Monday, January 9, 2017

Obama: "The Best Is Yet To Come"

Former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak wrote this on his Facebook page this weekend:
My heart sank Friday as I walked down Pennsylvania Av in Washington and saw a giant reviewing stand had been built in front of the White House. Eight years ago this is where I was so filled with pride when I saw our new President Barack Obama, and his family, as they were about to enter their new home. Knowing it was now about to house Donald Trump was almost more than I could take.

I felt so hollow when I thought about all we have had, and what we will lose. But something really wonderful happened next and I hope it gives hope to those of you who love President Obama as much as I do.

I went through security into the White House because the President invited me in to come by for a few minutes before he left office. I turned the corner to the Oval Office to see him looking more energized than he has in months, and with that huge smile on this face that has lifted so many of us so many times.

I gave him a copy of my book, told him that now that he's mastered this POTUS gig he was ready for the big time as a Mayor. Then I handed him a note from my wife Megan O'Hara recalling what it felt like nine years ago when we stood in the Des Moines Convention Center, just after he won the Iowa caucus, and the announcer said: "And now the next First Family of the United States of America."

I was really overwhelmed as I was telling him that because it was such a moment of pride, a beginning of a long path to him getting to the White House and, now it was over. He put his arm on my shoulder and looked at me intensely, saying, "We aren't done yet."

I wish I could have bottled the look in his eyes so all the people I know, and don't, who feel dishearten now, who are so fearful of what comes next, and who feel a sense of loss, know he is absolutely not, under any circumstances, going to stop fighting for what we believe in.

"I'm going to take a little vacation," he said, "get a little sun, but then we are right back at it. "

He told me about the work he will be doing on youth and families, on getting more people engaged in voting, on protecting liberties. Then he said the words that meant the most to me: "The best is yet to come."

I believe Barack Obama was the greatest President of my lifetime, but as I heard him talk, I remembered he is about more than political office. At so many times---his amazing speech about race in the first campaign, his powerful words after Sandy Hook, his second inaugural when laid out the imperative of attacking climate change---he has moved us beyond politics to elevate our values. This is his great opportunity now; just as America faces a crisis of values, a great debate about who we really are at our core, he will be speaking not as just a politician, but as a moral leader. In many ways we need that even more today than great politicians.

In the couple minutes we had left we talked about what I am learning in my own evolution from political to civic leader; about what you can and can't do in and out of office, and how much can be done if each of your statements aren't filtered through the cynicism people have for politicians.

We said goodbye and I walked out of the White House, past that reviewing stand, but didn't feel the same sense of dread. Donald Trump will be my President and I won't try to delegitimize him even though many, including Trump, tried to do that to Obama for eight years. But we can fight for what we believe, and fight back, hard, when we see something wrong. And, remembering that look in the President's eye when he told me, "We aren't done yet", and remembering all we have seen during his remarkable Presidency, I know he will be with us every step.

Later that night Megan and I went to a farewell party at the White House. I talked to Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan who has gone back to Chicago to work on youth violence prevention, to former Attorney General Eric Holder who is organizing opposition to unfair redistricting around the country, former White House political director and Ambassador Patrick Gaspard who is working on citizen engagement with George Soros, Gabby Giffords is fighting the gun violence that robbed her and so many others of so much, activist actors like Alfre Woodard who has been through waves of social movements saying she's now ready for the next phase. Obama has been a President but Obama is also a movement that isn't done on Jan 20.

Back in 2007, when I was working with activists around the country in the Draft Obama campaign, I wrote a blog on a national website saying: "Barack Obama is a great man but this is not about him. It's about setting off a movement." The next day he called my office, said that's the way he saw it, that he was community organizer who wanted to light the spark, and he recruited me to volunteer for what was then a long-shot campaign. I still feel that way, and it's clear he does, too.

And after those few wonderful minutes with him as he gets ready to leave office, I feel, like him, that "the best is yet to come.

Monday, September 12, 2016

What We Should Be Talking About on the Anniversary of 9/11

Fifteen years ago this Wednesday Congress passed the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) Against Terrorists. Just three days after the attacks on 9/11, it passed unanimously in the Senate and only one member of the House - Rep. Barbara Lee - voted against it. If you have some time, I suggest that you listen to her accounting of that decision that was part of RadioLab's broadcast called "60 Words" (the number of words contained in the AUMF).

The reason those 60 words are so important is because they changed the way this country deals with terrorism - and it is still in effect 15 years later. If you remember, prior to that time, terrorists like Ramzi Ahmed Yousef (WTC bombing) were apprehended and tried in our court system. The 2001 AUMF launched the Bush/Cheney "global war on terror" which not only led to the war in Afghanistan, but was used to justify things like torture and the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Of all the legacies of President Obama, his handling of that war is likely to receive the most mixed reviews. But his critics on the left have consistently missed the mark by arguing against his approach from the perspective of civil liberties. That ignores the sea-change that happened when this became a war. From that perspective, it would be helpful to review what has happened and where we stand today.

It is interesting to note from the get-go that President Obama attempted to re-name the "global war on terror." Take a look at how Dick Cheney reacted to some of the differences he was noticing.

