Archive for the ‘Obama’ Category

Big Day for Democrats

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

The final votes hadn’t even been counted last night when CNN’s GOP media consultant Alex Castellanos was already attempting to throw cold water on Democrat Mark Critz’s victory in Pennsylvania’s 12th District.

The win means very little, Castellanos argued, given that Critz campaigned against Obama’s health care bill.

Talk about some desperate spin.

First off, Critz isn’t exactly anti-health care reform. While he says there are shortcomings in the recently-passed bill, he wants to fix them, rather than repeal the bill and start over. Much to the consternation of Republicans. Read more here.

The election to replace Democratic icon John Murtha in Pennsylvania was the only head-to-head race yesterday. It’s a district that McCain carried over Obama. As the Washington Post notes, it’s the archetypical swing district, a “must win” for Republicans hoping to win back the House in the fall:

The [National Republican Congressional Committee] has spent $958,897 — one tenth of their cash on hand — and nine (9) shady outside groups have spent more than $445,000 to defeat Democrat Mark Critz. Republican Committee Chairman Michael Steele guaranteed victory for Republican Tim Burns.

PA-12 is the only district in the country that Senator Kerry won and President Obama lost. According to non-partisan political independent analysts, PA-12 is exactly the type of district that House Republicans need to win this cycle.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s independent analyst Charlie Cook:

Republicans have no excuse to lose this race. The fundamentals of this district, including voters’ attitudes towards Obama and Pelosi, are awful for Democrats.

And here’s National Journal’s Amy Walters:

If [Republicans] can’t win the only district in the country that voted for both John Kerry and John McCain, what does it say about their ability to win other GOP-tilting seats this fall?

Republicans predicting a GOP tidal wave in the midterm elections have in fact now lost the last two special Congressional elections, in Pennsylvania and Upstate New York.

Critz won, as the LA Times reports, not just by presenting himself as an outsider, but by focusing on creating jobs, jobs, jobs, and on stopping the out-sourcing of American jobs. His opponent, Republican Tim Burns, lost because he tried to nationalize the election — to make it an anti-Pelosi vote — instead of focusing on the district’s woes. (Read more from Politico, which asks this morning: “Where’s the wave?”)

Meanwhile, also in Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak outflanked Republican-turned-Democrat Arlen Specter from the left. Sestak, a consistently reliable liberal who among other things favors gun control (Specter tried to make an issue of Sestak’s support for an assault weapons ban), won, as E.J. Dionne notes this morning, by knitting together an impressive left-right coalition.

To get a sense of Sestak’s sweep, consider that he carried all but three of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. He carried Obama strongholds – he got 63 percent in Lancaster County, for example – but also swept through smaller counties in the central and western parts of the state that had supported Clinton.

My cousin Nate, who works for the Sestak campaign, believed Sestak could upend Specter, a three-decade titan of the Senate, back when Sestak was down 20-points in the polls. “We’re gonna do it!” Nate texted me yesterday, as he worked in and around Philadelphia to get out the vote. Kudos to Nate — and all those who worked hard to elect Sestak.

There is much hard work ahead for Democrats, who surely have uphill battles across the country with unemployment hovering near 10 percent. But let’s also learn something from Pennsylvania 12, and from Nate’s commitment and irreducible optimism: we can win, in the fall, even in places where our opponents guarantee we can’t; our message and values still resonate.

There’s only one thing left now to do. In the immortal words of Philadelphia heroine Adrian Balboa: Win.

Obama’s Answer to Iran

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

That didn’t take long.

One day after Iran announced a nuclear deal with Turkey and Brazil — a transparent stalling effort designed to ward off international sanctions aimed at curtailing its nuclear program — the Obama administration has announced its own deal with the other major powers, including Russia and China, to go ahead with tough new sanctions.

It’s a draft plan. But, still, for those of use who care about Israel and Middle East stability, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement today is nothing short of huge.

As the negotiations on the draft resolution were in their final hours on Monday evening, a senior administration official said that one of the most critical sections of the proposed sanctions were modeled on a resolution passed last year against North Korea, after its second nuclear test. That resolution authorized all nations to search cargo ships heading into or out of the country for suspected weapons, nuclear technology or other cargo prohibited by previous United Nations resolutions …

Other elements of the sanctions resolution are aimed at Iranian financial institutions, including those that support the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The corps is responsible for overseeing the military aspects of the Iranian nuclear program. But it has also played a central role in suppressing protests against the government, and the Obama administration is betting that the organization is now despised by a large enough portion of the Iranian public that the sanctions may be welcomed by part of Iranian society. That is a big bet, however, because the corps also runs large elements of the country’s infrastructure, including its airports.

