The Anti-Congress: Why Chris Christie Is the Most Electable Man in Politics


Written for the Huffington Post:

The President steps away from the podium, Beyonce belts out a few bars (or does she?), and then – without delay – comes the question: Who’s next? Somewhere in Trenton, a large man with a short fuse is the answer. Chris Christie is the most electable man in the country. It’s simple: Americans regard Congress with scorn. Chris Christie is the anti-Congress. Americans will seriously consider electing him president in 2016.

The 113th Congress’s nine percent approval rating stems from the difficult truth that President Obama is a shepherd with an unruly flock – one with whom this country is deeply disenchanted. But “nine percent” is abstract, a difficult figure to grasp. Just how bitter is American cynicism? With just how much ire does Citizen X gaze upon her leaders?

Public Policy Polling sought a tangible answer to that question. Its recent poll (the results of which were published earlier this month) did just that. According to PPP, Congress is less popular than brussels sprouts, traffic jams, and NFL replacement referees. But it gets worse: Americans have less taste for Congress than they do for root canals, colonoscopies or lice. Nine percent means insurmountable attrition and enough cynicism to makes the writings of Christopher Hitchens look like they’re smiling.

Why such severe disillusionment? Congress is stuck. Consider the filibuster, through which senators can shift the agenda by merely talking about something other than the floor’s proceedings. We watched again, last week, as Harry Reid’s hopes of doing away with the filibuster disappeared in a Congressional inferno. But beyond the filibuster, parliamentary procedure allows for any senator to stop a bill from reaching the floor. Chairmen of committees can ensure that certain controversial ideas never see the halls of the Cannon or Dirksen office buildings; such ideas live and die in hearing rooms.

Or consider regulations surrounding the debt ceiling: Congress may authorize spending beyond the government’s means, then prohibit the president from borrowing money. Paul Krugman summarized last month’s Republican approach to this issue as “openly threatening to use that potential for catastrophe.” I’d summarize it as GOP lawmakers simply bringing to bear the tools of engagement that legislative precedent grants them.

Give a toddler a delicate martini glass and warn him not to break it. That’s Congressional protocol. Don’t act surprised by the inevitable: He’ll grab it and he’ll play with it, he’ll shatter it, and he’ll hurt himself. Such legislative immobility has become convention. We can assume that the normality of gridlock – the comfort of being anchored in a sea of antagonism – has had a disenchanting effect on Americans. Not only is gridlock legal, but it’s encouraged.

Members of Congress issue statements and arrive at decisions based purely upon political efficacy. For better or for worse, Chris Christie doesn’t. Representatives put up a virtually impenetrable block against President Obama, shrouded in an ideological guise, but stemming from partisan convictions. Chris Christie doesn’t. When he thinks the president is right, he pats the president on the back. When he doesn’t, he’s sure to tell you so.

After Hurricane Sandy, Christie has stumbled upon an asset that Rudy Giuliani exploited in the years that came after 2001: becoming the instantaneous champion of those who hurt; the one who mends, who restores faith, who rebuilds.

But this Congress has granted Christie’s case a new flavor. In being that champion, in mending, in restoring faith, he’s had to fight Congress all the way. And when your enemy is loathed more than root canals, colonoscopies and lice, you aren’t just a rebel with a cause – you’re a hero among men.

Each time Christie acts against the will of Congress, confronts John Boehner, or operates out of step with either party’s legislative agenda, his speechwriters begin to pen the first lines of his election night victory address.

While Christie’s most significant political liability will invariably be the Republican base, a painful reality has been seared into the collective psyche of the Republican party: winning the base spells trouble in winning the country.

In 2008, we bore witness to a moderate candidate who felt forced to pander to the fringes of his party as a means of reaching the GOP nomination. By the time McCain was nominated, he had alienated millions of conservative democrats. We saw the same thing this year, but to a more severe degree.

Mitt Romney was the ‘etch-a-sketch’ candidate, altering his platform at his own convenience. Romney’s political volatility may have been his poison. He appeared a man who would ascend to the presidency at any cost. An opportunist and a sellout is a noxious mixture.

