A common charge of Republicans during the 2008 presidential campaign was at Senator Barack Obama's perceived liberalism. Republicans often stated that Mr. Obama was the most liberal senator in the United States, according to a ranking by the National Journal. The attack against Mr. Obama's liberalism has continued during his time in office.
The ranking by the National Journal, however, seems to be flawed in several ways. Take the 2004 rankings, for instance. Guess who was ranked the most liberal Senator in 2004.
Obama's first public political speech, at Occidental College on February 18, 1981, was delivered in opposition to apartheid, and in support of the divestment movement. (The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama by David Remnick [pp 109-110].)
"There's a struggle going on!" he said, "A struggle that demands we choose sides. Not between black and white. Not between rich and poor. No--it's a harder choice than that. It's a choice between dignity and servitude. Between fairness and injustice. Between commitment and indifference. A choice between right and wrong."
As the divestment movement grew, Ronald Reagan developed a counter-strategy, known as "constructive engagement", which was overtly supposed to counter apartheid, but was actually intended to counter the divestment movement.
While Obama and Reagan were on opposite sides way back when, things have changed a lot since then. South African apartheid is long gone from the international scene, but something disturbingly similar has emerged in Israel, with illegal Israeli settlements and pass laws turning occupied Palestine into a near-perfect replica of apartheid-era South Africa--hardly a surprising outcome, given that Israel was long South Africa's leading supporter, even helping out with its nuclear program. And Egypt is Israel's prime enabler in the region, supported by $1.3 billion in US military aid, as the historic peace treaty brokered by Jimmy Carter has become a means for creating a condition of unspeakable evil--about which, of course, America says nothing. (Hence, unspeakable.) What's more, as WikiLeaks cables revealed, in UK Guardian coverage last Friday, the US was well aware of routine torture in Egypt ("US reported 'routine' police brutality in Egypt, WikiLeaks cables show"), but wanted to keep on Egypt's good side ("WikiLeaks cables show close US relationship with Egyptian president").
The sharp contrast of endless kind words in public, and stark assessments of brutality in the cables serves to underscore why the Obama Administrations "nuanced" public statements are far more popular with the conservative Versailles punditalkcrazy than they are with the Egyptian people in the street, who find Obama to be unconvincing in his role of would-be champion of democracy and human rights. Indeed, it's only a secret here in heavily-propagandized America that the entire Mideast order is based on coercion--military force, secret police, and intelligence agencies that routinely employ torture. Israel's "democracy" is free to drift farther and farther into delusional rightwing fantasies thanks to our support and the collusion of Arab dictatorships. Nothing there could be remotely similar if it needed democratic foundations and the consent of the governed--all of the governed--to survive.
1. (C) Summary and comment: Police brutality in Egypt against common criminals is routine and pervasive. Contacts describe the police using force to extract confessions from criminals as a daily event, resulting from poor training and understaffing. Brutality against Islamist detainees has reportedly decreased overall, but security forces still resort to torturing Muslim Brotherhood activists who are deemed to pose a political threat. Over the past five years, the government has stopped denying that torture exists, and since late 2007 courts have sentenced approximately 15 police officers to prison terms for torture and killings.
Independent NGOs have criticized GOE-led efforts to provide human rights training for the police as ineffective and lacking political will. The GOE has not yet made a serious effort to transform the police from an instrument of regime power into a public service institution. We want to continue a USG-funded police training program (ref F), and to look for other ways to help the GOE address police brutality.
That last bolded sentence is the very essence of "constructive engagement." As the main text of the cable makes clear, there is no real interest in actual reform, motivated by respect for human rights. Instead, to the extent there is any insterest at all in change, it is an interest in minimizing friction, and targeting torture victims more carefully. Thus, it's only when Muslim Brotherhood members get involved in political matters that they can expect to be tortured. The cable continues:
Once more since arriving on Capitol Hill, the new Republican dominated House of Representatives and the newly reinforced Republican Senate minority has equivocated on the topic of spending cuts. By now we are all well aware that the Republicans have abandoned the goal of cutting $100 billion dollars this fiscal year and likewise, they have failed to produce a pro rata spending reduction plan to address that shortened year. We all remember that taxes, debt reduction and spending cuts were in the forefront of the Republican agenda for the 2010 elections as these headlines from conservative sources show: "Tax, Spending Cuts Top GOP Campaign-year 'Pledge" or "Tax, spending cuts lead Republican campaign manifesto" Needless to say, You get the idea.
Okay so what then happened to all of the bold talk about taking on entitlements and spending? When faced with having to answer that question on national television Mitch McConnell echoed the reluctance that Speaker of the House John Boehner had previously stated. As if by magic, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appearing on "Meet the Press" danced around the question that Republicans seemed obviously reluctant to come out with bold measures to tackle deficit spending as the following exchange between Senator McConnell and host David Gregory reveals:
"MR. GREGORY: Well, that's very interesting because I've also detected a great deal of caution on the part of Republicans who, who campaigned on the idea of spending cuts. And yet, when it comes to a program like Social Security--it was Speaker Boehner who told a group of us this week, "Well, look, we need to spend more time defining the problem before we get in the boat with the president here and say that we've got to make long-term changes." Is that your view?
