American History, 2012

By Michelle Railey


Obama and the Court of Public Opinion

January 5, 2012

Photo: Reuters

In days of yore, namely 2008, back when Senator McCain (R-AZ) was behaving visibly irrationally, sticking his tongue out at then-candidate Obama in presidential debates, a pundit whose name I heartily wish I remember said of McCain “I don’t know why he gets so angry. There seems to be something about Obama personally. It’s like his whippersnapperiness just makes him mad.” And there still seems to be a certain je ne sais quoi about the President that appears to make some people mad.

The patently Red and Right will cite the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the repeal of DADT, and the end of the war in Iraq to explain their disapproval of President Obama. More frequently though, their dislike is pinned to a litany of unsupported and/or unsupportable generalities: the President has socialist policies; the President is anti-American; the President is destroying or has destroyed America and our way of life.

Yet the ACA is built mainly on past Republicans’ policy proposals and it leaves a wide berth for the states to self-determine how the goals of the law is enacted within their jurisdictions—more states’ rights than federal takeover—and in 2014, it instantly adds 50 million consumers to the free market of insurance providers. Presto change-o, that’s more money for the capitalists. And while DADT was repealed (with the approval and support of many high-ranking members at the Pentagon), the Defense of Marriage Act remains unenforced but intact and the President still won’t step any further on the subject of LGBT rights than to suggest that civil unions might be acceptable in the future. As for the war in Iraq, the troops would most likely have been leaving at the end of 2010 without any decisive action on the part of the Obama administration as a result of the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement unless President Talabani had expressly invited them to remain. And, finally, on the charge of anti-American sentiment, President Obama has obviously learned the Lesson of the Flag Pin (check his lapels). He has released his American birth certificate, even making it available for purchase in coffee mug form. He ends all his speeches with “God bless you and God bless the United States of America.” Sure, one could argue that he’s just saying it because he has to but this is an argument that is based in suspicion, bias, and opinion. It can never be proven or disproven and can never stand as fact.

The Progressives, the Liberal, and the Blue didn’t share the same initial general opposition to and suspicion of the President as, say, the Tea Party. In 2008 and early 2009, there were jokes about President Obama being carried to the inauguration by a chariot of singing angels. There was a general impression that, like the JibJab video, life in America under President Obama would be all rainbows and unicorns in an exuberant, optimistic, candy-colored fantasy. But mostly there was real hope, real jubilance, and real affection. As the results came in late on that November election night and the crowds gathered in Grant Park, the moment seemed electric.

But with time, the surge in Afghanistan happened and cap and trade didn’t. The economy stayed low, housing values sank lower and so did American spirits. Wall Streeters weren’t prosecuted but undocumented immigrants were, deported since 2009 in record numbers. Guantánamo Bay remained open. Throughout it all, unmanned drones flew overhead across the globe: sometimes acting lethally but always watching. Then came the election of 2010 and to some it seemed the President’s only response was an inadequate “We took a real shellacking.”

For my part, the perception of President Obama doesn’t vary much from my impression of candidate Obama. I saw in 2008 a measured, rational, thoughtful person who would approach a problem from every conceivable angle, weighing costs and benefits in the short and long terms, consider what was politically achievable, and consult every resource available to him before he acted. In short, I saw a sober and temperate Moderate. I think in 2011, this is still what I see in the President. I think I’ve gotten the pragmatist president I expected, for the most part.

In any case, in the pundit class, in the 2012 race lead-off, in friendly conversations at my neighborhood haunts; in call-in public radio shows, on the back of pick-up trucks, and mostly definitely on the internet, there seem to be two distinct and rather vocal groups of people among those who are not true blue Obama supporters: those who “like” the President personally but disapprove of the direction the country is taking and/or Mr. Obama’s job performance anyway and those who, frankly, seem to detest him and vehemently oppose his re-election and, for that matter, his ever-election.

