The State of Obama’s Union: Not Great, and Getting Worse

If you are visiting (or hopefully following) this website, you will know that I have fond memories of the Clinton years, and am preparing to complete my first book on his adminstration. (Clinton’s Grand Strategy, available later in the year from Bloomsbury)

Back then, President Clinton routinely opened his annual address to Congress by intoning that ‘the State of our Union is Strong.’ Not a bad way to begin, both structurally and rhetorically. It set the tone and demonstrated mastery of the moment.  (Even when the wrong speech was fed into his Teleprompter). In other words, Clinton did everything that was missing from the 2014 State of the Union address.

President Obama’s speech was fascinating for many reasons. It was, perhaps, his best (some would say final) opportunity to breathe new life into an administration that appears to be rapidly running out of road and to put the disaster that was 2013 behind him. With the world watching and the nation gathered around television screens, computer terminals and perhaps even the odd tablet, the stage was set for Obama’s big moment. So much so that talk emerged of State of the Union fatigue! This, however, was Obama’s big night for his big reveal; what would he do with the remainder of his presidency? What initiatives would be unveiled that would doubtless prove instrumental in any legacy?

The answer, apparently, was not very much. When even Gary Younge is forced to concede thatObama’s union is in a state, it’s time to start packing…

Obama promised a year of action for 2014 but this appeared to be lacking in his speech. Instead of sweeping ideas and potential legislative initiates, the speech was full of small postures and restated positions. It is remarkable that a year into his second term the president had so little new to offer and raises the question as to why he ran for re-election if he has no tangible agenda to initiate over the next three years. He has served but a quarter of his second term, and yet specific policy initiatives were thin on the ground.

Instead of moving forward, Obama backtracked, and called out his opponents over their opposition to his healthcare plans. The White House is desperate to get on the front foot on this issue and move beyond the technical issues that have haunted the administration since its roll out. Such efforts will probably succeed as the technical glitches get sorted, but the initiative has taken a pounding as a result.

50 years on from Lyndon Johnson’s ambitious War on Poverty, the president who initially appeared to offer so much to elements of American society that had previously gone un-noticed, did little to breathe life into the corpse that is the Great Society. Much has been made of Obama’s pledge to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10, but this will have a limited impact since many federal workers already earn more than this. Neither will it be applied retrospectively and so will only have a limited impact at some point in the future. Republicans, naturally, have concerns that it could drive businesses to the wall.

Both sides are playing to their base in an election year. However, in the United States, every other year is an election year and every other year the country is anticipating an election. This, therefore, is a government far better suited for campaigning than for actual governing.

That being the case the president made a play for the female vote (traditionally Democrat) by highlighting the gender gap in pay and conditions and calling this an embarrassment. It should be highlighted, of course, that he has been president since January 2009, and so part of that embarrassment must be shouldered by his administration. This, remarkably enough, was not conceded.

Continuing in the election year mode, issues of immigration reform have become lost in the weeds and the president’s blustering efforts to address this issue are unlikely to help. A bi-partisan group was making interesting headway on this issue last year, until Obama stumbled in and insisted on stamping his own views on the process, which appears to have damned the initiative to failure.

There was little sign last night of a contrite chief executive, seeking the bi-partisan approach to policy that is necessary for success on Capitol Hill. Instead, Obama’s perceived presidential pomposity was exacerbated by his announcement of a willingness to act by Executive Authority in defiance of Congress, a stance that will do nothing to assist bi-partisanship for the remained of this time in office. It’s almost as though he wishes to fail in his legislative relations! For a former Constitutional lecturer, he appears to have a rather nuanced interpretation of the role of the president as defined by the Founders, who actively sought to avoid a leader capable of ruling by decree.

Three years from now the next President of the United States will be in office and Obama will presumably be home in Illinois. When he kicks back and watches the new president’s first address to Congress, he will be forced to concede (privately, of course) that his 2014 attempt to rescue his presidency failed to do so. With his opinion polls lower than many members of Congress, he remains a liability for Democrats heading into the midterms, an event that will effectively end the Obama presidency and fire the starting pistol for the 2016 presidential election to find his successor.  They, presumably, will have rather more initiatives to promote than the incumbent and greater personal and political skills with which to try and implement them. One can but hope.

Obama and Cameron on the Road to Damascus

During his all too brief time as president, John F. Kennedy was understood to have lamented the difficulty he faced in making the threat of American power credible. ‘The place to do so,’ he speculated, ‘is in Vietnam.’ Whether JFK would have escalated the war as LBJ did is impossible to know. What is all too apparent is that President Obama faces a similar dilemma today in regard to US credibility due to events in Syria.

US prevarication over Syria has raised a series of questions regarding the potential decline of US global influence and in relation to the general competence of the Obama administration. Many of these questions are appropriate, but let us consider for a moment the position of the White House.

The Obama administration came to power on the basis that it was not George W. Bush. Now safely into his second term, Barack Obama does not wish to perpetuate any suggestion that he is merely continuing previous policies, despite the many suggestions to this effect.

The world had grown accustomed to George W. Bush’s cowboy style and rhetoric, even if it didn’t necessarily approve. By way of contrast, Barack Obama’s cool and detached demeanour appears all the more distinct and withdrawn from the passions of the moment and presents the impression of a lack of engagement or emotional commitment, which may well be at odds with reality.

