Understanding the Iran Interim Deal in Seven Points

As negotiations closed last weekend in Geneva, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, told reporters that he hoped this deal would “remove any doubts about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program.” John Kerry painted the negotiations in a different light, saying that the deal “impedes (Iran’s nuclear) progress in a very dramatic way.” Some have called the deal a tectonic shift in the region, while others have scoffed and written it off as just another cog in a machine that won’t work. So what’s really going on? I’ve broken down the implications of the deal into seven key points.

Why does Iran want nukes so badly?

Nuclear weapons make countries relevant. Nations enrich uranium and seek nuclear capability so that they can attain a certain level of both national security and prestige among world powers. For an Islamic country in the Middle East, that sort national security would signal a permanence amid severe volatility and an ongoing upheaval of the status quo. As the centrifuges spin, and Iran hurtles closer to that dreaded 90 percent enrichment mark, it becomes more of a viable force and louder voice on the global stage. As one White House official said this week, it’s a matter of national pride.

(Additionally, a majority of Iranians believe that the nation should have a nuclear power program as an alternative form of energy.)

Obviously, that’s a deeply flawed mentality given the realities of Iran’s current predicament. The problem, of course, is that no one else wants Iran to have that “security” – at least for now.

Why are all these countries – many of whom have nuclear weapons themselves – so devoted to stopping Iran from having them?

The argument goes something like this: nukes aren’t the coveted bargaining chip that Iran thinks they are, nor are their attainment the threshold Iran needs to cross to be taken seriously. Iranians celebrated in the streets Sunday as the first round of negotiations closed and officials announced an interim agreement that would relieve up to $7 billion in sanctions. There’s a sense that the waters of Iran’s economy will begin to flow after years of self- and externally-imposed drought.

Economically robust countries with a clear future, strong infrastructure, and room for growth (and, yes, with the money to build a strong military) get a voice. Iranians are poor. Oil revenues have been cut back by half as crippling sanctions have taken effect in the last half-decade. And because of past choices and priorities, Iran is stuck. That’s the goal of sanctions: to force hostile nations to decide between continuing to implement its antagonistic policies and allowing the well-being of its own economic sectors.

Would Iran really bomb Israel?

Beyond smoke and mirrors and rhetoric to inflame the radicals, Iran has no real rationale to bomb Israel. In a region with no shortage of problematic countries, Iran is far and away the most ostracized in the international community. With a 20 percent global approval rating, it is more politically isolated than Syria and treated as a greater threat than are its neighbors. Statements by government officials, state-employed scientists, and others in positions of authority brim with rhetoric that scare Israelis and supporters of the Jewish state and disturb those with a stake in the region’s stability. But Iran wants a bomb for the same reason the United States, Russia, Pakistan, and India wanted one: to have a bomb. Organizations like United Against a Nuclear Iran and the diplomats who met in Geneva last weekend know that Iran very likely has no intention of bombing Israel.

What should I know about this deal?

  1. The UN’s premier nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), now gets to inspect the assembly of centrifuges and uranium mines through surveillance cameras and on-the-ground visits at Iranian nuclear facilities. These inspections will be daily at Natanz and Fordow and more sporadic at Arak.
  2. All uranium that Iran has been enriched to 20 percent must now be either diluted to a lower percentage or converted to oxide form.
  3. Iran can keep the centrifuges that exist, but can’t install new ones. In other words, the centrifuges that have been set up, but are not operating, can’t start operating.
  4. Iran can’t enrich any new uranium beyond 5 percent.

Cool bullet-points, but what do they mean?

They mean that in a perfect hypothetical, Iran is deciding through this deal that the health and prosperity of its people are more important than its production of nuclear weapons. The costs of sanctions outweigh the benefits of highly-enriched uranium.

Okay, but do you really buy that?

No, not really. Many – including Israel, Saudi Arabia, any many top American lawmakers – are skeptical of the suddenly-cooperative Islamic Republic, which has a history of wanting it both ways and refusing to compromise. Yossi Klein-Halevi wrote Monday of Israel’s belief that Iranian officials “will persist in doing what they’ve done all along: lie and cheat, but this time under the cover of a deal.”

In truth, the eased sanctions are only a small fraction of the billions in frozen assets and halted contracts that have piled up in recent years. But Bibi Netanyahu sees this deal as the world’s way of giving Iran a few months of carte blanche. Michael Doran, a Brookings Institution fellow who once ran the National Security Council, agreed on Sunday, writing that the agreement signals America’s implicit willingness to channel money to Iran’s terrorist proxies in the Middle East – Hezbollah and the henchmen of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Some commentators have also noted that the emergence of an Iran deal could very well be the point to the death of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations under the Obama administration. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an advisor to Mahmoud Abbas, said publicly that the American decision to facilitate the agreement in spite of Israel’s strong opposition sent “an important message to Israel” on the United States’ priorities.

There’s plenty of justification for being suspicious of Iran’s intentions. In October 2003, representatives of France, Germany, Britain, the European Union, and Iran met in Paris and struck a deal that temporarily suspended Iran’s production of enriched uranium. This was intended to be something of an interim agreement, like the one announced Sunday – a liminal process that would eventually lead to the real accord.

