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Archive for January, 2010

By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-28-10

The State of the Union Address is Woodrow Wilson’s gift to future presidents. President Thomas Jefferson submitted the annual update the Constitution mandated in writing, deeming presidential appearances before Congress too monarchical. In December 1913, after his first year in office, Wilson decided to address a joint session of Congress directly. Ninety-six-years and a little more than one month later, Barack Obama took full advantage of President Wilson’s gift, appearing crisp and commanding after weeks when even the so-far-embarrassingly-pliant Washington press corps was starting to doubt Obama’s allure.

The mathematics of the State of the Union enhance the dramatics. There stands the Commander in Chief – nowadays the Celebrity in Chief, too – flanked by his Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Things in Washington have become so staged that, this year, when Vice President Joseph Biden’s purple tie matched Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s purple outfit observers wondered if their staffers coordinated their clothing. Everyone else crowded into the House of Representatives chamber is also reduced to a prop. Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, Generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 100 Senators, and 435 Representatives, sit in the well. America’s legislators end up looking ridiculous not just diminished, as the members of the President’s party bob up and down giving their leader repeated standing ovations and loud “Huzzahs!” while their rivals alternate between clapping begrudgingly and sitting in stony silence. The President wafts over the chaos, doling out his pearls of wisdom, as the people’s representatives act like schoolkids engaged in locker-room antics.

These days, the magic of television magnifies the speech’s power. The first State of the Union speech was broadcast on radio in 1923, and on television in 1947, benefitting Harry Truman as he began planning a 1948 campaign few thought he would win. Televising the speech further trivializes America’s political elite because the President speaks past them to the real audience, the American people.

Obama started strong. His presence, his fluidity, his characteristic calm and charm, reminded Americans why they elected him. Rather than trying to play cute with the usual formulation – some variation at the beginning of “the state of our union is strong” – he acknowledged the economic “devastation” and Americans’ “anxieties.” Evoking the Civil War and World War II, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, he reminded Americans that, when tested before, they “answer[ed] history’s call.”

Obama quickly plunged into a much-needed defense of the bank bailout and his stimulus plan. In his most human moment, he acknowledged that Democrats and Republicans united in hating the bailout: “I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal.” His stimulus defense appeared more substantive as he detailed the bill’s accomplishments. But to avoid being too professorial, Obama failed to connect the dots, not quite explaining how that controversial bill actually created the jobs he enumerated.

On health care, Obama struck the right balance between being resolute and contrite. For a “Mr. Spock” type far more similar to George W. Bush in refusing to be self-critical than to the perpetually-apologetic Bill Clinton, Obama said: “I take my share of the blame for not explaining it [the health care reform] more clearly to the American people.” As usual, Obama was better at restating the need for reform than justifying his particular prescription, but he used the power of the podium brilliantly in challenging the opposition, saying: “if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.” An uncomfortable silence reigned among the chastened Republicans, who seemed to shrink more.

Perhaps the night’s most poignant moment came when America’s political messiah of 2008 confessed his mortality in 2010. “I campaigned on the promise of change…,” the Yes-we-can man said, “[b]ut remember this – I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated.” The President was half-right. Change is hard; but his campaign certainly implied it would be easy, which was part of its charm then, and explains the inevitable disappointment now.

Obama finished with a pep talk for partisans combined with the storyline he hopes will hold the independents. “We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade,” he said, once again bashing Bush. “But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don’t quit. I don’t quit,” he roared, flashing the partisan steel he honed in Chicago’s political wards. “Let’s seize this moment — to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more.”

For all the optics, one strong State of the Union address is not enough to redeem a presidency – it is too much of a “gimme,” too much of a set up, to change history. But the 2010 State of the Union showed that the obituaries pronouncing Obama’s political demise were premature. And his acknowledgment that “change” would not be easy was a rare understatement.

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By Gil Troy, The Globe and Mail, 1-20-10

The people of Massachusetts handed President Barack Obama a stinging political rebuke on his first anniversary in office. The descent from “Yes we can” to “No we won’t” was dizzying. Mr. Obama won the Bay State last year by more than 25 percentage points in his triumphal march to his historic inauguration. A year later, Republican Scott Brown won the special Massachusetts Senate election by five points to replace the late Ted Kennedy. The message is clear: Voters, especially independent ones, believe Mr. Obama’s presidency is on the wrong track.

To avoid derailment, President Obama must learn from Candidate Obama to transcend partisanship. He must reread his analysis in The Audacity of Hope that America has moved beyond 1960s-style Big Government liberalism, even as it realized it must move beyond 1980s-style Reaganism, too. In short, Mr. Obama must renew his vow to lead from the centre.

