Now that the tsunami of punditry on the President’s inaugural address has washed over us, the main conclusion of both his fans and detractors is left standing. He was aggressive in laying out his vision and did not so much as tip his hat to finding common ground with Republicans.

The Kansas Methodist, Rev. Adam Hamilton, chosen to preach at the National Cathedral Inaugural service, lauded the president for “a gift unlike any other President we have ever had” to cast a vision. However, Hamilton’s real message to Obama seemed to be when he told PBS news hour audiences that working across the partisan aisle should be Obama’s vision. Find issues, he counseled him, where you can work together and then build on that step by step to overcome the bitter partisan divide.

What does Hamilton’s vision mean in practice? All say Republicans and Democrats may be able to come together on an immigration policy. But then, why would anyone think they could move on to cure America’s partisan divide, or even reach agreement on any other issue. Is immigration reform the vision we are looking for? Do we just drop climate change, investing in education, gun control, equal opportunity economy, among other elements of Obama’s vision?

Finding common ground with Republicans should not be the centerpiece of Obama’s vision. As Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein told us a year ago in “It’s Even Worse Than it Looks,” America’s problem isn’t political polarization, it is the takeover of one party, the Republicans, by extremists. Those who are pushing to find consensus at all costs are elevating partisan rancor to the vision level and dignifying and validating extremism. To comment on the President’s Inaugural address, as Speaker Boehner did, that the President’s goal is to “annihilate” Republicans was a completely commonplace Republican statement―but extreme nonetheless.

Obama should not see his goal as finding common ground with extremists. Obama’s aggressive promotion of his vision is just that. If Republicans want to take it as aggression against them, they are wrong. He cares about his vision―not about annihilating Republicans. Republicans hate big government; they must hate politicians whose profession is mastering the art of governing. They are the last to say Obama should care more about placating partisan enemies than he does about succeeding in implementing his vision. He is prepared to leave all calls for nonpartisanship aside and go talk to the American people and get their direct support for his vision. What could be more American, more democratic?

Obama’s vision, in its whole and in its parts, should be what we are all talking about and not debating whether he has crossed some red line of the Republicans, who are so leaderless they don’t even have anyone to draw the red lines.

We must clearly separate America’s political dysfunction from a vision for America. Political dysfunction will get cured when the debate is on the vision. Honest disagreements on elements in a vision are welcomed. However, we should reject those who tell us that the President is aggressive and partisan and that his vision should placate the most extremely disaffected among us. That is not a recipe for success. Moving only where there is common ground is a recipe for disaster.
— Elizabeth Spiro Clark


President Obama talks of his vision of change for America.  Many commentators put down his talk in vague criticisms that seemed to call for him to hit back at the hyper-individualism/small government ideology of the Republicans in a more “ideological” way.  The President is not ideological, but he does represent a philosophy that America invented: pragmatism. He wants to find solutions that will work; he has found some and will find more.  The Affordable Care Act isn’t the ideology of “socialism,” as Republicans would have it, it is what will work to reduce health care costs, make Americans healthier and contribute to economic growth.

As Obama said in his victory speech last night:   “I have never been more hopeful about America. And I ask you to sustain that hope. I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight.

I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.”   — President Obama, Victory Speech

November 7, 2012


“There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it… My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” *
— Mitt Romney

Writing off the 47%: Unpatriotic
Appearing on the David Letterman show, Obama accused Romney of “writing off a big chunk of the country” and that Romney was wrong to suggest that “because someone doesn’t agree with me that they’re victims or unpatriotic.” “The one thing I have learnt as President is that you represent the entire country.” What is patriotic about Romney writing off the 47% and claiming he won’t be President of all Americans?

Quite apart from Romney’s clear contempt for 47% of Americans, he doubled down yet again on his contempt for facts by saying “they don’t pay taxes.” Well, for one, all those seniors getting social security and Medicare he hopes will vote for him paid payroll taxes while they were working.

And what is this whole “dependency-is-bad” screed? We are all dependent on each other. As Americans we create through our elected representatives public service institutions set up to benefit us all. Romney doesn’t want any institution that benefits Americans equally (except maybe a flat tax rate, that of course wildly benefits the very rich). In Romney world there is no sense we are in this together as Americans.

It is unpatriotic to divide America, discarding lower-income Americans as less worthy as individuals. When the sense of community is broken America is weakened.

The 47%: Disenfranchise Them!
In Romney’s view if you don’t pay taxes you don’t deserve a say in government. There is nothing in his worldview that wouldn’t fit a policy of returning to 18th century property qualifications for voting. In fact the Romney dismissal of 47% of Americans, fits perfectly with the actual drive of Republicans to disenfranchise Americans in the 2012 elections on the transparently dishonest grounds that they are safeguarding Americans from voter fraud.

