Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Obama's Global Coming Out Party: An Adoring Public, But Skeptical Heads of State

Photo credits: Ron Edmonds/AP

Now that Obama’s giddy followers in America have all bumped their heads against the reality that their leader is absolutely not capable of instantaneously uniting red states and blue states solely by virtue of his personality – see congressional vote on stimulus package – these same followers are poised for yet another jolt as the rock-star president heads off to Europe today.

Headlines in the media are blaring Obama’s soaring poll numbers in this country as he and Michelle lift off in Air Force One for the G-20 meeting in London. And most news accounts are reminding us of Obama’s adoring public abroad.

I had to sift through quite a number of online news sources this morning to come across the balanced coverage of Obama’s trip by the Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi titled: On European trip, rock-star Obama faces skeptical allies. LaFranchi predicts Obama may encounter in Europe what he’s already experienced in his own country: a personal popularity way out of sync with the reaction to his policies by political leaders.

LaFranchi writes:

The new American president's debut on the world stage, beginning Tuesday in London in advance of the Group of 20 meeting, is sure to have its share of "Hello!" magazine moments and glamour. He will, after all, meet with Queen Elizabeth II, an established member of the thin upper crust of global personalities and an international rock star in her own right.

But President Obama may be speaking sotto voce and out of the spotlight while in the company of presidents and prime ministers. That's because he is expected to articulate positions and prescriptions that are out of step with leaders from Western Europe, China, Russia, India, and beyond – on issues ranging from the global economic crisis to the war in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Mr. Obama may well find himself in the inverse position from where George W. Bush stood by the end of his White House run. Whereas Mr. Bush enjoyed greater cooperation and like-mindedness with many key foreign leaders, though he remained unpopular with the international public, Obama is expected to encounter an adoring public but a deep skepticism – even resistance – among heads of state.

"By the end of his second term, Bush was much closer to the European governments than he had been, but he was still strongly disapproved of by a lot of the general public," says Reginald Dale, an expert in transatlantic affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here. "Obama is adored by the general public but still has to prove himself to the governments."

How well Mr. Obama can parlay his personal popularity into convincing leadership is a key question hanging over his global coming-out party. With many leaders blaming the United States for planting the seeds of the first global recession since World War II, America's ability to continue as the world's unrivaled power, whether in economic or other matters, is likely to be an undercurrent of meetings with the G-20 leaders, NATO, and in bilateral meetings with his counterparts.

"There is a certain paradox or irony to this trip, in that Obama remains wildly popular in Europe and elsewhere, with Europeans still giddy about Bush's replacement by a president who is much closer to European preferences and sensibilities," says Charles Kupchan, an international-affairs expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). "Yet when it comes to the big issues to be treated on this trip ... Obama seems unlikely to preside over any meeting of the minds or to succeed with either his popularity or power in winning foreign leaders over to America's positions."

Obama is the first American president to preside over an international system that is dramatically different from the one stitched together after World War II and the cold war, when America unquestionably sat in the driver's seat, Mr. Kupchan adds. "Now the Chinese and the Russians, the Indians and Indonesians and Turks, are much more willing to flex their muscles and demand their fair share of decisionmaking in global councils," he says.

Besides the highlight of meeting the British sovereign, an event Obama is said to be anticipating with excitement, the new president will attend several meetings during his eight days abroad:

•A Group of 20 summit in London Thursday, where leaders of the world's largest economies will address the global financial crisis.

•A weekend NATO summit in France likely to be dominated by the alliance's faltering effort in Afghanistan.

•A US-European Union summit in the Czech Republic. The leader of the EU last week called Obama's proposal for larger global economic stimulus packages "the way to hell."

•Two days of meetings and events in Turkey, including an international conference on reducing tensions between the Muslim and Western worlds.

•A raft of bilateral meetings with figures ranging from Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and China's Hu Jintao to the leaders of India and Saudi Arabia.

The White House recently signaled it has all but given up hope that the leaders Obama meets this week will make major commitments along the lines the US would like to see – either in terms of big spending packages for the economy or of additional troops or resources for Afghanistan. Instead, US officials are offering a scenario in which Obama leads by listening – a departure from his predecessor, they say – and by example.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

E.J. Dionne: The Calculated Vagueness of Obama’s Change You Can Believe In

Buried in E. J. Dionne’s op ed in today’s Washington Post is an admission the highly touted change Barack Obama persuaded millions to believe in during the primary was never defined. Like many once sober pundits with reasonably sound journalistic standards, Dionne’s heady infatuation with Obama caused him to stoop to whatever depraved tactic he thought it took to support the object of his affection and smear Hillary Clinton. Never mind questioning back then what it was that Obama was actually promising.