Although the Democratic candidate, Martha Coakley, ran a Keystone Kops campaign in Massachusetts, Mr. Obama should take her defeat personally, especially after campaigning for her on Sunday. Mr. Brown boldly made the election a referendum on Mr. Obama’s leadership and Mr. Obama’s health-care reform. Cries of “41” at Mr. Brown’s victory party celebrated his new power as the 41st Republican senator, preventing the Democrats from blocking a Republican filibuster that could bury health care or any other major reform.

Campaign signs calling Mr. Brown “the people’s candidate” captured his campaign’s populism, immortalizing his greatest moment. Moderating a debate between the candidates, CNN’s David Gergen asked Mr. Brown about the irony that, by sitting “in Teddy Kennedy’s seat,” he might sink Mr. Kennedy’s long-sought health-care reform for another 15 years. Mr. Brown’s reply was one of those great political sound bites: “Well, with all due respect, it’s not the Kennedys’ seat, and it’s not the Democrats’ seat, it’s the people’s seat.”

Mr. Obama’s big drop in Massachusetts is among independent voters – paralleling a nationwide collapse. To win them back, he must disprove the growing impression that he is a 1960s-style “tax and spend” liberal, wildly expanding the budget deficit by responding to every major problem with a big government solution. More broadly, he must liberate his presidency from the death grip of congressional Democrats.

Polls show Mr. Obama made two huge mistakes with Obamacare. First, by focusing on health-care reform before the economy revived, he seemed to be exploiting the crisis to force change, believing, as his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has said, that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Second, by deputizing Congress to draft the legislation, Mr. Obama ended up with a bill that appeared fiscally irresponsible, excessive, clunky and perverted by the kind of legislative logrolling – meaning legalized bribery – that characterizes Congress at work. Instead of hovering above the fray like the philosopher-king most Americans thought they were electing, Mr. Obama got mired in Washington’s political muck, smelling like every other political hack.

Mr. Obama should learn from the great Democratic Party phoenix, Bill Clinton, who understood how to find redemption by playing to the centre, repeatedly. But, even more important, Mr. Obama must become what he once was, a human dream catcher, weaving a redemptive, inclusive narrative that wowed Americans – and the world – with a message of hope, a politics of healing, an instinct for outreach and the gift of fine phrase.

Mr. Obama first caught Americans’ attention with his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, preaching a modern multicultural gospel of mutuality and idealism at the heart of American nationalism. None of that poetry was apparent when Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson secured promises of complete federal funding forever for his state’s expanded Medicaid payments, while other states would only enjoy three years of full funding. Mr. Obama should reread his Audacity of Hope with its many homilies about forging consensus, crossing the aisle and governing with a spirit of bipartisanship. And he must revive the national sense of idealism and optimism with which so many Americans greeted his election.

True, Mr. Obama ended up governing amid economic distress. And true, the prose of governing is never as uplifting as the poetry of politicking. But the crisis facing America and the tone Mr. Obama set on his way into office should have reinforced a push to the centre rather than to the left.

Traditionally, U.S. presidents have found salvation in the centre – George Washington evoked America’s common cause, Abraham Lincoln sang a new song of American nationalism, and Franklin Roosevelt passed one of America’s most radical reforms, Social Security, with a strong bipartisan majority. To revive his presidency – and to pass a realistic health-care reform bill – Mr. Obama should remember this American tradition and solve today’s crisis by being as moderate as other past presidents, thus reminding all Americans of their common commitment to a peaceful, prosperous and just future.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He is the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-20-10

A year ago, on January 20, 2009, Barack Obama was the avatar of American hope, the yes we can man, promising to redeem America – and the world. A year later, his election to the presidency remains his greatest accomplishment. But his anniversary comes during a slump. His first Christmas in office was ruined by al-Qaida’s attempt to down a commercial jet, mocking his efforts to end the war on terror.

His first New Year’s Day in office marked the passing of a deadline he imposed on Iran as it gallops toward nuclear status, which the mullahs contemptuously ignored. And his first anniversary coincided with the stunning loss of what Democrats arrogantly called “Ted Kennedy’s seat” to a Republican upstart. The Massachusetts mess reflects a national problem. Polls show independent voters abandoning Obama on an unprecedented scale, even as Democrats still support the rookie president.

In fairness, being president in 2009 was not easy. When Obama started running, he, like most people, assumed the good times would continue. Bill Clinton can tell his successor that it is a lot more fun to preside over prosperity than manage a recession.

But many of Obama’s problems are Obama’s fault. In 2008, candidate Obama promised to lead from the center. He sang a song of modern American nationalism, a “yes we can” credo of working together, seeking the national sweet spot where most Americans could agree.

In his best-selling book The Audacity of Hope, Obama promised to govern as a post-Reagan liberal, understanding that big government solutions cannot answer every American problem, that culture counts and that forging compromise and building consensus could move America beyond a politics of slim, polarizing victories and partisan vilification.

