Saturday, January 09, 2010

Two Beaus

My children united me with my etsy monster for Christmas.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The First Year of the Obama Administration: A New Era for America

The greatest achievement of the Obama administration came with his election.

I am among those who think the worst sin of our wonderful country has been anti-black racism. It produced many great evils for black and white Americans. Worse, it produced an irrationality at the heart of the American experiment in equal liberty right from the beginning. The civil rights movement turned the corner in changing the culture of America. Only after the civil rights revolution was it possible for America to begin to realize the meaning of her creed, as Martin Luther King said.

The election of Barack Obama sealed the victory in the long struggle against America's worst sin. This does not mean that racism is over - it probably never will be, certainly not in the foreseeable future. But the old era is dead. The new generations that come after now will find segregation as hard to imagine as slavery. Barack Obama is in the role of Joshua to the civil rights generation's Moses.

Barack Obama is an African American. But he is also a representative of the new generation that lives beyond the old black and white struggle. His parents were black and white. His children are African American in the usual sense of the word. He, though, also represents the new generation of Americans who came from all over the world, the post-1965 generation of global America. I believe that the Obamas are a potent symbol of the way forward, not only beyond our original sin, but also beyond the new ethnic conflicts of this generation.

Still, the first black president can't just be average. He has to be a great president. His family has to be exemplary. It was inevitable that the first black president would face extraordinary tests just because some groups would try to test him. That he also has to deal with a major recession and wind up an elective war and face global warming were not inevitable, but they add to my sense that this president has to be extraordinary.

Time will tell whether Barack Obama will be a great president, or even a decent one. I think his preparation, his family, his character, and his convictions all are well suited to greatness in the larger role that history has thrust upon him. I will be watching and hoping for his success with keen interest.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The First Year of the Obama Administration: World Standing

The most immediate achievement of President Obama was to restore the standing of the United States in the world. This turn-around began on election day. Centre College sends most of its students abroad in their college career, and they reported from all over the world the sea-change in attitudes toward Americans in November 2008. I was with students at the University of Sydney for President Obama's inauguration, which we watched with a packed and delighted house at the United States Study Center.

The realities of world politics have eroded some of that euphoria. Still, the United States is seen as a much more responsible power in the world now than it was two years ago. President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize, while premature for his achievements, represents the hope and prod to be the world leader for lawful, respectful international order.

I think the Obama administration has been most successful in getting us back on track on civil decency in conducting our affairs. We are working better with our allies, especially in conducting our wars. I am glad that we are engaging the world again on climate change, though so far no nation has much to show for it. De-escalating the "axis of evil" rhetoric about Iran and North Korea helps make constructive engagement more possible. I hope we can make progress in getting Israel to deal justly, or at least realistically, with the Palestinians. Most important, in the medium run, is developing solid relations with the most moderate Muslim states, and encouraging democratic reforms there to head off Islamist coups. This is not just in the interests of the U.S., but of peace for everyone.

The major issue for the future will be how we deal with China. I think the Obama administration has a realistic sense that having sent our manufacturing capacity and our IOUs to China, we have to treat China with more respect than we have for the past decade. We still have to push them toward democracy and freedom; since we gave them most of our leverage, the task is tricky.

The war against Al Qaeda will dominate Obama's foreign actions for the foreseeable future. All of American relations with other nations, though, are improved by the better standing of the U.S. that we now have in the world.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The First Year of the Obama Administration: Health Care

The first two urgent tasks of the Obama administration were cleaning up the mess in the economy and in war that the president inherited. I think it is greatly to his credit that, while addressing these inherited emergencies, Pres. Obama has also aggressively pushed ahead with solving the top long-term domestic problem: health care. This is really where the positive program of the Obama administration begins.

The United States spends more on health care than any other nation, without getting all citizens cared for. We have the worst of both worlds, because we lack a universal system of health care insurance. Barack Obama made universal health care central to his campaign. I agree heartily.

The President is not the king. He cannot decree law. Laws have to come from the legislature. The president's party does have a majority in both houses of the legislature - just barely. And that party - my Democratic Party - is a very big tent. Its members never march in lockstep. Moreover, legislators are horse-traders and pork-collectors for their constituents. All legislation is full of compromises that no one person would ever have chosen, least of all the president.

President Obama knew that to get universal health care he had to go to work on it right away, work on it hard, and make many compromises. Moreover, in our ingenious republican form of government in which powers are separated and separated again, the legislature has to take the initiative in actually crafting legislation. Until Congress produces a bill, the president has the bully pulpit and not much else.

I believe Pres. Obama has been admirably focused on getting a universal health insurance bill through Congress. This fight is far from over, and he faces some wiley opponents. Nonetheless, I believe he will succeed. Universal health insurance will be one of the great achievements of the Obama administration.

In order to get health care, the president has had to hold up on many other important needs of the country. I am very hopeful that we will have a law signed by the State of the Union address later this month. The president can then turn to next great initiatives of the Obama administration.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The First Year of the Obama Administration: the Wars

On 9/11, 2001, the United States was attacked by Al Qaeda. They operated from Afghanistan, protected by a similar movement, the Taliban. The real war has always been with Al Quaeda. The Taliban made themselves a target by getting between us and Al Qaeda. Barack Obama said as a candidate that the real war was with Al Qaeda. President Obama has kept that focus. I believe he is completely correct in that focus. It will be a hard war, especially as it spills over more and more into Pakistan. Many Americans, left and right, will get tired of this war long before it is over. But as the President said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, this is one of those cases where lasting peace requires war against an enemy that does not want peace.

