To observe the Jewish New Year and the Sabbath immediately following, there will be no new Contentions posting until Sunday. While you wait, go back to our home page and read some of the great stuff there, like Kenneth Marcus’s eye-opening article on the way anti-Semitism is dealt with on college campuses and Daniel Gordis’s stunning evisceration of Time magazine’s anti-Semitic cover story. May you have a sweet New Year.
Posts For: September 8, 2010
In his remarks in Cleveland today, President Obama said so many things that are so misleading that it will take time to sort through the entire mess. But some claims — like “I’m committed to fiscal responsibility” — belong in a remake of The Twilight Zone.
What Obama said is not only untrue; it is the very opposite of the truth. And for the president to warn that “if we don’t get a handle on [the long-term deficit] soon, it can endanger our future” is particularly ludicrous, given that in 20 months, he has done so much to make our fiscal situation worse, from wasteful and expensive stimulus legislation to double-digit increases in non-defense discretionary spending to a huge new health-care entitlement. It is as if the president takes particular delight in not only saying things that are misleading but in saying things that are audaciously misleading.
Obama also has a habit of deriding not just the policies but also the motivations of his opponents. He almost never acknowledges the good faith of his critics; they are people to be mocked, ridiculed, derided. The only reason they oppose Obama is “politics pure and simple.” Republicans “prey on people’s fears and anxieties,” he said today. There is no room for genuine philosophical differences. It is as if Obama believes his ideas are so transparently brilliant and wise and beyond challenge that only the malicious and malevolent can oppose him.
And what is striking is how Obama, under growing political pressure, increasingly feels sorry for himself. “They talk about me like a dog,” the president told a crowd in Wisconsin earlier this week. “That’s not in my prepared remarks, it’s just — but it’s true.” And echoing the remarks made this morning by his top aide David Axelrod — who insisted “we didn’t create the mess we’re in” — Obama in his Cleveland speech said, “When I walked in [to the White House], wrapped in a nice bow, was a $1.3 trillion deficit sitting on my door step — a welcoming present.”
What’s so revealing about Obama is that comments about how terribly unfair life has been for him since he assumed office are extemporaneous, off the cuff, from the heart. For example, neither Obama’s claim that “they talk about me like a dog” nor his statement in Cleveland about his “welcoming present” were in the prepared text. (Here’s the “As Prepared for Delivery” version of the Cleveland remarks.)
What we are seeing, then, is Barack Obama unplugged. He is a man used to being cosseted and who believes negative comments about him are a violation of an unwritten moral code.
“This is more than an inconvenience,” David Axelrod wrote in a memo to Obama on November 28, 2006, in raising concerns about Obama’s thin skin. “It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don’t know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. … When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched.”
He did then, and he still does to this day.
It turns out that the president is more like Floyd Patterson than Muhammad Ali.
In Cleveland today, in a remarkably bitter and partisan speech, President Obama ruled out allowing the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year to continue because of the recession. Even his former budget director, Peter Orzsag, recommended continuing them in a New York Times op-ed article. If the president gets his way, there will be a sharp increase in taxation on the affluent and on small businesses, many of which are sub-chapter-S corporations, which are taxed via the personal income tax rather than the corporate one.
The president argues that we simply cannot afford the $700 billion that extending the tax cuts for all would cost the government in foregone revenue. That estimate is based, I assume, on the static models that both the OMB and the CBO rely on to forecast revenues and which are always wrong, because the economy is highly dynamic, not static.
We tried raising taxes, especially on the rich, in the teeth of a recession once before in order to narrow the gap between federal revenues and expenditures. That was in 1932. The results were not pretty, to put it mildly. Both houses of Congress passed Hoover’s proposed tax increases by wide margins, and John Nance Gardner, the speaker of the House (and FDR’s first vice president), even wanted to add on a national sales tax, which would have impacted the poor far more than the rich, in order to balance the budget. It didn’t work and the economic decline sharply accelerated. Government revenues in 1932 were $1.9 billion, despite the tax increases. Expenditures that year were $4.6 billion. The deficit, in other words, was 132 percent of revenues, by far the worst peacetime deficit in the nation’s history. Ever since, the idea that taxes should be raised in a recession has been an off-the-table idea. That, after all, was what Herbert Hoover did, not a model later presidents have chosen to emulate. At least until President Obama, that is.