But read for yourself (emphases mine):

Voters in democracies have reasonably good intuitions as to what a political moment requires, and if there is a trend in democratic nations now, it is toward younger politicians who express disenchantment with the status quo, more by questioning past approaches than by offering fully worked-out alternative systems.

This was brought home last week when President Obama met with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd of Australia. Both are young. Both were elected with overwhelming support among voters under 30.

Both are mildly leftish and critical of the conservatism of the recent past, yet there was a calculated vagueness in the promises each of them made: In 2008, Obama pledged himself to change, while Rudd in 2007 promised "new leadership" and "fresh ideas." Neither Obama nor Rudd was pressed too hard to define the refreshing change each had in mind.

Eating his Campaign Words – A Curiously Feeble Obama

It’s not the first time that Barack Obama has flip-flopped on his campaign promises. In today’s post, Howard Kurtz points to Byron York’s observation in the Washington Examiner regarding Obama’s total reversal on federal budget deficits:

"Barack Obama used to get very upset about federal budget deficits. Denouncing an 'orgy of spending and enormous deficits,' he turned to John McCain during their presidential debates last fall and said, 'We have had, over the last eight years, the biggest increases in deficit spending and national debt in our history. . . . Now we have a half-trillion deficit annually . . . and Sen. McCain voted for four out of five of those George Bush budgets.'

"That was then. Now, President Obama is asking lawmakers to vote for a budget with a deficit three times the size of the one that so disturbed candidate Obama just a few months ago
. . .

"I asked McCain about the president's seemingly forgotten concern about deficits. McCain doesn't like to rehash the campaign -- 'The one thing Americans don't like is a sore loser,' he told me -- but when I read him Obama's quote from the debate, he said, 'Well, there are a number of statements that were made by then-candidate Obama which have not translated into his policies.' "

Kurtz also cites the Economist’s criticism of Obama:

"Mr Obama has had a difficult start. His performance has been weaker than those who endorsed his candidacy, including this newspaper, had hoped. Many of his strongest supporters -- liberal columnists, prominent donors, Democratic Party stalwarts -- have started to question him. . .

"Mr Obama has seemed curiously feeble.
"There are two main reasons for this. The first is Mr Obama's failure to grapple as fast and as single-mindedly with the economy as he should have done. His stimulus package, though huge, was subcontracted to Congress, which did a mediocre job: too much of the money will arrive too late to be of help in the current crisis. His budget, though in some ways more honest than his predecessor's, is wildly optimistic. And he has taken too long to produce his plan for dealing with the trillions of dollars of toxic assets which fester on banks' balance-sheets."

Anti-Establishment Krugman Goes After Obama and Geithner

The Midas Letter has posted Newsweek’s cover story on Paul Krugman this Monday morning, and it’s a good read. Never thought I’d feel a bond of admiration and affection for an economist but the Princeton professor and NY Times columnist warms my heart. It helps that his colleague at Princeton, historian Sean Wilentz, apparently feels a similar sense of kinship to the rebellious Nobel-Prize winning numbers guy.

Recall that Krugman recognized the superiority of Hillary Clinton's health care plan to Obama’s during the Democratic primary and come to think of it, Wilentz methodically debunked every egregious attempt by the Obama campaign to smear the Clintons as racists.

Go, Princeton!

But back to the NewsWeek article by Evan Thomas. Here’s the deal:

Paul Krugman has all the credentials of a ranking member of the East Coast liberal establishment: a column in The New York Times, a professorship at Princeton, a Nobel Prize in economics. He is the type you might expect to find holding forth at a Georgetown cocktail party or chumming around in the White House Mess of a Democratic administration. But in his published opinions, and perhaps in his very being, he is anti-establishment. Though he was a scourge of the Bush administration, he has been critical, if not hostile, to the Obama White House.

In his twice-a-week column and his blog, Conscience of a Liberal, he criticizes the Obamaites for trying to prop up a financial system that he regards as essentially a dead man walking. In conversation, he portrays Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and other top officials as, in effect, tools of Wall Street (a ridiculous charge, say Geithner defenders). These men and women have "no venality," Krugman hastened to say in an interview with NEWSWEEK. But they are suffering from "osmosis," from simply spending too much time around investment bankers and the like. In his Times column the day Geithner announced the details of the administration's bank-rescue plan, Krugman described his "despair" that Obama "has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they're doing. It's as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street."

If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he's wrong, and you sense he's being a little harsh (especially about Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see. By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking. The in crowd of any age can be deceived by self-confidence, as Liaquat Ahamed has shown in "Lords of Finance," his new book about the folly of central bankers before the Great Depression, and David Halberstam revealed in his Vietnam War classic, "The Best and the Brightest." Krugman may be exaggerating the decay of the financial system or the devotion of Obama's team to preserving it. But what if he's right, or part right? What if President Obama is squandering his only chance to step in and nationalize—well, maybe not nationalize, that loaded word—but restructure the banks before they collapse altogether?