Whatever his confidences, Chris Christie doesn’t betray them – at least, he hasn’t yet. In recent weeks, Christie has wrestled with whether to accept a federal expansion of Medicaid for New Jersey. If he opts to take the money, he wins the hearts of Democrats, independents, and his current constituents. If he doesn’t, he’s one step closer to securing the support of friends to his far right. Even Christie’s dilemmas are victories; his lose-lose scenarios are win-win. He can be a Jon Huntsman with a little gusto and a real chance.

Chris Christie holds the rare opportunity to govern his state within the framework of his own moderate conservative ideology, while maintaing measured reason; it’s a worldview that renders him not blind to rationality or averse to nuance, but receptive and cautious in his acceptance of his president’s word. Christie can defy legislative immobility. And he can do it all while the cameras are rolling.

An Endorsement With an Asterisk


Written for the Huffington Post, published October 31, 2012:

It felt almost as surreal as it did cold.

I was a shivering, wonderstruck ninth grader. He was just minutes into his turn at the helm of the world’s most powerful engine. Between us were a cement barrier, a military guard, and an armored limousine wall. As the sirens whined, I waved, then he waved back. And then he was gone.

Minutes earlier, I had been on my tip toes, trying to steal a glimpse of the man himself, but my eyesight was too weak, and the podium was obscured among clusters of naked trees. I had laid my feet flat and settled for the megatron.

Now, as the inauguration parade began, I stood on Pennsylvania Avenue and made eye contact with the President of the United States. My innumerable thoughts were drowned out by the cheering thousands behind me and beside me. I had just seen Barack Obama take the oath of office. Now he was looking at me.

I was blissfully unaware. He knew that the celebration would be short.

Nearly four years later, his critics’ words are a thunderclap: “He hasn’t done enough.”

They’re right. It would be irresponsible to claim that President Obama should be reelected exclusively on the merits of what he has accomplished. It seems without doubt that he has not achieved nearly enough; so speak the fractured limbs of a nation still in pain.

But on issue after issue, the Obama administration has moved in the direction of progress, even if it hasn’t yet attained exhaustive success. It is the collection of alternatives — the terrifying nature of what could have been, and what could still be — that amount to a ringing endorsement of President Obama for another term.

Under the belief that Obama should have treaded further on the issues he has undertaken — that he hasn’t done “enough” — it would be counterintuitive for us to veer sharply toward a radical alternative. Progress unfinished is but a puddle of futile hope. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.

Some issues on which Obama has made real headway seem only spoken about in hushed murmurs, eclipsed by Washington’s hyperbole-prone discussion of the favored children of the media — the issues that take up airtime. We are best served not by shouting about how the president has spent money (indeed, he has — and lots of it), but by assessing where and on what he has spent it.

Take, for example, the environmental realm. Experts across the board agree that the president’s deepest failure in the area took the form of a cap-and-trade bill that, had it passed, would have cut the nation’s carbon footprint by 80 percent by 2050. The bill ultimately disappeared in the congressional inferno.

Scarred by legislative burn-marks, President Obama felt the sting of his mistakes. He swiftly issued (by executive order) what the Washington Post recently called “the most sweeping attack on air pollution in U.S. history,” placing severe limitations on the production of toxic gasses. Some have grumbled that these regulations immobilize the coal industry. For those in the sustainability sector, such a truth is a far cry from tragedy.

Perhaps this administration’s pinnacle environmental accomplishment is its groundbreaking fuel-efficiency rule: by 2016, all new cars will be required to average 35.5 miles to the gallon. The rule will cut back on 1.3 million barrels of oil each day and reduce carbon emissions by hundreds of millions of tons.

Bill Maher — comedian by name and social commentator by practice — noted last week a paradigmatic shift from the fantasyland of the Bush years to a sobering new reality. “Before Obama got in (to office) the Smithsonian couldn’t mention global warming as a possible reason the glaciers were shrinking.” By merely acknowledging certain truths, President Obama has restored the nation’s standing as the world’s top investor renewable energy.

