Archive for January, 2009

S.O.S.: Uncle Jon’s Big Idea

Friday, January 30th, 2009

So I was talking to Uncle Jon the other day about ways to take this blog — which came to life during the heat of Obama’s election campaign — and make it relevant to the new reality of the Obama Administration.

One of the recurring pieces I had during the election was called “My Obama Minute.” Essentially, I stole a concept from a writing professor of mine at Iowa — who implored us, if we couldn’t write two hours every day, to write for “one minute a day.” The idea, of course, was that if we sat down to write for that minute, we’d always write more — even if it was only 15 minutes or a half an hour. And sometimes, we’d keep going, for half the day.

With that in mind, I asked supporters to spend one minute a day doing something for the Obama campaign. And I encouraged people to come to this blog and write about their efforts — whether they simply sent $5 to a darkhorse Democrat online, or spent an entire morning at a ballpark rally. Many, many of you wrote in.

How, I wondered, could I encourage the same kind of participation on this blog going forward?

Barack Obama himself pointed to the answer, in his inaugural address:

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

In a page one editorial picking up on this theme, headlined “The Price and Promise of Citizenship,” The Forward asked: “How will we act? How will the Jewish community meet this challenge?”

“Citizenship has a price tag that cannot be discounted or ignored,” The Forward noted. “That’s a Jewish value as old as Sinai and in need of constant updating.”

Consider that, by some reputable estimates, as many as 15% to 20% of Jews in America are poor; in New York City, within a subway ride of Bernie Madoff’s penthouse jail, the concentrations of Jewish poverty are staggering. According to the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, nearly half of the city’s Russian-speaking immigrants live in poor Jewish households. Often they are old and ill, but a surprising number of poor Jews have attended college. The elixir of education does not always work its magic. Much more help is needed.

Obama, in calling forth this “new era of responsibility,” is asking us to help.

We’re all busy, of course. We’ve got jobs and kids and ice dams climbing up the roof that could sink the Titanic. Which is why we should not hesitate to start small. Can we give just a few minutes a week to make our communities better?

Start there. See what happens.

Which brings me to Uncle Jon’s idea: Whenever you heed that call to give back to the community — whether it’s mentoring a child, or volunteering at a soup kitchen, or donating blood; maybe you just stopped the car to pick up an empty Starbucks cup rolling around in the gutter — come to this blog and tell us about it.

I want to be expansive about this. You don’t have to join the army. The point is to think, just a little bit differently, about how we can help. About what we can give.

Obama, in his inaugural, spoke of that vital “spirit of service” — people’s “willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves.”

So that’s what we’ll call this — Spirit of Service — or “S.O.S.”

Anybody out there do anything to make our world a wee bit better this week? Let’s hear about it.

Obama on Al Arabiya

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

My guess is that many in the Jewish world are nervous today. Obama chose to give his first formal television interview as president to Al Arabiya, the Arab language TV channel based in Dubai.

What does it mean? And what does it mean for Israel?

“Obama has tipped his hand with his first call going to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, and his first formal interview going to al arabiya [sic],” commented one poster on the satellite channel’s Web site. “Now America has woken up … and they see they mistalenly [sic] elected a closet muslim/jihad sympathizer, and the party will end soon.”

This may be an extreme view. But I’m sure other, cooler heads in the Jewish community are wondering: What gives?

I’d urge those who are concerned to read the transcript. It really is an extraordinary document. In both content and tone.

First, let’s remember, as the AP pointed out:

Obama’s choice of Al-Arabiya network, which is owned by a Saudi businessman, follows the lead of the Bush administration, which gave several presidential interviews to that news channel.

“The U.S. sees Al-Arabiya as a friendly Arab channel, whereas they see Al-Jazeera as confrontational,” said Lawrence Pintak, director of the journalism training center at the American University in Cairo.

True, Obama spoke about his distant Muslim relatives, and told Muslims “Americans are not your enemy.” But what is striking to me — in part — is that while speaking through an Arab journalist to the Muslim world, Obama made this unsolicited remark:

Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.