And I can’t explain it. More troublingly, neither can many of them. When delving in specifics of policy, they list the aforementioned ACA, not by name but as a socialist takeover of medicine, and their consequent inability to choose their own doctor, contrary to the facts of the actual ACA. They rail against Obama’s “bankrupting” of the country despite the wars, financial crisis, Bush tax cuts, and the passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) which pre-dated his term in office. And then, Janus-like, they will contradict their own arguments and say the President “just hasn’t done anything.” This despite the ACA, the stimulus, the Consumer Financial Protection Act; despite the assassination of Osama bin Laden, despite the drones, despite deportations. So, sure the President has done nothing, other than manage crises at home (the economy, Tucson, violent weather, an historic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, more problems with the economy and unemployment, and returning and sick veterans) and crises abroad (the Euro crisis, Arab Spring, the ongoing threat of international terrorism, a shake-up in North Korea, increasing danger signals from an aspirationally nuclear Iran, and relief efforts in response to floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis). I guess he did take some time off to gallivant over to Oslo to pick up some vanity award like the Nobel Peace Prize or something but I don’t share the view that this one eurotrip constitutes an entire term of dormancy.

So going into the election of 2012, the key word in the court of public opinion in the case of President Obama seems to be “despite.” I’m not saying or implying that people’s objections and grievances aren’t legitimate or real. I do contend that too frequently the arguments they give to support them are not. Too often it just seems to come down to actual but ultimately unreasoned and inchoate spite despite their best explanatory efforts. President Obama’s very whippersnapperiness just seems to make them mad.

Image: John McCain, following the third presidential debate in October, 2008. Photo: Jim Bourg, Reuters. (


American Foreign Policy after Iraq and Afghanistan: Notes from Lee Hamilton’s March 1st Lecture

March 1, 2012

The following are my notes from the 2012 Israel Lecture in U.S. Public Policy given by Lee Hamilton at the Lilly Performance Hall, University of Indianapolis, March 1, 2012. I tweeted afterwards that Mr. Hamilton was brilliant and surprisingly, wonderfully funny. The humor won’t come through here, but hopefully the gist of his speech will. Happy Reading.

American Foreign Policy after Iraq and Afghanistan, The Honorable Lee H. Hamilton

There are four central realities facing the U.S. as era of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end.

(1.) Preeminence of American Power: The U.S. is still the central player on the global stage; it is the only one with a global reach, but it is hobbled by obstacles and it is not an unchallenged power. (2.) Shifting Alignment/Alliances of Great Powers and the Rise of New Powers: New nature of international relationships is defined by fluidity, both in identity of greater/lesser powers and the dynamics between them. Russia, China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Indonesia are waxing while the old European power is facing political, financial, and social decline. Europe and the West are weakening; Asia rising. The balance is now multi-polar but eastward looking. President Obama recently said “Can’t put U.S. back to work unless Asia is successful.” (Note that among multi-polar world, the balance could really rest with a bipolar world: U.S. and China.) The U.S. for now is still the preeminent power, but the lead is shrinking. (3.) Globalization: The megatrend is globalization, our “hyperconnectedness” is the single most important reality; refers to economics/trade/currency and information. Interdependence. Powerful tool for prosperity but not always good for progressive goals and is often met with resistance in U.S.(outsourcing and employment rates; low growth). Too often, globalization not global: there are winners and losers. Raises living standards but unevenly and causes disruptions and downturns. Double-edged sword: both good and bad; opportunities and crises alike. (4.) Turmoil and Insecurity: Economic, political, environmental, and health. Example of ca. 10 million deaths in Africa over past couple years due to these forces. (Why wasn’t it on the front page of the paper, the evening news?) Enormous ramifications for all of us, whether or not we are paying attention. Recent Pentagon briefing included key phrase “in a period of persistent conflict.” Chaos and conflict are and will be constant realities.

