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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 8-11-11

U.S. President Barack Obama is smart, eloquent and talented, but inexperienced as an executive. While he still needs more management experience, the presidency is not the right place for on-the-job training.

U.S. President Barack Obama is smart, eloquent and talented, but inexperienced as an executive. While he still needs more management experience, the presidency is not the right place for on-the-job training.

Photograph by: Alex Wong, Getty Images

The downgrading of America’s credit rating just days after the debt-ceiling fight ended – followed by wild stock market gyrations – risks branding Barack Obama’s presidency as a historic failure. The S & P analysts made it clear that they were passing political judgment on the United States, not just making an economic assessment. While Republicans clearly share the blame for U.S. political gridlock, Obama shoulders most of the burden as the person in charge.

The perception of American paralysis reflects deep ideological divisions in the country as well as disturbing management failures in the Oval Office. Barack Obama is smart, eloquent and talented, but inexperienced as an executive. As a community organizer, an academic and a senator on the state and national levels, he has led but not managed. The presidency is an executive position and not a place for on-the-job training, especially during times of economic catastrophe.

The debt-ceiling fight and the ensuing downgrade proved yet again that few politicians fear the current president. Obama seemingly skipped the section in Machiavelli that teaches “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” America’s president could learn from Canada’s current prime minister how to motivate in a muscular way, just as Stephen Harper could learn from Obama how to lighten a leader’s touch. Obama’s dainty presidency will continue drifting until both Democrats and Republicans, in Congress and in the executive branch, learn that crossing the president has a cost, and that this president, like other strong leaders, will wreak vengeance on errant allies as well as political enemies.

Petulance is not enough. Obama has repeatedly denounced the Republicans as obstructionist. But these displays of presidential pique backfired, legitimizing Tea Party claims to being independent troublemakers. Moreover, Obama’s denunciations risk becoming ritualized, more like the fulminations of a substitute teacher who cannot control the class rather than the commands of the disciplinarian assistant principal who restores order.

Obama has long struggled with this problem of presidential wimpiness. Rahm Emanuel swaggered into the Oval Office as White House chief of staff to be Obama’s enforcer. But years in the House leadership softened Emanuel, making him too deferential to Congress. Congressional Democrats acted with impunity during the two years they enjoyed a majority in both Houses. The result was the health-care bill, a bill so complex because it indulged so many legislative whims it is difficult for the president to explain clearly in popular terms.

Obama’s most successful predecessors cultivated reputations for toughness. Theodore Roosevelt conceptualized the White House as a bully pulpit for national leadership while understanding the need to bully the occasional critic. Franklin Roosevelt’s famous challenge, “Judge me by the enemies I have made,” today sounds like a wartime boast. In fact, Roosevelt made this defiant statement during his 1932 campaign visit to Portland, Ore., vowing to confront greedy public utilities. As president, Roosevelt perfected various techniques for rewarding friends and punishing enemies. He distributed federal goodies like a tyrannical father doles out love, attention and allowance, favouring the districts of loyal legislators such as Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, whose constituents then prospered.

Conversely, while historians often emphasize Roosevelt’s failure to unseat the conservative Democratic congressmen he opposed in 1938, targeting some kept others in line.

Ronald Reagan, like Obama, was constitutionally unable to bully party members who strayed or opponents who obstructed. But Reagan knew he had to telegraph toughness, especially because many underestimated him as a mere actor and a political amateur. In August 1981, when members of the Air Traffic Controllers’ Union went on strike, Reagan gave the controllers 48 hours to return to work. Two days later, he fired those who continued striking.

“I’ve asked so many leading European financiers when and why they started pumping money into this country,” a British businessman based in Washington said years later, “and they all said the same thing: when Reagan broke the controllers’ strike.”

Obama, like all effective leaders, must remain authentic. Seeking to play the role of the moderate is natural for him, and commendable. But many of America’s most successful presidents understood they had to be muscular moderates, building consensus without playing the patsy.

Political scientist Richard Neustadt characterized the power of the presidency as the power to persuade. In fact, presidential power also comes from the ability to reward and punish, to create careers and destroy others – demanding a ruthlessness in domestic politics that Obama has rarely displayed.

Leaders, even muscular moderates, should be feared, respected and, if possible, as a bonus, loved.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

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By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 1-4-11

It was the year of leaks, both oil and Wiki, plus seeping support for Obama and unrest in Europe and the Mideast

Workers remove oil booms from the beach after reaching the coast of South Pass, south of Venice, Louisiana, as oil leaking from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead continues to spread in the Gulf of Mexico, May 5, 2010.

