Obama’s place in history.
Will history declare Barack Obama a great, good, adequate, or poor president? Obama has three years left in office, and we can’t know what those years will bring. But the five years he’s already served in the White House offer ample material for assessing his presidency in the larger context of history. In fact, considering a president’s legacy while he is still in office is an essential means of preparing the foundation for historical judgment—the first draft of the first draft, so to speak. Time adds perspective but also haze, and examining Obama’s presidency in real time provides the sharpest focus on his basic choices and their effects.
A president’s historical reputation is a function of the promises he kept and abandoned, the domestic and international conditions he faced, and the decisions he made in response. Barack Obama’s pattern of leadership and the foundations of his legacy are to be found in these choices and their impact on the life of the country.
One distinction that places great, good, and adequate presidents on one side and poor ones on the other is that the first group addresses and effectively deals with the major problems they face on entering office. What were these major domestic problems for President Obama? Two stand out. First, he inherited an economy that had barely survived a liquidity crisis at the end of the Bush presidency. George W. Bush’s resolute and controversial economic decision to initiate a massive federal intervention (TARP) stabilized, but did not heal, the post-crisis economy. The healing was President Obama’s responsibility.
The second major problem that Obama faced was the relentless and precipitous decline of the American public’s trust in political leaders and political institutions, especially at the federal level. In 1958, a Gallup poll found that 73 percent of the public believed you could trust the federal government to do what’s right “most” or “all of the time”; by 2006, that figure had fallen to 28 percent. This decline in public trust has been accompanied by an increasing degree of partisan sorting that has widened the political and policy differences between Democrats and Republicans and raised the level of rancor in public discourse.
How did President Obama respond to the strong and repeated public plea to focus on the economy? Chiefly with rhetoric. Aside from countless declared pivots back to the issue, the president focused on his larger personal ambitions. These included monumental and legacy-building legislative efforts such as overhauling health care, passing cap-and-trade legislation, and signing an $800-billion-plus stimulus bill whose major purpose was to expand federal programs and lock in their new levels of funding for the future. As a result, what economic recovery we’ve seen since 2008 has been the slowest in America’s history. What’s more, in April the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that a record 92,594,000 Americans were not in the workforce. This matched a 36-year labor-participation-rate low of 62.8 percent.
As for public distrust of Washington, did the president govern as the pragmatic centrist he claimed to be and thus restore faith in American governance? In a word, no. At nearly every critical point that Obama could have made a choice to turn toward the center—after his initial election, just before and after the 2010 off-year election in which Republicans took control of the House, and after his reelection in 2012—he failed to do so. Obama’s version of bipartisanship can be glimpsed in a comment he made in a 2006 interview: “You can have the best agenda in the world, but if you don’t control the gavel, you cannot move an agenda forward.” He continued: “And, when you do control the gavel…you have to be the one who’s dictating how the compromises work.”
As president, he acted on that view. Obama told Representative Eric Cantor, then the House Republican Whip, during a negotiating session over the size of the 2009 stimulus package, “I won,” effectively ending the discussion over any balance of tax breaks and public spending. When Republican Senator John McCain raised objections to the secretive and exclusionary way Democrats were developing the president’s health-care legislation, the president bluntly replied: “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election’s over.” In “dictating how the compromises work” and thus stymieing progress, Obama contributed to still greater decline in the public’s trust of Washington. Add to this a string of unresolved scandals including the IRS’s political targeting and the broad and secret surveillance of private data, and it’s no wonder that a 2013 Gallup poll shows that Americans who trusted the government to do what’s right “most” or “all of the time” had fallen to 19 percent.
In Obama’s failure to meet the two great challenges he faced upon taking office lies the “basic fault” of his presidency and the reason that he has received anemic grades and is likely to do so after he leaves office. The term “basic fault” comes from the Hungarian psychoanalyst Michael Balint. His insight was that the real roots of peoples’ troubles lay in a primary mismatch between their desires and their circumstances. A poor economy and widespread public distrust constitute the circumstances in which President Obama was placed. An examination of his desires will illuminate the gulf between man and moment.