Cheney was concerned that the President was talking the country back to dealing with terrorism as a law enforcement problem. A couple of months later in May 2009, he and Obama gave dueling speeches about their different approaches to combating terrorism. In his speech, President Obama talked about ending the use of torture and his plan to close Gitmo. But he also said this:
Now let me be clear: We are indeed at war with al Qaeda and its affiliates. We do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat. But we must do so with an abiding confidence in the rule of law and due process; in checks and balances and accountability. For reasons that I will explain, the decisions that were made over the last eight years established an ad hoc legal approach for fighting terrorism that was neither effective nor sustainable -- a framework that failed to rely on our legal traditions and time-tested institutions, and that failed to use our values as a compass.
In other words, the war would continue - but within the bounds of "our legal traditions and time-tested institutions." As such, it was the 2001 IUMF that AG Eric Holder relied on to defend the administration's use of drones.
In response to the attacks perpetrated – and the continuing threat posed – by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, Congress has authorized the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those groups. Because the United States is in an armed conflict, we are authorized to take action against enemy belligerents under international law. The Constitution empowers the President to protect the nation from any imminent threat of violent attack. And international law recognizes the inherent right of national self-defense. None of this is changed by the fact that we are not in a conventional war.
Then in May 2013, Obama gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency. Here is how he introduced the conversation we need to be having:
Now, make no mistake, our nation is still threatened by terrorists. From Benghazi to Boston, we have been tragically reminded of that truth. But we have to recognize that the threat has shifted and evolved from the one that came to our shores on 9/11. With a decade of experience now to draw from, this is the moment to ask ourselves hard questions -- about the nature of today’s threats and how we should confront them...

So America is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us. We have to be mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society. But what we can do -- what we must do -- is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend. And to define that strategy, we have to make decisions based not on fear, but on hard-earned wisdom. 
The President went on to discuss repealing the 2001 AUMF.
So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.
The headlines after that speech were astounding:

The End of Perpetual War
"This War, Like All Wars, Must End"
Obama Lays Out a Plan to End the War Against Al Qaeda 

Unfortunately that speech was soon forgotten as the threat of ISIS emerged and the war on terror was given new life. That is the state of the situation that President Obama will pass on to his successor.

If Hillary Clinton wins in November, she will face the same kind of excoriation that Republicans have launched at Obama for any terrorist attack either here at home or in places like Paris. Rather than rallying around our Commander-in-Chief (as the entire country did after 9/11), it is clear that Republicans will use an attack to inflame anger and fear against her. Because of that, Clinton's administration will need to be just as vigilant or be blamed for the consequences. So it is hard to imagine any president making another move to end the war on terror. In the wrong hands, it is a recipe for disaster.

As President Obama outlined in 2013, that poses some difficult questions - ones that need to be answered based on hard-earned wisdom rather than fear. The threat of terrorism is real (although not nearly as large as too many Americans assume). But being perpetually at war poses a threat as well. On the anniversary of 9/11, that is what we should be talking about.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Parallels with JFK

Rebecca Onion reminds us that this flier was making the rounds in Dallas, Texas in the days before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

It is hard to avoid the parallels to what we are witnessing today. The one big difference is that we're not just hearing that kind of thing from fringe groups - it is coming directly from the Republican presidential nominee.

That prompted me to go back and re-read something Frank Rich wrote back in 2011 titled, "What Killed JFK: The hate that ended his presidency is eerily familiar."
But if the JFK story has resonance in our era, that is not because it triggers the vaguely noble sentiments of affection, loss, and nostalgia that keepers of the Kennedy flame would like to believe. Even the romantic Broadway musical that bequeathed Camelot its brand is not much revived anymore. What defines the Kennedy legacy today is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down. After JFK was killed, that hate went into only temporary hiding. It has been a growth industry ever since and has been flourishing in the Obama years. There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two men, but the most telling is the vitriol that engulfed both their presidencies.
One has to wonder if this kind of hatred is endemic to the "American experiment" or if it is something we will eventually overcome. Luckily, it is not embraced by a majority of people in this country. But based on what we have been witnessing over these last 8 years, it is obviously still alive and well in some quarters and is being exploited by a narcissistic bully in this presidential election.

I've been thinking lately that I don't mind the idea that Republicans would disagree with President Obama or Hillary Clinton on policy issues related to things like the size of government and the role of this country around the globe. Those are things that we can discuss. What is unacceptable are accusations like the one's contained in that flier about "treason;" when opponents suggest that Democratic leaders aren't patriotic and are accused of giving aid and comfort to the "enemy" (no matter how that is defined). That isn't about political disagreement - it is about hatred being exploited by leaders in order to gain power. I suppose that as long as citizens in this country are willing to be exploited in that way...the hatred will continue.

A Tale of Two Ground Games

I recently ran across two stories about what things look like on the ground in Southwestern Ohio - a state where the RCP polling average gives Hillary Clinton a 2.6 lead over Donald Trump.

The first comes from a blogger at Daily Kos with the screen name mt41w. He attended the opening of a field office in "deeply red" Mason.
The fact that Hillary’s ground game is focused, extremely competent, hard-working and ready to GOTV was plain with the opening of the Mason, Ohio office on Wednesday evening August 10th. This was one of seven offices “opening for business” Wednesday in Ohio...

Anyhow, the house was literally standing-room-only. In the room where I stood and sweated — the A/C was overwhelmed — I counted 35 people, including the Channel 12 CBS Local News crew and cameraman. And I was in the smaller of six rooms in this converted house on Mason’s Main Street. I could see more people outside on the porch and sidewalk unwilling or unable to brave the crowded rooms, so I’d take a guess of perhaps 100-125 people in attendance...

The diversity as well as the size of the crowd was impressive. Lots of veterans of prior campaigns, and based on my chats, lots of newbies as well, the overriding theme being outright fear and rage at the danger Donnie presents to all of us.

Other take-aways:

* Everything is Organized (as I expect Hillary would want it to be) and clear!
* Enthusiasm is huge! The house wasn’t just full to over-capacity, it was rocking.
* Lots of encouragement and lots of posted advice on how to talk to people when phone-banking
* Mix of ages, backgrounds, genuine diversity — what makes the USA great.
Next comes a report from Jeremy Fugleberg about the Trump operation in Southwestern Ohio.
With the presidential election 90 days away, the Donald Trump campaign is scrambling to set up the basics of a campaign in Hamilton County, a key county in a swing state crucial to a Republican victory, a recent internal email obtained by The Enquirer shows.

The campaign has yet to find or appoint key local leaders or open a campaign office in the county and isn't yet sure which Hamilton County Republican party's central committee members are allied with the Republican presidential nominee.