Photograph by: Carlos Barria, Reuters

Good riddance to 2010 – not only because the calendar gods decree it, but because so many of us were so fed up with it.

Fortunately no historic cataclysm occurred that will jump off the page of future textbooks. Instead, it was a year of slogging through, of feeling drained. It featured major leaks, notably the British Petroleum oil leak and the diplomatic tsunami of WikiLeaks. During 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama’s support and standing continued to seep away. And 2010 witnessed trouble brewing in the United States and Europe, as the prolonged recession drained individuals’ morale, family finances, and communal energies.

The spectacular Deepwater Horizon explosion, and its ensuing oil gush, represented yet another spectacular failure brought to you by the corporate and government structures supposed to keep our world safe. Pictures of poisoned waters, ruined aquatic life and devastated coasts, were heartbreaking -and terrifying. This perfect environmental storm epitomized the high ecological price we pay for our oil addiction, and the humbling human impotence we see sometimes when technological failure begets natural disaster.

True, in less perfectionist, more trusting, times, we could have focused on the heroic, ingenious efforts to cap the underground geyser and clean up the oil spill. Accidents happen. But in our current collective cultural mood, headlines alternated between caricaturing the BP folks as greedy polluters of precious waters and Obamaadministration officials as reprising the George W. Bush administration’s follies following Hurricane Katrina.

The WikiLeaks release represented a different kind of breach -but yet another assault on our confidence in corporate and governmental structures. Once again we learned that the Internet expands our reach while shrinking our zone of privacy. While no particular diplomatic bombshell caused serious damage, the cumulative impact of so many secret documents so easily revealed humiliated the United States. Mostly the documents caught diplomats in the act of being diplomatic -which in kindergarten we called lying. It was embarrassing for Arab states to be caught worrying about Iran going nuclear, for the United States to be caught minimizing those concerns to pressure Israel on settlements, and for the U.S. State Department to be caught blurring the line between diplomacy and spying.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims to be nobly illuminating the dark recesses of modern governments. His simplistic and self-serving view somehow did not stop him from protesting when Sweden leaked details about his legal problems. Citizens have a right to know many things -not everything – about one another and about their own state. Even democratic governments need some arenas of discretion to protect the public, in every era with enemies and especially in an era with shadowy terrorist enemies.

The more BP’s oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling the atmosphere, and the more WikiLeaks’ documents leaked into the blogosphere, fouling the diplomatic environment, the more confidence in Barack Obama seeped away. The U.S. midterm elections in 2010 illustrated Obama’s plummet in public esteem from his euphoric election in November 2008 to his “shellacking” in 2010. But unlike Bush, who never recovered from the Katrina debacle when New Orleans flooded, or president Gerald Ford, who never recovered from the backlash against his pardoning Richard Nixon, there was no one dramatic moment when millions of Americans broke with Obama. Instead, it was a drip, drip, drip. Support seeped away gradually but steadily as the economy languished, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars continued, Iran and North Korea flexed their muscles, Obama relied too much on the left-leaning congressional barons in Nancy Pelosi’s Democraticcontrolled legislature, and Obama failed to excite Americans with his vision of governance.

It is premature to predict whether Obama will win reelection in 2012. But so far as president he has failed to replicate the post-partisan, broad-based magic he conjured in 2008. This is a shame, because Americans and the world could use a dose of hope and faith in incumbent leaders.

Instead, a generalized crankiness festered, as bad faith brewed in many pockets of the Western world. In 2010, student protests in Greece, in Italy and in Britain often turned violent. In the U.S., the trouble brewing was more subtle, expressed in a generalized malaise rather than incendiary outbursts. But the low-grade fever of low expectations threatens democracy, especially America’s upbeat, go-getting political culture. Of course, false hope is no better than dashed hopes. Americans – and many others in the Western world -yearn for serious statesmanship offering concrete solutions to the ongoing economic crisis.

On the whole, Canadians had much less to complain about than their neighbours in 2010. Despite Canadians’ characteristic low profile, the phrase “Canada is the new America” gained traction. This, Canadian patriots please note, is meant as a compliment, celebrating the Canadian dollar’s strength, Canadian banks’ stability, and Canadian politics’ relative calm amid the tumult of the Bush and Obama presidencies.

