Commentary Magazine


Posts For: January 28, 2014

SOTU: Obama Goes Through the Motions

There was plenty of big talk in the 2014 State of the Union address. President Obama exhorted Americans to accept his baseless claim that the economy is reviving and urged them to believe his jarringly upbeat view of the nation’s future. He tried to sound assertive as he vowed to use executive orders to get his way if Congress didn’t give him what he wanted. He touted ObamaCare. And he closed with an inspiring story of a wounded Army Ranger. But there’s no mistaking that this was a speech given by a president mired in second-term doldrums. There were not only a total of zero new ideas; almost everything in it was recycled from past addresses including a grimly risible vow to close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that he has kept open throughout his presidency even though he’s been promising to close it since 2008.

Although everything in this message was poll-tested and designed to be popular, this State of the Union (SOTU) did nothing but reinforce the impression that the president is mechanically going through the motions. The press had been prepped to believe the president would come out swinging tonight, defying Congress and vowing to seize the reins of government into his own hands. But what the country heard instead was confirmation of what many had already suspected after a disastrous 2013 for the president: he has passed over the historic bridge from celebrated re-election to the status of an irrelevant lame-duck.

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There was plenty of big talk in the 2014 State of the Union address. President Obama exhorted Americans to accept his baseless claim that the economy is reviving and urged them to believe his jarringly upbeat view of the nation’s future. He tried to sound assertive as he vowed to use executive orders to get his way if Congress didn’t give him what he wanted. He touted ObamaCare. And he closed with an inspiring story of a wounded Army Ranger. But there’s no mistaking that this was a speech given by a president mired in second-term doldrums. There were not only a total of zero new ideas; almost everything in it was recycled from past addresses including a grimly risible vow to close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that he has kept open throughout his presidency even though he’s been promising to close it since 2008.

Although everything in this message was poll-tested and designed to be popular, this State of the Union (SOTU) did nothing but reinforce the impression that the president is mechanically going through the motions. The press had been prepped to believe the president would come out swinging tonight, defying Congress and vowing to seize the reins of government into his own hands. But what the country heard instead was confirmation of what many had already suspected after a disastrous 2013 for the president: he has passed over the historic bridge from celebrated re-election to the status of an irrelevant lame-duck.

Virtually every item in the president’s speech had been heard before and introduced with greater passion and urgency in the past. Everything on his long, dreary laundry list had a tired feel to it, showing the country and the world that his only answer to the nation’s problems is to continue recycling the timeworn and ineffective policies that he’s been peddling for five years.

All his proposals were cribbed from the 2013 State of the Union including calls to address income inequality, raise the minimum wage, invest in solar energy, universal pre-kindergarten, and student loans. But the difference between the two speeches could be measured not simply in terms of the mind-numbing number of tedious repetitions, but in the drab, lethargic affect the president projected as he droned on. Last year he managed to convey the liberal agenda with confidence and urgency. That energy was completely lacking in tonight’s speech. After a year of scandals and a disastrous rollout of his signature health-care plan—whose problems were never once mentioned in the speech—the president seems unable to muster the requisite emotional enthusiasm or the intellectual firepower to challenge or inspire the nation.

As to specifics, the much-trumpeted “year of action” on inequality was merely a rehash of the same proposals that have already been rejected.  The only new idea he presented was an absurd call for all employers to give their employees raises, a shameless populist appeal that makes no economic sense. The man who promised to turn back the oceans and remake America is now reduced to an utterly pathetic plea that America should get a raise. Even the talk of governing by executive orders was delivered more as a talking point than a genuine appeal for change.

On foreign policy, his strongest words were delivered in a threat to veto new economic sanctions on Iran that he thinks will upset his diplomatic outreach to the Islamist regime. His drive for détente with Iran—bolstered by false claims about inspections and Iran destroying its uranium stockpile—seems to fire him up but his chutzpah in proclaiming Syria—where he endured total humiliation in 2013—as a triumph for his policies shows just how shockingly removed from reality this administration has become.

With three years to go, there is still plenty of time for Obama to continue spinning his wheels on a health-care plan that is a fiasco and proposals such as the minimum wage that will only serve to increase unemployment. But tonight made clear that there is nothing new left in his bag of tricks. The sounds you’re hearing now, and will for the next three years, are the querulous quacks of a very lame duck.