Despite his reforms, however, President Obama’s work isn’t yet adequate. And now, the House Republican budget — supported in full by its proud architect, Paul Ryan — outlines cuts topping $897 billion, many of which will uproot the seeds of sustainability that Obama has planted and spoil the fruit that his constituents have borne. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.

The thirst for more doesn’t end at the ozone layer. Examine the changes in the classroom that the last three and a half years have seen.

The stimulus package took effect at the recession’s apex. Most of its funds appropriated toward education were spent on ensuring that teachers kept their jobs. Since that initial groundwork legislation, however, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have been met with exceptional success in driving the translation of their own policies into state ones.

In the process, the president has taken a page from the Republican playbook and painted his education initiatives in a laissez-faire glaze. The Race to the Top initiative has invited states to compete for a limited sum of money, which has been awarded to the legislatures who most thoroughly employ administration education policies — implementing merit pay for teachers, building data systems to track student progress, and the like.

The tactic has worked: Upwards of thirty states have actually altered their education platforms to heighten their grant prospects.

But Obama’s most assertive push has been his fight against Bush-era education policies. The administration has exempted 33 states from the laws of No Child Left Behind. The states who qualified for exemptions did so by proactively seeking out ways to sidestep NCLB’s über-idealistic requirement that every student perform at least grade-level work in English and math studies by 2014.

Again, a noble effort. Again, insufficient. The vast majority of Obama education policies are blueprints — semi-complete plans for full implementation in the coming years. In a February GOP primary debate, Mitt Romney was emphatic in declaring that “we need get the federal government out of education.” He has echoed such sentiments deep into the general election season. But the only avenue through which states can legally forgo unhealthy NCLB practices is federal government action — precisely the kind that the President Obama has begun to take. If he hasn’t done enough, then let him do more.

Was my optimism on that frigid inauguration day for naught? The morning had begun as my dad and I sprinted through the streets of Arlington to catch the 4:30 am subway car that would take us — at a bumpy, rhythmic adagio — to Capitol Hill. We had stood in line for five hours, watching the sun rise over the Mall, wondering if perhaps our president-elect was doing the same. The symbolism didn’t escape us.

Indeed, we have been awakened to the limitations of “hope and change.” The environmental and education issues I present are simply a case study representative of the phases of forward movement. But the progress we’ve made rings hollow if we halt it abruptly. President Obama hasn’t yet done enough; I’m opting to let him finish what he’s started.

The sun is peaking out. Let it rise.

Barack Obama is Not Anti-Israel


Written for the Emory Wheel:

I hear the conversation everywhere.

Well, I suppose it isn’t so much a conversation as it is a statement. My Jewish friends say it all the time: “I’m voting for Romney because Obama doesn’t support Israel.” More often, the statement comes in a blunter form: “Barack Obama hates Israel.”

Each time, I cringe. Each time, I’m perplexed.

There is no nation on earth that this country, under this administration, supports more comprehensively and more fervently than it supports the State of Israel. Barack Obama does not hate Israel.

At a meeting in February 2011, the month’s U.N. Security Council president entertained a resolution condemning Israeli construction in the West Bank.

When more than 115 nations moved to pass the condemnation, only one delegate from one country raised her hand: American Ambassador Susan Rice. Because America’s status as a permanent member affords it veto-power (and as per the policy of Rice’s boss), the vote failed and the draft-resolution vanished from the international docket.

Last November, President Obama was recorded having what was meant to be an off-the-record conversation with French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Obama told Sarkozy that the United States would “have to impose economic sanctions” if the September 2011 Palestinian bid for statehood went through. In a room bereft of TelePrompTers and absent of television cameras, the American president affirmed his support for policies of the Jewish state.

That same month, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew J. Shapiro – a de-facto representative of and spokesperson for the Obama Administration– delivered a speech to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In his remarks, he declared that “Israel is a long time democratic ally and we share a special bond.”

Shapiro went on to note that “some skeptics are questioning whether that’s enough of a reason to continue to spend hard earned American tax payer dollars on Israel’s security.” His rejoinder was frank: “We don’t just support Israel because of a long standing bond,” he said. “We support Israel because…ensuring Israel’s military strength and its superiority in the region is (critical) to regional stability and as a result is fundamentally a core interest of the United States.”

