Commentary Magazine


Topic: George W. Bush

The Human Drama of Saving Lives

The Daily Caller links to a video of a speech in which Elton John praises former President George W. Bush and “conservative American politicians” for pledging billions of dollars to “save the lives of Africans with HIV.”

“We’ve seen George W. Bush and conservative American politicians pledge tens of billions to save the lives of Africans with HIV. Think of all the love. Think of where we’d be without it, nowhere, that’s where. We’d be nowhere at all,” John said at the International AIDS conference in Washington on Monday. “Thanks to all this compassion, thanks to all this love, more than 8 million people are in treatment. Thanks to people who have chosen to care and to act, we can see an end to this epidemic on the horizon.”

Elton John is onto something, as this story in the Washington Post makes clear. It reports that leaders in AIDS vaccine research say they may finally be on the cusp of a period of major discovery leading to a vaccine. “The past few years have been a turning point,” said Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I’m more optimistic than I’ve probably ever been in my career.”

As for President Bush, in 2003 he announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest program in history to fight a single disease. The plan included $15 billion over five years to promote prevention, treatment, and compassionate care, mainly in Africa. Many at the time were skeptical that large-scale AIDS treatment was even possible in the developing world. But a study at the University of British Columbia found that PEPFAR saved 1.2 million lives in just its first three years.

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The Daily Caller links to a video of a speech in which Elton John praises former President George W. Bush and “conservative American politicians” for pledging billions of dollars to “save the lives of Africans with HIV.”

“We’ve seen George W. Bush and conservative American politicians pledge tens of billions to save the lives of Africans with HIV. Think of all the love. Think of where we’d be without it, nowhere, that’s where. We’d be nowhere at all,” John said at the International AIDS conference in Washington on Monday. “Thanks to all this compassion, thanks to all this love, more than 8 million people are in treatment. Thanks to people who have chosen to care and to act, we can see an end to this epidemic on the horizon.”

Elton John is onto something, as this story in the Washington Post makes clear. It reports that leaders in AIDS vaccine research say they may finally be on the cusp of a period of major discovery leading to a vaccine. “The past few years have been a turning point,” said Gary Nabel, director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “I’m more optimistic than I’ve probably ever been in my career.”

As for President Bush, in 2003 he announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest program in history to fight a single disease. The plan included $15 billion over five years to promote prevention, treatment, and compassionate care, mainly in Africa. Many at the time were skeptical that large-scale AIDS treatment was even possible in the developing world. But a study at the University of British Columbia found that PEPFAR saved 1.2 million lives in just its first three years.

It has never been clear to me why this achievement is celebrated more by those on the left (like Elton John and Bono) than on the right. Perhaps it’s because of the nature of the disease and its early association in this country with the gay community. Perhaps it’s because such enormous good was achieved through the instrument of the federal government, which conservatives are instinctively wary of. Or perhaps it’s because the disease has historically afflicted people who have, in different ways and to varying degrees, been marginalized and are not part of the conservative coalition: gays, African villagers, IV drug users, and minorities in America.

To be clear: conservatives haven’t denigrated the global AIDS initiative; it’s simply that it has never really registered with them. It hasn’t touched their moral imagination.

We are all drawn to different things and animated by different causes. But I would have thought that an effort that has so clearly served the cause of human dignity – that has saved so many lives and prevented so much suffering – would be one that people of every political persuasion, including conservatives (particularly social conservatives and those active in the pro-life movement), would be held up far more often than it is. The global AIDS initiative has been an extraordinary human achievement that fits our national character.

I understand that discussing AIDS policy may not make for riveting political theater. But there is also a great human drama in emancipating millions of people from the bondage of fear and the grip of death; and there is great drama, too, in the story of a moral leader who was able to bend history in the direction of justice.

Leave it to Elton John to point that out.

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W’s Self-Imposed GOP Exile

Friday’s announcement that former President George W. Bush would not attend the Republican National Convention came as no surprise to political observers. Less than four years after leaving the White House, the second President Bush remains unpopular and is widely considered a political liability to his party. But the decision is about more than the fact that his presence at the convention might have been considered an unneeded distraction by the Romney campaign even if they would never say so publicly. As much as moving on from Bush is thought to be necessary for a GOP victory this fall, it also reflects a certain distaste for contemporary politics on the part of the former president.

In an interview on National Review Online’s “Uncommon Knowledge” program, Bush said: “I crawled out of the swamp, and I’m not crawling back in.” While his decision to remain aloof from partisanship is praiseworthy in that it shows his respect for the office he held and a belief that interference from past presidents is usually unhelpful, I think Bush’s self-imposed exile isn’t healthy for American political culture.

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Friday’s announcement that former President George W. Bush would not attend the Republican National Convention came as no surprise to political observers. Less than four years after leaving the White House, the second President Bush remains unpopular and is widely considered a political liability to his party. But the decision is about more than the fact that his presence at the convention might have been considered an unneeded distraction by the Romney campaign even if they would never say so publicly. As much as moving on from Bush is thought to be necessary for a GOP victory this fall, it also reflects a certain distaste for contemporary politics on the part of the former president.

In an interview on National Review Online’s “Uncommon Knowledge” program, Bush said: “I crawled out of the swamp, and I’m not crawling back in.” While his decision to remain aloof from partisanship is praiseworthy in that it shows his respect for the office he held and a belief that interference from past presidents is usually unhelpful, I think Bush’s self-imposed exile isn’t healthy for American political culture.

It is true that the last thing Republicans need is to give their opponents a chance to tie Mitt Romney to George W. Bush. Four years after succeeding W, President Obama is still blaming the 43rd president for all of his and the country’s problems. Bush’s second term was a perfect storm of problems that ranged from Hurricane Katrina to the Iraq War and left him politically crippled. It should also be admitted that some of his policies on spending and the expansion of entitlements are deeply unpopular with most Republicans these days.

But the idea that the immediate past president cannot show up at his party’s convention — a distinction he will now share with modern Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — is unfortunate for Bush, Republicans and the country.

For all of the mistakes made during his eight years in the White House, Bush remained to the end a moral voice who reflected the decency and faith of most Americans. It also bears pointing out that the man who entered the presidency vowing to differentiate himself in every conceivable manner from Bush wound up continuing the policies on fighting terrorism that he decried while campaigning in 2008. All this points to what will be Bush’s inevitable rehabilitation in another generation or two, once the hate-filled invective directed at him fades from memory and his achievements can be viewed through a prism that is not distorted by second-guessing about the invasion of Iraq.

Bush isn’t staying completely quiet. He has authored a serious book about policy and recently visited Africa to follow up on the AIDS initiatives and other efforts to help there that he began in the White House (and for which he has not received a fraction of the credit he deserves).

But he’s wrong if he thinks he has nothing to contribute to the political debates of the day. The idea that ex-presidents should, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus, simply go home and resume life as private citizens is noble, but only to a point. Just as no one believes there is anything wrong with Bill Clinton speaking up about issues, the American people would benefit from W’s perspective. He has good reason to think he is well out of the swamp, but like it or not, that is where the nation is governed and where political ideas must be debated.

It was inevitable that Bush would decline to attend the Tampa convention and will probably remain out of sight during the campaign. He’s right when he says Romney can win without him. But let’s hope this is the last presidential election during which W will think it is the better part of valor to go to ground. We would all be better off if his voice was heard more often in the future.

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Obama’s Problem: Romney is Not Kerry

President Obama isn’t apologizing. Rather than backing away from discredited charges about Mitt Romney outsourcing jobs and attacks about his wealth, the president doubled down on the mud slinging in the past few days. With the economy remaining in the doldrums and no prospect of improvement before November, the president has proposed no new ideas for its revival other than another hike in federal spending. So rather than running on his accomplishments, such as they are, the president is concentrating on discrediting his opponent and appealing to his political base.

In doing so, the president appears to be following the model established in 2004 when President Bush faced a tough re-election fight against a plausible but not very compelling opponent in John Kerry. Bush never personally engaged in the sort of vitriol that Obama routinely engages in (Bush was too conscious of the dignity of his office and such conduct also went against the grain of the nice-guy persona that was key to his appeal). The focus of his re-election effort was the push to increase the turnout of conservatives and evangelicals that enabled him to win a close race. Though the Democrats won’t admit it, they are hoping this Karl Rove-inspired formula will be just as successful for them. But while his liberal base has been begging Obama to get nastier since he took office, it remains to be seen whether a man who was catapulted to office by lofty rhetoric about “hope” and “change” can remain in it by wallowing in political mire. Nor does it alter the fundamental question that any incumbent seeking re-election must answer about whether the nation’s fiscal health has improved on his watch.

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President Obama isn’t apologizing. Rather than backing away from discredited charges about Mitt Romney outsourcing jobs and attacks about his wealth, the president doubled down on the mud slinging in the past few days. With the economy remaining in the doldrums and no prospect of improvement before November, the president has proposed no new ideas for its revival other than another hike in federal spending. So rather than running on his accomplishments, such as they are, the president is concentrating on discrediting his opponent and appealing to his political base.

In doing so, the president appears to be following the model established in 2004 when President Bush faced a tough re-election fight against a plausible but not very compelling opponent in John Kerry. Bush never personally engaged in the sort of vitriol that Obama routinely engages in (Bush was too conscious of the dignity of his office and such conduct also went against the grain of the nice-guy persona that was key to his appeal). The focus of his re-election effort was the push to increase the turnout of conservatives and evangelicals that enabled him to win a close race. Though the Democrats won’t admit it, they are hoping this Karl Rove-inspired formula will be just as successful for them. But while his liberal base has been begging Obama to get nastier since he took office, it remains to be seen whether a man who was catapulted to office by lofty rhetoric about “hope” and “change” can remain in it by wallowing in political mire. Nor does it alter the fundamental question that any incumbent seeking re-election must answer about whether the nation’s fiscal health has improved on his watch.