An ambition for “greatness” establishes the psychological foundation for this president’s “basic fault.” In his single-minded quest for greatness through big transformative legislation, Obama ignored the ailing American economy and sacrificed the bipartisan opportunities he might have had or created, had he opted simply to be a good president. Of course, almost every modern president reaches that office on the wings of his ambitions, but even at this level, presidents differ. President Obama wanted to be, in his own frequently repeated formulations, “great” and “transformational.” Announcing his 2008 candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, he said, “let us transform this nation.” Campaigning in Iowa, he said directly, “I want to transform this country.” In his first inaugural address, he called on his fellow citizens to help “remake America”—not change it, mind you, but remake it. Asked on Meet the Press about his wanting to be a great president, Obama replied, “When I think about great presidents, I think about those who transform how we think about ourselves as a country in fundamental ways so that, that, at the end of their tenure, we have looked and said to ours—that’s who we are.” He went on: “They transformed the culture and not simply promoted one or two particular issues.”
The president sees himself as a philosopher-king whose greatness and transformational leadership reflect the importance of his political ideas and his status as a national moral compass and avatar. Others would be tasked with developing and putting his vision into effect as they did with the administration’s stimulus proposals, Dodd-Frank financial reform, the Senate’s version of immigration reform, and his health-care legislation.
That same iconic self-image is at the root of the president’s disinterest in his own administration and the governing responsibilities that come with being president—the botched health-care rollout and its random implementation, the ignored warnings about Benghazi, the IRS’s targeting of conservative organizations, and now the Veteran’s Administration sad fiasco.
It’s not that the president doesn’t care; he’s just had his attention focused on what really matters: his legacy.
Obama’s transformational ambitions for greatness were aided and abetted by a senior staff that reinforced his enormous self-confidence and his view of himself as a historic figure. One of the president’s senior aides told a reporter for the Washington Post, “He’s playing chess in a town full of checkers players.” Another, Valerie Jarrett, said, “He knows exactly how smart he is…He knows how perceptive he is,” and what’s more, “I think that he has never really been challenged intellectually.” During Obama’s first campaign some of his aides referred to him as the “Black Jesus.”
Once Obama was elected, this idealization extended into the very highest levels of his senior staff. His chief political adviser David Axelrod said of working with Obama: “It’s like you are carrying this priceless porcelain vase through a crowd of people and you don’t want to be the guy who drops it and breaks it.” Having advisers think of you in terms that parallel God’s son or as a rare and priceless piece of porcelain has its problems, especially if you’re charged with making momentous decisions. After all, who would dare to tell even a symbolic reincarnation of Jesus that he shouldn’t do something?
Obama’s ability to get honest advice has been made harder still by his own self-regard. It is not hyperbole to say that he considers himself his own best, most knowledgeable adviser. At one point during his first presidential campaign, Obama asserted that in picking a vice-presidential nominee, he didn’t have to worry about foreign-policy experience because “foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton or Senator McCain.” Asked after the presidential campaign about the best advice he had received while running, he replied, “Well, I have to say it was the advice that I gave to myself.” In July of 2007, he told a group of fundraisers, “I’m the best retail politician in America.” In early 2007, when Obama interviewed his campaign’s future political director, Patrick Gaspard, he told him: “I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors.” Obama’s presidential ambition for greatness, coupled with his view that he alone has the skills to achieve it, is a recipe for political self-sabotage, and it has cost him dearly in terms of achievement.
Before placing Barack Obama on the poor-to-great continuum, we must come to a clear understanding of the terms of assessment. Great presidents successfully face nation-defining circumstances. This can mean guiding a new country into existence (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson), fighting a major world war after overcoming an economic depression (Franklin Roosevelt), or keeping the Union intact (Abraham Lincoln). Their mistakes and excesses (Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, Roosevelt’s internment of the Japanese) are weighed against the enormity of the problems they successfully faced, and the balance still tilts toward an exceptional record.
