Sunday, January 31, 2010

Obama's first SOTU

Leslie Gelb in his commentary on Obama's first State of the Union (SOTU) speech (The Speech Had Potential The Daily Beast 01/28/10)gives an appropriate caution:

As with most things Obama, everyone will have to wait and see what he really means, whether he will mean the same thing three months from now, and whether he will not only fight, but fight effectively to get what he’s promised done.
The public and the pundits have understandably been focused on the fate of health care reform and its effects on Democratic prospects in future elections. But if the Obama Presidency winds up imploding, it's more likely to be from the Afghanistan War.

With a NATO conference on Afghanistan now under way, Tom Hayden takes a look at the current dilemma in that war in NATO's Role in the Afghanistan Escalation By Tom Hayden The Nation 01/27/10; Obama Ignores Key Afghan Warning by Ray McGovern ConsortiumNews 01/27/10.

However, Obama did emphasize the July 2011 date he had previously established to begin the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan. Gelb notes of that passage:

The significance of this derives from the fact that his subordinates have been arguing publicly over precisely this point since he announced that July deadline at West Point more than two months ago. Pentagon officials and military brass (sometimes with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s support) have repeatedly stated that whatever might happen in July 2011 will depend entirely on conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. In other words, they’re saying that there might not be any U.S. troop withdrawals at that time. And they will take that stance most vigorously when the time comes. But Mr. Obama is now saying he will stick to his guns, so to speak. We’ll see.

Gelb thinks that the foreign policy aspects of his speech could well contain important but under-appreciated signals:

Actually, the president served up some potentially meaty stuff, but deliberately didn’t elaborate on what he had in mind. He offered rather strong declarations of intent to wind down major American involvement in the Iraq and Afghan wars. He omitted any reference to Pakistan and Yemen, though proudly stressed that his efforts had killed more terrorists in 2009 than had been killed in 2008. Perhaps we will hear more of the new military doctrine to fight terrorism that lies behind this boast within the year. He ritualistically reaffirmed his previous commitments to reducing the risks of global warming and the spread of nuclear weapons, as well as increasing America’s energy independence, though he offered scant detail. He also made a rather remarkable pledge to double U.S. exports within five years. [my emphasis]
Obama said a lot of appealing things for the Democratic base in the SOTU. But the problems Obama has with the base don't mainly have to do with what he says but with what he delivers - or doesn't deliver.

Still, he deserves credit for pushing ahead on the nuclear arms control issue. And he did come out straightforwardly for abolishing the "don't ask, don't tell" anti-gay rule in military service. The Pentagon seemed to be backtracking from that right away, though. Again, the proof is in delivering the new policy.

Juan Cole was generally less impressed with the foreign policy portions of the SOTU, as he explains in Foreign Affairs in Obama's State of the Union: Caught between the Utopian and the Propagandistic Informed Comment 01/28/10. He came up with a phrase I hadn't seen before to describe the use of women's rights as a slogan to justify bombing and invading Muslim countries:

The use of a kind of 'imperial feminism' to justify Obama's escalation of the Afghanistan war seemed just pandering to some of his constituency without holding much promise of genuine change for Afghan women.
But Cole has distinct praise for Obama's Iraq policy:

Obama sees the Iraq War as irrelevant to the war on terrorism, and is putting all his military eggs in the Afghanistan basket. He is quite clear that the US military is departing Iraq on the timetable worked out with the Iraqi parliament, virtually no matter what. ... This passage is the strongest on foreign policy, and he sent an unmistakeable [sic] message that he in my view has too seldom discussed with the American public.
Cole had discussed in more length in One Year Later: Did Obama Win the Iraq War? Informed Comment 01/20/10 how Obama has accelerated the drawdown of troops in Iraq. (The article appears also in Salon.) Part of the risk in the current withdrawal plan is that many troops could be left in the form of trainers, "advisers" and mercenaries. As long as we have direct US military involvement there, there is a risk that events could draw the US back into more active combat.

Obama didn't bother to mention the Stupak-Nelson assault on women's rights coming from within his own Party. Aimai made an appropriate comment on the Catholic bishops' role in that effort (Law of Unintended Consequences No More Mister Nice Blog) 01/27/10; it seems that the bishops are now concerned that health care reform may not pass:

This would be the funniest thing I've ever read, if it weren't the saddest. On the brighter side, this is the first example I've ever seen of the Catholic Church, or any branch of the modern Conservative Movement, having to grasp the fact that when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas. Those bastards spent years attacking Kennedy and Kerry for being bad Catholics and pillorying every Catholic politician to the left of Catherine de Medici [the perpetrator of the anti-Protestant St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France in 1572] and now they are surprised that Scott Brown won MA and doesn't give a flying fuck about the poor or the immigrants? [my emphasis]
On domestic policy, it was good to hear him take a stand in favor of allowing the Cheney-Bush 2001 tax cuts for plutocrats to expire on schedule next year.