SEN. McCONNELL: Well, look, we have, we have two problems here. It's our annual deficit, completely out of control. We're going to send the president a lot less--we're going to allow him to sign onto a lot less spending than he recommended the other night and that he's likely to send us in the budget. Then with, with regard to long-term unfunded liabilities, the entitlements, Speaker Boehner's correct, you cannot do that on a partisan basis. President Bush tried doing that in 2005 with regard to Social Security's problems. And by the way, the announcement this week that Social Security's gone into deficit, it will run a $45 billion deficit this year and for as far as the eye can see. Look, entitlement reform can only be done on a bipartisan basis. It's happened before. Reagan and Tip O'Neill fixed Social Security in '83. Reagan and the Democratic House did tax reform in '86.
MR. GREGORY: So, but if the president were to say, "OK, Leader McConnell, if, if you're prepared to deal with some revenue increases, we can also deal with some benefit cuts. Let's take a balanced approach to Social Security," you could support that?
SEN. McCONNELL: Look, you know, you've tried this before. I, I'm not going to negotiate the deal with David Gregory. I'd be happy to negotiate it...
MR. GREGORY: I keep hoping you'll change your mind.
SEN. McCONNELL: I'd be happy to try to negotiate the deal, and Speaker Boehner would too, with the president and the vice president and others.
MR. GREGORY: But does the president have to go first before you'll take on entitlement reform?
SEN. McCONNELL: We have to go together. We have to go together. The American people are asking us to tackle these problems. I think the president needs to be more bold. We're prepared to meet--I've got a lot of new members, and Speaker Boehner does as well, who came here to tackle this big problem. We were waiting...
MR. GREGORY: But you're saying, "Be bold on entitlements and Republicans will meet you halfway"?
SEN. McCONNELL: We're happy to sit down and talk about entitlement reform with the president. We know Social Security is in trouble. It was just announced by CBO this week. We know Medicare is on an unsustained path. They took a half a trillion dollars out of it to fund this healthcare program that they enacted. Look, we need to get serious about this."
As the above commentary reveals, what we have before us is a Republican leadership cadre that has already deviated from the rhetoric of the campaign trail by putting the ball in Barack Obama's court by stressing that it is the duty of the President to come up with "bold" proposals on deficit and spending reduction as per Senator McConnell's commentary above. But wasn't that what the Republicans ran on in the first place? For all of the rhetoric of 2010 can't they showcase their own bold ideas on "Meet the Press", America's premier Sunday morning political talk show? Likewise, Speaker Boehner's comment that Republicans "need to spend more time defining the problem" also seems to ring hollow, coming from a guy who on this very show said before the 2010 elections that the G.O.P. had spent the past last year listening to "the American people."
Correct me if I'm wrong but didn't the Republicans present themselves as the people who had this problem figured out and who knew what to do to get this country back on the right track, which oddly enough they got us off of in the first place when they squandered a trillion dollar plus surplus and launched two wars while cutting taxes, a historical first for the United States? They had the opportunity to put that surplus into the Social Security system or to use it to pay down the national debt as they were advised to do by Alan Greenspan, yet they chose to do otherwise. Now when elected to produce bold public policy to address our fiscal problems they plead for "more time" and look a president much maligned by them for "bold" proposals!
What's also semi-comical is Mr. McConnell's new found affinity for bipartisan cooperation. Isn't it a bit curious that they very guy who said it was his goal to see that Barack Obama be a one term president, now openly solicits the President's support and cooperation? Is this borne of a realization that the Republicans can't possibly meet their agenda alone? Is this a maneuver concocted to throw a curve ball at the Tea Party crowd as there has been little beyond rhetoric on the part of the G.O.P. when it comes to deficit reduction specifics? We've all heard about Congressman Paul Ryan's "Roadmap for America" yet it's a document that few in the Republican Party had signed onto in the run up to 2010.
In the final analysis it seems that the bold rhetoric of the campaign trail has now faded in the harsh winter of political reality. Hence the old adage, "talk is cheap." Now that they are in a position of power in Washington, the Republicans will have to finally translate their rhetoric into policy, thus far they have done little but dance around the tough issues and meet tough questions with clever rhetorical replies. How long will that last before their constituents hit the streets and demand some form of accountability from those who went to Washington to turn back the tide of Obama "the Socialist."
John Bolton was on Fox earlier pimping the idea that this is the work of the Muslim Brotherhood or radical extremists and fretting over the toppling of this "secular" government. If he's any gauge, the Right is reverting to its natural impulse: supporting dictators. They aren't "pro-life" when it comes to the "birth" of democracy after all.
Bolton, of course, is from the Pure Id party, but an awful lot of US foreign policy is run by Pure Id. But somehow, I think that Juan Cole on Democracy Now! this morning was a more reliable guide:
JUAN COLE: Well, Vice President Biden seems to be wanting to define a dictator not with regard to domestic policy, but with regard to the responsible role the regime plays in the international world system, you know, from Washington's point of view. But certainly, from the point of view of human rights activists in Egypt, there are strong dictatorial tendencies in the Egyptian government. It's seen a lot of phony elections. It's used repressive techniques.