After 9/11 the world supported the United States as it never has before, and is not likely to again. If we had asked the world to help us fight Al Quaeda, we would have had an enormous coalition, including Russia and many moderate Muslim states. We might even have been able to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and the top Al Qaeda leadership. I think the Taliban regime would have fought the coalition, and they would have been removed. That war could have been over years ago.

Alas, the Bush administration used the crisis of 9/11 to invade a different country, one that had nothing to do with 9/11. That ended world support, increased Muslim opposition, and undermined the real war against Al Qaeda. Worse, the Iraq war helped Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda's stated objective in attacking the United States, which it did several times around the world since the start of the first war in Iraq, was to get U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia. After 9/11, the Bush administration complied with Al Qaeda's demand. Another objective of Al Quaeda was to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. The Bush administration did that, as well. The Iraq war recruited angry young men from all over the Muslim world to join the fight against the Western invaders.

Worse still, the way we fought the war corrupted the United States. We became open torturers, jailed anyone we didn't like, including U.S. citizens, without charges or trial, created prisons far removed from law, used secret foreign prisons that were even worse, and openly flouted the whole system of decent conduct that the United States used to champion. The government declared a right to spy on anyone, including U.S. citizens. We had a system in place to allow quick authorizations of justified wiretaps, but the Bush administration simply ignored them. The previous administration openly suspended habeas corpus, which to my mind is the very symbol of tyranny.

On his first day in office, President Obama said he would close down the prison at Guantanamo. I applaud that. He has not done so yet. Worse, he has moved some of those prisoners to a prison at a military base in Afghanistan that is even further from American law or press. These failures are bad. Still, I believe we have stopped torturing prisoners. We appear to have stopped warrantless wiretaps. We have not suspended habeas corpus. I have seen no reports that the Obama administration is using secret foreign prisons. President Obama has made great strides in restoring the rule of law in the United States. This is a great good in itself, and also helps restore our standing in the world.

The right war is against Al Qaeda and its allies, who attacked the United States. One of the tactics used by Al Quaeda is terror. They use this tactic because they are too weak to use many others. Their weakness is no excuse for terror - many weak fighters did not stoop to terrorizing innocent populations. Al Qaeda is evil, and should be fought to the end. However, we are not fighting a war against "terrorism." Terrorism is just a tactic. Declaring a war on terrorism is like declaring a war on amphibious assaults. If Al Qaeda stopped using terrorism they would still be the enemy.

I believe President Obama will take increasing heat for pursuing the right war. He will be criticized by partisan opponents because they are partisan. He will also be criticized by peaceniks who oppose war. That is their job, and in the great ecology of American politics, it is good that there is a significant pacifist voice. That is the tradition I was raised in. Most of this criticism will come from President Obama's (and my) fellow Democrats. Nonetheless, President Obama has clearly stated the Niebuhrian position, with which I agree, that we must fight the right war against Al Qaeda to victory.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The First Year of the Obama Administration: the Economy

I voted for President Obama with great enthusiasm. I supported his proposed policies, both domestic and foreign. I am impressed with him as a leader. I think the Obama family are delightful. I believe the Obamas are likely to be the family most like the Gruntleds to ever live in the White House. This first week of the new year I am going to offer five brief judgments on how the first year of the Obama administration has gone, inviting your replies.

The most urgent problem President Obama faced when he took office was the collapse of the economy. A few companies that lent money were so large, and took risks so huge, that when the inevitable bubble-burst came they threatened to take the world economy with them. This handful of firms consisted of some jumped-up stockbrokerages that called themselves banks, a massive insurance company, and automobile finance companies that incidentally made cars. They got around the sensible safeguards that we had built following previous collapses partly by skirting the existing regulations, and partly by the Bush administration's policy of ignoring regulations.

I believe that if the Obama administration had had even six months to deal with the under-regulated bubble-economy before it collapsed, much of the disaster could have been averted. But that is not the way it played out. When the collapse did come, the Bush administration was paralyzed. They bailed out some firms and let others collapse piecemeal, with no larger plan. When Obama took office his half-assembled team was stuck with the commitments outgoing Treasury Secretary Paulson had made - and still had to save the actual economy. And the Bush bailouts saddled the new administration with gigantic debts that will take years of recovery and prudent administration to overcome.

SO the Obama administration had to save the remaining Wall Street "investment banks." It sensibly brought them under the regulations that actual banks had to follow. They were stuck with AIG and its ridiculously self-indulgent management, which the administration has tried to bring to some responsibility. I agree with the president that we could not simply let General Motors fail, though they richly deserved to. I believe the United States government, forced to be owners of what should be a grown-up company, has been remarkably indulgent in letting almost all of the bosses keep their jobs. I am hopeful that General Motors can learn a lesson fast enough to become an independent company again. It appears that Ford has learned from its brush with disaster and may become fairly responsible. I never thought Chrysler would reappear as an independent company once it was bought by Daimler, so I will not be surprised if it disappears.

The big picture is that the Obama administration saved the world economy from collapse. The parallels with the mess created by the Hoover administration, and eventually cleaned up by the Roosevelt administration, are clear. Things are bad, but getting better. We are not worried now about a massive chain reaction of collapsing financial institutions around the world, as we were in the last days of the Bush administration.

On the first great test, President Obama passed.