It is no cliché to note that while all presidents ardently desire second terms, they are more often a curse than a blessing. Most of those who have been elected twice in the last century have seen their presidencies run aground for various reasons. George W. Bush had Katrina and the Iraq quagmire. Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky and impeachment. Ronald Reagan had Iran Contra. Richard Nixon had Watergate. Lyndon Johnson had Vietnam. Amid the pomp and hope of new beginnings of a second inauguration day always lurk the threat of unseen or dimly understood disasters that sink presidents who leave the presidency as wounded lame ducks worn down by the cares of office. That’s the challenge facing Barack Obama after being sworn in today for another four years in office.
The president’s opponents can comfort themselves after their shocking defeat last November with the thought that he will inevitably be capsized by the usual second term nightmares that have brought down his predecessors. But that is an assumption, not an argument. Throughout his career Obama has often defied the laws of political gravity and it is by no means impossible that he should do so again. If the economy actually begins a recovery or he is able to pass some kind of immigration reform or a gun control package and begin the process of reforming entitlements while avoiding foreign disasters, Obama could be that rare species of president who does not spend his second term explaining failures or scandals. That’s a tall order, but amid clear signs of future disaster, the president does have some factors that would argue in favor of his success.
The first of these is the power of his personality as well as the historic significance of his presidency. Republicans spent the first four years of the Obama administration underestimating the president’s personal appeal. Part of it is a likeability factor that still puzzles conservatives (including this writer). But they also forget that most Americans, including many of those who disagree with Obama’s policies, take pride in the idea that we have finally elected an African-American president and are wary of any attempt to treat him with the usual disdain that is accorded our chief executives. That the mainstream media has been more in his pocket than any president since John F. Kennedy is inarguable. The fact that this president has always been graded on a curve may frustrate his opponents but it can’t be ignored when assessing his prospects. No matter what happens in these next 48 months, the willingness of most Americans to think well of him is going to weigh in his favor.
Also to his advantage is the ruthlessly partisan approach he has taken to governance. Barack Obama may have entered the White House talking about being a post-partisan president but he has governed in a completely different manner. He is an outlier among our presidents when it comes to working his the opposition in that his goal has always appeared to be the demonization and marginalization of his Republican opponents. Few presidents have been as uninterested in bipartisan cooperation to pass legislation as he has been.
That has made it difficult for him to get anything from Congress after losing control of the House in the 2010 midterms in the backlash against ObamaCare and the stimulus boondoggle. But the zero-sum game he has embraced is well suited to the objective of portraying his foes as extremists with the assistance of his media cheerleaders. Though his demands for higher taxes are every bit as ideological in nature as the Tea Party’s opposition, only one side has been portrayed as outside the mainstream–and it isn’t Obama’s. The conversion of his re-election campaign apparatus into a permanent political operation whose purpose will be to attack Republicans during the next four years is a sign of the seriousness of purpose that Obama is demonstrating about winning political battles in the coming months and years. Though some of his predecessors were exhausted about the constant struggle or lost their taste for political combat after several years in office, no one should expect that to happen in the Obama White House.
Another plus for Obama is the current weakness and division among the ranks of Republicans. The House GOP has decided to put off another confrontation over the budget for a month, but unless they work together they will wind up being bested again, just as they were in 2011 in the first debt ceiling crisis and this past month over the fiscal cliff.
Of course, there are also good reasons to believe that the president will not skate through another four years unscathed by the burdens of office.
Second terms are usually a ripe environment for scandal and that factor is something that could bite the president if and when prosecutors unravel the case about security leaks from White House or other cases that have yet to get much publicity. But anyone that expects this administration to play by the rules and surrender meekly to a special prosecutor the way most others have hasn’t been paying attention the last four years.