"If they are against us, we just need to know," wrote Missy Mae Walters, Southwest Ohio regional coordinator for the campaign.

Even campaign materials, such as signs and stickers, aren't yet available.

"We have been promised they're on their way," she wrote.

The campaign plans to open 25 Trump "Victory Centers" statewide, she said, but a planned Monday opening of an office in Kenwood got held up waiting for a legal department sign-off.
It's hard to say whether this lack of organization is the result of incompetence or something else. Here is what Trump told Eric Bolling last night:
“I don’t know that we need to get out the vote,” the Republican nominee concluded. “I think people that really want to vote, they’re gonna just get up and vote for Trump. And we’re going to make America great again.”
Now that the conventions are over, this campaign comes down to debates and ground game. With growing speculation about whether or not Trump will actually show up for the former, this is the state of affairs in the crucial swing-state of Ohio on the latter. I hope we'll see more reporting like this on the ground over the next few months. It tells an important tale that is missing from the focus on polling and big rallies.

How President Obama Moved the Overton Window to the Left

I first started paying attention to Barack Obama about the time he won the Iowa primary in 2008. Prior to that, I figured he was just another insurgent candidate who would make a name for himself by challenging Hillary Clinton - but would ultimately lose.

The closer I looked, the more intrigued I became. Eventually it seemed to me that he was a very different kind of politician and that most pundits were viewing him through a lens of what they expected, rather than being genuinely curious. That's how I started my blogging career - by trying to understand who this guy was and how he operated.

From the beginning, one of the few pundits that seemed to be peeking behind the curtain of conventional wisdom was Richard Wolfe. That's why it is no surprise to me that - as we near the end of Obama's second term - he has written one of the most intriguing essays about how this President has contributed to the implosion of the GOP.
It may seem too early to call, but we already have a winner in the 2016 election.

He’s someone the pundits wrote off long ago. An improbable outsider who rode an insurgent wave to snatch the nomination from the establishment. An unconventional politician whose raucous rallies underscored his appeal to voters far outside his party base.

His name is Barack Obama. And he can thank the freak show that is Donald Trump’s Republican party for restoring his stature as a unifying, national leader with a moderated and mature approach to a complex and unstable world.

Eight years ago, Obama represented an existential threat to the Republican party, and not just because he was going to lead the Democratic party to win the White House and Congress by large margins.

No, Obama’s biggest threat was that he could realign American politics, shifting it fundamentally towards progressives for a generation...

So the GOP leadership chose to make Obama unacceptable, unpalatable and un-American...They would not reform their policies or consider the root cause of their defeat. Instead, they would oppose Obama on everything, well before he tried to pass a giant stimulus bill or healthcare reform...

If your political priorities are the total defeat of a single politician – not the advancement of your own policies through debate or legislation – then you are already in pretty desperate shape. You render it impossible to compromise with your opponents, and you fan the flames of extremism that will burn anyone in the center.
That is basically what I have been writing about the Obama era for quite a while now. I would simply add one thing - Wolfe does a great job of describing how Republicans reacted to this President. But he leaves out how Obama played a role in framing their options.

Conventional wisdom holds that President Obama was naive in pushing for bipartisanship during his first term when the Republicans had crafted a strategy of total obstruction. Liberals were angered that he continued to offer fig leaves towards compromise when he should have known that the opposition had no intention of meeting him halfway.

But let's imagine for a moment that the President had taken their advice and only offered progressive policy proposals. Republicans would have continued to obstruct. But they could have done so by aligning with more centrist positions themselves. By inhabiting large swaths of the political continuum, Obama left them no choice but to become more extremist in their obstruction.

That is what I have often called "conciliatory rhetoric as a ruthless strategy." In a sense, it gave the President a win/win position in the long term: either Republicans worked with him and fulfilled his vision of being a unifying figure in American politics, or they backed themselves into an ever more extremist corner - threatening their survival as a party.

After having laid that foundation in his first term, Obama implemented his "pen and phone" strategy and developed a succession plan during his second term.
One senior Obama adviser says the administration “To Do list” after 2012 included thinking “about how you lock in the Obama coalition for Democrats going forward. Because it’s not a 100 percent certainty that they come out for the next Democrat.” Part of the answer, the adviser said, was to pursue aggressive unilateral action on “a set of issues where we have an advantage … and believe are substantively the right thing to do” and dare Republicans to oppose him.
Liberal critics of this President usually claim that he has failed to move the Overton Window to the left by not making enough use of the bully pulpit. What I propose is that there is more than one strategy for shifting that window. It took a while to come to fruition - but Obama has shown an alternative for how that can be done.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Re-Imagining the Dream

To listen to most politicians and pundits these days is to believe that the American dream - if not dead already - its certainly facing imminent demise. Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency by saying, "The fact is, the American Dream is dead..." Liberal web sites provide data and charts documenting that it is gone. A recent documentary that is a compilation of interviews with Noam Chomsky is titled: Requiem for the American Dream. In other words, in a country defined by political polarization, this seems to be the one thing that both conservatives and liberals agree on.

I'm not sure that I know exactly what it is we mean when we talk about the American dream. If it refers to the size and trajectory of the middle class, the data and charts I linked to up above certainly point to a demise. But at the beginning of that documentary, Chomsky suggests that we have seen similar trajectories in American history (i.e., just prior to the Great Depression), but that what distinguishes then from now is the loss of hope we are witnessing today. To the extent that optimism is the primary characteristic of a "dream," that is a crucial part of the equation.

It might be true that large swaths of the American people have given up on the dream. But it is interesting to note who hasn't. Last week Pew Research released some new data from their 2015 National Survey of Latinos in an article titled: Latinos Increasingly Confident in Personal Finances, See Better Economic Times Ahead. Despite lagging the U.S. public in general on measures of income and wealth, 81% of Latinos expect their family's financial situation to improve over the next year. If the definition of the American dream is the belief that your children will be better off financially that you are now, that dream is still alive for 72% of Latinos.