With the polls showing the race a virtual dead-heat, there is little likelihood of either candidate pulling away. Nor is there any great mass of undecided voters whose more moderate views would make a swing to the left imprudent. Thus, Obama’s decision to pursue the decidedly unpresidential route of sliming his opponent makes some political sense. His only hope of victory is to energize a liberal base that is decidedly less enthusiastic than it was four years ago. To do that, he must feed them what they want to hear: class warfare and attacks on Romney as a wealthy plutocrat.

Thus, not only will Romney not get any apologies for the president recycling canards about his business career, he can expect it to only get worse with Democrats. That ought to concern Republicans who fear an all-out assault by the president will define his opponent and turn his personal record of success into a liability. One shouldn’t underestimate the power of negative attacks, but there are two reasons why a repeat of the GOP’s 2004 tactics may fail.

First, is the difference between Romney and Kerry. Like the 2004 Democratic nominee, Romney may be a wealthy man, but unlike Kerry, he built his own fortune rather than marrying into wealth. He is not a natural politician and doesn’t connect well with the voters. But neither is he a passive aristocrat who acted as if he was entitled to the nation’s highest office, as Kerry often did. While Kerry gave the appearance of a stationary target, Romney is a clever man who will not willingly play the role of tackling dummy for the Democrats.

The second difference is that the country is in a very different position than it was in 2004. Eight years ago, the Iraq War was starting to look like a mess, but the economy was not in crisis the way it is today. More Americans had voted for Bush’s opponent in 2000, and even his response to the 9/11 attacks had not reconciled Democrats to his presidency, so he was in for a tough fight in 2004 no matter what he had accomplished.

By contrast, today Obama still has the advantage of being a historic president with the bulk of the press in his pocket. But with the state of the economy the only issue anyone is talking about, the president’s belief that he can avoid blame by pointing the finger at his predecessor may be mistaken.

The problem with political science is that it is not science. Each election is different. If the president’s campaign and its unpleasant tactics can generate a big turnout from the left, the president may yet prevail. But the circumstances of 2012 are not those that allowed the Bush campaign to run to the right with impunity in 2004. The harsh economic reality that is leading to a steady stream of bad economic news may render the Karl Rove formula moot.

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Obama’s Excuses Are Getting Weaker

President Obama’s response to the latest dismal federal jobs report was as predictable as it was weak. Speaking on his bus tour of Ohio, he repeated the theme we’ve heard so often since January 2009: It’s not his fault. Only this time he not only heaped blame on the administration of his predecessor but also claimed the problems dated to the Clinton administration, which heretofore Democrats have spoken of as a golden age of prosperity:

“We’ve got to deal with what’s been happening over the last decade, the last 15 years.”

It’s not clear what event it was that happened in 1997 — when his secretary of state was serving as First Lady and President Obama had just begun his first term in the Illinois State Senate — whose impact was so far-reaching that even today the administration is helpless to ameliorate its effects. But whatever it was that the president had in mind when he threw out this puzzling alibi, blaming Bill Clinton is about as pointless as pointing the finger at George W. Bush, Obama’s usual punching bag. But the way things are going for the president, one more bad jobs report and he may be blaming the elder President Bush as well his son and  Clinton for all of his troubles.

As even a liberal stalwart like Robert Reich pointed out today at the Huffington Post, the excuse that he inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression is “wearing thin.” In fact, it has already worn out, a fact made all too clear by the president’s obfuscations about the jobs numbers that Reich was honest enough to report.

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President Obama’s response to the latest dismal federal jobs report was as predictable as it was weak. Speaking on his bus tour of Ohio, he repeated the theme we’ve heard so often since January 2009: It’s not his fault. Only this time he not only heaped blame on the administration of his predecessor but also claimed the problems dated to the Clinton administration, which heretofore Democrats have spoken of as a golden age of prosperity:

“We’ve got to deal with what’s been happening over the last decade, the last 15 years.”

It’s not clear what event it was that happened in 1997 — when his secretary of state was serving as First Lady and President Obama had just begun his first term in the Illinois State Senate — whose impact was so far-reaching that even today the administration is helpless to ameliorate its effects. But whatever it was that the president had in mind when he threw out this puzzling alibi, blaming Bill Clinton is about as pointless as pointing the finger at George W. Bush, Obama’s usual punching bag. But the way things are going for the president, one more bad jobs report and he may be blaming the elder President Bush as well his son and  Clinton for all of his troubles.

As even a liberal stalwart like Robert Reich pointed out today at the Huffington Post, the excuse that he inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression is “wearing thin.” In fact, it has already worn out, a fact made all too clear by the president’s obfuscations about the jobs numbers that Reich was honest enough to report.

Though the president preferred to take a “glass half full” approach to the jobs numbers, as the New York Times delicately described his rhetoric, Reich was more frank about Obama’s excuses. Far from the creation of 84,000 new jobs being a hopeful sign, the truth is very different:

Remember, 125,000 new jobs are needed just to keep up with the increase in the population of Americans who need jobs. That means the jobs situation continues to worsen.

After a good week in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ObamaCare decision that led to more focus on Mitt Romney’s weaknesses, the jobs report brought the president back to the reality of a sinking economy that, as even Reich pointed out, he owns. The voters don’t care what he inherited. After four years, the Bush alibi, not to mention the swipe at Clinton, isn’t fooling anyone.

Reich also stated the obvious when he noted that Obama hasn’t any real ideas about dealing with the crisis. Even worse for the president — and the country whose fiscal affairs he is steering into the ditch — at this point the European debt crisis and China’s economic slowdown are likely to only make things a lot worse before they get better. Democrats may hope voters aren’t paying attention to the election and economic statistics until Labor Day, but by then the president’s goose as well as the economy may already be cooked.

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John Kerry’s Debating Lessons

The wisdom of the Obama campaign’s decision to use John Kerry as Mitt Romney’s stand-in during debate preparation will depend on how closely they have paid attention to Kerry’s past debates. The New York Times report offers all of the very worst reasons to pick Kerry. If they speak for the Obama campaign, this is a massive wasted opportunity:

Superwealthy? Check. Owns multiple homes? Check. Often labeled by his political adversaries as out of touch, aloof and a flip-flopper? Check, check and check. He even has really good hair and, as a bonus, is from Massachusetts.

Aside from the “good hair” joke, this makes it sound as if the Obama campaign chose Kerry in order to attack him. This will help to a certain extent, but there is more to learn from Kerry than hair and houses.

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The wisdom of the Obama campaign’s decision to use John Kerry as Mitt Romney’s stand-in during debate preparation will depend on how closely they have paid attention to Kerry’s past debates. The New York Times report offers all of the very worst reasons to pick Kerry. If they speak for the Obama campaign, this is a massive wasted opportunity:

Superwealthy? Check. Owns multiple homes? Check. Often labeled by his political adversaries as out of touch, aloof and a flip-flopper? Check, check and check. He even has really good hair and, as a bonus, is from Massachusetts.

Aside from the “good hair” joke, this makes it sound as if the Obama campaign chose Kerry in order to attack him. This will help to a certain extent, but there is more to learn from Kerry than hair and houses.

First of all, Kerry was not a poor debater–unlike Al Gore four years before him. Kerry, in fact, was a fairly decent matchup for George W. Bush in 2004. But one key to that was realizing what Gore had not–that Bush was a much better debater than he often got credit for. Kerry learned not to underestimate his opponent, and it served him well. Obama has thus far indicated that he plans to underestimate Romney. But Romney is a fine debater, and Obama isn’t. (Though Obama surely will be better this time around, Hillary Clinton ran circles around him in 2008.)

Both Obama and Romney, in fact, have something to learn from Kerry’s 2004 debate performances. In the second debate, for example, Kerry was asked about his reputation as a flip-flopper (“wishy-washy” was actually the way it was phrased in the debate question). Kerry responded first by naming the things he had been accused of changing his mind on–mistake No. 1–and then refuting the argument that he had changed his mind at all. His explanations were sound, but he was playing on Bush’s terms. He then, inexplicably, repeated the phrase “wishy-washy” twice while wrapping up his response. Romney must avoid this trap when he is inevitably accused of the same.

Bush then made a very clever move by using the phrase “I can see why people think that he changes position quite often, because he does.” Bush had been accused of accusing Kerry of being wishy-washy; Bush instead argued off the premise that the American people had already come to the conclusion Kerry was wishy-washy, and he could easily explain why. Yet Bush’s response was even more effective because he was not wishy-washy and made a point of saying the presidency requires consistency. Obama, as a fellow flip-flopper, may not be in quite as strong a position as Bush was to deliver that line of attack.

In the third debate, Kerry turned a question about flu shots into an answer about health care coverage. He said:

Five million Americans have lost their health insurance in this country. You’ve got about a million right here in Arizona, just shy, 950,000, who have no health insurance at all. 82,000 Arizonians lost their health insurance under President Bush’s watch. 223,000 kids in Arizona have no health insurance at all.

All across our country — go to Ohio, 1. 4 million Ohioans have no health insurance, 114,000 of them lost it under President Bush; Wisconsin, 82,000 Wisconsinites lost it under President Bush.

