follows. It’s one thing to fund both sides of a war between your enemies, say, between Iran and Iraq, hoping they both lose (to paraphrase Kissinger). But when one side is your ally and the other is your enemy, and you are funding both, you are engaged in a demented exercise.
Today, North Korea declared it was repudiating agreements with South Korea, including the landmark 1991 reconciliation accord. “Relations between the north and south have worsened to the point where there is no way or hope of correcting them,” stated Pyongyang’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea. “They have reached the extreme point where the clash of fire against fire, steel against steel, has become inevitable.”
South Korea never signed the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War, so that document could not have been covered by the North’s announcement. Today, Pyongyang called the armistice a “useless peace of paper.” Yet it need not have bothered: in August 2006 North Korea issued a statement declaring it “null and void.”
Analysts assume that today’s statement is just a bid to get President Obama’s attention. But that may not be the case because Kim Jong Il looks as if he is getting a bit desperate. He is in bad health, the concept of a succession to a younger-generation Kim is in doubt, his economy has been shrinking since 2006, and there is another severe food shortage.
Mr. Kim and his father have a history of using violence to upset status quos they thought to be unacceptable, so continually ignoring Pyongyang may not be the best strategy for us, especially at this crucial moment. We have always let the Kim family pick the time and place for its next provocation, and that is what the current Kim could be doing now.
So if we want to keep the peace on the Korean peninsula, some nation needs to explain to Mr. Kim that his inflammatory words are unacceptable. Of course, there is no better party to do that than the guarantor of the geopolitical order, the United States of America.
Michael Gerson contends that the Gaza war didn’t solve all of Israel’s problems but it made things better. Quoting a research fellow at Haifa University, he writes:
“It is a fairy tale,” he says, “to say there are no answers through coercive force. The only things in life that have solutions are crossword puzzles. We have not solutions, but answers — operational answers that reduce terror to a tolerable level. It is what we do with crime. It is what we do with terrorism.”
[. . .]
It is amazing that this argument remains an argument, especially after America’s experience with the surge in Iraq. For years, military and diplomatic experts have argued that the ultimate solution is Iraqi political reconciliation rather than military force. Which was true, eventually. But the achievement of security through force, it turns out, was a precondition for the process of reconciliation to move forward.
The question remains whether the Obama administration grasps this salient point. Certainly, Obama and his then team of advisers failed to comprehend this prospectively when the surge was being considered. But many people got that wrong, or lost nerve. So we move on. The issue now is whether they have taken the lesson of Iraq to heart — and will perceive the Gaza war as a similar opportunity to change the dynamics in another asymmetrical battleground.
We’ll leave for another day the concern about how they will react when the next opportunity to affect political conflict through the judicious use of military force comes along. For now, the Obama team can be the lucky beneficiary of military actions it did not support. We’ll see soon enough whether George Mitchell can walk through the door opened by the IDF to isolate Hamas, bolster alternative Palestinian social and political organizations, increase Israel’s security, and close down the flow of weapons to Gaza. That would constitute a modest success. It would signal some recognition that rather than begetting an “endless cycle of violence,” Israel’s military success can in fact advance its security and make possible a period of quietude, if not peace.
And if they do that successfully, they might even persuade Hamas’s patrons in Tehran that America and its allies can exert influence and reap the benefits of successful military action. (But not if the President keeps genuflecting and apologizing for the imagined sins of the U.S.) For now, however, it would be enough not to fritter away the opportunity which Israeli military action has made possible.
Israel’s recent war in Gaza was waged for the simplest of reasons: to deter Hamas from firing Qassam and Grad rockets. Whether or not the Israelis succeeded is an open question. An Israeli soldier – who, by the way, was an Arab – was killed by a roadside bomb next to the border with Gaza a few days ago. But if the aftermath of the less successful Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah in 2006 suggests anything, Hamas is likely to cool its guns for a while. Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah declared a “divine victory” in August of 2006, and most Israelis agreed. Bombastic boasts to the contrary, however, Hezbollah lost, and Hezbollah knows it.
I’m hardly the first to point out that Hezbollah sat out the Gaza war. Somebody fired a salvo of rockets into Israel from South Lebanon on January 8, and Hezbollah couldn’t distance itself from the attack fast enough. If the 2006 war was such a success, why wouldn’t Nasrallah want to rack up another divine victory? He could hardly ask for a more auspicious time to launch the next round if that’s what he was planning. The Israel Defense Forces were busy and preoccupied in Gaza, and much of world opinion had already turned sharply against the Israelis. If Nasrallah’s passivity doesn’t prove he feels more reluctant to pick a fight than he did in 2006, it certainly strongly suggests it.
There’s something else, though, that only a handful of analysts have remarked on. Very few people in Lebanon sincerely think Hezbollah won the 2006 war. It’s mostly Arabs outside Lebanon who take Nasrallah’s declaration of “divine victory” seriously.