That kind of optimism is not unique to Latinos. A recent survey by the Atlantic found the same results from African Americans and Asian Americans. It is interesting to note that author Ellis Cose went from writing The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care? in 1994 to The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage in 2012. In commenting on the latter book, Cose notes statistics similar to the one's I've cited above and says this:
Over the past few years, pollsters repeatedly have corroborated the phenomenon. Whereas whites are glum, blacks are upbeat—which is remarkable since the economic crisis has hit African-Americans with particularly brutal force. Employment among black men, for instance, has dropped to an all-time low. When I asked Harvard Business School professor David Thomas about the CNN poll, he laughed. “It’s irrational exuberance,” he said.

Certainly, the Obama presidency has fueled euphoria in black circles. But even before Obama came on the scene, optimism was building—most notably among a new generation of black achievers who refused to believe they would be stymied by the bigotry that bedeviled their parents.
Some might argue that the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement signals a return to the days of anger and rage. There might be some truth to that. But it is also a sign that young African Americans aren't going to put up with the kind of police abuses that have been going on for decades. It is their hope that they can finally change this phenomenon that fuels their anger.

This optimism among people of color is something that should ignite the curiosity of the political class. Just as we've been fascinated by the anger (and sometimes despair) coming from the white working/middle class, it would behoove us to learn more about the optimism being expressed by people of color. Far be it from me to attempt an exhaustive explanation. I'd simply note something James Baldwin said during a debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge in 1965 on the question: "is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?"
Until the moment comes when we the Americans, we the American people, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country—until this moment, there is scarcely any hope for the American dream.
That's why Matt Thompson is on to something important when he writes this:
The eternal story of the dream’s decline reflects a profound nostalgia. To believe the dream is dying, you have to believe it once flourished. But there’s an alternate story of the dream, in which the dream is an ideal that remains unobtained. It is not dead, so much as it is unborn. When the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. articulated his own dream, deeply rooted in the American dream, he wasn’t talking about a desiccated remnant of an idealized past, because to him, no version of that past could be ideal. He was, instead, imagining a better future.
For people of color, the American dream happens only when this country come to grips with the "we" that includes them. That is why, on the occasion of his death, President Obama highlighted these words from Muhammed Ali:
“I am America,” he once declared. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”
Apparently that American dream is still very much alive for people of color. Think about that the next time a politician or pundit tells you that this election is all about the anger and discontent of American voters - who assume that the dream is dead or dying. If we're talking about a dream that flourished in our past, they're right...that one is going, going, gone. But perhaps there is another one that is in the process of being born.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Adapting to Change Requires Curiosity and Creativity

Our 24/7 news cycle that is addicted to the crisis of the moment and the horse race of electoral politics doesn't do a good job of recognizing the tectonic shifts of change that are undergirding our lives.

The attacks of 9/11 followed by the Great Recession changed the way a lot of (mostly white) people feel about America in ways that aren't articulated often enough. We are experiencing demographic change that is unprecedented, are nearing the end of two terms for our first African American president and are likely on the cusp of electing our first female president. All of that is happening as we are experiencing the effects of globalization and automation in our economy while technology becomes more central to how we live our everyday lives. Finally, we are just beginning to feel the effects of climate change - with effects that most of us are unable to predict.

We can play the political parlor game of trying to suss out which of these is the most responsible for the dynamics of our current politics, or we can notice that the combination of those changes is affecting all of us. When Kevin Drum wonders why both political parties are afraid to talk about an improving economy and Gregg Easterbrook asks when optimism became uncool, I suspect that it is the weight of all of these changes that is the answer. But Easterbrook makes an interesting observation.
Though candidates on the right are full of fire and brimstone this year, the trend away from optimism is most pronounced among liberals. A century ago Progressives were the optimists, believing society could be improved, while conservatism saw the end-times approaching. Today progressive thought embraces Judgment Day, too...

Pessimists think in terms of rear-guard actions to turn back the clock. Optimists understand that where the nation has faults, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
The Tea Party responded to these changes by saying that they wanted to "take our country back." When Donald Trump talks about "making America great again," that's essentially what he is saying too. That is a pretty common reaction among human beings to is something to be feared and avoided.

Traditionally progressives have faced challenges like this by working on ways to move forward rather than pinning for days past. To do so requires things like curiosity and creativity. The past can be examined objectively, but the future is still uncertain. Ideologues too often stand in the way of curiosity and creativity. Here is how then-Senator Barack Obama talked about that back in 2005:
...the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, "true" progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward. When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive "checklist," then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems.
I believe that this is why the President so often says that it is young people who inspire his optimism. They tend to be free of the ideologies and baggage of the past. Instead, they bring fresh eyes to the challenges we face going forward. Progressives need not fear the changes we are experiencing today when we tap into all of that.

Monday, May 16, 2016

How Hillary Clinton's Foreign Policy Will Differ From President Obama's

As I've said before, the concern I hear most often about Hillary Clinton from Democrats is her more "hawkish" views on foreign policy. On the campaign trail, that isn't addressed by her opponents when they resort to soundbites about how she is simply in favor of "regime change." That is an attempt to use an old frame to describe something that is much more complex when it comes to the challenges we face in the world today.

