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Archive for October, 2009

By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-19-09

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. His latest book is: Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents (Basic Books).

This is part of an ongoing project to track the ideological shifts of the Obama administration. Click here to read the initial installment. Key search phrase for other installments in this series: “The Moderometer”

For better or for worse, the media has largely ignored President Obama’s legislative efforts during the past few weeks, preferring to focus on the president’s highly publicized trip to Copenhagen in support of Chicago’s failed Olympic bid and his surprise Nobel Peace Prize win. Ultimately, as the furor over the Peace Prize reveals, Obama’s policy successes will shape his historic legacy much more than the sideshows of Olympic medals and Nobel Prizes.

October 10, 2009: PROMISES, ONCE AGAIN, TO END ‘DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL’: Speaking at a dinner held by the influential gay advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, President Obama echoed an earlier pledge to end the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. He neglected, however, to set a timetable for doing so, frustrating much of the gay community. As commander-in-chief, President Obama could theoretically overturn the policy by issuing an executive order, as President Harry Truman did in 1948 to end segregation in the military. (Domestic – Left)

October 9, 2009: ACCEPTS NOBEL PEACE PRIZE: In an announcement that surprised the world, the Nobel committee announced that President Obama had won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The president accepted the award later that afternoon, saying that he was “deeply humbled” by the prize. Though not a policy move in itself, Obama’s acceptance of the peace prize demonstrated the extent to which he has broken with much of his predecessor’s foreign policy. (Foreign – Left)

October 6, 2009: SEARCHES FOR MIDDLE GROUND ON AFGHAN WAR: Though he remains undecided on whether or not he will send more troops to Afghanistan per General Stanley McChrystal recommendation, President Obama told senior senators and congressmen that he would not substantially draw down American forces in the country. Many Democrats in Congress have recently voiced opposition to a buildup, while Republicans such as Senator John McCain (R-AZ) have encouraged Obama to order the increase without delay. White House officials have indicated that the president is several weeks from a decision. (Foreign – Center)

September 30, 2009: WEAKENS ‘MEDIA SHIELD’ BILL: In move that reflects the administration’s conservative stance on national security matters, President Obama sent a bill designed to protect reporters back to Congress with significant revisions. The bill, sponsored by Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), originally included provisions to protect reporters from being forced to testify information obtained from confidential sources. The Obama administration’s changes, however, render those protections largely ineffective when cases involve matters of national security. “The White House’s opposition to the fundamental essence of this bill is an unexpected and significant setback,” Schumer wrote in a response statement. (Domestic – Right)

September 30, 2009: AUTHORIZES E.P.A. TO MOVE FORWARD ON REGULATIONS: Faced with the increasingly low probability that Congress will pass a climate change bill before international talks in Copenhagen in December, President Obama authorized the Environmental Protection Agency to start preparing new emissions rules. Such regulations, which would chiefly affect the country’s 400 largest power plants, have been stridently opposed by both the industry and some elements of the G.O.P. Faced with the prospect of E.P.A. regulation, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) published a joint op-ed piece in The New York Times in response urging bipartisan Congressional action. (Domestic – Left)

September 28, 2009: BACKTRACKS ON GUANTÁNAMO DEADLINE: In his daily briefing, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs implied that President Obama may not meet his self-imposed deadline for closing the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. “We’re not focused on whether or not the deadline will or won’t be met on a particular day,” Gibbs told reporters. When he took office in January, the president promised to close the prison within a year. This has been made difficult, however, by the thorny legal questions surrounding the prisoners and Congressional opposition to having the men transferred onto U.S. soil. (Foreign – Right)

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-16-09

When Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine voted for the Senate Finance Committee’s health bill this week, Democrats rejoiced. “We have today a bipartisan bill,” White House Press Secretary Joe Gibbs exulted. While it made sense for Democrats to welcome Snowe’s support after an excruciating, high-stakes process, one moderate maverick crossing the aisle does not make the bill truly bipartisan. Mistaking a deviation for a trend in politics is like mistaking one defection for a peace treaty during wartime.

Wherever one stands on the health care debate, and on Senator Snowe’s decision, it is misleading to call this week’s tokenism bipartisanship. True bipartisanship means working together, building bridges, finding common interests, forging consensus. Bipartisanship is Republicans and Democrats spurred by the graciousness of John McCain and Barack Obama, celebrating the election of the first African-American President last November. Bipartisanship is McCain and 13 other centrist Senators creating a “Gang of Fourteen” to approve Republican judicial nominations so as to head off the “nuclear option” threatening Senate prerogatives Democrats were enjoying. And bipartisanship is the shared feelings of mourning mingled with patriotism after 9/11, epitomized by dozens of tearful, subdued members of Congress spontaneously singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps hours after the downing of Flight 93, which may have been targeting that very site.