The seven key challenges to the U.S. in this era are:

(1.) Nuclear Proliferation: Nuclear attack not the most likely risk to us, but the most consequential and very unpredictable (N. Korea, Iran, and ???) We have sanctions and certain safeguards but risk is still there; must curb growth of arms and armsholders. (2.) Managing Global Economy: Characterized by low/declining growth and imbalances generated by trade deficits and poverty. Fragility is the challenge. Somehow we must support responsible globalization: one which includes and manages growth while protecting the weak and preventing inflation. Which model will the world use to achieve growth. The U.S. is confident in market capitalism but the world is not convinced (e.g. China’s growth has been 9-10% annually for past decade while ours has been struggling to find 1-2%). China’s growth will slow, but still, many in the world will not take our word for it that our way/the free market is most efficacious. The preferred model is not obvious and this debate will be a bigger one in world affairs than the U.S. realizes. (As a sidenote, the U.S. cannot be a world leader, preeminent if it fails to get its economy in order. The U.S. must solve its shortage of demand/lack of growth and its debt. Problem is: solving one is bad for the other.) (3.) Energy: How do we power the future? This is the great failure of U.S. policy in the past 3-4 decades, our failure to reduce our need for foreign oil. While it’s improving, it’s still too far from being resolved. “We’re very slow learners.” Favors an all of the above approach, expanding supply, efficiency, and alternative sources. Can’t continue to be slow on this. (4.) China: Most important bilateral relationship in the world, between China and U.S; China is our only peer/competitor. Could become formidable problem or rival. The U.S. cannot solve any of the major problems without Chinese cooperation. Dismisses view that China is belligerent towards us but acknowledges their wariness and self-protectiveness. Must keep dialogues and diplomacy with China open and be persistent with communication. Many of the big foreign policy questions in years ahead involve China. (5.) Cybersecurity: Key challenge because critical infrastructure (financial, electrical, water) is online and much of it is privatized. Companies do not have capacity to fend off a cyberattack. Federal government might, but companies rightfully have concerns about government involvement in their businesses. Need better communication between public/private. The risk is great (potential damage + speed of attack + anonymity of and difficulty tracing/apprehending attackers. Attackers can be a teen with a laptop or a government. Damage would be difficult to manage either way.) (6.) Terrorism: This is not an existential threat, but it does still exist. (7.) Turmoil: Toughest question facing us on this front is asking when we intervene (e.g. Syria). “You’ve got to be careful when you start supplying arms to people.” E.g. Afghanistan, only to have our gifted weapons turned against us by those we had previously armed. Unintended consequences of intervention can be devastating and long-lived. How do we/the President decide when to intervene and in which way?

Conclusion: With these realities and challenges in mind, should U.S. be optimistic or pessimistic about foreign relations in the future? “What difference does it make?” More important than what we think about the future is what we do. Best thing citizens can do is to make our own spots better and stronger. The U.S. is always striving. Good outcomes are possible but not inevitable. Could be prosperity or it could be chaos; but either way, American leadership will be needed.

Bad Advice

April 17, 2012

With Rick Santorum’s exit from the GOP race for the nomination and Mitt Romney’s all-but-certain triumph as Republican standard-bearer for the 2012 election, attention has now inevitably turned to the general Presidential election. I’m no Cassandra here, and certainly only stating the obvious: the months between now and the conventions in late summer will now be filled with two mega-themes. The first will be attempting to predict who Romney will choose to become his running mate. The second will be a micro-analysis of President Obama as both president and candidate. And within this analytic realm will come a veritable host (see how I worked that in there? One of the President’s very favorite words? I pay attention.) of advice for President Obama as he campaigns for his second term in the Oval Office.

Now, there have been times in the past three years when the President has received highly public advice from the punditry, so this will be nothing new. For example, in the time of the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, there was much criticism, paired with advice, that President Obama needed to focus on the optics; that he had to connect in an emotional manner with the citizens of the Gulf Coast. In all fairness, it should be noted that the President did, in fact, end up with shirt sleeves rolled up, standing on the beach, expressing concern for the residents of Mississippi and Louisiana. Similarly, throughout the first two years of the Obama presidency, the President was frequently compared to Spock and was, usually within the same breath, urged to “connect,” to express emotion, to communicate better.

It seems to me that as the President devotes more of his time to campaigning, the Greek chorus urging “optics,” “emotion,” and “communication” will be silenced by deft manipulation of all three by a man who re-wrote the modern campaign book on all these subjects and techniques in the 2008 election.

Nevertheless, the pundit class and the Twitterverse have cut their collective teeth on one of the most entertaining—and lengthy—Primary campaigns in recent years. The loss of the GOP Primary Circus has left a large void to fill until the conventions. So, in the hours not spent divining the eventual Republican candidate for Veep, the punditry’s role as political Dear Abby will come to the fore.

