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Barack Obama Domestic issues Financial Crisis The Opinionsphere Videos

Obama’s Grand Bargain

[digg-reddit-me]From Obama’s Inaugural Address:

There are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

This brings to mind what George Stephanopoulos was so excited about last Sunday on This Week:

(Yes, I need to work on improving my DVR to computer quality.)

It seems that Obama is preparing to bet his presidency on a Grand Bargain – that will allow him (and us) to rewrite the social contract in a more extensive way than any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even during Obama’s campaign, he spoke of tackling the challenges that were necessary – and not putting off hard discussions about our country’s long-term stability. But the financial crisis – which at first prompted the endlessly parroted conventional wisdom that whoever won would need to cut all of their projects and focus narrowly on the crisis itself – has instead proved to be an opportunity.

The amount of spending needed to stimulate the economy is enormous – with the numbers being thrown around today dwarfing that of any previous government intervention (save perhaps for our major wars). What Obama understands is that this type of spending, while necessary in the short-term, poses a serious long-term threat. Which is why he is now speaking of the second step – after the financial crisis has passed – of tackling entitlement reform and tax reform, and finally putting America on sound financial footing after years of prolifigacy.

None of these insights are exceptional. What is exceptional is how Obama is already shaping the arch of his first term, using this crisis to set up his next objective, and shaping the conventional wisdom.

The problem I see though is that the Obama administration has not done a good job of conveying to the public the place this stimulus bill has within Obama’s agenda. The word is that in the next week or so, Tim Geithner will present “a ‘comprehensive’ plan that [he] hope[s] will command market confidence.” My hope is that this comprehensive plan will lay out a broad legislative agenda based on Obama’s campaign. Based on the campaign plans and signals sent during the transition, here’s what I see:

Step 1 (The First 100 Days)

  • Release the rest of the funds from TARP.
  • A large stimulus package to demonstrate the government’s commitment to addressing the crisis, especially in alleviating it’s effects on the majority of Americans.
  • A banking and mortgage bill that takes whatever steps are necessary to shore up these sectors of the economy, including new regulations, new oversight, and possibly additional funds.
  • An infrastructure bill that would create a National Infrastructure Bank.
  • Health care reforms that would extend health care benefits and attempt to control the escalating health care costs.
  • A combination of a cap-and-trade program and funding for green energy.

The goal of this first period would be to begin to make both short-term and long-term investments into those sectors that will lead to long-term growth – which will stimulate the economy in the short-term. This is the spending stage. After this burst of legislating, Obama would be able to focus on tinkering with education programs and seeing what works, as well as addressing the simmering foreign policy issues which are constantly threatening to take over the agenda.

Step 2 (Post-Crisis)

  • Entitlement reform (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.) Everything is on the table.
  • Tax reform. Not much has been said about this. This will certainly be a wild card – but Obama has criticized our corporate tax rate for its irrationality. It’s very high – but due to the enormous number of exemptions and credits, the effective rate for those businesses able to lobby for benefits, it is very low. This should be rationalized.
  • Universal health care.
  • Education reform.

This is the “cutting back” stage and consolidation stage. The goal of this second stage would be to put America on a solid financial footing again – to eliminate the unsustainable domestic policies that undermine our stability and power.

This is obviously an enormous agenda. And it’s far from clear that Obama can accomplish this. But if he does not lay out the vision – which I have pieced together from numerous statements – then it’s hard to see how he can accomplish it. Of course, Geithner was just confirmed last week – and Obama’s only been in office for two weeks – so he does have a bit more time to lay this out. But he doesn’t have long.

Categories
Election 2008 Law McCain Morality National Security Politics The War on Terrorism

Grandstanding McCain: Despite Fine Words, He Refused to Act on Torture

[digg-reddit-me]
[Image by SoggyDan licensed under Creative Commons.]

On September 16, 2005 a captain in the army wrote a letter to Senator John McCain. The captain had commanded troops in Iraq and witnessed what he described as “a wide range of abuses [of American-held prisoners] including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment.” He attempted to determine what standards governed the treatment of detainees as he reported these abuses up the chain of command – but was given no guidance. He had written to many military and political officials, informing them of what was going on and asking for guidance, despite being told by the military brass that he was committing career suicide. He wrote letters to anyone he thought might be able to help him – but no one responded.

Finally, on Finally, on September 16, 2006, this captain wrote a letter to Senator John McCain. The letter concluded:

…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is “America.” [My emphasis.]

