Chelsea Manning and the Quality of Mercy: Obama at the End of Days

 

Chelsea Manning did her time. Anything else is merely culture wars. 

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Erick Erickson and the Obama Lookingglass

The GOP offered a vision of doom, despair, and division. Tonight the President I think divides us offered optimism. I hate this year.

There’s a tell here in Erick “Erick” Erickson, Son of Erick’s, baffled shoulder-shrug of a tweet. The tell is “I think”.  There are of course two ways to read that: the assertive, and the tentative, backpedaling way. It all depends on the inflection. If you emphasize the “I”, you’re taking ownership over the thought, claiming that this opinion is yours, and by dint of agency, you are transubstantiating it into fact. Imagine saying “Actually, your honor, I think that you’re the one drunk in court.” Bold, yes?

The second way is the emphasis on “think”. It’s hedging. It’s what you say when you are deeply unsure of something, and don’t want the responsibility for being wrong. “I think I can land a blimp?” It’s also used when the world is crashing around you, and the edifice of unreality you’ve been creating is knocked over. For Erick, Son of Erick, think he intended his tweet to be the former, but it is, almost unwittingly, the latter.

Last night’s DNC speech by The President of the United States Barack Obama was pretty much universally well-received, except by Donald Trump. On Twitter, at least, conservatives were calling it great, unifying and optimistic, in stark contrast to the “last call at Ragnarök” vibe we got in Cleveland. There was a certain teeth-gnashing about how Obama was using the language of hope and uplift, taking it from Reagan, whereas their party was one of doom and despair. Part of it was a sort of rueful pride and maybe even unconscious politics: see, they win only by acting like us. But I have to think there was also a bit of shock and even awakening. After all– this was not new.

It seems disingenuous for them to pretend that the Obama message, that of an imperfect union where we work together, strive together, look failure straight in the eye and learn from it, and reject the calls of demagoguery and hatred, is new. He’s always said these things, from his first major speech until last night. He’s tied the liberal values of community and togetherness, of not letting people be crushed by an invisible hand, into the theme of what America was founded on, and what it has too often failed to be. He’s always been the best at tracing that jagged, crooked, and often-broken line between who we want to be and who we can be, recognizing who we are, but not despairing. You can fairly say that the line shouldn’t lead to liberalism, or statism or whatever, and that’s fine. But to pretend he hasn’t always been who he was last night is incorrect.

I said “seems disingenuous” instead of “is, in fact, wildly and comprehensively disingenuous” because I think the level of cognitive dissonance was so great that it took a Trump to break it. They were so deeply vested in the idea of Obama being a divisive President, for reasons that go from normal (for our elevated and rabid times) political disagreements to a vast well of newly-tapped racial hatred. The thinking went. A) There are a lot of people who hate him partly or largely because he’s black.  B) Those people are on “our” side, therefore, I can’t say they are racist. C) I myself don’t like his idea of government, and let’s be honest, don’t love the idea of a successful black liberal, because then what does the party have. D) Therefore, the hatred isn’t coming from our side, but because he’s divisive.

Everything was contained in that shattered lookingglass. The whole theory of Obama- aloof, American-hating, jihad-loving, police-killing, Panther-adjacent, the real racist– had to spring from the idea that he was the divisive one. It was raw cynicism, and the opposite of any of his deeds and actions. Yes, he wanted Democratic policies to succeed. He was a Democrat. But they had to pretend that every action and every statement was so far beyond the pale that he was shattering every norm. And that left them deeply emotionally and intellectually unprepared when the caricature of Obama they created– a dumb, shallow, callow, vain, divisive, narcissistic, thin-skinned, hateful racist authoritarian demagogue– took over their party.

So yeah, that must have been tough for Erick “Erick” Erickson. This was the real Obama, the one whose has always moved to unite. The imperfect President with whom they can have serious and substantive disagreements, but who is clearly thoughtful, clearly intelligent about America and American history, and who clearly cares deeply about the country. They are forced to pretend that this is a reaction to Trump and that Obama is stealing from Reagan and all that, but I’d like to think that for a moment, before the gauzy veil of political hatred fell back down again, that they recognized, for a moment, the lies of the last eight years. And maybe they were saddened for a bit that hatred, paranoia, and petty small-brained bullshit made them miss entirely the most remarkable politician of our lifetime.

Tim Kaine and President Barack Obama Liveblogging

 

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Kind of neat.

9:04 Softball tonight kept me away from some of the convention. I heard Biden bring the house down on the radio, though. He sounds really good on the radio. He’s got that ol’ timey confidentiality, even when he’s shouting. He pulls you in. And there is no one who sounds more sincere than he does when saying he can’t believe that Donald Trump has a shot at being the next President.  Man, I love Joe Biden. I’m glad he didn’t run, though. He deserved to go out beloved, not losing to Hillary.

