Posts tagged ‘Obama’

Thoughts on the 3rd Presidential Debate: Foreign Policy

By , 23 October, 2012, No Comment

I watched last night’s presidential debate with a group of wonks and journalists at the Council on Foreign Relations. It was interesting to be among people who care deeply about international affairs, given that most voters don’t.

Indeed, knowing that foreign policy won’t win them this election, both candidates took every opportunity to pivot the discussion to the economy. Moreover, the candidates agreed with one another on almost all the issues they touched on. Together, the tactics of agreement and evasion made for an uninformative 90 minutes.

But, a few things that jumped out at me:

1. As expected, the candidates used the question on ‘America’s role in the world’ to spar over the defense budget. Most viewers will remember this segment for President Obama’s quip equating Romney’s push for greater naval spending to a demand for ‘horses and bayonets.’

But what I found notable was the contrast between Romney’s planned cuts to government social spending and his desire to double down on military spending that even the Pentagon doesn’t recommend. The important thing to understand about this debate over defense spending is that it has very little to do with foreign policy and everything to do with economic stimulus. As Daniel Drezner put it in his comments at CFR yesterday, defense expenditures are about the only form of Keynesianism the contemporary GOP supports.

2. I tweeted on Sunday that it would be a big surprise to see either candidate talk seriously about the centrality of women – their empowerment, their role in public life and in civil society – to American foreign policy. Last night, I was pleasantly surprised to see the topic come up, and even more astonished to find that it was brought up by Mitt Romney. Most likely, that’s because Romney has a wide gap to close with women voters, but I welcomed the comments nonetheless.

3. I was pleased that Bob Schieffer raised the topic of drone warfare. At CFR, Rachel Kleinfeld of the Truman Security Project noted that her organization’s polling of its audience indicates that drone warfare is among President Obama’s most unpopular policies, rivaled only by his failure to close Guantanamo Bay. Given that, it’s a shame that Mitt Romney didn’t use the opportunity to push back against the policy: the American public deserves to hear the issue debated in full.

It’s not just a humanitarian issue – though the civilian casualties from drone warfare are an outrage. It’s also a strategic issue, in that the use of a deeply unpopular policy hurts American soft power around the world.

Most concerning to me is the fact that this kind of high-tech war often takes place away from the public eye. We focus heavily on the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of a broader debate about the ground war there. But how many Americans know that the U.S. is also using drones to intervene in Yemen, or Somalia? Because drone warfare can be pursued without putting any boots on the ground, those interventions have happened with little to no public scrutiny. To my mind, a military technology that can be deployed without public debate is a technology that makes wars more likely, and that’s dangerous.

I talked about this, and the rest of the Afghanistan portion of the debate, on Huffington Post Live this morning. You can watch my segment here.

The Difference Between Expertise and Intelligence

By , 21 January, 2011, No Comment

There’s a fair bit of web chatter about Peter Baker’s magnum opus in the NYT Magazine on the Obama Administration’s economic policy failures, which doesn’t actually contain much discussion of economics or policy. Why this shocks bloggers is a mystery to me: if the NYTM wanted a deep look at economic policy, they’d have commissioned a piece from David Leonhardt. [Oh, wait, they did that already, three times.] Baker is a political correspondent, and instead of evaluating whether Obama’s economic vision is sound or not, he asks why the Administration failed to provide the public with any vision at all.

As Felix Salmon has noted, the piece places a large share of the blame on Larry Summers (who, as Director of the National Economic Council, was responsible for forging consensus among the President’s economic team, and instead was busy fighting with several of the other key players) and goes a long way towards attempting to exonerate the rest. Salmon correctly adds to Baker’s critique of Summers’ personnel skills a critique of his economic principles, which have never lined up neatly with the Pro-Main Street expectations voters have of this White House.

That’s all fair, as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes very far.

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The Failure of Institutions

By , 26 December, 2009, 2 Comments

Another round of reader requests led to the following reflections on 44’s latest moves on two issues near and dear to me: health care and climate.

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Why Af-Pak is really just Pak

By , 6 December, 2009, 1 Comment

The latest, cross-posted from my Pulitzer Center blog:

It’s been a big week here in Islamabad. First off, there have two more bomb attacks, one at the naval compound down the street from where I am staying and one out in Pindi, the next town over. Secondly, Barack Obama finally announced his plans for the war in Afghanistan: 30,000 more troops now; phased withdrawal started in 18 months. Thirdly, Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani completed a tour of Germany and Britain.

The three incidents shared space on the front pages of the Islamabad dailies and in the national mind. After all, while Americans heard the speech live on Tuesday night (7 am here), most Pakistanis watched it on replay later on Wednesday, and many Pakistanis did not begin responding to the policy until Thursday. Conventional wisdom did not form till the weekend, by which time the capital was also dealing with the bomb blasts and with the developing story in London, where, in a Thursday morning press conference, the PM pushed back against British intelligence reports that some 60% of global terrorist plots emerge from Pakistan.

