Barack Obama for President
The utter failure of Operation Clark County – The Guardian’s ludicrous and patronising 2004 scheme to influence the outcome of the American election by mailing Ohioans, asking them to vote for John Kerry – showed why foreigners should by trepid when seeking to interfere in the United States’ internal affairs. But to echo an odd phrase Elie Wiesel once used, I cannot not tell you something: that Barack Obama requires four more years in office, and that Mitt Romney’s candidacy has rendered him incredible.
The case for Obama
President Obama’s first quadrennial has not been without its disappointments, particularly his inability to fulfil the promise to change the very nature of Washington politics. Much time has been lost, particularly in the previous two years, to intransigence and partisan squabbling and grandstanding. The Republican Party must be faulted for this, but the President is an independent, essential actor too. Reforming the immigration, Medicare/aid, and Social Security systems in addition to passing environmental legislation like cap and trade are required for America’s advancement into the twenty-first century, and Obama has failed to achieve these things as far.
Nevertheless, Obama’s first term has been transformative in myriad ways. First and foremost, Obama prevented the United States’ slide into a massive economic depression by passing an $800 billion stimulus package, the American Investment and Recovery Act, and guaranteeing the future of the automotive industry through investment and restructuring. The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, with the aim of ensuring that the American people are never duped again by small print and banks and credit agencies act more transparently.
Obama’s other significant achievement was the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which makes the best of a bad system by expanding healthcare coverage to 30 million more Americans. It also provides essential guarantees for ordinary Americans that the private sector could not or refused to do on its own, including mandating coverage for pre-existing conditions and allowed under-26s to stay on their parents’ insurance.
No president has done more the advancement of equal rights for homosexuals than Obama. He shepherded through the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, allowing LGBT citizens to serve openly in the military, and his Justice Department has ceased to uphold the constitutionality of the Defence of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. Obama has also become the first sitting president to publicly endorse the idea of same-sex marriage.
On women’s rights, Obama has made some important advances. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay, Obama’s first piece of legislation, removed the statute of limitations on employees suing their companies in gender discrimination cases. His Department of Health and Human Services has mandated free coverage in private insurance for contraceptives, expanding access for millions of American women as part of preventive care.
In terms of foreign policy, Obama was correct to show a little humility in order to rebuild bridges in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East, regions in which President Bush’s personality did not travel well and his reckless persona did much to damage key bilateral relationships. Obama’s focus on international terror and away from traditional nation-on-nation conflicts enabled the elimination of both Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, and the reduction in the capability of al-Qaida, while a shift against American unilateralism and towards multi-national coalitions through the United States forced the international community to live up to its responsibility to protect, preventing genocide in Benghazi and resulting in the fall of Colonel Gaddafi. Also in the Middle East, Obama handed sovereignty over Iraq back to its people by concluding the withdrawal of American armed forces, and the troops will be home from Afghanistan by and large by 2014.
A Call for an Anglo-German Axis
At the heart of Europe, the Franco-German alliance is withering in the heat of the crisis. The ox and the ass have traditionally pulled in unison, dragging behind it other member states towards tighter fiscal and political integration. Central to the success of this pairing has been a series of shared economic and social values, as well as the personal relationship between the country’s two leaders: Mitterrand and Kohl; Chirac and Schroeder; Sarkozy and Merkel.
Now, the beasts of burden are pulling in opposite directions, stalling the pace of development at a time when the continent needs to be more united than ever, precisely because of a bridge between the philosophy and ideology of the French President and German Chancellor. Angela Merkel believes in the necessity of austerity and structural economic reform – privatisation, social security reform, labour reform – in nations like Greece and Portugal which binged on cheap credit in the early years of the euro and are now sick with the consequences of their reckless actions.
François Hollande, on the other hand, stresses the need for deficit spending and urgent cash injection from bodies including the IMF and EU, in order to prevent Europe from slipping into a double-dip recession. The nation that would more likely than not have to pay for all this additional output would, of course, be Germany. There is compromise to be had – a limited amount of short term deficit spending for countries that agree to longer-term reforms akin to Germany’s Hartz and Treuhand programmes, as well as the full implementation of the Fiskalpakt – if only the leaders of these traditional enemies can reach it.
In the continued absence of such a deal, a historic opportunity has presented itself for a realignment of power in Europe. For, whilst Hollande demands that Europe spend additional monies it does not possess (to use Merkel’s thinking), David Cameron is enacting at home the very kind of austerity measures and cutbacks Merkel would wish the southern European nations might soon adopt themselves. Thus, it is conceivable that Britain and Germany might formulate a new power axis which could lead to the construction of a better Europe based on fiscal and personal responsibility, individual freedoms, and democratic principles.