Kaine’s here. More after jump.

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Obama and Radical Islam

 

The President in winter

 

 

Privately, Obama expresses the deepest loathing for ISIS and other radical Islamist groups. ISIS, he has noted, stands for—quite literally—everything he opposes.

Jeffery Goldberg has, somewhat surprisingly, become the great chronicler of Barack Obama’s foreign policy thinking. Goldberg, who has a reputation of being pretty staunchly pro-Israel (a reputation which often unfairly paints him as unthinkingly Likudnik), doesn’t seem like a go-to source for a President who is often painted as anti-Israeli, or at least not reflexively pro-Israeli enough. It makes sense, though: Obama has a far great love of engaging with thoughtful people with whom he has some disagreements than with people automatically on his side. Goldberg fits this, as he’s fair enough to try to understand someone’s thought process even if he isn’t a fan of the final result.

It’s this sort of thoughtfulness on behalf of the President that is a reflection of his relationship with radical Islam. Obama’s critics see him as ruthlessly partisan and completely insulated, which is far from the truth, as his working friendship with Goldberg demonstrates (also, his attempts throughout the entire first term and some of the second to work with Republicans). They also see him as indifferent to radical Islam, as at best uncaring about it, and at worst hoping that it wins. Trump saying this explicitly this week was seen as a scandal; in fact, it was little different than what Republicans have been saying since he took office.

Goldberg’s Atlantic article yesterday, “What Obama Actually Thinks About Radical Islam”, is a deep dive into the President’s relationship with one of the animating forces in global politics, and an area that has consumed much of his Presidency, in a way he was desperately hoping to avoid. He thought that through persuasion and better intentions he could reset the relationship that the US had with the Middle East, and maybe even move toward peace with Israel.

This sounds naive, and maybe it is, but it is worth noting that literally every President in the last 50 years has thought the same thing, albeit with different courses of action. But, much like reaching out to recalcitrant Republicans, this also failed. Goldberg’s discussion of what happened next sort of sums up, for me, Obama’s policy motivations.

He gave the Cairo speech in 2009. By 2012—as the revolutions of the Arab Spring were curdling, and as Libya drifted toward chaos, despite a partial U.S. intervention—Obama developed strong antibodies to what I call the Carly Simon Syndrome, which is an affliction affecting American policymakers so vain that they probably think Islamist extremism, and everything else, is about them. Obama, unlike many American analysts, does not suffer from this delusion. He sees the problems affecting parts of the Muslim world as largely outside American control. At its best, this belief keeps him from rushing into disasters not of America’s making; at its worst, it keeps him from taking steps that stand a chance of making things better.

 This is, and always had been, the dichotomy of the Obama Presidency, one rooted in a sort of vicious thoughtfulness: the idea that you can try, and if it doesn’t work, don’t beat your head against the wall. It is one that recognizes the better angels in people, and tries to engage them, but also the worst demons, and tries to step away. It is one that recognizes not just the limitations of American power, but of American influence.
In response to Goldberg’s enormous “The Obama Doctrine”, I labeled it “tragic radicalism“, because it understood that the worst in humans couldn’t really be resolved, at least not easily, and so it was better to step away. Because, while there is no doubt that many problems in the Middle East and broader Muslim world are a reaction to wesern humiliations, especially at the hands of America, it is also true that there is far more going on than that, and that there is little America can do to fix it.
While I fundamentally agree with that, there are also policy missteps that come from such a view. Because while Obama has antibodies to Carly Simon, he also is somewhat vulnerable to it, although not in such a virulent manner. He does recognize that American influence is still a force for good and ill in the world, but in trying to mitigate the ill while still balancing our interests, we do things like intervene in the wrong limited way in Yemen: drones but little political support. There is a certain hand-washing that both downplays the real influence America has, and works to obfuscate the unhelpful foot-stomping going on below.
The more I think about it, the more I think “tragic radicalism” is the wrong phrase, since it seems to place emphasis on the latter, and doesn’t make it clear that “tragic” here is in the dramatic sense of the word.  Although not as pithy, “radical sense of the tragic” might be more accurate. It’s an understanding of human motivations that has led to some great things, but also to a sort of sighing away when the worst in us burbles madly to the surface. I do think he is impacted deeply by the horrors on his watch, especially Syria, but that just confirms his view of human nature.
All that said, I’m going to quote a couple paragraphs in full. As you listen to Trump talk about, well, anything, I think it is good to reflect on what a remarkable human being we’ve had in office for the last eight years.