This president has turned his back on the wellness of America.

How this type of question plays out in the fall will obviously depend on the Supreme Court’s ruling on ObamaCare. But on this question, both Kerry’s attack and Bush’s response to it may be used against Romney. Kerry’s tactic of naming all the uninsured in swing states was a smart move, and if Romney advocates against universal coverage he better have an answer to this. Bush’s response began with this line: “I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints.” Some version of this may also be employed against Romney’s critique of ObamaCare. In Romney’s case, he will be ready with a plan, and he’ll have to lay it out convincingly (and he won’t have a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation with which to do so).

One other element of the Bush-Kerry debates is instructive: the argument about Social Security reform. Bush proposed the option of partial privatization, which was not particularly popular and is not being proposed by this year’s candidates. But Romney does have something of a plan: slowly increasing the retirement age and slowing benefit growth for high earners. Romney’s embrace of the premium support model for Medicare will also be fair game in the fall.

Despite the fact that Kerry should have had public opinion on his side, his handling of the Social Security question was disastrous. When Bush was asked about the costs of his plan, he said: “The cost of doing nothing, the cost of saying the current system is OK, far exceeds the costs of trying to make sure we save the system for our children.” That’s a line we can expect Romney to drive home if he’s attacked on entitlement reform. But Kerry, if he’s honest, will urge Obama to study his own response to the question and avoid it at all costs.

First, Kerry began by noting that Bush suggested allowing Americans to invest some of their entitlement payments into their own accounts. “Now, my fellow Americans, that’s an invitation to disaster,” he said. Any politician with this low an opinion of the American people should at the very least hide it. This disdain dripped from Kerry like beads of sweat. Then he said all we had to do was put more Americans back to work, adding: “Now, if later on after a period of time we find that Social Security is in trouble, we’ll pull together the top experts of the country.”

Outright promises to kick the can down the road sound appropriately absurd to the American people. If this is why the Obama campaign brought John Kerry on board, they may reap dividends. If it was because he’s a rich guy from Massachusetts, Kerry may yet again be part of a losing effort.

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Only FDR Could Sell Obama’s Reset

As we noted yesterday and earlier today, President Obama’s attempt to make the election a referendum on George W. Bush is a rather slender reed to use as the foundation for his re-election campaign. As expected, the president’s speech in Ohio today on the economy pushed the idea that the choice this year was between his policies and those of the preceding decade, for which he blamed all of the nation’s problems. Obama’s call for a “reset” may have satisfied panicked liberals who want him to be nastier about his opponents. In a nearly hour-long rant, the president sought to refute criticisms of his administration as being too dependent on government intervention to save the economy, but at the same time claimed the way forward was to spend a lot more on public sector jobs. Predictably, he also threw in a red herring about Mitt Romney ending Medicare without reference to any ideas of his own about reforming the entitlement spending that is dragging the country into insolvency.

But the attacks on Romney and his personal wealth and branding Republicans in Congress as heartless wretches who want to throw grandma under the bus is still secondary to persuading the nation that even though he has been president for three and a half years, he should be held blameless for a bad economy. Gaining re-election by avoiding discussion of his failures and focusing solely on those of his predecessor is a difficult task, but it is not impossible. Franklin D. Roosevelt did exactly that in 1936 when, despite the fact that his policies hadn’t been enough to pull the country out of the Great Depression, the overwhelming majority of Americans were still prepared to blame Herbert Hoover for their woes. But this notable precedent shouldn’t provide much reassurance for Democrats who worry about the prospects of a president who thinks a troubled private sector is doing “just fine” and (as he showed again today) has no new ideas to present about the economy.

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As we noted yesterday and earlier today, President Obama’s attempt to make the election a referendum on George W. Bush is a rather slender reed to use as the foundation for his re-election campaign. As expected, the president’s speech in Ohio today on the economy pushed the idea that the choice this year was between his policies and those of the preceding decade, for which he blamed all of the nation’s problems. Obama’s call for a “reset” may have satisfied panicked liberals who want him to be nastier about his opponents. In a nearly hour-long rant, the president sought to refute criticisms of his administration as being too dependent on government intervention to save the economy, but at the same time claimed the way forward was to spend a lot more on public sector jobs. Predictably, he also threw in a red herring about Mitt Romney ending Medicare without reference to any ideas of his own about reforming the entitlement spending that is dragging the country into insolvency.

But the attacks on Romney and his personal wealth and branding Republicans in Congress as heartless wretches who want to throw grandma under the bus is still secondary to persuading the nation that even though he has been president for three and a half years, he should be held blameless for a bad economy. Gaining re-election by avoiding discussion of his failures and focusing solely on those of his predecessor is a difficult task, but it is not impossible. Franklin D. Roosevelt did exactly that in 1936 when, despite the fact that his policies hadn’t been enough to pull the country out of the Great Depression, the overwhelming majority of Americans were still prepared to blame Herbert Hoover for their woes. But this notable precedent shouldn’t provide much reassurance for Democrats who worry about the prospects of a president who thinks a troubled private sector is doing “just fine” and (as he showed again today) has no new ideas to present about the economy.

It’s not hard to see why FDR managed to beat Hoover twice, although the “Great Engineer” was not on the ballot in 1936. The suffering caused by the Great Depression was on a scale that is almost unimaginable to us today. Under the circumstances, a Roosevelt plea for more time seemed reasonable. Moreover, even after four years of the New Deal, Republicans still seem to own the country’s problems. Hoover was wrongly blasted at the time as a do-nothing though his ill-advised interventions in the crisis did more harm than good. But because the collapse occurred in his first year in office (1929), his identification with the Depression was so thorough that it would be another decade (which would include a World War that would finally end the Depression) before Republicans would be able to shake off Hoover’s taint.

But FDR’s ability to go to the people in 1936 without being held accountable for the continuance of the disaster on his watch wasn’t simply a matter of blaming the GOP. It was just as much due to the way he persuaded the country that he knew the way forward and that their only hope was to trust in him. We can look back now dispassionately and understand, as Amity Shlaes wrote in her classic history of the Depression, The Forgotten Man, that the New Deal failed in large measure to heal the economy. In fact, Roosevelt’s policies could fairly be blamed for the severe downturn in his second term that mired the country even deeper in the ditch from which it was extricated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But Roosevelt’s leadership skills were such that he gave Americans the impression things would get better. As Jonah Goldberg has rightly pointed out, some of the ideas of the New Deal had more in common with fascism than democracy, but it could not be said in 1936 that FDR was going back to the people without any new proposals or by merely castigating Hoover.

Things are thankfully not nearly so bad today, but the contrast between FDR’s ability to galvanize the nation with the 44th president’s lackluster appeals for support could not be greater. Having been swept into office as much by the Wall Street collapse that occurred in the fall of 2008 as by the “hope and change” mantra that focused on the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy, he hasn’t much to offer to solve the nation’s problems other than a deeply unpopular health care bill and a stimulus that few outside of the left would even think of repeating.

As history shows, the White House’s plan to shift blame for the economy to the president who left office four years ago is not unprecedented. But even if Americans could be persuaded that George W. Bush was another Hoover, getting them to believe that Obama is another FDR is a bridge too far even for the Democrats.

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Blame Bush Poll Won’t Help Obama

Much is being made of the new Gallup Poll that shows more Americans blame George W. Bush for the current state of the economy than Barack Obama. Sixty-eight percent of Americans think the 43rd president deserves a great deal or a moderate amount of blame for America’s economic problems. That’s more than the 52 percent who feel the same way about the 44th president. The Obama campaign is taking this to heart. In his recent speeches Obama has taken to more or less asking the public for a mulligan on the economy because even after three and a half years in office, the country’s problems are, he says, Bush’s fault. This poll would seem to validate his conclusion that this is a good campaign strategy. But the idea that Bush’s numbers should give much comfort to the Democrats as President Obama tries for a second term this fall is laughable.

The first reason why the president’s re-election team shouldn’t place much faith in this poll as a guide to their campaign tactics is obvious. While Bush is still deeply unpopular, he is not on the ballot in November. Obama is, and the idea that the president can be re-elected simply because he is not Bush makes no sense.

Second, Gallup has been asking this question since Obama took office. In July 2009, it was not unreasonable that 80 percent of those questioned blamed Bush while only 32 percent blamed Obama. But during the last three years, the gap between the two has narrowed dramatically, with a majority of those polled blaming Obama for the past two years even as the number of those pinning it on Bush has declined.

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Much is being made of the new Gallup Poll that shows more Americans blame George W. Bush for the current state of the economy than Barack Obama. Sixty-eight percent of Americans think the 43rd president deserves a great deal or a moderate amount of blame for America’s economic problems. That’s more than the 52 percent who feel the same way about the 44th president. The Obama campaign is taking this to heart. In his recent speeches Obama has taken to more or less asking the public for a mulligan on the economy because even after three and a half years in office, the country’s problems are, he says, Bush’s fault. This poll would seem to validate his conclusion that this is a good campaign strategy. But the idea that Bush’s numbers should give much comfort to the Democrats as President Obama tries for a second term this fall is laughable.

The first reason why the president’s re-election team shouldn’t place much faith in this poll as a guide to their campaign tactics is obvious. While Bush is still deeply unpopular, he is not on the ballot in November. Obama is, and the idea that the president can be re-elected simply because he is not Bush makes no sense.

Second, Gallup has been asking this question since Obama took office. In July 2009, it was not unreasonable that 80 percent of those questioned blamed Bush while only 32 percent blamed Obama. But during the last three years, the gap between the two has narrowed dramatically, with a majority of those polled blaming Obama for the past two years even as the number of those pinning it on Bush has declined.