Of course, what Obama wants and what he will get are not necessarily the same thing right now. All the Bush tax cuts will expire on January 1, 2011, not just those on higher incomes. So legislation will be needed. With the politicians in a hurry to go home and campaign, and Democrats in a gathering panic about losing their majorities, who knows what will happen?
It’s hard to know how to interpret this news report in the Washington Times claiming that one of the agencies that may receive a budget cut as a result of the Obama administration’s cost-cutting (an attitude reserved, I note, for one department only) is the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO). This may very well be an example of what some call the “Washington Monument strategy” — the tendency of government agencies, when facing the loss of funds, to threaten closing the Washington Monument. But I think a budget cut is perfectly justifiable on the merits.
JIEDDO has done valuable work since it was formed in 2004 — it better have, considering that it has spent more than $20 billion. No doubt, the jammers and armored vehicles it has rushed first to Iraq and then to Afghanistan have saved some soldiers’ lives and limbs, and that, it goes without saying, is a real blessing. But if we have learned anything since 2003, it is that there is no technological fix to the insidious problem of roadside bombs. Every defensive measure will prompt insurgents to think of some new way to set off their explosives. And, at the end of the day, no perfect defense is possible; even an Abrams tanks can be stopped by a powerful enough bomb. (I remember in Iraq seeing one tank flipped over on its back in a ravine like a helpless turtle.)
The answer is to be found not in the realm of gee-whiz technology but in old-fashioned counterinsurgency tactics, which safeguard the population, flush out the insurgents, and prevent them from wreaking mayhem — whether with IEDs or with other methods. That is precisely what General David Petraeus is trying to do in Afghanistan. The support of the JIEDDO can be valuable but often only indirectly, if its funds are used, for example, to fund intelligence collectors and analysts who will track down the IED cells and other insurgents. In the end, the best way to defend the troops is to win the war and, sadly, there is no way to do that without putting them in harm’s way. That is the brutal logic of war — even in the Internet age.
The big news in all the polls is the astounding gap in electoral enthusiasm between voters intending to vote Republican and voters intending to vote Democratic — Gallup has it as a 25 point difference, it appears. Rich Lowry explains in a fine column today that the president is trying to close the gap by appealing to his base:
While most people want less of Obama’s program, his base wants more. Obama could ease off his spending to try to take the edge off the brewing backlash, but that would anger his supporters. Instead, he promises his union-member allies yet more infrastructure projects. His new proposals for business-tax breaks are paid for not with spending cuts, but with countervailing business-tax increases, lest the Left throw a fit.
Obama is in a peculiar position here. The trick for him is getting the ideological word out to those who are profiting from his policies (public sector workers primarily) and unvarnished Leftists — without worsening the picture among independent voters, who seem driven almost entirely by their disgust with excessive spending. But how can a president fly under the radar? Obama apparently believes he can attack Republicans, and do so vociferously, without cost because independents don’t like the GOP much either and deeply partisan Democrats hate them. But what is the effect of a president describing his opponents, as he did in Milwaukee, in patently sophomoric ways? “If I said the sky was blue, they’d say no,” he said. “If I said fish live in the sea, they’d say no.”
I could be wrong, but I very much doubt this is the kind of tone Americans want from a president. This is the president we’re talking about here, not some shlepper running for city council. It’s understandable that the president and the Democrats believe they need to get hard-hitting to draw distinctions, that this is their only hope. It is, however, hard to fathom how the White House and partisan Democrats can believe they can close the enthusiasm gap by making such pedestrian use of the bully pulpit. Rhetoric like this may only increase the sense among people who are paying attention that he is not handling this job well. And that might even include some of his own base, who really fell in love with High Obama, the natural aristocrat who spoke in front of those fake Greek columns at the Democratic convention and acted as though he were the second coming of Pericles.
