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The Penultimate Day of a Dreary Eight Years

Today is President Barack Obama’s last full day in office, and it’s been a long wait. We were loudly grousing about the man back when he was first elected on a waft of hope that he was some sort of messiah, we groused again when he ran re-election on the argument that his opponent was some sort of devil, we’ve been grousing ever since, and we feel obliged to grouse once again as he leaves office with unaccountably high approval ratings.
Obama’s more die-hard admirers have already unleashed newspaper serials and hour-long video tributes and full-length hardcover books explaining how great he was, almost as great as promised back in the days when he was talking about how sea levels would fall and the national debt would decline and all that unpleasantness with Islam and the rest of the world would surely be worked out, but the case is hard to make at the moment when Donald Trump is about to be inaugurated as president.
All the testimonials point out how very bad the economy was when Obama took office, and how not -so-bad it is upon his departure, but we’ve paid enough attention that we’re not impressed. The economy was indeed in a deep recession starting some four or five months before Obama was inaugurated, but recessions always end and this was officially over before Obama could get his literally more-than-a-trillion-dollar “stimulus package” passed, and despite all the spending that had been added on top of the literally-more-than-a-trillion dollar Troubled Asset Relief Program that Obama and pretty much everyone else from both parties voted for the recovery has been the weakest on post-war record, and although the headline unemployment rate looks pretty good the broader measure that includes part-timers and the unemployed and those out of the workforce and is buried deep in story hasn’t fully yet fully recovered. Massive new regulations for the financial industry and a major government power grab of the health care sector almost certainly had something to do with the sluggishness, and what growth did occur can largely be attributed to an oil boom that Obama tried to thwart. There was also a stock market boom, but that was because the Federal Reserve kept pumping money that had nowhere to go but the stock market, where it naturally wound up exacerbating all that economic inequality that Obama had vowed to end with his tax hikes, and although he has Bill Clinton’s luck that the bubble won’t burst until the next administration we’re not counting it as a major accomplishment.
Accomplishments are even harder to find in Obama’s foreign policy, although that doesn’t stop his admirers from trying. No one dares say that Obama’s Libyan adventure or that “red line” he in drew in the Syrian sand have worked out at all, and his past “reset” appeasement of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is suddenly unfashionable in liberal circles, but they do try to cast the deal with Iran where we give them billions of dollars and they sort of pretend not to be building a nuclear bomb as a breakthrough victory. The decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq helped win Obama re-election, and after four years it gets occasional mention, although even his most ardent admirers must admit there have been unhappy consequences. Obama’s efforts on behalf of the European Union and Israel’s more liberal political parties and Latin America’s more Marxist types have not proved fruitful, China and Russia and Iran and all the usual troublemakers are more troublesome than they were eight years, and we can’t think of any of international relationships that have been improved. His most ardent admirers point to his good intentions, which we’ll conceded for the sake of argument, but the only thing that good intentions wins is a Nobel Peace Prize.
All the promises of a post-racial and post-partisan and altogether more tolerant society have also proved hollow. The past eight years of attempts to impose racial quotas on law enforcement and school discipline have made life more dangerous for many black Americans and understandably annoyed a lot of the white ones, Obama’s declared belief that politics is a knife fight and the Democrats should bring a gun and the Republicans can come along for the ride so long as they sit in the back of the bus because “I won” has heightened partisan acrimony, and although we’ve got the same sex marriages that Obama claimed to oppose in both of his runs he’s fueling the intolerance for anyone who doesn’t want to bake a cake for the ceremonies.
Although it’s good to at long last see it all come to an end after today, we expect the effects to linger for a while. The next president has already promised a more-than-a-trillion-dollars stimulus package, plenty more market interventions, health insurance for everybody that’s going to be cheaper and better than what was promised in Obamacare, and no messing around with those Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid entitlements that are the main drivers of the national debt. So far Trump’s Russian policies make Obama’s seem downright Truman-esque, and our erstwhile allies in Europe are as alarmed as ourselves, and although Trump also seems a friend of Israel we have no idea what he has in mind for the rest of the Middle East. As far as that hyper-partisan atmosphere of guns and knives and relegating enemies to the back of the bus and the might of an electoral victory making right, we see little improvement ahead.
We’ve already been grousing about Trump for more than a year now, and expect to do so for another four years or more, but we’ll always attribute some share of the blame to Obama. Those who cheered on Obama’s racialist and partisan and intolerant rhetoric should have known what they were bound to provoke, and those who cheered on the executive actions and bureaucratic harassment of political enemies are about to find out what it’s like to be on the receiving end, and despite all promises about making America great again none of us are likely to find out it works out any better than the Obama administration’s blather about hope and change.