Whatever one makes of the Obama administration, it did not come to office to slay foreign dragons. It has withdrawn from Iraq and is set to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Obama, unlike his predecessor, can be accused of being a withdrawer, but not an invader, and he appears content with this position. When military action has been required, such as in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, he has demonstrated a willingness to act, although this always appears to be the last option and one that is delayed as long as possible. After George W. Bush, seen by many as being too trigger-happy, such a stance may be welcomed. However, it now appears to many that Obama is going too far in the opposite direction to prove his non-Bush credentials.

A similar situation is playing out in Downing Street. David Cameron may have referred to himself as the heir to Blair but he cannot afford for that impression to take hold in regard to military operations of this type. The Prime Minister has overhauled the UK’s national security architecture in a deliberate attempt to prevent decisions involving the deployment of British forces being made on the Downing Street sofa. The new UK National Security Council, with its American name if not necessarily its political or military muscle, is an indication of Cameron’s clear intent to do things differently from Blair. On one level, at least, it seems to be working. No one hears reference to Cameron being Obama’s poodle.

One thing is certain; neither President Obama nor indeed the United States, can afford to use Weapons of Mass Destruction as a pretext for war in another Middle East nation. No wonder, therefore, that the administration is treading carefully. Just as in the early days of the lead up to the war in Iraq, there are in weapons inspectors on the ground seeking access to chemical weapons sites and scenes of atrocities. Getting them to these sites must be a priority. For Assad to deny them access would be seen by many as tantamount to an admiration of guilt that would be very difficult for his allies to justify.

Another challenge for the Obama administration is that this crisis is breaking at the exact time that official Washington is on vacation. Congress is out of town and so is the president, merrily golfing in Massachusetts. Alas, Obama’s protagonists are not waiting for the president and his team to get off the golf courses or the beaches, and are moving ahead with their nefarious plans. This is not to say that the American government is closed for business and we need to be careful not to focus too heavily on the actions of the president. His ambassador to the UN maybe AWOL, but Defence Secretary Hagel has been busy manoeuvring US assets into place should they be required, while Secretary of State Kerry has been quietly engaging in diplomacy to line up key actors should the shooting start. Alas, his second term did not begin well in terms of getting a foreign policy team in place and recent events have done little to inspire confidence.

Whatever happens next, the entire situation bears an uncanny resemblance to events surrounding Bosnia in the 1990s. Then, as now, a Democratic administration in Washington faced intense international criticism for allowing bloodshed to occur. Then, as now, the White House desired United Nations’ approval for military intervention, only to be blocked by Russian vetoes. Ultimately, the Clinton administration tuned to NATO and acted militarily, commencing the move away from the UN and towards a US embrace of NATO as its foreign policy instrument of choice; a journey that began several years before George W. Bush came to power.

A similar situation presents itself to us today. Russian and Chinese intransigence ensures that the UN Security Council will be an unlikely venue in which to resolve this situation. UK Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham believes that the Russians will be moved by the latest images to emerge from Syria, but this is to misunderstand Russia and its motivating factors. No one ever accused the Russians, or indeed Putin, of acting on sentiment. Putin has repeatedly rebuffed US advances throughout Obama’s term in office and recent events surrounding Edward Snowden have not improved matters. Russia will act to advance its national interest and so long as Assad’s Syria remains Russia’s ally in the region, his regime will not lightly be overturned, unlike Mubarak’s in Egypt. Russia, along with Iran, has much to lose with the fall of Assad and is more than capable of blocking any diplomatic solution, forcing the British and the Americans to ponder military action that neither nation seriously wishes to entertain. Iran’s statement today will only exacerbate this developing situation.

The rush to war may be occurring at a snail’s pace for those on the receiving end of Assad’s cruelty, but it certainly appears to be ramping up this weekend.

“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 in Israel…At Last

As I discussed on Arise TV last night, Air Force One touched down in Tel Aviv yesterday following a 6,000-mile flight from Andrews Air Force Base bearing America’s most pampered tourist. Israel will close its airspace for his arrival and maintain this lock-down whilst he takes a ride in Marine One to Jerusalem, providing Obama with the sort of visual appreciation of Israel that few tourists will ever experience.

During his arrival and hop to the nation’s capital, Obama may get to appreciate the physical scale of the nation, dwarfed by most, if not quite all, of America’s 50 individual states. He may take a moment to wonder at the events and tribulations that have transpired on the land beneath him as he glides serenely through its skies.

Travelling in his security bubble, it is likely to be the one opportunity he gets to really see the land and appreciate its precarious position. He will certainly be reminded of this in talks with Israeli leaders in the coming hours, for that is the duration that this trip can be measured in. When he arrives he will discover that the advance staff at the White House either have a macabre sense of history or else none whatsoever as they have chosen to take over the King David Hotel for the president’s duration. It is not a location that bodes well for visiting members of an unloved foreign power.

On his long flight, Obama may have been advised to watch The Gatekeepers, the Oscar nominated documentary featuring 6 former leaders of Israeli security service Shin Bet, who speak candidly and openly about the failings that have impeded the quest for peace. During the flight, Obama will no doubt have given thought to his imminent meeting with Netanyahu and how the two of them will deal with one another in the coming years. This will be the tenth meeting between the two men and despite the lack of chemistry no leader has met Obama more.  Since both have newly minted mandates, they will doubtless both claim to be in the right, which may get both of them nowhere.

