“Ich bin Ein Bland Speaker”: Barack Obama in Berlin

Today, Barack Obama became the latest American President to make the time honored mistake of travelling to Berlin with President Kennedy’s 1963 speech still ringing in his ears. Speaking almost 50 years to the day since President Kennedy spoke to a million Berliners from City Hall, Barack Obama sought to emulate the fallen hero of Camelot and came up short. Well short.

Where Kennedy delivered a short speech filled with emotion and passion, scribbled together on a flight over the Atlantic, Obama gave a cool and detached address that appeared to have been written by a committee and which was noticeably devoid of any resounding lines of its own or indeed original thought.

This was perhaps, a speech for its time, just as Kennedy’s was. Except that when Kennedy spoke it was to a divided city and a divided world and his voice gave hope and reassurance that the United States would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Berlin and the free world in the hour of maximum danger. That was the theme of the day, the moment and the era. In contrast, Obama delivered an aimless, meandering address that desperately lacked a center. To quote Churchill, like a poor dessert, it lacked a theme.

Obama suggested that this generation should not, indeed could not, rest on the laurels of the past generation or merely reflect on history. And yet he offered no specific sense of direction or a road map for the future, which was, of course, Kennedy’s genius. Instead, he delivered a smorgasbord of half-baked ideas and platitudes about co-existence. Climate change, nuclear disarmament, gay right, women’s rights, poverty reduction, economic rejuvenation, international trade, curing AIDS: All were covered in a speech that had no theme except its desire to be all things to all people. It was a liberal wish list of aspirations for an ideal world and totally at odds with the history of the last decade. Obama is, as he pointedly reminded the crowd, President of the United States and has been now for so long that he is into his second term. Yet his wish list of aspirations contained no sense that he felt any responsibility or capability to enact them or that he had done since January 2009.

The speech was high on expectations but low on delivery and lacking in passion. Time and again, Obama made direct or oblique reference to speeches of the past, but said nothing memorable himself. In fact, his repeated effort to quote from the past merely reinforced the vapid nature of his own remarks. Obama wisely referred to Kennedy’s other remarks from 1963, but in so doing, he failed to instill a sense of passion for the fallen icon, remorse at his passing or any of the vision that Kennedy inspired that day and in the years that followed.

Obama quoted Madison, Kant, Kennedy and King, yet in a speech that was staged on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate, with his back to West Berlin, meters away from where Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down the Wall that divided the city and the world, Obama failed to mention the importance of the Gipper’s remarks, in what was a poor move that revealed the sad state of partisan American politics.

Obama’s delivery was faltering and it was notable that he was speaking to the crowd through 6 inches of armored glass from a text and not from a teleprompter. Maybe the sunlight prevented the auto-cue from working, but again, it was noticeable how dependent he is on the technology to deliver on the big occasions and how off his game he is when it fails.

“A world of Peace with Justice” emerged as a theme towards the end of the address, but this seemed forced. The loudest cheer came with the call to close Gitmo, but again, Obama has been president for 5 years, a time that has seen the magic luster compared to his last visit in 2008. There was a clear effort to address anger in regard to the NSA eavesdropping in the final section, but this received scant attention or response from the crowd.

It was, all in all, a remarkably unremarkable address.

Obama’s Nuclear Game Changer

This evening’s breaking news, that the Obama Administration has been involved in secret negotiations with the Iranians over the possibility of face to face talks promises to be a vital event in the last weeks of the 2012 presidential election, coming so close to the final presidential debate, scheduled for Monday night.

The possibility of a fabled ‘October Surprise’ has loomed large ever since the president’s numbers began to tank following his poor first debate performance. Many of us have speculated privately and in public as to what form this may take. A mysterious countdown clock has recently appeared on the Internet promising a mysterious revelation.
Now, however, it has been revealed by the New York Times.

That indeed, should tell us something. The paper is hardly a friend to Republican candidates, and as one of the most reputable international newspapers, the story was guaranteed to make a splash heading into the Sunday news shows.

The news threatens to impact both the US election and the election in Israel, since Netanyahu will doubtless be unhappy with the concept of negotiations with a nation that has discussed removing Israel from the face of the Earth.

Of more immediate concern is the impact that this could have on the US presidential election. With Election Day drawing closer and Romney surging in the polls (including in Ohio) the release of this story must be suspect and raises once again the issue of national security leaks from the Obama White House.

How Romney chooses to react will be telling, and react he must, for the final debate focuses on foreign policy. According to the New York Times story, the Iranians have reservations about Romney. Could the Republicans suggest that it is fear of a GOP victory that has inspired this move? This is doubtless incorrect, but may be spun this way.

More likely, this is yet another move by Tehran to divide opinion and sew the seeds of doubt into potential adversaries. Put another way, Lucy has once more placed the ball in front of Charlie Brown. We know what happens next…

The move has dramatically raised the stakes, however, ensuring the Monday’s debate could be the most pivotal ever held since the live televised coverage began in 1960.

Obama’s Bankrupt Culture

One upon a time the sun used to shine all summer long and the season could be relied upon to produce a stream of blockbuster movies designed to pack cinemas across the land with action-packed, star-filled romps that may (perhaps) have more style than substance, but which nevertheless had some degree of originality.

How things have changed. Not only does the sun appear determined not to shine at any stage of the British Summertime (despite, irony of ironies a hose-pipe ban being in effect) but the aforementioned glut of movies has dried up, only to be replaced by a trickle of poorly thought out, unimaginative drivel.

I recently sat through Prometheus. I’m just old enough to remember news reports of shock induced heart attacks during the first movie in the series (although, of course, some are suggesting that Prometheus is not related to Alien). Funnily enough, this film is so bad it may induce a similar reaction, albeit for very different reasons. The original was, as my wife constantly reminds me, a gothic horror. It was a simple story of everyday folk on a haunted spaceship with a deadly creature out to eat them. One by one they were picked off until finally the least likely to survive emerged victorious, only to have to fight all over again, and again, in a series of increasingly uninspired sequels. The movies became more expensive as the plots holes grew larger and the audience got smaller. Alas, the final scene in Prometheus painfully sets up the potential for another drawn out, unnecessarily protracted sequel that will doubtless do much to continue to undermine the charm of the original.

Prometheus is, however, only the latest in a series of franchise ‘re-launches’ that have become increasingly necessary as Hollywood lacks the imagination to devise anything new. Instead, it dusts off existing product and repackaged it to young, impressionable audiences with younger and cheaper actors playing the roles previously established by stars who are now too expensive, or too dead, to be used.

This is happening with increasing regularity. Consider the James Bond re-launch with Daniel Craig, who may have earned his licence to kill in a brutish manner, but who is yet to earn his ability to raise a single eyebrow in a Roger Moore fashion, or to utter a Sean Connery style retort in the face of almost certain death. Instead he has become a British Jason Bourne, a blunt, should I say dull, instrument of death. Which brings me to 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, a film NOT starring Matt Damon or even the character of Jason Bourne, in a lame effort to keep a franchise going without its star or director.

Movies are being re-booted, re-imagined, re-launched and re-vamped on an all too regular occurrence. Gone is any originality. Sequels were bad enough, but at least they were traditionally limited to trilogies. It is hardly surprising that films have begun to deteriorate as sequels have become prequels and film series have begun to edge towards 5 and 6. Just ask yourself, when the last time the 5th episode in a film series was the best of the lot? Answers on a postcard please ….

Perhaps George Lucas is responsible. Certainly there are people who seem willing to blame him for just about everything since he began tinkering with his own films. I have list count of how many times he has digitally altered the original Star Wars, but vitally it began almost immediately, with alterations made to its 1978 re-release to enable a sequel in 1980. Having made the lamentable Return of the Jedi in 1983 he then had the best part of two decades to think of what to do next before inflicting The Phantom Menace on an unsuspecting world, a fascinating tale of trade disputes and tax issues on irrelevant worlds, resided over by boring Jedi knights, who were more monk than hero, and certainly less animated than most of the obviously CGI characters.

The worst culprit of all, however, appears to be, wait for it…Total Recall. The Arnie blockbuster from 1990 has been remade, in some places shot for shot and word for word, with the very much NOT Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque Colin Farell playing the lead and the even less Sharon Stone-esque Kate Beckinsale playing his supposedly hot (but not very much in this version) wife. Surely the bankruptcy of Hollywood is complete?

Movies can often be seen to reflect the politics of the time in which they were made. In the 1970s there were dark and brooding movies that reflected the confused state of America, where heroes were anti-heroes and lines were blurred. (The Parallax View, The Godfather, The French Connection, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now). The 1980s were a much brighter time, superficially so perhaps, in which heroes and politicians were more clear cut and above board. Films reflected the new sense of national pride in Reagan’s America (Top Gun, Rambo, Back to the Future, Ferris Bueller). In the 1990s everything became a little more sensitive, kinder, gentler, as men had to get in touch with their sensitive side and women were allowed to roam. (Working Girl, Pretty Women, Thelma and Louise, A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle). In he late 90s there were a glut of movies addressing the presidency as the American people fixated on the private affair of Bill Clinton (Murder at 1600, Absolute Power, The American President, Wag the Dog). Then after 9/11 there was the obvious spate of movies examining U.S. policy and issues of war (The Hurt Locker, Avatar, Jar Heads).

