Paul Krugman noted the other day that there’s a “mini-dispute among Democrats” over who has the best claim to President Obama’s mantle: Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. The New York Times columnist made the persuasive case that the answer is obvious: “Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama.”
The framing is compelling for reasons that are probably obvious. As a candidate, Obama was the upstart outsider taking on a powerful rival – named Hillary Clinton – who was widely expected to prevail. As president, Obama has learned to temper some of his grander ambitions, confront the cold realities of governing in prose, and make incremental-but-historic gains through attrition and by navigating past bureaucratic choke points.
But the closer one looks at the Obama-Sanders parallels, the more they start to disappear.
Comparing the core messages, for example, reinforces the differences. In 2008, Obama’s pitch was rooted in hopeful optimism, while in 2016, Sanders’ message is based on a foundation of outrage. In 2008, red-state Democrats welcomed an Obama nomination – many in the party saw him as having far broader appeal in conservative areas than Clinton – while in 2016, red-state Democrats appear panicked by the very idea of a Sanders nomination.
At its root, however, is a idealism-vs-pragmatism debate, with Sanders claiming the former to Clinton’s latter. New York’s Jon Chait argues that this kind of framing misunderstands what Candidate Obama was offering eight years ago.
The young Barack Obama was already famous for his soaring rhetoric, but from today’s perspective, what is striking about his promises is less their idealism than their careful modulation.
What Obama did eight years ago, Chait added, was make his technocratic pragmatism “lyrical” – a feat Clinton won’t even try to pull off – promising incremental changes in inspirational ways.
That’s not Sanders’ pitch at all. In many respects, it’s the opposite. Whatever your opinion of the Vermonter, there’s nothing about his platform that’s incremental. The independent senator doesn’t talk about common ground and bipartisan cooperation; he envisions a political “revolution” that changes the very nature of the political process.
The president himself seems well aware of the differences between what Greg Sargent calls the competing “theories of change.” Obama had a fascinating conversation late last week with Politico’s Glenn Thrush, and while the two covered quite a bit of ground, this exchange is generating quite a bit of attention for good reason.
THRUSH: The events I was at in Iowa, the candidate who seems to be delivering that now is Bernie Sanders.
THRUSH: I mean, when you watch this, what do you – do you see any elements of what you were able to accomplish in what Sanders is doing?
OBAMA: Well, there’s no doubt that Bernie has tapped into a running thread in Democratic politics that says: Why are we still constrained by the terms of the debate that were set by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago? You know, why is it that we should be scared to challenge conventional wisdom and talk bluntly about inequality and, you know, be full-throated in our progressivism? And, you know, that has an appeal and I understand that.
I think that what Hillary presents is a recognition that translating values into governance and delivering the goods is ultimately the job of politics, making a real-life difference to people in their day-to-day lives. I don’t want to exaggerate those differences, though, because Hillary is really idealistic and progressive. You’d have to be to be in, you know, the position she’s in now, having fought all the battles she’s fought and, you know, taken so many, you know, slings and arrows from the other side. And Bernie, you know, is somebody who was a senator and served on the Veterans’ Committee and got bills done. And so the–
THRUSH: But it sounds like you’re not buying the – you’re not buying the sort of, the easy popular dichotomy people are talking about, where he’s an analog for you and she is herself?
OBAMA: No. No.
THRUSH: You don’t buy that, right?
OBAMA: No, I don’t think – I don’t think that’s true.
The electoral salience of comments like these remains to be seen, but the president is subtly taking an important shot at the rationale of Sanders’ candidacy. For any Democratic voters watching the presidential primary unfold, looking at Sanders as the rightful heir to the “change” mantle, here’s Obama effectively saying he and Sanders believe in very different kinds of governing, based on incompatible models of achieving meaningful results.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, January 25, 2016
For a president who sometimes is criticized as too cerebral and lacking emotion, the memories he carries from comforting grieving families in Tucson, Fort Hood, Binghamton, Aurora, Oak Creek, Newtown, the Navy Yard, Santa Barbara, Charleston, and San Bernardino came together in what history will likely record as one of President Obama’s landmark speeches on Tuesday.
It was an effort to bring urgency to the gun issue in the same way he rescued his candidacy with a speech about race when he first ran for the White House. And for the gun-safety advocates and gun-violence survivors packed into the East Room of the White House on Tuesday morning, it was a huge moment in a fight that for too long has seemed stalemated.
“The gun lobby may be holding Congress hostage now, but they can’t hold America hostage,” Obama declared as he outlined the executive actions he is taking to circumvent Congress and expand background checks to cover the growing commerce of guns over the Internet.
“This is a great day for responsible gun owners,” said retired astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly, whose wife, Gabby Giffords, got a standing ovation as she entered the East Room. Then-U.S. Rep. Giffords was shot in the head along with 18 others outside a supermarket in Tucson five years ago this week. “We’re grateful to the president for standing up to the gun lobby,” Kelly said after the White House event, describing himself to reporters as a strong supporter of the Second Amendment.
Obama’s nearly 40-minute long speech was thankfully more sermon than college lecture as he sought to mobilize activists and voters alike for the long battle ahead. And one point, tears visibly streamed down his face. He didn’t use the word “movement” to describe the increasing array of gun-safety groups, some launched in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, but he reminded his audience that the women’s right to vote and the liberation of African Americans didn’t happen overnight, and LGBT rights took decades of work.
“Just because it’s hard, it’s no excuse not to try,” he said as he acknowledged the obvious, that gun violence and the scourge of mass shootings will extend beyond his presidency.
He expressed his puzzlement at how American society has reached a point where mass violence erupts with such frequency that it seems almost normal “and instead of talking about how to solve the problem, it’s become one of the most partisan and polarizing debates.” He put in a plug for a town meeting he is doing Thursday evening that will be televised on CNN. “I’m not on the ballot again. I’m not looking to score some points,” he said, adding that he wants to instill what Dr. King called, “the fierce urgency of now.”
“People are dying and the constant excuses for inaction no longer suffice,” Obama said. “We’re here not to debate the last mass shooting but to do something to prevent the next mass shooting,” a statement that got a big round of applause.
Obama’s rhetoric and his invocations of some of the lives lost brought people to tears, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, top aide Valerie Jarrett, and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell. Every year more than 30,000 Americans die in gun suicides, domestic violence, gang shootouts, and accidents, and hundreds of thousands of Americans have lost family members or buried their children.
“Many have had to learn to live with a disability, or without the love of their life,” Obama said. “Here today in this room, right here, there are a lot of stories, a lot of heartache… and this is only a small sample.”
After the event, several people stood out in the White House driveway in the bitter cold telling their stories. Among them was Jennifer Pinckney, the widow of slain Charleston minister Clementa Pinckney. She held a framed photograph of her husband as she told reporters about how her young daughters are frightened by any sound that could be a gunshot.
After Sandy Hook, Obama signed 23 executive orders reinforcing federal law in an attempt to restrain gun violence, and it’s taken the last year to navigate the legal thickets where Obama felt confident enough to go forward with closing the so-called “gun show loophole.” New guidelines on who qualifies as a gun dealer went up on an administration website as the president spoke.
Noting that two in three gun deaths is a suicide, Obama wants Congress to do more to fund access to mental health treatment. To those in Congress who rush to blame mental illness as a way to avoid the gun issue, he said, “Here’s your chance to support these efforts.” He also pledged to put the federal government’s research arm, including the Defense Department, behind gun-safety technology. “If a child can’t open a bottle of aspirin, we need to make sure they can’t pull the trigger on a gun.”
The expansion of background checks so that people with criminal records, domestic-assault violations, and severe mental illness can’t buy guns is popular with all groups, including 64 percent of gun owners and 56 percent of those who describe themselves as “favorable toward the NRA,” according to pollster Anna Greenberg, who conducted the survey just before Thanksgiving for Americans for Responsible Gun Solutions, founded by Kelly and Giffords. Ninety percent of millennials support the kind of action Obama took, Greenberg said.
Elected officials have long memories, and Bill Clinton still blames the Democrats’ loss of Congress in 1994 on their support for the Brady Bill and an assault weapons ban. A lot of big names went down in that election, and gun regulation went down with them. What Obama did this week is “the most significant achievement since the Brady Bill” more than 20 years ago, said Kelly.
It’s a nice twist of fate that Hillary Clinton might be able to capitalize on the shift. “Thank you, @POTUS, for taking a crucial step forward on gun violence. Our next president has to build on that progress—not rip it away” she tweeted after Obama’s speech. Guns are on the agenda in 2016, and Democrats are no longer cowering, which signals a cultural shift that goes beyond Obama’s still rather limited executive actions.
By: Eleanor Clift, The Daily Beast, January 6, 2016
Much has been written lately by people who think that President Obama has done an inadequate job of calming the nation’s fears. Today he takes on a very different task as the Consoler-in-Chief. On his way to the family’s Christmas vacation in Hawaii, the President will stop in San Bernardino to spend some private time with the victims and families of the shootings that took place there earlier this month.
I don’t expect that we’ll hear much about these meetings. But they’ll probably be much like the ones he held with the families of the shooting that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago. If you’ve never read Joshua Dubois’ account of that day, here is a portion of it:
The president took a deep breath and steeled himself, and went into the first classroom. And what happened next I’ll never forget.
Person after person received an engulfing hug from our commander in chief. He’d say, “Tell me about your son. . . . Tell me about your daughter,” and then hold pictures of the lost beloved as their parents described favorite foods, television shows, and the sound of their laughter. For the younger siblings of those who had passed away—many of them two, three, or four years old, too young to understand it all—the president would grab them and toss them, laughing, up into the air, and then hand them a box of White House M&M’s, which were always kept close at hand. In each room, I saw his eyes water, but he did not break.
And then the entire scene would repeat—for hours. Over and over and over again, through well over a hundred relatives of the fallen, each one equally broken, wrecked by the loss…
And the funny thing is—President Obama has never spoken about these meetings. Yes, he addressed the shooting in Newtown and gun violence in general in a subsequent speech, but he did not speak of those private gatherings. In fact, he was nearly silent on Air Force One as we rode back to Washington, and has said very little about his time with these families since. It must have been one of the defining moments of his presidency, quiet hours in solemn classrooms, extending as much healing as was in his power to extend. But he kept it to himself—never seeking to teach a lesson based on those mournful conversations, or opening them up to public view.
Those were quiet sacred moments – much as the ones today will be.
There is a twisted way in which our culture often associates courage with the kind of chest-thumping we saw on the Republican debate stage Tuesday night. But that dismisses the kind that it takes to look into the eyes of a mother/father/son/daughter/husband/wife who has lost a loved one to senseless violence and embrace their grief. There is a reason why most of us avoid being put in a situation like that whenever possible. It’s soul-piercing hard. So today I want to take a moment to think about what it says about President Obama that he would chose to go there. Beyond what he’s actually done to keep us safe, that’s at least as important as what he says to allay our fears.
By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, December 18, 2015
President Obama has heard the Republican reactions to Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, and it seems safe to say he’s unimpressed.
“When candidates say we shouldn’t admit 3-year old-orphans, that’s political posturing,” Obama said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Manila – making a veiled reference to GOP candidate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. “When people say we should have a religious test, and only Christians, proven Christians, should be admitted, that’s offensive, and contrary to American values.”
He added, taking another jab: “These are the same folks often times that say they’re so tough that just talking to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin or staring down ISIL (ISIS) or using some additional rhetoric will solve the problem – but apparently they’re scared of widows and 3-year-old orphans.”
Obama added, “At first they were worried about the press being too tough on them in the debates. Now they’re worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me.”
And while these comments were no doubt emotionally satisfying for those who’ve grown tired of watching Republicans try to exploit fear and ignorance to advance their own demagogic agenda, the president’s comments were also constructive on a specific front.
“We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don’t make good decisions if it’s based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks,” Obama said. “I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric coming out of here in the course of this debate. They’ve been playing on fear to score political points or to advance their campaigns and it’s irresponsible. It needs to stop because the world is watching.”
This wasn’t just empty rhetoric. The point about ISIS “recruitment tools” is of particular importance because it offers American political leaders a timely reminder: if you’re making things easier for ISIS, you’re doing it wrong.
The enemy is not some inscrutable foe with a mysterious worldview. As they’ve made clear many, many times, ISIS leaders want to be described in explicitly religious terms. They want to be characterized as a “state” and an existential threat to the West. They want to turn the West against refugees. ISIS leaders have a narrative – that Western leaders hate their faith – and they’re desperate to have their enemies reinforce that narrative as often, and as enthusiastically, as possible.
And in response, Republicans want to describe ISIS in explicitly religious terms. American conservatives keep describing ISIS as a “caliphate” and an existential threat to the West. The right has turned against refugees. Some Republicans have gone so far as to suggest Christians should explicitly be given preferential treatment over Muslims, effectively providing fodder for the very ISIS narrative the terrorists are eager to push.
Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Republicans are somehow deliberately trying to bolster ISIS’s agenda. That’s absurd; there are no ISIS sympathizers in mainstream American politics.
Rather, the point is that Republicans are inadvertently making things easier for ISIS when they should be doing the opposite. The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, went so far yesterday as to argue that American conservatives are “materially undermining the war against terrorism” and making a challenging situation worse.
All our efforts are undermined by declaring Islam itself to be the enemy, and by treating Muslims in the United States, or Muslims in Europe, or Muslims fleeing Islamic State oppression, as a class of suspicious potential jihadists. […]
[I]f U.S. politicians define Islam as the problem and cast aspersions on Muslim populations in the West, they are feeding the Islamic State narrative. They are materially undermining the war against terrorism and complicating the United States’ (already complicated) task in the Middle East.
Vox’s Zack Beauchamp added that turning away Syrian refugees specifically helps ISIS.
ISIS despises Syrian refugees: It sees them as traitors to the caliphate. By leaving, they turn their back on the caliphate. ISIS depicts its territory as a paradise, and fleeing refugees expose that as a lie. But if refugees do make it out, ISIS wants them to be treated badly – the more the West treats them with suspicion and fear, the more it supports ISIS’s narrative of a West that is hostile to Muslims and bolsters ISIS’s efforts to recruit from migrant communities in Europe.
The fewer refugees the West lets in, and the chillier their welcome on arrival, the better for ISIS.
I’m not blind to the complexities of national-security policy in this area, and I’m reluctant to be blithe in over-simplifying matters, but I’d ask U.S. policymakers and candidates to consider a straightforward test:
- Are you doing exactly what ISIS wants you to do?
- If the answer is “yes,” stop.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, November 18, 2015
At this point in the 2008 presidential race, a relatively crowded field of national Republican candidates was confronted with an unyielding reality: their party’s two-term president was deeply unpopular. According to Gallup, as of mid-October 2007, then-President George W. Bush’s approval rating was a woeful 32% – about 14 points lower than President Obama’s standing now.
And so, GOP candidates were pretty cautious about their associations with the flailing Bush/Cheney administration. The very last thing Republican presidential hopefuls wanted was to be perceived as offering Bush’s “third term.”
Fast forward eight years. Another two-term president is nearing the end of his tenure, but note what happened in last night’s debate when Anderson Cooper offered Hillary Clinton a chance to distance herself from President Obama. From the transcript:
COOPER: Secretary Clinton, how would you not be a third term of President Obama?
CLINTON: Well, I think that’s pretty obvious. I think being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents we’ve had up until this point, including President Obama.
COOPER: Is there a policy difference?
CLINTON: Well, there’s a lot that I would like to do to build on the successes of President Obama, but also, as I’m laying out, to go beyond.
The response didn’t cause much of a stir, but it was a pretty extraordinary answer given the political world’s general assumptions about Obama, his standing, and the public’s appetite for an entirely different policy agenda.
Given a chance to distance herself from the president – Clinton’s former rival – the Democratic frontrunner made no effort whatsoever to play along.
She wasn’t the only one. Vox had a good piece on this:
The president’s name was invoked 21 times – and largely by Hillary Clinton. She referred to him 13 times, usually in a positive manner, talking about the things “President Obama and I” did. When Lincoln Chafee questioned her judgment because she voted for the Iraq War, she said, “I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then-Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become secretary of state.” […]
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb referred to Obama twice, Martin O’Malley referred to him three times, and Chafee did once. Words like “admiration,” “affection,” and “support” were thrown around, but Clinton drove home the point that she worked, arm in arm, with the sitting president, who is very popular among Democrats.
That last point is of particular interest. I think the general media narrative is that President Obama is unpopular. I also think that narrative is wrong – Obama is arguably the nation’s most well-liked politician, and among Democrats, his support is generally between 80% and 90%.
Republicans wanted nothing to do with Bush towards the end of his presidency, but we’re looking at a very different dynamic, at least for now, with Democrats in the 2016 race.
It’ll be especially interesting to see how this plays out next year as Election Day approaches. If Hillary Clinton is the nominee, think about the national surrogates who’ll be able to hit the trail on her behalf: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, in addition to Clinton and her running mate.
The GOP nominee will have … who? George W. Bush probably won’t be headlining many rallies. So the nominee might turn to John McCain? Mitt Romney? Other national figures who lost major races?
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 14, 2015