Archive for July, 2009

The Beer Summit

Friday, July 31st, 2009

It’s not every day that I receive a request from a reader, asking me to weigh in on a specific topic. I did, though, this week: A reader wanted to know my take on the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

First, I should say, I appreciate the request. It prompted me to ask myself: Why haven’t I weighed in on this already?

Part of the reason I didn’t comment at first was that the basic facts of the case were unclear, and in dispute. I continued to hold off over the last week because I really try to avoid the kind of exhausting, mind-numbing verbal diarrhea that characterizes so much of our media coverage.  (See, for instance, this report from Fox News: “Beer Enthusiasts Disappointed in Obama’s Choice of Beverage for Summit with Professor, Cop“; Obama drank Bud Light, now owned by a Belgian/Brazilian consortium.) Also, if I’m going to ask readers to take a few moments to read a blog post, I like to say something original, or at least present things from a slightly different vantage point. If you can read the same thing on Huffingtonpost, why come here?

For the record, here’s what I think: To the extent Gates became belligerent with the cops — black, white, or otherwise – it was wrong. (I’ve yet to read a persuasive argument for belligerence with authority figures.) Sgt. James Crowley was wrong for arresting – and humiliating — Professor Gates. (I’ve yet to read a persuasive argument that cops should let wounded feelings guide them when making arrests.) And President Obama was certainly wrong for saying the Cambridge police acted “stupidly” at his news conference last week on health care. (I’ve yet to read a persuasive argument that our president should make vague, off-the-cuff remarks on racially-charged issues when he doesn’t have all the facts.)

Obama quickly backed down, calling it a “teachable moment,” and inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer.

Yet all week long, I’ve been scratching my head: Beyond platitudes about racial progress and harmony, what, exactly, does Obama hope to teach us?

Flashforward to yesterday’s Beer Summit at the White House.

This is from the New York Times coverage:

“What you had today was two gentlemen who agreed to disagree on a particular issue,” a poised and smooth Sergeant Crowley said in a 15-minute news conference after the session. “We didn’t spend too much time dwelling on the past, and we decided to look forward.”

Professor Gates said in an interview, “I don’t think anybody but Barack Obama would have thought about bringing us together.”

The two men and their families first encountered each other in the White House library while each group was on individual tours of the White House on Thursday afternoon.

“Nobody knew what to do,” Professor Gates said. “So I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you.’ That broke the awkwardness.”

Sergeant Crowley added that the families “had continued the tour as a group while the beer talk commenced.” He described the interaction between families as very cordial.

Professor Gates concurred, saying: “We hit it off right from the beginning. When he’s not arresting you, Sergeant Crowley is a really likable guy.”

One of my all-time favorite Torah portions is Va-era, Exodus chapter 8. It’s the familiar Passover story of the second plauge. God tells Moses to tell Aaron to hold his rod over the river, and raise an infestation of frogs over all of Egypt. Pharoah’s magicans, though, counter the trick, doing the same with their spells. With frogs spreading out over the land, Pharoah is forced to beg Moses to plead with God to remove the frogs, promising in turn to let the Israelites go free.

What on earth does this have to do with the Beer Summit?

The Midrashic interpretation states: “Pharaoh’s magicians cannot remove the frogs; they can only create more frogs, making matters even worse. Trying to spite Moses, they make their own lot worse. It is easier to augment a plague (whether conflict, gossip, or greed) than to end one.”

This is about race relations, sure. But, more broadly, it’s about how we treat one another. Our families. Our friends. Our spouses and children. It’s about the seemingly intractable conflicts in our lives.

It’s a gift when one of our political leaders can admit a mistake, and show us — by example — how we might make our own tentative steps toward reconciliation and repair.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

As I write this, the AP is reporting “Deal with ‘Blue Dogs’ sets up health care vote.”

The gist is that in the House, liberal Democrats and centrist Blue Dog Democrats are close to  a compromise agreement that would provide health insurance to millions, while slowing skyrocketing health costs. At the same time, Democrats and Republicans on the all-important Senate Finance Committee are nearing a bipartisan deal that would extend coverage to 95 percent of Americans without raising federal deficits.

