Posted tagged ‘Barack Obama’

Danger Ahead?

February 11, 2015

It is relatively quiet on the domestic political scene. Alabama’s Supreme Court Justice, Rory Moore has fiendishly interrupted the gay marriage issue in Alabama, and in the process, struck a blow for State’s rights. In Congress, funding of the Homeland Security Department raises the prospect of a potential “shutdown” if agreement between Democrats and Republicans cannot be reached. Other than that, the Washington grid lock seems mostly in recess. Is this a time President Obama can relax?

Probably not. Look around the world and tell me what his next steps should be.

Syria is a political (and humanitarian) mess. Attempting to remove Basher Assad predictably has lead to an Iraq repeat, Arab killing Arab (and anyone else who gets in the way). Iraq is still highly suspect and shows no signs of uniting Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis into one functioning State. Egypt appears to be tilting further towards absolute authoritarian rule, albeit a secular dictatorship. Jordan, while currently flexing its muscles in its revenge battle with ISIS forces, is only inches away from chaos should the Monarchy be usurped.

And then there is Iran and Israel.

Iran’s government seems quite stable, but its foreign policies extend (and meddle) well into the Middle East.  Experts claim Iran is pursuing centuries old Persian and Shiite aspirations. Iran’s fingers are in Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen, and Iraqi’s Shiites goals. Iran is also engaged in negotiating a nuclear development agreement with the West. This agreement may come to pass or may continue to be drawn out while Iran continues its nuclear programs in secret.

Israel suffers from a different type of instability. Israel is a full blown democracy where religious interests continue to hamper a secular view of the world. As a result, Israel sees advantages is Egypt’s authoritarian government, is ambivalent over the turmoil in Syria and Iraq because it sees these situations as enablers for its ambition in the West Bank. But Israel’s largest concern is Iran and in particular Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran is out of the question because Israel fundamentally does not trust Iran to keep any promise, as well as Israel is not keen on making any concessions itself.

Hmmm. Is that all on the foreign stage?

Don’t overlook China and its aspirations to regain the leadership role China played in South East Asia thousand of years ago. (India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea may take exception to this goal.) And who can forget about Russia and their aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. On one level, Russia can be said to be reliving its Eastern Europe role dating to back long before the Czars.

While the pundits may look for an over arching foreign policy, it is hard to see one. Prioritizing these situations might be more helpful and in the long term present a better chance for lasting solutions.

First, the Middle East is not the most important hotspot in the world regardless of the chaos taking place.

Second, Russia is significantly more important than the Middle East. Russia has a second rate economy but a first rate military with both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Confronting Russian military aggression, which may become necessary, must be a last resort.

Third, China represents the most important place where American diplomacy needs to be placed. With 1+ billion people and the first or second strongest economy, China is going to become more powerful whether we like it or not. If you want fo think about doomsday, consider India has also 1+ billion people and nukes, Japan has a highly advanced technical and manufacturing infrastructure and is said could convert to a nuclear power over a weekend, and places like Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea are proud people who want to access minerals lying off their shores, these countries might be ready to fight for what they see as their rights.

But China represents something more. China has a lot to lose. China is now a very rich country after centuries of poverty. Under the motivation of not regressing, China could choose to exercise positive leadership including economic development and defense against rogue states in its region.

Similarly, Russia has both much to lose and much to gain by behaving responsibly on the world stage. Russia could also provide economic leadership through export of oil and gas, and security with targeted action against rogue regimes from India to Turkey.

I hope that President Obama sees the path forward as going through China (first), Russia (second), and then and only then through the Middle East. Of course both Russia and China may choose to pursue their own future vision.  And then what?

The alternative that peace is achieved in the Middle East (in some presently unknown manner) but relations with Russia and China sour. Are we better off?

Hmmm.  Better focus on those policies with the greatest potential payoff.

Year End In Sight

December 29, 2014

As the 31st draws closer, it is always useful to look at the past 12 months. What type of a year has it been?  What has gone well and what would we wish have gone better?  Should we hope for 2015 to be as good or much better than 2014?

If I were President Obama and I were reviewing 2014, this is what I would think.