Alas, in his big push for health care reform, Obama deputized the partisan, ideologically-charged Democrats in Congress to draft the legislation, and accepted pushing for a marginal victory rather than nurturing a broad-based bipartisan coalition

The Republicans share the blame. The party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush has become the party of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, shrill, demagogic, adolescent, obstructionist. Quick to criticize but slow to envision constructive alternatives, the Republicans have been the party of “no we won’t” to Obama’s “yes we can.”

AS OBAMA deepens the budget deficit, Republicans suffer from deficient leadership. On Sunday, when Obama campaigned in Massachusetts for Martha Coakley, her opponent Scott Brown held a “people’s rally” without national politicians, generating star power from a pitcher, Curt Schilling, a quarterback, Doug Flutie, and an actor, John Ratzenberger, who played the kooky mailman Cliff Clavin on Cheers.

Still, Obama’s healing magic was supposed to transcend the partisan divisions, and his efforts have been too half-hearted given the depth of the divide. The president needed to serve up serious models of reconciliation and joint envisioning on health care rather than simply serving cookies to some Republican congressional guests at last year’s Super Bowl.

Abroad, America’s enemies have been even more uncooperative. Obama has shown Carteresque instincts, punishing friends while kowtowing to enemies, appeasing dictators while disappointing dissidents, viewing terrorism as a police matter not a military threat. All too often, his instincts have been wrong. He has been far too measured in reacting to the “Green Revolution” in Iran, protecting his thus far feeble outreach to the mullahs while underestimating just how much he could have helped Iran’s protesters given the international pop star he has become.

He first reacted to the Fort Hood massacre legalistically, treating it as a regrettable criminal deviation rather than as a link in an unholy jihadist chain targeting Americans, Westerners, innocents. And by embracing the narrative that Israeli settlements are the biggest obstacles to Middle East peace, Obama clumsily bolstered Palestinian rejectionists, who happily placed more preconditions on Israel before even beginning negotiations while shifting attention away from their genocidal refusal to accept its existence, the true heart of the problem.

Nevertheless, Obama has disappointed his leftist allies by staying in Iraq, sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and approving drone air strikes in Pakistan. These moves reflect the kind of centrist pragmatism Obama peddled in his campaign, rather than the knee-jerk leftism he has too frequently relied on in fighting the recession, seeking a needed solution to the health care problem and dealing with Iran, the Palestinians and the Saudis.

HEREIN LIES the path to redemption. Americans still like their new president and want him to succeed. “No Drama, Obama” has assembled a strong team with few embarrassments, scandals or distractions from the people’s business, thus far. Obama himself has come across as serious, sober, scandal-free and still seductive, not yet frittering away all that rhetorical and political magic he deployed so effectively in 2008 to dazzle America and the world.

In the 1980s, conservatives used to cry “Let Reagan be Reagan,” urging White House aides to banish the too-pragmatic, centrist and accommodating Reagan leading America in favor of the right-wing anti-communist they adored. Today, pragmatists and centrists must cry “Let Obama be Obama,” urging his aides to banish the big-government-oriented, budget-busting, war-on-terror-negating, 1960s liberal he appeared so frequently to be this past year in favor of the more moderate, restrained, realistic, post-partisan visionary he promised to be last year.

It is true that, historically few presidents have been able to build popularity their second year, and that it has long been difficult for presidents to free themselves from the gravitational pull of a congressional majority. But Barack Obama did not become president by remaining imprisoned by historical precedents.

Just as his “yes we can” campaign broke free of the shackles of the past, in this, his sophomore year, America’s rookie president must break free from the shackles of liberal Democratic orthodoxy.

In 2004, Barack Obama wowed America with a vision of a 21st century, post-baby-boomer liberal nationalism. He synthesized the liberal idealism of the ’60s with the conservative anti-government skepticism of the ’80s, balancing the selfishness of the 1980s with the altruism of the 1960s, while embracing America as a positive, powerful force for freedom and justice in the world without delusions that undermine the primary national mission of self-preservation. Let us hope that Obama sets the “reset button” on his own presidency in 2010, for his sake, America’s sake and the world’s sake.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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The Washington Times, 1-14-10

COMMUNISM: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION

By Leslie Holmes

Oxford University Press, $11.95, 144 pages

THE SOVIET UNION: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION

By Stephen Lovell

Oxford University Press, $11.95, 144 pages

THE REAGAN REVOLUTION: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION

By Gil Troy

Oxford University Press, $11.95, 168 pages

Reviewed by Jeremy Lott

“This is a book,” writes University of Melbourne political scientist Leslie Holmes, “about a dream … that for too many became a nightmare.”