The deal, struck with the veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council (France, Russia, China, and the U.K.) plus Germany, is the Obama administration’s answer to Iran’s not-so-subtle high stakes gamesmanship.

Mrs. Clinton said the new offer [with Turkey and Brazil] would still leave Iran “in clear violation of its international obligations” because it “is continually amassing newly enriched uranium.” She also criticized what she called the “amorphous timeline for the removal” of the low enriched uranium. Reading the terms, she said, “that could take months of further negotiation and that is just not acceptable to us and to our partners.”

To those critics who say that sanctions will not hurt or deter Iran, I would ask: Why, then, is Iran going to such great lengths to undermine them?

As the Times reports:

Iran has been working mightily to ward off new sanctions, sending its foreign minister to the capitals of countries sitting on the Security Council to make the case that the sanctions amount to an American conspiracy to deprive Iran of its right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Maybe you saw this photo of a Ahmadinejad in today’s Times, raising the V for victory sign after inking the deal with Brazil and Turkey. If Obama and Clinton succeed in getting these sanctions through the United Nations, it will be the end of Ahmadinejad’s smirking.

Question Answered

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Earlier in the week, I blogged about the one question Elena Kagan needed to answer: What battle did she wage with her rabbi before her bat mitzvah?

The New York Times had disclosed that there had been a brouhaha “over some aspect of the ceremony,” without explaining what, precisely, had been at issue.

Well, thanks to the New York Jewish Week for asking — and answering – that question.

It seems that Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee had the moxie to stand on principle — even at the tender age of 12.

This issue was this: Kagan wanted a bat mitzvah; the Orthodox Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City, where her family belonged, did not have bat mitvot for girls.

Kagan went to her rabbi and told him she wanted to recite the Haftorah, just like the boys, and moreover, she wanted her bat mitzvah on a Saturday morning — just like the boys.

Her rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, told the Jewish Week that such a request was unprecedented.

To his credit, though, the rabbi worked with her. She could have the ceremony on a Friday night, he said; and instead of reading a traditional Haftorah, she could chant, in Hebrew a section from the Book of Ruth.

“I was very proud of her,” [Riskin] said. “She did very well. After that, we did bat mitzvahs all the time. … She was part of my education. This was for us a watershed moment.”

It couldn’t have been easy, in 1973, for a 12-year-old girl to stand up to her Orthodox rabbi for what she thought was right. At an age when most of us are more preoccupied with the bar/bat mitzvah after-party, Kagan not only spoke truth to power, but she forged a compromise that blazed a new path for all the girls who came after her.

Not to make of this long-ago incident than it deserves. But with abortion rights being chiseled away (women in some states will soon be forced to look at ultrasounds, and have the fetus described, before having abortions — even in cases of rape or incest) and immigrants being targeted through the law (did anyone see that Arizona just restricted ethnic studies classes, on the grounds that they promote “ethnic chauvinism”?), Kagan’s moral fearlessness could be a bold corrective.

My Question for Elena Kagan

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Elena Kagan, newly nominated by President Obama for the Supreme Court, will surely be peppered with questions by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Something tells me, though, that at no point will Kagan be asked the most critical question.

As the Times reports this morning:

The young Ms. Kagan was independent and strong-willed. Mr. [Bill] Lubic [her father's law partner of 20 years] recalls her bat mitzvah — or bas mitzvah, as it was then called — in a conservative synagogue, where Elena clashed with the rabbi over some aspect of the ceremony.

“She had strong opinions about what a bas mitzvah should be like, which didn’t parallel the wishes of the rabbi,” he said. “But they finally worked it out. She negotiated with the rabbi and came to a conclusion that satisfied everybody.”

I know that Supreme Court nominees are famously tight-lipped. But Americans — and most especially Jewish Americans — must know. Solicitor General Kagan: What battle did you wage with your rabbi at your bat mitzvah?

Did it have to do with Jewish gender roles? A disagreement about the interpretation of the HafTorah? A question about who could sit with the bat mitzvah girl on the bimah?

Let others debate whether Kagan is an activist judge (though it would hard to be more activist than Scalia, Roberts, et. al), or whether she is too progressive (her senior thesis at Princeton was about Socialism in New York City! She clerked for Thurgood Marshall!) … we need to know, Ms. Kagan: what prompted you, as a 13-year-old girl, to take on your rabbi, and how did you get him to cave?

I’ve got a hunch that this liberal Jewish woman — who has taken great pains in her career to reach out to conservatives, including Scalia – is exactly what’s needed on the increasingly conservative Roberts court.

Obama Edits Out Jesus

Thursday, May 6th, 2010

Symbols matter.