Bush left office on the heels of a dramatic economic downturn in his last year in office that culminated in a Wall Street collapse during the fall of 2008 which ensured that Republican presidential nominee John McCain had no chance of succeeding him. After the fallout from Hurricane Katrina and the bloody aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, Bush’s second term began to appear as a failed presidency, with even supporters of the GOP thinking ill of him. The hangover from those dark days still influences polling about Bush, who registers as even more unpopular than a truly failed president like Jimmy Carter.

It is certainly possible many Americans will go on blaming Bush for our problems in the coming years, even long after both he and Obama leave office. But that says more about the way the country thinks about him than it does about the 2012 election.

Were the Republican challenging the president someone closely associated with the Bush administration, a re-election campaign focused on blaming Bush for the nation’s problems might make some sense. But Mitt Romney is not such a figure. While his foreign policy approach seems broadly similar to that of Bush and rightly so from my point of view, that cannot truly be said of much of his economic and other domestic proposals. Conservatives compared Romney to Bush and called him a “big government Republican” during the GOP primaries. But the truth is, he is far more of a fiscal hawk and presents a different take on federalism issues as his rejection of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education policies showed.

But a campaign that is still counting on animus toward George W. Bush being enough to carry Obama back to the White House this year is one that is clearly short on new ideas. More to the point, the reversion to blaming Bush is a tacit confession that nothing Obama has tried in the past three years has worked. Because his signature legislative accomplishments — ObamaCare and the billion-dollar stimulus boondoggle — are both deeply unpopular, the president has no domestic accomplishments to brag about except bogus economic statistics that ring hollow to a nation that knows how bad things still are.

The backlash against the president’s claim that the private sector is “doing just fine” shows just how badly he seems to have miscalculated the public’s mood. If he goes on spending the next five months trying to blame Bush rather than taking responsibility for his own failed administration, he will soon be joining the 43rd president on the sidelines as his successor gets a chance to fix the mess he leaves behind.

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President’s Plea for Mulligan Won’t Work

There’s little doubt the main obstacle to President Obama’s re-election is the country’s sinking economy. But in his scheduled major address on the subject in Ohio tomorrow, he is, as Reuters reports, “not likely to unveil new ideas to boost the economy and create new jobs, according to Democrats familiar with the preparations for the address.” That means the president will be returning to a familiar theme: blame it all on George W. Bush and plea for more time to fix things. While that may have seemed a reasonable position to take early in his administration, to say that this is an uninspiring campaign theme after three and a half years in office is an understatement.

Re-election campaigns can hinge on one of two themes: a referendum on the president’s record or one on the challenger’s unsuitability for high office. While the White House would like to make this election all about Mitt Romney and the Republicans, so far their efforts to demonize his business career or the GOP via the bogus “war on women” theme hasn’t worked. And with the latest economic statistics showing little sign of a genuine recovery, that leaves the Democrats with very little to say, especially because the president’s signature legislative achievements in health care and the stimulus are deeply unpopular. That’s the conceit behind his expected appeal for a “reset” on the economy. With no record to run on and an opponent who is demonstrating greater strength than expected, all the president can do is ask the public to give him an “incomplete” on his transcript and grant him another four years to complete the course. But a third straight summer of economic bad news requires a better answer than a request for a presidential mulligan.

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There’s little doubt the main obstacle to President Obama’s re-election is the country’s sinking economy. But in his scheduled major address on the subject in Ohio tomorrow, he is, as Reuters reports, “not likely to unveil new ideas to boost the economy and create new jobs, according to Democrats familiar with the preparations for the address.” That means the president will be returning to a familiar theme: blame it all on George W. Bush and plea for more time to fix things. While that may have seemed a reasonable position to take early in his administration, to say that this is an uninspiring campaign theme after three and a half years in office is an understatement.

Re-election campaigns can hinge on one of two themes: a referendum on the president’s record or one on the challenger’s unsuitability for high office. While the White House would like to make this election all about Mitt Romney and the Republicans, so far their efforts to demonize his business career or the GOP via the bogus “war on women” theme hasn’t worked. And with the latest economic statistics showing little sign of a genuine recovery, that leaves the Democrats with very little to say, especially because the president’s signature legislative achievements in health care and the stimulus are deeply unpopular. That’s the conceit behind his expected appeal for a “reset” on the economy. With no record to run on and an opponent who is demonstrating greater strength than expected, all the president can do is ask the public to give him an “incomplete” on his transcript and grant him another four years to complete the course. But a third straight summer of economic bad news requires a better answer than a request for a presidential mulligan.

The president’s advisers may be only playing the cards they have left in their hands, but even they must find it hard to believe that the public is willing to accept this sort of alibi. Fairly or unfairly, George W. Bush is still deeply unpopular and Congress is widely despised by the public. But presidents are judged on their own records, not those of their opponents. Though Democrats are still trying to convince themselves that Romney can be branded as an extremist, they know better than that by now. Indeed, for all of his shortcomings, the GOP standard bearer’s one great strength is his economic expertise. That means the president must present the voters with a more convincing rationale for a second term than a request for more time to finish the test.

The president may have inherited a difficult economy, but after a full term in office, the electorate expects the man in the White House to do more than point fingers at his predecessor or Congress. But the problem here is that the president and his inner circle are still so caught up in his historic status and the messianic hopes he engendered in his supporters that they believe the normal rules of politics don’t apply to them. Any other politician might think he needed to do more than just ask for a do-over, especially because President Obama needs to avoid a discussion of whether the American people are better off today than they were four years ago.

It is no small irony that a man who was swept into the White House by a belief that he would transcend partisanship and usher in a new age of positive hope-based politics is now left with nothing to say but to speak ill of his opponents. Though the president still has many advantages including his historic status and a very friendly mainstream media, he appears to be stuck with a message that would, were it articulated by a lesser office-holder, be instantly labeled a loser. Unless the president comes up with something better, his re-election campaign may start to resemble the economy that he failed to fix.

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Romney’s Education Course Correction

Last month, Mitt Romney challenged both President Obama and the education establishment with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that called for a broad policy overhaul. If adopted, Romney’s idea could overturn a quarter-century of efforts to concentrate more power and responsibility for education in the federal government. It also made clear the Republican presidential candidate favors school choice schemes in which federal dollars would follow students no matter what school they choose to attend even if it were not the local public school.

Not surprisingly, the education establishment isn’t happy about the prospect of such reforms and are started to push back as a New York Times article on the subject made clear today. But while the Times and other critics of his speech may have thought Romney would be embarrassed for being called out as opposing the educational approach embraced by President George W. Bush, they are wrong. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” may have been a noble attempt to improve the quality of schools, but it is deeply unpopular and had the unfortunate effect of being a vehicle for more federal power at the expense of local control. Moreover, the usual chorus of criticism for Romney’s embrace of voucher-like school choice ideas underestimates the hunger for genuine educational reform that exists in the country. In education, Romney has found an issue that will help him breach the divide between the GOP and many constituencies that are desperately in need of the sort of national course correction he is prescribing.

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Last month, Mitt Romney challenged both President Obama and the education establishment with a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that called for a broad policy overhaul. If adopted, Romney’s idea could overturn a quarter-century of efforts to concentrate more power and responsibility for education in the federal government. It also made clear the Republican presidential candidate favors school choice schemes in which federal dollars would follow students no matter what school they choose to attend even if it were not the local public school.

Not surprisingly, the education establishment isn’t happy about the prospect of such reforms and are started to push back as a New York Times article on the subject made clear today. But while the Times and other critics of his speech may have thought Romney would be embarrassed for being called out as opposing the educational approach embraced by President George W. Bush, they are wrong. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” may have been a noble attempt to improve the quality of schools, but it is deeply unpopular and had the unfortunate effect of being a vehicle for more federal power at the expense of local control. Moreover, the usual chorus of criticism for Romney’s embrace of voucher-like school choice ideas underestimates the hunger for genuine educational reform that exists in the country. In education, Romney has found an issue that will help him breach the divide between the GOP and many constituencies that are desperately in need of the sort of national course correction he is prescribing.

The Times puts down Romney’s education ideas as a desperate attempt to create some distance between himself and President Obama that is complicated by the president’s support for some reform proposals like charter schools. His position is also described as somehow a derivative of Tea Party ideology — a pejorative in Timespeak — because it returns the GOP to a position of distrust for federal education power after Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative.

But one needn’t be a Tea Party stalwart to understand how widely disliked the federal mandates created by Bush’s policies were in local school districts. Though the intent was to force improvement — a laudable goal — the imposition of an education philosophy that seemed at times solely focused on standardized tests is unpopular with both educators and parents. Though accountability is key to improving an often failing public system, Bush’s experiment seems to have proved that it cannot be accomplished by a top-down dictat coming from Washington.

Just as important, Romney’s willingness to cross a teachers union red line that, as the Times points out, Obama will not cross is no superficial difference. By seizing upon school choice as not just an education priority but also a civil rights issue, Romney is also putting Obama on the defensive.

The Times gives another airing to the tired chorus of choice critics, voiced by, among others, Bush Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. Spellings who quit as a Romney adviser after he made it clear he would support voucher plans, says the idea of creating accountability via the competition that would be created by choice is “untried and untested.” But that’s what school choice opponents have been saying for a generation as they fought every attempt to try voucher plans or to curtail or end voucher experiments.