That is why I was interested in a discussion between Jeffrey Goldberg and Mark Landler where they delve into the differences between Clinton and Obama on foreign policy.  I suspect that they might be on to something here:
Landler: But my argument is that if you look at their instincts and reflexes and the way that they are apt to respond to a crisis, they just come at it very differently, and this is in part because they come from very different places both in terms of time and geography. Obama grew up in the ’70s, and he had this itinerant existence, living in Indonesia for a period—

Goldberg: Looking at America from the outside in -

Landler: Looking at America from outside in, as sort of an expatriate’s view of America -

Goldberg: And Hillary is literally in the middle of America looking out -

Landler: Yes. She’s in the heartland, but also in the 1950s, with a conservative Navy petty officer father. And so she viewed America as a country that was a force for good, that American interventions generally could be a positive rather than a negative thing. And I think Obama was much more skeptical about that.
That was reminiscent of something Clinton said to Goldberg in their interview back in 2014 when discussing the current "jihadist" threats (her words) in the Middle East.
I’m thinking a lot about containment, deterrence, and defeat. You know, we did a good job in containing the Soviet Union, but we made a lot of mistakes, we supported really nasty guys, we did some things that we are not particularly proud of, from Latin America to Southeast Asia, but we did have a kind of overarching framework about what we were trying to do that did lead to the defeat of the Soviet Union and the collapse of Communism. That was our objective. We achieved it.
That was her attempt to suggest the need for an "organizing principle" in our foreign policy beyond "Don't do stupid stuff." While it is important that she acknowledged that "we made a lot of mistakes," she seems to suggest that they were justified because we won the Cold War. But it was the myopic vision of seeing struggles for democracy as nothing more than communist threats (the organizing principle) that led us to make some of the biggest mistakes in our country's history. After 9/11, the Bush/Cheney administration introduced another organizing principle - the Global War on Terror - that was their justification for everything from the Iraq War to torture to Guantanamo. In light of all that, "Don't do stupid stuff" is not a bad alternative when it comes to organizing principles.

From there, it was disappointing to see both Goldberg and Landler consistently employ the Washington Playbook to analyze the similarities and differences between Obama and Clinton. I won't point to a specific example because it permeates the entire discussion. For both of them, the assumption is that any form of U.S. intervention in global affairs can only take the form of military intervention. In discussing what a Clinton presidency would do differently than Obama when it comes to Syria, it is presented as a matter of whether or not she will change course and attempt to implement a military solution.

In order to understand why that is such a shallow view of the alternatives, it is important to keep three things in mind when it comes to the civil war in Syria:

1. It began during the Arab Spring when the people of Syria rose up in protest against the dictatorial abuses of the Assad regime.

2. Once Assad responded by using the military to violently suppress the people, the civil war became a proxy war, with Russia and Iran joining the regime to fight against what was viewed as a Sunni uprising supported by many of the Gulf States.

3. That chaos gave ISIS an opening in Syria.

What President Obama knows is that even the U.S. military can do little other than escalate the situation in Syria - especially when it comes to how Russia and Iran would respond. So what is the alternative? The key to long-term success in Syria is ending it as a proxy war being engaged by Russia, Iran and the Gulf States. That means diplomacy takes center stage with things like the Iran nuclear deal and the Syrian peace talks. Those can be seen as "interventions" in the Syrian civil war, but were unaddressed as such by Goldberg and Landler.

What would be interesting to explore with Hillary Clinton is whether or not she agrees with President Obama's goal (as expressed to David Remnick) of a "new equilibrium" in the Middle East.
Ultimately, he envisages a new geopolitical equilibrium, one less turbulent than the current landscape of civil war, terror, and sectarian battle. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if Sunnis and Shias weren’t intent on killing each other,” he told me. “And although it would not solve the entire problem, if we were able to get Iran to operate in a responsible fashion—not funding terrorist organizations, not trying to stir up sectarian discontent in other countries, and not developing a nuclear weapon—you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.
What is clear is that, if elected to be our next president, Hillary Clinton's approach to foreign policy will be different in some complex ways from what we've seen from Obama. But it is difficult for many of us to understand what that will look like if all we hear are either campaign soundbites or analysis that is limited to the assumptions dictated by the Washington playbook.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Playing the Woman Card on Foreign Policy

After the recent primaries, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of playing the woman card. In response, she said "deal me in." The examples Clinton used in connection to that remark were all related to domestic policy. But as I've suggested in the past, we also need to aspire to a more feminist foreign policy.

When I talk with my Democratic friends about the 2016 presidential election, this is the concern about Clinton that always comes up: is she too much of a hawk on foreign policy? That question was confirmed recently by Mark Landler's article in the New York Times Magazine titled: How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk. It only heightened the concern about Clinton's tendency to favor military intervention - especially as the Middle East continues to be such a global hot-spot.

What is interesting to note about Landler's article is that it is entirely constructed around what President Obama called the "Washington playbook." In other words, it assumes that the best way to judge Clinton's approach to foreign policy is to focus on her views about the military. That is especially interesting given that she was Secretary of State (as opposed to Secretary of Defense), where her role was primarily diplomacy. In order to get a full picture of what a Clinton presidency might look like with regards to foreign policy, it is important to look at her full record in that office.

Here is what Secretary Clinton said on International Women's Day in 2012:
The United States is committed to making women and their advancement a cornerstone of our foreign policy not just because it’s the right thing to do. Investing in women and girls is good for societies, and it is also good for the future prosperity of countries. Women drive our economies. They build peace and prosperity and political stability for everyone—men and women, boys and girls. So let us recommit ourselves to a future of equality.
In her book Hard Choices, Clinton talked about the role of women in forging peace.
When women participate in peace processes, they tend to focus discussion on issues like human rights, justice, national reconciliation, and economic renewal that are critical to making peace. They generally build coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines and are more likely to speak up for other marginalized groups. They often act as mediators and help to foster compromise.
That aspect of Clinton's work as Secretary of State has gotten much less press. But one of the things she and President Obama developed was the first-ever National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security. Here is a description from the introduction:
The goal of this National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security is as simple as it is profound: to empower half the world’s population as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace in countries threatened and affected by war, violence, and insecurity. Achieving this goal is critical to our national and global security.

Deadly conflicts can be more effectively avoided, and peace can be best forged and sustained, when women become equal partners in all aspects of peace-building and conflict prevention, when their lives are protected, their experiences considered, and their voices heard.