Good presidents successfully face major problems of a slightly smaller magnitude. This covers managing the Cold War (Dwight D. Eisenhower), or rekindling public confidence in a leadership and governing paradigm that works (Ronald Reagan), as well as successfully dealing with ordinary presidential problems such as economic downturns and non-catastrophic foreign-policy crises. Good presidents lead by forging common ground, and they govern by trying to build on it.
Even so-called adequate presidents often do their jobs well. Like every other president, they sign numerous bills into law, respond to the ordinary issues that arise during their time in office, and sometimes successfully initiate or manage important policy issues. This was done regarding welfare reform (Bill Clinton) and handling the demise of the Soviet Union (George H.W. Bush).
Poor presidents do not lack accomplishments so much as they are historically haunted by gross errors of judgment or leadership (Jimmy Carter, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon). Yet even these “failed” presidents can have truly significant accomplishments on their record. Carter engineered a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel that has stood the test of time. Johnson’s failed Great Society efforts must be balanced against a truly important Civil Rights Act. And while Nixon resigned his office rather than be legally removed from it, his “Nixon goes to China moment” was a strategic tour de force.
Using these criteria, what can we say about the prospects of Obama’s place in history? First, we can rule him out as a great president. He did not face nation-defining circumstances, let alone rise to them.
Nor can we accurately say that Obama has been a good president. His quest for greatness and for transforming the country led him to govern from his left-of-center convictions in a nation desperately in need of common ground. This in turn has further stimulated political divisions and opposition to his plans. He now faces diminished opportunities for accomplishments in his last two and a half years in office.
The top two tiers are out. This leaves the question of whether Obama will be seen as an adequate president or a poor one. On this, it is still too soon to make a call with confidence. As things stand, there is an unresolved domestic-policy consideration and an unresolved foreign-policy consideration, each with the potential to define Obama’s place in history. If the president’s signature heath-care plan ultimately fails to accomplish its stated purpose of substantially lowering costs and reducing the number of uninsured, Obama will be judged a poor president. The same fate awaits him if his diplomatic approach to Iran’s nuclear aspirations results in an Iranian bomb.
Presidents, especially controversial ones, look to “history” for vindication, and Obama is no exception. He, like other presidents, can count on time to grant him at least a small measure of forgiveness. Historical perspective tends to flatten out the leadership and policy complexities of most presidencies, and to extract one or a few essentials. Today we remember Harry Truman for his “buck stops here” decisiveness, for example. We don’t hear much about the phase “to err is Truman” or his failed seizure of the nation’s steel mills during the Korean War.
Obama can also count on a legion of admirers in academia and elsewhere to argue in favor of his transcendent qualities. These cheerleaders were there before he was president, and they will continue to promote their investment after he has left the White House. And posterity will rightfully note Obama’s historic stature as America’s first African-American president. But it’s unlikely that these considerations will push the Obama presidency from one historical category to another. And Barack Obama seems to know this. If he believed that fawning supporters and historic firsts were enough to ensure his legacy, he wouldn’t be straining so hard through executive actions to recapture some of his lost opportunities.
It is theoretically possible that Obama will choose to change his governing pattern. He might, for example, prove willing to work with Republicans on big economic issues like reforming the tax code, assuming Republicans trust him enough to work with him. But this seems highly unlikely. Greatness fervently sought but denied is not a psychological recipe for compromise, and besides, we know how he understands that word.
Before the president’s most recent State of the Union speech, one report noted that with only two such addresses to go, the president’s target “is increasingly history.” This misses the point. Obama has always been running for history. The irony of his presidency is that it could have been rated very good if the president had not tried so hard to be “great.” Had Obama really attempted to work with Republicans and find common ground, he might have found achieving sound health-care legislation, tax and entitlement reform, immigration reform, and the expansion of preschool education entirely possible, maybe even likely. That would have been quite a record.
It is likely that after the midterm elections, the driving force of Obama’s presidency—his search for greatness—will have reached its poignant conclusion in the checkmate of his ambitions. Ironically, the checkmate will have been set in motion by his ambition to escape the confines of the governing realities of the country he wished to transform.