To say that advocacy of choice is an attempt to impose right-wing ideology on the education system is looking at the issue through the wrong end of the telescope. To the contrary, it is the liberal ideological opposition to empowering parents to choose their children’s schools that is the barrier to overcome here.

Moreover, choice would give minority parents whose kids are often stuck in failed inner city schools the opportunity to give them the same opportunities President Obama’s children have. It should be remembered that despite his support for public schools, Sasha and Malia Obama go to the elite Sidwell Friends School, not a local D.C. institution. Nor should it be forgotten that President Obama bears the responsibility for killing a Washington school choice scheme (initiated under President Bush) that enabled poor kids to rub shoulders with the presidential children at Sidwell.

Far from going out on a limb with the Tea Party, Romney’s course correction from Bush’s diversion from traditional Republican ideas is both good politics and good policy.

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My Return to the White House

I returned to the White House today for the presentation of the portraits of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. The event included remarks by the current and former presidents, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Mrs. Bush. The spirit of the event was quite nice; the president was congenial, while Mrs. Obama was warm and charitable. But this moment belonged to America’s 43rd president and his wife. President Bush’s words were moving (particularly when speaking about his father), humorous, and gracious.

Having served in the White House for almost the entire two terms of the Bush presidency, returning to the White House activated memories that had begun to fade just a bit – from the events of 9/11, to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to Bush’s re-election, to the worst days of the Iraq war. Some of these events felt like they happened a time long ago and far away; and yet sitting in the East Room also felt familiar, almost as if the White House years had never ended. On a personal level, it was a joy to renew friendships with former colleagues, among whom can be counted some of the finest public servants imaginable.

As for President Bush, I am the first to admit I am not an entirely objective observer of the man. But I did have the benefit of having seen him up close during challenging and consequential times, and in ways that not many other Americans could ever really know. Virtually every person who worked for him or got to know him can testify to his enormous personal decency and integrity. He was one of the gutsiest politicians of our lifetime. (Consider among other things his commitment to the surge in Iraq when almost everyone else had given up on the war.) And he showed great mercy in helping the people of Africa and a ferocious commitment to pursuing his main duty, protecting our country.

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I returned to the White House today for the presentation of the portraits of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. The event included remarks by the current and former presidents, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Mrs. Bush. The spirit of the event was quite nice; the president was congenial, while Mrs. Obama was warm and charitable. But this moment belonged to America’s 43rd president and his wife. President Bush’s words were moving (particularly when speaking about his father), humorous, and gracious.

Having served in the White House for almost the entire two terms of the Bush presidency, returning to the White House activated memories that had begun to fade just a bit – from the events of 9/11, to the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to Bush’s re-election, to the worst days of the Iraq war. Some of these events felt like they happened a time long ago and far away; and yet sitting in the East Room also felt familiar, almost as if the White House years had never ended. On a personal level, it was a joy to renew friendships with former colleagues, among whom can be counted some of the finest public servants imaginable.

As for President Bush, I am the first to admit I am not an entirely objective observer of the man. But I did have the benefit of having seen him up close during challenging and consequential times, and in ways that not many other Americans could ever really know. Virtually every person who worked for him or got to know him can testify to his enormous personal decency and integrity. He was one of the gutsiest politicians of our lifetime. (Consider among other things his commitment to the surge in Iraq when almost everyone else had given up on the war.) And he showed great mercy in helping the people of Africa and a ferocious commitment to pursuing his main duty, protecting our country.

George W. Bush was hardly flawless, and certainly neither were those of us who worked under him. Yet having faced crises of considerable dimensions, President Bush served his nation exceedingly well and with honor.

“We cannot live our dreams,” Oliver Wendell Holmes said in summing up his years on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. “We are lucky enough if we can give a sample of our best, and if in our hearts we can feel that it has been nobly done.”

President Bush gave his best; and in his heart, he can take some comfort that it was nobly done.

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How Irrelevant is Amnesty International?

The news that Amnesty International’s annual report on the state of the world has condemned the American raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, as “unlawful” should surprise no one. The group’s obtuse effort to brand every effort of the United States to defend itself against terrorists has long since reached the level of parody. Where once it could claim some moral legitimacy as a neutral compiler and observer of human rights violations wherever they were committed, the decision of the group to treat the West’s ongoing conflict with al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies as if it were a matter of American persecution of Third World innocents has lost Amnesty its last shred of credibility.

The defense of Osama bin Laden’s right to life and liberty should place the group’s criticisms of Israel’s efforts to fend off Palestinian terrorism in perspective. While human rights monitors are vital in a world where tyrannies are still commonplace, the inability of groups like AI to tell the difference between the perpetrators of violence and those attempting to defend themselves is a fatal flaw that has rendered them irrelevant to useful discussions about how to advance the cause of humanity.

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The news that Amnesty International’s annual report on the state of the world has condemned the American raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan, as “unlawful” should surprise no one. The group’s obtuse effort to brand every effort of the United States to defend itself against terrorists has long since reached the level of parody. Where once it could claim some moral legitimacy as a neutral compiler and observer of human rights violations wherever they were committed, the decision of the group to treat the West’s ongoing conflict with al-Qaeda and its Islamist allies as if it were a matter of American persecution of Third World innocents has lost Amnesty its last shred of credibility.

The defense of Osama bin Laden’s right to life and liberty should place the group’s criticisms of Israel’s efforts to fend off Palestinian terrorism in perspective. While human rights monitors are vital in a world where tyrannies are still commonplace, the inability of groups like AI to tell the difference between the perpetrators of violence and those attempting to defend themselves is a fatal flaw that has rendered them irrelevant to useful discussions about how to advance the cause of humanity.

It’s not clear there was ever a time when Amnesty International deserved the moral standing that some in the press have accorded it. The human rights group’s greatest strength was its willingness to take on all countries, including those beloved of the left. That meant rather than just focus its attention on the alleged abuses of the West, it also devoted a great deal of attention on those nations where denial of human rights was not the exception to the rule but the whole point of the state apparatus. If that meant treating the Soviet Union as being on the same moral plane as the United States, we were instructed that this was the price to be paid for having a group lionized by the left pay some attention to the plight of those imprisoned in the Gulag Archipelago. But a willingness to treat genuine problems in democratic countries where the rule of law is respected as no different from dictatorships and totalitarian regimes was always absurd. Now it has been overshadowed by the group’s inability to comprehend that states have a right to defend themselves against terrorists.

In the case of Israel, the group largely ignores the fact that Gaza became a Hamas terrorist state after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005, and then its tyrannical Islamist masters allowed its territory to be used as a launching pad for terror strikes. Gaza’s leaders are at war with Israel, but AI treats the Jewish state’s attempts to keep military hardware out of the hands of those terrorists as a violation of human rights even though the flow of food and medicine into the area has not stopped. Israel is not perfect, but it is a functioning democracy where all have access to courts and a free press. The fact that AI also criticizes Hamas and Fatah for their tyrannical rule over Palestinians in the Gaza and West Bank doesn’t provide legitimacy for the group’s stands that have the effect of delegitimizing democratic Israel’s right of self-defense.

It’s not that every instance cited by AI is false. Many of their reports are reliable, especially those that note problems in the Third World, that few in the so-called human rights community that is obsessed with destroying Israel, care about. The organization’s commitment to neutrality in conflicts is fine, the problem is that this has always brought with it a willingness to treat every country and cause as morally equivalent. Such a stance has led them to condemn the raid on Osama bin Laden and in the same report condemn Canada for not arresting former President George W. Bush on bogus human rights charges. AI isn’t just a joke anymore; it’s rendered itself completely irrelevant to the cause that it claims to cherish.

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George W. Bush and the Freedom Agenda

President Bush returned to Washington earlier this week to mark the opening of the “Freedom Collection” at the Bush Institute in Dallas. At the event, President Bush gave a speech that was turned into an op-ed  for the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading.

President Bush offered a sophisticated critique of (among other things) the so-called Arab Spring. “The collapse of an old order can unleash resentments and power struggles that a new order is not yet prepared to handle,” the former president said. Years of transition can be difficult. He acknowledged that there is nothing easy about the achievement of freedom. But Bush pointed out that there is an inbuilt crisis in tyrannies, which is that they are illegitimate and, eventually, citizens rise up against them. Regardless of their culture, people don’t want to be subject to repression, violence, and the lash of the whip.

Egypt is a good example. Whatever one thinks about the short, medium, and long-term prospects there – and there are certainly reasons for concern —  the revolution itself was organic. America didn’t provoke the uprising and, until the 11th hour, we stood with Hosni Mubarak. We were essentially bystanders to events there. Mubarak did not take the necessary steps for reform and liberation when he could  – and in the end, he was consumed by the resentments and hatreds he helped to create.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, then, tectonic plates are shifting, whether we like it or not. What does that mean for American policy? Read More

President Bush returned to Washington earlier this week to mark the opening of the “Freedom Collection” at the Bush Institute in Dallas. At the event, President Bush gave a speech that was turned into an op-ed  for the Wall Street Journal that’s worth reading.

President Bush offered a sophisticated critique of (among other things) the so-called Arab Spring. “The collapse of an old order can unleash resentments and power struggles that a new order is not yet prepared to handle,” the former president said. Years of transition can be difficult. He acknowledged that there is nothing easy about the achievement of freedom. But Bush pointed out that there is an inbuilt crisis in tyrannies, which is that they are illegitimate and, eventually, citizens rise up against them. Regardless of their culture, people don’t want to be subject to repression, violence, and the lash of the whip.