As directed by the Executive Order signed by President Obama entitled Instituting a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security, this Plan describes the course the United States Government will take to accelerate, institutionalize, and better coordinate our efforts to advance women’s inclusion in peace negotiations, peacebuilding activities, and conflict prevention; to protect women from sexual and gender-based violence; and to ensure equal access to relief and recovery assistance, in areas of conflict and insecurity.
Clinton described her work on that plan in Hard Choices:
I spent years trying to get generals, diplomats, and national security policymakers in our own country and around the world to tune in to this reality. I found sympathetic allies at the Pentagon and in the White House, including Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. State, USAID, and Defense got to work on a plan that would change the way diplomats, development experts, and military personnel interact with women in conflict and postconflict areas. There would be new emphasis on stopping rape and gender-based violence and empowering women to make and keep peace. We called it a National Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security.
As Gayle Tzemach Lemmon documented back in 2011, much of this work relied on what she called "Clinton’s knack for personalizing foreign policy." She gave examples of how the SoS made it a centerpiece of everything from online discussion groups in Egypt during the Arab Spring to conversations with heads of state and interagency task force meetings with other members of the Cabinet. But here is how Clinton defined one of her main challenges (from Hard Choices):
We had to push tradition-bound bureaus and agencies to think differently about the role of women in conflicts and peacemaking, economic and democratic development, public health, and more. I didn’t want [the Office of Global Women’s Issues] to be the only place where this work was done; rather I wanted it to be integrated into the daily routine of our diplomats and development experts everywhere.
Lemmon discussed one of the ways Clinton addressed that:
For her part, Clinton says that her ambition now is to move the discussion beyond a reliance on her own celebrity. She must, she says, take her work on women’s behalf “out of the interpersonal and turn it into the international.” At the State Department, that goal is reflected in a new and sweeping strategic blueprint known as the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), which establishes priorities over a four-year horizon. Women and girls are mentioned 133 times across the 220 pages of the final QDDR document.
That sounds a lot like the leg work her successor John Kerry put in to developing a focus on climate change in the State Department - something that eventually led to the Paris Agreement.

I am not suggesting any of this in order to completely dismiss the concerns people have about Clinton's view on the role of the military. But to focus only on that is the build a caricature of a very complex woman. If she is elected president, we have no way of knowing what kind of foreign crises she might face. We can rest assured that she will focus much of her work on engaging women both here and at home and abroad in the process of forging peace and ensuring security around the globe. That has been her commitment since she said this back in 1995 at the World Conference on Women:
If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all. As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes—the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realized.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How Change Happens

Over the weekend I watched the HBO movie Confirmation about the Clarance Thomas/Anita Hill hearings. It was painful to live through that period - and almost as painful to re-live it via this film. But the one benefit of hindsight is that we know what happened as a result of the ordeal Ms. Hill endured.
Her appearance became a catalyst for change. The following year was designated the "Year of the Woman" after women across the political spectrum ran for public office in record numbers. This was seen as a direct response to the treatment Hill received from the Senate, which was then 98 percent male...

And the spike in sexual harassment claims showed Hill was not alone. Hill's testimony helped other women identify the unwanted sexual advances they'd experienced. In 1992, the EEOC saw a 71 percent increase in sexual harassment claims, continuing throughout the decade and peaking in 2000 with 15,836 claims.
I doubt that Senator Patty Murray is the only one who responded this way:
Self-labeled as “the only preschool teacher in the United States Senate,” Murray claims she never wanted to get into national politics, but was moved to run by what she saw as blatant sexism in the Anita Hill hearings.
That story captures many of the elements for how change happens. Millions of women (and the men who care about them) were mobilized by watching an everyday injustice that often happened in secret get played out on national television for the whole world to see. It had a similar impact as video of Sheriff Bull Conor's dogs and water hoses and nightly pictures of the horror in Vietnam.

What is interesting about those examples is that none of them involved a POTUS (much less any other politician) leading the charge. As a matter of fact, most politicians don't sign on to change - much less have any success at it - until it is taken up by what Evert Rogers called the "late majority" in his theory about the "diffusion of innovation."

People like Harvey Milk and Rosa Parks were the innovators. Early adopters are the community organizers and activists who took action to highlight an issue - first garnering support from the early majority, and then finally reaching the late majority. That is the point at which politicians can take up the cause and push for change. As the saying goes, "when the people lead, the leaders will follow." That isn't a sign of cowardice, as some would claim, but the way things are supposed to work in a representative democracy.

Over the last few years I've reviewed most (not all) of Martin Luther King, Jr's speeches. What I have noticed is that not once does he direct his remarks to a president or any other politician. In other words, you never hear from him what is a common refrain in activist circles these days: "Tell Obama to ________." MLK always addressed himself to citizens - not politicians. He knew that's how change happens.

Some people were a bit aghast when Barack Obama said this during the 2008 election. It appeared as though he was comparing himself to Ronald Reagan.

But if you listen to what he's actually saying, he is validating that this is how change happens. His analysis is that Reagan changed the trajectory of our politics "because the country was ready for it." Obama dismisses himself as a "singular figure," and instead implies that the country is - once again - ready to change its trajectory. The seeds of that were visible when Democrats re-took the majority in the House in 2006. That was followed up by the election of Obama, along with (for a few months at least) a 60 vote majority in the Senate.

Of course, Republicans met that movement for change with fear-mongering, obstruction and gerrymandering of House districts following the 2010 election. Those tactics worked to not only halt progress, but to discourage people who eventually became cynical instead of hopeful about change.

But the overall principle still stands. It is not a POTUS who will lead change. Pressuring them to adopt the policies we want to see enacted is a byproduct of winning over the late majority to our cause. In other words, instead of sending a message to a politician, try talking to your co-worker or neighbor or family member. That's how change happens.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Southern States Do Not Distort the Primary

At the end of the last Democratic debate, Dana Bash asked Sanders whether he will take the contest to the convention in Philadelphia if neither candidate clinches the nomination via pledged delegates. Sanders responded by saying that he plans to win the nomination outright. But then he injected something that both he and his campaign staff have said frequently.
Look, let me acknowledge what is absolutely true. Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South. No question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country. That's the fact.
For the last several weeks, this is a contention the Sanders campaign has made in various forms. Most recently, the candidate told Larry Wilmore that having the Southern states vote early in the primary "distorts reality." If we combine that statement with what he said last night, the argument becomes: having Southern states vote early in the primary distorts reality because it is the most conservative part of the country. Of course, if that were true, it would hurt Sanders as the candidate who consistently lays claim to being the more progressive of the two.