The cash sum that the United States spends on aid to Israel has increased steadily since Obama’s first year in office. According to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, in 2009, the administration spent about $2.81 billion on aid to Israel; in 2010, it spent about $3.04 billion; in 2011, about $3.49 billion. That’s an average eight percent increase in each of those three years – not to mention a 14 percent increase between the second and third years.

Israel is the single largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since the second world war.

Obama has preserved and prolonged that commitment; his budget request for the 2013 fiscal year consists of $3.1 billion in aid to Israel, which includes $99.8 million specifically allocated to joint American-Israeli missile defense development.

President Obama has also sculpted American foreign policy to quell the existential threat posed to Israel by Iran. In his first appearance at the United Nations as president, Obama asserted that if Iran chose to “put the pursuit of nuclear weapons ahead of regional stability…then they must be held accountable.”

He echoed such sentiments in comments during his 2010 and 2011 U.N. remarks. And just last month, he told delegates, “a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” and vowed that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

And if Obama’s words speak, his actions scream. During the summer of 2010, Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA), which enacted severe penalties for companies who do business with the Iranian petroleum sector. And under the Iranian Transactions Regulations as amended by the Obama administration in March 2012, anyone involved in breaching said laws may be slapped with up to a $1 million fine or jailed for up to 20 years.

Last August, Obama signed yet another set of crippling sanctions against Iran. The law, according to the Wall Street Journal, “closes loopholes in existing sanctions law on Iran, and adds penalties…(and) broadens the list of available programs under which sanctions can be imposed on Iranian individuals and entities.”

A representative of AIPAC recently told me that these Obama administration policies are “the most severe sanctions the U.S. has imposed on any country – even the Third Reich.” Barack Obama does not empathize with the Iranian regime.

The Obama years have seen no adverse change in the way of American policy towards Israel; and yet, Obama’s stronghold on Jewish voters (who traditionally support Democrats overwhelmingly) slips from his grasp each day.

The president’s support among Jewish voters has dropped 19 percentage points since last election season, from 78 percent in 2008 to just 59 percent today.

Why is there a disparity between steps Obama has taken and the approval he’s gained? In truth, today’s underlying “tensions” between Israel and the United States amount to a handful of personal gripes between leaders, a series of ultimately trivial comments on West Bank settlements, and hyperbolic questions surrounding Obama’s ties to the Islamic religion.

These conditions have acted as a frustration in the realm of PR and messaging, but by no means have they given rise to a real shift in policy.

Every day, I hear it from close friends, in op-eds by billionaire Jewish donors, pervading the blogosphere: President Obama is anti-Israel; he exercises evasion in the face of the Iranian threat; his policies are crippling or harmful to Jews, Israelis, or Zionists. I respond to my Jewish friends in a voice that I hope will resound: Any such claim is a rash one, based on perceptions plagued by exaggerations and misreadings. We know anti-Israel; we have seen anti-semitism. President Obama embodies neither.

If you intend to support Governor Romney in this election because you believe that the top 2 percent of the American populace should see its taxes decrease, or that women should have their bodily decisions checked and regulated by wealthy men, or that immigration reform should begin by way of expulsion, I wish all the power to you. But if your allegiance to Israeli security is holding you back from casting your ballot for the Democratic ticket, it’s time to rethink your vote.

Four Thoughts on the First Presidential Debate


Written for the Emory Wheel:

Though they shared a stage at the University of Denver on Wednesday evening, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seemed in different worlds. Their tones presented an eerie, almost disconcerting dichotomy: Where Romney contested, Obama conversed; where Romney insisted, Obama dismissed; Where Romney had just finished his sprint up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, Obama was on a coffee break between lectures at the University of Chicago. The candidates were entirely incongruous.

Why did Obama seem so much less prepared than Romney did?

What was it that gave Romney such a definitive debate victory? Did the Commission for Presidential Debates make a mistake in choosing Jim Lehrer? The following is my take on some of these questions that have pervaded American minds and airwaves since Wednesday night.