The book is “Communism: A Very Short Introduction,” and it is one of three related volumes released recently as part of Oxford University Press’ invaluable, sprawling Very Short Introduction series. The other two Very Short Introductions that we will consider are “The Soviet Union,” by Kings College reader Stephen Lovell, and “The Reagan Revolution,” by McGill University historian Gil Troy. These three authors help document the nightmare that was communism and how most of the world finally managed to jolt itself awake from it.

“The overwhelming majority of states that were Communist as recently as the late 1980s have now moved on,” explains Mr. Holmes, former president of the International Council for Central and East European Studies. “While, formally, five Communist states remain, the two successful ones (China and Vietnam) are so largely because they have jettisoned many of the original basic tenets of communism and are in some important areas – notably the economy – already post communist.”

Of the other three holdouts, Laos is a “backwater” that is beginning a transition to capitalism, North Korea is an isolated kingdom, and Cuba is trying to hold back American influence, with a little help from U.S. sanctions. In another decade or so, it’s possible that the few remaining nations will not even bother to describe themselves as communist.

The near total collapse of communism is a really remarkable thing, given how ascendant world communism looked for so long. From the Russian Revolution of 1917 to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, the reds were on a roll. Mr. Holmes reminds us, “By the 1970s, more than a third of the world’s population lived in a Communist system.”

In 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall was torn down, the same year Ronald Reagan boldly declared “the Cold War is over,” Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson wrote in the latest edition of his popular textbook “Economics” that the “Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive.” Mr. Lovell provides the perfect rebuttal to that sort of blinkered theorizing in his survey of the Soviet Union: “The Soviet order ended as it had started: with food queues.”

There aren’t many remaining out-and-out apologists for communism left, but some thinkers have offered creative arguments for why it failed. Karl Marx theorized that communism was the stage that an economy could reach only after capitalism, but the places that communism really took root – Russia, China, Cambodia, etc. – were not industrialized, and the communist regimes felt they had to sacrifice a great deal of their citizens’ blood, sweat and foolish bourgeoisie dreams to secure a better proletarian future.

The result was buckets of blood – senseless death on a massive scale. Perhaps 100 million people were killed by communist governments in the 20th century, and, no, that’s not counting most wars. Mr. Lovell says his task is to “characterize the Soviet Union, not pass sentence on it,” but any accurate characterization will invite angry condemnation.

Forget, for a moment, the purges, the gulag, the show trials and most other state-sponsored forms of violence. Even when the communists weren’t actively trying to kill people, they still often managed it through dogmatic determination and malign neglect.

The efforts to collectivize agriculture brought famines, killing millions of innocent people. This is illustrated by one haunting photo in Mr. Lovell’s book, captioned “A starvation victim in Kiev, November 1932.” In the picture, one man lies on his back on the sidewalk while half a dozen people mill around him. No one looks at him or gives any indication that he is anything other than a part of the landscape. People chat. A father takes his son’s hand and shuffles him away. Nothing can be done about it, so the people avert their gaze.

Mr. Lovell and Mr. Holmes look more at communism’s interior deterioration but do say that outside agents hastened its demise. Mr. Holmes writes that “by the beginning of the 1980, leading Western nations had a new generation of much tougher-minded anti-communist leaders, notably Margaret Thatcher in the UK (1979) and Ronald Reagan in the USA (1980). The tide was about to turn, and the days of Communist power’s expansion were over.”

Mr. Troy does a good job showing the part Ronald Reagan’s statesmanship played in hastening communism’s end in the Soviet Union and its satellite states. President Reagan’s religious upbringing and his reading of free-market economists played a role, as did his anti-communist credentials. He knew that communism had gotten human nature dead wrong and that a command economy couldn’t work; thus he knew where the Soviet Union was vulnerable.

The surprising thing, to many of President Reagan’s critics, is that he showed how vulnerable he could be as well. “[W]hile recovering from John Hinckley’s bullet,” Mr. Troy reminds us, “Reagan wrote a surprisingly warm letter to soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev” and he would reach out to Mikhail Gorbachev, which helped to make the Soviet Union’s dissolution relatively bloodless. He wanted world peace and – for one all-too-brief moment – he got it.

Jeremy Lott is editor of Capital Research Center’s Labor Watch newsletter and author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency” (Thomas Nelson, 2007).

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National Post, 12-29-09

“America went into the decade as the great victor from the Cold War. There was a combination of self-righteousness and a sense of power. Both of those have been lost,” says Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University.

“The two biggest traumas of the decade – 9/11 and the economic meltdown – hit America very personally, where it hurts. You have a country that has been knocked down a peg or two.”

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Dallas Morning News, 1-1-2010

“For most of us, life has continued,” writes historian Gil Troy in an op-ed piece for the History News Network. “We have maintained our routines, while watching these disasters unfold on the news.”…..


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