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The Immigration Imperative

Once again, two of the leading voices of American conservatism have joined forces to try to thwart any chance of immigration reform. Last July, William Kristol, the publisher of the Weekly Standard and Rich Lowry, editor of National Review co-wrote an article that appeared in both publications denouncing the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate. Their arguments won favor with the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives and the bill never saw the light of day in the House for the rest of 2013. Nor will it resurface in 2014, but House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he intends to heed some of Kristol’s and Lowry’s admonitions about the perils of all such large-scale bills that few completely understand. As the New York Times reports, the GOP leadership will consider the Senate bill’s separate components and allow the House to debate and vote on measures for securing the borders, as well as those dealing with the status of the 11 million illegal aliens already in the country and other reforms to deal with a woefully dysfunctional system.

But Kristol and Lowry are once again fiercely resisting the prospect of any debate in the House, let alone a vote on immigration reform. Echoing the dismay of some among the party’s grass roots, Kristol and Lowry have advised Boehner and his colleagues literally to “do nothing” on the issue. They believe that even allowing bills to come to the floor will provoke a bitter, internecine battle among Republicans, one that will hamstring the party in its efforts to hold the House and win back the Senate this fall. Both say that the Obama administration can’t be trusted to secure the border and fear that even an “innocuous” measure passed by the House that fails to deal with the dilemma of the illegals should be avoided lest it be transformed into something truly dangerous in a conference with the Senate. They say there is no urgency to act on immigration and the GOP should shelve the entire topic to await another day after they have won in November, or perhaps even after until a Republican is installed in the White House.

While their fears of an intra-party battle on immigration and their cynicism about a lawless Obama administration are far from unreasonable, this time around Boehner should not follow their counsel. Despite the dangers to the party of a debate or a vote on the issue, the House has a responsibility to act. To fail to do so for either partisan reasons or an understandably jaundiced view of how the Obama administration would execute the law will not only haunt the GOP for years to come, but is also bad public policy.

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Once again, two of the leading voices of American conservatism have joined forces to try to thwart any chance of immigration reform. Last July, William Kristol, the publisher of the Weekly Standard and Rich Lowry, editor of National Review co-wrote an article that appeared in both publications denouncing the bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate. Their arguments won favor with the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives and the bill never saw the light of day in the House for the rest of 2013. Nor will it resurface in 2014, but House Speaker John Boehner has indicated that he intends to heed some of Kristol’s and Lowry’s admonitions about the perils of all such large-scale bills that few completely understand. As the New York Times reports, the GOP leadership will consider the Senate bill’s separate components and allow the House to debate and vote on measures for securing the borders, as well as those dealing with the status of the 11 million illegal aliens already in the country and other reforms to deal with a woefully dysfunctional system.

But Kristol and Lowry are once again fiercely resisting the prospect of any debate in the House, let alone a vote on immigration reform. Echoing the dismay of some among the party’s grass roots, Kristol and Lowry have advised Boehner and his colleagues literally to “do nothing” on the issue. They believe that even allowing bills to come to the floor will provoke a bitter, internecine battle among Republicans, one that will hamstring the party in its efforts to hold the House and win back the Senate this fall. Both say that the Obama administration can’t be trusted to secure the border and fear that even an “innocuous” measure passed by the House that fails to deal with the dilemma of the illegals should be avoided lest it be transformed into something truly dangerous in a conference with the Senate. They say there is no urgency to act on immigration and the GOP should shelve the entire topic to await another day after they have won in November, or perhaps even after until a Republican is installed in the White House.

While their fears of an intra-party battle on immigration and their cynicism about a lawless Obama administration are far from unreasonable, this time around Boehner should not follow their counsel. Despite the dangers to the party of a debate or a vote on the issue, the House has a responsibility to act. To fail to do so for either partisan reasons or an understandably jaundiced view of how the Obama administration would execute the law will not only haunt the GOP for years to come, but is also bad public policy.

Both Kristol and Lowry are on firm ground when they say the American people are not clamoring for immigration reform. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed immigration to be at the bottom of citizens’ priorities, well below more urgent concerns about the economy and a host of other issues. Indeed, only climate change ranked lower than immigration in terms of the urgency with which the issue judged by a majority of Americans.