A Thought on the Downfalls of Passivity

For several weeks, the Romney-Ryan ticket has been the subject of intense media scrutiny. News personalities and journalists alike have pushed the ever-evasive pair to provide specifics on its tax and healthcare plans (e.g. Paul Ryan’s recent interview with Chris Wallace). If Romney felt that he could afford to shirk the electorate’s pleas for specifics thus far, he certainly must have believed that he would be pressed on such details during the first nationally-televised debate.

Romney came prepared: he marched on-stage Wednesday night with a heaping arsenal of statistics and figures. But the “specifics” Romney spewed didn’t quench the nation’s thirst for details. His supposed plans, proposals and numbers rang hollow in the ears of several venerated commentators. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo noted that Romney’s arguments were laden with glaring miscalculations. “The numbers simply don’t add up,” Marshall wrote. “It really is simple math. The studies Romney cited aren’t even studies. A couple are just (op-eds) by his advisors.”

New York Times columnist Gail Collins echoed Marshall’s point. According to Romney’s emphatic debate proclamations, she noted that, “taxes will go down, but not revenues. The health care reform plan will go away, except for all the popular parts, which will magically remain intact.” Romney’s words were glazed in opportunism and in want of coherence.

To the chagrin of many on the left, President Obama employed a crippling passivity. His subtle nods, reverberating silences and almost patronizing smirks propagated a general air of concession. Pinned against Romney’s feigned charisma, Obama’s efforts were futile; his submissive energy fell flat.

The president’s passivity didn’t afford him room to hit forcefully on either of Marshall’s or Collins’ points. Can you imagine if Obama had asked Romney to add up the numbers he had presented or to cite even one of his “studies?” Mitt Romney didn’t win on the coattails of substance. He won in the absence of an opponent on the offensive.

A Thought on Benefits of Passivity

On Wednesday night, Obama didn’t mention Romney’s “47 percent” comments. He didn’t mention Bain Capital. He didn’t mention Romney’s offshore bank accounts. Romney’s advisors may have equipped him with a quick and potent retort for each issue, but the candidate was scarcely handed the opportunity to use one.

The next day, Romney appeared on a cable television program to concede that his comments on the 47 percent had been “just completely wrong.” As a result of Obama’s passivity, Romney’s rejoinder and attempt to shift the national conversation was reduced to a small subtext in the blogosphere, in place of reaching nearly 38 million attentive pairs of ears.

A Thought on Priorities

Beyond strides to shroud his tax returns in a mist of evasion, Mitt Romney’s mind is presently one-track, ingrained with a single abiding goal: become the president of the United States. Obama’s is more complex: be the president of the United States.

In a recent Rolling Stone feature piece, Michael Lewis profiles a Barack Obama whose approach to governing has been stripped of any tangible concern for public opinion. Lewis draws a rough sketch of the issues that sat atop President Obama’s psyche when he was awoken from his sleep and informed that the nuclear fallout in Japan may have placed the United States in the worldwide path of a radiation cloud.

Lewis writes: “At that very moment (if you were the president), you were deciding on whether to approve a ridiculously audacious plan to assassinate Osama bin Laden in his house in Pakistan. You were arguing, as ever, with Republican leaders in Congress about the budget. And you were receiving daily briefings on various revolutions in various Arab countries.”

Obama has made a practice of limiting his presidential wardrobe exclusively to navy or gray suits. The president’s rationale? His existence is plagued by a tiny margin for error; he simply can’t afford to allocate brainpower for decisions and exercises whose implications are trivial. It’s safe to assume that the debate was just another (less weighty) issue on his heavy plate.

A Thought on the Moderator

Jim Lehrer was the victim of an off-night. The Los Angeles Times synopsized most major criticisms of his performance, noting that Lehrer “didn’t enforce time limits, gave Obama four more minutes to speak than he gave Romney and didn’t clarify some of the arcane terms tossed about by the two combatants.”

But it’s important to remember that this debate, by Lehrer terms, was a fluke. After the 2008 election season, the news anchor announced that the McCain-Obama contest would be his last. Only the tenacity of the Commission for Presidential Debates would persuade him to return for one final rodeo.