This president is dependant on factors that neither he nor his opponents can control. The economy is the chief variable and should it go down rather than up in the next two years, then that is something that no amount of charm, media bias or historical significance can control. President Obama was fortunate that a bad economy did not sink further during his re-election year but in the coming months, as ObamaCare is about to be implemented, the effect of his signature legislative achievement could undermine any hopes for a stronger recovery.
Also looming over any presidency is the chance that foreign affairs will torpedo a second term. Objective historians will probably see his time in office as one during which U.S. influence in the world fell to new lows as he dozed while the Arab Spring turned longtime allies into Islamist strongholds. The looming conflict with Iran is just one possibility for disaster, but it is also one that Obama has courted during his first term as he wasted years on a foolish attempt to engage the ayatollahs and then feckless diplomacy that allowed Tehran to get closer to its goal of a nuclear weapon. The odds are that sometime during his second term he will be faced with the choice of allowing Iran to go nuclear or using force to stop it. The longer he waits, the higher the risks are that any intervention will be too late or too costly.
Yet above all, Obama will be, as any president is, a hostage to fortune. Napoleon used to ask if his officers were lucky before they received promotion. Though some may deny the existence of luck, Barack Obama is a man who has been fortune’s favorite throughout his career. Had an opponent’s messy divorce not become public, it is unlikely he would have ever been elected to the Senate. He was fortunate in facing two Republican opponents for the presidency who were both poor candidates, even if they were both good men. A hurricane hit the country at exactly the right moment to give his re-election a boost, and at a time when both the press and at least one self-interested Republican was more interested in letting him play commander-in-chief during a crisis than analyzing the failures of the government to help many Americans.
It may seem superficial to put all this down to luck, and there are other explanations for Barack Obama’s rise and re-election. There are many reasons why his ideological rigidity will undermine his second term or why his shortsighted approach to foreign affairs should lead to predictable disasters. It is more than likely that four years from now this country will be closer to insolvency with a weak economy and a worsened security situation abroad. But this is a president who has always gotten a pass from much of the media and much of the public for his mistakes and misjudgments. Anyone who bets that this will change in the next four years shouldn’t mortgage the house on the result.
Can Obama’s Luck Hold in His Second Term?
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Expect the impossible.
If the 2016 presidential election cycle demonstrated anything, it was that Republicans suffer from a crippling lack of imagination. That ordeal should have established that the unprecedented is not impossible. Even now, Republicans seem as though they are trying to convince themselves that their eyes are lying to them, but they are not. The tempo of the investigation into President Trump is accelerating, and a nightmare scenario is eminently imaginable. Only congressional Republicans can avert disaster, and only then by being clear about the actions they are prepared to take if Trump instigates a crisis of constitutional legitimacy.
The events of the last 36 hours unrolled like a cascade. Late Wednesday, the New York Times published an interview in which Trump delivered a stinging rebuke for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, scolding him for recusing himself from the investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russian operatives. In that interview, Trump appeared to warn special counselor Robert Mueller not to dig too deeply into his personal finances, or else.
Hours later, Bloomberg News revealed that Mueller’s probe was investigating Trump’s business transactions and tax records—a leak surely made in response to Trump’s arm-twisting. More leaks from the investigation confirmed that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was being investigated for involvement in a money-laundering scheme, a revelation made more discomfiting by the discovery that he owed pro-Russian interests $17 million before joining the Trump campaign.
With the noose tightening, the lead attorney on Trump’s personal defense team, Marc Kasowitz, and the legal team’s spokesperson, Mark Corallo, resigned. The Washington Post reported that “Trump has asked his advisers about his power to pardon aides, family members and even himself in connection with the probe.” Trump’s spokespeople insist the president has no intention of pursuing the dismissal of the special counsel investigating his campaign, but his every action indicates that this is a lie.
Prominent Republicans reacted to all this incredulously. “There is no possible way anybody at the White House could be seriously thinking about firing Mueller,” Sen. Bob Corker insisted. “We all know the president,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch. “He makes some of these comments that he really doesn’t mean.” Sen. Susan Collins was willing to go a bit farther: “It would be catastrophic if the President were to fire the special counsel.”