The White House has announced that the American entourage are arriving in the Holy Land in ‘listening mode.’ This is an inauspicious announcement with an inauspicious precedent. Twenty years ago, America’s least memorable Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, marked his first trip to Europe with the same tepid line. It does not inspire confidence or any sense of leadership, quite the opposite in fact. This approach has led to a peculiar position for Obama. Machiavelli questioned whether a leader should be loved or feared. Right now, Obama is neither and his leverage will only decrease as time passes. The 2014 midterms are a little over 18 months away and after that all eyes turn to the presidential race of 2016. Obama, therefore, has only a short time to act before his transformation to a lame duck is complete.

For this trip to have been capable of achieving anything, a great deal of legwork would have already have been done by dignitaries, diplomats and officials. They would have prepared plans for the two leaders to finalise and agree terms upon. This has not been done. Indeed, the Obama White House appears to be turning diplomacy on its head by having the president visit ahead of a return trip by Secretary of State Kerry! This is not how successful diplomacy or international negotiations have traditionally succeeded, and demonstrates a lack of commitment by the administration to securing a long term solution in the region. Having believed he could personally deliver a solution in his first year in office, it appears that Obama is now merely paying lip service to the idea of a solution. His trip to Israel allows him to tick the country off his list and claim that he has continued the recent history of American presidents making the journey, all to little effect other than that of symbolism, which has as much to do with domestic constituents, as it has to do with international relations.

In his first term Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. It is unfortunate that at the start of his second term, he appears not to be willing to earn such a prestigious award.

Obama’s Journey To The Dark Side

In the 2008 presidential election, the Democratic Party candidate was eager to exploit a speech he had made 6 years earlier in Chicago, in which he lambasted the administration of George W. Bush and its ‘armchair, weekend warriors,’ determined to ‘shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost.’ The state senator utilized a rhetorical device he had been building toward, repeatedly challenging, “You want a fight, President Bush?” before listing a series of priorities that risked being overlooked following an invasion of Iraq: the fight with bin Laden and al Qaeda; the need to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to do their work; the need to find peace in the Middle East and the development of a new energy policy.  The candidate’s true stance on the war, however, might be gleaned from an unguarded moment during the 2004 Democratic National Convention at which he sprang to national prominence. As noted by Heilemann and Halperin in their 2010 text Game Change, he remarked “there’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.” The longer Barack Obama is president, the more evident this remark becomes.

This week has witnessed a remarkable turn of events as the Obama administration has been forced to release a legal finding that has, quite literally, granted the president the power of life and death over seemingly all humanity. Whilst it has long been apparent that the U.S. was willing to engage in an increasingly robust use of drone strikes against an ever-increasing number of foreign-born targets, there was a sense that even Obama was bound by the Constitution that granted due process to American citizens. However, this may no longer be the case, although one imagines that the Supreme Court may well end up issuing a ruling on the subject. In a document released by the Justice Department, a key right guaranteed to Americans appears to have been removed, provoking outrage, though not necessarily from the obvious location. Remarkably, the American right, not the left, is leading protests; the Libertarians, not the ACLU, which is telling in itself.

With drones being referred to by Senator Diane Feinstein as ‘the perfect assassination tool’ it is no surprise that their use has expanded rapidly as the White House seeks to reduce cost and increase efficiency, whilst simultaneously withdrawing troops and maintaining a credible posture against her perceived enemies throughout the world.   Indeed the evolution of drones parallels the evolution of Obama: What began as a rather benign platform designed merely to offer a surveillance tool has become the latest vehicle of devastation delivering death from the skies. Similarly, the man who campaigned as the anti-Bush in 2008 now appears to be determined to out-do his predecessor and comes equipped with an equally complicit Attorney General.

Much was made of the legal rulings relating to the prosecution of the war on terror issued by the Justice Department under George W. Bush. The findings of John Yoo came in for particular scrutiny. This week, however, has seen the release of a legal ruling that goes far beyond anything that was issued whilst George W. Bush was president. In response to demands from Congress and in particular the filibuster by Rand Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder has released a letter detailing the president’s authority to use drone strikes against American citizens, potentially on American soil. This potentially opens the way for drones to patrol American boarders, armed not only with surveillance equipment, but also with more lethal cargo designed to prevent further illegal immigration. Drones are already being used as surveillance tools so their development in this direction for domestic use is hardly a leap.

The issue speaks directly to a fundamental problem in regard to the relationship between the Justice Department and the White House. The president gets to appoint America’s chief law official, who then becomes beholden to the chief executive for his very livelihood. In the United States, officials serve at the pleasure of the president and whilst removing an Attorney General is not something a president would do lightly, it is hardly unheard of. The problems in this relationship become compounded when the president appoints a friend to the job, as is the case with Eric Holder, since it further blurs the boundaries of responsibility and accountability.

Throughout Obama’s first term, Holder was a lightening rod for opponents of the administration’s efforts to process the legal aspect of the war on terror. From closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility to holding trials for those charged with terrorist activity, Holder was required to advise the president and on issue after issue ran into serious opposition from Congress that forced the administration to capitulate. That Holder survived the first term was nothing less than miraculous. That he retuned in the second term is even more remarkable. However, whatever controversies he thought he had faced in the first term will pale into insignificance compared to the firestorm that threatens to erupt over the legal finding released this week that appear to contradict the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Holder’s subsequent efforts to walk back this position will only add to the confusion and again are reminiscent of his constant manoeuvring in the first term.