It is a lovely, constructive illusion that we start a new year with a clean slate. But just as millions of individuals make resolutions to tackle personal shortcomings, nations can resolve to tackle communal challenges. In shaping 2011, unexpected disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will erupt. The true test of political leadership, communal grit and a better year will come from solving the persistent problems, which for Barack Obama still involves ending two wars, jump-starting an economy, and, now, reassuring Americans that “yes we can” was a path to real progress, not an empty, ultimately disillusioning and disempowering slogan. May 2011 be a year of plugging leaks, stopping seeps, and brewing hope, witnessing personal and communal revivals economically, politically and ideologically.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 11-4-10

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” (Basic Books, 2008). His latest book, co-edited with Vincent J. Cannato, is “Living in the Eighties” (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The American voters gave President Barack Obama a good, old-fashioned political whupping on Tuesday.  It was a stunning political reversal as Mr. Yes We Can became Mr. Why Can’t They Understand and Appreciate Me? President Barack Obama must learn his lesson from this political drubbing.  To redeem his presidency, he must do what he originally promised to do, lead from the center—humbly and substantively.

The rise of the Tea Party, the loss of many moderate Democrats in swing districts, and the reelections of many leading liberals, led some politicos to conclude that Americans do not want centrist leadership.  This conclusion reinforces the Fox News-MSNBC view of the world as divided between good people – those who agree with me— and bad partisans—everybody else.  Instead, the results reflect American structural anomalies, where moderates come from divided districts and extremists come from strongly partisan districts.  During electoral tidal waves, the crucial swing voters veer left or right, wiping out moderates as extremists survive.

Yet with the end of the 2010 midterms marking the start of the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama should worry that independent voters abandoned him en masse.  It is now clear that Obama erred by fighting for health care reform before lowering the unemployment rate.  And it is now clear that having the health care reform pass by such a partisan, polarizing vote, undermined Obama’s entire presidential leadership project.  The twentieth century’s two greatest pieces of social legislation—the 1935 Social Security Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act—passed, after hard fights, with bipartisan support.  That the twenty-first-century’s first great piece of social legislation passed without Republican support reflects Obama’s broader leadership failure.

Obama 2.0. must resurrect one of the most powerful messages—and successful tactics—which propelled his meteoric rise to the presidency, his lyrical centrism.  Barack Obama did not just promise “hope and change,” he promised a new kind of politics.  In Audacity of Hope, Obama positioned himself as a post-partisan centrist who would resist Washington’s ways.  Central to his appeal was his lyrical, multicultural nationalism, exemplified by his eloquent denunciation of the red-state-blue-state paradigm in his extraordinary keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention.  Americans did not just hire Obama to be president, they hired him to be that kind of a president, one who would reach out across the aisle, who would sing a song of national unity and purpose that was substantive, pragmatic, results-oriented, not just lofty and lovely.

Unfortunately, as president, Obama has stilled his own voice, and failed to reconcile with Republicans.  True, Republicans share responsibility for being truculent and obstructionist.  But true centrism requires finding that golden path, that middle ground.  Instead of delegating the highly partisan congress to craft the health care reform, instead of negotiating so desperately to forge his Democratic coalition, Obama needed to deliver bipartisan support for such a monumental shift in America’s status quo.  The Social Security and Civil Rights bills quickly became part of the national consensus, thanks to the consensus-building presidential leadership which ensured bipartisan passage.  By contrast, abortion has festered as an issue for decades because the Supreme Court legalized women’s right to choose, circumventing any kind of populist, consensus-building, democratic process.

Having demonstrated great potential as a cultural leader in 2008, Obama should spearhead a fight against the gong-show-governance emanating from cable TV coverage of American politics.  Watching MSNBC on Election Night, watching Keith Olbermann and company shout away at Congressman Eric Cantor—who enjoyed giving back as good as he got—I was struck by the cable echo chamber’s violent distortions.  Politicians who spend their time appearing on these shows forget that only a small percentage of Americans are watching.  The pols begin to think that everyone wants to play politics as a blood sport.  Politicians should simply stop appearing on these shows until they foster civility.

What a shame that we needed the comedian Jon Stewart to confront the Crossfire crowd in 2004.  No politician had the guts to reject the format that fostered fighting, that rewarded unreason.  Franklin Roosevelt called the presidency pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.  Obama should take the lead with substantive moves to cut down the culture of confrontation.