Off the record, however, Republican lawmakers are far less circumspect in relaying their fears about what the president is capable of doing to the republic. “Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling. It’s chilling,” an unnamed GOP senator told CNN. “One gets the impression that the President doesn’t understand or he willfully disregards the fact that the attorney general and law enforcement in general—they are not his personal lawyers to defend and protect him,” another added.
These tepid comments for the record, with courage reserved only upon condition of anonymity, expose how Republicans in Congress have again failed to meet the measure of the moment. These are dangerous days, and it is incumbent upon Donald Trump’s party in Congress to deter the executive branch from overstepping its authority. The only way to do that is to be clear about what the consequences for that kind of transgression will be.
The Congressional Research Service defines how the president could execute a nuclear option against the independent counsel’s office. The Attorney General has recused himself from campaign-related investigations, so Trump would have to insist Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein remove Mueller. If Rosenstein declined, his resignation would likely be on offer, and his acting replacement (Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand) would have to field the same request. At this point, the comparisons between the Trump White House’s behavior and that of the Nixon administration ahead of the 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” are no longer hyperbolic.
In lieu of any ability to contain or control the special counsel’s office, Trump’s defenders have mounted a public relations campaign designed to undermine its authority and discredit its members. That will rally Trump’s diehard supporters, but the president remains unsatisfied. National Review’s Rich Lowry speculated convincingly that Trump would have little choice but to move against Mueller. Sooner rather than later, the conditions the president said would force his hand—a probe of Trump’s personal finances—will be met. Lowry observed that Trump seems to believe his tax records and business practices should be off limits and his experience has taught him “that fortune favors the recklessly bold.”
Republicans in Congress must stop comforting themselves with the notion that the worst cannot happen. They have to summon the courage to state publicly what they so freely tell reporters on background. If they are so concerned that the norms and traditions that have preserved the rule of law in this republic for 240 years are in jeopardy, they must say so. And they must say what the consequences will be for Trump, his associates, and his family if he goes too far. Republicans in office are disinclined to pursue a course of action against Trump that might jeopardize their standing with the voters who love him. None of that matters. Prioritizing their parochial careerist considerations over the best interests of their party and their country is how they got themselves into this mess.
Republicans may dislike the prospect, but it’s fast becoming time for them to start saying the “I” word if only to save the president from his most reckless impulses. The longer they tell themselves that the unthinkable is impossible, the more likely it becomes.
Are the warplane's secrets safe?
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the newest generation air platform for the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marines. Lockheed-Martin, which builds the F-35, describes it as “a 5th Generation fighter, combining advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility, fully fused sensor information, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment.” For both diplomatic reasons and to encourage sales, Lockheed-Martin subcontracted the production of many F-35 components to factories abroad. Many program partners—Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, for example—are consistent U.S. allies.
Turkey, however, is also part of the nine-nation consortium producing the plane, which gives Turkey access to the F-35’s technology. “As a program partner, Turkish industries are eligible to become suppliers to the global F-35 fleet for the life of the program. In total, F-35 industrial opportunities for Turkish companies are expected to reach $12 billion,” the warplane’s website explained. “Turkey plans to purchase 100 of the F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing variant. Its unsurpassed technological systems and unique stealth capabilities ensure that the F-35 will be the future of Turkish national security for decades to come.”
But is the F-35 safe with Turkey? In recent years, the Turkish government has leaked highly-classified information to America’s adversaries in fits of diplomatic pique. Back in 2013, for example, Turkey leaked to the Iranians the identities of Israeli spies in Iran. Danny Yatom, former head of the Mossad, told USA Today that the incident would damage U.S. intelligence efforts, “because we will be much more reluctant to work via Turkey because they will fear information is leaking to Iran… We feel information achieved [by Israel] through Turkey went not only to Israel but also to the United States.”
