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Hillary Clinton on Economic Statecraft

By , 15 October, 2011, No Comment

New blog post at Foreign Exchange

Yesterday,Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech to the New York Economic Club on ‘economic statecraft’ and its role in American foreign policy. It’s a two-pronged concept – first, how the United States can leverage economic policy to strengthen its diplomatic position abroad; and second, how diplomacy can strengthen the U.S. economy at home.

As Dan Drezner’s already noted, venue aside, the purpose of the speech seemed to be to signal to career diplomats and civil servants that they will need to be savvy about economics, and incorporate it into their work, if they want to get ahead in Clinton’s State Department: “We need to be a Department where more people can read both Foreign Affairs and a Bloomberg Terminal,” Clinton said. Given the link between economics and foreign policy is my main hobbyhorse, it’s gratifying to see it taken seriously at the top like this.

As for policy, the speech was a bit more mixed.

For a detailed look at the speech, read the whole post.

NB: I’m posting this from a phone, so apologies for any typos or odd formatting.

Political Capital

By , 23 July, 2009, No Comment

During the first press conference of his second term, George W. Bush famously said “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.” Bush meant that his comfortable victory conferred a mandate to pursue his agenda without worrying too much about concessions to the other side. But Bush’s popularity, which was never as pronounced as he liked to believe, collapsed about a year later and he never got around to spending that capital on any new ventures.

Barack Obama seems to have a similar sense of his own popularity. Because he knows he polls high among voters, 44 believes he can get policy changes through a Congress of members eager to latch on to the Obama-geist without having to get his own hands dirty in negotiations. The result is broad directives to ‘get health care reform done’ while members of Congress are left to the details. Then, when they develop two proposals, one more progressive and one more centrist, the President throws his weight behind the one that seems more popular.

Here’s the problem: that proposal will cost a lot more and work a lot less well. And if last night’s press conference showed anything, it was that people are starting to realize that and ask sharper questions (Chuck Todd wanted to know just how many Americans would still be out in the cold after this law passes, Jack Tapper wanted to know what types of care rationing we should prepare for; neither reporter got a straight answer).

But once the President has anointed the progressive bill as “the” proposal, its failure means the failure of health care reform altogether, since no one remembers/wants to go back and recover the centrist alternative. That is my great worry—that this bill will collapse in negotiations sometime later this summer or early fall and Democrats will find that the whole health care issue becomes tainted for them for another decade.

Commentators noted that Obama places all the blame for holding up the bill on Republicans and none on centrist Democrats, who are actually the block on reform right now. Why? Perhaps because the Republicans have no alternative bill, so blaming them is easy. Accepting the battle with the centrist Democrats would require Obama to defend not just the idea of health care reform—he’s good with ideas—but also the specifics of his plan against the specifics of theirs. No amount of political capital can help him there.

In Praise of Television

By , 30 April, 2009, No Comment

I am not to going to fall into the trap of taking stock of the President at his hundred day mark because that is silly. The 100th day was defining for Napoleon and FDR, but for few others. George Bush’s first hundred days were uneventful; he was defined by the two years between 9/11 and the entry into Iraq. The tone for the Clinton presidency was set over the health care contraversy and the breakdown of relations with Congress, in other words, the period between summer 1994 and winter 2005.

I am going to take stock of the President’s press conference, however, and the press that covered it. In the introduction to their liveblog on the event, the Times’ Adam Nagourney and Peter Baker posed an interesting question–would more journos ask silly questions about the 100-day mark, or use the opportunity to ask substantive questions to fuel policy stories? As it turned out, the one totally stupid 100-day question came from the Times’ own Jeff Zeleny: what had “surprised, troubled, humbled and enchanted” Obama about the office. It reminded me of the stereotypical shrink in movies whose only line is “and how does that make you feel?”

Obama’s answer did not inspire confidence. Basically, he was surprised that the economy is such a mess, even though it’s been that way since before he was elected. He was troubled that Washington didn’t go postpartisan at his command, even though that’s a silly goal he should really give up. He was humbled to discover that he’s not the center of the “tapestry of American life” after all, a suggestion that he has a wee bit of an ego. And he was enchanted to find out that our servicemen and women are really lovely people, something he surely should have known before.

The questions for the rest of the session were better, with the prizes for hardest hitting going to CBS’ Mark Knoller asking about the torture memos (has Obama read the memos Cheney keeps referencing which show that torture works, and is Cheney right in describing what the memos say) and NBC’s Chuck Todd asking about Pakistan (would the US invade to secure the country’s nukes if it feared them falling into Taliban hands).

The takeaway: for all the snide remarks print journalists like to make about their superior rigor compared to the alleged talking points hackery of broadcast, it’s the TV guys who had their priorities straight last night. As I’ve said before, TV still matters.

Write what you know

By , 31 March, 2009, 1 Comment

Media pundits who build a reputation for expertise in one field have a tendency to make dangerous forays into other fields and eventually wind up writing gibberish. That’s especially true on the NYT opinion page, where my three favorite columnists are now playing musical chairs:

Tom Friedman=foreign policy wonk turned economic wannabe
Paul Krugman=professional economist turned political ideologue
David Brooks=political critic turned foreign policy poser
Brooks and Friedman can perhaps be forgiven but Krugman, an expert in the economics of trade, really ought to know enough about comparative advantage to stick to his field. The stakes for his musical-chairing are much higher too: I went to see him speak last night and found that his new celebrity has gone to his head, and that he talks more politics than policy. The result is that his audience no longer takes his policy prescriptions seriously, even when they are right.