Historically, true bipartisanship occurred when righteous renegades or statesmanlike party leaders led others to create a broad coalition, even if reluctantly. Back in 1964, Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois, the Senate Minority Leader, was the key figure in breaking the 83-day filibuster against the landmark Civil Rights Bill. President Lyndon Johnson gave Senator Dirksen his famous “treatment,” understanding the secret formula for Congressional cajolery: one part flattery, one part bribery, leavened by a sense of history. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, deployed by Johnson as point man, recalled wooing Dirksen aggressively but elegantly: “I began a public massage of his ego, and appealed to his vanity. I said he should look at this issue as ‘a moral issue, not a partisan one.’ The gentle pressure left room for him to be the historically important figure in our struggle, the statesman above bipartisanship….” More crassly, Humphrey admitted he even would have been willing to kiss “Dirksen’s ass on the Capitol steps.”

Humphrey finally succeeded without going that far. Dirksen broke the filibuster, quoting Victor Hugo: “Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come. The time has come for equality … in education and in employment. It will not be stayed or denied it is here.” The cloture vote passed with a surprisingly wide margin of 71 to 29. When asked how he became a force pushing for civil rights Dirksen grandly replied, “I am involved in mankind, and whatever the skin, we are all included in mankind.”

Dirksen’s sense of history made him immortal – they named a Senate Office building after him, among other things. Moreover he saved the Republican Party. Today, whatever else their standing with African-Americans may be at any particular moment, Republicans can say with pride that they helped pass the 1964 Civil Rights bill, thanks to Everett Dirksen.

Similarly, in the 1940s, Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg helped lead his party and the nation away from a pinched, provincial, isolationism. President Harry Truman could construct his emerging Cold War foreign policy as bipartisan, thanks especially to Vandenberg. On Friday, April 13, 1945, his first full day in office, Truman lunched with seventeen congressional leaders. Vandenberg hailed this unprecedented move for ending Franklin Roosevelt’s era of presidential unilateralism. Vandenberg’s pronouncement that “politics stops at the water’s edge” built popular consensus behind America’s containment strategy. Vandenberg remained a Republican and occasionally contradicted the President, saying that frank exchanges facilitated true unity. The senator saw himself leading the “loyal opposition” putting “national security ahead of partisan advantage.”

Senator Vandenberg’s journey from ardent partisan isolationist to leading bipartisan interventionist reflected the massive ideological shift Franklin Roosevelt facilitated, and Harry Truman completed. Vandenberg’s rift with the Republican isolationists underlined the continuing American resistance to becoming a world superpower. America did not even have a standing army. Many isolationists such as “Mr. Republican,” Ohio Senator Robert Taft, reluctantly accepted the fight against fascism but hoped returning to normalcy included restoring America’s characteristic insulation.

Facing a divided country and a treacherous world, Truman crusaded for cooperation. In his first speech to Congress, on April 16, 1945, Truman said only “a united nation deeply devoted to the highest ideals” could provide the “enlightened leadership” the world needed. This strategy, and both Vandenberg’s and Truman’s good works, were vindicated repeatedly, culminating with Soviet Communism’s collapse, which historians credit as a bipartisan victory.

By contrast, a century earlier the “Compromise of 1850” was not much of a compromise — or too much of a compromise. No one was happy. Henry Clay’s nationalist attempt to craft an omnibus package had failed, rejected in the summer of 1850. The legislation passed – but ultimately failed – because the young Democratic Senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas crafted a series of shifting congressional coalitions passing individual parts of the legislation, reflecting sectional differences not national concerns. Southerners supported the individual planks which pleased Southerners, while Northern representatives endorsed the pro-Northern legislation. There was no reconciliation, legislative or otherwise. The misnamed Compromise of 1850 failed to find common ground or common terms, the essential elements of bipartisanship. In playing to sectional differences not splitting the difference, the Compromise spread the pain without consolidating any gain.

Senators Dirksen and Vandenberg made history because they were not renegades but pioneers, leading their reluctant, partisan followers across the Red Sea to the promised land of bipartisanship to benefit America. Presidents Johnson and Truman – with assists from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, among others — understood that bipartisanship is not about luring one or two mavericks across the aisle, but convincing a broad swath of citizens and leaders that change is coming, and better to be on the right side of history.

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By Gil Troy, Toronto Globe and Mail, 10-10-09

As liberals rejoice in Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize and conservatives grumble, let’s be honest: It is too early too tell. Awarding this prize either may be prescient or premature. Regardless, the award reflects the noble aspirations of the award committee and the prize winner.