— Bud Norman

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This is the “This Week” That Was

Last week’s Democratic National Convention seems to have “bounced” nominee Hillary Clinton back into a slight lead in Real Clear Politics’ average of all the polls, and over the weekend Republican nominee Donald J. Trump got off to an awful start on “This Week.”
For those of you who are either in bed or heading to church during the program, which are the only two places any self-respecting person would be at such an ungodly time, “This Week” is the American Broadcasting Company’s version of those oh-so-serious Sunday morning political shows. It’s hosted by George Stephanopolous, a former Clinton family consigliere who never quite got over the habit, and Republicans have long groused with considerable justification that he strives to make them look stupid. Trump, alas, made the job all too easy.
The interview starts promisingly enough, with Trump boasting that his acceptance speech drew more viewers than Clinton’s, and gloating that “I have one of the great temperaments” and that it is such a “winning temperament” that it beat 16 Republican challengers while Clinton has a “bad temperament” that is such a “weak temperament” that it could barely beat a self-described socialist such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Things started going downhill, though, when Stephanopolous asked “What exactly is your relationship with Vladimir Putin?”
Rather than accusing Stephanopolous of asking a loaded and entirely unfair irrelevant question that is so typical of the biased “lame stream” media, which would have been hard for even Trump to do with a straight face, Trump answered that “I have no relationship with him.” Which of course allowed Stephanoplous to mention the three separate occasions when Trump had boasted that he did have a relationship with Putin, to which Trump offered the explanation that “Because he has said some nice things about me over the years. I remember years ago, he said something — many years ago, he said something very nice about me. I said something good about him when Larry King was on. This was a long time ago, and I said he is a tough cookie or something to that effect.” When Stephanopolous was once again so rude as to mention those three more recent public occasions when Trump did boast of speaking with Putin during their appearance on the same “60 Minutes” episode, Trump acknowledged that their separate interviews on the program were conducted on different sides of the world and demanded to know “What do you call a relationship?”
Asked about the Democrats’ criticism of Trump’s recent statements that he would not necessarily honor America’s North American Treaty Organization obligations, and might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Trump explained that “They only fear one thing, losing the election.” He explained his remarks on Crimea by saying “I’m not going to be mean to anybody. George, you know me pretty well. I don’t bow,” and clarified his position on NATO by saying “I’m all in favor of NATO. I said NATO is obsolete,” and then claimed credit for the organization’s anti-terrorism stance. Asked why a call for arming Ukrainian rebels to resist Russian occupation was dropped from the Republican platform, Trump insisted he was not involved but admitted that his people were.
At which point the interview went even further awry.
“Well, look, you know, I have my own ideas,” Trump said. “(Putin’s) not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand, he’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.” To which Stephanopolous reasonably asked, with a rather stunned look on his face, “Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” Trump had a rather stunned look on his own face when confronted with this well-known and indisputable fact, but recovered well enough to say “OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet.”
This was followed by a critique of the Obama administration’s Russian policy, which is indeed a ripe target for a counter-attack, but it’s hard to imagine any other Republican in the history of the party making a bigger mess of it. Pretty much any other Republican in the history of the party would have noted that Obama and the Secretary of State who is now the Democratic nominee had betrayed our Polish and Czech allies by reneging on a missile-defense treaty and then offered that ridiculous “reset” button and promised on a hot mic to offer even greater “flexibility” in a second term, which clearly encouraged Russia’s recent revanchism, and even wound up selling Russia a big chunk of America’s uranium reserves shortly after a couple of generous contributions to the past Secretary of State and current Democratic nominee’s phony-baloney “family foundation,” all of which Trump neglected to mention. Pretty much any other Republican wouldn’t be bogged down by Trump’s even friendlier policy pronouncements, though, or his own sizable contributions to that phony-baloney “family foundation,” or his instinct to link the failures of the Obama administration to that free-loading bunch of bums in a NATO pact that Trump is all in favor of and has said is obsolete.
As bad as it was, the Russo-American issue wasn’t even the part of the interview that generated the worst press of the weekend. Trump was also asked to respond to a speech given at the Democratic convention by Kzir Khan, the father of a Muslim Army Captain who died fighting for America in the Iraq War, who had criticized Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigrants. Pretty much any other Republican would have gratefully acknowledged the family’s sacrifice, and respectfully made the case that American policy must nevertheless realistically assess the costs and benefits of admitting large numbers of Muslim immigrants that will surely include less patriotic sorts. Pretty much none of them would speculate that the father’s speech had been written for him, or gratuitously note how the fallen soldier’s mother had stood silently by her husband during his speech, or add that “She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” and certainly none would have compared their efforts to get rich to the sacrifice of a Gold Star family.
There was also a claim that the National Football League had written a letter to Trump expressing their concerns about the presidential debate schedule, which the NFL promptly denied, and which will probably be more widely noted than any of the rest of it because the NFL is such a big deal. All in all, this week got off to a bad start for Trump on “This Week.”

