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“Scared Of Widows And 3-Year-Old Orphans”: Obama Offers GOP A Lesson In What ‘Tough’ Actually Means

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:

  1. Are you doing exactly what ISIS wants you to do?
  2. If the answer is “yes,” stop.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, November 18, 2015

November 19, 2015 Posted by | GOP, ISIS, President Obama, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A Very Different Dynamic”: The Difference Between Presidential Pride And Embarrassment

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

October 15, 2015 Posted by | Bush-Cheney Administration, George W Bush, President Obama | , , , , | 1 Comment

“President Obama On Finding Openings”: An Incredibly Wise Grasp Of How History Works

After President Obama gave his speech about the Iran Nuclear Deal at American University, he met with ten journalists to discuss it further. I found this part of Max Fisher’s report to be fascinating.

Toward the end of our meeting with President Obama, one of us asked whether the Iran nuclear deal might change the future of that country’s poisonously anti-American politics, and Obama drifted from the technical and political details he’d otherwise focused on into something of a more reflective tone.

“I just don’t know,” he said, leaning back a bit in his chair for the first time since he’d arrived. “When Nixon went to China, Mao was still in power. He had no idea how that was going to play out.

“He didn’t know that Deng Xiaoping would suddenly come in and decide that it doesn’t matter what color the cat is as long as it catches mice, and the next thing you know you’ve got this state capitalism on the march,” Obama said, paraphrasing the famous aphorism by Mao’s successor that capitalistic policies were acceptable if they helped China. “You couldn’t anticipate that.”…

To hear him draw a connection between the nuclear deal and China’s transformation, then, was striking. It suggested that Obama, though he has repeatedly insisted he does not expect the character of Iran’s regime to change, does see it as a possibility, one potentially significant enough that it evokes, at least in his mind, President Nixon’s historic trip to China.

At the same time, the lesson Obama seemed to draw from the comparison was not that he, too, was on the verge of making history, but rather that transformations like China’s under Deng, opportunities like Nixon’s trip, can have both causes and consequences that are impossible to foresee. His role, he said, was to find “openings” for such moments.

That is an incredibly wise grasp of how history works – even for the most powerful person on the planet. It is a striking rebuke of much that we hear from would-be Republican leaders these days who presume that a President of the United States can control world events via military dominance. For those with some knowledge of history, it is especially important given that the discussion is taking place about a country where we tried that back in 1953 and paid the price for it via the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

It reminds me of comments President Obama has made in two other interviews with journalists. First of all, David Remnick.

“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

In other words, one of the ways you find openings is to get your paragraph right.

Secondly, he said this in an interview with Tom Friedman.

What struck me most was what I’d call an “Obama doctrine” embedded in the president’s remarks. It emerged when I asked if there was a common denominator to his decisions to break free from longstanding United States policies isolating Burma, Cuba and now Iran. Obama said his view was that “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-a-vis these three countries far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities — like trying to forge a diplomatic deal with Iran that, while permitting it to keep some of its nuclear infrastructure, forestalls its ability to build a nuclear bomb for at least a decade, if not longer.

Openings are made possible when your self-confidence allows you to take calculated risks.

To sum up: Getting your paragraph right by staying true to your North Star, combined with the self-confidence to take calculated risks, creates openings that can lead to transformative change.

Decades from now we’ll be bearing the fruit of openings this President has made possible with that kind of wisdom.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, August 15, 2015

August 16, 2015 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Iran Nuclear Agreement, President Obama | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A Community Organizing Virtuoso”: President Obama Is Well-Versed In The “Dance” Between Activists And Politicians

Years ago I was a program manager at a nonprofit organization and decided to apply to be the executive director of the same agency. The board of directors asked staff to review resumes and interview finalists for the job (including me).

The staff I supervised at the time objected to the fact that I included on my resume the accomplishments of the program I managed. Their response was that they had been the ones that did the work and I was taking credit for their efforts.