In some instances, those repressive techniques have been directed against radical movements. The Egyptian Islamic Jihad of Ayman al-Zawahiri was active in Egypt in the 1980s and '90s, blowing up things, shooting down tourists and others. And these same secret police were deployed at that time to track them down, arrest them, and really to eradicate them from the scene in Egypt.
And this is one of the things that drives this regime's repressiveness, is that it is afraid of Muslim fundamentalist movements. Whether they are radical-and there have been a number of important radical movements in Egypt that have resorted to violence-or whether they are social and political, as with the large and important Muslim Brotherhood movement, the regime is very afraid-and this comes out from U.S. cables that have been released by WikiLeaks-that the Muslim Brotherhood will find a way to take over. And, you know, when Khomeini overthrew the Shah in Iran in 1979, the first thing they did was execute a lot of the generals. And the generals in Egypt are bound and determined that a similar fate does not await them.
What this suggests to me now, with the army currently in the streets, being warmly greeted by the protesters, is that there's a real opening here for the establishment of a multi-party democracy. The old regime could well be gone as soon as tomorrow--and right now it would look to be a miracle if it lasted a week. As Juan notes, the generals have a strong interest in preserving secular stability, and civil society as a whole has relative trust in the army, as opposed to the regimes repressive police and intelligence agencies. These demonstrations grew on their own, without any outside leadership, they are not the creature of the Muslim Brotherhood, and no secular political leader has a significant claim on them either--which is a perfect set-up for creating a temporary transition government to run the country until elections can be held.
The biggest problem, from the US point of view, is actually the US itself--though of course we cannot admit this. After all, we have been the ultimate guarantors of the regime for over 30 years now. And, indeed, we have been the ultimate guarantors of all the Arab and Muslim dictatorships.
If Obama actually were who he pretended to be in the 2008 campaign--an agent of hope and change, who reached out easily and openly to partner with others--then this would be a remarkable opening opportunity, since the transition of Egypt to a multi-party democracy could be a model the rest of the region could embrace--and once adopted, that model would hold out the highest of hopes for working our way beyond the current threats of extremist religious terrorism. But since Obama is the exact opposite of this--a top-down, risk-averse neo-liberal constantly looking over his shoulder at the neo-cons and the military--there is simply no telling how badly we will botch things up--though it's at least a minimally good sign that we had the good sense not to offer any support in the press briefing Gibbs gave a little while ago.
It should now be clearer than ever that if only Obama had been who people mistook him to be--the Peace Prize-worthy leader, whose seemingly historical Cairo speech was backed up by actions that supported it, rather than drone attacks, continued escalation and black ops--then the US would now be in an incredible international position.
Had Obama taken the path that many mistakenly believed he intended, then the unfolding events in Egypt today might well be harbingers of the endgame of a relatively smooth and peaceful democratic revolution that would leave al Qaeda and its allies in a totally marginalized position. But because Obama let himself be spooked by Cheney and the rest of the neo-cons, rather than having them investigated for war crimes, he--and America--are in almost as awkward a state right now as Bush & Cheney would have been if these same events had unfolded on their watch.
And that's about as damning a thing I can think of to say. Which is not what I set out to do. It just happened as a result of trying to be as blunt and no-nonsense as possible.
The question now is how well and how quickly Obama can recover.... because the rest of the Arab dictatorships are all significantly more at risk than anyone could have imagined just one month ago. After Egypt,there are bound to be more. The only questions are "How many?" "How soon?" and "Which ones...first?"
The Theory Into Practice section starts to sound more like the president we all know and ... well, know:
In Obama's mind, his election was not an endorsement of the outsize government role that Reagan battled - bureaucratic, ever expanding, self-interested - but a cry for government that could carry out its basic missions more effectively. "I think what you're seeing is a correction to the correction," Obama explained.
That one quote sums up Obama perfectly. The "correction to the correction" fundamentally assumes that Reagan was correct, but just overshot. The writers use of words sounds resonant with Obama as well, as it limits government to its "basic missions" but only asks to be more effective.
That's neoliberalism defined, right there.
To this, I would only add that this didn't have to be so. The neo-liberals are not so much a "correction to the correction" in the way they think they are--guided by pragmatism--as they are guided by an anti-leftist ideology that shares far more in common with the right than they can ever admit. Indeed, one can distinguish between the two by looking at welfare reform, and contrasting Clinton's original intent with what he ended up signing onto. The original intent was somewhat of a concession to rightwing attacks on welfare, but it was also (1) a recognition that with women's role in workforce drastically expanded the underlying assumption of welfare that mothers did not work was no longer valid and (2) an attempt to make the transition in a relatively non-punitive way that had a genuine interest in empowering women to successfully move out of poverty. This is not what Clinton ended up signing, although his vast expansion of the earned income tax credit and the writing of the implementation rules after the law was passed both served to mitigate some of the harsher effects, as did the relatively strong economy.