I would propose that the Mountain West (where Sanders has notched up big wins lately) could challenge the claim that the Deep South is the most conservative part of the country. An analysis by The Hill on the five most conservative states turns up a mix of these two regions, giving us: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas and Mississippi. Were the primaries in Alaska, and Idaho distorted by their conservatism? The other question this assertion raises is: do more conservative Republicans in a state mean that Democratic primaries there are "distorted?"

Ultimately, the elephant in the room about this claim is that the difference between conservative Mountain and Southern states is that the Democratic electorate in the latter is made up largely of people of color - with whom Sanders performs poorly. Do people of color distort reality because they are more conservative?

It is very possible that the answer to that question is "yes." The truth is...we don't have a lot of data on that. But I would suggest that anyone who asserts that argument is assuming that a political continuum from conservative to liberal is, by default, based on how white people would construct it. For example, I would imagine that liberals in the Mountain West states would prioritize things like repealing Citizens United and challenging Wall Street, whereas African Americans in the South would prioritize voting rights, ending systemic racism and programs to lift people out of poverty. How progressive one is would be measured by their record and platform on those issues.

The whole dismissal of the South by some Democrats is also very short-sighted. Not only are Hispanics becoming a key voting bloc in many of those states, it ignores the fact that the great migration of African Americans out of that area during the Jim Crow days is now being reversed.
The quiet return of African-American retirees and young professionals has the potential to reshape the South again over the next few decades, much as the exodus to northern cities reshaped it in the 20th century.
Years ago I was taught a lesson in the different ways that white and black liberals view the South. After having been raised primarily in Texas, I decided to settle in Minnesota. That decision was influenced by a desire to escape the racism that was so blatant in the South. I was shocked and confused when my African American friends up here talked about longing to return to the South. They patiently explained two things to me. First of all, the South is "home." It's where their people are. And they long to return to that sense of community. Secondly, many of them actually prefer to deal with the outright racism of the South rather than the subtle form they experience from so-called friends and allies in the North.

The fact that Bernie Sanders insinuates that Democratic voters in the South are more conservative and distort the primary process indicates that he hasn't spent much time hearing from or thinking about the perspective of African Americans in that part of the country. That is probably true for a lot of Northern liberals. But if he's looking for an answer to the question about why he is not winning their support, this is part of the reason.

I'm Ready For This Primary to be Over

As I watched the Democratic presidential debate in New York, I wondered if anyone who was doing so was still in the process of making up their mind about who to support. Of course, we don't yet know how many people actually watched. But it's likely that most Americans didn't. Those of us who did are probably die-hard political junkies who made up our minds long ago.

The reason I was thinking about that is because this one was a lot more contentious than previous debates. While issues were discussed, no real new ground was broken about where they stand - but both candidates spent a lot of time pointing the finger at each other to identify flaws in their past and/or present positions. The object seemed to be to score a "hit" on your opponent. In other words, it shed more heat than light.

I suppose that is to be expected at this point in a campaign. But it sure seemed like the kind of debate that each candidate's supporters will score as a "win" for their side, while I'm not sure there were any real winners. The contentiousness was aimed at people who have already made up their minds and are looking for a reason to dig in their heels against the uncertainty allowed.

To the extent that this debate was aimed at New Yorkers, the burden was on Sanders to win over voters in order to reduce Clinton's lead in that state. Polling averages have her ahead by over 13 points and are likely to be pretty accurate given that this is a closed primary. I doubt that a "dig in your heels and attack your opponent" debate will change that very much.

That is why I went to bed last night thinking that I'm really ready for this primary to be over. No, that doesn't mean that I am advocating for Bernie Sanders to drop out. I've always felt that he should stay in this race as long as he wants to. I also appreciate that there are a lot of people in states to come that deserve to have their say in choosing a nominee. But when it comes to things like debates and the back-and-forth between the candidates on the trail, we've reached the point of diminishing returns and are running the risk of damaging the eventual nominee in the upcoming general election.

Speaking of November, my other thought last night was about the gulf between what Sanders and Clinton were sparring about and what the conversation will look like after the conventions. For example, the question about who is more progressive with their proposals to fight climate change is going to be a distant memory when the Democratic candidate squares off in a debate with a climate change denier who scoffs at the idea that it is more of a threat to our security than ISIS. The question about whether to raise the minimum wage to $12 or $15 will become a question about whether to raise it at all. We're in a state of suspended animation right now and reality is going to break through sometime around the end of July.

Incentivizing Change in the Largest Financial Institutions

After writing this morning about the "living wills" required from large financial institutions via Dodd-Frank, I've read some additional information about the fact that the Federal Reserve and FDIC rejected five of them yesterday. I hope you'll stick with me and follow this trail of information. The topic is sure to come up in tonight's Democratic presidential debate and it's always good to be informed.

Senator Warren released a statement yesterday about the rejection of the living wills. Here is how she begins:
Today, after an extensive, multi-year review process, federal regulators concluded that five of the country's biggest banks are still - literally - Too Big to Fail. They officially determined that five US banks are large enough that any one of them could crash the economy again if they started to fail and were not bailed out.
Based on what I've read so far, that last sentence is a bit of an overstatement of what the federal regulators did yesterday. Matt Levine provides some very helpful clarification. First of all, he gives some examples of the issues the regulators found with the living wills. JP Morgan was faulted for providing cash flow projections for the first 7 days after filling bankruptcy and the last four - but not the days in between. If you've ever worked with federal regulators, this kind of thing will come as no surprise. But it hardly rises to the level of suggesting that JP Morgan would require a tax payer bail out should they go into bankruptcy.