And here is what I hope they will not say; more accurately, here is what I hope President Obama will not heed. It is advice that was previously given in January of 2011 by Ron Perlstein. In the Newsweek article “What Would Ronnie Do?” Perlstein offered the following (bad) advice to our president. (1.) Simplify Your Story, (2.) Create Handy Villains, and (3.) Be a Divider.

Simplify Your Story: To this voter, candidate Obama earned my vote by not bowing to the easy answer, or at least, not when he could at all help it. Obama became president because people like me appreciated very much the fact that, as candidate in 2008, he was not afraid to say that problems were neither easily nor accurately reduced to sound bites and that “solutions” were seldom reducible to less bullet points than digits found on a human hand. Candidate Obama frequently acknowledged nuance, complexity, and the foolishness of the facile response. As president, he’s generally continued with this reality-based approach. Many call this “pragmatic” in less than flattering ways. Many cite it as a weakness, including Mr. Perlstein. I cannot be the only American who believes this to be one of Obama’s biggest strengths.

Create Handy Villains: As though the world, politically and actually, were not a case of Hic sunt draconis. There be dragons here. Creating them may be strategically smart politically, but it is hardly necessary. The world’s awash in dragons and dragon-slayers alike. The more President/Candidate Obama relies on naming and making them, the more he appears to be a game-player and the less he appears to be the President. Despite the clamor, the easy and obvious appeal of it, the public is tired of games and name-calling. Leave it to the pundits and the bloggers. The president has more important ways to spend his time and energy.

Be A Divider: The nation is divided; as with villainry, there is no need to create something which already exists as the status quo. Neither is there the need to capitalize on it, or exacerbate it. And there is no respect to be found for the one who does so, presidencies aside. If nothing else, we are the theoretically “United States.” Being a Divider may play well to the base, but it seems nothing if not dissonant with the actual identity of the country (or at least the ideal that still makes us care about it).

So, there stands the Bad Advice. For good, if good there be, this voter/citizen/American wishes only that the President will receive two other recommendations. The first, from Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations the President has reputedly read: “While thou livest, while it is in thy power, be good.” (Or, Mr. President, “Set thyself in motion…and do not look about thee to see if any one will observe it…but be content if the smallest thing goes on well and consider such an event to be no small matter.” The truth will out.) The second, as Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing put it, “Let Bartlet be Bartlet.” Let Obama be Obama. As a strategy alone, this has its merits. Mitt Romney has been called by his own staffer “an Etch-a-Sketch;” by Jon Huntsman “a finely lubricated weather vane.” Romney’s greatest weakness politically is his inauthenticity and the sense that he will pander to popular opinion to gain power because his core beliefs are either less compelling or strangely, perpetually absent. If Obama is Obama as a constant, as an authentic three-dimensional constant being, Romney can’t compete (or at least, not at this point in time). But more to the point, Americans are hungry for a real choice. Americans are also hungry for a real person (disregard the polls). They are bone-weary of talking heads and hyper-managed politicians. Let Obama be Obama. I believe no matter how anti-incumbent, anti-politician Americans get, they will still—they will always respond (whether they admit it or not) respectfully to a fundamentally honest and authentic person, even if that person carries the name “Obama.”


August 12, 2012

In case you were under a rock today and hadn’t heard, Paul Ryan (R-WI) became the Chosen One today, the vice presidential pick for Team Romney. It’s just so exciting, isn’t it? Real News! On a Saturday! Not to take anything from the Iranians and their earthquake or the deaths by lightning strike in India, but ohmygosh, Mitt Romney has a running mate and it’s the physically fit, intellectual powerhouse from Wisconsin, House Representative Paul Ryan. The word of the day in the media is “energized:” the Romney campaign is energized, the Republican base is energized, the fiscal conservatives are energized. It’s almost as if the Romney campaign was lacking energy before or something.

Well, I know I’m breathless from all the excitement and coming up with something smart is going to be ridiculously difficult. Frankly, I’m just so excited and, well, teeming with energy, that I can’t really think straight. So I’m going to do a little P90X and then lay down in a hammock and try to calm down a bit. In the meantime, here’s the short list of highly-energized thoughts that have struck me in these few, electrifying hours since Paul Ryan was crowned the Republican Veep candidate.