The legal wrangling affects not only American citizens but the wider international community and the attempted extension of United States’ laws into the international domain is an area for increasing concern. It has been extended to cover Canada in relation to pollution and with the expansion of drone bases in Africa, the seemingly unstoppable Americanisation of global justice continues apace. The continuation of America’s epic struggle with the forces of political violence, over a decade after 9/11, presents a whole series of challenges to international law and to the international community. The world is becoming beholden to American justice but without a say in its development in an odd twist of history: The United States came into being once citizens in the American colonies became tired of taxation without representation. Today, much of the world is beginning to feel like an American colony, beholden to U.S. policy but without any role in its development. Is it time to say, “No assassination without representation”?

Republicans are displaying their outrage at this decision and raising issues of due process. They have a valid point. But they are also partly to blame for the dénouement that they have left the administration in. Obama has been unable to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility due to Congressional resistance. The camp is politically unwelcome but neither can it be closed. Prisoners cannot now be relocated to Super-Max prisons in the United States and no other country is scrambling to accept them either. They remain in continued legal limbo. Having been placed in an effective checkmate over the whole idea of prisoners, the White House will not feel inclined to add to a list of inmates. No wonder, therefore, that the debate over Kill or Capture is being won by proponents of the former rather than the latter.

This all comes about in the same week that the Senate voted to confirm John Brennan as DCI. Brennan has spent the first term as Obama’s chief counter-terrorism tsar and has been a chief advocate of drone technology. His move to Langley could signal that the agency continues to play a large role in the use and control of such technology in the foreseeable future.

As Obama moves to secure his foreign policy team for his second term, he does so in the knowledge that he is now beyond the will of the American electorate. Never again will he be required to place his name on a ballot and seek approval for his policies or actions. Rather, it is now his legacy that is at stake, and in this turn of events, it appears that his journey to the Dark Side is Complete.

Let’s Stop Droning On About Unmanned Arial Aircraft

Readers with memories that extend beyond the current headlines will recall the criticism that was levelled at the George W. Bush Administration for its utilisation of a variety of platforms and initiatives in its Global War on Terror. Whatever it did, whatever it tried, was a transgression too far and a violation of American principles in the eyes of organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Practises such as enhanced interrogation, rendition and the use of drones all came under attack by civil liberties groups eager to highlight the apparent disregard for the Constitution and international law by the supposed rogue regime between 2001- 2009.

And then, oh happy day, the Bush Administration was gone and America could return to its previous path of virtue and light, as embodied by the soothing tones and humble liberalism of Barack Obama, who promised ‘change we can believe in.’ No more would the United States be on the side of darkness and ill-virtue; it would revert to its earlier incarnation and adhere to the better angels of its nature.

However, as Secretary of State John Kerry flies into Europe at the start of Obama’s second term in office, certain facts have become inescapable regarding the use of practices, techniques and technologies in America’s continuing war with political violence. The most glaring of these deals with the use of unmanned aerial technology; commonly referred to as drones. In Obama’s second term, they will continue to be the weapon of choice for hunting down and eliminating those deemed to be incompatible with the common good.

This technology is not the creation of the Obama Administration. Neither, intriguingly, was it devised by the Bush Administration. Drone technology was widely utilised by the Clinton Administration, and indeed, it was hoped that bin Laden’s demise would be witnessed in real time, using drones, long before George W. Bush ever took office. Their previous use by previous administrations, however, pales into insignificance compared to their utilisation by the supposedly ‘liberal’ Obama White House.

Like an addict that has suddenly become aware of a new way to score an easy fix, the Obama White House has exploded the use of drone warfare to an extent beyond the wildest imagination of the George W. Bush Administration. In its four years in office, drones have become the weapon of choice in the continuing battle against the forces of political violence. Outgoing Defence Secretary Leon Panetta made this clear in his recent address to King’s College, London and when one considers the benefits to the United States, it is easy to see why this is the case.

Firstly, there is the financial element to consider. Drones are cheap, especially compared to the alternative. A Tomahawk Cruise missile could cost approximately $1 million to launch. A state of the art aircraft could cost tens of millions of dollars in hardware alone, in addition to which is the cost of training a pilot and compensation in the event of his or her death in action. Drones have no such overheads. Likewise, if a drone is shot down, all that is lost is the hardware, which could be programmed to self-destruct. There is no risk of providing the enemy with potential prisoners of war, or any repetition of the events that surrounded the downing of the Black Hawks in Somalia; no bodies to mutilate, desecrate and humiliate.

There is also the degree of separation from reality, as the drones are ‘piloted’ remotely with no opportunity for a last minute moral rendering by the crew, ensuring that missions are more likely to result in the delivery of their payload to its planned destination.

Like the president who has overseen their expansion, drone technology is cool and detached. Now, there is even an African connection, as it has been announced that the U.S. has secured access to a series of bases from which to operate this technology across North Africa. This comes at a time when the Congress has been particularly critical of the administration’s inability to address a rising tide of anti-American sentiment that was best expressed in the incidents in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of 4 Americans, including Ambassador Stevens. The backlash from this event caused the administration to jettison its first choice as Secretary of State. However, the eventual office holder, John Kerry, will inherit substantial plans for the expansion of drone warfare into Africa, as the administration takes the continuing battle against the forces of political violence to a whole new region. Having withdrawn from Iraq, having announced a timetable for the end of hostilities in Afghanistan, the Obama Administration has decided upon the new theatre of operations. From Senegal in the West, to Ethiopia in the East, a new front is quietly being opened in the on-going battle that exploded above the skies of Manhattan in 2001. Quite where it will end up is anyone’s guess, but the use of drone warfare is at present, Obama’s true presidential legacy. For now, the only guarantee is the further expansion of this technology as the weapon of choice in Obama’s ongoing war with an apparently growing number of dissident groups, and on the continuing silence on the issue from those organisation who where previously lamenting such actions under the Bush Administrations. How they must give thanks for having a good, old fashioned liberal in the White House to reveal the Bush Administration for the travesty that it was….