They’re also right about the dangers of a GOP civil war over immigration. Many conservatives and Tea Partiers are adamant opponents of any legislation that would address the problem, even if it included, as did the Senate bill, tough new provisions for policing the border. Like National Review, they are appalled at the prospect of “amnesty” for the 11 million illegals even if they have no answer for resolving this dilemma other than impractical ideas such as more deportations. They are equally opposed to addressing the status of the children of illegals and treat DREAM act measures that seek to give these individuals—who, unlike their parents, have broken no law —a chance to attain citizenship.

Reform proponents rightly answer that de facto “amnesty” is in place already, with the government unable to force illegals to leave the country or to grant legal status to those who are honest, hard-working contributors to our society. Indeed, even a bill that stops short of a path to citizenship will face the unswerving opposition of many Republicans.

But just because it won’t be easy doesn’t mean immigration reform, even in a far more truncated form than the Senate bill, isn’t worth doing. Congress has an obligation to try to fix what is broken in our government and there is nothing more dysfunctional than an immigration system that doesn’t work well for those who obey our laws or those who came here illegally largely for economic reasons. Republicans have good reason not to trust the administration to secure the border. The responsible answer to those fears is to write a bill without loopholes and to use the power of the purse to ensure that the will of Congress is obeyed.

As for the political fallout from an immigration debate, Republicans will survive a dustup over the issue. The real fear here is not that anger over the discussion will tear Republicans apart in a manner that will prevent them from taking back the Senate but the fact that opponents of immigration reform know they will lose in the House just as they did in the Senate if a vote is held. As long as Republicans keep their promise to address border security first, there is no reason that Republicans should fear to act on the issue.

Of course, lurking behind this argument is the ongoing discussion about the Republican problems with Hispanic voters. Kristol and Lowry and other conservatives have rightly pointed out that any Republicans who believe passing immigration reform will attract large numbers of Hispanic voters are mistaken. There is no quid pro quo here and this largely liberal group is not going to be enticed into embracing the GOP because of this one issue.

But the problem here goes deeper than the Hispanic vote. As I’ve written before, Kristol and Lowry were wrong to assert last July that, in contrast to previous debates, this round has not been tarnished by anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic rhetoric by GOP foes of immigration reform. The danger is not just that Republicans may be writing off Hispanic voters for the foreseeable future by tabling reform, but that they are in peril of being seen by the electorate as intolerant.

Republicans have an obligation to oppose Barack Obama’s big-government agenda. But wherever possible, they must do all they can to govern responsibly. There are aspects of immigration on which common ground can be established between both parties. Just saying no to immigration is an option for Republicans, but it is not a responsible one. Nor is it a choice that enhances their chances to win in 2014 or beyond.

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Pete Seeger and the Judgment of History

How do you separate musical icons from the politics that either ennobled or besmirched their reputations? The answer is that you can’t. And there’s no better example of this than singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger is being lionized in the mainstream liberal media as the troubadour of social activism whose songs were the soundtrack of the struggle for civil rights, social equality, and against the Vietnam War. Seeger had, by the time he died, ascended to the status of a secular saint and was considered great not just because of his music but because of his left-wing politics and his struggles during the McCarthy period, when he was blacklisted.

In this retelling of his story, Seeger’s actual beliefs were beside the point. Any criticism of his actions and affiliations was branded as intolerant or worse, a revival of anti-Communist fear-mongering. It is this Pete Seeger that America celebrated in recent decades. Though he could often be seen at left-wing demonstrations, even showing up at the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, the man who sang at Barack Obama’s first inaugural with Bruce Springsteen was no longer controversial. If he was not quite the Rosa Parks of folk song, he had become something fairly close.

But the complete truth about Seeger is not as simple as that. Seeger wasn’t merely affiliated with left-wing groups in his youth. He was an active member of the Communist Party (CP) and a loyal Stalinist who put his talent in the service of that conspiratorial and murderous movement.

So who was Pete Seeger? Was he the hero or the villain? The answer is that he was both. Or more to the point, he was a great musician who sometimes put himself on the right side of history and sometimes on the wrong one. Which is why the unalloyed tributes to Seeger being broadcast today on the networks and published in the mainstream media have it wrong. But the same judgment applies to some on the right who can’t see past his sins.

