Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ridiculous Conclusions.

And since I'm all about blogging again, why not post my upcoming article in Zahraničná politika? I'm back on Obama, with gloves off.

Ridiculous Conclusions

Sometimes the tactical decisions that Obama makes make one wonder what the man really believes in. And, increasingly, they don't even seem to produce their purported goals.

When the President received criticism for being the first president since 1991 not to receive the Dalai Lama during his most recent visit to Washington in October, the press was promptly educated by his senior adviser Valerie Jerrett that "it is not a signal of any lack of commitment to human rights .. that's a ridiculous conclusion to draw." At the same time, Jerrett admitted it is "a fair point to make" that the decision to postpone the meeting was made out of respect to Chinese sensitivities to Tibet. In other words, it was a tactical move, not a principled move; the appearance of bending over backwards to please the Chinese should not be disconcerting - the President knows what he's doing - trust him.

To be sure, America's dependence on China is hardly a secret. With some $2 trillion in US government bonds, China is the largest holder of the US debt and thus the largest funder of its massive deficits. Amicable relations with China are therefore a clear priority for US foreign policy. And yet, this sort of diplomatic calculus could hardly justify not meeting with the Dalai Lama. For one thing, even George W. Bush received him during his visit in 2007 (and awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal) and other Congressional leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, met with him during his most recent visit in October. Of course, this was enough to make the Chinese dissatisfied: shortly thereafter, China accused the US of interfering with their internal affairs. In the end, Obama's tactical move not only enraged those who think the US should take a principled stand on human rights in China, but it also failed to deliver the goal of pleasing the Chinese government, instead encouraging them to make even more ambitious demands.

To anyone who has been watching Obama's presidency with a little bit of a critical eye, this scenario looks eerily familiar. In fact, we witnessed a similar tactical blunder even before the Obamas moved into the White House, when then president-elect asked Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration ceremony. For the sake of context, this choice was controversial due to Warren's widely publicized support for Proposition 8, an anti-gay marriage ballot measure in California during the November election. The choice of an extremely conservative pastor was widely seen as Obama's attempt to reach out to the conservative base and passionately criticized by his largely progressive supporters. In the end, it did very little to improve national cohesion (as evidenced by the largest partisan gap in Obama's job approval ratings, according to PEW) and at the same time offended his socially progressive supporters.

Fast forwarding to last summer, we saw the same pattern emerge during the health care reform debate. As the debate quickly focused in on the question of the public plan - a government run insurance option - the legislators increasingly looked to the White House for guidance. At this critical juncture, in an apparent attempt to bring some Republican support on board, the President and his advisors, through interviews and press conferences communicated the message that while the President supports the public plan, it is "not the entirety of health-care reform" and "not the essential element". Ironically, this telegraphed flexibility did not make Republicans any more constructive in the reform efforts. In fact, despite the president's soft-pedaling on one of the key components of reform, it seems likely that if reform passes, it will happen with no Republican votes.

Obama's willingness to make sacrifices to achieve greater goals - Dalai Lama vs the Chinese, progressive issues vs national cohesion, public option vs bipartisan support - is theoretically understandable as shrewd political calculus. However, it is then imperative to judge his effectiveness in making these trade-offs and, so far, it seems to be very limited. In fact, it seems that every time the President decides to give something up, he receives very little in return. The impression it creates is one of an almost pathological desire to please his opponents even if this disregards the sensitivities of those that might be hurt in the process.

It is certainly understandable how his predilection for compromise and trade-offs would make Obama appealing to a certain committee in Norway. At home, however, he is testing the patience of his liberal base. It is ironic that one of the common criticisms of George W Bush was his inflexibility. These days, Democrats sometimes wish that Obama would exhibit some of that stubbornness, at least when it comes to defending their interests – the promises he made a year ago.

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