He wasn’t asked to comment on the U.S.-Israeli relationship. He offered it. And he spoke of the requirement for “serious partnership” from Palestinians.

(The comment obviously impressed the editors at Al Arabiya, who included this excerpt as a blowup quote on their Web site: Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. )

Later, Obama said this:

I think anybody who has studied the region recognizes that the situation for the ordinary Palestinian in many cases has not improved. And the bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is, is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off? Do they have a future for themselves?

But he followed it up, again unsolicited, with this:

And is the child in Israel going to feel confident about his or her safety and security?

It’s not even-handedness that I mean to imply. It’s that Obama, speaking to the Arab world, made a point of saying and reiterating that America views Israel’s security as “paramount.” (I just looked it up — it means “supreme”; “above others in rank or authority.”)

To me, this is the Obama who told Palestinians in Ramallah that they would have to give up the right of return, and who criticized the Palestinian Authority for failing to live up to its commitments. It’s the Obama who told the teacher’s union that educators should be held accountable for their performance — and who was booed for it at union appearances, ever after.

Obama went on to say:

What I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I’ve come to understand is that regardless of your faith — and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers — regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.

Why, though, did he pick Al Arabiya? Why not Haaretz?

The answer is very clear. As the AP notes in its lead: “[it’s] part of a concerted effort to repair relations with the Muslim world that were damaged under the previous administration.”

Obama, no doubt, will be criticized for speaking positively of King Abdullah’s peace plan, which offers pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawl from Arab lands captured in 1967, including the Golan Heights. (The poster on the Al Arabiya Web site quoted above commented: “The Saudi Plan is bulls***: It signals another chance for the destruction of Israel in exchange for ‘recognition.'”)

But here, from the transcript, is exactly what Obama said:

Look at the proposal that was put forth by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — I might not agree with every aspect of the proposal, but it took great courage — to put forward something that is as significant as that. I think that there are ideas across the region of how we might pursue peace.

And we should remember, as Haaretz noted, Israeli President Shimon Peres, speaking to world leaders last year, lauded Abdullah for his plan, calling it “a serious opening for real progress.”

What was striking to me about the interview was not so much the overt overture of friendship to the Muslim world, but the corresponding subtlty of the appeal. Picking up on a question from the journalist, Obama noted that the U.S. was not nor has it ever been a “colonial power.”

My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that.

Obama is not only speaking their language. He’s aligning us with them. In the 19th and 20th centuries, afterall, Muslims were colonized by Russia, Holland, Britain, and France, from West Africa across two continents to Indonesia. Obama, by picking up the questioner’s language, is saying: We were born in the same kind of struggle.

It seems to me that if Obama can shift Muslim perceptions of the United States, even incrementally — then we will have much more soft power, more clout in our dealings with Iran, and more influence on the pan-Arab mindset. And, of course, fewer Muslims will be inclined to sign up for jihad. (The Arab journalist himself noted that with Obama’s election, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden “seem very nervous.”)

All of which ultimately benefits Israel.

Mitchell Take I: ‘700 Days of Failure’

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Two things stand out for me about the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy for Arab-Israel affairs.

First is the fact of the appointment itself, coming on Obama’s second day in office. This is a stark departure from the “hands off” approach initially adopted by the Bush administration.

Just how hands-off was George Bush? According to the Middle East Review of International Affairs:

When the Bush Administration took office on January 20, 2001, it took a long time to get senior-level executives in place, especially for dealing with the Middle East, for which an assistant secretary of state was not approved until late May … 

Bush essentially followed a “not Clinton” policy and refused to get personally involved in trying to settle the conflict.  Secretary of State Powell repeatedly emphasized the primary responsibility of the parties themselves to solve the conflict.  “We will facilitate, but at the end of the day, it will have to be the parties in the region who will have to find the solution.”

It took Bush more than four months to hand out the Arab-Israel portfolio, and then, not to a special envoy, but to an assistant secretary of state.