The headline for today could also be “Mitt Romney Cedes Foreign Policy Issues in Presidential Race.” Sure, ever since the Republican Primary Show ended, Romney has been focused on the economy. His recent trip abroad was gaffe-filled and generally regarded as graceless, but “it’s the economy, stupid” and the polls show the 2012 candidates in a dead heat, so no big deal, one might say, if Romney puts most of his chips on the electoral kitchen table and talks almost exclusively about domestic issues, particularly the economy. Only, here’s the thing, international issues are still going to need debating. There’s governance to do after the election. That whole being-president thing doesn’t happen in an American vacuum. It might have been wise to choose a VP with some foreign policy credentials or some deeply respected positions on international issues. Instead, Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan is also primarily known for domestic issues, specifically the budget, and also his abs. So, two things there: one, Mitt Romney today looked at the upcoming debates and said “Eurozone crisis? Iran? Israel? China? Global trade? Global climate change? Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Syria? Boy, I don’t know. Let’s talk about something else, like maybe the economy. And the economy. We could also just talk about the economy. The one here.” And two, Mitt Romney basically admitted to the American public that he’s concerned with winning the election and not the 4 to 8 years that follow it. You know, those 4 to 8 years when he might actually have to deal with the rest of the world, too.

The GOP is energized, which is good, if you’re a Republican. But this makes Paul Ryan an even more interesting choice for candidate Romney. It’s possible that instead of Ryan electrifying Romney, he’ll simply electrocute him. Ryan’s speech following the State of the Union didn’t make a case for Ryan’s charisma or excitement factor. But he’s been the fresh new thing for the Republicans for awhile, one of the bona fide rising stars of the party. Romney, well, his singing skills aren’t great, that whole “I like trees” thing was possibly one of his most entertaining moments on the campaign trail, and Bill Maher, whether fairly or no, has referred to him as “The World’s Least Interesting Man.” So maybe Romney-Ryan won’t be the Dynamic Duo, but, if you’re Romney, do you want to run the risk of being overshadowed by the light of the newest, freshest, fittest star of the Republican party? It’s a question I would have asked if I were running the campaign.

The upside of the Ryan pick, though, is this and I think it could be good for everyone: Choosing Ryan ensures that some substance will find its way into the conversation. There will be no way to avoid talking about the budget and taxes. This is to the good. Now, for Republicans, my guess is this is the big reason they chose him. After the last election and Palingate, there had to be a smart pick for this election. It’s nearly impossible to read or listen to anything about Ryan that doesn’t include the effusive use of “serious” and “intellectual.” That’s largely due to his budget. Hopefully, there will actually be a real discussion of what Americans want for the country and how we pay for what we want. That would be refreshing.

For Democrats, if they are able to accurately and concisely slice and dice that Ryan budget up so that a fourth-grader can understand it, the choice could be like Christmas morning came early for the Blues. Matt Miller has called Ryan’s budget a “path to nowhere.” Martin Wolf referred to it as “a political fantasyland” and then said about it “You can only say that this is a revolutionary proposal. It would mean the U.S. is going back to the sort of country it was in 1900.” So further discussion about Paul Ryan and his budget, if it’s intense and if the public will sit still for it, could electrify the Democrats, Independents, and anyone else who might not cotton to a taxidermic approach to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Well, it’s a big “if:” serious policy discussions are much less entertaining than “Uz-beki-beki-stan-stan.” They’re mind-numbing in comparison to scandals, snark, and gaffes. And in that spirit, you gotta hand it to Paul Ryan. He began his campaign to become the next vice president with a gaffe of his own. “I’ve some good news and I’ve got some bad news. Why don’t we get rid of the bad news first, okay? President Obama is the president of the United States. And the good news is, on November 6, he won’t be any longer.”

Oh, Mr. Ryan, I guarantee you, even if you and Mr. Romney win the election, Barack Obama will still be the president on November 6. See, he’s the president until the new one is inaugurated. But I know, big guy, it’s been a very exciting day. Probably best to get your first Highly Public Gaffe out of the way early.


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