The committee beautifully described Mr. Obama’s greatest accomplishment thus far. “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future,” the citation says. The fact that despite its racist past, despite the stains of slavery and Jim Crow, the United States sent a black man to the White House was a modern miracle. That this President was only 47 when elected, and had, by his own description, a “funny name,” is even more amazing especially following 9/11.

Mr. Obama’s election in November, 2008, and his inauguration in 2009 bequeathed to the world two magical moments. On election night, the tears streaming down black and white faces the world over said it all. At the inauguration, the iconography was extraordinary. There was the defining image from the 2008 campaign of a thoughtful, messianic Mr. Obama looking off into the distance, with the four-letter word HOPE emblazoned in light blue on a black and red background. There were drawings of Mr. Obama surrounded by ghosts of African-Americans past, the trailblazers ranging from secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to the first serious black presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm.

Images juxtaposed Mr. Obama with Martin Luther King, linking the August, 1963, March on Washington that filled the Mall from the Lincoln Monument with the January, 2009, Obama inauguration that filled the Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Monument. Some artists depicted Barack and Michelle Obama as the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten – King Tut’s father – and his Chief Consort Nefertiti.

There were slogans galore: “Yes We Did,” “A Legacy of Hope,” “the Healing Process Has Begun,” and “Thank you Jesus, We Never Would Have Made it Without You.”

Since then, such images and slogans have filled our global village. I have seen home shrines to Mr. Obama in Chateguay and have heard of elaborate shrines in huts in Kenya. During this dark recession year, America’s single greatest export has been the hope Mr. Obama transmitted to billions of the disillusioned, the oppressed, the discriminated against throughout the world. This achievement alone deserves a Nobel.

Alas, even with Mr. Obama in office, the world is menaced by ignoble characters who disdain his noble aspirations. The jury is still out whether Mr. Obama’s politics of hope and diplomacy of engagement can work in a world of al-Qaeda killers, North Korean dictators, Iranian madmen, Iraqi insurgents, Taliban fanatics, Afghan warlords, Pakistani generals, Russian strongmen, Saudi Sheiks, Sudanese slaughterers, Guinean rapists and Hamas terrorists.

So far, there have been no major disasters on Mr. Obama’s watch – but no major successes either. North Korea and Iran continue to develop nuclear power: North Korea launched missiles on July 4 to defy Mr. Obama, while Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole an election and cracked down on democratic forces with barely a peep from the U.S. President. Mr. Obama has kept pressing al-Qaeda with drone attacks, the Taliban with talk of more troops, Iraqi anarchists by refusing to withdraw precipitously.

But the Russians seem to think he can be pushed around, horrific crimes like the mass murder in Darfur and the mass military rapes of opposition protesters in Guinea continue to occur (inevitably, alas). And in a striking, but characteristic contrast from the Middle East, this week, Prof. Ada Yonath won Israel’s ninth Nobel prize – and the first chemistry Nobel for a woman since 1964 – even as Hamas and other Palestinian agitators called for violence in Jerusalem.

The contrast between noble societies that invest in science and ignoble societies addicted to terror, between noble political cultures that produce hope-generators like Barack Obama and ignoble political cultures that produce mass killers, remains stunning – and daunting.

Good people throughout the world should unite in hoping that the aspirations embedded in this award to a rookie President quickly transform into impressive achievements. Thus far, Mr. Obama has dazzled the world with his poetry. Let us hope that when we look back on this moment, his Nobel prize will be a milestone in his ability to turn his transcendent poetry into workable, governable prose, the hopes into feats, and, nations’ swords into plowshares.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-5-09

Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. His latest book is: Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents (Basic Books).

This is part of an ongoing project to track the ideological shifts of the Obama administration. Click here to read the initial installment. Key search phrase for other installments in this series: “The Moderometer”

The past several weeks have seen Obama’s search for a centrist position on health care grow more urgent. Back in 1981, Democrats returned to Congress in the fall emboldened in their fight against the Reagan Revolution, blaming the recession on President Reagan and attacking him on the “fairness issue.” This September, Congressional Republicans also returned ready to fight. During the coming weeks, President Obama must decide how far he will go in courting Republican support on the health care bill. And if he fails to garner such support, historians will have to ask whether this was due to an unwillingness to comprise by the Democrats, the Republicans, or both.