John McCain was so moved by this letter that he pushed for it to be published in the Washington Post, began drafting legislation to stop America from torturing it’s prisoners, and began publicly pushing the Bush administration on the issue in the press. On November 4, 2005, in the middle of this fight Senator John McCain issued a sober call for to reform our intelligence-gathering and

What should also be obvious is that the intelligence we collect must be reliable and acquired humanely, under clear standards understood by all our fighting men and women. To do differently not only offends our values as Americans, but undermines our war effort, because abuse of prisoners harms – not helps – us in the war on terror. First, subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence, because under torture a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop. Second, mistreatment of our prisoners endangers U.S. troops who might be captured by the enemy – if not in this war, then in the next. And third, prisoner abuses exact on us a terrible toll in the war of ideas, because inevitably these abuses become public. When they do, the cruel actions of a few darken the reputation of our country in the eyes of millions. American values should win against all others in any war of ideas, and we can’t let prisoner abuse tarnish our image.

Senator McCain concluded his remarks by echoing the army captain:

We should do it not because we wish to coddle terrorists. We should do it not because we view them as anything but evil and terrible. We should do it, Mr. President, because we are Americans, and because we hold ourselves to humane standards of treatment of people no matter how evil or terrible they may be. America stands for a moral mission, one of freedom and democracy and human rights at home and abroad. We are better than these terrorists, and we will we win. I have said it before but it bears repeating: The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away. [My emphasis.]

Responding to criticisms that he was being overly moralistic in attempting to prohibit Americans from torturing, McCain told George Stephanopoulos said:

In that million-to-one situation, then the President of the United States would authorize and then take responsibility for it

Despite heavy criticism from the right-wing, McCain had proposed what became known as the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment (and later the Detainee Treatment Act.)1 The right-wing excoriated McCain for leaving America defenseless and the Bush administration pleaded with McCain to amend the language of his amendment, threatening to veto any measure that impinged on the president’s authority to torture people. Under great pressure, McCain limited the bill’s specific language to only cover the military, leaving out the CIA. Although the bill called for an end to all torture of prisoners by Americans, it only gave specific and binding direction to the military. Further undermining the anti-torture provisions, President Bush issued a signing statement that suggested the law violated the Constitution and that it should not be considered binding.

In 2006, the Bush administration began to push for a bill that concerned the issue of torture. McCain initially requested that the bill include the explicit protections of the Geneva Conventions. The Bush administration conceded to McCain’s requests and included these protections, but undermined this passage with a provision that gave the president authority to determine what acts were consistent with and inconsistent with the Geneva Conventions. Again, McCain’s stand against torture won him plaudits, but only served to authorize the president’s power to use whatever methods he personally deemed “not torture”.

In February 2008, a number of top Democrats on the Intelligence Committee became concerned that the CIA was continuing to torture prisoners despite assurances by the administration to McCain that they had stopped those practices due to McCain’s public pressure. The Democrats sought to close the loophole left by the McCain Anti-Torture Amendment, and reaching out to McCain for support, they were surprised to be rebuffed.

McCain explained his opposition to what became known as the Feinstein Amendment, saying that the current law was sufficiently clear and that:

We always supported allowing the CIA to use extra measures…

He continued to repeat his claim that:

I obviously don’t want to torture any prisoners.

Yet, despite reports of ongoing torture, he refused to back a law with teeth that would actually prevent torture. His first two attempts had been considered noble failures by human rights activists who worked with Senator McCain. They admired him for standing up to the Bush administration and calling on America to be better – and even if he hadn’t actually accomplished what he had set out to do. Now – with a Democratic Congress ready to push the issue and actually pass an enforceable law ending official American torture, McCain balked. He even suggested the president veto the bill if it was passed. Such was the moral authority he had built up on the issue that his standing against the amendment effectively quashed it.

What does it say about a man’s character that he hears the call of injustice and composes a powerful defense of American values and becomes the public face of opposition to torture – and then he accepts a compromise that gives him only a symbolic victory? And then, given another chance to put an end to this practice he has condemned in no uncertain terms, he again mounts a public defense and accepts a symbolic victory that reinforces the position he has condemend? And then, given a chance to support a bill that would truly end torture, he opposes it and encourages the president to veto it? His words promise so much more than his deeds deliver.2

While Senator John McCain was the only official Captain Ian Fishback reached out to that responded to his call for leadership, McCain failed the test Captain Fishback put to him. McCain chose to “sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security” and  give up some part “of the idea that is America.” He accepted plaudits and symbolic victories, but when given the chance to act on his fine words and professed ideals, he declined.

I admired the McCain who fought against torture when no other Republican would. I admired him despite the compromises he made. I could not admire the way he declined to back up his words once the opportunity was given to him.

Both the liberal law professor Glenn Greenwald and the conservative columnist Andrew C. McCarthy use the same word to describe McCain’s opposition to torture: “grandstanding.”

N.B. This post was written in the midst of an obviously contentious election campaign – one in which I had strongly considered supporting John McCain but after careful evaluation, had come to the conclusion that Barack Obama was the only candidate suited to our current challenges. While I stand by the content of the post, in retrospect, the tone is a bit overheated. That said – the fact that McCain would backtrack on this issue that was at the core of his reputation for moral authority is a testament to how this issue has become one of the issues in the new “culture war” – this one over national security. 