Everyone who loves politics fancies that he or she could do a better job than whatever White House press secretary happens to be serving. It would be fun to fence with the snide press corps. And how hard can it be? You defer to State on foreign policy, don’t speculate on unannounced personnel appointmenst and throw in some lighthearted personal anecdotes. Right?
Well, Robert Gibbs is having a rocky start.
First, he gets caught fibbing that good government groups don’t oppose the administration’s spate of ethics waivers for ex-lobbyists:
“He can’t be talking about us,”said CREW’s executive director Melanie Sloan. “We don’t believe in a never-ending list of waivers. The waivers indicate the administration cannot live with its own policy. Ergo, they should revise the policy and stop pretending they are not hiring lobbyists.”
As Sloan sees it, the Obama administration is trying to have its cake and eat it too, claiming the ethics high road except on occasions when it doesn’t suit their interests.
Then he brought untold grief upon the President by explaining the sloppy dress code in the White House. You see they take off their jackets in the Oval Office because the President keeps it so darn hot in there. Uh oh. Doesn’t mesh with the global warming hectoring and his campaign rhetoric about keeping the thermostat at 72 degrees. All this the day after he lectured his fellow Washingtonians about lacking “flinty Chicago toughness.”
Well, it isn’t easy getting up there every day, especially when you have come to expect softball questions and fawning press coverage. Gibbs isn’t on the campaign trail against a hapless opponent. Now, with hundreds of cooped up reporters looking for news, he really can’t play fast and loose with the facts. Even in the cushiest of media environments it is pretty easy to trip up.
At the dawn of the Age of Obama, here are four predictions you can count on.
The first is that while Obama is riding high, race relations will be excellent. But once Obama goes down in the polls and he does things that elicit criticism, be prepared for the “race card” to be played. If it is, then race relations could be set back, because the charges will be so transparently false. If race was used by Obamacons against Bill Clinton, it will certainly be used against Republicans.
Second, we will hear more and more from Obama and his supporters about the severe difficulty of the situation they face. The days of healing the planet and reversing the ocean tide are gone. Indeed, the notion that we can expect any progress in 2009, we will be told, is utterly fanciful; just write it off. In fact, have you noticed how everything seems harder now that Obama is president? The situation in Guantanamo Bay turns out to be rather more complicated than candidate Obama said. Peace in the Middle East won’t happen with a snap of Obama’s finger – or even because he names some new envoys. Iran really wants a nuclear weapon, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be immune to the charms of Obama and his epistles. We find out that ethics bills need exceptions. Obama can talk up the “stimulus” package all day long, but the markets don’t seem impressed. Creating jobs has now turned into “saving” them. It turns out even “the word made flesh” (to quote Harold Meyerson) needs time – lots and lots of time – to perform his miracle. And columnists who were deranged in their criticisms of George W. Bush will declare that any criticism of Obama is “grousing.”
Third, Obama’s good manners will by synonymous with authentic bi-partisanship. For example, Republicans were frozen out of writing the “stimulus” bill. To have a pleasant conversation with Republican over lunch to discuss legislation they consider an anathema does not qualify as bi-partisanship. And if commentators do lament the lack of bi-partisanship, it will be the fault of… Republicans in Congress. For the MSM, it is conservatives and Republicans who must always give ground. If they don’t, regardless of which branch of government they occupy, they are to blame.
Fourth, as Obama continues to insist his policies should be followed because “I won,” it will be applauded as an impressive sign of strength and a recognition of political reality. Of course, when Bush said anything close to this, it was said to be an example of his “my way or the highway” arrogance.
There aren’t many sure bets in this life; these are four of them.
There are a couple schools of thought as to how to save the President’s stimulus package. One maintains that it doesn’t need saving. The President most likely has the votes to ram the current bill — or a very close variation of it – through the Senate, just as he did for the House. He then can get his sprawling $825B bag of junky liberal programs. But that leaves him with a problem: he will have a $825B bag of junky liberal programs. It won’t be bipartisan, it will worsen his budgetary problems, and it will not do much about real long-term needs – or short-term ones either.
David Brooks suggests a re-do, picking up on the advice of Clinton-era budget director Alice Rivlin (apparently the only ex-Clintonite not in the current administration):
Strip out the permanent government programs. Many of them are worthy, but we can have that debate another day. Make the short-term stimulus bigger. Many liberal economists have been complaining it is too small, so replace the permanent programs with something like a big payroll tax cut, which would help the working class.
Add in a fiscal exit strategy so the whole thing is budget neutral over the medium term. Finally, coordinate the stimulus package with plans to shore up the housing and financial markets. Until those come to life, no amount of stimulus will do any good.