Levine goes on to say that projecting this kind of detail for an unknown date in the future triggered by an unknown event is not going to lead to quantifiable procedures that would ever actually be implemented. So the question becomes: why require living wills in the first place? What purpose do they serve? I found his answer fascinating from the prospective of what it takes to change the culture of a huge organizational structure.

Levin suggests that what these regulations are designed to do is force these financial institutions to - as his title suggests - "think about death."
The great purpose of the living wills, it seems to me, is to re-focus banks' attention. It's to make sure that banks, at their most senior levels, are thinking deeply and carefully and critically about the things that regulators are worried about. It's to change how bankers think. The natural state of a chief executive officer is one of optimism, growth, aggressiveness. In the current regulatory environment, they are supposed to think a bit more about pessimism, decay, defensiveness. The living wills are a way to make them think sad, nervous thoughts -- and to punish them if they don't think those thoughts as rigorously as they should.
It is interesting to compare that to how banking regulations have typically worked (or not) in the past.
...much of the rest of the banking regulatory apparatus involve substituting the judgment of regulators for the judgment of bankers, at least to some extent. The bankers think that something is a good idea, the regulators think it's risky, and the regulators make banks cut it out, or at least make it more expensive for them to keep doing it. But this is a difficult game for the regulators to win, since the bankers will always be better paid, and better staffed and more motivated. It's hard for regulators to get into bankers' heads; the bankers can always stay a bit ahead.
Levine contrasts that with what these regulations are designed to do.
The new approach isn't (just) to have regulators second-guess bankers, though obviously there's a lot of second-guessing going on when seven out of eight banks get failing grades on their living wills. The new approach is to make the bankers get into the regulators' heads, to fill banks with people who spend so much time worrying about bankruptcy that those worries bleed into the banks' regular operations.
I have no idea if this is what lawmakers had in mind when they crafted the provisions of Dodd-Frank. But as a student of both human nature and effective management, this is a much more effective way to incentivize structural change.

Dodd-Frank Continues to Work as Planned

Key portions of the Dodd-Frank bill were devoted to identifying and regulating "Systemically Important Financial Institutions" (SIFI's), which are sometimes referred to as "too big to fail banks" following the Great Recession. Throughout this post I will refer to them as financial institutions because the list of those identified includes insurance companies (i.e., AIG). The reforms contained in Dodd-Frank imposed three regulations on these companies once they have been identified.

1. Capital requirements - which require these financial institutions to fund themselves with a minimum amount of equity rather than debt. They are designed to ensure that they bail themselves out in the event of problems rather than rely on American taxpayers. Avoiding these requirements is the reason cited for why GE and MetLife recently downsized themselves.

2. Stress tests - every year these financial firms are tested for how they would perform in the event of a global recession. In 2015, 28 of them passed unconditionally, Bank of America passed conditionally and two (Deutsche Bank and Santander) failed. Firms that fail their stress tests are required to either re-submit their capital plans or are restricted in payment of dividends to their shareholders.

3. Resolution plans - these are typically called "living wills." They "must describe the company's strategy for rapid and orderly resolution under the Bankruptcy Code in the event of material financial distress or failure of the company." In April 2014, the Federal Reserve Board and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (who are tasked with approving these resolution plans) rejected those submitted by 11 of the largest companies. They were required to re-submit their plans in 2015.

The results of the review of those revised plans came yesterday:
U.S. regulators gave a failing grade to five big banks on Wednesday, including JPMorgan Chase & Co and Wells Fargo & Co, on their plans for a bankruptcy that would not rely on taxpayer money, giving them until Oct. 1 to make amends or risk sanctions.
The move officially starts a long regulatory chain that could end with breaking up the banks.
Some are suggesting that the failure of these financial institutions to submit an adequate living will demonstrates that Wall Street reforms are not working. But I would point out two things: First of all, critics of Dodd-Frank often say that regulatory agencies are too close to Wall Street to adequately implement its provisions. There is certainly a lot of room for that critique in the past. But yesterday's result suggests that the Fed and the FDIC aren't hesitating to hold these firms accountable.

Secondly, this is the process that was put in place by Dodd-Frank to break up the "too big to fail banks" when/if they failed any of the three items above and posed a threat to American taxpayers. The proposal Bernie Sanders is putting forward would pre-empt this process and break them up regardless of whether or not they pose a risk. Perhaps that is something to be considered if your goals are about reducing their political power or punishing them for their past misdeeds. But to the extent that Americans are worried about having to bail them out again, it is important to know the steps that have already been put in place to prevent that from happening.

Obama Administration Forgives Student Debt for the Disabled

We've been hearing a lot about the rising problem of student debt. For Americans who couple that challenge with a disability, the Obama administration brought some good news yesterday.
Hundreds of thousands of student loan borrowers will now have an easier path to getting their loans discharged, the Obama administration announced Tuesday.
The Department of Education will send letters to 387,000 people they’ve identified as being eligible for a total and permanent disability discharge, a designation that allows federal student loan borrowers who can’t work because of a disability to have their loans forgiven. The borrowers identified by the Department won’t have to go through the typical application process for receiving a disability discharge, which requires sending in documented proof of their disability. Instead, the borrower will simply have to sign and return the completed application enclosed in the letter.
If every borrower identified by the Department decides to have his or her debt forgiven, the government will end up discharging more than $7.7 billion in debt, according to the Department...
About 179,000 of the borrowers identified by the Department are in default on their student loans, and of that group more than 100,000 are at risk of having their tax refunds or Social Security checks garnished to pay off the debt.
Obviously this step doesn't solve the problem of student debt that is facing millions of Americans. But it is yet another example of an effective use of President Obama's ongoing pen and phone strategy that is slowly but surely making a big difference for a lot of people.