France, But for the Grace of God
And there, but for the grace of God, goes France.
Two things to take away from last night’s debacle. First, in electing Francois Hollande over Nicolas Sarkozy by a margin of 51.63 to 48.37 (closer than many of those who observe the French political scene predicted, though I if it counts for anything, never believed that Hollande might win in a landslide), the French people have done everything possible, in effect, to destabilise the European Union, the single currency, and the Franco-German relationship.
Already, Hollande is speaking of ripping apart the vital fiscal pact that will guide Europe along a necessary path to financial balance and responsibility — this will surely only frighten and weaken international markets, further chipping away at a single currency with already crumbling foundations.
Second, in his victory speech, Hollande said:
France chose change in electing me president.
It seems evident, however, that in turning down austerity and a messy renegotiation of the social contract, the French people have in fact flat out rejected any sort of change (if Sarkozy was genuinely offering that, I suppose we will never know), in favour of more of the same: tax hikes, artificial job creation, and deficit spending. In this respect, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Considering France’s Strategic Vision: An Essay
TOULOUSE – Lunchtime on any given sunny Thursday in the centre of Toulouse perfectly encapsulates everything Anglo-Saxons envy about the seemingly-idyllic French mode de vie. In the middle of the working day, employees take off an hour or oftentimes more to enjoy a two-course formule du midi or a seasonal plat du jour on a picturesque square like Place St. Georges, all for under $25 including a glass of cold, crisp white wine, locally sourced of course.
When contrasted with the ugly way in which workers in London and New York unhinge their jaws in order to swallow whole pre-packaged sandwiches on the dash back to the office – all in the name of additional, precious trading nanoseconds – the more languid and dare it be said chic Gallic lunch is made to seem all the more desirable.
And why ever not? I am not one to suggest for a moment that the French need to give this practice up, for it does sit rather well with me. Nor should they be required to surrender the practice of retreating from the cities during the month of August when they become veritable sweatboxes. But the Anglo-Saxon with a mild bout of indigestion can at least take some comfort in the fact that said Gallic lunch is a milder expression of all that is wrong with the present state of the French economy and society, one which is stumbling blindly towards a condition of stagnation and sclerosis.
Zbigniew Brzezinski neatly summarises the state of play in his bright if occasionally problematic new work, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. When addressing the subject of Europe, its position in the world, and relative decline since 1973 in comparison to the United States, Brzezinski asserts that the continent has become “too self-satisfied”, and that it acts “as if its central political goal is to become the world’s most comfortable retirement home” (Brzezinski 2012, 36).
One of the faults with Brzezinski’s work is over-generalisation. Evidently, state largesse is not a continent-wide problem. The United Kingdom government, for example, has recently embarked on a series of austerity measures that seek to scale down the size of the welfare bill as a proportion of government expenditure. And, in Germany, the Hartz reforms of the early 2000s also restricted access to state benefits, reducing the claimant period for the full unemployment allowance to in the most part 12 months, down from 36.
Rather, when Brzezinski references “Europe” in the abstract, he clearly has in mind the profligate nations of Catholic Europe, as it were: those nations like Italy and Spain with bloated deficits and engorged welfare states. Though it has not suffered as awfully as these other Mediterranean states, France could just as easily be indicted for the crime of wanting to become “the world’s most comfortable retirement home”. It is a country which, in the immediate, is suffering the consequences of having a weighty and immobile public sector at a time when the economy needs to be nimble and agile in order to recover and renew itself in this globalised era of interconnectedness and economic interdependence.
Her extensive state structures which own sizeable chunks of ostensibly private companies and employ directly 5.3 million workers, or 20% of the labour force, allowed France to buffet the worst of a recession which destroyed other economics more exposed to massive fluctuations in the health of the private sector. But as the United States is pulling itself out of the doldrums, albeit ever-so-slowly, and the Germans are experienced their lowest rates of unemployment since unification in 1990, the French economy is struggling to pick up steam whilst the rest of the continent suffers the consequences of the single currency and sovereign debt crises.
Le Meilleur Homme: Sarkozy in Light and Shade
There is no perfect candidate running for the French presidency. Then again, putting it mildly, since the inculcation of the Fifth Republic France has never had a perfect President.
The first, Charles de Gaulle, was a quasi-fascist military ruler with a nasty prejudice towards the non-French and Anglo-Saxons in particular. He took power under the cloud of a coup d’etat led by Jacques Massu and other fifth columnists in Algeria, and clung to power by bullying other nations and over-egging the narrative of French resistance during the Second World War. De Gaulle, it should be noted, led this so-called effort from a palatial structure on Carlton Terrace in St. James’s, and subsequently spent the better part of his presidency deriding the very peoples and nations who liberated France not once but twice from foreign aggression during the twentieth century — he was, then, the very epitome of an armchair general.