Remember President Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery in West Germany, 25 years ago this month? Where he laid a wreath at the grave site of 2,000 German soldiers, including 49 Nazi troops?

The Jewish community was outraged, of course.

Well, President Obama has made a subtle, symbolic gesture in the other direction, showing truly uncommon sensitivity to the Jewish community.

Thanks to the New Jersey Jewish News for this story, which reports that President Obama removed the standard phrase “in the year of our Lord” from a proclamation welcoming May as Jewish Heritage Month.

As the newspaper reports, previous similar proclomations — by Obama, George Bush, and Bill Clinton — all included the standard line affixed at the end, pegging the missive’s date to the birth of Jesus Christ.

Past proclamations including the phrase included one by Clinton mourning the death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (November 4, 1995) and another marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (March 21, 2002).

But Obama, in praising Jews for their unique contributions to American culture, took the extra step of taking it out this time.

Surely, this won’t sit well with the purists. I imagine the our-country-is-a-Christian-nation crowd will not be pleased. It may seem like a small thing, but it shows political courage.

The Jewish community should be more outspoken in acknowledging this, and in voicing appreciation.

Judge Woods and the Mezuzah

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Judge Diane Woods is not Jewish. She’s Protestant. And that makes her ruling in the so-called Mezuzah Case even more powerful.

Woods is one of Obama’s top contenders to fill the Supreme Court seat being vacated by John Paul Stevens. In 2009, she was part of a three-judge panel hearing a case that tells us all we need to know about her heart and values.

The plaintiffs in the case, Lynne  Bloch and her children, were long-time residents of Chicago’s Shoreline Towers. The Blochs had displayed mezuzot on their doorposts – as Jews do the world over — for 30 years, without objection.

But in 2001, the condo association adopted new rules: “Mats, boots, shoes, carts or objects of any sort are prohibited outside Unit entrance doors.” And soon enough, the condo began confiscating the Bloch’s mezuzuot.

Reading the case, it’s shocking to see what the Blochs endured. The condo association president told Lynn that if she didn’t like the way the rules were enforced, she should “get out.”  And, when Lynne was on the condo board herself, the president held events Friday night — even though he knew Lynne, who observes the Sabbath, couldn’t attend.  (When asked whether he was aware of Lynne’s religious obligations, he said, “She’s perfectly able [to attend],” but “she decides not to.”)

For over a year, every time the Blochs put a mezuzah up, the association took it down. When Lynne’s husband Marvin died, Lynne put in a special request, asking for the mezuzah to be allowed during the 7-day shiva period. The association relented.  Yet when Lynne and her family returned from the burial with the rabbi, they were shocked to find the mezuzah had been removed. They were humiliated.

The Blochs sued for damages, and also filed suit in federal court, alleging their civil rights had been violated.

At the Appeals Court level,  the three-judge panel initially ruled in favor of the condo association. Judge Woods dissented. She believed the family had the right to hang the mezuzah on its doorpost, and that denying them that right was discriminatory.

When the case came before the the full court, Woods still seemed to be in the minority.  Judge Frank Easterbrook argued that the perhaps the condo’s rule was not discriminatory, but had been put forth, as the Times reports, “with a completely empty head by people who didn’t have a clue about the religious significance of the mezuzah.”

Woods pushed back hard, and eventually swayed the panel to rule unanimously in the Bloch’s favor.

Supreme Court watchers say the case illustrates Judge Wood’s powers of persuasion — a key asset, as whomever Obama appoints will need to be able to woo Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote in a hotly divided court.

But I think it’s  more important for another reason. It shows that Woods has empathy, and a keen sense of justice and fairness.

No doubt, if she’s chosen, the right will attack her as an activist, radical judge. The conservative Judicial Confirmation Network  is on record saying Judge Woods “has betrayed a consistent hostility to religious litigants and religious interests.”

“At the center of this case is a little rectangular box,” the Court wrote, “about six inches tall, one inch wide, and one inch deep, which houses a small scroll of parchment inscribed with passages from the Torah, the holiest of texts in Judaism.”

Judge Woods antithetical to religious interests? The Blochs of Chicago would disagree.

Why I Mistrust Criticism of Obama on Israel

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

A good friend of mine in Israel sent me an article this morning from Y-Net, Israel’s largest and most popular news site. Headline: “U.S. ‘disappointed’ with Israel, Palestinians.”

My first thought: Oy. This is not the way to improve relations with the Jewish state, and earn back the trust of the Jewish community.

The subdeck went from bad to worse: “National Security Advisor James Jones says peace could prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but adds ‘it must be made by the parties and cannot be imposed from the outside.’ ”

Double oy, I thought. Peace preventing Iran from getting the bomb? It sounds foolishly naive: Obama, exactly as he is portrayed by his fiercest critics.