Obama also has to avoid presidential preening.  Blaming his losses on miscommunication not substantive policy differences will lead him and his staff to focus on how things appear rather than what they should be.  The elder statesman Dean Acheson once dismissed Richard Nixon by comparing him to a shortstop so concerned about how he looks when fielding, he misses the ball.  Obama has always struggled with a grandiose and highly self-conscious side.  Fighting for his political future, he needs to focus on substance, cultivating the big-tent governance he promised the American people.

In the 1950s, Joseph Stalin dismissed Mao Zedong as a margarine communist.  It was a delicious phrase, capturing the gruff former farm boy’s disgust for a product that looked like butter, but wasn’t.  So far, Obama has been a margarine moderate, making superficial gestures toward dialogue and compromise, then sticking to one side of the aisle.

Obama still has the time and the national good will to recover.  Most Republican campaign commercials targeted Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid, or big government, not the president.  This nuance reflected Obama’s personal popularity, despite his 55 percent negative job approval rating.  Moreover, the economy could still revive, unemployment could fall, the Republicans could self-destruct by misreading this election as an invitation to showcase their extremists.

Political greatness, in fact personal greatness, does not come from winning all the time, but from knowing how to turn devastating defeats into incredible opportunities.  The true test of Barack Obama the man and the president has begun.

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Gil Troy “Will recession mean a toned-down inauguration?”:

AP, 12-7-08

Though costly, an inauguration helps set the tone for a presidency, said Gil Troy, a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The president shouldn’t be seen noshing on caviar, but neither should he dispense with glamour entirely, Troy said. Americans want their leader to be a man of the people and a celebrity superstar, both.
“Americans are people who love to indulge, and deep in our hearts want our leaders to be like the king and queen of England — but not too much,” he said.
President Ronald Reagan fit the bill best when he set a new standard of opulence for his 1981 inauguration, Troy said. Nancy Reagan wore a $10,000 gown to the three-hour gala with Frank Sinatra.
“Reagan had the ability — and maybe the Obamas will — to somehow make spending look patriotic,” Troy said. 

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HNN, 10-8-08

We all knew what would happen. This second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain was going to be a slugfest. Journalists, who seem to forget that their job is to report what actually happened not predict what might occur, had been warning about it for days – although cautioning with the kind of glee that suggested they were as hopeful as appalled.

The overwrought warnings of mudslinging made the actual event appear all the more subdued. Unwilling to ignore the undecided voters’ earnest questions as the stock market imploded, both Obama and McCain answered the questions carefully, soberly, respectfully. Most of the tension centered around the moderator Tom Brokaw’s timekeeping frustrations, as he repeatedly chided the candidates about keeping to their agreement. Brokaw seemed to forget that a moderator’s job is to go with the flow, that the American people tuned in to hear the presidential rivals not monitor their ability to follow some artificial rules which, Brokaw repeatedly reminded the candidates, they had “signed off on.”

So the good news for moderates and people who seek political civility was that, for a change, the gravitational forces that usually polarize American politics were checked Tuesday night. The dire, breathless predictions were, of course, thinly disguised encouragements for McCain to come out swinging, given that they were linked to claims that this was his last chance to shake up the campaign. Usually these are self-fulfilling forecasts, creating expectations and then facts in the guise of guessing.

But the bad news was that the debate was boring and pedestrian. Once again, both candidates offered up warmed over – but subdued – denunciations of the economic bogeymen of this current crisis – the Bushian deregulators, the greedy Wall Streeters, the corrupt Washingtonians. But both of them described the bad guys in such vague terms as stock stick figures that it seemed to be more ritualistic than analytical. When asked “How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got — got us into this global economic crisis,” McCain missed an easy opportunity to bash the Democratic Congress. Here was his chance to change the narrative a bit, to point out how Democrats like Charles Schumer, Chris Dodd, and Barney Frank took big bucks from Wall Street lobbyists to indulge the frenzy. Instead, McCain kept it vague and generic.

The scariest thing about hearing both candidates sling clichés about the financial crisis is to realize how clueless they are – and will remain on January 20. If two smart, talented politicians, with such a clear incentive to give a thoughtful, reassuring analysis and plan can sound so lost, it is hard to know just who will magically appear on the scene to navigate the crisis.