The Review goes on to note:

The U.S. did not send a representative to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Taba which took place at the end of January, just before the February 7, 2001 Israeli elections.  [And] the U.S. ended CIA mediation efforts between Israel and the Palestinians, which had begun as part of the Wye Plantation agreement of October 1998. 

It’s easy to forget just how intentionally absent Bush in fact was on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Obama, by appointing Mitchell, is showing concretely that the U.S. is not just a facilitator, but a player — with a firm stake in the outcome.

The other thing I note is that Mitchell’s experience in helping broker peace in Northern Ireland should serve him well in the Middle East.

Of that experience, Mitchell said: “We had 700 days of failure and one day of success.”

Patience, resolve, and a dry sense of humor.

That’s my kind of Middle East peace negotiator.

POSTSCRIPT: This is what Obama told Al Arabiya, regarding Mitchell’s role:

I think the most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away. And George Mitchell is somebody of enormous stature. He is one of the few people who have international experience brokering peace deals.

And so what I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues –and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved. So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved. And he will then report back to me. From there we will formulate a specific response.

Ultimately, we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what’s best for them. They’re going to have to make some decisions. But I do believe that the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.

Mitchell Take II: A Jewish Communal Approach

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

There is, of course, much praise of Mitchell from the left and center of the Jewish world (the National Jewish Democratic Council lauded the appointment, noting Mitchell “has a strong record of support for Israel’s security”), as well as a critique of him from the right.

Shmuel Rosner, writing in the New Republic, said that Obama “made the fairly safe, cautious choice” in appointing Mitchell. (“Buying Time; Why George Mitchell is the perfect envoy not to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”)

Of Mitchell’s 2000 Middle East fact-finding commission, Rosner writes:

His report was adopted, but not wholeheartedly adapted, by both parties. It had something for everyone: The Palestinians got their demand (rejected by Israel) for a freeze of settlements, while Israelis got their unequivocal demand for “ending the violence” launched by Palestinians in 2000.

Rosner’s main critique seems to be that Mitchell’s report let Arafat off the hook:

The Mitchell Report finding that seems much more problematic today is the conclusion that Palestinian violence was not planned by the Palestinian leadership (namely, Yasser Arafat). The report says that “we were provided with no persuasive evidence that the [Ariel] Sharon visit [to Temple Mount in 2000] was anything other than an internal political act; neither were we provided with persuasive evidence that the PA planned the uprising.” This was, arguably, the most devastating rebuke of Israel’s claims–what most Israelis believe today, and what the Bush administration eventually came to believe –that Arafat wanted, initiated, planned, and executed this terror campaign.

And perhaps also that Mitchell was, if anything, too even-handed:

This was typical Mitchell. Rejecting the narrative of both sides–Mitchell did not accept Palestinians’ claims that Sharon’s “provocation” was the cause for violence either–in the hope that a third, “balanced” version, can be swallowed, if not enthusiastically, by the parties. There’s reason to assume that in style, if not in substance, Mitchell will not change this approach and will try to find a middle ground, earning some praise and some rebuke for his actions.

I don’t know. To my mind, promulgating a balanced “third” version that both sides can swallow will in fact be an important part of the key to any solution. This is a centuries long, utterly intractable dispute. The narrative, ultimately, will have to shift for opposing sides to once again shake hands.

Rosner made one point that I think is hard to dispute:

His achievement or failure will not be determined by new road maps or modified Obama parameters. Mitchell’s success will be determined by the ability of the Obama administration to engage Iran effectively, and by its ability to turn the regional tide. As long as those forces working to destabilize the Middle East–Hezbollah, Hamas, and their enablers–control the pace of events and inspire the Arab masses, it is very hard to envision a “road map” that will take this track to its final destination.