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How do you separate musical icons from the politics that either ennobled or besmirched their reputations? The answer is that you can’t. And there’s no better example of this than singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger is being lionized in the mainstream liberal media as the troubadour of social activism whose songs were the soundtrack of the struggle for civil rights, social equality, and against the Vietnam War. Seeger had, by the time he died, ascended to the status of a secular saint and was considered great not just because of his music but because of his left-wing politics and his struggles during the McCarthy period, when he was blacklisted.

In this retelling of his story, Seeger’s actual beliefs were beside the point. Any criticism of his actions and affiliations was branded as intolerant or worse, a revival of anti-Communist fear-mongering. It is this Pete Seeger that America celebrated in recent decades. Though he could often be seen at left-wing demonstrations, even showing up at the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, the man who sang at Barack Obama’s first inaugural with Bruce Springsteen was no longer controversial. If he was not quite the Rosa Parks of folk song, he had become something fairly close.

But the complete truth about Seeger is not as simple as that. Seeger wasn’t merely affiliated with left-wing groups in his youth. He was an active member of the Communist Party (CP) and a loyal Stalinist who put his talent in the service of that conspiratorial and murderous movement.

So who was Pete Seeger? Was he the hero or the villain? The answer is that he was both. Or more to the point, he was a great musician who sometimes put himself on the right side of history and sometimes on the wrong one. Which is why the unalloyed tributes to Seeger being broadcast today on the networks and published in the mainstream media have it wrong. But the same judgment applies to some on the right who can’t see past his sins.

It should be understood that his youthful infatuation with Stalinism was neither superficial nor a passing fancy. To his shame, he toured the country singing protest songs from 1939 to 1941. But he was not protesting the Nazis nor did he support those fighting them. Rather, he was part of the CP campaign conducted at Moscow’s behest that sought to combat any effort to involve the United States in World War Two. The Hitler-Stalin Pact had made the Soviets Germany’s ally until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union brought them into the war. Seeger remained a party member until the 1950s and even long after he abandoned it, he continued to refer to himself as a communist with a small “c” rather than an upper-case one.

To many liberals as well as the stalwarts of the old left, this is nothing for which he should apologize. Liberal revisionism has transformed the vicious Communism of this era from an anti-American and anti-democratic conspiracy into a romantic expression of support for human rights. As such, Seeger and many of his comrades were able to bask in the applause of subsequent generations rather than having to atone for having been a proud apologist for one of the worst criminals in history as well as for the mass murder and anti-Semitism that was integral to Soviet communism. While isolationists like Charles Lindberg and other apologists for Hitler never lived down that association, Stalinists like Seeger had a rough time in the 1950s but were ultimately honored for their disgraceful behavior.

That is infuriating, and for many conservatives like Pajama Media’s Ed Driscoll, unforgivable. The honors showered on the elderly Seeger serve only to deepen the bitterness of those who not unreasonably believe the adamant refusal to tell the truth about this chapter of Seeger’s life—both in the news media and in documentary films about him—undermines our ability to take a full measure of the man, and is an insult to all those who take seriously the eternal struggle against the enemies of freedom.

And yet there is more to Seeger than these two inconsistent narratives. As historian Ron Radosh, a former banjo student of the singer as well as an indispensable chronicler of Communism, movingly wrote in 2007 in the New York Sun, Seeger had, by the end of his life, finally understood the magnitude of some of his earlier errors. As Radosh wrote, Seeger admitted that he was wrong never to have protested Stalin’s tyranny and atoned in part by belatedly writing a song denouncing the gulag.

Ultimately, as with all artists of every stripe, history will judge Seeger more for the quality of his music than his politics. As Paul Berman wrote today in the New Republic, songs like If I Had a Hammer or Where Have All the Flowers Gone, not to mention We Shall Overcome, will deserve to be sung a hundred years from now no matter what Seeger believed about communism. His legacy is far messier than most of the tributes will admit. But to listen to his vintage recordings or those of the groundbreaking folk group “The Weavers” to which he lent his tenor voice and banjo is to hear a great artist and a genuine voice of American culture. It is that Pete Seeger, and the not the sanitized liberal icon or the Stalinist front man, who will be remembered.