I would think 2014 was a grind.  I would also think the outcomes were much better than the media was giving me credit for.

If I were a really honest Barack Obama I would be thinking of all the missed opportunities where I could have convinced Americans that the Administration and its policies were making life better for all Americans.

And if I did not cross my fingers and was straight honest, I would admit that I had blinked or hesitated too long at certain points and as a result provided political opponents ample opportunity to frame the public’s perception.

The nice thing about time is that given a sufficient amount, results become clearer and even the cleverest politicians run out of excuses. For 6 years the GOP has said “no” and denounced President Obama’s actions and policies. Their predictions of doom and gloom simply have never come true and instead, the American economy is steadily improved and now is the envy of the world.

Healthcare has improved access for many Americans.  There are signs that the out of control healthcare cost increases have been slowed. The national shame of Americans being denied basic coverage because they earn too little or are sick too much is still with us but the reasons and occasions  are fewer. The GOP claims of job losses and an upcoming “train wreck” were overstated and essential misleading.

Internationally President Obama can be satisfied that he has read the world situations mostly correctly.  He has followed policies (for the most part) that have kept Americans (most but not all) out of war. The President, however, can still improve his international stage speaking skills. He can do a much better job speaking to international nations. Like why lecture other countries about human rights when you can pick up any US newspaper and read about similar transgressions here. Have you consider the human rights aspects of dome strikes, or holding uncharged detainees for over 12 years, or the US domestic incarceration rate and its racial make-up?

But even more important on the international stage is the public versus private dialog. Making foreign country demands for delivery on the US 6 o’clock news is far less effective than sending messages through normal diplomatic channels. And generally speaking, making demands which have not considered correctly how the other country will respond is foolish. Bluffing with domestic politics is problematic but if things go wrong, the consequences are confined to the US. Bluffing internationally is quite a different story.

The President’s inner circle will continue to advise him and as in the past, President Obama will need to decide which set of advice to follow.  With reflection on these successes, he should be able to make good future decisions.

Next year, Cuba, Immigration and the Affordable Healthcare Act will attract much GOP attention. The President needs to resist the urge to slap down the GOP for their regressive ideas and instead defend his decisions with measurable predictions.

Time will again allow a period to assess the President’s policies at this next year or maybe the year after.

Former Representative Pleads Guilty

February 21, 2013

What is so newsworthy about the headline “Former Representative Pleads Guilty”?  It is a bit like “dog bites man” – nothing so surprising.

The headline, of course, I am referring to was written this time in reference to Jesse Jackson, Jr.  The allegations refer to Jackson’s use of campaign funds for personal purchases.  Hmmm.  (Still not man bites dog.)

Hubris is a strange bird.  Politicians often catch this bird once they are elected to office.  After 17 years in office, It is hard to avoid.  There are so many people seeking ones opinion or help.  And naturally this attention is accompanied with a willingness to pay.  The pay is called campaign donations and/or “considerations” for family and close friends.

Federal prosecutors allege that Jackson misappropriated about $750,000 from his campaign treasury.  That is a pretty good headline.  But there’s more.  Jackson bought expensive watches, Michael Jackson memorabilia, furs for unnamed recipients, and much more.  Spending that much money on things is not easy.  That is another good headline.

Over the past several years, Jackson managed to have an affair, get involved in a Federal probe of trying to bribe former Governor Rob Blagojevich, and hid out in various medical facilities claiming “mood disorders”.  Any of those would be a good headline too.

Yesterday, however, Fox News shared with the world their take.  The fair and balanced news station mused that they were astonished that other networks and news media were reporting “former Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr pleads guilty”.  Why, asked Fox News, did those stations not report that “former Representative (D,IL) Jesse Jackson, member of President Obama’s party, pleads guilty…”

I now have a better appreciation for “fair and balanced”.  I had always thought that greed was a human condition and greed was neither red or blue, but both.  


Marco Rubio, A New Face, A New Hero

February 11, 2013

Following President Obama’s State of the Union speech, the GOP will offer a rebuttal.  Florida Senator Marco Rubio gets the honors and is now being hailed as the “break out” hope for the party.  Hmmm.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was the break out hope in 2009 and went no place with those accolades.  This year is different and maybe Rubio can strike a cord of common sense.  While Rubio is Cuban and of course speaks perfect Spanish, he has not expressed much in common with Mexicans caught in the undocumented aliens dilemma. 

Senator Rubio has a narrow path to thread.  He just might have his eye on the 2016 GOP Presidential nomination, so amnesty is not in the cards, you know “no line cutters”.  Yet both common sense and the last election scream at the GOP to recognize and deal with the estimated 11 million undocumented residents living in America.

Washington pundits are warning that immigration reform will be a zero sum game.  If Congress passes useful legislation, the President will claim credit and the GOP will not get any.  Maybe, but I think there is enough credit to go around.  

The problem the GOP is experiencing is that their policies (ranging from contraception, women’s rights, intelligent design, sharply cutting entitlements, and increasing defense spending) that they choose to support are demonstrably out of touch with the majority of voters.  A new GOP face with a smoother delivery is not the answer.  GOP policies must reflect the greater good for the Country.

Immigration reform is really about undocumented Mexicans.  Finally labor and business are recognizing that bringing the 11 million in from the shadows makes financial sense (not to mention humanitarian good).

The question for tonight is who’s hero will Marco try to be?  


The Education Mess

February 10, 2013

Michelle Rhee, former Washington, DC school superintendent, is on a book tour.  She spoke recently in Philadelphia, a city with an education mess.  Rhee is a persuasive speaker, and her line is “great teachers make the difference”.  Sounds attractive, especially if you think “teachers and their unions are the problem”.  Hmmm.

Philadelphia, like DC, is a city with poverty, failing public schools in the poorest neighborhoods, and some of the best private schools which draw the better students from all over the city.  High school graduation rates are less than 50% and many of those who graduate, are math and english illiterate.  

Adding to the situation is the lack of enough money, we are told, to pay special staff and provide adequate maintenance for older schools.  Mix in that too many children come to school hungary and show little or no interest in learning.  Sadly too many teachers have checked off duty largely because nothing changes despite a seemingly endless carousel of high minded, step change programs proposed each year.  Hmmm.

Nationally, the consequence is that US K-12 education, the world’s most expensive school system (cost per capita), is turning out more and more less competitive students each year.  

Achievement testing versus similar age students in a long list of foreign countries ranks the US 15th or lower (and dropping).  Business leaders complain that there are not enough Americans looking for jobs who possess the skills necessary for high tech employment.  Even in food service and retail industries, too many prospective employees cannot perform basic functions.

Hmmm. It can’t be just a “teacher” or “union” problem.  If it were, some State would have found the answer.

In the business world, there are to varying degrees, successful people.  Success (foreman, supervisor, skilled professional, division head, CEO) in the business world reveals a combination of “book knowledge” (what we learned in schools) and two skill sets called “emotional intelligence” and “executive thinking skills”.  

Hmmm. The overlooked or under appreciated piece of our elementary school mess, in my opinion, has been ignoring the role emotional intelligence and executive thinking skills play.

A recently updated study of kindergarden students is revealing.  Students from very normal backgrounds were offered one oreo cookie right now, or if they agreed to wait, they could have two.  Those who took the oreo now, over time, consistently did poorer in school and achieved less in the work place.  Those who waited, did much better.

Emotional intelligence is about recognizing and learning to control ones emotions as well as how to influence the emotions of others.  Emotional intelligence at an early age paves the way for young children to develop executive thinking skills.  Executive thinking skills, such as planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, task switching, and initiation and monitoring of actions enable students to learn better and later in life to achieve more.  

Said more simply, if a young student cannot control their emotions how can they learn?  Once out of school, how can they work cooperatively in a work place?

If the past, necessity taught children emotional intelligence.  If you didn’t pay attention, you failed at school and a long life of menial labor lay ahead.  Today life is gentler for some and void of sound parenting for others.  

If schools are to change, it is not just the teachers or the unions who need to change.  (For sure they must change.)  Rather it is the whole concept of teaching in America, a land of plenty.  Far more attention must be spent upon building emotional intelligence coupled with executive thinking skills.  