I read the article, an account of Jones’ remarks yesterday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Curiously, nowhere in the article was Jones quoted expressing disappointment with Israel. And nowhere was he quoted saying anything close to to what the subdeck asserted, vis-a-vis Iran and nuclear weapons.

So I went to the transcript. Jones doesn’t say he’s disappointed with Israel. (He does say: “we are disappointed that the parties have not begun direct negotiations.” But presumably, so is Bibi Netanyahu, who has repeatedly stated his desire to open direct negotiations toward peace.) And Jones doesn’t say peace between Israel and the Palestinians will prevent Iran from getting nukes. (He does say: “Advancing this peace would also help prevent Iran from cynically shifting attention away from its failures to meet its obligations.” This isn’t warm and fuzzy hope; it’s shrewd Realpolitik that, whether you agree with it or not, highlights Iran’s corrupt core.)

For those who haven’t read it, you should; Jones’ talk is a virtual love note to Israel. You can read it here.

Jones was absolutely steadfast on the need to stop Iran from getting a bomb, asserting that if Iran continues on its current path, it “will face ever deepening isolation.”

Iran’s government must face real consequences for its continued defiance of the international community.  We hope that Iran will make the right choice and acts to restore the confidence of the international community in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear program. However, should Iran’s leaders fail to make that choice, President Obama has been very clear, and I want to repeat it here: the United States is determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. 

He goes on to say there has been “a lot of distortion and misrepresentation” of U.S. policy regarding Israel. Though the two have had differences, he said, “we will always resolve them as allies.” Not once, but twice he referred to the absolute imperative for Israel to be a “secure, Jewish state.” Note the emphasis: Jewish.

As President Obama declared in Cairo, “America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known.  This bond is unbreakable.”  They are the bonds of history—two nations that earned our independence through the sacrifice of patriots.  They are the bonds of two people, bound together by shared values of freedom and individual opportunity.  They are the bonds of two democracies, where power resides in the people.  They are the bonds of pioneers in science, technology and so many fields where we cooperate every day.  They are the bonds of friendship, including the ties of so many families and friends.

 This week marked the 62nd anniversary of Israeli independence—a nation and a people who have survived in the face of overwhelming odds.  But even now, six decades since its founding, Israel continues to reside in a hostile neighborhood with adversaries who cling to the false hope that denying Israel’s legitimacy will ultimately make it disappear.  But those adversaries are wrong. 

 He goes on to criticize the Palestinians for refusing to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. “America’s commitment to Israel will endure,” the National Security Advisor said:

And everyone must know that there is no space—no space—between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security.  Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable.  It is as strong as ever.  This President and this Administration understands very well the environment—regionally and internationally—in which Israel and the United States must operate.  We understand very well that for peace and stability in the Middle East, Israel must be secure. 

 The United States will never waiver in defense of Israel’s security. 

The United States will never waiver in defense of Israel’s security.

That’s why, he explained, the U.S. spends billions of dollars annually in security assistance to Israel; consults with Israel to ensure its “qualitative military edge”; and undertakes joint military exercises, including one that involved more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers.

I can also say from long experience that our security relationship with Israel is important for America. Our military benefits from Israeli innovations in technology, from shared intelligence, from exercises that help our readiness and joint training that enhances our capabilities and from lessons learned in Israel’s own battles against terrorism and asymmetric threats. 

Over the years, and like so many Americans—like so many of you here tonight—I’ve spent a great deal of time with my Israeli partners, including my friends in the IDF.  These partnerships are deep and abiding.  They are personal relationships and friendships based on mutual trust and respect.  Every day, across the whole range of our bilateral relationship, we are working together for our shared security and prosperity.  And our partnership will only be strengthened in the months and years to come.

And yet Y-Net, the most popular news site in Israel, chooses to run with: “U.S. ‘disappointed’ with Israel, Palestinians”?

What bothers me most about this, is not only that it’s inaccurate, but destructive. And whether this particular headline was intentional or not, it fits a false narrative — purveyed by too many in the Jewish community – that goes back to before the election: Obama is a Muslim; he has anti-Israel advisors; he removed “Next year in Jerusalem” from the White House Passover seder; his State Department is denying visas to Israeli nuclear scientists; he snubbed Bibi Netanyahu; he “hates” Netanyahu; he hates Israel.

False. False. False. False. False. False. And false.

It’s dishonest. And it’s a big reason that, while I have specific concerns about how Obama’s handled Israel and the peace process, some of which I’ve blogged about, at the end of the day, my money’s on him.