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In Search of Greatness
Must-Reads from Magazine
The Elon Musk problem.
No one has ever mistaken me for a business writer. Show me a balance sheet or quarterly report, and my eyes will glaze over. Bring up “chasing alpha” at the bar, and I’ll ask for the check and give you the old Irish goodbye. Business chatter—the kind you can’t help but overhear from young stockjobbers at the gym and bloaty middle managers on the Acela—bores me to tears. I’m especially allergic to the idea of “The Market” as an autonomous, anthropomorphic entity with a unitary will and mind of its own.
But even I can tell you that Elon Musk is imploding.
The latest omen came Friday when footage of the South African-born magnate smoking a fat marijuana blunt dropped online. The video is worth watching; the Guardian has the key bits from the 150-minute interview (do people really watch interviews this long?).
Rogan, whose fame has been a mystery to many yet is an inescapable fact of our online lives, offers the joint to Musk but is quick to add: “You probably can’t [smoke it] because of stockholders, right?” (On second thought, I think I know why Rogan is famous—because he knows how to push his subjects’ buttons.)
“I mean it’s legal, right?” Musk replies.
And so Elon Musk—the founder of an electric-car company worth $50 billion and a rocket company worth $20 billion—presses the blunt between his lips and takes a drag. He washes it down with a sip of whiskey on the rocks.
“I’m not a regular smoker of weed,” Musk says a few minutes later. “I almost never [smoke it]. I mean, it’s it’s—I don’t actually notice any effect.” His speech by now is noticeably more halting than it has been earlier in the interview. “I know a lot of people like weed, and that’s fine. But I don’t find that it is very good for productivity.”
The Market was not amused. News of two senior Tesla executives quitting their jobs broke soon after the interview appeared. Tesla shares slid 8 percent. On Twitter, where he competes with President Trump for the World Megalomaniac Award, Musk tweeted out his Rogan interview, adding: “I am a business magnet.” Perhaps he was still coming down.
These disasters follow the summer’s going-private fiasco. In early August, Musk claimed he had secured the vast funding needed to take his company private and then did a switcheroo. Tesla short-sellers, whom Musk constantly tries to show up, were vindicated. The Market got angry; shares slid.
“Moving forward, we will continue to focus on what matters most,” Musk wrote in a statement to investors two weeks later, “building products that people love and that make a difference to the shared future of life on Earth. We’ve shown that we can make great sustainable energy products, and we now need to show that we can be sustainably profitable.”
That apparently entails shooting the THC-laden breeze with Joe Rogan for two and a half hours.
The question now is: How did Musk ever get so big in the first place? There were many Tesla-skeptics, of course, chief among them those very short-sellers. They were onto something, perhaps because they sensed that a sound inventor-investor-executive would be more concerned with producing a reliable, profitable, non-subsidized automobile than with . . . showing up short-sellers. Even so, Tesla shares climbed and climbed. Even now, after Friday’s Harold and Kumar routine, the stock is trading north of $260.
Two explanations come to mind. The first is that, after Steve Jobs’s death, Wall Street and Silicon Valley types were seeking the next Eccentric Visionary to whom they could hitch their dreams. And Musk was straight out of central casting for Eccentric Visionary. Ending climate change. Colonizing Mars. Super-trains linking cities across vast distances. Everything seemed possible with him. Who knows, maybe the hopes were well-placed at one point, and the adulation went to the man’s head?
The second explanation, which needn’t be mutually exclusive with the first, is ideology. So much of Musk’s business reputation rested on his claims of solving climate change and other planetary crises that loom large in the minds of the Davos crowd. Musk embodied the ideological proposition that no modern problem eludes solution by noble-minded technocratic elites. The Market, it turns out, was as prone to magical thinking as any of the rest of us.
Clarification: News of the Tesla executives’ departure broke following Musk’s pot-smoking interview, but at least one of the departures had been finalized earlier this week.
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The course the West followed has been a disaster.
The West has squandered the last, best opportunity to rid the world of the criminal regime in Syria.