Michelle Rhee is an important voice but those who only hear about “bad teachers” and “worse unions” have not understood the whole message.


The Bishop’s Poker Game

February 9, 2013

Yesterday the Conference of Catholic Bishops announced their rejection of the Obama’s Administration’s latest modification of the Affordable Care Act.  The modification was aimed at finding middle ground where religious organizations and those affiliated did not need to pay for health insurance that contained full women’s health measures (including birth control).  The Bishop’s rejection makes one think the Bishops believe their ultimate trip to the Supreme Court, with its 6 catholic Justices, will go their way.

The latest compromise would have allowed the church a face saving way out.  For reasons that defy logic, the Bishops rejected the offer.  This is especially strange when one considers that (1) 96% of American catholic women use birth control regularly.  (2) The single group who would be most disadvantaged if the Bishop’s position is upheld will be the poor (the focus of much of the Catholic Church rhetoric).  And, (3) church affiliated businesses include universities (whose basketball and football teams make hundreds of millions), charities (who largely redistribute government funds), and hospitals (which are raking in money through ever rising health care costs).

It is of little use to try and understand the Bishop’s real objectives.  There is nothing in ACA that compels anyone to use birth control and certainly the Constitution is clear that no religion has a right to restrict members of other religions or those who have no faith just because that particular religion believes one thing or the other.

If the Bishops want to strengthen their argument, they ought to get full compliance from their members first.  They might do well also to remember who won the last election with a majority of catholic women’s vote.  

I wonder whether they can get Los Angeles Cardinal Mahoney to come back from retirement and help lead the PR campaign.   


The “So What” Issues

February 7, 2013

Every so often there appears a convergence of news media stories that can only be described as “so what issues”.  The question of why they made the news in the first place is swamped by the irrelevance of the overall story… Here are three.

Chuck Hagel’s confirmation vote delayed a week.  Senate Republicans asked Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, for a week’s delay on any vote.  The Republicans wanted more information on Hagel’s finances.  Hmmm.

After 8 hours of testimony in which Republicans asked nothing relevant to current world conditions (that is, conditions Hagel will have to deal with), the GOP now has questions about where Hagel earned his money over the past 5 years.  While this is a legitimate question, if it were so important why wasn’t it front and center during the testimony?

But the “so what” label comes from someplace else.  If for any reasons Hagel is not confirmed, does anyone think President Obama will nominate someone like Lindsay Graham, Ted Cruz, or John McCain?   Does anyone think that the President’s next pick would not conform to the President’s policies?

Boy Scouts Delay Decision on Gay/Lesbian Members.  A few realists in the national Boy Scout movement had mustered enough common sense to propose (actually run a trial balloon) on changing “national” by-laws to allow for gay and lesbian members.  The trial ballon did not require any local troops to follow but if local troops did, there would be no national blow back.  Hmmm.

American opinion on gays and lesbians is changing so fast one can almost feel the winds.  The longer any private group waits to find accommodations will only make the embarrassment greater when consequences of today’s delay are fully seen.  For Boy Scouts, enrollment will certainly continue to decline and their cherished image of helping old ladies cross the street will turn dark.

Immigration Reform.  There appears to be growing support (outside the Latino community) for immigration reform.  The only question is whether the reform will include a path to citizenship.  Opposition ranges from “ship them all back” to “give them documents but not documents that could lead to citizenship”.  Hmmm.

Opponents of immigration reform seem ignorant of the national demographics as well as the inherently un-enforceable aspects of the boarder with Mexico.  One can understand GOP opposition to citizenship thinking that it only means more votes for Democrats.  The problem is without comprehensive immigration reform how will the GOP get any Latinos already citizens to vote for them?  With Unions and the business community now behind immigration reform, opponents should be looking for a soft landing spot.

Hagel, gays in the Boy Scouts, and immigration reform may not succeed soon.  That is the nature of political debates.  What will not change is that the current basis for opposition will forever be seen as short sighted and wrong headed.   Smart players know when to fold them.