The president seemed to make more progress in advancing his foreign policy vision this month.  As so often happens with presidents, dramatic diplomatic decisions—along with star turns at the U.N. and at summits with world leaders—are easier to control than Congressional legislation.  Despite Republican criticism over his decision to scrap George W. Bush’s proposed Eastern European missile defense system, President Obama made some progress in enlisting  the support of Britain, France, Russia, and China in his effort to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. If this combination of force and diplomacy works, it will represent a truly centrist foreign policy.

September 25, 2009: WITH BRITAIN AND FRANCE, EXPOSES IRANIAN DECEPTION: Speaking with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, President Obama revealed intelligence that Iran has been secretly building a new nuclear enrichment plant deep inside a mountain. According to Western intelligence officials, the plant’s smaller size and hidden location make it unlikely that it is intended for civilian use. If Iran refuses to allow inspectors to monitor the facility, the U.S. and its allies will likely impose strict sanctions on the country. As Brown said at the conference, “The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.” (Foreign – Center)

September 23, 2009: WINS TENTATIVE CHINESE AND RUSSIAN SUPPORT AT THE U.N.: In his first visit to the United Nations, President Obama demonstrated that his administration’s increased emphasis on diplomacy has, at least to some extent, paid off. Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian president, announced his support for implementing tougher sanctions against Iran and its nuclear program, a development that would have seemed unlikely just months ago. Political analysts credit Obama’s abandonment of George W. Bush’s plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe as largely responsible for Russian support on the issue. The president also secured support from both China and Russia on a Security Council resolution to toughen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. (Foreign – Center)

September 23, 2009: DECIDES NOT TO SEEK NEW PRISONER LEGISLATION: The Obama administration announced that it would not ask Congress for specific legislative permission to continue holding prisoners at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, instead relying on authority already provided by Congress.” The move surprised some Democrats who had thought the president would seek to establish a more solid foundation for the indefinite detention of prisoners than George W. Bush’s administration. It would be extremely difficult, however, to craft legislation amenable to both Houses, especially given the current health care debate. (Domestic – Right)

September 17, 2009: ABANDONS BUSH’S PROPOSED MISSILE DEFENSE SYSTEM: In a major foreign policy reversal, President Obama announced that he would abandon George W. Bush’s plans to build a missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic by 2018. Instead, Obama said he plans to station smaller missile interceptors based on ships designed to counter the Iranian threat. Though Obama’s proposed system should be operational by 2011—far earlier than the Bush version—some Republicans harshly criticized the decision. “Scrapping the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner in a particularly harsh statement. (Foreign – Left)

September 17, 2009: HOUSE PASSES STUDENT LOAN REFORM BILL: The House of Representatives passed a bill championed by President Obama that will expand federal aid to college students while reforming the way that aid is distributed. While the federal government currently subsidizes private lenders to students, the new bill, authored by Congressman George Miller (D-CA), allows the federal government to lend directly to students. It is expected to pass the Senate despite Republican complaints that it will expand the scope of the federal government. (Domestic – Center)

September 14, 2009: URGES INCREASED FINANCIAL REGULATION: Speaking at Federal Hall on Wall Street, President Obama touted the nation’s economic recovery while exhorting Congress to pass increase federal regulation of the banking sector. “The only way to avoid a crisis of this magnitude is to ensure that large firms can’t take risks that threaten our entire financial system, and to make sure that they have the resources to weather even the worst of economic storms,” Obama said in his speech, which came a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. (Domestic – Center)

September 10, 2009: FACES LESSENING CONGRESSIONAL SUPPORT FOR WAR: As he contemplates further troop increases in Afghanistan in the wake of General Stanley McChrystal’s recent report, President Obama is losing support from Congressional Democrats on the issue. “I don’t think there is a great deal of support for sending more troops to Afghanistan in the country or in Congress,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, also came out against sending in more troops on Thursday, saying that the U.S. should first focus on training more Afghan forces. (Foreign – Right)

September 9, 2009: ADDRESSES CONGRESS TO PUSH HEALTH CARE: In a much anticipated, televised address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama invoked the late Senator Edward Kennedy to push for Congress to enact health care reform before the year’s end. The president courted the political centre on an issue that became increasingly polarized over the summer, extolling the virtues of his “public option” while not insisting upon its inclusion in the legislation. Indeed, the only caveat he insisted on for signing the bill was that it not add “one dime to our deficits—either now or in the future.” (Domestic – Center)

September 8, 2009: AMID CONTROVERSY, SPEAKS TO NATION’S SCHOOLS: President Obama spoke to the country’s schoolchildren in a nationally televised address, urging them to work hard and respect each other in the coming year. In a sign of how polarizing a figure the president has become, however, parents and school districts around the country decried the speech or forbade students from watching it. (Domestic – Center)

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