“We’re on the edge, we’re almost there,” said Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican involved in the secretive talks

This is great news, to a point. To reach consensus, Democrats are likely to drop a public insurance option, as well as a provision forcing businesses to offer insurance to their workers — both key components of the Obama plan.

Still, if lawmakers could reach a agreement before the House recess begins Friday – regardless of the shape and scope of the bill — it would be a huge lift for Obama, considering that just days ago, health care seemed DOA.

Now, the bad news. Obama’s poll numbers are slipping, along with his political muscle. A new NY Times poll finds that Obama is losing his clout on health care, just as people’s concerns ratchet up.

Obama’s ability to shape the debate on health care appears to be eroding as opponents aggressively portray his overhaul plan as a government takeover that could limit Americans’ ability to choose their doctors and course of treatment. …

Reflecting a problem that has hindered efforts to bring major changes to health care for decades, Americans expressed considerable unease about what the end result would mean for them individually.

Republicans no doubt sense blood in the water.

“Although some members of a coalition of conservative Democrats announced a breakthrough in negotiations Wednesday,” FoxNews.com reports, ”a final deal on the legislation could be a long way off, meaning August could stand as a key month before the potentially dramatic finale in the fall.”

The House will wait until September to bring the bill to the floor — so that members can spend August combing through the massive bill and listening to the concerns of their constituents. 

The month of August now takes on out-sized importance.

Remember, just a few days ago, South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim De Mint declared: “If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.”

We are going to see and hear a steady drumbeat of negativity from Republicans, many of whom, like De Mint, are determined to kibosh health care not on the merits, but as a way to undermine Obama on his signature issue, thereby pulling the rug out from under the new administration.

Which is why anybody who cares about Obama’s broader progressive agenda — from passing a cap and trade bill that would stem global warming, to closing Guantanamo Bay and restoring America’s image in the world, to actively working to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians — needs to take action in the next four weeks to support health care.

Call or write your congressmen. Liberal or conservative, they need to hear from constituents who want a bill.  If you don’t know who your congressman is, check out www.healthcareforamericanow.com.  It’s a terrific grassroots organization, supported by Obama, that can help you call your congressman, download print materials to hand out to neighbors and friends, or find a local group to volunteer with. If you’d rather make a small donation, or buy a Health Care For America Now! shirt, you can do that, too.

Write a letter to the editor of your local paper, demanding health care reform. If you do nothing else this August, forward this post to a friend, or send out your own email.

It’s four weeks that will shape the next four years.

 

Solow: Obama’s Support for Jewish State ‘Unequivocal’

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

The other day, I received an email from a Jewish communal leader, forwarding an email from another Jewish communal leader, which stated simply: “The honeymoon is over.”

Attached was an article from American Thinker, a daily conservative web site, headlined: “National Leader Turns Against Obama.”

The national leader in question was Alan Solow, which made the article particularly damning, because Solow is the Jewish Chicagoan who has known Obama for years, and who prominently heckshered Obama as a friend of Israel during the election campaign. With false news articles swirling that Obama was a Muslim with a retinue of anti-Israel advisors, many Jews looked to Solow’s endorsement as evidence that Obama supports Israel — not just in word, but in his kishksas.

Since the election, Solow has been named chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. The American Thinker article was pinned on a statement from Solow and Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents, taking issue with the Obama administration for opposing a Jewish construction project in East Jerusalem.

The article claimed “a huge crack has surfaced in Obama’s Jewish base in the person of Alan Solow,” noting that Solow’s “rosy expectations of Obama and [chief of staff Rahm] Emanuel as reliable friends of Israel have been dashed.”

When I received the email and read Solow’s statement, it was immediately apparent that the American Thinker article was a wildly exaggerated hatchet job. Solow and Hoenlein had objected to a specific policy. Nowhere in the statement was there evidence of the catastrophic schism suggested by the article.