For me, the highlight of the night came before the debate began. One TV news commentator reported that six million people submitted questions for the two candidates over the internet. One could easily spin this as proof of just how many people are so confused about the last few weeks. I prefer to see if as powerful testament to the vitality of democracy and the intensity of citizen engagement as we count down to November 4.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-3-08

The Vice Presidential debate proved to be better than the battle of the boobs many reporters led Americans to expect. Voter interest soared partially because Sarah Palin is a fresh and intriguing personality and partially because she had stumbled so badly in recent interviews. When she hemmed and hawed before ABC’s Charles Gibson, supporters could counterattack that Gibson had been condescending. But CBS’s Kaite Couric gently lobbed one softball question after another at the Alaska Governor, and Palin had muffed them repeatedly, embarrassingly. The debate ratings improved also because of what we might term the Jon Stewart effect – many people wanted to watch the event live so they could get the jokes about it later, in this case the inevitable Tina Fey imitation of Palin on “Saturday Night Live.”

Joe Biden was also being set up for a fall. Various newspapers had run stories about Biden the bloviator, Washington’s gaffe-master general. Biden, we were told, was practicing debating with female stand-ins for Palin to help avoid appearing condescending. Still, the real threat to Biden was some ramble, some embarrassing mangle of something very simple, or some Freudian slip wherein what he said was the opposite of what he intended – or should have intended – to say.

With the bar set so low, both candidates performed admirably. Palin was coherent throughout. As in her Republican National Convention speech, she showed an impressive ability to appeal directly to voters, to keep the common touch. She used her smile to great effect, sometimes to endear, sometimes to blunt the dagger she was thrusting toward Biden’s heart. Perhaps most surprisingly, she gave a remarkably nuanced answer to a question about gay marriage, saying she welcomed diversity of lifestyles in her own family and among her fellow citizens, but still defined marriage as between a man and woman.

Biden was disciplined throughout, on message and aggressive, but not bullying. Palin was probably stronger the first half, with Biden occasionally flashing a forced, seemingly haughty smile and looking too much the senatorial peacock. In the second half, Biden let loose a series of smooth, hard-hitting riffs against McCain that tagged the Republican candidate as George W. Bush the second and wrong on the war, the economy, the environment and energy. By then, also, Palin was beginning to sound like a broken record, and her smiles were wearing thin.

In fact, if reporters did not have us conditioned to approach this debate like drama critics, or horse handicappers, we all would agree that both candidates disappointed. Neither one had a compelling, creative, or even interesting diagnosis or prescription regarding the financial crisis. Both major party presidential tickets continue to miss the leadership opportunity to address the Wall Street crisis thoughtfully, creatively, substantively. Instead we see finger-pointing at the other party, and predictable attacks on the greed and corruption of Wall Street.

While Biden did not break new ground intellectually in defending his running mate Barack Obama and attacking John McCain, Palin in particular demonstrated the exhaustion of Republican ideology. Twice she sounded like a kinder, gentler, version of Ronald Reagan, echoing his lines that government cannot be the solution to every problem, and saluting the United States as a shining city upon the hill. But 28 years after Reagan won the presidency, Republicans themselves need to push the analysis beyond viewing tax cuts as the answer to every economic challenge and defense build ups as the answer to every foreign policy threat. Palin’s limited and repetitive riffs reinforce the need for the Republicans to redefine and reinvigorate their vision, whether they win or lose.

Both candidates also failed to answer important questions. The moderator Gwen Ifill asked an excellent question about what expenditure the nominee intended to cut out now that the bailout was proving so expensive. When both candidates sidestepped the question, one of the McGill students watching the debate with me sighed. “This is why my generation is so turned off to politics,” she explained. “Politicians don’t answer direct questions, so we get cynical about the game and lose interest.”

My student was correct. While both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin demonstrated considerable talent, they both failed to articulate a compelling new vision that fits these difficult times. That their performances are nevertheless attracting such praise reveals how low our expectations have become for all our politicians, whether they are rookies on the national stage or 35-year Senate veterans.

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Vital vote : CTV Newsnet: Gil Troy, presidential historian, McGill University — View Video

U.S. President George W. Bush has signed off on the $700-billion bailout bill. Troy said the deal took so long to pass because of a power vacuum in the U.S., but he expects markets to bounce back….

Bush signs US$700B bailout bill into law

Updated Fri. Oct. 3 2008 3:16 PM ET

CTV.ca News Staff

U.S. President George Bush has signed into law a historic bill, which provides a US$700-billion lifeline to moribund financial markets.

Bush said the law was essential in getting the country’s sputtering economy back on track.

“I believe government intervention should only happen when necessary,” Bush told reporters in Washington on Friday.

Bush signed the bill into law on Friday afternoon, not long after the House of Representatives passed it by a count of 263-171.

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