Egypt is a good example. Whatever one thinks about the short, medium, and long-term prospects there – and there are certainly reasons for concern —  the revolution itself was organic. America didn’t provoke the uprising and, until the 11th hour, we stood with Hosni Mubarak. We were essentially bystanders to events there. Mubarak did not take the necessary steps for reform and liberation when he could  – and in the end, he was consumed by the resentments and hatreds he helped to create.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, then, tectonic plates are shifting, whether we like it or not. What does that mean for American policy?

According to America’s 43rd president:

As Americans, our goal should be to help reformers turn the end of tyranny into durable, accountable civic structures. Emerging democracies need strong constitutions, political parties committed to pluralism, and free elections. Free societies depend upon the rule of law and property rights, and they require hopeful economies, drawn into open world markets.

This work will require patience, creativity and active American leadership. It will involve the strengthening of civil society—with a particular emphasis on the role of women. It will require a consistent defense of religious liberty. It will mean the encouragement of development, education and health, as well as trade and foreign investment. There will certainly be setbacks. But if America does not support the advance of democratic institutions and values, who will?

It’s important to bear in mind that the United States’ transition to freedom was hardly smooth. Nearly a century after our liberation from Great Britain we fought what the historian Daniel J. Boorstin called “probably the bloodiest civil war of the 19th century and perhaps even of all modern history.” It was, he said, “the great trauma of our national life.” With the Civil War on our record, we might want to show a bit of patience toward those who are emerging from broken and pathologized societies.

To be clear: the overthrow of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes does not always end well. One form of tyranny can give way to another. As Bush said in his speech, “Freedom is a powerful force.  But it does not advance on wheels of historical inevitability. And it is history that proves this point. The American Revolution of 1776 produced George Washington, who embodied the democratic habits of a new nation. The French Revolution of 1789 eventually produced Napoleon, who set out to conquer Europe. The outcome of a freedom revolution is determined by human choices and the creation of durable democratic traditions.”

To return to the here and now: Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafi could be much worse than Egypt under Mubarak. But the revolution came. We couldn’t have stopped it even if we wanted to. The pertinent question is whether the United States has either the interest or the capacity to help shape the outcome there and elsewhere in the Muslim world in ways that strengthen civil society and advance genuine human liberty; in ways that bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice, one might say.

Once upon a time, the United States had a president – several presidents, in fact – who cared about such things. Today, it’s not at all clear that we do.

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Obama’s Afghan Policy Speech: Two Halves That Don’t Add Up

You have to hand it to President Obama. He delivered a great speech from Bagram Air Base last night — one that sounded tough yet reasonable, even while skillfully eliding all the tough questions about his Afghan policy.

In fact, he won even before he opened his mouth: the image of the president, standing in front of two hulking MRAP armored vehicles, at a military base in a war zone, was a powerful visual reminder of the stature and power of the commander-in-chief. President Bush certainly made good use of the prerogatives of the office to establish himself in the public’s eye as a strong leader, and Obama showed he was a worthy successor in that regard.

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You have to hand it to President Obama. He delivered a great speech from Bagram Air Base last night — one that sounded tough yet reasonable, even while skillfully eliding all the tough questions about his Afghan policy.

In fact, he won even before he opened his mouth: the image of the president, standing in front of two hulking MRAP armored vehicles, at a military base in a war zone, was a powerful visual reminder of the stature and power of the commander-in-chief. President Bush certainly made good use of the prerogatives of the office to establish himself in the public’s eye as a strong leader, and Obama showed he was a worthy successor in that regard.

The substance of the speech—somber and serious and largely free of election-year politicking—was of a piece with its setting. The headline event was the signing of a U.S.-Afghan Security Partnership Agreement earlier in the day. Obama announced that “the agreement we signed today sends a clear message to the Afghan people: as you stand up, you will not stand alone.” He then made an argument for why it is important to stay the course in Afghanistan—”to make sure that al-Qaeda could never again use this country to launch attacks against us.” He also spoke of the progress that U.S. and allied troops are making toward achieving that objective.

It could just as easily have been George W. Bush rather than Barack Obama making those statements. In fact, Obama borrowed the “as you stand up” phrasing from his predecessor.

But the speech was finely balanced so it gave hope to doves as well as hawks. Obama once again iterated that his objectives are relatively narrow—”our goal is not to build a country in America’s image, or to eradicate every vestige of the Taliban”—and that he has a clear timeline for bringing troops home: “Last year, we removed 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Another 23,000 will leave by the end of the summer. After that, reductions will continue at a steady pace, with more of our troops coming home. And as our coalition agreed, by the end of 2014 the Afghans will be fully responsible for the security of their country.”

All of that sounds eminently reasonable—until you start to question whether the two halves of his policy add up. Is it actually possible to bring the troops home on the timeline he envisions, while also cutting funding for the Afghan security forces, and still achieve his goal of an Afghanistan secure enough to never again become a haven for al-Qaeda? I hope so, but I have grave doubts. I fear that President Obama may have put his objective of troop withdrawal ahead of his competing objective of stabilizing Afghanistan and “delivering justice to al-Qaeda.”

But Obama remains the master of projecting an air of serious, cerebral centrism—at least when he is not in full Republican-bashing campaign mode. And he was not at Bagram. He was at his best, making a deeply ambivalent policy—a policy at war with itself—seem like the only way to go.

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Dan Rather and His Great White Whale

Dan Rather was once at the top of the journalistic universe, having replaced Walter Cronkite as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” (when network news broadcasts still meant something). But then came a story meant to smear President George W. Bush, based on forged documents that were almost immediately revealed as such. Then (as this Daily Beast story recounts) came the Rather apology; the revelation that CBS News could no longer vouch for their credibility; the CBS-commissioned investigation faulting Rather and his top producer, Mary Mapes; and finally, the end of Rather’s career at CBS.

Now nearly 80 years old and hawking a new book, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, Rather insists the forged documents are accurate. “I believe them to be genuine. I did at the time, I did in the immediate aftermath of it, and yes, I do now.”

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Dan Rather was once at the top of the journalistic universe, having replaced Walter Cronkite as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” (when network news broadcasts still meant something). But then came a story meant to smear President George W. Bush, based on forged documents that were almost immediately revealed as such. Then (as this Daily Beast story recounts) came the Rather apology; the revelation that CBS News could no longer vouch for their credibility; the CBS-commissioned investigation faulting Rather and his top producer, Mary Mapes; and finally, the end of Rather’s career at CBS.

Now nearly 80 years old and hawking a new book, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, Rather insists the forged documents are accurate. “I believe them to be genuine. I did at the time, I did in the immediate aftermath of it, and yes, I do now.”

This claim is silly, as this 224-page Report of the Independent Review Panel makes clear. (While CBS’s independent panel report didn’t specifically take up the question of whether the documents were forgeries, it retained a document expert, Peter Tytell, who concluded that the documents in question were “not produced on a typewriter in the early 1970s and therefore were not authentic.”) Three years after the story, Rather filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and its parent company, Viacom, claiming he had been made a “scapegoat.” In 2009, a New York State Appeals Court said Rather’s $70 million complaint should be dismissed in its entirety, and that a lower court erred in denying CBS’s motion to throw out the lawsuit.

What appears to have happened is that Rather cannot emotionally or psychologically accept that the Bush National Guard story was built on lies, which ended up destroying his career. And so he has become a desperate, embittered man, frantically trying to vindicate his name, unable to see that his efforts merely remind us what a pitiable figure he has become.

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”  These are the words of Captain Ahab as he tosses his harpoon toward the great white whale.

Dan Rather may want to reacquaint himself with Moby Dick. Things didn’t end well for the obsessive and revenge-seeking Captain Ahab. And they’re not ending well for Rather, either.

 

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Obama Will Have to Walk Fine Line on Foreign Policy Message

Vice President Biden gave a foreign policy address at NYU this morning, which, as you could probably guess, included numerous references to the fact that Osama bin Laden is no longer alive. But Biden also floated a new addition to the campaign’s OBL-centric foreign policy message by warning that a Mitt Romney presidency would be a rerun of the George W. Bush years.

“[Romney] takes us back to the failed policies that President Obama has dug us out of,” said Biden. “He would take us back to dangerous and discredited policy that would…make America less secure.”

The bulk of Biden’s speech was focused on attacking Romney. But it was full of apparent contradictions: Romney is too much of a hard-liner, but also can’t be counted on to make tough decisions. Romney is too inexperienced, and yet Obama was fully prepared in 2008. Romney has no interest in foreign policy and would outsource decisions to the State Department, and yet he’s also a dangerous ideologue who is “mired in a Cold War mindset.”

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Vice President Biden gave a foreign policy address at NYU this morning, which, as you could probably guess, included numerous references to the fact that Osama bin Laden is no longer alive. But Biden also floated a new addition to the campaign’s OBL-centric foreign policy message by warning that a Mitt Romney presidency would be a rerun of the George W. Bush years.

“[Romney] takes us back to the failed policies that President Obama has dug us out of,” said Biden. “He would take us back to dangerous and discredited policy that would…make America less secure.”

The bulk of Biden’s speech was focused on attacking Romney. But it was full of apparent contradictions: Romney is too much of a hard-liner, but also can’t be counted on to make tough decisions. Romney is too inexperienced, and yet Obama was fully prepared in 2008. Romney has no interest in foreign policy and would outsource decisions to the State Department, and yet he’s also a dangerous ideologue who is “mired in a Cold War mindset.”