Republicans would still push for significant business tax rate cuts to spur investment and more defense spending in lieu of domestic programs, but it would be a start. At least the bill would get past the biggest problem: the President, who everyone assumes knows better, won’t sacrifice his credibility defending a bill that everyone knows to be very bad. As things presently stand, he looks a bit foolish defending the handiwork of Pelosi. He is, quite frankly, on the verge of losing not just the patina of bipartisanship but the respect of the chattering class. And it’s only the first two weeks of his presidency.
It’s not to late to make a u-turn. And it would benefit the President and the entire country if he did.
During the Gaza War, James Kirchick argued (correctly) that J Street — “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement” — can’t claim to represent a silent American Jewish majority:
. . . during the first major Israeli military operation since the 2006 Hezbollah War, at a time when the vast majority of Israelis and American Jews support what Israel is doing, J Street steps out of the shadows as the voice of communal dissent, joined by the likes of the United Nations and the Guardian editorial board (even the Arab League tacitly supports what Israel is doing, seeing that Hamas is an Iranian front). J Street has the right to its extreme leftist, capitulationist opinions, but it does not have the right to claim, as Ben-Ami once did, that it represents the “broad, sensible mainstream of pro-Israel American Jews.” J Street doesn’t even represent the views of left-wing Israelis.
James later proved that there’s no basis to J Street’s alleged “broadness.” But for those who are not yet convinced, a poll was published yesterday by the Anti-Defamation League (The Marttila Communications Group, margin of error +/-4.9%) on “Jewish American Attitudes on the Gaza Crisis.”
The results: 81% of Jewish Americans believe that Hamas was responsible for the crisis (J Street was trying to lay the blame on both Israel and Hamas. As they put it, there were “elements of truth on both sides of this gaping divide”). 94% sympathize more with Israel (J Street: “there is nothing to be gained from debating which injustice is greater or came first”). And most important: 79% believe that Israel’s use of force was appropriate (J Street: “there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them”). Case closed.
You have to admire Sidwell Friends Head of School, Ellis Turner for telling Sidwell’s most famous parent to butt out on snow closing decisions: “‘No question, the president is right,’ Turner wrote. ‘The next time it snows, we would like to invite him to help us make the decision. His involvement will make it much easier to explain to our students why they won’t be able to spend the day sleeping and sledding. . .Or, I suppose Sidwell Friends could merge with Punahou, move our classrooms to Hawaii and never worry about the weather.” Wow, if Turner ever considers a career shift we could someone who isn’t cowed by the President in the press corps.
Aptly mocking the Al Gore worship on Capitol Hill, Dana Milbank notes “The Goracle’s powers seem to come from his ability to scare the bejesus out of people.” Well, and the scientific and economic illiteracy of lawmakers helps too.
Ahmadinejad doesn’t reciprocate the President’s touchy-feely sentiments.
The House Republicans get new-media savvy with a behind-the-scenes take on their day fighting the Pelosi stimulus bill.
Republicans have figured out they should run against Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid — and their stimulus bill — and not against the President.
Someone might want to run against Chris Dodd in 2010. “Friend of Angelo” continues to stonewall on his promised release of documents, apparently unaware we are in a new era of transparency.
Joe Biden and Tim Geithner disagree on whether China is engaged in currency manipulation. Perhaps we can get Larry Summers or Hillary Clinton to break the tie. Or Paul Volker. Well, there are a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
Perhaps we should send out a search party for Dennis Ross. According to TNR, the administration first needs to decide what its Iran policy will be (Hmmm, grovel or not grovel?) But that seems to be what Ross should be figuring out.
Charles Krauthammer is dismayed: “Every president has the right to portray himself as ushering in a new era of this or that. Obama wants to pursue new ties with Muslim nations, drawing on his own identity and associations. Good. But when his self-inflation as redeemer of U.S.-Muslim relations leads him to suggest that pre-Obama America was disrespectful or insensitive or uncaring of Muslims, he is engaging not just in fiction but in gratuitous disparagement of the country he is now privileged to lead.” Will the insulting response from Ahmadinejad also convince the President that it is counterproductive? Let’s hope so — but I fear it’s not the last of this sort of blather.
The House GOP members may have inspired their Senate colleagues to hold the line on the stimulus bill.
The record turnout, especially among minority voters, means that the hysterical claims of “voter suppression” by opponents of voter I.D. were false. But we knew that — since they never managed in all the litigation to come up with an actual plaintiff who wanted to vote but couldn’t.
Kathleen Parker, deprived of her Sarah Palin foil, is back to making sense: “Two impressions emerge from President Barack Obama’s first week in office: Partisanship has reached a tipping point when the new president is circling the fire hydrant with a conservative talk-radio personality. And, the new president is sounding an awful lot like the old one. Let’s roll the tape. ‘I won. I will trump you on that.’” The new one does have the media on his side, but it is remarkable how fast the luster fades.