Americans seldom think of Israel in the conventional terms of “alliance,” but Israelis must, perforce, think of America that way. In the most fundamental sense, alliances are formed for security benefits. We don’t have allies because we need them; we have allies because they need us. This works both ways. The benefit is inherently mutual in any alliance that two or more parties take the trouble to form.
When allies begin shopping for defense-cooperation agreements elsewhere, moreover, it always means something. Our pursuit of abstract multilateralism over the last two decades has blinded us to that reality. American diplomacy has tended to behave as if all bilateral developments were benign — a mere natural outgrowth of upbeat nations getting in touch with each other. But in the case of Israel in 2010, the meaning is specific and conventional.
Israel signed a framework agreement for defense cooperation with Russia on September 6 — the first ever between these two nations — and has been at work this year resurrecting its defense-cooperation agreement with China. The rapprochement with China is informative because Israel agreed in 2005, at the behest of the Bush administration, to back off from its military-related projects with Beijing. The U.S. concern at the time was technology proliferation, which is what the news and opinion media tend to focus on, particularly in America. (The new agreement with Russia is being discussed, in its turn, as a means for Russia to obtain cutting-edge UAVs from Israeli manufacturers.)
But Israel has bigger concerns than markets for military hardware. “Defense cooperation” portends more than military sales; it can mean conferences, intelligence and personnel exchanges, joint training, and shared weapons development. It’s a field of agreement with inherent implications for regional relations and security. And Israel’s defense-cooperation outreach this year is hardly random. Binyamin Netanyahu typically handles national security like a statesman in the Western classical mold, and it appears he is doing so here. Warming up ties with Russia and China is a way to gain leverage with the major outside powers that are putting down stakes in the Middle East as Obama’s America loses energy and presence.
The Netanyahu leadership has no illusions about the character of either Russia or China. But courting Russia gives Israel an entrée with a member of the Quartet other than the U.S. Rejuvenating cooperation with China creates the potential for leverage with one of Iran’s chief patrons; the link with Russia offers a similar benefit regarding not only Iran but also Syria, Turkey, Libya, and Algeria as well.
The impetus for Israel to do this now comes from the persistent inertia of the Obama administration. As painful as it is to say it, the potential is obvious for Obama’s role in the Quartet to produce disadvantages for Israel. There is no rational basis for assuming Obama will take effective action against Iran or revise his approach to Syria. Exclusive alignment with the policy trend of Obama’s America promises nothing but disaster for Israel. In the absence of American strength — across the whole Middle Eastern region — Israel’s security situation will change. Although it means inviting Russia further into the Middle East, Netanyahu must work with reality in 2010: he must look for support — for a balancing agent with the region’s radical regimes — where he can find it.
“Messaging” has gotten a bad name in politics. It denotes sloganeering, the sort of bumper-sticker politics that the elites disdain. But a coherent message suggests a coherent vision. The opposite is also true.
Less than eight weeks before the election, the Republicans, as Bill Kristol points out, have a nice, sharp message: stop spending so much and stop raising taxes. You might not agree with it, but you know what they stand for. This was, after all, the media and the Obami’s complaint — “no ideas” from Republicans.
What’s Obama got? Cut some taxes, but raise others. We’re on the road to recovery, but really not. The deficit is strangling us but here’s another $50B for some government-bank idea to build the roads which I had told you the $800B stimulus plan would pay for. It’s not only not working, it’s a jumble — and it’s magnifying the problem: businesses are racked with uncertainty.
It reminds me of watching the McCain campaign. Try this, roll out that, stop — no, restart — the campaign. What was next — juggling knives? All it did was convince voters that he didn’t understand their concerns and didn’t have a coherent economic message. And you know what? McCain really doesn’t. (Climate-control legislation and small government don’t really go together, do they?)