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Obama Still Needs Congress

“Sure, economists disagree among themselves about a number of public policy issues, but not about the desirability of free trade,” Cato’s Daniel Griswold wrote in 2009. Griswold was remarking on a survey of economists that gave further credence to the existence of a solid consensus on the benefits of free trade. That consensus, along with basic principles of economic liberty, has buttressed conservative and libertarian support to the point where the right is broadly pro-trade.

The left isn’t, in part because unions support protectionist trade barriers and liberals can’t resist the chance to tax something. That puts President Obama in a bind: he’s somewhere between congressional Democrats and Republicans on trade, so he wants a new trade deal but doesn’t want it subjected to Republican amendments or a Democratic veto. What he wants, then, is Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track powers to strike a trade deal that would be ratified by Congress but not subject to amendment.

In this, he is obviously dependent on Republicans, since they are more likely to want a trade deal with either our European or Pacific allies. But supporting the president’s trade authority isn’t the same thing as supporting free trade. Normally, Obama would appear to have the upper hand: the more serious the reservations Democrats have about his trade plans, the more beneficial Republicans might see such a trade deal. In that, divided government and the two parties’ gap in support for trade would seem to work in Obama’s favor. But what if Democrats and Republicans both have the same concerns?

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“Sure, economists disagree among themselves about a number of public policy issues, but not about the desirability of free trade,” Cato’s Daniel Griswold wrote in 2009. Griswold was remarking on a survey of economists that gave further credence to the existence of a solid consensus on the benefits of free trade. That consensus, along with basic principles of economic liberty, has buttressed conservative and libertarian support to the point where the right is broadly pro-trade.

The left isn’t, in part because unions support protectionist trade barriers and liberals can’t resist the chance to tax something. That puts President Obama in a bind: he’s somewhere between congressional Democrats and Republicans on trade, so he wants a new trade deal but doesn’t want it subjected to Republican amendments or a Democratic veto. What he wants, then, is Trade Promotion Authority, also known as fast-track powers to strike a trade deal that would be ratified by Congress but not subject to amendment.

In this, he is obviously dependent on Republicans, since they are more likely to want a trade deal with either our European or Pacific allies. But supporting the president’s trade authority isn’t the same thing as supporting free trade. Normally, Obama would appear to have the upper hand: the more serious the reservations Democrats have about his trade plans, the more beneficial Republicans might see such a trade deal. In that, divided government and the two parties’ gap in support for trade would seem to work in Obama’s favor. But what if Democrats and Republicans both have the same concerns?

That is where the president has found himself on the issue as of late, and it’s a mostly ignored but somewhat fascinating consequence of Obama’s obsession with usurping Congress’s authority. At the Weekly Standard, Irwin Stelzer explains:

Start with the particular president who is requesting this authority. He is no George W. Bush, to whom Congress granted such authority. President Obama has made it clear that he will enforce those parts of any legislation or treaty that suit him, de facto amend legislation without seeking congressional approval, and write regulations that order nonenforcement of laws he does not like. Congress refused to pass his Dream Act, so he ordered the authorities to treat illegal aliens as if it had; enforcement of Obamacare’s employer mandate at the date specified in the law became inconvenient, so he unilaterally postponed it; he has decided not to enforce the federal law against the sale of marijuana. There’s more, but you get the idea.

It is therefore not unreasonable to suppose that a provision in one of these trade pacts that benefits some industry or company that later fails to toe the presidential line or pay financial obeisance to Democratic campaign committees will disappear in a haze of bureaucratic rulings. In short, whatever the theoretical benefits of free trade, they must be weighed against increasing this president’s ability to exercise even more extralegal power over American businesses. One example: The Asia deal might include a concession from Japan to ease imports of made-in-America vehicles. It is not beyond imagining that the president will interpret that to apply only to the green vehicles of which he is so fond.

The discussion about the president’s plans to announce in his State of the Union address that he will continue taking executive actions in lieu of recognizing the existence of Congress has, appropriately, centered on the legality of the proposed actions. That is, can the president do that?