The speech illustrated the difficult line the Obama campaign will have to walk on its foreign policy message. It will have to simultaneously tout its accomplishments, which have practically all been achieved through the continuation (and escalation) of robust, Bush-era policies, while attacking Romney as Bush redux.

Yes, Obama has succeeded at killing a large number of al-Qaeda targets – but he did this by ramping up the drone program. Yes, Obama was able to locate and kill Osama bin Laden – but he did this by using intelligence and gathering methods put into place by the Bush administration. Yes, Obama has increased Iran’s isolation in the world – but only because hawks in Congress strong-armed him into implementing sanctions that he originally opposed.

Biden had to argue today that Romney would be too meek and indecisive to accomplish these things, but was also so hawkish and ideological that he would lead the U.S. into dangerous conflicts. It was a disjointed message, and one that didn’t draw much applause from the audience full of NYU students at the College Democrat event.

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Making a Federal Case Out of Jerusalem

Last year, I suggested there was no need for President Obama to make a federal case out of Menachem Zivotofsky’s request to have “Israel” designated on his passport as his place of birth, pursuant to a law giving Americans born in Jerusalem the right to that designation if they requested. My idea — which I thought might resonate with Obama — was to blame Bush!

Congress enacted the law in 2002; President Bush signed it, but said he would not enforce it; Obama had campaigned against Bush’s many signing statements, saying a president generally had only two choices – sign a bill or veto it; and Obama could have said he was simply faithfully executing a law his predecessor had signed. If he wanted, Obama could have done what President Clinton did regarding Taiwan: comply with the passport law while declaring American foreign policy remained unchanged. Case closed! But Obama proceeded to the Supreme Court, which ruled the issue can be adjudicated; and because the controversy continues, we may continue to be treated to colloquies like the one at the State Department yesterday.

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Last year, I suggested there was no need for President Obama to make a federal case out of Menachem Zivotofsky’s request to have “Israel” designated on his passport as his place of birth, pursuant to a law giving Americans born in Jerusalem the right to that designation if they requested. My idea — which I thought might resonate with Obama — was to blame Bush!

Congress enacted the law in 2002; President Bush signed it, but said he would not enforce it; Obama had campaigned against Bush’s many signing statements, saying a president generally had only two choices – sign a bill or veto it; and Obama could have said he was simply faithfully executing a law his predecessor had signed. If he wanted, Obama could have done what President Clinton did regarding Taiwan: comply with the passport law while declaring American foreign policy remained unchanged. Case closed! But Obama proceeded to the Supreme Court, which ruled the issue can be adjudicated; and because the controversy continues, we may continue to be treated to colloquies like the one at the State Department yesterday.

State’s spokesperson was tortured with a series of questions about whether Jerusalem is part of Israel. Given the position the administration is still defending in court, she had to refuse to acknowledge even West Jerusalem (where Zivotofsky was born) as part of Israel. She thus repeatedly had to dodge the question, obviously acting on instructions to say only that Jerusalem is an issue to be resolved by negotiations. She gave the same answer to the question, “What is the capital of Israel?”

The reporter might have referenced the State Department website, which identifies Israel’s capital as Jerusalem (and says Israel’s area is 20,330 square kilometers, “including Jerusalem”); or the CIA website, which says the same thing; or the Department of Defense website, which is replete with references to “Jerusalem, Israel” – including a picture of Secretary Gates and Prime Minister Netanyahu “during a working lunch meeting in Jerusalem, Israel.” But for the same reason the White House scrubbed its website of references to Vice President Biden in “Jerusalem, Israel” and scrubbed references even in Bush administration documents, the official policy had to be restated yesterday no matter how the question was asked.

This all could have been avoided if the White House had followed my advice last year; ended the charade about the city that has been Israel’s capital since 1950; and stopped fighting a nine-year old boy’s passport designation in the Supreme Court and beyond. Sometimes I think the White House doesn’t read my posts.

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State Department Spin on Jerusalem Meltdown is Already Wrong

This morning, the State Department will begin to walk back the spectacular meltdown that was yesterday’s press briefing, wherein State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland gave the Palestinians a de facto retroactive veto over Israel’s 1949 decision to make Jerusalem its capital.

The talking point will be that the Obama administration, by insisting that the status of West Jerusalem is subject to final-status negotiations, was only reiterating the explicit policies of past administrations. If that were true, then Obama critics would be making the same points they’ve made throughout this White House’s diplomatic campaign against Israel: that Obama, by making controversies out of issues everyone had been content to leave quietly buried, was unnecessarily damaging the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the prospects for long-term Middle East peace. Read More

This morning, the State Department will begin to walk back the spectacular meltdown that was yesterday’s press briefing, wherein State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland gave the Palestinians a de facto retroactive veto over Israel’s 1949 decision to make Jerusalem its capital.

The talking point will be that the Obama administration, by insisting that the status of West Jerusalem is subject to final-status negotiations, was only reiterating the explicit policies of past administrations. If that were true, then Obama critics would be making the same points they’ve made throughout this White House’s diplomatic campaign against Israel: that Obama, by making controversies out of issues everyone had been content to leave quietly buried, was unnecessarily damaging the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the prospects for long-term Middle East peace.

As it so happens, the claim is false. Previous administrations have recognized Israel’s right to at least part of its capital city. The debate has turned on whether the Jewish State is entitled to “all” of Jerusalem, not whether it’s entitled to any part of the city. It was always about not prejudicing whether Israel would have share Jerusalem with a Palestinian state, not whether the entire city was up for grabs (let alone whether the Palestinians can retroactively veto Israel’s sovereign decision to make the parts of Jerusalem it controlled pre-1967 its capital).

White Houses have declined to move the embassy out of Tel Aviv because it would be treated as a symbolic acknowledgement of Israel’s rights over all Jerusalem, e.g. a statement that Israel wouldn’t have to share the city. Sitting on their hands on the embassy allowed presidents to dodge broader questions, which had the benefit of not running contrary to black-letter American law going back to 1995 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Until now, no administration has ever put Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem as such on the table, or implied that even West Jerusalem was up for grabs. Bush even used to insert language into his waivers stating “My administration remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.”

Also, there’s this from President Clinton: “the benefits of the agreement… [include] the incorporation of most of the settlers into Israel, and the Jewish capital of Jerusalem recognized by all, not just the United States, by everybody in the world.”

Also, there’s this from President Bush: “Mr. Bush said the Palestinians must elect ‘new and different’ leaders who were not ‘compromised by terror’… As soon as the Palestinians changed their leadership, stopped terrorist attacks on Israel and moved towards democracy, the U.S. would boost their economy and push Israel into meaningful negotiations… He refused to speculate on the three major sticking points: Palestinian demands that Israel return the territory won in the 1967 war, share Jerusalem as the capital and allow millions of Palestinian refugees to return.”

Also, there’s this from Senator Barack Obama. Note that while he took back the part of the speech that spoke of Israel’s capital remaining undivided, even his clarification emphasized “that Israel has a legitimate claim on” at least part of Jerusalem. Apparently that position has changed in the last few years, but the administration shouldn’t be allowed to pretend this is just the way things have always been.

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Re: Obama’s Revealing Comments to Medvedev

To add to Pete’s post on President Obama’s revealing exchange with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, it should be noted that we now have two such incidents from the president. His first saw him insulting Benjamin Netanyahu with his French counterpart when he thought the microphones were off. In this regard, Obama fares quite poorly when compared with his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Bush had a memorable hot-mic moment during his presidency. It occurred as the Second Lebanon War raged on and the international community was hoping for a cease-fire. Bush was talking to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, both of whom suggested, while they thought their microphones were off, that they didn’t much like UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan for a cease-fire, as it would not actually solve anything. Bush said to Blair:

The irony is, what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh–, and it’s over.

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To add to Pete’s post on President Obama’s revealing exchange with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, it should be noted that we now have two such incidents from the president. His first saw him insulting Benjamin Netanyahu with his French counterpart when he thought the microphones were off. In this regard, Obama fares quite poorly when compared with his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Bush had a memorable hot-mic moment during his presidency. It occurred as the Second Lebanon War raged on and the international community was hoping for a cease-fire. Bush was talking to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, both of whom suggested, while they thought their microphones were off, that they didn’t much like UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan for a cease-fire, as it would not actually solve anything. Bush said to Blair:

The irony is, what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh–, and it’s over.

He was, of course, correct. But the point is that when the microphones were off, Bush was–to no one’s surprise–just as supportive of our allies and as tough on our adversaries as he was in public. These moments might seem insignificant, but they reveal why some presidents are able to win the trust of our allies, and others are not. Our most candid moments will always play an outsized role in others’ approximations of our moral compass. This is even more so when they confirm a pattern of behavior.

I don’t remember if Bush had any hot-mic incidents with his Russian counterpart, but Condoleezza Rice had a famous one with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in 2006. The two were arguing about Russia’s lack of support for the American-led aid effort in Iraq. Here is the UK Telegraph’s writeup of the exchange:

Mr Lavrov tried to explain that the international community should not become involved in Iraq’s political process – something that Miss Rice opposes – but should be involved “in support of the political process.”

“What does that mean?” Miss Rice demanded.

After a long pause, Mr Lavrov replied with a sneer: “I think you understand.”

“No, I don’t,” she shot back. As Mr Lavrov refused to lend Russian support to the new aid programme, Miss Rice grew increasingly irritated.

“I just want to register that I think it’s a pity that we can’t endorse something that’s been endorsed by the Iraqis and by the UN,” she said. “But if that’s how Russia sees it, that’s fine.”