If all of Clinton's policies had been similarly conceived in terms of realistic considerations, if they had not been compromised with conservatives, and if they had been modified over time to correct shortcomings as they became obvious, then this sort of "correction to the correction" could have genuinely claimed to be pragmatic. But of course, it was not. The failings of NAFTA, for example, never got corrected--and they were pretty much all foreseen in advance by its opponents and critics. The same for financial deregulation. The reality of neo-liberalism--as opposed to its PR-assured that it would be so. In comments yesterday, I was asked to define neo-liberalism, and after quoting from I quoted from a Wikileaks for a basic definition:
Neoliberalism describes a market-driven approach to economic and social policy based on neoclassical theories of economics that stresses the efficiency of private enterprise, liberalized trade and relatively open markets, and therefore seeks to maximize the role of the private sector in determining the political and economic priorities of the state.
The term "neoliberalism" has also come into wide use in cultural studies to describe an internationally prevailing ideological paradigm that leads to social, cultural, and political practices and policies that use the language of markets, efficiency, consumer choice, transactional thinking and individual autonomy to shift risk from governments and corporations onto individuals and to extend this kind of market logic into the realm of social and affective relationships
I went on to flesh it out by quoting from Corpwatch:
Last night, Rachel Maddow began with a very sharp insightful bit of commentary, at least for the first 4 1/2 minutes, pointing out that were Eisenhower to run to day, he'd have to do so as a Bernie Sanders-style independent. And she pointed out that this was because America's political spectrum had been pulled far to the right by an organized conservative movement outside of the Republican Party:
Where she went wrong after this point was by claiming that Obama--unlike Clinton--had claimed the center without moving to the right, without triangulation. Well, I've already weighed in saying that Obama is engaged in quintangulation, so you know I'm going to disagree here. But the point is not so much about Obama's rhetoric, because I'd even be willing to agree with Maddow for the sake of argument.
But rhetoric is ultimately not what matters most. What matters is what you actually do. And the tax deal Obama struck with the GOP during the lame duck section was a much more massive chunk of triangulation than anything that I think Clinton would have gone along with. And that's just one (admittedly very large) element in how Obama is moving substantially to the right.
If you want to understand what's going on here, I would argue that you need to recognize a few basic things. First is that the American people have not moved sharply to the right over the past 50-odd years. Here's a chart of the broadest academic measure of public policy mood, compiled by James Stimson of UNC Chapel Hill:
Second, you need to realize that this is not a measure of all political attitudes. It is limited to those issues that cycle between preferences, such as lower taxes vs. more services. It does not include shifts in basic values, so-called "valence issues" of equality regarding race and gender, for example. So what we see here is a long-term fluctuation of trade-off preferences--not a unidirectional trend--and it all takes place in the more liberal region of policy space (currently close to 60% liberal). What we don't see here is dramatically more liberal, and is a pretty dramatic trend, going from norms of accepting racial segregation & the second-class status of women in the 1950s, with homosexuality as something not even talked about in polite society to having had a black and a woman as the two leading candidates in the Democratic primary last time around, with gay marriage slowly being established in state after state around the country.
Third, you need to realize that although attitudes on valence issues of identity--race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.--have shifted dramatically to the left, a large minority is extreme uncomfortable, even threatened by this, notwithstanding their outward acceptance. This manifests in terms of cultural resentment, which cannot generally be honestly expressed, because it's no longer considered socially acceptable to have the public attitudes that correspond to the relatively unchanged deep-seated feelings. This is the basis on which grassroots conservative movement has been organized since the 1970s.
Fourth, the grassroots resentments are further fueled by the other conservative shift--the massive concentration of wealth, which has choked off opportunity for the great mass of the American people--a phenomena readily blamed on subordinate racial, ethnic and gender groups. And this conservative shift--consolidating increased economic and political power into the hands of an increasingly small and concentrated elite of oligopoly powers, largely exempt from the very "free market" they celebrate in rhetoric.
Finally, as I pointed out Tuesday in "GOP: Obama won't be crazy enough on cutting spending in SOTU " the recent abandonment of 70 years of empirical economic experience in the wake of the Great Recession has roots in the identity politics and culture wars of the McKinley era. Meaning, in essence, that the two wings of the conservative movement have converged, without ever winning over the mass of the American people in terms of basic policy preferences.
Rather than successfully opposing this--as Maddow claims--Obama has accomodated himself, and worked tirelessly to redifine liberalism or progressivism in terms of a neo-liberal vision that is, at bottom, aimed at implementing conservative policies in a more technocratically competent manner, with a "human face" that makes it far more palatable to those whose rights and interests are being continually eroded.
The end result of all this is that America's political elite is as out of touch with the American people as the elites in Tunisia, Egypt, or any other Arab nation whose dictatorship we prop up. The Democrats have been stifled, corrupted and compromised, while the GOP is barely able to keep its id in check, and so Obama is able to float above them all, getting 80 and 90% approval for what he says in his State of the Union. But when it comes to actually solving the problems that we face, there is nothing seriously on the elite agenda that can reven remotely come close to getting the job done. And so first Tunisia, now Egypt beckon to us as the face of our future.