Lehrer is widely regarded as the most skilled and adept moderator of the era of televised debates. He has successfully steered debates in during election year since 1988, each performance lauded success by standards of objectivity and direction. A recent Pew Center poll ranked the show he spearheaded and long anchored, PBS NewsHour, “one of the most trusted news sources in the country.” This week’s widely-proliferated notion of Lehrer as the debate’s “loser” may bear relevance on Wednesday’s event in Denver, but should count as only a blemish on an otherwise distinguished and prolific career.

An Afterthought No More – How the Occupy Movement Can Become Politically Effective


Just after arriving at Union Station this afternoon, on a return trip from San Diego, I was driving through downtown Los Angeles. My parents, younger brother and I sped away from the train stop. Past Disney Hall. Past the Colburn Music School. Past Olvera Street. Then past City Hall ––

“Wait, what is that?” my brother asks.

The polychrome slew of grimy tents, crumpled signs, and piled sleeping bags is Occupy LA.

“They’re still there?” he asks.

Indeed, they’re still there, but my brother’s response is indicative of a pervasive, perhaps nationwide impression of the movement: Occupy isn’t so much a wakeup call anymore as it is a nuisance – or, at best, an afterthought. It hasn’t been three months, but the Occupy movement is slowly emerging a footnote on history, a “remember when…” for old friends reminiscing on incidents they’d thought each other had forgotten.

Its causes are hardly an afterthought. Almost a tenth of Americans remain without work – thus, without an income. Even more have become impoverished. Income and wealth disparity hasn’t disappeared. The sundry and eclectic issues that the Occupy movement calls attention to haven’t diminished. Protesters have endured evictions, condemnations, and a good deal of mace, but the movement is dwindling in the public eye.

Why is it dwindling? The movement has yet to attain any sort of conscious or meaningful focus. Its powers of organization barely extend beyond the microcosms of protesters’ individual urban settlements and 130-character Twitter messages.

The following is a proposal: a means of transforming the Occupiers from seemingly parasitic complainers into a cohesive and effective mechanism of policy change. Mine is far from an original concept; only a reiteration of a tried and proven process. It could, perhaps, create real, large scale, lasting change.

Most are familiar with the Occupy movement, but few know about the beckon-call that triggered it. Adbusters is Canadian advocacy group that portrays and publicizes its undertakings through graphic art. In September, the Adbusters blog published a piece of art – emblazoned with a black-and-white image of a dancer atop Wall Street’s Charging Bull sculpture – that implored its readers to “Occupy Wall Street” on September 17th. The call was picked up by several other online groups, and a few days later a cluster of mostly twenty-somethings organized, found its way to Zuccotti Park, and “occupied” it.

“Occupy” protests have, of course, swept the nation and the world in the same vein. That original art piece – that call to “occupy” – pervaded indirectly from the homepage of a blog to the humid streets of Greece, the withered plains of Texas – even the manicured lawns of the campuses of some of the nation’s most selective universities. The movement is a feat of human spontaneity and an illustration of a deep and resonant yearning for equity.

To ensure the clout and efficacy of the Occupy movement, a new call must be issued: a time to convene. A national convention – an assembly – of all who dub themselves “Occupiers” is a organizational necessity. Under the same laws and procedures that currently govern the urban settlements, convention participants should put forward proposals that can comprise a platform. The convention should vote on the issues, and those that win by a majority should be added to the Occupy platform.

It may take hours – even days or weeks – but the result will be invaluable and constructive toward the future of the movement at the issues on which it has grown: an effective, explicitly defined political platform.

From a platform – as we have learned from the Democratic party, the GOP, the woman’s suffrage movement, the Civil Rights movement, and even the Tea Party – come candidates, policies, political action committees, and palpable, thorough change. As results of the above mentioned assemblies and solidified platforms, women now share equal electoral influence with men, black Americans study in the same school libraries as white Americans, a pre-existing condition can’t bar you from health insurance, and that precise health insurance law is under tremendous judicial scrutiny.