The health care portion was disappointing in that he didn't give any clear direction on what he wanted to see happen or the timetable on which he wanted to see it happen. The public option was conspicuous for its absence in the speech. Marcy Wheeler notes that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel is signaling a desire for even more delays on health care reform (Rahm’s Authorization to Use Military Force Emptywheel 01/30/10).

The worst aspect by far of Obama's economic policy comments in his speech were the boosts he gave to the deficit scolds. The deficit is not currently a problem for the US. Nor, a more directly significant issue, is our national level of debt too high nor our borrowing costs excessive. It's bad policy to emphasize the deficit right now because the economy needs more federal stimulus, not less. It's terrible politics, because the Republicans chronically use a phony claimed concern over deficits and debt to oppose constructive Democratic programs. But even more importantly, the real goal of Republicans in hyping the non-existent threat of the deficit is to build support for abolishing Social Security and Medicare. That is terrible policy and a notion the Democrats should be actively trying to discredit and turn into a political liability for the Republicans. Hyping the deficit goes in exactly the opposite way.

The Democratic Party needs to flush the whole "neoliberal" ideology. Their version of it is only a mildly less damaging version than the Republicans' Predator State approach. The essence of it is the core of Republican economics: deregulate business, privatize public services to shovel tax dollars into the treasuries of crony companies like Halliburton and Xe/Blackwater, and work always to free the wealthiest Americans from the horrible burden of paying taxes to support their country.

I did like this well-deserved shot at the Republicans from the SOTU: "I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change."

To the extent the spending freeze is more than marketing hype, it's bad policy, as Joe Conason explains in Hope in the Deep Freeze TruthDig 01/28/10. Being a relatively recent convert to being the opposite of a deficit hawk (deficit dove? deficit anti-hawk?), I recoiled at seeing Joe's comment, "Reducing deficits is sound policy, of course, in times of steady growth." Because as long as the US dollar is the world's reserve currency and therefore foreign reserve holdings in dollars force the US to run a chronic trade deficit, federal fiscal policy has such doesn't determine whether there is a federal deficit or surplus. But the point of his article is well taken.

Comprehensive immigration reform didn't get much attention last night although Obama did mention it, almost in passing as an equality issue. Markos Moulitsas talks about the issue's importance in Immigration reform would be good for the economy Daily Kos 01/28/10.

I generally try to avoid the theater-criticism style of analysis of speeches like the SOTU that is the preferred approach of the punditocracy. And since Obama's words often sound good to the Democratic base but aren't matched by action, I'm leery of giving Obama's speeches much credit for "tone".

But there were a couple of tone aspects about the speech that caught my attention and that I liked. One was that he didn't indulge the practice that Ronald Reagan started and then Clinton and the two Bushes continued of opening the speech with highlighting some special guests sitting with the First Lady. Those episodes were largely fluff and were generally pretty maudlin. The SOTU has way too many imperial trappings as it is, so cutting out fluff from the process is a good idea. President Thomas Jefferson thought the whole idea of making a formal address in person for the Constitutionally required State of the Union message to the Congress was a distastefully royalist practice and began sending the message in written form, a precedent which many Presidents after him followed until Woodrow Wilson revived the practice of the in-person address in 1913.

I was particularly impressed by Obama's framing of his praise of those serving in the armed forces, which emphasized the needs of soldiers returning home from war and of their families:

Tonight, all of our men and women in uniform -- in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and around the world –- they have to know that we -- that they have our respect, our gratitude, our full support. And just as they must have the resources they need in war, we all have a responsibility to support them when they come home. (Applause.) That's why we made the largest increase in investments for veterans in decades -- last year. (Applause.) That's why we're building a 21st century VA. And that's why Michelle has joined with Jill Biden to forge a national commitment to support military families.
I'm convinced that the wooden, ritual praise for soldiers that we so often hear in political speeches, especially but not exclusively from Republicans, actually encourages public indifference to the real needs of soldiers. The general public needs to think about soldiers as real human beings, not as cartoon heroes, especially since we have an all-volunteer force that in many ways is isolated from the larger society, a big concern of Andrew Bacevich's, for instance. The result has been at least to some extent that the general public is far too likely to look at wars and military interventions as sports events. When in fact, soldiers are normally the first among us to face the risks and pay the costs of our military conflicts. And the price is often huge.

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