Obama had a coherent vision — lots of government, spending, and tax hikes. The voters hated it and it didn’t work. But you knew what he stood for. Now he’s throwing everything up against the wall in the hope that the public will be impressed with his “focus” on the economy. But he seems harried, out of his depth. Albeit unintended, the message he is sending is: “I haven’t got a clue what to do.” Yeah, we noticed.
And meanwhile, beleaguered Democrats have a message for Obama: forget it. Expect to see more of this:
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) broke with President Obama on Wednesday, saying he would not support any additional stimulus spending.
Bennet, who was endorsed by the president in Colorado but is facing a tough reelection, rejected the $50 billion public works program proposed by Obama earlier this week.
“I will not support additional spending in a second stimulus package,” Bennet said in a statement.
Perhaps if he had shown some independence with respect to health care and the spend-athon earlier on, he wouldn’t be so beleaguered now.
Hillary Clinton delivered a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. The text can be read in full here. A few observations.
She, unlike the president, seems rhetorically willing to fly the banner of American exceptionalism:
The United States can, must, and will lead in this new century.
Indeed, the complexities and connections of today’s world have yielded a new American Moment. A moment when our global leadership is essential, even if we must often lead in new ways. A moment when those things that make us who we are as a nation — our openness and innovation, our determination, and devotion to core values — have never been needed more.
Her argument, however, that she and the Obama team have furthered American influence and power is belied by the facts. But this does not deter her from offering disingenuous platitudes. (“From Europe and North America to East Asia and the Pacific, we are renewing and deepening the alliances that are the cornerstone of global security and prosperity.” Apparently Britain, Honduras, Israel, India, Eastern Europe, and others don’t understand that their relationship with us has “deepened.”) She touts progress with China, but one is left wondering where this has manifested itself. China has grown more aggressive, not less, and its human-rights abuses have not abated.
Second, the aversion to hard power is obvious. The cornerstones of American leadership according to Clinton are domestic economic strength and “diplomacy.” She has a single line, a throw-away to mollify the easily mollified (“This administration is also committed to maintaining the greatest military in the history of the world and, if needed, to vigorously defending our friends and ourselves.”) But in paragraph after paragraph of blather (I spare you the extract) about global architecture and centers of influence, she makes it clear that her idea of foreign policy is: talk, talk, and more talk. And her sole mention of the two wars is this: “Long after our troops come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, our diplomatic and development assistance and support for the Afghan security forces will continue.” So much for projecting American power and values.
Most troubling, however, is the placement of Iran in the speech and the content. It comes at the very end, suggesting that it really is not at the top of her to-do list. She gives no indication that this is the most pressing issue we face. And she dispenses with even the formulaic “all options are on the table.” None of this suggests that the administration is serious — gone is even the term ”unacceptable”:
First, we began by making the United States a full partner and active participant in international diplomatic efforts regarding Iran. Through our continued willingness to engage Iran directly, we have re-energized the conversation with our allies and are removing easy excuses for lack of progress.
Second, we have sought to frame this issue within the global non-proliferation regime in which the rules of the road are clearly defined for all parties. To lead by example, we have renewed our own disarmament efforts. Our deepened support for global institutions such as the IAEA underscores the authority of the international system of rights and responsibilities. Iran, on the other hand, continues to single itself out through its own actions. Its intransigence represents a challenge to the rules to which all countries must adhere.
Third, we continue to strengthen relationships with those countries whose help we need if diplomacy is to be successful. Through classic shoe-leather diplomacy, we have built a broad consensus that will welcome Iran back into the community of nations if it meets its obligations and likewise will hold Iran accountable to its obligations if it continues its defiance.
This spring, the UN Security Council passed the strongest and most comprehensive set of sanctions ever on Iran. The European Union has followed up with robust implementation of that resolution. Many other nations are implementing their own additional measures, including Australia, Canada, Norway and most recently Japan. We believe Iran is only just beginning to feel the full impact of sanctions. Beyond what governments are doing, the international financial and commercial sectors are also starting to recognize the risks of doing business with Iran.