Indeed, Solow has just come out with his own rebuttal:

The statement we issued on Jerusalem reflected long standing policy of the Conference of Presidents. Given the press attention focused on this issue, we thought it was appropriate to speak out. It was not intended as a general comment on President Obama’s ongoing approach in his current discussions with Israel. One thing the President made clear in our White House discussion of July 13 was that there might be points of disagreement over issues of strategy, but the President also wanted it known that his support for Israel as a Jewish State in the Middle East was unequivocal. The President’s commitment to Israel’s safety and security is one that he has previously stated publicly, as well as privately to me over the years. Our relationship remains excellent, and the President understood when I became Conference Chair that I would advocate for positions based on communal consensus. As Chairman of the Conference, I look forward to working with the President to make his support meaningful and effective, and his hosting of the meeting with Jewish leaders is an indication that he wants to hear from our community. I think all participants in the meeting would agree that it was valuable and productive. I intend to continue to engage with the Administration to advance the interests of American Jewry, and I expect that the President and his team will continue to value our input.

The president’s support for Israel as a Jewish state is unequivocal. Obama is committed to Israel’s safety and security. Our relationship remains excellent

Alan Solow is probably one of the most important Jewish leaders in America right now. He not only trusts Obama, but Obama trusts him.  Perhaps more than any other leader, when Solow speaks out, you can bet Obama will get the message. This was not the first time Solow has offered Obama constructive criticism on Israel, and I hope it won’t be the last.

As for American Thinker, the damage is done. The inflammatory storyline about a fairy tale breach is out there, circulating, taking hold. Don’t expect a retraction any time soon.

Oh, Jerusalem

Sunday, July 26th, 2009

President Obama is taking a bit of a beating these days for allegedly taking a hard line on Israel. See, for example, this opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, which takes Obama to task for demanding “that Israel freeze construction in East Jerusalem.”

Never mind that, according to all I’ve read, Obama himself has done no such thing.  Rather, according to the NY Times, a State Department official “raised concerns” over the East Jerusalem project with Israel’s new ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren.

The American officials suggested that going ahead with the development now would cause problems in negotiations toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The hawks — and even some of Obama’s supporters in the Jewish community – have reacted to this by intimating that Obama has crossed another red line. It’s as if the president has personally challenged Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem, and taken a pot-shot at the Jewish world.

“If Jews were prohibited from buying property in New York, London, Paris or Rome, there would be an international outcry,” writes Mackubin Thomas Owens in the Journal.  ”Why, [Israeli Prime Minister Bibi] Netanyahu wondered, should the standard be different for Jerusalem?”

Last I checked — unlike East Jerusalem — New York, London, Paris, and Rome were not home to 300,000 Palestinians, and were not candidates to be the capital of a future Palestinian state, but I digress.

Put me in Jeffrey Goldberg’s camp. In one of his most recent blogs, ”In Defense of J Street,” The Atlantic reporter, whose dispatches from the Middle East are very even-handed, puts a “kosher stamp of approval on Obama’s approach to Israel.”

I’m not naïve about Arab intentions – or should I say, I’m no longer naïve about Arab intentions. I don’t automatically believe that the creation of a Palestinian state will lead to an end of claims, or an end to the conflict. But I know that Israel’s continued entanglement with the Palestinians, an entanglement deepened and exacerbated by its addiction to settlements, will eventually lead to the demise of the Jewish state. So I’m glad that “Obama’s Jews” support his demand for Israeli self-reflection (are we so wonderful that we couldn’t use a little self-examination now and again?), and I’m surprised that people are surprised by Obama’s modest demand. He said in his campaign that he would hold up a mirror to Israel, and he is. He’s also holding up a mirror to the Arab side, and that’s all for the good as well. Time is running out – if Israel doesn’t achieve permanent, internationally-recognized borders and diplomatic relations with the bulk of Muslim-majority countries soon, the campaign to delegitimize the very idea of Israel will become even more ferocious than it’s been.

To his point about the Arab side, as the Forward is reporting: “Freezing the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank was once seen as a unilateral Israeli obligation. But the Obama administration is now treating this as part of a package that will require concessions from Arab states, as well.”

“The Americans now understand that if they get anything from us on the settlement issue, it will only be in the broader context of some kind of Arab return,” said an Israeli diplomat, one of many similar comments from Israeli officials recently.  …

America’s request for signs of normalization with Israel is focusing now on symbolic steps. According to Arab and American diplomatic sources, Washington is now asking for the reopening of commercial interest offices of Oman, Qatar and Morocco in Israel and for permission for Israeli commercial airliners to fly over Gulf states, shortening by several hours flight routes from Israel to East Asia.