Barack Obama's 2011 State of the Union Address was a solid, steady performance. He clearly values this brand for himself as the Most Reasonable Man in Washington - a balanced, centrist leader who takes ideas from every side and will work with anyone. It's an image that clearly has some advantages for him; the early reports I've seen from overnight polling and post-SOTU dial tests are very positive. On a short-term basis, the speech is a solid plus for the President. There also was a lot I liked about the speech from the perspective of someone focused on the long-term health of the progressive cause. But there are some big worries I have over the longer term, both for the President and the country.
Here are the things I liked best about the speech:
The President's full-throated, completely unapologetic defense of the health care bill was great to see. His focus on being willing to look at improvements - but not back down one iota on the things in the bill that will help people - was pitch perfect, far better than most of the pretty lame messaging on the bill over the last year.
Even knowing he wouldn't be embracing benefit cuts in the speech, I was still nervous about what he would say about Social Security, fearing that a vague line about being happy to work with Republicans to "fix" or "strengthen" Social Security over the long term would leave the door wide open for a deal later on benefit cuts. But his actual line about strengthening Social Security for future generations "without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market" was pretty darn definitive. I would have loved for him to go one step further and threaten a veto if Republicans passed such a bill, but this is a good start.
I love the idea of paying for investments in research and the jobs of the future by eliminating subsidies to oil companies. And the framing of it was just right: since oil companies are "doing just fine on their own... so instead of subsidizing yesterday's energy, let's invest in tomorrow's." That is entrepreneurial populism at its best.
The celebration of the Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal and the call for the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform were great moments in the speech.
I know this isn't a stereotypically progressive position, but I am a big fan of the President's push to reorganize government agencies. I felt the same way about the Clinton/Gore Reinventing Government push in the '90s. I have always believed that as defenders of the role of government, it is up to progressives when they are running the government to make sure it operates efficiently and effectively, and that it serves the American people with a minimum of hassle and confusion and a maximum of genuinely useful service. Every time some small business person has to deal with excessive paperwork, and every time a consumer looking for help or information from a government agency runs into a wall of confusing bureaucracy, it lessens support for government - and that is a bad thing.
As I wrote after the President's Tucson speech, I very much appreciate his embrace of the metaphor of America as a family. I think it is a metaphor with deep roots in American progressivism, from Tom Paine to Martin Luther King, Jr: that sense that we are all bound together, that we share a common fate and sink or swim together, that we should look out for each other and help each other in times of trouble. That is a profoundly progressive idea, and I hope the President at some point makes a point of expanding on the idea and talking about it more.
While it was nuanced, and balanced by very centrist, pro-free enterprise kinds of language, I also very much appreciated Obama's defense throughout the speech of a strong role for government. His historical explanation of how government has helped innovation and long-term economic growth, his clear embrace of the critical importance of some government regulation, and his strong defense of Social Security were all moments in the speech that gave Americans a clear argument as to why government is not the problem, but part of the solution to our long-term national health and prosperity.
So there was a lot to appreciate about the speech. Certainly there also were some anti-progressive, irritating moments, too: screwing consumers on medical malpractice, screwing government workers with a wage freeze, screwing us all with the five-year freeze on domestic discretionary spending (which is actually at least a 7 percent cut if you factor inflation in). But more broadly, the speech leaves me concerned for Obama's - and the Democratic party's - political health over the next two years in a couple of different ways.
The first relates to Obama's description of, and attitude about, the economy. My fear is that the President and his economic team have convinced themselves that the economy is all coming up roses. I am not so sanguine, and I don't think the American middle class generally is either. The fact that corporate profits, the stock market, and our GDP are all going up has the President in a happy mood, because he believes it when folks like Geithner and Summers assure him that, as the White House team has been saying for the past two years, "jobs are a lagging indicator."
Look, I fully understand why the White House wants to trumpet any scrap of good news they can find about the economy. They have an urgent political need to try and convince people their economic plan is working. And if the economic team is right, and all these corporate profits and higher stock prices start to trickle down, and lots of new workers finally start to get hired, middle-class voters will be a lot happier with the President by the time November 2012 rolls around. My fear is that the damage to the economic fundamentals has been far more severe than the conventional wisdom macroeconomists at the White House realize, and that unemployment problems won't be going away very fast at all. My fear over the long term is that people are going to remember Obama bragging about increased corporate profits and stock prices even as they see unemployment stay high, wages still not rising, and housing prices continuing to be in the toilet - the same way voters in 2010 remembered his claim that bailing out bankers would lead to new investment and new jobs. That is a nightmare scenario for a President that the middle class still isn't sure is on their side.
Which brings me to my second worry: All this talk about American competitiveness in general is all well and good, but if middle-class folks don't feel the benefits of it any time soon, Obama has a big problem on his hands. There was a lot of talk in that speech about America doing better, America being more innovative and competitive, American business doing well. But it wasn't often in that speech that you got the sense that the President cared about the fate of the typical American working family; the family which might have a member unemployed or in a bad part-time job, the family worried about the fact that their mortgage is underwater because of home prices collapsing, the family whose income hasn't increased much in years as their gas, utilities, groceries, health care, and kids' tuition have all skyrocketed. If Obama has those folks at the front of his mind every day - if Obama is fighting his heart out for them every single day - you wouldn't have known it from his speech. And when people are going to vote, especially in economically stressful times, one of the main things on their mind is always: Which of these candidates is more on my side? Who understands my life and my concerns more? When push comes to shove, who will fight for me and my family more?