Another interesting question, and one raised by Stelzer’s piece, is: even if the president can take such action, should he? We often speak about the president’s executive actions as if the only downside to them is if they get overturned later on by the courts. But the trade conundrum in which the president finds himself suggests there’s another possible downside: neither party trusts him to follow the law.

This is a damaging assessment, and it is one that is generally independent of public opinion. And that is potentially more of an obstacle to Obama anyway. He is no longer running for reelection, so public support only gets him so far. And there are only so many actions the president can take on his own. At yesterday’s White House briefing, Jay Carney said the president would work with Congress where he can, and do the rest on his own: “this is not an either-or proposition. It’s a both-and.” Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, don’t seem to agree.

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Obama Has Already Proved He Can’t Govern

One of the highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight is his announcement of an executive order raising the minimum wage for those working for contractors doing business with the federal government. The measure is a political trifecta for the president: he gets to bypass Congress, play to the populist grandstand, and inject some life into a moribund presidency with three years left before it officially expires. Tonight’s event and the speaking tour on which the president embarks tomorrow is designed to send the less-than-credible message that he is very much in charge of the government, has the political juice to beat the Republicans while raising his poor favorability ratings, thus reassuring himself, if no one else, that he is no lame duck.

The union that the president will claim tonight is still strong, though it is not a dictatorship. While the commander in chief has the power to make foreign policy and wage war and—thanks to the courts—can impose environmental regulations, the Constitution set up impassable obstacles to prevent a president from ruling without the consent of Congress. The notion that Obama can govern by executive order is just as much an illusion as the idea that imposing higher minimum wages will improve the economy and create more jobs rather than lose them.

But while Obama will garner some partisan applause by unilaterally raising the wages of some workers to $10.10 from $7.25, the impact of this measure is as much trickery as is Obama’s belief that he can govern alone bypassing Congress. The president’s frustration at his inability to get his liberal laundry passed by Congress may be understandable. But freelancing from the Oval Office isn’t the answer to divided government. Good-faith negotiations and deal making—practices to which this aloof president has always disdained—are the answer.

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One of the highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight is his announcement of an executive order raising the minimum wage for those working for contractors doing business with the federal government. The measure is a political trifecta for the president: he gets to bypass Congress, play to the populist grandstand, and inject some life into a moribund presidency with three years left before it officially expires. Tonight’s event and the speaking tour on which the president embarks tomorrow is designed to send the less-than-credible message that he is very much in charge of the government, has the political juice to beat the Republicans while raising his poor favorability ratings, thus reassuring himself, if no one else, that he is no lame duck.

The union that the president will claim tonight is still strong, though it is not a dictatorship. While the commander in chief has the power to make foreign policy and wage war and—thanks to the courts—can impose environmental regulations, the Constitution set up impassable obstacles to prevent a president from ruling without the consent of Congress. The notion that Obama can govern by executive order is just as much an illusion as the idea that imposing higher minimum wages will improve the economy and create more jobs rather than lose them.

But while Obama will garner some partisan applause by unilaterally raising the wages of some workers to $10.10 from $7.25, the impact of this measure is as much trickery as is Obama’s belief that he can govern alone bypassing Congress. The president’s frustration at his inability to get his liberal laundry passed by Congress may be understandable. But freelancing from the Oval Office isn’t the answer to divided government. Good-faith negotiations and deal making—practices to which this aloof president has always disdained—are the answer.

The actual number of workers affected by the wage increase he will impose on federal contractors will be small. But even so, it shows just how great the disconnect between the president’s rhetoric and the reality of job creation has become. Nowhere in the speech or in the campaign-style pep he’ll give later this week is there any specificity about where the money to pay the higher wages will come from or what the government will do to help the workers who may lose their jobs altogether as a result of cutbacks that companies will be forced to endure as a result of this transparent grandstanding.

The point of the president’s entirely disingenuous focus on the minimum wage is to preview the Democrats’ intention to play the populist card this year with their bogus concerns about income inequality. Although the measure polls well, the increase will do more to help middle-class teenagers rather than to help the working poor who understand that minimum-wage positions are intended, to be gateway jobs, not a way to permanently support families. Indeed, most Americans understand that this is, at best, a sideshow intended,  like so much else in the liberal repertory, to divert them from the larger issue of a still weak economy.