Damascus was designated a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979, and it has lived up to that title every year since. Syria’s descent into civil war presented several opportunities to dispense with the despot in Damascus and avert a crisis in the process, but they were all ignored. As I wrote for National Review, Syria is a case study in the perils of ideological non-interventionism. The results of the West’s over-reliance on covert action, outsourcing, and diplomacy in Syria is arguably the worst-case scenario.
Had Barack Obama not abandoned his infamous “red line” in 2013, the U.S. might have preserved the 100-year prohibition on the battlefield use of chemical weapons. The collapse of that taboo has been rapid and terrifying. In the years that followed, chemical arms have been regularly deployed in Syria, and rogue powers have been using complex nerve agents on foreign (even allied) soil in reckless state-sponsored assassination campaigns.
Ideological adherence to non-interventionism well after it had proven an untenable course of action allowed the flourishing of terrorist organizations. Some parties in the West with a political interest in isolationism deliberately confused these terrorist groups with secularist movements led by Assad regime defectors. In the years that followed, those moderate rebel factions were crushed or corrupted while Islamist terror networks, which provided a politically valuable contrast to the “civilized” regime in Damascus, were patronized and nurtured by Assad.
The incubation of terrorist organizations eventually necessitated the kind of American military intervention Obama had so desperately sought to avoid, but at a time and place not of America’s choosing and with a footprint too small to achieve any permanent solution to the crisis. All the while, a great human tide poured out from Syria in all directions, but especially into Europe. There, an influx of unassimilated migrants eroded the continent’s post-War political consensus and catalyzed the rise of illiberal populist factions.
Even as late as the summer of 2015, there was still time for the West to summon the courage to do what was necessary. In a stunning speech that summer, Assad himself admitted that Syrian forces suffered from “a lack of human resources” amid Western estimates that nearly half the 300,000-strong Syrian army had been killed, captured, or deserted. “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria,” an intelligence source told the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. But Obama dithered still. Just a few short weeks later, Vladimir Putin, upon whom Obama relied to help him weasel out of his pledge to punish Assad for his crimes, intervened in Syria on Damascus’s behalf. That was when the greatest crimes began.
Russian intervention in Syria began not with attacks on “terrorists,” as Moscow claimed, but with attacks on covert CIA installations and arms depots; a dangerous campaign that continued well into the Trump era. The Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian allies then embarked on a scorched-earth campaign. They bombed civilian neighborhoods and hospitals and maternity wards. They surrounded the liberated cities of Homs and Aleppo, barraging and starving their people into submission. They even targeted and destroyed a United Nations aid convey before it could relieve the famine imposed by Damascus. All the while, Moscow’s propagandists mocked reports of these atrocities, and the children who stumbled bloodied and ashen from the ruins of their homes were deemed crisis actors by Russian officials and their Western mouthpieces.
America’s strategic obligations in Syria did not diminish with Russian intervention. They increased, but so too did the danger. Early on, Russian forces concentrated not just on attacking Assad’s Western-backed enemies but on harassing NATO-aligned forces that were already operating in the Syrian theater. Russian warplanes harassed U.S. drones, painted allied assets with radar, conducted near-miss fly-bys of U.S. warships and airplanes in the region, and repeatedly violated Turkish airspace. This conduct was so reckless that, in November of 2015, NATO-allied Turkish anti-aircraft fire downed a Russian jet. On the ground, Moscow and Washington engaged in the kind of proxy fighting unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as U.S.-manufactured armaments were routinely featured in rebel-made films of successful attacks on Russian tanks and APCs.
In the years that followed this intensely dangerous period, the Syrian state did not recover. Instead, Syrian forces withdrew to a narrow area along the coast and around the capital and left behind a vacuum that has been filled by competing great powers. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and the United States, to say nothing of their proxy forces, are all competing to control and pacify portions of the country. Even if the terrorist threat is one day permanently neutralized in Syria—a prospect that today seems far off, considering these nations’ conflicting definition of what constitutes a terrorist—the state of competition among these powers ensures that the occupation of Syrian territory will continue for the foreseeable future.