Especially if I am at least partly right about my first worry, and those middle-class swing voters are still under a ton of economic stress in November of next year, the who-is-on-their-side issue will weigh heavier than ever. I know such things are a little out of fashion to talk about right now, with corporate CEOs and Washington centrists being the President's main advisers. But unless the economy comes roaring back - and by that I mean jobs, not just corporate profits and stock prices - this question of who the President really cares about is going to weigh very heavily in the next election.
It was a pretty good speech overall, but it left some big questions hanging. If the jobs picture starts to really pick up, and the Republicans are too obvious about how much they are in bed with corporate lobbyists, this speech will set the stage for the upcoming election cycle very well. If not, the President may have set himself up for a tough road ahead.
The UK Guardian's main intro story on the Palestine Papers paints a bleak picture of a deeply dishonest--as well as misguided--process under Bush that Obama did nothing serious to change. The proper backdrop for all this is the 2002 Arab League Peace Deal, which Secretary of State Colin Powell was initially enthusiastic about. But Bush & the neocons around him saw it as a distraction from the war they wanted to take over Iraq, so it was simply allowed to languish. Not only could that plan have brought about regional peace and security, in doing so it would have dramatically reduced the recruting potential for terrorists. It was exactly the sort of pragmatic solution that rightwing ideologues hate. And because that most promising of all approaches was simply ignored, this is what unfolded instead:
Secret papers reveal slow death of Middle East peace process
Massive new leak lifts lid on negotiations
PLO offered up key settlements in East Jerusalem
Concessions made on refugees and Holy sites
Seumas Milne and · Ian Black, · Middle East editor
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 23 January 2011 20.08 GMT
The biggest leak of confidential documents in the history of the Middle East conflict has revealed that Palestinian negotiators secretly agreed to accept Israel's annexation of all but one of the settlements built illegally in occupied East Jerusalem. This unprecedented proposal was one of a string of concessions that will cause shockwaves among Palestinians and in the wider Arab world.
A cache of thousands of pages of confidential Palestinian records covering more than a decade of negotiations with Israel and the US has been obtained by al-Jazeera TV and shared exclusively with the Guardian. The papers provide an extraordinary and vivid insight into the disintegration of the 20-year peace process, which is now regarded as all but dead.
The documents - many of which will be published by the Guardian over the coming days - also reveal:
The scale of confidential concessions offered by Palestinian negotiators, including on the highly sensitive issue of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.
How Israeli leaders privately asked for some Arab citizens to be transferred to a new Palestinian state.
The intimate level of covert co-operation between Israeli security forces and the Palestinian Authority.
The central role of British intelligence in drawing up a secret plan to crush Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
How Palestinian Authority (PA) leaders were privately tipped off about Israel's 2008-9 war in Gaza.
As well as the annexation of all East Jerusalem settlements except Har Homa, the Palestine papers show PLO leaders privately suggested swapping part of the flashpoint East Jerusalem Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah for land elsewhere.
Most controversially, they also proposed a joint committee to take over the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount holy sites in Jerusalem's Old City - the neuralgic issue that helped sink the Camp David talks in 2000 after Yasser Arafat refused to concede sovereignty around the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosques.
The offers were made in 2008-9, in the wake of George Bush's Annapolis conference, and were privately hailed by the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, as giving Israel "the biggest Yerushalayim [the Hebrew name for Jerusalem] in history" in order to resolve the world's most intractable conflict. Israeli leaders, backed by the US government, said the offers were inadequate.
Intensive efforts to revive talks by the Obama administration foundered last year over Israel's refusal to extend a 10-month partial freeze on settlement construction. Prospects are now uncertain amid increasing speculation that a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict is no longer attainable - and fears of a new war....
The overall impression that emerges from the documents, which stretch from 1999 to 2010, is of the weakness and growing desperation of PA leaders as failure to reach agreement or even halt all settlement temporarily undermines their credibility in relation to their Hamas rivals; the papers also reveal the unyielding confidence of Israeli negotiators and the often dismissive attitude of US politicians towards Palestinian representatives....
The great tragedy here for America--and for Obama, who never seemed to even know what he was missing--is that failing to pursue the Arab League's offer ensured the ongoing spread of violent conflict and distrust along multiple vectors, that is now turning the neo-con fantasy of an endless "Long War" into a reality that none but the extremist ideologues on all sides get anyting out of.
Maybe there really was a bit more to the whole "11-dimensional chess" meme than I've previously acknowledged. It's not chess, of course. It's really more like posturing. A game of "statutes". And it's not dimensions, either. But what Obama is now up to is a good deal more complicated than Clinton's simple triangulation--not that that's a good thing. It's just how Obama likes to operate. It's intrinsically pleasing to him, as opposed to simply getting stuff done. Getting good stuff done? Forget it!
