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Evaluating Obama’s Presidency

Sure, it’s early to pass much reliable judgment on Obama’s presidency but I’m going to do it anyway. Obama was a young and relatively inexperienced political leader who, on balance, had a more successful presidency than not. A few books are already beginning to appear (Peter Baker’s Obama, Jonathan Chait’s Audacity) and many of the judgments coming from seasoned journalists and observers are positive. Obama made some mistakes and had his share of failures like any president.

But he was a gifted campaigner who promised hope and change through moderate political ideology. Obama was the darling of the liberal left and the bane of the conservative right. His most notable success was the Affordable Care Act which originated in conservative think tanks. It should have been a first-rate piece of social policy providing medical coverage for people who couldn’t afford it. But the rank polarization and competitive hate between the two parties meant that the nature of the Affordable Care Act would be distorted (calling it “socialized medicine”) and it would be subject to extreme ideological clashes.

The Affordable Care Act was flawed and needed fixing but it was fixable. Currently 20 million people have health insurance who would not have had it without the Affordable Care Act. Continued progress needs to be made on cost containment, financial incentives for health exchanges, and coverage that’s more attractive to young people but none of these represents a fatal blow and the acrimony and contentiousness surrounding them is testimony to the level of disgust each side as for the other.

Opponents of the Affordable Care Act have convinced the public (mostly by the incessant use of the term Obamacare) that the legislation is more extreme and damaging than it actually is. The fact that most polls show that the public approves of the Affordable Care Act, and the absolute failure of the Republicans to repeal and replace it, is testimony to the quality of the legislation.

Obama made progress in early childhood education programs, seeking sources of alternative energy, and helped make climate change an issue for serious consideration.

When it comes to foreign policy Obama looked around and saw messes everywhere. The Middle East, Israel-Palestine, radical Salafists, unstable countries with nuclear weapons (Pakistan, North Korea), religious extremist countries who wanted nuclear weapons (Iran), al Qaeda, ISIS, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are all potentially dangerous. There is something to be said for his cool demeanor and conclusion that an armed United States meddling in these problems would probably make matters worse. He used special operations and limited warfare strategically. He was not afraid to use the military (bin Laden) when necessary and clearly appropriate.

Obama did make a mistake with Bashar Assad. His statement about a “redline” was naïve and foolish and he stood on the sidelines while hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed in the Civil War.

In the end, Obama was a diligent and elegant political leader who was knowledgeable and informed. He could be “cool” and therefore thought to be aloof but I prefer that to Trump’s exaggeration of threat. And we should not forget that his political enemies (e.g. Mitch McConnell) made it their life’s work to see the President of the United States failed. Mitch McConnell was so quick to announce that he was going to guarantee Obama’s failure, regardless of the issues, that I figured something other than policy had to be motivating McConnell. I’m just sayin’.

 

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The Relationship between Israel and the US: Big Brothers and Little Brothers Fight

Obama_Netanyahu_e_2515610k.jpgMy conservative friends ask me how I can be supportive of Obama given his stance on Israel. I usually explain to them what friendship is like and point out how they are getting hysterical over little. His relationship with Israel is no different than that between two friends who argue politics, often think the other is crazy, but each is the first to call the other in time of trouble. Sure things are a little tough at the moment and Netanyahu’s visit certainly was an offense, but they still have each other’s back.

Conservative Republicans and blind Israel supporters continue to cast Obama in the role of Israel’s antagonist. They embrace Netanyahu and criticize Obama. Obama is regularly cast as unsympathetic toward Israel or, worse, ignorant of Israel’s true security needs. Those on the fringe end of the conservative spectrum, the ones that call Obama a socialist, continue to believe that Obama prefers international liberal rights to individual group rights. Consequently, they assume Obama is willing to kick Israel to the curb while placating Arabs and the international left.

Those of us who spend many waking hours thinking, or writing, or teaching about these issues are not surprised that the big brother and little brother fight. The suggestion that a two state solution use borders somewhere along the 1967 lines is so common in the literature and in discussions about resolving the conflict that the statement has little effect on me. Most people, including the majority of the Israeli public, prefer a two state solution with borders being defined as somewhere along 67 lines. Netanyahu is correct that those borders would not be sufficiently defensible. But with buffer zones, electronic surveillance, and swaps it’s possible to establish borders for a Palestinian state. To pounce on this single statement was simply inaccurate and unfair.

Moreover, Obama’s has made some very supportive statements throughout his presidency. And playing politics or simply grubbing for the Jewish vote does not explain these comments
because they commit Obama to a course of action. Hence Obama told AIPAC that “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel and it must remain undivided.” This is an unbelievably provocative statement and probably will not be included in some final two state solution. Obama has stated clearly that the two state solution is subject to negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians in order to determine a final status. But even with the latest moves in the UN I bet this issue just fades away. Any ultimate solution will be negotiated with the Israelis and Palestinians. I trust Israel will do nothing that undermines its own security.

Obama has chastised Assad; he has encouraged Yemen’s president Saleh to leave office; he has supported the people in the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. Calling on him to send in troops or overtly assert American power is simply politically irresponsible. Obama has recognized emphatically the special relationship between Israel and the United States.

Obama is not trying to appeal to everyone. He is encouraging the Israelis to make necessary movements in an effort to stimulate discussion. Right now nothing is going on. Netanyahu is not going to negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas; he’s adamant about 67 borders not being defensible so he wants to encroach into land east of Jerusalem toward the Jordan River. The Arab world is in flux so it does not seem to be the time for discussions. I credit Obama was trying to encourage additional contact.

Having said all this, it is clear that Netanyahu is not Obama’s favorite international leader. Obama does have a more accommodating and diplomatic style whereas Netanyahu knows exactly what he thinks and has little interest in modifying it. But Obama believes that he is serving the needs of peace and thereby the needs of Israel. He has acknowledged the problems of dealing with Hamas. He knows that the 67 borders will require adjustments and land swaps. And Obama supports and has stated as such Israel’s right to be a Jewish and democratic state, including its capacity to defend itself. This is important because the Jewish nature of the state remains problematic. Israel faces tremendous demographic pressures as well as political ones that threaten the Jewish and democratic nature of the state. Netanyahu is making a mistake if he thinks the special nature of the US – Israel relationship means he can behave any way he wants. The world grows weary of this conflict and is already turning its attention elsewhere, and everyone’s patience has limitations.

Obama was very helpful to Israel by avoiding issues such as the Arab Peace Initiative, settlements, and discussion of refugees. It takes leadership to talk about the Middle East “as it should be.” Obama recognizes that the current situation is untenable, and that any UN vote will precipitate many problems. Of course, Obama’s primary lesson is to value human
rights over locked-jaw nationalism. In the past Obama has recognized Arab freedom fighters and advocates for democracy and rhetorically positioned them along with Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Praise for Arab freedom fighters is good for Israel.

Post based on May 25, 2011 post

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