I’d like to also note that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today warned Iran that its pursuit of nuclear weapons is “futile,” adding: “we’re not going to let that happen.” This, just days after she raised the possibility of an American-created “defense umbrella” over the Middle East “to counter Iran’s efforts to build its power in the region by trying to develop weapons capacity.”

I admit, these facts are particularly inconvenient for the “Obama takes a hard line on Israel” crowd. Do not expect the Wall Street Journal to opine about them any time soon.

Obama’s Waterloo

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

When I saw the CNN ticker scrolling — “Is Health Care Obama’s Waterloo?” — the neurotic Democrat in me pulled up a chair, poured a big cup of coffee, and announced that he’ll be sticking around awhile.

And I though of this article by Neal Gabler in the Boston Globe:

Obviously, we face daunting problems, but we nevertheless continue to operate with a kind of hopefulness that we will meet the challenges and triumph. Historically, we have reason to feel this way. In the last 70 years , this country faced down the Great Depression, Nazism, and Jim Crow. The system, however balky and tardy it may have been, has always worked.

But today, beneath the optimistic rhetoric, lurks another possibility that no politician and few pundits want to admit: that the system is no longer up to the task and that the factors that once brought relief are no longer operable. There is the real possibility that this time we will not win but rather founder the way Japan has done since its economic catastrophe. There is the possibility that this time it is hopeless.

The article outlines four reasons why Obama, who, despite predictably slipping poll numbers remains widely popular, is finding it almost impossible to get anything done.

  1. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was only partly right when he argued that crisis creates opportunity. Crisis creates pain. It’s the pain that creates the opportunity, when people demand change. And while there is plenty of pain to go around in the U.S. right now, with unemployment hovering near 10 percent, that’s nowhere near the 25 percent unemployment that enabled Roosevelt to enact his New Deal agenda. “President Roosevelt had the advantage of an angry citizenry who wanted him to do anything to rescue them,” Gabler writes. ”Obama has the disadvantage of a passive citizenry that, frankly, may never hurt enough to demand what might finally cure what ails them.”
  2. FDR also didn’t have to deal with 40,000 lobbyists, pulling each and every piece of legislation in equal and opposite directions. “In the last year nearly 2,500 began lobbying on the single issue of climate change,” Gabler notes. ”By a political Newton’s Law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, which means that there are thousands of thrusts and parries on any major piece of legislation – a sure prescription for inaction or for tepid action.”
  3. Moreover, while FDR certainly had his enemies in the media, he faced nothing like the 24-7 media onslaught that a modern-day president absorbs. And it’s not the right-wing media that is the problem; just as often is the so-called mainstream, “whose baseline [is] skepticism about any possible government initiative.” The problem, Gabler writes, is “the mainstream media with their own attachment to the status quo, their own loaded questions about dramatic new policies and their predilection to identify potential missteps rather than to extol potential boldness.” (To wit: Is health care Obama’s Waterloo?)
  4. The Founding Fathers built our political institutions — the House, the Senate, the executive branch, the Supreme Court — to prevent drastic change and promote incrementalism, but they never imagined a political party “dedicated to total obstructionism.” Gabler notes that from 1927 to 1962, there were only 11 cloture votes invoked to end filibusters in the Senate. “In 2007 alone,” he writes, ”with Republicans trying to derail initiatives in the Democratic Congress as disparate as an increased minimum wage, a climate change bill, campaign finance reform, and an energy bill, there were 62 cloture votes.” This, he argues, renders the seemingly steep Democratic majority in the Senate meaningless. “It is the Republican lurch rightward that has purged [the] few [GOP] moderates and gamed the filibuster so that any piece of legislation is now held hostage to 40 votes,” he notes. ”This generates cries for bipartisanship, neglecting the fact that there is one party adamantly opposed to any change whatsoever.”

Gabler’s conclusion is pretty chilling:

And so we are now a nation with great professions of faith that we will succeed but little real confidence that we will, a nation that focuses more on what can go wrong than on what can go right, a nation that can’t seem to get action. We are a timid nation with small dreams and even smaller plans – a nation that seems to have lost its capacity to do big things. We all know the nation is broken, but we may no longer have the will or the institutions to fix it.

Obama has a press conference at 8 p.m. tonight. I imagine he’ll try to regain the upper hand on health care. But remember what Franklin Roosevelt said: “No government can help the destinies of people who insist in putting sectional and class consciousness ahead of general weal.”