What do I mean? Pretty simple really: Triangulation is centering the President between Democrats and Republicans in Congress, placing himself in the center. Quadrangulation is triangulation, except it's placing the President in the center of Versailles, and well to the right of the American people. Quintagulation is quadrangulation, but using the power of Versailles to fool the American people into seeing the President as well to the left of where he actually is, making him seem not just in the center, but as actually somewhat progressive, somewhat left-of-center.
And that's what I think Obama did a pretty decent job of, which is why he's getting good reviews-that,and the fact that Republicans rather predictably make themselves look so bad by comparison.
The good thing about this is that it shows he knows that at least appearing progressive is still the way to go for him. And that's actually good in the real world, since it gives lots of folks an opening to praise him for being more progressive than he is, thereby making a play to draft his support. How well that plays out remains to be seen, of course. I won't be getting my hopes up too high. But it's sure beats being bashed. "Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick," as I like to say.
The problem, of course, is not just that this is such a multi-faceted shadow-play, but that we all know by now that everything Obama says in negotiable, so that the things we liked best that we heard him say--such as ending subsidies for oil--really don't necessarily mean a damn thing.
And that's my big-picture takeaway from the SOTU last night.
There are, of course, many other things I could comment on. First, I've already mentioned his annoying lost-in-time routine, where he pretends that we're the only democracy in the world. Why the need to lie like this? Why not tell the truth? It actually makes us look very good--not to mention adult: We used to be virtually alone in the world (we weren't all that different from Britain) and now we're not, due to the power of our example. That's something genuine we can be justly proud of. Why lie instead? It's indicative of an existentially weak character, a desire to please, rather than a desire for honesty and truth-telling.
Second, there's also Lakoff's ruminations--I heard him on Pacifica, as well as the link from Quick Hits. Mostly, Lakoff is sound as always. For all his rhetorica ease, Obama's repeated lame attempts to use conservative language to either seem like one of them (I don't need convincing, thank you) or to try to repurpose their language misses something crucial from the very heart of Lakoff has to teach:
I give the speech a B+. It reads much better than Obama delivered it. He didn't show much passion, but that's okay. There's not a whole lot to get excited about these days. Besides, with all the fake civility on display in the House Chamber last night - with Republicans having to shelve their annual "Snidely Whiplash" routines - there was no negative energy for Obama to feed off. (Where's Joe "You lie!" Wilson when you need him?)
Still, it was an effective political speech. The White House strategy for the next two years is simple: The president always wants to look like the most reasonable person in the room. That shouldn't be very difficult. Republicans are having a much harder time than I thought they would controlling their lunatics. Everyone on that side of the aisle is either a member of the Tea Party or scared to death of them. (Within the GOP, to be perceived as rational is extremely risky. Remember Saddam Hussein's old Ba'ath Party meetings? Where people were constantly getting dragged out to be shot? That's the Republican Caucus!)
Barack Obama is never going to be as partisan or ideological as I think a Democratic president needs to be. (I'm just thankful he didn't throw Social Security under the bus last night, as many feared he would.) But politically, both he and the Democratic Party appear to be in decent shape today.
He may not be ready to gut Social Security just yet, but he has definitively jettisoned 70 years of economic history. Government no longer steps in to spend money when consumer demand fails. Instead, government works hard to make matters even worse. With state and local budgets once again being cut across the country, there will clearly be net decreases in government spending as far as the eye can see. Herbert Hoover would be so proud! And yet, it's not enough, as the WSJ reports:
Obama to Call for Nonsecurity Spending Freeze
By DAMIAN PALETTA And JONATHAN WEISMAN
William McKinley: NOT A Kenyan
WASHINGTON-President Barack Obama will call for a five-year freeze on nonsecurity discretionary spending in his State of the Union address Tuesday night "as a down payment toward reducing the deficit," a White House official said.
The freeze won't touch some of the budget's biggest items, such as Medicare, Social Security and defense spending, nor will it apply to homeland-security spending or foreign aid.
But Mr. Obama will look for "cuts and efficiencies" in other areas, the official said. For example, the president is pushing the five-year plan designed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to slow the growth of military spending, which officials believe would save $78 billion.
The president's plan would save about $26 billion over five years, according to the White House budget proposal for the current fiscal year. Those savings would be dwarfed by the $100 billion in cuts for this year alone that many House Republicans are pushing.
Republicans said Tuesday that Mr. Obama's proposal wouldn't do enough to rein in spending.
So why is this? Why has 70 years of macro-economic history and understanding been tossed out the window, in favor of returning to the darkness of pre-macro ignorance? This is a variant of the question that Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman have been asking in anguish for many moons now. Why has a rage to punish the poor, and even the middle class completely taken over and displaced the commonsense interest in preserving the basic stability of the economy through as quick a recovery as possible?
And no, I don't mean that the left also needs someone so hysterical that I have visions of half the nation imitating that scene from Airplane where passengers line up to slap some sense into a panicking woman.