How Executive Hubris Trumps Bipartisan Reform Efforts

During their respective time in office, both Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton asserted their believe that legislation stood a greater chance of succeeding if no one cared who took the credit. Ronald Reagan believed this so strongly, that he had the words inscribed on a plaque that he kept on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. (Replicas are available for purchase at the Reagan Library). Bill Clinton, speaking in reference to reducing the national dept, stating the approach explicitly in his first State of the Union address. Much has changed in the ensuing years.  Now, in 2013, it appears that the Obama Administration has inverted this sentiment and would rather see legislation fail if it can’t be covered in all of the glory and receive all of the credit. If this is not the explicit approach being adopted by the Obama Administration, then the Congressional Liaison staff is going out of their way to make it appear so.

Over the past four years relations between the White House and Congress have been testy at best, even when Democrats controlled both houses with a super majority in the Senate. The situation deteriorated sharply following the 2010 mid-term elections and a federal budget has not been passed since. Any hopes that a new era would emerge following the 2012 election cycle have vanished, as both Republicans and Democrats have clung to their respective mandates as reason to continue to obstruct and delay for at least the next two years. Whilst flaws exist on both sides, the White House has, in rapid succession, demonstrated a stunning disregard for political process and for the nuance required to pass legislation in Congress. In a political system explicitly designed to frustrate, the Obama Administration appears determined to make matters worse rather than better. Two incidents highlight what appears to be administration obstructionism of the worst possible kind that threatens the economic, political and cultural integrity of the nation.

The first issue arose in the last days of 2012, as the United States was hurtling towards what became universally known as the Fiscal Cliff. Economists, political consultants and media pundits speculated wildly as to the potential repercussions of such an event, whilst in D.C., high-level negotiations continued in an apparent effort to prevent such an incident. This, of course, had been an artificial deadline, imposed to ensure that politicians of both sides of the aisle worked together to agree upon a budget. This apparently was too much to ask for. However, with the deadline looming politicians gathered into the early hours to thrash out a deal that would be mutually agreeable to Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet whilst these negotiations were moving forward, President Obama chose to stage a campaign style rally on the White House campus surrounded by a group of children who he claimed would suffer under the proposals put forth by the Republican Party.

Now, to be clear, the Republican Party and its leadership hardly covered themselves in glory in this process and as a result questions were asked as to the continued viability of John Boehner’s Speakership. However, putting Republican ineptitude to one side, the decision of the president to stage such a politically inept event at the very moment that negotiators were meeting to flesh out an agreement spoke volumes as to the tin ear that that the administration has and to its appalling capacity to deal with Congress. Just as negotiations were nearing completion the president elected to play politics rather than work to ensure an agreeable solution. It should not surprise anyone that the final deal appears to have been struck by Vice President Biden, and the Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, two old boys from the Senate who have known each other for decades and who are used to working together to solve problems; In other words, two politicians who understand how and why Congress works and importantly, how not to get things done. Even then, the best that they could do was to kick the problem 3 months down the road, so that we are faced with the dilemma once more. In the coming days the spectre of Sequestration will loom large once more as the U.S. hovers above a financial abyss. Once more the world will look on aghast and ponder the fate of the world’s most important economic powerhouse and the childish antics of its leading politicians.

The second incident involved a similar situation but a different set of circumstances. For years, politicians in Washington have been debating immigration reform. However, only rarely do serious proposals see the light of day and make it out of various committees. In Washington, failed legislation can become toxic and persuade any career minded politician to avoid the issue for years, possibly even decades (as occurred with health care). So when a bipartisan group of serious minded, intelligent Senators (known as the Group of 8) got together in an effort to present a balanced and logical series of initiatives on the issue, you would have imagined that this was something the White House would have been supportive of, but you would be wrong.

Instead of welcoming such moves and working either quietly or openly to promote a bipartisan initiative to solve this long-standing issue, the White House appears determined to kill it at birth. The first inept move was for President Obama to insist on delivering a speech in Las Vegas within hours of the Group of 8 press conference on the issue, which had been the very image of bipartisanship. This immediately drew attention and political momentum away from the work that had been conducted on the issue and muddied the waters in relation to the situation. As if this wasn’t bad enough, USA Today has now been provided with draft legislation from the White House that would appear to directly challenge the bill being proposed by the Group of 8.

If passage of immigration reform was the political priority of the administration it had a perfect opportunity to pursue a bipartisan bill that would have put Obama and his former 2008 adversary John McCain and his potential successor in 2016, Marco Rubio, on the same side of the issue. Instead, the White House has sought to politicise the issue and risks torpedoing the issue. One must ask at what point ineptitude becomes a deliberate attempt to obfuscate and be bloody-minded. Whichever approach is being adopted, the end result is the same; bipartisan legislation is being undermined, politics is becoming sullied and confidence in the United States is being shaken at precisely the moment that it needs to provide global leadership in time of economic crisis.

This continuing escapade is a clear and telling reminder of Obama’s lack of legislative experience and should be a warning the next time a candidate has the hubris to declare himself ready for the presidency after little more than 18 months in the U.S. Senate.  Leadership, it appears, was not on the ballot in 2012, let us hope it will be in 2016.