One Last Debate Post

By , 15 October, 2008, No Comment

Is it bad that I’m bored of this election? I know who I’m voting for, I have my hunches about the outcome and I don’t hear the candidates telling me (or those mythical undecideds) anything new. Gail Collins, who gets PAID to cover this stuff, says she’s a bit bored too.

That said, despite the big argument about Ayers, Lewis and attack politics in the middle of the debate, I thought tonight was overall more interesting to watch than previous ones have been. Bob Scheiffer did a really commendable job of getting candidates to actually talk to one another, plus, I think, the swivel chairs helped.

I think Gail and I just have news overload. My friend Steve who is super well-read but doesn’t spend his time tied to the news tickers with an IV drip like I do was much better able to evaluate this evening in eloquent terms. So instead of offering my own take, I’m offering his:
Obama made some mistakes: “The last remark he made about sex is sacred was kinda bizzare, and could be misinterpreted to promote abstinence rather than comprehensive education, and I thought he stumbled a bit on the ’100% of McCain’s ads are negative’ line, because he’s done pretty well avoiding that kind of half-truth thus far and meticulously taking apart all of the ones that McCain has used.”

But McCain made more: “When he tossed out ‘class warfare’ in his first answer, it screamed desperation.”

On Ayers, Lewis and the personal attacks: “The Lewis thing overstepped a line, sure, because McCain is not a racist. And is not telling these people to think that Obama is a terrorist, and I know that he was quick to grab the mic back and correct that retarded woman who said she can’t trust Obama because he’s an ‘a-rab,’ but he is tacitly permitting them to think like that by saying ‘Obama associates with terrorists,’ and the air of fanaticism with people shouting ‘terrorist!’ at McCain’s rallies is troubling in the way that Lewis indicated.”

On why McCain’s long history as a maverick/moderate/negotiator doesn’t count anymore: “At this point, that guy is not running for this office. The Republican Party is running for President in the figure of John McCain.”

The Reader Column

By , 2 September, 2008, 1 Comment


Today was my first day of school in a nifty new(ish) program at Columbia, a Journalism MA that is as much about training journalists in a particular field (business, politics, arts or science coverage) as it is about training them to think about journalism as an entity.

In our first class discussion, we tried to map out the journalistic method–dividing up the tricks of the trade into two columns, “research” and “presentation.” Then we shared stories about times where we have compromised that method to make a flashier story: by taking an atypical example and building it up to signify a broader trend or subsuming factual accuracy to the flow of a narrative. One professor, Nick Lemann, added as an aside that this model won’t fully apply in the future, since the Internet has a journalistic model all its own.

I disagree. One of the problems the news media faces in making the transition to the Internet age is this sense that somehow all the core principles of the field no longer apply, that the blogosphere and the e-zine are some wilderness where only tribal natives can survive. Instead, we need to start treating the web as a way to solve the ethical dilemmas of old media journalism, and seek other scapegoats besides technology for the dilemmas that remain.

First, amend the model by adding a third column: the readers. To most old media hands, that means a group of tech savvy consumers apathetic about serious news and a voracious appetite for junk. The recent squabbles between sportswriter Buzz Bissinger and sportsblogger Will Leitch are a good example: Leitch says he deals in sports gossip because it’s what readers want.

And in digital reporting, it’s even more tempting to write the story that sells. In an old newspaper, reporters wrote and only the guys in the subscription office knew how their words sold. Today, every reporter sees the number of comments or diggs a story gets.

But, it’s silly to blame the technology. It is not that Google is making us stupid, but rather that we are choosing to use Google in stupid ways. Technological advances and a vapid news media, are symptoms, as another professor (Evan Cornog) reminded me, of a much broader social unraveling, the collapse of our sense of civic duty and communal ties. Fix our social fabric, and I assure you, media will return to its role as a component of what Cornog calls “responsible citizenship.”

Moreover, the Internet, when used correctly, can be a boon for the journalistic method on the ethics front. Web journalism, as Jeff Jarvis reminds us daily, is a conversation where readers have a say in shaping content. That means readers wind up checking reporters when we stretch an example or overdo the storytelling. And because we can upload our sources along with our analysis, even an overblown story can be brought into context.

Finally, and this is what heartens me most, making readers part of our model of journalistic practice can encourage reporters to be more, not less, responsible. In the best case scenario, that focus on readers reminds us that we write for society, that we are businesspeople and creative minds, but public servants, the ‘fourth estate,’ too. Once we’re done marveling at the flashy gadgets of today’s newsroom, I hope we’ll see that our mission is unchanged.

The “New” Political Culture

By , 7 August, 2008, No Comment

I’m skeptical of Barack Obama’s “new” politics. This week, the NYTimes revealed that it’s really just a YouTube-genic version of the old politics: despite all his claims to the contrary, Obama gets his funding from big bundlers just like everyone else. I have no beef with bundlers–campaigns are expensive. But since Obama told everybody he was a $50 check kind of guy, the bundlers are a problem for him.

Meanwhile, McCain was learning a different lesson about the “new” political culture: how impossible it is to have a controlled message in this viral age. His attack ad about Obama as the greatest celebrity got big press, but not in the way he wanted: