Posts Tagged ‘Bush’

‘There are Be-ers, and There are Doers’

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

There’s a good article by Matt Bai in the Times Magazine this week that tries to articulate what Obama is doing differently from Clinton and Carter to keep the Democrats in Congress on his side, so that he can pass his domestic agenda — and succeed where both Clinton and Carter failed.

Instead of a top-down approach — Clinton handing Congress a 1,000-page health care bill — Obama is, by design, not dictating, instead giving a broad policy framework, and letting the legislators hammer out the details. Congress is filled with professional legislators who like to legislate; they don’t like to be told what to do. Ronald Reagan, the article notes, used this same strategy to reform the tax code and shore up Social Security in his first year in office.

Here’s the nut:

Obama has an entirely different theory of how to exercise presidential power, and he has consciously designed his administration to avoid Clinton’s fate. …Obama seems to think that the dysfunction in Washington isn’t only about the heightened enmity between the parties; it’s also about the longstanding mistrust between the two branches of government that stare each other down from twin peaks on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

To this end, Obama has appointed Congressmen and Senators to key positions (think: Rahm Emanuel and Joe Biden), filling his administration with “dozens of … former top-level Congressional aides.”

At the same time, Bai concludes that Obama can’t be too removed by the legislative process — particularly if he is seeking passage of laws that may be politically unpopular.

It’s fine for a president to stand back from the process — but not so far back that Congress thinks he’s trying to duck the consequences or that the public comes to see the whole enterprise as just another Congressional spending spree.

The stimulus bill, for example, was not going to pass without Obama hitting the campaign trail — in Indiana and Florida — and rallying public support.

It’s a difficult balancing act, Bai concludes, and one Obama won’t easily sustain during the upcoming health care debate.

Still, I was left with a sense that — as with the election campaign — Obama’s vision has as much to do with process, and learning from the mistakes of the past, as with ideas.

There is an incredible quote from Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is the Senate point man on health care, and who seems pleased with Obama’s inclusive approach to lawmakers.

“How do I say this delicately?” he asked. “President Bush, he liked being president. You know, there are be-ers, and there are doers. And I think he liked being president, as opposed to doing.” Obama, on the other hand, strikes Baucus as a doer. “You’ve really got to work at it, rather than just enjoying the job,” he said.

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.

The Crown and the Coal

Monday, January 19th, 2009

Last night, on my way home from Aunt Ruth’s, I stopped off for a quick visit to my friends’, Rachel and Mike, in Chevy Chase.

Something Rachel said struck me: She’s totally on board with Obama; she gets why everybody is so excited, and she is too. But something about his arrogance — the notion that, with his resume, he believes he is qualified to be the most powerful person in the world — still bugs her.

We decided that anybody who not only wants this job but thinks they can do it would have to have a certain self-confidence that veered into hubris.

It’s true that sometimes when you see Obama, he has that look. Early in the campaign, as he was edging ahead of Hillary Clinton in delegate votes, I remember reading the stories about Obama’s “cockiness.” I remember thinking: Dude, you may be winning, but a lot of Democrats love Hillary; stay low, stay level, stay respectful in the lead.

Yet one of the things I like most about Obama is also his willingness to criticize himself; his recognition that he is fallible and capable of making mistakes. It was a tonic — such a contrast to Bush, who, famously, could not think of a single mistake from his first term; who seemed to think that his decisions were righteous because they were his. It was as if God was a right-wing Republican.

Think back to Obama’s race speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. His campaign was in serious trouble, besieged by questions about why he spent decades at Trinity Church, listening to the anti-American, anti-Israel, fire and brimstone sermons of Rev. Wright.

In explaining his association, and making his comment about race in America today, Obama said something that has stuck with me:

Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy — particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.

I’m reminded of the Torah portion that we read for last Shabbat — parsha Sh’mot — which tells the story of the birth of Moses, his rescue on the Nile, his upbringing in Pharaoh’s court, and his initial encounters with God. When God calls upon Moses to serve as an ambassador to the Israelites, Moses answers: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10)

Our sages imagine a story: When Moses was an infant, sitting on Pharaoh’s lap, he reached up and took off Pharaoh’s crown. The Egyptian ruler feared this was a sign that Moses would one day try to replace him, so Pharaoh devised a test. He set before Moses a hot coal, and a crown, thinking that if baby Moses reached for the crown, he would be executed.

According to the legend: “Baby Moses was about to reach for the shiny crown when an angel redirected his hand away from it toward the coal. Burning his fingers, he put his hand in his mouth and injured his tongue, rendering him ‘slow of tongue’ ever after.”

My point is not to compare Obama to Moses.

“Perhaps,” the Midrash speculates, “the Torah is telling us that, whatever our limitations, God can use us to do great things.”

Part of the explanation, Obama was saying in his Philadelphia speech, is that I’m flawed. And I know it.

At 12:01 p.m. tomorrow, when Obama becomes our president, he’ll have to work ever harder to recognize, come to terms with, and transcend his own limitations.

If we’ve been paying any attention at all these last six months, we understand: We will, too.