And now, the final battle is upon the rebels. On Friday, hundreds of Syrians waving the “independence flag” poured into the streets of Idlib, the last of the country’s free cities, begging the international community to spare them from the onslaught that has already begun. The United Nations has warned that up to 800,000 people could be displaced in Damascus’s efforts to retake the rebel-held enclave, and the worst of the seven-year war’s humanitarian disasters may be yet to come.
Over the last two weeks, the United States has issued some ominous warnings. Senior American officials have begun telling reporters that the evidence is increasing of Damascus’s moving chemical munitions near the frontlines with the intent of using them on civilians. Trump administration officials announced in no uncertain terms that they would respond to another chemical attack with disproportionate force.
In response to these threats, Moscow deployed the biggest Russian naval taskforce on the Syrian coast since 2015. Simultaneously, Russia has warned of its intent to strike “militant” positions in the country’s Southwest, where U.S. soldiers routinely patrol. American forces are holding firm, for now, and the Pentagon insists that uniformed personnel are at liberty to defend themselves if they come under assault. If there is a conflict, it wouldn’t be the first time Americans and Russians have engaged in combat in Syria.
In February, Russian mercenaries and Syrian soldiers reinforcing columns of T-72 tanks and APCs armed with 125-millimeter guns engaged a position just east of the Euphrates River held by American Green Berets and Marines. The four-hour battle that ensued resulted in hundreds of Russian fatalities, but it may only have been a terrible sign of things to come.
Of course, a Western-led intervention in the Syrian conflict would have been accompanied by its own set of setbacks. What’s more, the political backlash and dysfunction that would have accompanied another difficult occupation in the Middle East perhaps presented policymakers with insurmountable obstacles. But the course the West followed instead has been a disaster.
The lessons of the Syrian civil war are clear: The U.S. cannot stay out of destabilizing conflicts in strategically valuable parts of the world, no matter how hard it tries. The humanitarian and political disasters that resulted from Western indifference to the Syrian plight is a grotesque crime that posterity will look upon with contempt. Finally, the failure to enforce prohibitions against chemical-weapons use on the battlefield has emboldened those who would use them recklessly. American soldiers will suffer the most in a world in which chemical warfare is the status quo of the battlefield of the future.
American interventionists are often asked by their opponents to reckon with the bloodshed and geopolitical instability their policies encourage. If only non-interventionists would do the same.
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And the demands of realpolitik.
Earlier this week, my housekeeper, Mary, arrived to work decked out in a bright red T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to Israel last Sunday for a three-day official visit.
Mary was at the Knesset on Monday, one of several hundred Filipino workers among approximately 28,000 in Israel, enthusiastically cheering her strongman president.
I asked her what she thought of Duterte–a leader who makes President Trump seem eloquent and measured, by comparison–and I was taken aback by her effusive, unhesitating endorsement: “Oh,” she enthused, “he is a very good president! The best!”
“But,” I suggested, carefully, “he says and does some pretty extreme, crazy things. Does that concern you at all?”
“Oh, no!” she collapsed in laughter. “He doesn’t mean that. It’s just his style.”
Indeed, Duterte has “style.” Bragging of his intent to kill millions of Filipino drug addicts, and invoking Hitler and his genocidal rampage, approvingly, in this context; referring to President Obama as a “son of a whore”; boasting of his parsimony in keeping multiple mistresses available in low-end hotels; approving of sexually assaulting women, particularly attractive ones. And then there was the outburst during the Pope’s visit to the very Catholic Philippines in 2015 when Duterte called him a “son of a bitch” for causing a traffic jam while in Manila.
Mary is not a simple woman. She is university educated, hard-working, pleasant, and respectful. And whatever makes her overlook Duterte’s thuggish tendencies should interest us all, because there are many Marys the world over supporting populist leaders and governments. Mary admires Duterte’s strength of conviction in dealing with drug dealers, addicts, corruption and Islamic extremists.