The State of Obama’s Union

After the glitz and glamour of President Obama’s second inauguration, Washington finally got down to business last tonight with the State of the Union Address. This was another opportunity for the president to talk at Congress, if not necessarily to Congress. Certainly, he has not proved very adept at talking with Congress so far. The State of the Union is the equivalent of the budget speech in the UK, an occasion of high politics and low manners, at which the president’s supporters cheer, his opponents boo and the pundits ponder. It is, if you will, presidential pantomime.

The State of the Union address has evolved with the nation. Until 1913 it was merely a written report delivered to Congress as required by the Constitution. Later, it was delivered in person, but as late as the 1960s it was delivered in the afternoon with little consideration for the growing TV audience. However, with the rise of the Imperial Presidency came the emergence of the State of the Union as a Prime Time event, scheduled with military precision and designed to be one of the signature events in the Washington, D.C. calendar. It is an all too rare opportunity for the president to address both houses of Congress, the members of the Supreme Court and a TV audience that has reached as high as 52.4 million in 2009.

Of course, give ‘em and inch and they will steal the evening, and some presidents have been known to talk and talk, none more so than Bill Clinton, who in 1995 and 1999 came dangerously close to talking for 90 minutes. That’s the length of a football game, but without the change of ends at half time. Perhaps Clinton’s verbosity can be forgiven in light of his incredible capacity to ad-lib the first 20 minutes of his 1994 State of the Union Address, when the incorrect speech was loaded into his TelePrompter. Slick? Absolutely. Thank goodness he never went into the car business. For this, after all, is a presidential sales pitch; an opportunity for the president to demonstrate his mastery of Washington and to talk directly to the American people, literally over the heads of Congress and to ask for support on issues that half of the chamber would resist tooth and nail.

This year was no different. Forget any misperceptions about a new term and a new start in which Republicans and Democrats put aside their differences for national unity. The State of the Union, despite the theatrics, is about cold, hard politics and the stakes are higher than ever with the president determined to push ahead with his priorities; climate change, nuclear weapons reduction, gun control, tax reform, immigration reform and the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan. All were touched on, dwelt on or in some cases lingered over last night, as the president sought to press the right buttons within the chamber, with viewers at home and with the all important ‘randomly selected group of voters’ who were being polled for instant feedback and which will do much to drive the direction of policy in the months ahead.

Obama opened by announcing, “The state of our union is stronger.” But stronger than what precisely? Mexico? Greece? A house of cards? Bill Clinton used to intone, “The State of our Union is strong.” Such a declaration would be welcome in 2013, but would appear to be merely a useful fiction. Obama’s address covered a wide range of issues; a smorgasbord of delights for his supporters, and a sack of ashes for his opponents. There was little here that was unexpected, little here that was conciliatory and little here that will alter perceptions or feelings on either side of the political aisle. As expected there were no niceties from the president, or anything except superficial pleasantries from his opponents in the chamber. Neither side are in the mood for compromise. Both have recently been re-elected, with new mandates to continue doing what they have been doing for the past 4 years.

Medicare reform was proposed, coupled with a plea to “save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and well-connected.” Tax reform was not going to be a topic that kept viewers glued to their seats, but it was what was being proposed, along with job creation proposals to stimulate the economy. This was, in many ways, a speech that could have been given a year ago as America prepared for an election campaign, and was, therefore, an indication of how little has been achieved in the last twelve months.

Immigration reform was addressed as the president laid claim to having put “more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history,” and having reduced “illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years.” One wonders how the government claims to be able to record the rate of illegal crossings whilst being unable to prevent them? Obama proposed a concept of Earned Citizenship, “a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.” The big question, however, must surely be: How long before drones are patrolling the boarders to prevent such incursions? Perhaps that will be addressed next year.

It had already leaked that 34,000 American personnel would be withdrawn from Afghanistan this year and that the combat mission would be complete in 2014, but the president reiterated the fact nonetheless. Good news, it seems, will be taken wherever it can be found. For that matter, enforced measures are always better if they can be presented as a generous offer, hence the president’s revelation that the White House would “engage with Congress to ensure…that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws.” Such a declaration was the result of revelations that have emerged from the Senate Confirmation hearings that have been continuing on Capitol Hill and which look set to rumble on, with questions remaining in relation to kill or capture policies.

The time allocated to foreign as opposed to domestic affairs was telling. Traditionally, presidents have spent their first terms addressing domestic issues and their second on international relations, seeking to win Nobel Prizes. President Obama, of course, has done both already, having passed health care reform in his first 2 years and won the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office. Accordingly, this does all rather risk becoming The Curious Case of Barack Obama; the man who lived his presidency in reverse and so what Obama does for his second act will be telling. He cannot run for re-election, so he could be courageous and take on vested interests and lobby groups that have previously been untouchable. Last night he addressed the issue of gun violence that has received so much media coverage of late. However, he didn’t campaign on this issue and has said previously that he has no intention of removing guns from gun owners. This has not prevented gun shops from doing a roaring trade from customers who fear the end is neigh for their right to bear arms. This was, however, the emotional highpoint of the speech, as the president insisted that victims of gun violence “deserve a vote” and urged Congress to declare where they stood on the issue that has killed over a thousand Americans since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Long before that vote is even contemplated, however, it appears that the chance of reform in this area is dissipating fast.