Those who followed de Gaulle could hardly be as pompous, but the French hardly witnessed a great deal of improvement in the calibre or moral fortitude of their leaders. François Mitterrand was a Petainist sympathiser who laid flowers annually on Armistice Day on the grave of the leader of the Vichy government, a puppet regime which collaborated with the Nazis and was complicit in the Shoah. Mitterrand also hid a secret daughter whom he had fathered with his long-time mistress, opposed German unification following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and presided over such disasters as the genocide in Rwanda (a former French colony and the most Catholic country in Africa), the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, and the HIV contaminated blood scandal.
He was succeeded by Jacques Chirac, a neo-Gaullist race-baiter with ideas above his station, who lead the effort in by-proxy support of Saddam Hussein, in opposition to the long-postponed liberation of Iraq. A French court convicted him late last year of “diverting public funds and abusing public trust” during his tenure as Mayor of Paris — Chirac used the city government as a platform to construct a powerful political and electoral organisation with himself at the centre, using public funds to pay members of his party for jobs which did not exist.
I say all this not just out of a combination of glee and disgust, but to put into some sort of context the competency which marked the Sarkozy presidency above all others, relatively speaking of course. This is not say to that he hasn’t been a little embarrassing, at times seeming as if he was stumbling from one comedic incident to the next: from his drunken post-lunch press conference after meeting Vladimir Putin, to a contretemps out on the stump where he castigated a citizen for neglecting to shake his hand.
The problem for Sarkozy is that these moments which should be considered trifling and ethereal have been blown up, as to make seem more monumental than they truly are, and paint a portrait of Sarkozy as an aloof, bumbling fool, not fit to inhabit the Élysée Palace. This goes some way to explaining why, based upon the most recent survey conducted by French polling organisation CSA, Sarkozy would lose in a runoff with the PS candidate François Hollande by 20 points.
Obama: Failure to Lead
It can’t have escaped your attention, my dear X, that throughout the past week, as the debate over the budget and the debt ceiling has ground on so listlessly that one man has been missing from it all: the President of the United States. Obama’s exit from the scene came last Monday, when at the conclusion of a rather pointless, message-less televised address, he ended with a plea for all Americans to call their congressmen. He may as well have said “I give up”.
Obama’s response to a legislative impasse known to have been coming from months has been abject, even in a situation where everybody’s hands have a touch of the Lady Macbeth about them. The Tea Party are a most agitative and tedious bunch, but they are in the ballpark of correct to criticise the President for not putting a single plan into writing. This is all the more irksome, considering he failed to endorse the Bowles-Simpson Plan – a deficit reduction package conceived by a commission appointed by him – or the dealings of the Gang of Six, a pack of Senators who negotiated directly with his own vice-president.
Instead, he has taken to constantly appealing for compromise, compromise, compromise, yet has given no shape or direction to what this deal might look like. It’s been a bad week – one which, all in all, ought to bury six feet under the myth clung to by America’s right that he is some kind of monomaniacal leftist out to totally recast the United States as a European social democracy with universal state-run healthcare and a vast federal bureaucracy.
The president may be a liberal – in the American sense of the word – but above all he is a consensus builder, a man who seeks to bridge divides and heal wounds in all the arenas in which he has operated, from editing the Harvard Law Review, to pounding the streets as a community organiser in Chicago, to cooperating with Dick Luger in the Senate on arms control legislation.
It was obvious really from the get-go. After all, Obama was said to have been greatly influenced in terms how he might approach his presidency by Abraham Lincoln, and in particular Doris Kearns Goodwin’s history Team of Rivals. So just as Lincoln appointed William H. Seward, the man whom he defeated to capture the Republican nomination in 1860, as his Secretary of State, Obama felt it necessary to nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton to that exact same office in his administration.
But the difference between Lincoln and Obama is clear. Lincoln may have consorted the opinions of others – in particular Seward and Salmon P. Chase, his Secretary to the Treasury – but he possessed a very clear vision which was to keep the Union together at all costs and stop the spread of slavery in the newly incorporated territories in the west. Furthermore, Lincoln was willing use the full extent of his executive power, including some extra-constitutional means (which are not advisable for Obama with regard to the Fourteenth Amendment) to bring about the ends he sought.