In a way, they had a point. But they also didn’t understand leadership. As coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi never scored a touchdown and never kicked a field goal. And yet he is credited with the success of that football team throughout most of the 1960’s.

In the end, I decided to take the staff objections as a compliment. That’s because I value the kind of leadership that facilitates the feeling of ownership by employees for their accomplishments. It’s the kind that Marshall Ganz described this way:

Another important distinction is that between leadership and domination. Effective leaders facilitate the interdependence or collaboration that can create more “power to” — based on the interests of all parties. Domination is the exercise of “power over” –a relationship that meets interests of the “power wielder” at the expense of everyone else.

Over the course of Obama’s presidency, we’ve often heard that he doesn’t do enough to tout his own record and when someone else does, activists jump in and take credit for pushing him to do something. Most recently that happened with his executive orders on immigration. Activists who had interrupted his speeches and called him the “Deporter-in-Cheif” took credit. The same thing happened when DADT was finally overturned a few years ago.

While Obama’s supporters often complain about that, I’m not sure the President would mind. As a former community organizer, he is well-versed in the “dance” between activists and politicians. And I believe that his goal as President has always been to lead in the same way he did back in those early days in Chicago. Here’s how James Kloppenberg described him in Reading Obama.

How did Obama, lacking any experience as an organizer, learn the ropes so fast? In Galuzzo’s words, “nobody teaches a jazz musician jazz. This man is gifted.”

Kruglik explains Obama’s genius by describing two approaches community organizers often use. Trying to mobilize a group of fifty people, a novice will elicit responses from a handful, then immediately transform their stray comments into his or her own statement of priorities and strategies. The group responds, not surprisingly, by rejecting the organizer’s recommendations. By contrast, a master takes the time to listen to many comments, rephrases questions, and waits until the individuals in the group begin to see for themselves what they have in common. A skilled organizer then patiently allows the animating principles and the plan of action to emerge from the group itself. That strategy obviously takes more time. It also takes more intelligence, both analytical and emotional. Groups can tell when they are being manipulated, and they know when they are being heard. According to Kruglik, Obama showed an exceptional willingness to listen to what people were saying. He did not rush from their concerns to his. He did not shift the focus from one issue to another until they were ready. He did not close off discussions about strategy, which were left open for reconsideration pending results. Obama managed to coax from groups a sense of what they shared, an awareness that proved sturdy because it was their doing, not his. From those shared concerns he was able to inspire a commitment to action. In the time it takes most trainees to learn the basics, Obama showed a virtuosos’s ability to improvise. As Galuzzo put it, he was gifted.

And here is how Barack Obama described it himself back in 1988.

In return, organizing teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people. Through the songs of the church and the talk on the stoops, through the hundreds of individual stories of coming up from the South and finding any job that would pay, of raising families on threadbare budgets, of losing some children to drugs and watching others earn degrees and land jobs their parents could never aspire to — it is through these stories and songs of dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness and strife, subtlety and laughter, that organizers can shape a sense of community not only for others, but for themselves.

(If you’ve ever wondered whether Obama had/has potential as a gifted writer…there’s your answer!)

There is both a quantitative and qualitative difference between organizing fifty people on the South Side of Chicago and leading the entire country. That is why Michelle Obama described her husband’s foray into politics like this:

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

And so I suspect that when citizens take credit for the changes they’ve worked to make happen, the community activist in him counts that as a success. Pundits who are attuned to the polarization in our politics have a point about whether or not that is a reasonable approach to take these days. But when our founders talked about “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” it’s exactly what they had in mind.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, August 1, 2015

August 2, 2015 Posted by | Community Organizers, Politicians, President Obama | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Any Fool Can Start A War With Iran”: Because Of Our Strength, We Have To Take A Practical, Common-Sense Position

Right now, it’s beginning to look as if President Obama will end up deserving the Nobel Peace Prize he so prematurely received in 2009.