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Another accidental polarizer, another crisis-exploiting presidency, another well-intentioned overreach…

I’ve argued repeatedly since the Democratic primary that Barack Obama would follow in the footsteps of George W. Bush. Today, the National Journal’s Jonathan Rauch asks the question: Is Obama Repeating Bush's Mistakes?

Rauch reminds us:

In 2000, Bush defined his candidacy with three overarching promises: to restore dignity to the Oval Office, to be a compassionate (that is, centrist) conservative, and to be a uniter, not a divider. He kept the first promise, but it was the least important. He broke the second by becoming, in the public's mind, a hard-edged ideologue. He broke the third and most important promise most spectacularly, by emerging as the most divisive president in at least a generation. The public felt betrayed and angry. Along came Obama.

At least until the economic crisis emerged late in the campaign, Obama, too, was defined by three overarching promises: to restore America's prestige abroad, to bring change to Washington, and above all, to be a uniter, not a divider. In effect, he would redeem the promise that Bush had broken.

Bush never set out to break that promise; indeed, many Republicans believe that he kept it. After all, Bush joined with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to reform education; sought and received congressional support (bipartisan in the Senate) for the Iraq invasion; rejected conservative advice that he bypass the United Nations; and championed the biggest entitlement expansion (of Medicare) since LBJ. To the dismay of his own party, he favored moderate immigration reform and spent freely. What was so radical about any of that? Bushies will tell you that the Democrats were the ones who first drew the long knives.

In his determination to be not just a policy-changer but a game-changer, Bush polarized.

It was true that Bush was no conservative purist (some conservatives say that he was no conservative at all). True, but beside the point. In his determination to be not just a policy-changer but a game-changer, Bush polarized. Speaking contemptuously of "small ball," he saw himself as having four short years, eight if he was lucky, to achieve "transformational" standing. In 2002, with the ruins of the twin towers still smoldering, he saw an opportunity for regime change, in Washington as well as in Baghdad.

He declared a quasi-permanent state of war; made startling claims of presidential power; sought to reorient U.S. foreign policy around an "axis of evil"; attempted to refashion the Middle East; and portrayed the Democrats as too weak to govern. Far from promising a path back to normalcy, he seemed to relish upsetting equilibriums. Far from putting his pre-9/11 agenda on hold or modifying it in search of Democratic support, he stiffened his positions and pushed all the harder. The result was to inspire adulation among Republicans and raise alarm among Democrats.

Obama, too, promised to be a uniter, to reach out, to rise above partisanship. His sincerity deserves the benefit of the doubt; and, like Bush, he probably sees himself as trying his best despite fiercely partisan opposition. Still, not three months into his term, the bottom is already falling off his standing with Republicans. According to Gallup, his approval among Republicans fell 15 points, from 41 percent to 26 percent, from January to March. He is beginning to inspire adulation among Democrats and raise alarm among Republicans.

Like Bush, he may think this is not his fault. But he outsourced his stimulus package to congressional Democrats, who did things their way after concluding that Republicans were in no mood to compromise. They may have been right, but Obama could have tested Republicans by convening a bipartisan summit at the White House and asking both parties to make a deal.

Then came his budget. Republicans, including thoughtful ones, reacted with shock. "He is casting his lot with collectivists and statists; his intent is to put us on a glide path to European-style socialism," wrote Peter Wehner, a former Bush White House official who is now at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The administration pointed out that the budget merely kept Obama's promises. Nothing in it was radical or hard-left. Sympathetic commentators noted that Obama's departures from his campaign pledges were generally to the center, not the left.

Another accidental polarizer, another crisis-exploiting presidency, another well-intentioned overreach -- all, perhaps, to be followed by another public backlash.

All true, but, again, beside the point. Republicans have reason to fear that the net result of adopting Obama's budget will be to expand federal spending from 21 percent of gross domestic product, its set point for 40 years, to more like 25 percent by 2019 (a recent estimate by Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation).

Demographics and health costs are bound to increase government spending anyway; but, from Republicans' point of view, there was more, much more. Obama is proposing a cap-and-trade system that will entwine regulation with the financial and revenue systems as never before. His winner-picking energy subsidies may cause economic distortions and inefficiencies that will last for decades. His health care plan might turn the whole health insurance system into a giant version of Medicare.

Republicans' fears about Obama's policies may well be overwrought, as Democrats insist. Talk of impending socialism seems hysterical. But given that Obama wants to do all of these things simultaneously, and that he wants to do them all this year, how could Republicans be anything but frightened?