“They’re still there?” my brother asks. We’re still here, will answer the representatives of the movement who are running against governors, assemblymen, presidents, offering legislation aimed at building infrastructure, creating jobs, and reforming trade and big business. We’re still here, will answer a country bereft of a nauseating financial disparity. We’re still here, will answer the ninety-nine percent.

The Politics of Empathy – How Obama Can Pass the American Jobs Act


The unsettling sounds of NPR hummed through the car on my drive to school this morning. “…poverty in the United States…at a new high…sixteen percent of Americans are impoverished…”

Almost two months have passed since President Obama proposed the American Jobs Act to Congress. Administration official after administration official has stood in front of rolling cameras and preached the facts, the numbers, the empirical proof that the legislation is a grave necessity.

But it occurs to me that Barack Obama has very little regard for pathos.

I have no doubt that Obama feels sympathy for those forty-nine million impoverished, or to those tens of millions of others who are unemployed, or who are working low-wage jobs that ill-suit them. I wonder, however, if he has any idea how to relay that sympathy to an immovable Congress.

Emotion-driven decision making is the force behind “pro-life” legislation. It’s what compels millions of Jews to support AIPAC and send funds to the State of Israel. The people who pushed healthcare reform through the House and the Senate are those who have relatives who can’t afford to pay for treatment of illnesses they suffer from. In the political arena, a cliché rings true: the people who feel are the people who make the impact – legislatively and tangibly.

Nonetheless, President Obama maintains another mindset altogether: he seems to come to his political decisions almost entirely by calculation, and very rarely seeks to compel Congress to legislate on empathy. He operates on the numerical, the practical, and the demonstrable.

Time has illustrated the slim margin of risk that the president is willing to take. In recent months, he has recoiled under criticism and the audacity that once defined him has slipped out of his reach.

But I can’t seem to rid this question from my mind: If Barack Obama were to walk door to door through Rayburn, through Dirksen, under the Rotunda, and into the Speaker’s office, the whole time accompanied by two unemployed Americans – or two people who fall into that sixteen percent – could the American Jobs Act pass?

Imagine the snapshots: members of Congress shutting their doors to the President of the United States; senators refusing to meet with their jobless constituents; lawmakers of all breeds hiding in their private offices, evading the call to put their country back to work. It would, at the very least, cause a stir, and at most, result in a starkly different poverty report than this morning’s.

I ran the idea past a teacher of mine last week, who promptly rebuffed it. “Imagine the commentators,” he said, “All the headlines would say ‘Obama uses theatrics; attempts to play to populace fall flat.’” He thought it would appear as a gimmick.

Indeed, Obama and his administration may be hesitant to use sentimentalist political tactics for fear that they will be perceived as a stunt. But this isn’t the first time Obama has ignored the potential for political gain by means of populist mechanisms. In spite of his tremendous command of political and economic principles, Obama’s ineptitude to effective persuasion – understanding what changes minds, what makes people tick – eclipses much of his pragmatism.

We witnessed the same indifference toward emotion-driven public opinion in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig’s explosion during the Spring of 2010. Obama – who was spending hours upon hours organizing strategies for emergency response and toxic cleanup behind closed doors – acted ostensibly apathetic.

Almost a month and a half went by before he set foot into a Gulf city that had been crippled by the spill. James Carville’s emphatic plea for Obama to “get down here and take control” reverberated throughout the mainstream media.

Senator Obama – candidate Obama – was a masterful populist. But President Obama has very little grasp of what it means to appeal to that which isn’t calculable.

The next presidential election will be held a year from today. At this rate, he’ll understand the importance of the politics of empathy on that fateful day.

Flake in Chief – Why Rick Perry’s “Executive Experience” is a Relative Term


As featured on the Huffington Post:

Questionable executions and Ponzi scheme conjectures aside, Rick Perry and his proponents have hammered one talking point a little harder than most others: the candidate’s executive experience.

Conservative advocacy group “One Term President” – attempting to draw a dubious parallel between the Texas governor and a party figure head – issued a statement last month when Perry kicked off his presidential campaign. “Rick Perry has more executive experience than any candidate since Ronald Reagan” wrote the group, echoing a popular message among the Right. “That sure is appealing compared to a president that had zero executive experience.”