— Bud Norman

The Conventional Wisdom and the Race Ahead

There’s a seasonal shortage of news at the moment, with the politicians at home for the holidays and the stock markets still mulling over the Black Friday sales figures and the rage of the Ferguson rioters seemingly chilled by the early winter weather, so the pundits are availing themselves of the opportunity to speculate about the next presidential election. Our powers of prophecy are limited, especially about matters two years away, but lacking a more urgent topic we will be so bold as to venture a few thoughts about the matter.
The conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton will inevitably be the Democrats’ nominee, but that was also the conventional wisdom at this early point in the ’08 election cycle and we all know how that turned out. According to the prevailing theory Clinton has all the name recognition, organization, and money, and no one in her party has the resources to challenge her, but all of that was also true in ’08. We are suspicious of conventional wisdom and prevailing theories in every case, but especially so about Clinton’s inevitability.
Since ’08 Clinton has added a four-year stint as Secretary of State to her lengthy resume, but even the State Department’s well-paid spokeswomen have trouble naming anything good that came of it while her critics can point to the “reset” with Russia and the failure to provide adequate security to the diplomatic staff in Benghazi and the scapegoating of a filmmaker in the aftermath among a number of very bad things came of it. The rest of that lengthy resume looks even less impressive than it did ’08, too. Her legal career was mostly known for her ability to parlay her husband’s more well-heeled constituents into clients until an audio recording surfaced of her chortling about the child rapist she had ruthlessly defended despite being convinced of his guilt, intermittent publicity tours by Monica Lewinsky will continue to remind a scandal-weary public that her time as First Lady was mostly spent defending her husband’s serial adulteries when she wasn’t firing White House travel agents for her friends’ benefit or attempting to foist some crazy health care scheme on the public, and at this point no one can remember anything from her brief time in the Senate except for some very harsh-sounding orating against a George W. Bush administration that will also be largely forgotten by the time ’16 rolls around. Her more recent career as a memoirist has proved equally disastrous, with countless gaffes and some surprisingly negative press accompanying her publicity efforts. In ’16 she’ll be eight years older than she was when the Democrats rejected her in ’08, and no more appealing.
The conventional wisdom further holds that this time around there are no challengers to Clinton who have the necessary credentials to be president, but this overlooks the fact that last time around the Democrats preferred a candidate with no qualifications for the job whatsoever. That “weak bench” all the pundits seem to mention is filled with equally unqualified potential challengers, which means that none of them will have less to explain on their shorter resumes, and any of them could at least claim to be a fresher face. One shudders think that a Saul Alinsky groupie such as Clinton is insufficiently liberal for the primary voters and caucus-goers of the Democratic Party, but her lucrative ties to big business and reputation for high living leaves her vulnerable to a challenge from a further left that is consumed with anti-corporate sentiment and obsessed with income inequality. Many of our liberal friends are already enthused by the possibility of nominating Massachusetts’ Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the fake Indian who will have been in the Senate for as long as the last Democratic nominee had been and is best known for delivering a ridiculous speech arguing that because government builds roads and hires cops businesses should be obliged to pay for any cockamamie idea the government comes up with.