In the run-up to the State of the Union, the good news is that Obama won't directly undermine the Democratic brand by coming out for Social Security benefit cuts. The bad news is that he won't reinforce and revive the brand by vigorously defending Social Security, either. What's more, his recent staff changes pretty much assure that this is about as liberal as Obama is ever going to get. It's been deja vu all over again, as we've been told repeatedly--just as we were between the 2008 election and Obama's inauguration--that a flood of center-right appointments didn't mean a thing, since Obama would still be calling the shots. But the reality was made starkly clear in this short headline report from Democracy Now! yesterday:
Obama Unveils GE CEO as Top Economic Adviser
President Obama has publicly introduced General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt as his new top economic adviser. Immelt will head the newly formed President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, which takes the place of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board led by Paul Volcker. On Friday, Obama said Immelt would drive the administration's stated goal of creating jobs.
President Obama: "Our job is to do everything we can to ensure that businesses can take root and folks can find good jobs and America is leading the global competition that will determine our success in the 21st century. And so now, to help fulfill this new mission, I'm assembling a new group of business leaders and outside advisers. And I am so proud and pleased that Jeff has agreed to chair this panel, my Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, because we think GE has something to teach businesses all across America."
Immelt's appointment has come under scrutiny on multiple fronts. He'll retain his position at the helm of GE, creating a potential conflict of interest. As one of the nation's largest corporations, GE has a variety of business and issues before the federal government, including media mergers, military sales, environmental cleanup, and a $16.1 billion bailout in 2008. And while Obama has touted Immelt's mission to create jobs, the United Electrical Workers Union says GE has closed 29 plants in the United States in the past two years, laying off around 3,000 workers.
So, a top corporate job-cutter to help create jobs "because we think GE has something to teach businesses all across America." What could be clearer?
Maybe this, from Kos's frontpage post on results from the latest Kos/PPP poll:
Currently, workers pay social security payroll taxes on up to $106,800 of their salary. To ensure the long-term viability of Social Security, would you rather have people pay social security taxes on salaries above $106,800, or would you rather see benefits cut and the retirement age increased to age 69?
payroll cap Cut benefits
All 77 10
Dem 84 4
GOP 69 17
Ind 77 11
Tea Party 67 20
18-29 80 0
30-45 69 17
46-65 82 8
65+ 75 13
$0-30K 79 5
$30-50K 75 11
$50-75K 79 7
$75-100K 78 13
$100K+ 72 18
....Yet outside of the punditry, the DC political class, and a tiny fringe, no one wants benefits cuts.
Democrats could be scoring mad political points by going on the offensive, vowing to defend Social Security against all enemies, and fighting to equalize the program's tax burden. (I wouldn't just raise the cap on payroll taxes entirely, but I'd also use the increased revenues to lower payroll taxes on the low and middle classes and/or lower the retirement age.)
But no, raising the cap is off limits, and the entire political establishment is focused on delivering more pain to seniors.
There's no better illustration of how DC is broken than this.
No better illustration except Obama touting Jeffrey Immelt as having "something to teach businesses all across America" about creating jobs. What he has to teach about creating jobs is pretty damn simple: Don't.
I'd call it a tie.
It's going to be a long night. But an even longer two years.
p.s. If you don't believe me, check out the rest of the poll where you'll find that only 23% of liberals think Obama is "too conservative". Overall, the American people think he's "too liberal" (44%) rather than "too conservative" (10%) or "about right" (42%).
In the State of the Union address tonight, Barack Obama can set the stage for a political comeback from 2010's "shellacking" that would, in fact, be even stronger than Bill Clinton's storied comeback in 1996 -- because Obama has a chance to sweep a Democratic House back into office with him if he does the right things politically and policywise. However, he has to resist the siren call of a D.C. political and media establishment, with their deeply flawed version of what "centrism" is, and instead focus on the real center of American politics: the hard pressed middle class. He has to focus like a laser beam on the policies that help the middle class by creating new jobs, rebuilding the American manufacturing base, helping small business to grow, and preserving the parts of government that directly help the folks in that middle class: Social Security, Medicare, education and student loans, and rebuilding our roads and bridges.
It is certainly unsurprising after all my years in politics -- in fact, it is the most predictable thing in the world -- to see the D.C. version of centrists argue in favor of things that would damage, and politically anger, the middle class. Nevertheless, it has been disturbing to see what groups like Third Way are calling for in their recent policy memoranda: cuts in Social Security and handing legal bailouts to the big banks so that it will be easier for them to foreclose on homeowners. Other D.C. establishment centrists like Alice Rivlin of the Brookings Institution are calling for Democrats to willingly accept big cuts and/or a private voucher program for Medicare. D.C. establishment folks think Democrats shouldn't press so hard to safeguard consumers from the banking industry.
Here's the thing that is stunningly obvious from all the available polling data, though: voters, most especially swing voters, hate the idea of policies that do even more damage to their already shaky economic standing. As pollster Guy Molyneux from Hart Research Associates so eloquently put it recently: "When it comes to Social Security, opinion elites are from Mars, voters are from Venus." In fact, pollsters like Molyneux, Stan Greenberg, and Celinda Lake argue that Obama's willingness to put Social Security cuts "on the table" has done as much to damage to him as any other issue. Thank goodness he has decided not to endorse cutting Social Security or raising the retirement age in the SOTU. Hopefully this will help him stop the bleeding with seniors and other Americans violently opposed to Social Security cuts (which is most of the population).