 

In one conversation, parts of which I’ve previously recounted, Obama talked about the decades-long confrontation between the U.S. and communism, and compared it to the current crisis. “You have some on the Republican side who will insist that what we need is the same moral clarity with respect to radical Islam” that Ronald Reagan had with communism, he said. “Except, of course, communism was not embedded in a whole bunch of cultures, communism wasn’t a millennium-old religion that was embraced by a whole host of good, decent, hard-working people who are our allies. Communism for the most part was a foreign, abstract ideology that had been adopted by some nationalist figures, or those who were concerned about poverty and inequality in their countries but wasn’t organic to these cultures.”

He went on to say, “Establishing some moral clarity about what communism was and wasn’t, and being able to say to the people of Latin America or the people of Eastern Europe, ‘There’s a better way for you to achieve your goals,’ that was something that could be useful to do.” But, he said, “to analogize it to one of the world’s foremost religions that is the center of people’s lives all around the world, and to potentially paint that as a broad brush, isn’t providing moral clarity. What it’s doing is alienating a whole host of people who we need to work with us in order to succeed.”

Legacy And Language: Politico vs. Tim Noah

Timothy Noah had a typically sharp article this morning in Politico about the Obama administration implementing new rules that help promote a progressive policy, the most important being the new overtime wage rule, which guarantees the dangerous and un-American notion that people should be paid for the work they do.

The reason there is a rush of rules is due, as Noah explains, to a regulation passed in 1996 by Newt’s Congress. Per Noah:

Blame the Congressional Review Act. Enacted by a newly Republican Congress in 1996 as part of Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, the CRA law gave Congress 60 legislative days after a regulation was issued to block it by using an expedited procedure.

Aimed at taming the regulatory leviathan, the law proved almost entirely ineffective because presidents could — and did — routinely veto resolutions of disapproval against their own agencies’ rules. But under one circumstance, the CRA could be deadly. Late in a president’s final year, 60 legislative days (which extend much longer than calendar days) could carry over into another administration. A new president of the opposite party would be tempted to squelch a predecessor’s pet project.

Now, since then, there have only been two changes of administration: Clinton to Bush and Bush to Obama, so this is still new. Geroge W. Bush knew to protect himself. He was the first President to use the law, overturning a late-term Clinton regulation that instituted ergonomic standards to protect workers against the crippling problems of repetitive stress. It’s important to remember that Bush wasn’t a hapless doof thrust into global chaos; he was an evil boneheaded dork who ran a cruel administration from the jump.

Regardless, he understood the rules, and so did the same thing that President Obama is doing now. As Noah said, Obama is actually behind the Bush pace for pushing rules. Obviously, that means he’s a tyrant, because nothing that happened before Obama was elected counts, but that’s not really the point. I’m interested in Politico here.

I don’t know if Noah writes his own headlines. But the headline here is at clickbaity and incendiary odds with the rest of the piece: “Obama Rushes Out Rules To Guarantee Legacy.” To be fair, Noah’s first sentence includes the weighted and misleading phrase “shoveling out regulations nearly one-third faster in its final year than during the previous three”, mentions the cost to business, and has a GOP congressman talk of a “regulatory onslaught” before any explanation, but the rest is sober and measured and comprehensive.

So a lot of this is on Politic, though some on Noah. If you read the headline, and skimmed the beginning, you’d think this was some kind of dastardly new scheme. “Rushing out rules” and “shoveling” at a clip nearly 1/3rd faster (which isn’t that much faster if you think about it- I don’t know how much heavy lifting “nearly” does there). It’s dramatic, and makes the continuation of the job he was elected to do seem nefarious.

But it’s the word “legacy” that really sticks. Journalists, especially of the Politico ilk, love to do this. The Climate Change accord was Obama shoring up his environmental legacy. The deal with Iran was his foreign policy legacy. Now, Presidents, as are people who aren’t in history books, are concerned with how they’ll be remembered. There’s no doubt about that. But the quest for a”legacy” is really them doing the job they were elected to do. The Climate Change and the Iran Accord were smart policy: progressive and important and a chance to make the world a better, more livable, and more peaceful place. Even if you disagree, this was policy. It was policy he was elected to enact.

But to Politico, all is artifice. The actions don’t matter; just the perception. It’s a TV show and a ratings grab, a garish tent of fools. It’s not just that they paint these pictures. They assume everyone is acting in equally bad faith, and that makes it easy for us to believe they are. It’s both cynical and credulous, and misses the point in every way.

Politico’s  main sin isn’t that it is a suck-up fest of conservative 3rd-wayism or that it is as shallow as it is insipid (writers like Noah notwithstanding). It’s that it wants you to be as dumb as it is. It believes that you want it. It degrades anything that is real because it can’t understand how someone can look beyond tomorrow’s headline. That’s the main reason Obama has always confounded them. He refuses to see the world in the same blinkered and pointless way that they do.