For whilst Obama is beyond the reproach of voters, his party is not, so again, discount any notion of a president free to do as he wishes for the next four years. He will come under intense pressure from those who are seeking to replace him in 2016 not to stray from the mainstream for fear of driving voters from the Democratic Party and into the hands of the Republicans on a whole range of contentious issues that could decide the next two election cycles. For make no mistake, the American system of government is geared up for campaigning, not governing. In less than two years the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate will have been re-elected, and once that is out of the way, all eyes will turn to the presidential election of 2016 and any residual political clout that Obama retains at that point will rapidly disappear.

With so much at stake it is little wonder that the president’s opponents are ill-prepared to allow him the entire spotlight and now they get the chance to respond in a rather down at heel address shortly after the president speaks, in a process that actually serves to demonstrate the gulf that exists between the President of the United States and any other mere mortal. This year’s lucky contestant was Marco Rubio, the Republican Senator from Florida, by way of Havana. Senator Rubio is the Republican Party’s Great Hispanic Hope in 2016, so it was no surprise that he was selected to respond to the president, in what is in all probability the opening salvo of the 2016 election. In his response, Senator Rubio urged the president to abandon his ‘obsession’ with higher taxes, but his moment in the national spotlight was sullied by his decision to take a breather and provide Poland Spring bottled water a much needed product placement. Such are the little things that memories of such events are made of.

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Dr. James D. Boys is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London. He maintains a website at www.jamesdboys.com and can be followed on Twitter @jamesdboys

Obama’s Foreign Policy Team Emerges With Reputations Damaged

In November 2012, Barack Obama won re-election to a second term as President of the United States. Since then, many have been eagerly awaiting confirmation as to who he would name to the key foreign policy positions in his administration: State, Defence, NSC, CIA etc. Some of this anticipation could be explained as the idle musings of those fascinated by the revolving door of power in Washington, but more importantly, the announcements would carry weight as it is people who make policy and so the decision as to whom to appoint would say much about the president, his view of the world and his priorities for his second term.

What has emerged can safely be described as having NOT been Obama’s first choice line-up and has taken far longer than expected to emerge. These two aspects are NOT unrelated as the timing of the announcements and the individuals named have been impacted by a series of unforeseen incidents that could have long-term implications, and stretch well into Obama’s second term. In planning for his anticipated second-term, it is safe to conclude that Barack Obama anticipated naming Dr. Susan Rice as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as Secretary of State and to continue with David Petraeus as DCI. The fact that neither individual will be in their anticipated position come Inauguration Day owes much to the debacle in Benghazi, a calamity that will continue to dog Obama into 2013. It will certainly be an issue for Hillary Clinton if she considers a run for the presidency in 2016. Her role as Secretary of State at the time of the incident and subsequent incapacity, which has prevented her from testifying in the subject, will doubtless be open to scrutiny in 4 years time.

The president’s inability to name Susan Rice to the State Department was based in large part on the administration’s decision to wheel her out on the Sunday morning talk shows to explain that the Benghazi uprising, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, was a spontaneous uprising caused by revulsion to an anti-Islamic film. Ironically, it appears certain that part of the reason for allocating this task to Ambassador Rice was an attempt to elevate her visibility and stature ahead of the nomination process in an anticipated second-term. If this was the case then it spectacularly backfired, casing senators to openly question her suitability for the role, and allowing other questions to be raised in relation to her political and personal qualities. The long-drawn out saga as to whether she remained a viable candidate for the State Department was exacerbated by the president’s overly personal attachment to the candidate, as expressed in a press conference shortly after his re-election and ended only when Rice publicly withdrew her name from consideration.

This debacle was compounded by the Love-Pentagon within the administration that centred on DCI Petraeus. Having promoted General David Petraeus out of uniform and into the top job at Langley to remove him as a potential political challenge, Obama had given no indication that he intended to replace him after such a short time in the role. Yet within days of the election came news of Petraeus’ resignation due to an affair with his biographer. It was apparent, therefore, within hours of the ballot being counted that the foundations of Obama’s anticipated foreign policy team for this second term was in tatters; hence the delay in an announcements. Now that the names have been released, what conclusions can we draw?

Dr. Susan Rice appears set to remain as Ambassador to the United Nations. She will doubtless be chastened by her experience and realise that her best hope to become America’s top diplomat has gone up in smoke. Don’t feel too sorry for her, however, as she will retain one of the top perks of any executive branch officer; a grace and favour suite on the forty-second floor of the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. She will presumably remain in post until an opening emerges later in the second term that will not require a Senate confirmation hearing. Happily for her such a position is eminently possible, since it appears certain that Obama will continue to employ the services of Tom Donilon as his National Security Advisor, having been named to the post in October 2010. Few expect his to remain in this position for the duration of Obama’s second term, however, and as the role does not require senate confirmation it would be a natural fit for Dr. Rice, perhaps in 2014? It will not afford her the elevated status she would have anticipated in the Obama administration, but it would ensure her continued presence at the centre of Democratic Party national security circles, especially as eyes turn to the next presidential election.

With Dr. Rice unable to be nominated as Secretary of State, Obama has turned instead to Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, best known to the outside world as the man who failed to beat George W. Bush in the 2004 election. As a steadfast and reliable member of the United States Senate since his election in 1984 and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry would appear to be a safe pair of hands to take over at the State Department once Hillary Clinton departs. Like Hillary, Kerry will be a well-known public face with a long-standing record of public service, a distinguished war record in Vietnam and with an excellent appreciation of the nation, its place in the world and its foreign relations. As one would expect from a senator from Massachusetts, his voting record is generally to the left, but this is not expected to be of any great significance when he (presumably) takes office. There is speculation that he could enhance the concept of digital diplomacy, which would be a boost tot his concept. However one considers his candidacy, Kerry appears to be a man that the world can do business with, and whom Barack Obama owes a great deal, following his invitation to address the 2004 Democratic convention.