Over on the Republican side, the conventional wisdom holds that the Republicans have a deep bench but no front-runner. Such mixed sports metaphors leave us unsure if this is a good thing or not, but we think it means Republicans are in better shape than the other team. The deep bench part strikes us as true enough, as the possible candidates include such a diverse lot as Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, as well as Rep. Paul Ryan as well as several past and present governors such as Texas’ Rick Perry, Michigan’s Rick Snyder, Ohio’s John Kasich, New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Florida’s Jeb Bush, and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Throw in pediatric neurosurgeon and non-politician Ben Carson and other a few dark horses who are bound to emerge, and it’s a very competitive field. If none are thought to be inevitable, that only suggests there is much to choose from.
The conventional wisdom is partial to one of the Senators or Christie or Bush, but that’s because the conventional wisdom always puts too much stock in name recognition, organization, and money. Cruz is beloved by conservatives for his willingness to employ all the constitutional means at his disposal on behalf of his stands, but those same tactics will make him easily caricatured as an out-of-control right winger. Paul is too much an isolationist for a party that hasn’t been isolationist since Eisenhower. Rubio has hurt himself with a soft-on-illegal immigration policy. Ryan was was Mitt Romney’s running mate and has since been perceived as too willing to make deals. All are unavoidably associated with Washington, which is currently regarded unfavorably by both parties as well as independents, and even the Republicans inclined to favor gridlock can argue that no one in Congress has made it gridlocked quite enough. The conventional wisdom’s infatuation with Christie and Bush is downright fanciful, as both have stacked out important positions that are anathema to the typical Republican primary voter. Christie’s suspicious bridge closings and infuriating embrace of President Barack Obama are enough to remove him from his contention, but he’s also shown a soft-on-Islamism streak and has views on gun control and immigration that are too northeastern for a party dominated by the south, middle-west, and west. Bush has also ruined his chances with his sentimental views on illegal immigration, and his outspoken support for a ridiculous Common Core that would federalize school curricula is another problem, and at this point the party faithful seem to have had enough of Bushes or any other dynastic line of politicians.
Our guess is that one of the other governors will likely wind up with the nomination. Several have impressive records of balancing budgets and promoting economic growth and not bossing their citizens around, all of which will have more appeal to the average voter than any Democrat’s promise to equalize incomes and enforce proper attitudes regarding homosexuality or whatever the civil rights cause of the moment might be, and several have made this case in states usually inclined to vote for Democratic presidential nominees. All have faced ferocious opposition from the public sector unions and legal establishments and press in their home states, so any debilitating scandals they might have should be well known by now. We’re most intrigued by Walker, who has won election and staved off a recall effort and then won re-election in a traditionally liberal state despite the best efforts of well-funded and ruthless enemies, and somehow retained a reputation for being polite.
The same conventional wisdom that admires Christie’s confrontational style regards Walker politeness as bland, even if Walker has proved himself adept at the most bare-knuckle sort of political combat, but we think the public might be inclined to appreciate a more low-key and accomplished candidate after eight years of soaring rhetoric and crashing results. Although we forget the title, we recall a novel that featured a political consultant character saying that the only campaign themes that had ever been invented were “bright shiny day” and “back to basics,” and after two terms of bright shiny days the Republicans could do well with the alternative. The Republicans face daunting demographic challenges and a stubborn presidential electoral map and the usual disadvantage in the mass media, as even the conventional wisdom can see, but with their deep bench and the opposition’s flawed front-runner they might have a fighting chance.