Now, in Obama’s America we have Footloose (2012), Karate Kid (2012), Fright Night (2012) The Thing (2011). This is what it has come to. Poor originals remade to be even worse. Like a photocopy of a photocopy. We have seen it all before, of course, but each time it gets a little worse.

Decide for yourself what this says about the state of Obama’s America. Certainly Hollywood appears to be bankrupt, boring and uninspiring, its products a mere reboot of a re-launch of a prequel.

Fade in, fade out. Cut

JDB on ITalkFM tonight

January is becoming a busy month! After several appearances on Sky News and the BBC, I’m returning to the airwaves this evening with the irrepressible Richie Allen on ITalkFM.

We’ll be discussing the State of the Union address from last night, which could, don’t forget, be Obama’s last…… No, I don’t think it will either, but you never know!

ITalk FM can be accessed on-line and I encourage you to listen live if you can: http://www.italkfm.com/


Barack Obama: Cutter in Chief

If there is one simple rule that all Democrats need to abide by in an election year it is this: Thou shalt not appear weak on national security. It was a shock therefore, when President Obama announced cuts of $487 billion over ten years to the US defence budget, just eleven months before polling day.

Now, Obama doesn’t need to seek re-nomination and he can stand back and smile as the Republican go through the motions of 50 primaries to eventually select the one guy who has been the front-runner all along. However, it seems very strange for a Democrat to cut defence expenditure in election year and thereby open himself up to the easy accusation of being soft on defence and anti-military, especially when he has never served in any capacity.

The president has made references to fiscal prudence to cut federal expenditure and the national debt, currently running at eye watering levels. But this money will not be saved or used to pay of the debt; instead it will almost certainly be redistributed and spent on domestic programmes. The cuts announced so far amount to a 10-15% cut in the Army and Marine Corps personnel, on the basis that people and their families are expensive. Rather than investing in manpower, 80,000 troops will be cut over ten years, along with what is being referred to as ‘outdated air systems.’ The growth area will be in non-manned technology. That’s drones for the uninitiated.

There are international implications for all of this, since the UK is awaiting delivery of US fighter jets to launch from our as yet un-built aircraft carrier(s). If these get axed as part of the cuts, then the already laughable series of events surrounding the deployment of the UK’s carrier will only continue, as it will be an aircraft carrier with no aircraft to deploy, making it rather more difficult for Britannia to lay any claim to rule the waves.

It is vital to place these cuts in context. The US is not packing up its many tents and withdrawing to a fortress America. This is not Ron Paul’s wildest dream come true, after all. In ten years, after these cuts, the US defence budget will still be larger than that inherited by President Obama and will still be larger than the next ten largest defence spending nations combined. Thankfully (!?) the budget will increase with inflation. So that’s ok!

What is likely to be particularly contentious is the new focus of US foreign policy. Since he arrived in the White House, there has been speculation that Obama was seeking to focus on Asia and the Pacific. In the past three years we have seen his efforts to do so bear little fruit, with what appeared to be a decision to recognise the inevitable and to continue the Special Relationships America enjoys in Europe. However, this announcement makes it clear that the United States intends to refocus its efforts on the Pacific and on the challenges it faces in that region.

It is easy to forget here in Europe that the US is a Pacific power not just an Atlantic power and that it is equally clear that current threat predictions stem from the east, not the west. But this heavy-handed declaration of intent is tantamount to sabre rattling. One wonders when American leaders will wake up to the way in which they un-necessarily provoke negative reactions in other nations and their respective leaders?

There is no doubt that after a decade’s worth of increased defence expenditure caused by the attacks of September 11 a reversion to peacetime expenditure was inevitable and logical, but the timing of this announcement raises a serious question as to whether this is driven by defence needs or budgetary necessity? Also, announcing cuts whilst throwing down the gauntlet to Iran and China and presumably North Korea appears to be contradictory, and risks inflaming the situation. Targeting the Asia-Pacific region and cyber warfare is a red flag in Beijing and a direct challenge to the developing Chinese navy and their anti-ship weaponry.