Obama, we know now, does not seem to wish to use the office of the presidency as a branch which directly inputs legislation into governmental meat grinder. Rather, his preferred strategy is to merely articulate his goal – be that to increase the numbers of people who possess health insurance, or end discrimination against homosexuals in the military – and leave it to Congress to come up with a way to put his idea into a workable Bill.
To say that this method has produced mixed results would be an understatement. The Affordable Care Act will come to be seen as the major achievement of his first term, but by handing over responsibility to Congress for its creation, the process became so protracted as to swallow the first year of his presidency. Obama ended up losing most of his political capital and handing fodder to Republicans who hit back at his party in the following midterm elections. Moreover, in the heat of it all, he threw overboard the one brilliant idea that might have actually lowered insurance premiums for everybody: the public option.
People within the administration have dubbed this tactic “leading from behind” – a phrase his Republican opponents and their allies in Media have eaten up and drooled over like a dog with a Snausage. And, when it comes to foreign policy, his timidity and caution have cost the international community dearly. That we have been in Libya for four months without success is due in no small part to Obama’s dithering prior to intervention, when compared to the bold leadership displayed by Cameron and Sarkozy. Gaddafi was granted time enough to move his assets, military and fiscal, about strategically to the point where finding him has become almost impossible. As was the case with the liberation of Iraq, the delay in striking the first blow has only made an inevitable mission lengthier and costlier.
His penchant for prudence, compromise and deal-making has also had the effect of upsetting and alienating many within his own party whom he is supposed to lead. While he was able to enact the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (again, the work of the Senate), Obama threw Democrats under the bus during the lame duck session last year when he committed to extend all and not just some of the Bush tax cuts, further limiting rates on the wealthiest Americans to record lows. And indeed, when it comes to gay rights, Obama is leading the Democrats from behind, adopting a negative if ‘evolving’ position on the question of gay marriage.
So it is that the American left finds itself in the position of having to look towards the Senate and the House, to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, for guidance during this time of turmoil (something nobody should wish on anyone). President Obama has failed to lead, and has since his defiant GOP-bashing press conference last Friday, and the pleading, empty speech the following Monday, been missing in action.
A perception now is beginning to ferment in the minds of not only the American right but his natural allies as well, at this most critical juncture in his presidency, that he doesn’t want to take the reins and pull back the horses tugging the United States towards that ever-present metaphorical cliff. Obama would be wise to pick up Team of Rivals once again, and remember that Lincoln won the Civil War not because he constructed a cabinet of all the talents, but because was able to control it.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand”, Lincoln told his party so marvellously and pointedly upon accepting the nomination to run for the Senate in Illinois. Another former Senator from the Prairie State would be wise to heed these words. A president separated from his country shall not stand, and nor will a party bereft of its leader.
A call for a liberal stimulus
The economy is flat-lining. The data which emerged today demonstrated that the United Kingdom’s GDP grew by only 0.2pc – at, as near as makes little difference, a stagnant rate. This pace of increase (if you can call it an increase) is all the more worrying when taken within the context of the previous two quarters, when the 0.5pc growth from January-March 2011 was cancelled out by a 0.5pc fall during the previous quarter, October-December 2010.
In other words, in the last nine months, our nation’s economy has basically grown by 0.2pc. The whole thing is moribund, and it reflects badly on the government’s present fiscal stubbornness. Make no mistake: it is correct that George Osborne pursues these cuts, but it is clear that attempts to raise revenues through spending reductions in the tax code have hindered growth in the private sector.
This is fatal, since an expansion of the market was intended to be the miracle elixir which saved the country as we reduced the size of the public sector. Moreover, if this stagnancy in the private sector continues into the latter half of the year, we risk being left behind our European partners, even as they struggle to tackle their mutual currency crisis. Note that in the first quarter of this year, as we equalised our losses in Q4 of 2010, France grew by 0.9pc and Germany 1.5pc.
What is surely called for then, at this critical juncture, is a small concession from the Conservative government, what might best be phrased as a short-term liberal stimulus. This would consist of some form of tax cut which seeks to boost the economy by empowering the individual and increasing their spending power.
Not only would such a move be more ideologically preferable than any kind of Keynesian jobs programme or further bout of top-down spending splurge, but it would be more affordable too. At a time when the Conservatives are slashing public expenditure, there simply exists no surplus of funds to direct at improving economic performance such a manner.
The desired result can best be achieved, as it turns out, by an opposition initiative, pioneered by the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. Back in June, Labour’s chief economic spokesman called for a reverse in the VAT rise initiated by George Osborne – from 20pc back to 17.5pc, in other words – at a cost of £13 billion. Balls claimed such a bold gambit would “help to stimulate consumer spending, bring down inflation and boost job creation” – he was right then, and his initiative would be more than welcome now.