— Bud Norman

Friends and Enemies and Their Proper Treatment

There was little mention of it in the American press, which was understandably preoccupied with the the president’s executive orders regarding illegal immigration and the upcoming race riot in Missouri and other pressing domestic matters, but last week President Barack Obama thoroughly annoyed Australia.
En route back from China’s Asia-Pacific conference, where he’d grandly announced a deal with the host country that would reduce America’s carbon emissions in exchange for a guffawed promise that in 16 years the Chinese would consider doing the same pointless damage to their own economy, Obama stopped his jetliner in Australia to continue his efforts against anthropogenic global warming. During a speech in Brisbane that was added at the last minute to the president’s schedule he made repeated references to climate change, spoke in worried tones about the ecological health of the Great Barrier Reef, and.seemed to criticize Australia for inefficient use of energy. Australians, the vast majority of whom recently voted in a conservative government because of the depressing economic effects of the previous government’s cap-and-trade policies, and who have taken expensive steps to ensure the ecological health of the Great Barrier Reef, and whose fondness for their freedom of mobility around their vast empty country can only be explained by the “Mad Max” movies, understandably took it as an insult. One of the big Australian newspapers found that the American embassy staff had advised against the speech, reported that the Australian Prime Minister and other officials were not given the usual diplomatic courtesy of an advance copy, and noted that “Historians of the US-Australia relationship are unable to nominate a case of a visiting president making such a hostile speech for the host government.”
Such disrespect for America’s most stalwart allies has been a consistent trait of the Obama administration. It started with his decision to return a bust of Sir Winston Churchill to Great Britain and honor its queen with an I-pod full of his own speeches, then went on with the reneging on a missile defense deal with Poland and the Czech Republic, continued through the undiplomatic treatment and anonymously foul-mouthed descriptions of Israel’s Prime Minister, and is still playing out over the XL Keystone Pipeline and a conspicuously nit-picky enforcement of the norther border and other petty issues with Canada, among numerous other examples. The “open hands” and “reset buttons” have been reserved for such adversaries as the Iranians and Russians, who have benefitted greatly such friendliness while offering little in return but bomb-making and land-grabbing trouble, which seems a peculiar way to conduct a foreign policy.
At this late point in his presidency, however, Obama seems to care little about public opinion in any country except perhaps the ones where he hopes to redistribute the west’s wealth. The same cap-and-trade policies that the Australians rejected were also rejected by America’s Congress even when Nancy Pelosi was Speaker of the House and Harry Reid controlled a supermajority in the Senate, but Obama continues to impose as much of them as he can through executive action. The long delays in construction of the XL Keystone Pipeline that are infuriating the Canadian government are also infuriating the American public, but expect a veto that will bring at least another two year’s delay. An executive order to stop enforcing America’s immigration laws for an estimated five million illegal aliens is proving so widely unpopular that even such formerly steadfast supporters as the black American punditry and the “Saturday Night Live” writing staff are critical, but he seems ready to defend it to the point of a politically advantageous government shutdown. If the Australians feel insulted by the president’s blatant disregard for their opinions, at least they have some idea how Americans feel.

— Bud Norman

A Chill in Summer

President Barack Obama took office with a promise to “reset” Russo-American relations, and it now seems to have been reset all the way back to the Cold War.

The president even admitted as much Tuesday on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” the sort of venue which the celebrity-in-chief prefers for discussing issues of national importance, when he said of the Russian government “There have been times where they slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality.” On Wednesday he reiterated the point with some old-fashioned chilliness of his own, announcing the cancellation of a planned summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

There are good reasons for the snub, several of which he explained to Leno in between the light banter. While conceding that Russia continues to be cooperative on supplying American troops in Afghanistan and with counterterrorism operations, both of which are very much in Russia’s self-interest, Obama cited the asylum granted to a former National Security Agency contractor who had leaked classified information, a recent crackdown on homosexuals, and a generally poor record of protecting everyone’s human rights as examples of what’s ailing the relationship. He also put Charleston, South Carolina, Jacksonville, Florida, and Savannah, Georgia, on the Gulf of Mexico, a fundamental transformation of America that no one anticipated, but never mind. The president seems to have a suddenly realistic understanding of our adversarial relationship with Russia and is showing some toughness about it, even if it is on “The Tonight Show,” and that is a welcome development.