In the most exhaustive study to date of voter fraud the non partisan News 21 found in its Who Votes Project that from the years 2000 to the present in the United States there were 2000 cases of voter fraud. Of that 2000 there were only 10 cases of voter impersonation- the only type of fraud photo ID requirements would catch. Given this research it is clear that the motive behind the Voter ID laws is to reduce the number of American citizens who vote, largely, if not solely, because they are assumed to vote for the Democratic Party. The disenfranchised are part of the 47% of Americans Mitt Romney feels aren’t real Americans, so why not disenfranchise them? On this theory, Democrats aren’t real Americans

You aren’t for America if you are Romney; you are for your part of America. Being patriotic means supporting American democracy. Passing laws meant to selectively disenfranchise American citizens for partisan gain weakens American democracy. It is unpatriotic.

The 47%: Is Obama one of them?
Republicans do not accept Barack Obama as their President, as American. The Senate minority leader has said the top priority of the Republican Party is to destroy and defeat the American President. That is unpatriotic.

Being patriotic means supporting American democracy. That means accepting the results of elections, participating in our democratic system of separation of powers, negotiating solutions in the necessary work of government. It means not taking pledges not to negotiate with the other party and owing fealty to non-elected political figures. Vowing obedience to a Grover Norquist no-tax-raise pledge is anti democratic. It is an insult to America. It is unpatriotic.

It deliberately weakens America in the world if the nation is urged not to stand behind its President and if policies are pursued internationally, not to strengthen America but to weaken the President. That is unpatriotic.

*Read more: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0912/81312.html#ixzz26pZDxvJI

In what was called an “accommodation” Obama made it clear in a February 10 press conference that all women would have access to free contraceptives but offered through their insurance companies and not through the institutions that employ them which may be affiliated with the Catholic Church that opposes contraception. It would be a shame if this explanation is interpreted as Obama on the defensive, having stepped back from “making a mistake.” 

Defensiveness in this case is entirely inappropriate. It is no shame to work to expand the availability of contraception. On the contrary it’s a goal to be proud of. An Institute of Medicine report recommended a major expansion of birth control services to women. Women with unintended pregnancies account for almost half of pregnancies in the U.S., and those women are more likely to smoke, consume alcohol, be depressed and experience domestic violence. The IOM also said that expanding birth control services to women will cut down on the number of abortions and make women healthier. To be for contraception is to be pro life. 

There was an outcry from the Catholic hierarchy against Obama’s plan to make cost-free contraception available to all.  If contraception is good for women and children there ought to be an outcry from the other side, those who want to attack global poverty, decrease infant and maternal mortality, and strengthen families and women’s self determination.  

Jill Warren, executive director, Methodist Federation for Social Action said it best, when interviewed on the PBS Newshour February 9: “Contraception, controlling whether you can plan your family, whether you can space your children, whether you want to have children, is a basic health issue. It’s a biological fact that women can be impregnated, and against our will, I might add. So it absolutely is a health issue…for me, the policy is just good public policy for the common good.” Warren also said “barriers to education, barriers to the work force all center around whether you can control your own reproductive health.”  In other words working against the availability of contraception is also an issue of discrimination.

The original Obama plan was not a violation of religious liberty.   No one was being urged, let alone compelled, to violate their beliefs and purchase contraceptives.  On the contrary, it is the (heavily government subsidized) private sector religious institutions that seek to impose their will. When the Catholic hierarchy talks about the suppression of religious liberty it is talking about institutions, not individuals, claiming that their religious freedom is being violated (is this like the personhood of corporations as funders?). 

These institutions are powerful. The fifth national survey of American Catholics appeared in National Catholic Reporter on October 28, 2011; a major finding was that Catholics of all generations, and both sexes, have consistently said in five surveys during the past 25 years that they do not see the bishops as the proper locus of moral authority on the matter of the use of contraception.  Rather they believe that their conscience should be the proper locus.  Only 11% look to the bishops.  One Catholic theologian Daniel Mcguire cautions however not to underestimate that 11%: “the bishops have a terrific amount of scare power for politicians.” They have found an issue for their battle in Obama’s birth control decision. Non-Catholics are being told to stay away from the issue. Michael Sean Winters, also in National Catholic Reporter (NYT, 2/10/12), said, “no matter what people think about contraception, that’s an internal Catholic debate. Catholics do not like interlopers.”

To say that non-Catholics should leave the issue alone is not an acceptable position. The Catholic Church cannot arrogate to itself the right to decide this issue “internally” while in the meantime urging on politicians to come down hard on the anti-contraception side. The community as a whole (America) should not facilitate a particular hierarchy imposing its views, even on its own members, especially when those views offend the moral convictions of large numbers of other Americans.

It is hard to open a newspaper with out seeing the phrase “America’s Waning Influence” or “America’s Diminished Power”, both used in a November 2 NYT “White House Memo.” These stories all beg the question “diminished power to do what?” We should rather ask whether the power and influence were used successfully? In the presumable heyday of American superpowerdom, post collapse of the Soviet Union, we invaded Iraq. Is that an action we are somehow supposed to be regretful we can’t keep on doing? At a major US Institute of Peace conference on Israel-Palestinian peace, speaker after speaker noted that US influence in the region had plummeted. The two main reasons given were the war in Iraq and US responsibility for the financial collapse of 2008. Those were events that happened under the Administration of Bush 43.

The decisions made by the men around Bush 43 flowed from their own background in the US military and defense establishments. This was the world they knew. “Diplomacy was not their strong suit” as the chronicler of the Bush war cabinet, James Mann, details in his 2004 “Rise of the Vulcans.” Their only strategy post 9/11 was to doubledown on American military power; taking actions with the explicit purpose of making US purposes unchallengeable. But they were challenged. The Europeans didn’t go along with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. There was no NATO, let alone UN support. There was active French opposition to the invasion. Remember patriotic Americans renaming French fries “Freedom Fries”?

Why, when Iraq wasn’t successful and we didn’t get our way, is it Obama’s presidency that is considered weak and diminished? Why isn’t it “Bush’s war” and “Bush’s financial collapse” that is blamed for the diminution of American power? The answer is that Cheney and the militarists made America weaker, but we have so absorbed the principle that American strength equals being able to coerce through military means that we have to define even a failed Administration operating under that principle as strong. The idea that a strong America means one that can force others to do what we want, paradoxically means such an Administration cannot be criticized as weak, as responsible for loss of American power and influence, even if in fact it was responsible for that loss of power. Success doesn’t matter. It’s whether you get success through coercion.

On the flip side of the coin, also paradoxically, the great foreign policy successes of the Obama Administration can’t be defined as strength. America’s Secretary of State in Libya used brilliant diplomacy, usually behind the scenes, coupled with multilateral and limited military action, but don’t call it success, even if the outcome benefited America, because we shared responsibility with others, using a minimum of coercive power. It would have been a success only if we proclaimed we did it under a strategic “vision” of demonstrating American dominance, bringing us back to another plummet of US influence for the next US Institute of Peace conference.
— Elizabeth Spiro Clark
November 7, 2011

After eight and a half years of war in Iraq, President Obama has announced that our military will be out of Iraq by Dec 31, except for security forces guarding our diplomats, and the possibility of a yet-to-be-negotiated deployment of trainers for the Iraqi security forces. The US is leaving the field with zero clarity about why we were there, or what we accomplished, and for that reason the main message of Iraq may be lost. That message is that Iraq was a mistake.

In the State Department I once worked for a Republican appointee, Robert Kimmitt who was Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the George H.W. Bush Administration during the Gulf war. Behind his desk he had an artillery shell from the war in Vietnam, where he had served on active duty. I can’t quote him, but clearly he did not think Vietnam was a mistake. War was noble. Victory was possible.

We may never know what the real reasons for Iraq invasion were, certainly not the manufactured Weapons of Mass Destruction (to be fair, Saddam would have liked to have been manufacturing them) or setting Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. At least three months before the invasion the press virtually shut down talking about the war. The military had determined the US must invade by March before the weather got too hot. This tends to support the idea that the most likely reason for the war was a Cheney-led drive to prove that the US was the single power hegemon that could do as it wished and, quite explicitly in the case of Iraq, cheaply. Iraq was a test.

With this murky history, Republicans will hardly have to make an effort to blame Obama for anything that goes wrong, there will be such a large grab bag of unprovables. The Washington Post editorial October 23 started in on manufacturing the framework by highlighting “risks” of Obama’s decision. “Iran will be handed a crucial strategic advantage.” “A potentially invaluable U.S. alliance with an emerging Iraqi democracy will wither.” Almost anything that moves in the region could be used to “prove” those two points.

However, cheer up. For one, Iraq isn’t lost; it will be an oil rich country struggling with sectarian and regional splits within recognizably democratic institutions. It’s neighbor Iran will be the country that is weak and isolated from the international community. Second, the ignorance of the Republican base may save Obama from a “who lost Iraq” charge. Obama’s record in killing al Qaida leaders will block the charge that he is “weak”. And for the rest, the Republicans, and the country more generally have lost interest.