The cuts also end the Pentagon’s much vaunted ‘two war concept,’ which was being employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the switch to the Pacific and away from Europe, we had better hope that this is the right decision and that no historic powers decide to rearm in the face of growing austerity at home. The decision to reduce manpower is also intriguing considering the clearly stated focus on the emerging threat from China. Figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies reveal that in 2010 Chinese had 2,285,00 active service personnel, 800,000 reservists and 1,500,000 paramilitary, making a total Chinese military capacity of 4,585,000. The same figures for the United States reveal 1,468,363 active servicemen, 1,458,500 reservists and 11,035 paramilitary, making a total of 2,937,899. Go do the math. The US better hope that when it comes time for a conflict in the Pacific, its much vaunted unmanned aerial technology is able to prevent China from deploying its army of over 4 and a half million.

Of course, history reveals that such cuts will be reversed if hostilities were to break out, with a massive ramp up in defence expenditure. The risk is that this would be a reflexive action that could be too little too late. The president announced the cuts in the press briefing room at the Pentagon, the first time that this has happened, whilst surrounded by his top brass. Obama is clearly determined to put his stamp in the announcement and demonstrate the support he has in the chain of command. Only time will tell if those who are saluting him today will be voting for Mitt Romney in November.

Live Free or Die: New Hampshire Primary Day

Well here we are folks, it’s the first primary in the 2012 presidential election. In many ways, it should all begin here; after all, as John Huntsman reminded us recently, ‘they pick corn in Iowa and presidents in New Hampshire.’ Cute line and only offensive to the 122,000 Republicans that may have voted for him out of 3,400,000 Iowans. Cute and sometimes true. This year things may get interesting. The press are trotting out a nice line to the effect that no Republican has won Iowa and New Hampshire and that at present, Mitt Romney is on course to do just that. Let me stress the last two words; ‘just that.’ Recall his winning margin of 8 votes in Iowa? When LBJ won an election in Texas by a similarly close margin he was tagged ‘Landslide Lyndon’ for the rest of his career (or ‘Lyin’ Lyndon in less polite society). Such is the onus on the front runner, to stay running and to stay at the front.

The problem for Mitt Romney (who appears to have been running for president since, well, forever), is that his fellow Republicans don’t appear to be convinced in any way shape or form by his candidacy. He ‘won’ the Iowa Caucus by 8 votes, and in the process gained the same amount of electors as second place Rick Santorum, who spent far less in the state and who may well have been denied victory by the stone age voting system employed in the state. (Did anyone tell them it’s now the 21st century?)

As a virtual favourite son Romney was 20 points ahead in the New Hampshire polls and a sure thing to win, thereby becoming, as the press have mentioned, the first Republican to win Iowa and New Hampshire. His capacity to win both states is something of a geographical fluke in reality; having thrown money around like it was going out of fashion in Iowa and relying on his local status for victory in New Hampshire. Truth be told, you don’t get many Republicans in Massachusetts.

One of the tricks in an election is to peak on Election Day, as George W. Bush arguable did on Election Day 2004. It really doesn’t matter how popular you are the following day, just as long as more people vote for you on Election Day than anyone else. Romney may well win tonight, indeed, he probably will, but the margin of victory will be telling. Until last week he was 20 points ahead and cruising. Then came Iowa and since then his numbers began to slide and slide and slide. Romney therefore faces the problem of being more popular two weeks prior to the big day than on the day itself, which raises the challenge of what George Herbert Walker Bush called, the Big Mo, or in language adults would use, Momentum.

In coming in 8 votes clear in Iowa and with his numbers cratering in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is singularly failing to develop any momentum to carry him into the far from welcoming southern states of South Carolina and Florida. Perception is everything in politics, and the perception/truth of the matter, is that currently, anywhere between 70-75% of Republican voters are voting for someone else. Out of a weak field of candidates, Mitt Romney is constantly the least bad candidate, a point beautifully captured in the season premier of Saturday Night Live.

In many ways Romney and Obama have a similar situation; both are lucky in terms of their opponents.

If the Republican right could coalesce around an agreed upon candidate (as high ranking members of the party are meeting to arrange) then Romney’s candidacy could be doomed. However, if the 75% of Republicans who won’t vote for Romney continue to split their preference between the likes of Gingrich, Paul, Perry, huntsman and Santorum, then Romney can keep on making gaffes about (“I like firing people”) all day long, before losing in the general election to an even luckier candidate, President Barack Obama.

Today, then, is all about the final number. It would appear impossible for Romney not to win the vote tonight. It is, however, entirely possible, that just like Iowa, he could win the battle of the vote and lose the war of perception