  1. All told, the position outlined and taken by McCain to this point is a serious one – and one which I mainly agree with. []
  2. As with Georgia. []
Categories
Domestic issues Election 2008 Obama Politics The Clintons

Betting on the American People

[digg-reddit-me]I wanted to call this post, “The End of Hillary 2008” but there were no “knockout blows” in this debate. Only the gradual erosion of Ms. Clinton’s candidacy and the demonstration of Barack Obama’s resilience.

On October 30, 2007, the Democratic candidates for president debated in Philadelphia. At the time, I noted that this debate might mark”The Beginning of the End of Hillary 2008“. I based this prediction on the fact that the fundamentals of this election year favor Senator Barack Obama, and that Ms. Clinton had just made a significant mistake that played into her perceived weaknesses. Many people scoffed – and the conventional wisdom of the time was that although Ms. Clinton made a large blunder, she hadn’t offered a large enough opening for Mr. Obama to take advantage of. It is hard to recall now how obvious it seemed then that Ms. Clinton would be the Democratic nominee.

Now tonight, 170 days later, and 10 days before the umpteenth “final showdown” between the candidates, they debated again. In the October debate, Ms. Clinton complained that Tim Russert and Brian Williams were “ganging up” on her because they pressed her to answer questions that she was trying to evade, most specifically regarding driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants.

Tonight though Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos did gang up on Mr. Obama. They used a surrogate to ask if he was loved the country and the flag; they brought up the fact that he had once served on a charitable board with a former member of the Weather Underground; they of course mentioned Bittergate; they brought up again the comments of Reverend Wright. Ms. Clinton piled on – especially by trying to raise the issue of William Ayers, the former member of the Weather Underground who Mr. Obama knew from the charitable board and the University of Chicago and by saying, again, that Mr. Obama’s comments about “clinging” to religion, guns and nativism were elitist and out-of-touch. Watching her closely as she flung this mud – which had often been thrown at her in the past two decades – I thought I could see her squirm, as she refused to focus her eyes on anyone or anything in particular, looking up, then down, then left, and right, all awkward yet determined. I thought I could see Ms. Clinton’s conscience squirming as she tried to teach Mr. Obama the lesson that she had been taught: the only way to win is to ignore the issues and the truth as you know it, and try to bring down your opponent.

The National Review‘s Jonah Golberg halfway through the debate wrote on The Corner:

I’m no leftwing blogger, but I can only imagine how furious they must be with the debate so far. Nothing on any issues. Just a lot of box-checking on how the candidates will respond to various Republican talking points come the fall. Now I think a lot of those Republican talking points are valid and legitimate. But if I were a “fighting Dem” who thinks all of these topics are despicable distractions from the “real issues,” I would find this debate to be nothing but Republican water-carrying.

I think if he were more honest, Mr. Golberg might say he did find the debate to be “nothing but Republican water-carrying” and that the issues the moderators and Ms. Clinton kept pressing were “valid and legitimate” points only if “valid and legitimate” points were defined to mean those issues which would help Republicans beat Mr. Obama.

It’s worth noting how far Hillary Clinton has come – as demonstrated in the following video which many redditors will be familiar with:

(h/t The Nation ‘s Ari Melber.)

In the debate tonight, Ms. Clinton attacked Mr. Obama as an elitist, attacked him by invoking 9/11 (some 4 times by my informal count), and attacked him for associating with a former terrorist (a charge which Obama parried very well, pointing out that President Bill Clinton had pardoned several members of the same group that Ms. Clinton was attacking Obama for having served on a charitable committee with.)  Ms. Clinton has gone from the foremost victim of the Drudge-style smears and gaffes to the foremost practitioner of the varied and dark arts of dirty politics (now that Karl Rove has retired).  Tonight’s debate on ABC provided her with an ideal platform with sympathetic questioners who aided her.

And yet here is the key: Obama scored no knockouts, but he kept going, and he kept talking about the policy issues that matter to most Americans without looking like he was dodging the questions.  He answered, then pivoted.  Again.  And again.  And again.  And it worked.

What his candidacy comes down to is this: he is betting on the American people.  That’s why, when confronted with the incendiary statements of Reverend Wright, he didn’t do the typical political move and disown him; he condemned the comments and sought to explain why he still admired the man who said them, speaking to Americans as if they were adults.

Mr. Obama’s candidacy is not magical, as it did feel for a time in the days after Iowa.  What his candidacy is is grounded and methodical and competent and substantiative and groundbreaking.

Maybe there’s a bit of magic mixed up in there too – but it’s not in the candidate himself.  It’s in the hopes of the people who are coming into the political process to support him; it’s in the sense that America is righting itself after many, many rocky years; it’s in the movement that is swelling around his candidacy; it’s in the connection between Barack Obama’s story and the nation’s; and it’s in the fact that the candidate who is winning is the one who was willing to bet on the good sense of the American people.