Obama, like Bush, set out with an agenda of his own devising, only to have another, crisis-driven agenda imposed upon him. Like Bush, he chose not to decouple the two agendas but to portray them as inextricably linked and drive them both forward. Like Bush, he seemed to decide that the crisis made a handy sledgehammer. Unlike Bush, he let his people say so.

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Is Obama’s “Change You Can Believe in” too Beholden to Wall Street and the Status Quo?

Paul Krugman hasn’t let up with his criticism of the Obama Administration’s response to the financial crisis. Krugman’s role as the loyal opposition has won him a cover story in next week’s Newsweek.

Mike Allen in Politico reports:

A stark image of Paul Krugman, the bearded New York Times op-ed columnist and Princeton economist, appears on the cover of next week’s Newsweek, with the headline “OBAMA IS WRONG: The Loyal Opposition of Paul Krugman.”

Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics last fall, has been arguing that Obama is doing too little to respond to threats to the nation’s banking and economic system, and he has contended that the $787 billion stimulus bill should have been bigger.

Allen continues:

Krugman personifies a conundrum for Obama: He has to cope with complaints from the political left, as well as the more predictable opposition of the right.

The prolific professor has been pushing his views in his column, on his blog and in Rolling Stone.

Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham explains the choice in a letter to readers: “Every once a while, … a critic emerges who is more than a chatterer—a critic with credibility whose views seem more than a little plausible and who manages to rankle those in power in more than passing ways. As the debate over the rescue of the financial system—the crucial step toward stabilizing the economy and returning the country to prosperity—unfolds, the man on our cover this week, Paul Krugman of The New York Times, has emerged as the kind of critic who, as Evan Thomas writes, appears disturbingly close to the mark when he expresses his ‘despair’ over the administration’s bailout plan. …

“There is little doubt that Krugman—Nobel laureate and Princeton professor—has be come the voice of the loyal opposition. What is striking about this development is that Obama’s most thoughtful critic is taking on the president from the left at a time when, as Jonathan Alter notes, so many others are reflexively arguing that the administration is trying too much too soon.

"A devoted liberal, Krugman hungers for what he calls ‘a new New Deal,’ and he prides himself on his status as an outsider. (He is as much of an outsider as a Nobel laureate from Princeton with a column in the Times can be.) Is Krugman right? Is the Obama administration too beholden to Wall Street and to the status quo, trying to save a system that is beyond salvation? Does Obama have—despite the brayings of the right—too much faith in the markets at a time when prudence suggests that they cannot rescue themselves? We do not know yet, and will not for a while to come. But as Evan—hardly a rabble-rousing lefty—writes, a lot of people have a ‘creeping feeling’ that the Cassandra from Princeton may just be right. After all, the original Cassandra was.”

Friday, March 27, 2009

Hillary’s One-Time Detractors in the Misogynist Media Finally Paying Her Tribute

The mention of Hillary Clinton in an MSM op ed, whether liberal or conservative, continues to wave a red flag for me, and I approach the author’s words warily. Even when praise for Hillary is involved, it’s often followed by some underhanded jab still dripping from its bath in the cesspool of right-wing misogyny of the 90s.

A red flag popped up this morning when I noticed Eugene Robinson’s column in the Washington Post, accompanied by Hillary’s photo. Robinson is the guy who was so infatuated with Barack Obama during the Democratic primary that in a piece entitled “Clinton’s Grim Scenario,” he accused Hillary of sacrificing her soul in her bid for her party’s nomination. I responded to Robinson’s egregious smear attempt here.

Lately, though, Hillary’s critics seem to have subsided. Could it be the applause she’s received in her travels around the world and her 71% approval rating for the way she’s fulfilling her responsibilities as secretary of state has thrown them off course?

I’ve read through Robinson’s column today a couple of times, and it appears his praise of Hillary’s forthright pronouncement on the illegal drug trade between Mexico and the United States might actually be sincere.

Robinson writes (emphasis mine):

It's an indictment of our fact-averse political culture that a statement of the blindingly obvious could sound so revolutionary. "Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters on her plane Wednesday as she flew to Mexico for an official visit. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border . . . causes the deaths of police, of soldiers and civilians."

Amazingly, U.S. officials have avoided facing these facts for decades. This is not just an intellectual blind spot but a moral failure, one that has had horrific consequences for Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and other Latin American and Caribbean nations. Clinton deserves high praise for acknowledging that the United States bears "shared responsibility" for the drug-fueled violence sweeping Mexico, which has claimed more than 7,000 lives since the beginning of 2008. But that means we will also share responsibility for the next 7,000 killings as well.

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