Five years into the Obama presidency, it is no longer possible for the president to credibly blame, as he has done every previous year, the country’s economic woes on his predecessor. Instead, he will blame Congress, specifically the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, for thwarting his agenda.

But the problem for the president is not just that he has never learned the art of negotiating with Republicans or even with Democrats who disagree with him. His bid to govern unilaterally through executive orders is, after all, nothing new. Even in his first two years, when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, he was even more intransigent. He pushed through a health-care bill that vastly expanded the reach and power of the federal government without a single Republican vote and has since persevered in implementing this ObamaCare disaster by choosing to ignore and to suppress any criticisms of this gargantuan error rather than to try to deal with its flaws. Thus, we have already seen Obama’s approach to unilateral governance, and the results are as bad as his critics expected.

Try as they might to change the subject, the negative impact of ObamaCare on the economy and the lives of millions of Americans will remain the single most important domestic issue in 2014. The minimum wage is economic snake oil. But so, too, is the president’s feckless effort to pretend he can magically bypass Congress. Rather than breathe new life into a presidency that has gone seriously off the rails, this stunt will merely confirm that the White House is as helpless to raise the president’s poll numbers as it is to improve the economy. Rhetoric may have won Barack Obama the presidency, but it cannot make up for his inability to govern.

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History, Democracy, and Egypt’s Revolution

In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

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In his 2001 book on Russia’s post-Soviet political development, Michael McFaul makes an incisive point about the role of history in a country’s progression. Not all history influences the future, and of the history that does, its distribution of influence is unequal. McFaul explains the importance of timing: “It is precisely during periods of institutional breakdown or crisis that the greatest opportunity occurs for initial decisions to have lasting, path-dependent effects.”

The Soviet experience shaped how Russian society would react to the introduction of a market economy, and that rocky transition shaped how many Russians would view the idea of democracy: in the end, with suspicion and from a distance. This was always a risk with the Arab Spring as well. Dictatorships that disappear not through gradual reform but through sudden uprisings experience democracy in the wrong order: without the institutions that make it stick and insulate the public from its initial turbulence. The Soviet Union was ended after a period of real reform, and yet still experienced the convulsions of national rebirth.

Thus one of the lessons of the Arab Spring, as the “realist” illusion of stability was in ruins across the Middle East, was that the freedoms won were immediately at risk of being lost. That is unfortunately exactly what has happened in Egypt, as both Jonathan and Max discussed yesterday. The Muslim Brotherhood, currently on the receiving end of the country’s newest authoritarianism, is not blameless in finding itself there, and here it’s worth recalling that the pro-democracy voices in the West were sometimes far more realistic in their assessments at the outset of the Egyptian turmoil.

On February 5, 2011, CNN featured the Egyptian-American leftist Mona Eltahawy and Alan Dershowitz arguing over Egypt’s future. Eltahawy was filled with righteous anger and a sense of her own superior perspective on the issue. She also turned out to be wrong on everything, and Dershowitz right. That in itself isn’t too surprising; Eltahawy flaunts her hostility to Western liberalism, which often leads her down the path of spite and illogic when she claims to know better. But it was Dershowitz’s caution that was notable: he understood from the outset that the worst outcome for Egypt would be a replica of Hamas’s rise next door in Gaza, when the Islamist terrorist group won an election and immediately rolled back any scrap of democracy to secure its tyrannical rule.

Dershowitz warned that the strongest party in the emerging Egyptian power vacuum was the Muslim Brotherhood, and that a Brotherhood election victory could actually be a setback for democracy in Egypt. Of course he was obviously correct even then, but Eltahawy angrily shot back that Dershowitz was a hypocrite, and the following discussion ensued:

ELTAHAWY: You know, it’s interesting to hear Alan used the word democracy because that’s exactly what Egypt is working on right now. These millions of Egyptians who have been on the streets for the past 12 days want to be democratic.

So it’s very hypocritical to describe Israel as a democracy and be alarmist about what’s happening in Egypt because surely you and everyone in Israel should be happy that your neighbor wants to be a democracy and democratic neighbors are happy.

DERSHOWITZ: If it’s a real democracy, not a Hamas-type democracy.