They have a point. OTP and its allies argue, perhaps justifiably, that having run an organization, a business, or a government adds tremendously to the resume of a candidate for the country’s highest office. The sentiment is one that has been adopted by both sides of the aisle, depending on election year and incumbency. Just two months ago, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty – then a GOP candidate for president – had little trouble persuading a campaign crowd that “you can’t put somebody in the Oval Office who hasn’t had executive experience leading a large enterprise.” His attitude doesn’t differ much from the one liberal icon Bill Clinton adopted while running for president in 1992.

But the OTP crowd is missing one side of the equation. The assertion that eleven years of experience in office qualifies someone to be president likens to an assertion that if you’ve cooked eleven batches of brownies, they must have been delicious. “Leadership experience” rings hollow if the emphasis is on the latter word of the phrase. For a group, political or otherwise, to claim that Rick Perry’s eleven years as governor should hoist him above the political fray reflects profound vacuity.

As it happens, those brownies weren’t as good as they may have seemed. Just in the past few weeks, Perry has neglected the duties of his office for what he has deemed more important ventures. Most recently, he rolled the dice on life and death with cringe-worthy opportunism.

The governor, who has proudly authorized more executions than any state executive in modern history, was nowhere to be found Thursday evening when controversial inmate Duane Buck was scheduled to be put to death in Huntsville, Texas. Buck, a black man whose case involved sensitive racial and psychological issues, is the center one of the most disputed cases since the state’s establishment. His attorneys have fought for a stay on his execution in the weeks leading up to September 15, but legal precedent outlines that a ruling of that nature falls into the hands of either the state’s governor or the United States Supreme Court.

A strong, stolid leader – someone who has learned from his executive experience and has proven it efficacious by standing by his controversial record – should take the lead on a case like this. Perry, however, was absent from the rolling plains of his state Thursday. He had fled to a GOP fundraiser in Iowa, forcing the Supreme Court to stay Buck’s execution – the “big government” he so scorns, in the flesh – and intervene in a decision that should have been his.

Were the Buck case Perry’s only recent lapse in “executive leadership,” perhaps his cronies’ argument would remain sound. But the evidence mounts even higher.

Perry once served as his state’s Commissioner of Agriculture. His former department’s official mission is to “…partner with all Texans to make Texas the nation’s leader in agriculture, fortify (its) economy, (and) empower rural communities…”. As governor, he has made bold statements (albeit without much follow through) on environmental issues. Last week, however, he let his trademark opportunism impede once again upon the “executive leadership” he and his supporters contend makes him more qualified than anyone else to be president.

Perry, whose state has been ravaged by some of the most detrimental wildfires in years (the ferocity of which compelled President Obama to declare a state of emergency in the region) left Texas on September 7, the same day as Obama’s announcement. Did he go to a wedding? To a funeral? To an important budget meeting on Capitol Hill? No, he jetted to Simi Valley, California so that he could expound upon his unequaled executive experience in the Republican presidential debate.

The political infidelity continues. In the month that he has been campaigning for president, Perry has spent stump speech after stump speech emphasizing his commitment to job creation and economic growth, touting Texas’ record under his tenure. But in that same month of campaigning – the first weeks on the road, laying claim to job creation spurred by tax cuts and slashed spending – jobs in Texas have finally met reality and dropped sharply. The state has experienced layoffs in its transportation sector, its mining and logging sector, and – yes – even in its government. During the month of August, thirteen-hundred people in the Lone Star State lost their jobs.

Rick Perry’s “executive leadership” boils down to this: when he sees something he likes better, he visibly drops what he’s already committed to. What’s he going to do when he could be making more money as a Wall Street broker? Or when he realizes that he’d rather be on the golf course than at the State of the Union? Or when Social Security really does just become too much of a hassle for the executive branch? If Americans want a flaky chief executive, they can count on Rick Perry to bail out when the going gets tough. But when you’re the President of the United States, it’s a bit harder to flee to Iowa.