Thus, the appointment of the patient, distinguished Mitchell is playing for time: As he works to create the conditions for peace, his other colleagues will be tasked with the more daunting mission. This is the “linkage theory” turned upside-down: The real difference between the original linkage (that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to the region) and the second (that the region is the key to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is that the latter has a much better chance of actually leading to peace in the Middle East. Iran, after all, is a source of instability across the region, funding terrorist groups in Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon, and propping up the Syrian regime. Mitchell’s portfolio does not include negotiations with Iran; but the outcome of those talks will be the most significant factor in accomplishing his mission.

In other words, solving the Israel-Palestinian dispute isn’t going to lead to a regional solution: Iran is the lynchpin.

I was speaking about this today with a high up lay-leader in the Jewish community. He called Rosner’s take, astutely, “a criticism of the description of the problem,” and agreed that a “whole system” approach is necessary in the Middle East.

Yes, have “sub-teams” working on their specific areas, but ultimately have somebody — perhaps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — focusing on the region as a whole, bringing all the strands together.

“That’s what the Jewish community should push for,” he said.

To which I say: Amen.

POSTSCRIPT: Apparently, Obama agrees.

He said this yesterday on Al Arabiya, Arab television:

It is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what’s happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These things are interrelated. And what I’ve said, and I think Hillary Clinton has expressed this in her confirmation, is that if we are looking at the region as a whole and communicating a message to the Arab world and the Muslim world, that we are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest, then I think that we can make significant progress.

Purple Ticket Blues

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

Good news for those of us who had purple tickets for the inaugural, but were left out in the cold, jostling for our lives, or standing in the darkness in the 3rd St. tunnel of doom.

We get a consolation prize.

The AP reports:

Ticket holders who never made it to President Obama’s inauguration are going to get a consolation prize. Thousands of people who had tickets to the swearing in were not allowed to enter the Mall and instead were stranded in a tunnel near the Capitol or at other security checkpoints. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies said that those people would receive copies of the swearing-in invitation and program, photographs of Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and a color print of the ceremony. A committee spokeswoman, Carole Florman, said people should check the committee’s Web site,, early next week for instructions on now to claim the items.

It’s a nice gesture. And, I sort of feel like, it cements those of us who didn’t get in as part of the story — part of history.

I guess that’d already happend though. There’s already a purple ticket Facebook page. And there’s been plenty of press about it. As the LA Times reports:

You wouldn’t think a presidential inauguration would require a survivors group. But shortly after thousands of ticket holders were trapped in an underground tunnel beneath the National Mall on Tuesday, a new Facebook group was born: Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom. Membership as of Thursday evening: 3,950.

I just checked. Membership is up over 5,000.

Membership has its privileges. Still — I would rather have been there.

Obama’s First Official Act: Flubbing the Oath

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

They say Obama’s first official act came yesterday, when he signed an executive order freezing the salaries of his senior aides.

As the NY Times reports:

President Obama moved swiftly on Wednesday to impose new rules on government transparency and ethics, using his first full day in office to freeze the salaries of his senior aides, mandate new limits on lobbyists and demand that the government disclose more information. …

The transparency and ethics moves were set forth in two executive orders and three presidential memorandums; Mr. Obama signed them at the swearing-in ceremony with a left-handed flourish.

The new president effectively reversed a post-9/11 Bush administration policy making it easier for government agencies to deny requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act, and effectively repealed a Bush executive order that allowed former presidents or their heirs to claim executive privilege in an effort to keep records secret.

Great stuff, long overdue.

But, frankly, I think his service began a day earlier, when he flubbed the oath of office.

I know — conventional wisdom has it that Chief Justice Roberts screwed up. And it’s true, Roberts omitted the word “faithfully” from the second line. But it was Obama, jumping in too early — before Roberts had finished the full first clause — who kick-started the chain reaction, tripping Roberts up.

When it happened, the Neurotic Democrat in me groaned. This was a clear and unambiguous tea leaf. A portent of terrible things to come.

After two days — and a private do-over between Roberts and Obama — I’ve come to see the flub as inspirational.