Perhaps you recall how, during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Obama’s opponents treated his expressed willingness to speak with the leaders of unfriendly countries such as Cuba and Iran as a sign of immaturity.

“Irresponsible and frankly naïve,” was how Hillary Clinton put it.

Joe Biden said it was important for an inexperienced president not to get played by crafty foreigners.

Obama was unrepentant. “The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them—which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] administration,” he said, “is ridiculous.”

And so it was. Only ridiculous people talk that way now. With hindsight, it’s become clear that Obama wasn’t simply repudiating the GOP’s melodramatic “Axis of Evil” worldview, but expressing his own considerable self-regard.

Also his confidence in America as he sees it through his unique personal history as a kind of inside-outsider, capable of being more than ordinarily objective about our place in the world. When you’re the most powerful economic and military power on Earth, he keeps saying with regard to the Iran deal, it’s important to act like it: strong, calm, and confident. Able to take risks for peace because your strength is so overwhelming.

President Obama told the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman that if Ronald Reagan could reach verifiable arms agreements with the Soviet Union, a country that posed “a far greater existential threat to us than Iran will ever be,” then dealing with the Iranians is “a risk we have to take. It is a practical, common-sense position.”

As we saw in 2003, any damn fool can start a Middle Eastern war. And while hardly anybody in the United States wants one, even Iranian hardliners should have no doubt who would win such a conflict.

“Why should the Iranians be afraid of us?” Friedman asked.

“Because we could knock out their military in speed and dispatch if we chose to,” Obama said.

That’s the same reason Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and his allies in the U.S. Congress) need to cool it with the Chicken Little rhetoric. Obama thinks it’s “highly unlikely that you are going to see Iran launch a direct attack, state to state, against any of our allies in the region. They know that that would give us the rationale to go in full-bore, and as I said, we could knock out most of their military capacity pretty quickly.”

Of course Netanyahu knows that perfectly well. But here’s the kind of thinking that he and his allies on the evangelical right really object to:

“Even with your adversaries,” Obama said, “I do think that you have to have the capacity to put yourself occasionally in their shoes, and if you look at Iranian history, the fact is that we had some involvement with overthrowing a democratically elected regime in Iran. We had in the past supported Saddam Hussein when we know he used chemical weapons in the war between Iran and Iraq, and so…they have their own…narrative.”

Demonizing Iran serves Netanyahu’s short-term political purposes. Ditto Republican presidential candidates. But Obama has a wider audience and a longer view in mind. Much of what he said was directed over the heads of his domestic audience. Besides, GOP war talk makes it easier for Democrats to support Obama.

“Iran will be and should be a regional power,” he told Friedman. “They are a big country and a sophisticated country in the region. They don’t need to invite the hostility and the opposition of their neighbors by their behavior. It’s not necessary for them to be great to denigrate Israel or threaten Israel or engage in Holocaust denial or anti-Semitic activity. Now that’s what I would say to the Iranian people.”

He also focused upon the common enemy:

“Nobody has an interest in seeing [the Islamic State] control huge swaths of territory between Damascus and Baghdad,” Obama said. “That’s not good for Iran.”

Indeed not. More than the Turks, more than Saudi Arabia, more than anybody but the Kurds, Iranian forces are fighting ISIS on several fronts.

The president’s words were grudgingly noted in Tehran. In his own carefully crafted speech expressing guarded blessings for the arms control agreement, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei assured hardliners that he hadn’t gone soft on America.

However, he also alluded to Obama’s conciliatory remarks.

“He mentioned two or three points, but did not confess to tens of others,” Khamenei complained.

Which is how conversations begin.

This deal isn’t the end. But it’s an excellent beginning—of what, remains to be seen. Iran has essentially purchased anti-invasion insurance, while the U.S. and its allies have bought relative stability in the Persian Gulf.

Could things go wrong? Things can always go wrong.

But there’s always time to start a war.


By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, July 22, 2015

July 22, 2015 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Iran Nuclear Agreement, President Obama | , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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