It shouldn’t have taken so long, though, and a bit of realism and toughness earlier on might have averted this the current predicament. During his first presidential campaign Obama promised a friendlier foreign policy than George W. Bush had pursued, which he would suggested was the reason for any difficulties America might be having with any country, and during his first term he acted as if he believed it. He dispatched his Secretary of State to Moscow with a misspelled “reset” button to demonstrate their good intentions, backed out of a missile defense treaty with Poland and the Czech Republic to provide further proof, agreed to generous concessions in arms negotiations, and was overheard giving assurances to Russian diplomats that he would be even more “flexible” in a second term. While pursuing that second term he ridiculed his Republican opponent for suggesting that America had an unavoidably adversarial relationship with Russia, employing a moldy old “Seinfeld” gag to taunt that the ‘80s were “calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” Until the Russians granted asylum to secrets-leaker, which Obama seems to have taken personally, they had every reason to think they could do as they pleased and count on American flexibility.

The tough new approach might not yield any immediate benefits, but it can’t do any more harm that the old squishy one. Flexibility didn’t win the last Cold War, and it won’t work in this one.

— Bud Norman

Resetting the Russian Reset

One shudders to think how Vladimir Putin might become any more openly contemptuous of Barack Obama. The Russian president hasn’t yet publicly called his American counterpart “boy,” but that seems likely to occur any moment.

Putin’s latest expression of contempt is his decision to dispatch a flotilla of seven Russian warships and an unknown number of marines to the Syrian port of Tartus, part of a long effort to thwart western attempts to remove the dictatorial regime of Bashar Assad or at least stop his ongoing slaughter of his countrymen. Russia’s efforts on behalf of its longtime ally have also included vetoing a series of resolutions in the United Nations’ Security Council, supplying arms to Assad’s forces, undermining economic sanctions with continued trade and direct assistance, and providing a fig leaf of international legitimacy.

The Syrian issue hasn’t been Putin’s only opportunity to demonstrate his disregard for America and its allies. Putin has also obstructed American and western efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, threatened to withhold crucial natural gas supplies from Europe, bullied former Soviet client states such as Georgia, and provided diplomatic and economic support to such international troublemakers as Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez. In order to leave no doubt about his disdain for America and its allies, Putin also skipped the recent G-8 economic summit, and during his last direct meeting with Obama he was ostentatiously scornful that even the CBS reporters noticed.

Many commentators have noted that Putin’s anti-American shenanigans have occurred despite Obama’s extraordinary efforts to accommodate the Russian. One of Obama’s first foreign policy efforts was to have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton present the Kremlin’s diplomats with a “reset button” representing his belief that any disagreement between the United States and Russia was surely the result of the hated George W. Bush, and even though the button had an incorrect translation on it the administration’s subsequent decisions have all reflected the same view. Obama broke past promises to Poland and the Czech Republic regarding missile defense, brokered a nuclear arms limitation treaty that was very much to Putin’s liking, and even gave a phone call to congratulate Putin on his widely disputed election. In a particularly embarrassing moment, Obama was even overheard assuring the Russians that he’d be even more “flexible” should he win re-election.

The more likely explanation for Putin’s brazen belligerence is that it occurred because of, rather in spite of, Obama’s accommodating stance. History is replete with thugs such as Putin who have perceived such friendly overtures as a sign of weakness to be exploited, and we can think of no instances where they have responded in kind and abandoned their pursuit of a perceived national interest. Putin has explicitly stated his contempt not only for the weakness of Obama but of the entire western world that has elevated such men to positions of power, most recently in a speech to his diplomatic corps when he stated that “Domestic socio-economic problems that have become worse in industrialized countries as a result of the (economic) crisis are weakening the dominant role of the so-called historical West.”

Hearing such criticisms from the likes of Putin is always infuriating, but especially so when they seem to be right.

— Bud Norman