On July 19, the Pentagon criticized Turkey’s state-controlled news agency for exposing ten covert U.S. bases in Syria in a way that can enable both the Islamic State and Iranian-backed forces to target Americans. Bloomberg reported that the leak also detailed aid routes and equipment stored at each base.
Both these incidents raise serious questions about whether Turkey can be trusted with the F-35, especially given Turkey’s growing military and diplomatic ties to Russia, and the wayward NATO state’s recent cooperation with China as well. The United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense is rightly concerned about the security implications of a plan to service its F-35s in Turkey, but such concern should only be the tip of the iceberg.
Should Turkey even receive F-35s and, to the extent the program relies on Turkish factories, is it time to stand up quickly a Plan B? To do otherwise might squander the billions of dollars already spent on the program, risk increasing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ability to blackmail the West, and potentially land America’s latest military technology on Kremlin desks.
Too many martyrs make a movement.
If the GOP is to be converted into a vehicle for politicians who evince Donald Trump’s brand of pragmatic center-right populism, Trump will have to demonstrate his brand of politics can deliver victories for people other than himself. Presidential pen strokes help to achieve that, as do judicial appointments. Nothing is so permanent, though, as sweeping legislative change. On that score, the newly Trumpian Republican Party is coming up short. If the passive process of transformational legislative success fails to compel anti-Trump holdouts in the GOP to give up the ghost, there is always arm-twisting. It seems the Republican National Committee is happy to play enforcer.
The RNC’s nascent effort to stifle anti-Trump apostasy by making examples of high-profile heretics has claimed its first victim: New Jersey’s Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno. The Republican is running to replace the nation’s least popular governor, Chris Christie, and the effort has been a struggle. Trailing badly in the polls and facing the headwinds associated with trying to succeed an unpopular outgoing GOP governor in a blue state, Guadagno needs all the help she can get. That help won’t be coming from the RNC. According to NJ Advance Media, the committee’s objection to helping Guadagno isn’t the imprudence of throwing good money after bad. It’s that she was mean to President Trump in 2016, and she must be punished.
“[The president] is unhappy with anyone who neglected him in his hour of need,” said a source billed as an RNC insider. The specific complaint arises from an October 8 tweet from the lieutenant governor said that “no apology can excuse” Trump’s “reprehensible” conduct on the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. “Christie was not as stalwart as some people in the party, but at least he didn’t go against him the way she did,” the insider added.
This source’s version of events was supported by former two-term New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman. “She went down there, and the (Republican National) Committee was reluctant to back the campaign in the way one would have expected,” she said. “The implication was, ‘Well you were not a Trump supporter in the primary, and so don’t expect much money.'”
This is almost certainly a pretext. Republicans are facing stiff competition and an unfavorable political environment in November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey. In 2017-2018, 27 GOP-held seats are up for grabs, nine of which are in some jeopardy of falling to Democrats. Republicans are going to have to husband their resources and triage their officeholders. That’s a forgivable, if demoralizing, condition. Declaring Guadagno to have offended the leader and to be cut off from the font of Republican goodwill is not only unjustifiable, it’s terribly foolish.
If Republican women are to be punished for saying that Trump’s comments about sexually assaulting unsuspecting females were unacceptable, there are going to be a lot fewer Republican women. Moreover, the RNC has invited the perception that there is a double standard at play here. A slew of Republicans called on Trump to drop out of the race after that tape, but the RNC is unlikely to withhold support for Senators Rob Portman or John Thune when they need it. Among those calling on Trump to drop out was his own chief of staff, Reince Priebus—a fact the president reportedly won’t let Priebus forget.
Cults of personality can be bullied into existence, but they rarely outlast the personality around whom they form unless that personality can claim some lasting achievements. In lieu of any compelling rationale, the effort to remake the GOP in Trump’s image by force will only create dissidents. The ideological conservatives who once dominated the Republican Party are unlikely to make peace with the ascendant populist faction at gunpoint. And the RNC is not solely to blame for this boneheaded move. Even if the notion that Guadagno is being punished for disloyalty is a pretense, it is a response to a clear set of incentives promoted by this White House.