ELTAHAWY: You know, you can’t label democracy. Democracy is the people choosing the government they want and what you’re doing is being alarmist. This is not about Muslim Brotherhood. This is about Egyptians determining their future without anyone else’s interference.

MALVEAUX: David, you want to respond –

DERSHOWITZ: The people chose Adolf Hitler in 1932 by democratic means and the people would probably have chosen Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by democratic means. So democracy has to be both structural that is elections, but also functional. If you elect people who then take away all the rights and make women wear Burqas and deny people the right of –

ELTAHAWY: Wait, wait, wait. Who said — this is utter nonsense. This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood and burqas. You’re talking nonsense.

DERSHOWITZ: You’re just wrong. You’re just wrong. Of course, it has everything to do with the Muslim Brotherhood.

I remembered the debate at the time because it was so typical of the two sides of this argument: Eltahawy’s ignorance (“you can’t label democracy”; “This has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood”) and Dershowitz’s historical awareness. It turned out that past was prologue, in Egypt as elsewhere.

The Egyptian army’s displacement of the Brotherhood government was indeed a military coup. But the Brotherhood government not only wasn’t a democracy; it actually went a long way toward discrediting democracy in the region precisely because of the principle McFaul espoused with regard to Russia. Westerners may be criticized for a bias toward democracy abroad, but in some cases–as with Egypt–they are more realistic about the nature of democracy than they are usually given credit for.

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Obama Both Incompetent and Consequential

I have a high regard for Paul Mirengoff, who writes for Powerlineblog.com. In a recent post, Mirengoff, in responding to something I had written, said the following:

Peter Wehner calls President Obama “Jimmy Carter without Camp David.” It’s a great line, and one I’d like to subscribe to. But is it apt?

If we are to make the analogy, then Jimmy Carter can be cast as Barack Obama without Obamacare. And if Republicans cooperate with Democrats to enact amnesty-style immigration reform, Carter will be Obama without Obamacare and amnesty.

Obamacare (assuming no repeal) and significant pro-illegal immigrant reform would be enough to make Obama’s presidency of more than average consequence. Carter’s presidency, even with Camp David, was inconsequential except to the extent that it paved the way for Reagan’s.

I’ll take this opportunity to clarify what I was saying. My point about President Obama being Jimmy Carter without Camp David has to do with Mr. Obama being incompetent; I wasn’t arguing that he’s inconsequential.

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I have a high regard for Paul Mirengoff, who writes for Powerlineblog.com. In a recent post, Mirengoff, in responding to something I had written, said the following:

Peter Wehner calls President Obama “Jimmy Carter without Camp David.” It’s a great line, and one I’d like to subscribe to. But is it apt?

If we are to make the analogy, then Jimmy Carter can be cast as Barack Obama without Obamacare. And if Republicans cooperate with Democrats to enact amnesty-style immigration reform, Carter will be Obama without Obamacare and amnesty.

Obamacare (assuming no repeal) and significant pro-illegal immigrant reform would be enough to make Obama’s presidency of more than average consequence. Carter’s presidency, even with Camp David, was inconsequential except to the extent that it paved the way for Reagan’s.

I’ll take this opportunity to clarify what I was saying. My point about President Obama being Jimmy Carter without Camp David has to do with Mr. Obama being incompetent; I wasn’t arguing that he’s inconsequential.

To take these two categories in order. I’m not sure I could name a single area President Obama has been successful in–economic growth and job creation, dealing with long-term unemployment and the number of people leaving the labor market, health-care reform, the stimulus, our fiscal balance, reducing poverty and income inequality, outreach to the Arab and Islamic world, impeding Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Russian “reset,” America’s pivot to Asia and our relations with China, relations with our allies, transparency, reducing the influence of lobbyists and special-interest groups, decreasing political polarization and partisan divisions, and more. President Obama has been, by my lights, an across-the-board failure.

That said, there’s no question that Mr. Obama has been a consequential president. The damage he’s inflicted on our nation has been significant, comprehensive, and durable–including but not limited to the Affordable Care Act.

The degree to which we can unwind the disaster of the Obama era is unclear. I don’t for a moment underestimate the harm America’s 44th president has done to our nation. But on matters of sheer competence, I’ll stick with my assessment: Barack Obama is Jimmy Carter without Camp David.

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