Sanctions and pressure are not ends in themselves. They are the building blocks of leverage for a negotiated solution, to which we and our partners remain committed. The choice for Iran’s leaders is clear, even if they attempt to obfuscate and avoid it: Meet the responsibilities incumbent upon all nations and enjoy the benefits of integration into the international community, or continue to flout your obligations and accept increasing isolation and costs. Iran now must decide for itself.
That is it. The whole thing. It is a shocking, even for them, signal of the nonchalance with which the Obami view the most pressing national-security concern of our time. And much of what she says is simply gibberish. For example: “Through our continued willingness to engage Iran directly, we have re-energized the conversation with our allies and are removing easy excuses for lack of progress.” What is she talking about? Iran made excuses before, they make them now, and we’ve lost 18 months in fruitless negotiations.
Israelis, I am sure, are listening carefully. While they go through the motions at the save-face-for-Obama Middle East peace talks, they must surely be coming to terms with the fact that their military is all that stands between the West and a nuclear-armed Iran. If Hillary is any indication, they will get no help from us.
The discussion over the past week stimulated by Jay Cost’s claim that health-care reform must be accounted a major part of the desperate woes of Obama and the Democrats led me to go back and look at some of my own posts at the time the bill was passed in the spring. I do this not to claim prescience but to show that the deep damage the bill would do to the president and his party was already in the mix of the public discussion and obvious at the time to anyone who was not deluding himself with hope born from passion for the bill’s goals. The same delusions appear to be at work today in some quarters.
Three weeks before the bill passed, on February 26, in a post called “The Charge of the Democratic Light Brigade,” I wrote: “If the health-care bill collapses, the Obama presidency will be dealt a staggering blow from which it could recover, I would guess, only with a really extraordinary economic turnaround. The political calamity for Democrats in November will still take place; the president will lose the entirety of his capital with elected officials in his party; the media, sniffing a loser, will turn slowly but surely on him; and the conviction inside his own camp that he can work wonders with his silver-tongued patter will dissipate, causing a complete crisis of confidence inside the White House. It would be better for him, unquestionably, for the legislation to pass, as a practical political matter. One could argue that the fate of his party really does rest on Obama’s shoulders, so it would be better for Democrats as well. But not for individual Democrats. So what happens if the Obama-Pelosi-Reid strategy for health-care passage is an order to House Democrats to carry out a suicide mission?…I don’t think there’s ever been a situation like this in American political history. Every way you look at it, Democrats are boxed in, forced to choose between extraordinarily unattractive options. What makes it especially noteworthy is that this was a calamity they summoned entirely upon themselves.”
Thus, on the evening the House approved the bill with 219 votes in favor, I wrote: “The passage tonight in the House of Representatives of the Senate’s health-care bill is indeed a historic moment. It draws the brightest ideological and political line between the two parties since the end of the Cold War — which featured a profound conflict of visions about the question of confronting the Soviet Union or accommodating it — and revivifies the Republican party’s role in opposition to the state’s growing encroachment on the particulars of American life. The fighting has only just begun.”
The next day, I wrote a post called Obama’s Pseudo-Achievement: “He and his advisers surveyed the political field after the election of Scott Brown and they saw their own potential epitaph — not in the rejection of his ideas but in the potential exposure of his weakness. A president cannot seem politically weak; much if not most of his ability to act is predicated on the notion that he is the strongest public official in the country. They determined that they had to push health care or die, and they worked their will relentlessly, and they got what they wanted….And yet one must not get carried away. The story here is not that he succeeded against all odds and with the winds against him to push through historic legislation, even though that is what the media would have you believe. The story is that a party holding a 75-seat margin in the House of Representatives was barely able to squeak by with its greatest legislative priority and most devoutly desired policy. That is the salient fact here. What Obama pulled off was a textbook example of raw intra-party discipline; the unpopularity of the measure and its political consequences remain exactly as they were before the vote.”