Joining Kerry around the Cabinet table will be a Republican, Charles ‘Chuck’ Hagel, whose nomination will likely be far more robust. Hagel’s nomination is Obama’s attempt at bi-partisanship, a concept that received a great deal of lip-service on the campaign trail, but which has been little evidenced in the first term or in subsequent events. As a former Republican senator, Hagel’s nomination carries echoes of Bill Clinton’s decision to name William Cohen in his second term, again following criticism of a lack of bi-partisanship in his first term. It must be galling to defence-minded Democrats that time and again, their party’s presidents name Republicans to the top job at the Pentagon! Hagel’s nomination has already been challenged by those who question his stance on Israel, Iraq and on gay rights. He has been an outspoken critic of the George W. Bush administration and there will be those who will be looking to repay him for this perceived betrayal of Republican principles. Likewise, his critique of the Israel/Jewish Lobby has generated a great deal of heat and this powerful cocktail of issues ensures he has opponents on both the left and the right of American politics! Whilst the veracity of many of these claims can be discounted, this combination will doubtless make for colourful confirmation hearings in coming days!

Rounding out the foreign policy team will be DCI designate, John O. Brennan, who has been a key advisor to President Obama in his first term as Counterterrorism Advisor. (Brennan’s importance to Obama is perfectly captured in Daniel Klaidman’s excellent expose Kill or Capture). Despite his importance to Obama thus far, his nomination could join Hagel’s in creating a storm of protest from both the left and the right. Republicans will doubtless recall Brennan’s appearance on Meet the Press in which he lamented their use of terrorism as a political football, whilst Democrats will recoil at his defence of rendition, drone strikes and enhanced interrogation methods. The nomination is an interesting move by Obama, who considered Brennan for the same role 4 years ago. As a key aide in the White House, Obama could find that he misses Brennan’s close counsel, whilst Brennan could well discover, as Bill Casey did, that previous service at the Agency does not guarantee a smooth ride as DCI.

Despite the controversies that surround these nominations, I anticipate that they will receive senate confirmation and take their place around the Cabinet table for the requisite photo-shoot following the Inauguration ceremonies this January. After that, it will be up to them to repay the trust that has been placed in them.

Is Competency Too Much To Ask For In Washington?

At a point well beyond the last minute the House of Representatives voted to accept the Senate legislation designed to prevent the United States from plunging over the self-appointed fiscal cliff. This was a total abdication of political leadership on either side of the political aisle in a situation that had only arisen due to the inability of Republicans and Democrats to agree to a budget for the past several years. However, this package, designed to shock Washington out of its short-term approach to monumental problems has been totally undermined. Rather than causing politicians to sit down and thrash out their differences, the total lack of adequate leadership on either side of the political aisle has resulted in brinkmanship, grandstanding and posturing that has left the United States in little better shape than before. Indeed, it may have inflicted more harm than good with the Congressional Budget Office suggesting that this move could add a further $4 trillion to the deficit.

Since the midterms elections of 2010, the White House and the House of Representatives have been unable to agree on a federal budget. Not for the first time in history, a Democratic President is at odds with a Republican Congress. In the past a compromise solution has been found and the nation carried. This time, however, Republicans declared that their number one aim was ensuring Barack Obama became a one-term president, which infuriated the White House. This was coupled by poor Congressional relations from the White House. With both sides at fault, the so-called Super Committee convened in the summer of 2011 to formulate a series of policies that would need to be enacted should the two sides fail to come up with a solution. These included ending the Bush-era tax cuts (which would result in taxes increasing by aprox 5% on all Americans) and the introduction of spending cuts (including aprox 10% from the Pentagon budget). Logical really; the nation is $16.4 trillion in dept and this needs to be rectified. Democrats are loathed to reduce spending, whilst Republicans are opposed to tax increases. Someone has to give. Alas, the deal that has been reached only raises taxes. It has failed to grasp the nettle of spending cuts that would be necessary to reduce the budget deficit substantially. Little wonder that this package is one that few are happy with and was one that most Republicans refused to endorse in the House of Representatives. As a result, the Republican Speaker was forced to rely on Democrats to get the measures passed.

Few have emerged with their reputations enhanced, least of all the President and the Speaker, each of whom have hit an all time low in recent days in terms of performance. The President’s remarks from the Eisenhower Office building prior to the Senate vote had the potential to derail the entire proceedings due to the passive-aggressive tone. Meanwhile the Speaker’s inept effort to get his fellow Republicans to agree to tax rises for those earning over $1 million backfired terribly and led him to effectively throw in the towel and pass the buck to the Senate! It was in these negotiations that perhaps the only success emerged, in last minute negotiations between the vice president and the Senate Minority leader. This reveals the true nature of how politics in Washington works: Intimate conversations, based on years of association, between two people who have worked together in the past. Megaphone politics doesn’t work and President Obama should know this. Or at least he would if he had served any serious time in the Senate before deciding to run for the presidency. The deal struck is the latest in a series of short term, quick fixes that leaves the US economy in a terrible shape, with reputations in tatters and with much left to do as Obama begins his second term.