Ronald Reagan: A Republican, Now As Always
Democrats in Washington have a new plaything: quoting Ronald Reagan. As the nation edges its way towards August 2 – the day when the United States will hit its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling – liberals have found a fresh appreciation of the Gipper, taking it upon themselves to reference him whenever possible, as a way one might suppose of embarrassing obstinate Republicans who are blocking efforts to craft a compromise agreement that would raise said limit whilst cutting spending and finding savings in the tax code.
The passage Democratic legislators seem particularly enamoured with comes from a letter Reagan wrote to then- Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker in 1983, at a time when the United States was again coming up against its debt ceiling. It says in part:
The full consequences of a default – or even the serious prospect of default – by the United States are impossible to predict and awesome to contemplate. Denigration of the full faith and credit of the United States would have substantial effects on the domestic financial markets and the value of the dollar.
Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus took it upon themselves to draft their own memo to colleagues from across the aisle around this quote:
We hope you will take President Reagan’s message to heart and put what’s best for America’s economy ahead of gaining a short-term political advantage. Let’s not hold the jobs and economic security of the American people hostage to an agenda that will only cause long-term harm to our great nation.
Such appropriations of Reagan’s musings have led some commentators to assert that, in today’s environment, the former President both would not have been nominated on the Republican ticket and in fact would probably have been a Democrat. Writing in the Washington Post, Dana Milbank argues that the present class of Republicans have “little regard for the policies of the president they claim to venerate”. “Half a century after he left the party,” Milbank concludes, “the Gipper is winning one for the Democrats”.
By and large, all of this is absurd. Ronald Reagan raised the debt ceiling, and indeed he even raised taxes on more than one occasion when faced with a ballooning deficit. But primarily Reagan was a small government conservative who believed steadfastly that government was the problem and not the solution to the nation’s ills. Now, as always, Ronald Reagan would be a Republican.
The fatal mistake Milbank makes in particular is to compare Reagan to the Tea Party Republicans. In his op-ed, he goes to great lengths to point out that not only did Reagan elevate tax rates, but also expanded the size of government via increased spending in on defence and Medicare to the stage where federal outlay was “as high as 23.5pc and never below 21.3pc of GDP”. The House’s most recent pet project, the “cut, cap and balance” Bill, mandates that government spending be permanently set at 18pc.
It is true that Reagan probably wouldn’t be a member of the Tea Party, but the flaw in Milbank’s line of argument is to compare the actions of an official who was forever an executive, in Sacramento and in Washington D.C., with a bunch of fringe legislators. The presidency in its scope and accountability demands a certain level of moderation, which causes whoever enters the office to introduce and support proposals and initiatives which might be incongruent with their most basic philosophy or indeed the manifesto on which they were elected.
Would we, for example, call the most recent President Bush a Democrat because he signed into law the Medicare prescription drug programme? or No Child Left Behind? At once, are we likely to see down the road Republicans wrestling from the left the legacy of President Obama because he reneged on his promise to close Guantanamo? or his opposition to same-sex marriage?
By contrast, legislators of both parties have always distinguished themselves from their presidents in the way that they are able to maintain rigid orthodoxies, and cast votes according, without the prospect of having to account of their decisions later to the American people. In this regard, the Tea Partiers of 2010 bear some resemblance (though only if you squint) to the Class of ’94, who led by Newt Gingrich blocked President Clinton at every turn to the point of a government shutdown.
The Reagan of 1983 who wrote the letter to Sen. Baker even noted this phenomenon in his diary. His entry from November 1, 1983 reads:
Last night the Republican Senate very irresponsibly refused to pass an increase in the debt ceiling which is necessary if we’re to borrow and keep the government running. I sounded off and told them I’d veto every d—n thing they sent down unless they gave us a clean debt ceiling bill.
Mike Huckabee perhaps phrased it most clearly in this regard. “People speak of Reagan as if he was absolutely steadfast,” he told Fox News’ Bill Hemmer. “He was in his convictions, but you have to govern in a way that is different than the way you campaign”.
At this time, as Republican leaders in the House such as John Boehner and Eric Cantor obstruct progress on a resolution to America’s debt crisis, a select band of merry men in the Senate including “Dr. No” Tom Coburn are attempting to drag the GOP in the other direction towards a compromise. Were Reagan alive today, it is evident that he would stand, as a Republican, with the latter, those who possess clear principals but operate in accordance with that great cliché of government that politics is the art of the possible. Reagan indeed would not be a Tea Partier – the record shows that he wouldn’t be a Democrat, either.