To most people here, the West is a fair weather friend. While waging a war in Afghanistan that sends militants over the border into the Pakistani frontier, the West complains that Pakistan harbors too many terrorists. While insisting that Pakistan both aid that war effort and crackdown on its consequences, America announces that when Afghanistan—and just Afghanistan—is secure, it will pack up its bags and leave. This imbalance certainly anger those who have a knee jerk opposition to the United States or paranoia about American-Indian conspiracies. But the most passionate criticism of this policy has come from elite liberals who have supported and defended the Afghan war and feel, to put it simply, betrayed.

Continue reading “Pakistan: Why Af-Pak is really just Pak” »

I Stand Corrected

By , 1 October, 2009, No Comment

Three weeks ago, I thought we were moving towards a coherent piece of health care legislation. I was wrong. Let me review this one more time:

A. If your primary goal is achieving universal insurance coverage, you can: 1. Have a single payer system where the government provides insurance; 2. Have an employer mandate with a super-strong public option where the government might as well provide insurance; or 3. Have a universal individual mandate with aggressive regulatory reform and generous subsidies.

Of these three, the first, single-payer, hasn’t ever been on the table. The third—otherwise known as the Wyden-Bennett bill—would be the easiest on the public fist, as well as the most conducive to medical innovation. On those grounds, it’s my favorite.

B. If your primary goal is reducing the cost of medical treatments, you can: 1. Have a single-payer system where the government centralizes and rations care; 2. Have a super-strong public option where the government might as well provide it; 3. Have aggressive reform of our medical profession and training, with incentives for people who set up small community clinics, say, or better tuition grants for folks who go to med and nursing schools.

Of these two, the first has never been on the table. The second would undermine medical innovation (see point a, above). The third, which I support, isn’t something that can be legislated, but has to be pursued long term.

If this is still confusing, watch the awesome animation below.

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International Week

By , 26 September, 2009, 4 Comments

The madness of Qaddafi aside, there was some value to this weeks UN and G20 meetings: they introduced the world to Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

Readers of this blog will know that I am skeptical of 44, because I see him as representing the rise of the liberal-tarian left at the expense of liberal institutionalists like myself. In foreign policy, however, Obama has endorsed the institutionalist path, memorably promising during the campaign that he would negotiate with any and all world leaders instead of taking unilateral action and would engage international institutions to combat international problems like climate change.

I had struggled to reconcile this with his professed love of diffuse power. Now I understand: Obama thinks of governance as consensus building amongst individuals. As a result, his vision of international institutions is much the same as his vision of Congress, as a place we go to engage in banter until we arrive at broad and general consensus, rather than as a place for realpolitik dealmaking around concrete specifics.

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It’s Getting Better All the Time

By , 15 September, 2009, 1 Comment

Before turning in for the night, I feel I ought to join the voices toasting the anniversary of Lehman’s collapse. I’ll leave serious analysis of where we are, and how much remains to be solved, to other bloggers and other days. My thoughts are more mundane.

Yesterday, when the President delivered Wall Street hotshots a lunchtime lecture about the need for regulatory and compensation reform, I noticed one thing: I was watching CNBC, and the market didn’t blink once during his address. In fact, it seemed to perk up during that half-hour (noon to 12:30), and stay up throughout the afternoon.

This morning, Ben Bernanke had a similar result when he addressed econo-wonks during the first half hour of trading.

Why does this matter? This time last year, every time any government official–Bush, Paulson, Bernanke–got on camera with the intention to restore calm, investors panicked. On days when there was no other economic news, regulators opening their mouths were singlehandedly making the situation worse.
That is not to say that Bernanke and Obama going on the conference circuit now has any real economic value, but simply to point out that the non-effects of their speeches show that we are all a lot less jittery, and that’s a good thing.

Trying to Save Health Care Reform

By , 10 September, 2009, 1 Comment

The speech exceeded expectations. As I’ve argued in earlier posts, there are only two routes to achieving GUARANTEED universal coverage: an individual mandate and an employer mandate, both with subsidies for the poor. There are also only two routes to finance those subsidies: massive regulatory overhaul or economies of scale in a state-supported public insurance system. Any plan that tries to compromise by having a mandate without a finance mechanism won’t be able to achieve universal coverage goals; any plan that doesn’t have a mandate isn’t even trying.

Since the presidential campaign, Obama has promised to achieve the liberal goal of universal coverage while speaking the conservative language of efficiency, positing universal coverage as a possible byproduct. Then, when challenged from the Left, he would try to hedge it by offering universal mandates without a finance mechanism, afraid to commit to either regulatory overhaul or a public option.

That changed last night.

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Health Care, Revisited

By , 5 September, 2009, 2 Comments

Before the President addresses Congress on Wednesday, I thought it was time to revisit health care reform.

Throughout the town-hall melodrama this summer, I have been struck by the focus, from liberals and conservatives alike, on the politics, rather than the policy merits, of reform. To some degree, that is the legacy of Hillarycare: the Clinton administration went so deep into closed-door policy sessions to actually produce a pretty decent bill, that they forgot to sell their plan politically and alienated all the constituencies they needed to get it passed.

Obama, by contrast, has become so preoccupied by having something—anything—to show for himself by year’s end, that he has tried to float above the policy debate, be all things to all people, and avoid tying himself to any specific proposals. (This is a recurrent problem with Obama’s liberal-tarian decision-making process.)

The result is that the right has been able to destroy all the major bills with surface-level claims about their political or ideological implications rather than engaging with their content.

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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.