Human rights activists and journalists, of course, see only a brute who visited Israel to shop for weapons and defense capabilities, which would be put to questionable use. Then again, Duterte is hardly the first and far from the only unsavory ruler to come shopping in Israel, America, or elsewhere, for arms.
Israel deftly managed the visit and optics. Whereas many were disgusted that the PM and President Rivlin gave Duterte an audience, according him a legitimacy and respect that is undeserved, their meetings were brief and remarks carefully calibrated.
In addition to acknowledging his personal gratitude to the Filipino caregiver who was a companion to his father in his final years, Bibi reminded us all of the enduring friendship the Philippines has shown Israel, and Jews, for decades. Prior to WWII, then president Manuel Quezon made available 10,000 visas as part of an “open door” policy to accommodate European Jewish refugees. Only 1,300 were used, ultimately, due to the Japanese invasion which closed off escape routes.
In 1947, the Philippines was the only Asian country to vote in support of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, providing critical support for the momentum building towards the creation and international acceptance of the Jewish state one year later. These are important, historical events about which Bibi, quite rightly, chose to remind us all.
I am no cheerleader of dictators and thugs, but I do wonder why the morality of many objectors to the Duterte visit is so selective. Israel (and all western nations) has relations and ties with many countries led by dictators and rulers far more brutal than the democratically elected Duterte.
Much ado has been made in recent months of Bibi’s meetings with a number of right-wing populists and, worse. Some link it to what they see as disturbing, anti-democratic tendencies in his own leadership of late. Others, myself included, would read it as a careful effort to maintain and cultivate as many international relationships as possible that may enhance Israel’s strategic and economic interests, particularly in this period of extreme global political, economic and institutional instability.
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The paradox of success.
The monthly jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Friday morning shows that the economy continues to flourish. 201,000 new jobs were added last month, while the unemployment rate stayed steady at a very low 3.9 percent.
Unemployment rates for African-Americans and teenagers continued their decline to historic lows, while US factory activity was at a 14-year high and new unemployment claims at their lowest point since the 1960s. The long-term unemployed (those out of work for 27 weeks or longer) has fallen by 24 percent in the last year. The number of part-time workers who want full-time work has gone down by 16 percent over the last 12 months. Wages are rising at a faster pace than they have, a sign of a tightening jobs market.
Corporate profits are robust (thanks partly to the cut in the corporate income tax) and consumer spending has been rising. The GDP has been growing at a more than 4 percent rate in recent months. In short, the American economy has rarely been this good and certainly wasn’t during the long, sluggish recovery from the 2008-2009 recession under the Obama administration.
In an ordinary year, one would expect that with economic numbers this good, the party controlling both houses of Congress and the White House would be looking forward to doing well in the upcoming midterm election, even though the party holding the White House usually loses seats in midterms. But, of course, no year is an ordinary political year with Donald Trump in the White House and the Democratic Party moving ever more to the left.
November 6 will be an interesting night.
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We deserve better.
You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone active in American politics has lost their minds.
What we’re witnessing is not, however, collective madness. The political class in the United States has adapted to a constant atmosphere of high drama, and they’ve adopted the most theatrical poses possible if only to maintain the attention of their fickle audiences. What might look to dispassionate observers like mass hysteria is just overwrought performance art.
This week was a case study in our national insanity, which began aptly enough on Capitol Hill. There, confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh got underway, but Judge Kavanaugh’s presence was barely noticed. The hearings soon became a platform for some familiar grandstanding by members of the opposition party, but the over-acting to which the nation was privy was uniquely embarrassing.
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker chewed the scenery, as is his habit, by declaring himself Spartacus and demanding that he be made a “martyr” via expulsion from the Senate for releasing one of Kavanaugh’s emails to the public, supposedly in violation of Senate confidentiality rules. But there was no violation, said Bill Bruck, the private attorney who led the review of Kavanaugh’s former White House records in the Senate. “We cleared the documents last night shortly after Senator Booker’s staff asked us to,” he said in a statement. Perhaps by engaging in what he called “an act civil disobedience,” Booker was only following the lead of his colleague, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who declared the committee’s process illegitimate, thereby supposedly rendering the rules of the United States Senate unworthy of recognition.
Outside another congressional committee’s chamber, the crazy really ramped up to absurd proportions. Following a hearing on alleged bias in Silicon Valley, Senator Marco Rubio was confronted by the rabble-rousing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, which rapidly devolved to the point that both Senator and agitator were soon threatening to fight one another. “I know you’ve got to cover them, but you give these guys way too much attention,” Rubio later told reporters. “We’re making crazy people superstars. So, we going to get crazier people.” He’s right.
The Trump era has provided the press with fertile soil in which a thousand manic flowers have bloomed.
Amplified by the president himself, Jones has become one of the right’s favorite grifters. Unfortunately, he’s in plentiful company. The press has discovered a sudden interest in conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, and Laura Loomer partly because they make for such compelling television but also because they’re willing to confirm the pro-Trump right’s most paranoid suspicions.
The “Resistance” has been a valuable vehicle for the unscrupulous and under-medicated. Congresswoman Maxine Waters has been feted in the press and in apolitical venues such as the MTV Movie Awards not despite but because of her penchant for radicalizing the left and feeding them fantasies about a coming anti-Trump putsch. Former British MP Louise Mensch, “D.C. technocrat” Eric Garland, and Teen Vogue columnist Lauren Duca spent most of 2017 basking in attention and praise from respectable quarters of the Washington political and media class. Their manifest unfitness for such elevated status somehow evaded drama addicts in mainstream political and media quarters.
And whether you’re pandering to the pro-Trump right or the anti-Trump left, there’s plenty of cash to go around for those who are willing to indoctrinate children or undermine the integrity of apolitical American institutions.
The week’s most hysterical moment belongs to the president and his aides—specifically, their reaction to an anonymous op-ed published by the New York Times purportedly revealing the existence of a cabal in the administration dedicated to thwarting the president’s worst impulses. Now, some have expressed perfectly reasonable reservations about the Times’s decision to publish an anonymous op-ed. Others have fretted about the pernicious effects this disclosure might have on the already mercurial president’s approach to governance. But lost in the over-the-top reactions this piece inspired among political observers is the hackneyed nature of the revelations it contained.
In sum, the author disclosed that many members of this Republican administration are movement conservatives dedicated to conservative policy prescriptions that are antithetical to the policies on which Trump campaigned. As such, they have often successfully lobbied the president to adopt their positions over his own preferences.
The admittedly dangerous “two-track presidency” has been observable for some time, and is the frequent subject of reporting and opinion. For example, the op-ed highlighted the discrepancy between Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and his administration’s admirably hawkish posture, which has become such a glaringly conspicuous feature of his presidency that Trump has recently begun trumpeting his contradictory record as though it was a unique species of competence. There’s nothing wrong with taking issue with the way in which the obvious was stated in this op-ed, but the statement of the obvious should not itself be a source of special consternation.
But was it ever. The Drudge Report dubbed the author a “saboteur,” despite the op-ed failing to describe even one action that was taken on the part of this so-called “resistance” against the president’s expressed wishes. “Sedition,” former White House Aide Sebastian Gorka echoed. Sarah Huckabee Sanders attacked the anonymous columnist as a “coward.” The president himself pondered whether the op-ed constituted “treason” against the United States and demanded the Times “turn over” this “gutless” columnist to the proper authorities, whoever they are. This is certainly one way to refute the charge that Trump’s “impulsiveness results in half-baked, ill-informed and occasionally reckless decisions,” but it’s not a good one.
It’s hard to fault politicians and the press for selling drama. Banality doesn’t push papers, drive up advertising rates, or turn out the vote. At a time without an urgent crisis, when the economy is strong, and the fires abroad are relatively well-contained, it serves the political and media classes to turn up the temperature on mundanities and declare all precedents portentous. But radicalizing voters for such purposes is both trite and irresponsible. In America, healthy and productive politics is boring politics. And who would tune in for that?