Stay tuned.

‘Limitless Stores of Wonder’

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

There’s a beautiful appreciation for Walter Cronkite on the NY Times editorial page today, written by Verlyn Klinkenborg.

How one becomes a proxy for a nation, as Cronkite did, is a matter of luck and timing and experience. But it’s also a matter of character. Cronkite had limitless stores of character. And limitless stores of wonder. He never grew weary of the world or reporting on it. He seemed bemused by the accolades and almost reverential of the trust that so many millions of Americans placed in him.

Some deaths end only a life. Some end a generation. Walter Cronkite’s death ends something larger and more profound. He stood for a world, a century, that no longer exists. His death is like losing the last veteran of a world-changing war, one of those men who saw too much but was never embittered by it.

On this, the 40th anniversary of the lunar landing, I’d like not to focus on the latest exhausting squabble between the U.S. and Israel over whether Israel should or shouldn’t build an apartment complex for Jews among the thousands of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.

I’d like not to focus on the Republicans who are trying so hard to scuttle a health care bill before it gets off the ground, as if the health care crisis in America can be solved by sticking a finger in the dike.

I’m not going to focus on the seemingly herculean task of passing a bill in the U.S. Senate that would stave off global warming for even an hour.

Or the inability to close Guantanamo Bay, because no one will take the prisoners. I’m definitely not going to focus on that.

No, I’m going to focus on this: When we were kids, in summertime, my dad, and sometimes my dad and mom, would wait until after sunset and take my sisters and me, or sometimes just me, on moonwalks around our home in Highland Park, New Jersey.

This was just as the asphalt began to cool, and the crickets went wild, and the fireflies started appearing out of the darkness, tiny drops of gold, rising.

We would walk along the catwalks — narrow, hedged-in alleys between our neighbor’s houses — that connected one street to another in our part of town, and then emerge, away from the streetlights, look up, and find the moon, floating silently above the treetops.

It never occurred to me that a “moonwalk” was actually something else. That my father had invented the word in this context. That if I opened up the dictionary, the only reference would be to astronauts and their explorations. (Michael Jackson’s dance had not yet been invented.)

His job was to appear unfazed, unchanged by the events he described. But from time to time – reporting President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, reporting from Vietnam, reporting that first step on the moon – he made it clear that the news of the day had changed not only us but him.

We pass a wood-shingled house with an air conditioner humming. A moth dives at a yellow porchlight, wings beating. A raccoon crashes between garbage cans, sprints across the street.

The walk is over now. Just a walk. But it feels like the end of something larger and more profound.

Brooks: Obama College Plan Could ‘Spur a Wave of Innovation’

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

Conservative NY Times columnist David Brooks, a frequent critic of President Obama, has taken a hard look at the president’s plan for community colleges, and concluded that it’s “intelligently designed and boldly presented,” and could be transformative.

Obama last week announced a $12 billion plan to produce 5 million more community college grads in the next 12 years. Most of the money would go to programs that entice the colleges to lift graduation rates (about half of current students drop out) and better prepare students for jobs, with a smaller amount for modernizing facilities and developing Internet curriculum. Obama wants Congress to approve the plan before the August recess.

Says Brooks:

What’s important about the Obama initiative is that it doesn’t throw money at the problem. It ties money to reform and has the potential — the potential — to spur a wave of innovation.

Most of the colleges, Brooks writes, have poor accountability systems and inadequately track student outcomes.  Remedial classes are hampered by relentlessly low expectations.

The Obama initiative is designed to go right at these deeper problems. It sets up a significant innovation fund, which, if administered properly, could set in motion a spiral of change. It has specific provisions for remedial education, outcome tracking and online education. It links public sector training with specific private sector employers …

It’s a reminder that the Obama administration can produce hope and change — when the White House is the engine of policy creation and not the caboose.

This last line is in part a criticism of Obama — for choosing to let Congress take the lead on the details of health care reform, instead of leading from the White House. I think there are good reasons for this approach on health care, as I’ve blogged about before. It’s a lesson learned from Bill Clinton’s failed attempt at reform.

In any event, coming from David Brooks, this is high praise for one of the administration’s top priorities.