Consider: Obama screwed up the most important moment of his life. He did it in front of two million people on the Mall, and hundreds of millions more watching around the world. And, yet, he went right on to give a powerful inaugural address. Afterwards, he was gracious about it — instead of blaming Roberts, he lauded the chief justice for helping Obama through the rest of the oath.

Obama winds up looking calm, cool and collected. And humble. And he scores political points: The fact that he voted against Roberts in confirmation hearings — yet reached out to him to give the oath, as a gesture of bipartisanship — becomes part and parcel of the story. Had he not flubbed it, few people would even have been aware of the significance of Roberts’ administering the oath.

Sometimes, I’ll be sitting at an event — for instance, the one this weekend, featuring Ambassador Martin Indyk— and the q&a will arrive, and I will feel nervous: What if I flub the question in front of all those people? I rehearse my question over and over in my head, waiting for the right moment to raise my hand. To speak up. I feel nervous, even though I was a reporter for a decade. Even though I interviewed Yitzhak Rabin and John McCain and Ted Kennedy. I felt nervous then, too.

Obama’s oath was not a tea leaf. It was a lesson for us all.

Go ahead. Raise your hand.

Closure: Hail to the Chief

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

One of the biggest thrills of inauguration week for me came around midnight last night, when Barack Obama entered the Midwestern Ball to the strains of Hail to the Chief.

That’s when it all truly seemed real. The son of an African immigrant is our commander in chief.

In front of me, a crush of people, pressing toward the stage — holding up cameras, recording the hands of people in front of them recording the hands of people in front of them recording their slice of history.

We love you!  someone shouted.

“I love you back,” he said. “Michelle loves you back. Today was your day.”

Then our new president looked out on the sea of cameras — he had already attended six or seven balls, but if he was tired, you couldn’t tell — and, with an energized, still-strong voice, he began: 

Today we showed what was possible when Americans from every walk of life come together around our best values. There’s something about the midwest. There’s something about the heartland, that speaks to Michelle and myself, because I think that, folks are plain-spoken and plain-living and they recognize what’s important. And I get a sense that all across America people want to return to what’s important. And we don’t want somebody telling us what we can’t do, because yes we can.

If you  can make this election possible, and this inauguration day possible, then you can make good jobs for people who don’t have jobs possible, you can make affordable health care possible, you can make a quality education for every child possible. You can make sure our veterans are treated properly — that’s gotta be possible.

We are grateful to you, but understand this is not the end, this is just the beginning. Together, you and I, all of us, we can make sure that America’s better days are ahead of us. Thank you, God bless you guys.

And now, I’d like to dance with the one who brung me. She does everything that I do, except backwards, and in heels. The First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.

And then he took her hand, put his other hand around her back, and began a slow dance. Her hand rose up to his shoulder. They shared a private word, smiled, a bit self-conscious, perhaps. He twirled her.

Not exactly grace personified. It looked about as awkward as every high school gym dance I’ve ever attended.

You know what I love?

I love that he said, simply, God bless you guys, instead of the more formal, more staid, God bless America. He wasn’t talking to America just then, he was talking to us.

I love that he so clearly cherishes his wife.

I love that he never misses an opportunity to express hope for the future — we could all learn a thing or two from that.

And I love that he is always exhorting each of us to do our part, to become shareholders in tomorrow: “Together, you and I, all of us, we can make sure that America’s better days are ahead of us.”


We may not all have a vision of exactly what our role might be, today. We may not be able to see it clearly. But we need to make a start.

So I pledge to keep going. To continue to focus on the issues that are important to me, and to the Jewish community; to hold our president to his words, and to try, through these words, to influence the course of this administration, even if only in a very small way.

I aim to have a new post up every Monday morning — at the very least — for starters. So do check back. I’m looking into ways that I can have readers sign up to receive emails, to let them know if a new post is up. Stay tuned.

As long as you keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

After his dance, as he was walking off stage, waving to the cheering crowd, President Obama said: “Let’s go change America.”

Let’s go.