The article notes that the other foreign ministers barely spoke at all during the exchange. That’s because they usually rely on the Americans to register the West’s disapproval of Russia’s mischief making.

Well, they used to.

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Lessons of Presidential Persuasion: Be the Commander-In-Chief

I finally got around to reading Ezra Klein’s interesting take on what I consider to be a fascinating subject: the power of presidents to persuade the public. Klein’s piece, in the March 19 New Yorker, takes a dim view of the practical uses of presidential rhetoric, using mostly presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama as case studies. Reagan, Klein notes, was considered to be a great communicator (or, as he is remembered, the Great Communicator), yet his approval ratings were average and many of his primary policy prescriptions never caught on with the public.

Overall, he writes, the same is true of Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Bush was unable to convince the country to accept social security reform, and Obama has been unable to sell additional fiscal stimulus and most notably his health care reform law, which remains broadly unpopular. The overestimation of the power of the bully pulpit, he finds, is more likely to harm a president’s domestic policy agenda than advance it. But I think the key word there is “domestic.” Switch the subject to foreign policy, and the power is somewhat restored.

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I finally got around to reading Ezra Klein’s interesting take on what I consider to be a fascinating subject: the power of presidents to persuade the public. Klein’s piece, in the March 19 New Yorker, takes a dim view of the practical uses of presidential rhetoric, using mostly presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama as case studies. Reagan, Klein notes, was considered to be a great communicator (or, as he is remembered, the Great Communicator), yet his approval ratings were average and many of his primary policy prescriptions never caught on with the public.

Overall, he writes, the same is true of Clinton, Bush, and Obama. Bush was unable to convince the country to accept social security reform, and Obama has been unable to sell additional fiscal stimulus and most notably his health care reform law, which remains broadly unpopular. The overestimation of the power of the bully pulpit, he finds, is more likely to harm a president’s domestic policy agenda than advance it. But I think the key word there is “domestic.” Switch the subject to foreign policy, and the power is somewhat restored.

Bush may not have been able to sell Social Security reform, but it would be difficult to conjure a more memorable scene from Bush’s eight years in office than his speech atop the fire truck at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. It was—and remains—both moving and inspiring to hear the president emerge brilliantly from the shell of his tendency toward the folksy, and sometimes awkward, when ad-libbing, at that scene. It all could have gone very differently, since the bullhorn he was using worked only intermittently, and the crowd began losing patience. Yet, as they shouted that they couldn’t hear him, Bush remained calm, steady, and delivered a fine moment when he responded, “I can hear you. I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

Reagan’s most famous line, obviously, was “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” It is what he is remembered for as well—not just the words, but the sentiment, and the political risk involved. Very few conversations about Reagan center on what he said before or after his first-term tax deal with the Democrats. It’s fitting, because though presidential elections usually turn on the economy, the chief executive has more influence on foreign affairs. This is no different for Obama.

After Obama announced a troop “surge” in Afghanistan in December 2009, polls showed a 9-percent jump in Americans who thought staying in Afghanistan was the right course of action, and a 6-percent drop in those who opposed the war. Americans favored the speech itself by a 23-point margin. And the president saw a 7-point jump in public approval of his handling of the war.

None of this is out of the ordinary. When I interviewed James Robbins about his book on Vietnam, This Time We Win, he argued that polls at the time showed Lyndon Johnson to have more support for the war effort—especially its escalation—than most people think in retrospect.

“According to opinion polls at the time taken directly after Tet and a few weeks after Tet, the American people wanted to escalate the war,” Robbins told me. “They understand that the enemy had suffered a terrible defeat, so there was an opportunity if we had taken concerted action to actually win this thing.” Even on college campuses, he said, more people identified as hawks than doves: “The notion that young people were long-haired dope smoking draft resisters in 1967-68 is not true. The ‘Forrest Gump’ view of history is wrong.”

If you expand the category to national security in general, Clinton gets a boost as well. This one is more difficult to measure than support for a war, but leading up the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton had been marginalized to such a degree by Newt Gingrich’s masterful ability to control the narrative that Clinton offered his much-mocked plea at a briefing: “The president is still relevant here.” The bombing happened the next day, and Clinton’s ability to project empathy and his portrayal of opposition to his presidency as right-wing anti-government excess partly to blame for any dark mood in which someone bombs a federal building completely changed the pace and tone of the coverage of his presidency.

Speeches delivered in the service of selling a tax increase or even solving a debt-ceiling showdown are often treated as the president taking his eye off the ball. The president as commander-in-chief, however, is a role for which voters consistently express their support.

I want to offer Klein one more note of optimism. He writes:

Back-room bargains and quiet negotiations do not, however, present an inspiring vision of the Presidency. And they fail, too. Boehner and Obama spent much of last summer sitting in a room together, but, ultimately, the Speaker didn’t make a private deal with the President for the same reason that Republican legislators don’t swoon over a public speech by him: he is the leader of the Democratic Party, and if he wins they lose. This suggests that, as the two parties become more sharply divided, it may become increasingly difficult for a President to govern—and there’s little that he can do about it.

I disagree. The details of the deal matter, not just the party lines about the dispute. There is no way the backroom negotiations Clinton conducted with Gingrich over social security reform could have been possible if we had prime ministers, instead of presidents. The president possesses political capital Congress doesn’t. History tells us there are effective ways to use that capital. One lesson: quiet action on domestic policy, visible and audible leadership on national security.

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Obama Still Not Fooling Anyone on Israel

When foreign policy “realists,” pseudo-realists, and leftists claim that the pro-Israel establishment is preventing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, their argument fails to account for one aspect of recent Mideast history: During the administrations of American presidents seen as favoring Israel, the Jewish state’s leaders made serious offers for a final-status agreement.

So the argument that more “daylight” is needed between the U.S. and Israel is generally met with proper skepticism. So is the declaration that President Obama is just as pro-Israel as his predecessors, he’s just showing his friends a bit of tough love–heavy on the tough, light on the love. Aaron David Miller, part of Bill Clinton’s Mideast negotiating team, doesn’t think there’s any reason to fool yourself about that last point. He has written an article for Foreign Policy’s website detailing the six most damaging myths of the U.S.-Israel relationship. No. 6 is: “Barack Obama is just as pro-Israel as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.” Miller writes:

There’s no question that Obama understands and appreciates the special relationship between Israel and the United States. But Obama isn’t Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to Israel — not even close. These guys were frustrated by Israeli prime ministers too, but they also were moved and enamored by them (Clinton by Yitzhak Rabin, Bush by Ariel Sharon). They had instinctive, heartfelt empathy for the idea of Israel’s story, and as a consequence they could make allowances at times for Israel’s behavior even when it clashed with their own policy goals. Obama is more like George H.W. Bush when it comes to Israel, but without the strategy…

If Obama had a chance to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship and make it a little less special, he probably would. But I guess that’s the point: He probably won’t have the chance.

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When foreign policy “realists,” pseudo-realists, and leftists claim that the pro-Israel establishment is preventing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, their argument fails to account for one aspect of recent Mideast history: During the administrations of American presidents seen as favoring Israel, the Jewish state’s leaders made serious offers for a final-status agreement.

So the argument that more “daylight” is needed between the U.S. and Israel is generally met with proper skepticism. So is the declaration that President Obama is just as pro-Israel as his predecessors, he’s just showing his friends a bit of tough love–heavy on the tough, light on the love. Aaron David Miller, part of Bill Clinton’s Mideast negotiating team, doesn’t think there’s any reason to fool yourself about that last point. He has written an article for Foreign Policy’s website detailing the six most damaging myths of the U.S.-Israel relationship. No. 6 is: “Barack Obama is just as pro-Israel as Bill Clinton or George W. Bush.” Miller writes:

There’s no question that Obama understands and appreciates the special relationship between Israel and the United States. But Obama isn’t Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to Israel — not even close. These guys were frustrated by Israeli prime ministers too, but they also were moved and enamored by them (Clinton by Yitzhak Rabin, Bush by Ariel Sharon). They had instinctive, heartfelt empathy for the idea of Israel’s story, and as a consequence they could make allowances at times for Israel’s behavior even when it clashed with their own policy goals. Obama is more like George H.W. Bush when it comes to Israel, but without the strategy…

If Obama had a chance to reset the U.S.-Israel relationship and make it a little less special, he probably would. But I guess that’s the point: He probably won’t have the chance.

Miller has made this point before. And when he says “He probably won’t have the chance,” that’s because the American public and their representatives in the Congress don’t want to downgrade the U.S.-Israeli relationship, so they will work to prevent Obama from doing so. The problem for the president is that he cannot argue that his way is more effective—he thus far has moved the parties in the conflict further away from where they’ve been in the past—or that he is the victim. After all, even Clinton—who never hid his disdain for Benjamin Netanyahu–got Netanyahu to sign a deal, and with Yasser Arafat no less.

Under the previous two administrations—one Democratic, one Republican–the Israeli right, left, and center have all signed agreements, made final-status offers, or led Israel to make unprecedented sacrifices for the peace process. As Yossi Klein Halevi wrote recently: “Israelis still recall with disbelief how Obama refused to honor Bush’s written commitment to Ariel Sharon—that the U.S. would support settlement blocs being incorporated into Israel proper. And never has an American president treated an Israeli prime minister with such shabbiness as Obama has treated Netanyahu. Indeed one gets the impression that of all the world’s leaders, Obama most detests the prime minister of Israel.”

Read that last sentence again and understand why it matters that Obama thinks less of Israel than his predecessors did, and why he has failed both the Israelis and the Palestinians because of it.

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