Maybe the most intriguing question of the present political age is whether or not conservatives in the GOP will come to terms with a man they once saw as a usurper. A heavy hand will only catalyze resistance, and Trump needs his own party as much or more than they need him. Guadagno’s gubernatorial bid is on no firmer ground today than it was yesterday, but the Republican candidate’s allies can now legitimately claim persecution at the hands of personality cultists. Too many martyrs make a movement. The White House and the Republican National Committee should tread lightly.
Podcast: Conservatism in shackles while O.J. goes free?
On the second of this week’s podcasts, I ask Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman whether the health-care debacle this week is simply a reflection of the same pressures on the conservative coalition Donald Trump saw and conquered by running for president last year—and what it will mean for him and them that he has provided no rallying point for Republican politicians. And then we discuss OJ Simpson. Give a listen.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
Hyperbole yields cynicism, not the other way around.
Newly-elected French President Emmanuel Macron surprised almost everyone when he invited President Donald Trump to celebrate Bastille Day with him in Paris, especially after the two leaders’ awkward first meeting in Brussels in May. After all, between now and then, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and Macron has become perhaps the most vocal critic of Trump among European leaders.
In hindsight, Macron’s reason for embracing Trump might have been to get the president to reverse course on the Paris agreement. From the Associated Press:
French President Emmanuel Macron says his glamorous Paris charm offensive on Donald Trump was carefully calculated — and may have changed the U.S. president’s mind about climate change…. On their main point of contention — Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark Paris climate agreement — Macron is quoted as saying that “Donald Trump listened to me. He understood the reason for my position, notably the link between climate change and terrorism.”
According to Macron, climate change causes droughts and migration, which exacerbates crises as populations fight over shrinking resources. If Macron really believes that, France and Europe are in for some tough times.
First, droughts are a frequent, cyclical occurrence in the Middle East, the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa. The difference between drought and famine is the former is a natural occurrence and the latter is man-made, usually caused by poor governance. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the Horn of Africa, where the same drought might kill a few dozens of Ethiopians but wipe out tens of thousands of Somalis.
Second, the common factor in the wars raging in the Middle East today is neither climate change nor extreme weather, but brutal dictatorship, radical ideologies, and the militias supported by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yemen could be a breadbasket. Its terraced fields rising up thousands of feet in the mountains grow almost every fruit imaginable. Yemen also catches the tail end of the monsoon. If Yemenis planted exportable crops like coffee rather than the mild drug qat, which does not bring in hard currency, they might be fairly prosperous.
It is not climate change that denied the Syrian public basic freedoms and liberty for decades, nor was it climate change that dropped barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, tortured and killed 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, or used chemical weapons. For that matter, when it comes to radicalization, the problem is Syria was less climate and more decades of Saudi-and Qatari-funded indoctrination and Turkish assistance to foreign fighters.
Regardless of all this, another obvious factor nullifies Macron’s thesis: When drought occurs in regions outside the Middle East, the result is seldom suicide bombing.
Terrorism does not have a one-size-fits-all explanation but, generally speaking, when it comes to Islamist terrorism, ideology plays a key role. Most terrorists are educated, middle class, and relatively privileged. Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, for example, has a Ph.D. Many of the 9/11 hijackers were educated. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas recruits inside schools. Simply put, there is no linkage between climate change and terrorism.
Not only would Trump be foolish to buy Macron’s argument, but environmentalists who believe climate change puts the Earth in immediate peril should be outraged. It is hyperbole. Moreover, it is the casual invocation of climate change as a catch-all cause for every other issue that breeds the cynicism that leads so many to become so dismissive of everything climate activists say. Macron may look down up Trump as an ignorant bore, but Macron’s own logic suggests he is also living in a world where facts and reality don’t matter.