There was no real accord. In early 2005, Iran’s parliament voted to resume the nation’s uranium enrichment program “for peaceful use” only. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president later that year, and nuclear facilities like Isfahan ratcheted up their production. That September, the IAEA condemned Iran and talks with the Paris group broke down.

In 2006, the UN Security Council’s permanent members and Germany (the so-called “P5+1”) reached out to Iran, offering to open new trade routes and allow for several light water reactors in exchange for the suspension, again, of reprocessing and enrichment. Iran turned down the offer and opened its heavy water facility at Arak later that year.

The P5+1 went through similar processes in 2009, 2011, and again earlier this year. Each time, talks broke down because Iran either failed to comply or reneged on a promise.

What’s different now?

Just the president of Iran, really. The only tangible difference I perceive is a newly open, non-hostile relationship between the Iranian leader – President Hassan Rouhani – and the leaders of the P5+1. Rouhani was involved in Iran’s earlier suspensions of enrichment and has generally been more of a mollifier and an appeaser of global interests than his direct predecessor, who advocated and embodied an outwardly antagonistic approach to the Western world.

His Own Standard: Why We on the Left Must Hold Obama Accountable

Since September, the Obama administration has been under fire from a Republican weapon that seems to reload with aggravating perpetuity. Weathering attacks on the specific responses to the tragedy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, President Obama sought to mute a chorus of commentators in the presidential debate at Hofstra University last October. Speaking about the American diplomatic corps, Obama absolved others of ultimate wrongdoing:

“They’re my representatives. I send them there – oftentimes into harm’s way…Secretary Clinton has done an extraordinary job. But she works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible.”

The Obama of national security is accountable, responsible, and when necessary, culpable.

That approach is historically sound. When the Deepwater Horizon turned the Gulf of Mexico black in 2010, BP CEO Tony Hayward couldn’t shrug, hold up his palms, and point the rig’s mechanics. (We know this because that’s exactly what he tried to do.) In the wake of Benghazi, Obama expressed without reservation that – even in the minutia of these national security issues – he had been responsible for prevention and must be liable upon disaster.

But when last week told a tale of two scandals – both underscored by the Libya barrage that will not cease – that air of accountability emptied out of the Obama administration. It became evident that Obama’s feelings of direct responsibility were isolated to the realm of national security.

What happened in Libya was deplorable because that which could have been prevented wasn’t prevented. Where security personnel should have been proactive, they were shoved into a corner and forced to be rushed and reactive. It all happened more than five thousand miles from the White House, but Obama took the fall. He held himself to a higher standard.

But last week’s IRS case laid bare an imbalance in Obama’s priorities. Though his appointees – or bureaucrats hired by people who fit that bill – engaged in something steeped in moral and legal turpitude, their transgressions were minor in the scheme of things; the scandal concerned quotidian domestic financial issues. No death, no carnage – just taxes. The agency’s office is just five blocks from the White House. And what’s been the White House response?

Obama is “concerned by every report he sees on this,” Jay Carney told reporters last Tuesday, “and that is why he looks forward to finding out what the IG report says.” In short: the president will take no responsibility before someone of consequence pins it on him.

Not proactive, reactive. Not accountable, evasive. Obama shrugs, hold up his palms, and point to the rig’s mechanics. Suddenly, he’s Tony Hayward at the Resolute Desk. An incongruence in governing.

The virtually simultaneous revelation that the Department of Justice seized hundreds of phone records prompted a similarly aloof response from team Obama. AP White House reporter Jim Kuhnhenn asked the first question at the May 14 press conference, immediately following the disclosure. His query can be boiled down to its premise. “In every instance,” Kuhnhenn scolded Carney, “either the president or you have placed the burden of responsibility someplace else.” A far cry from the buck-stops-here Obama of October fame.

The first chunk of Carney’s response amounted to a surface defense of the president’s record on First Amendment issues. Then he shifted the scope of his answer to White House jurisdiction over Justice cases. “We are not involved…with any decisions made in connection with ongoing criminal investigations,” he said, adding that “those matters are handled, appropriately, by the Justice Department independently.”

Again, Obama is innocent until proven guilty. His head bobs above the waters of responsibility until he’s drowning in them. The question arises: who’s in charge during the perennial White House side-step?

Perhaps the answer is the president’s surrogates – the people who run the departments being investigated. But when Attorney General Eric Holder was initially asked about the seizure of AP phone records, he told a media pool at the DOJ that it was “getting into matters that are beyond my knowledge.” His recusal from the matter left him uninformed as to “what the circumstances were here…and I frankly don’t have knowledge of those facts.”

I’m a self-declared political liberal and voted for Barack Obama last November. That seemed a clear indication that I wanted him running the country, fully informed and profoundly engaged. The more than 51% of eligible voters that opted for him reflects a similar sentiment. The de facto administration policy can’t be precautionary ignorance and retrospective hand-wringing.

The political left mustn’t echo the absent-minded rhetorical gunfire of the right; but it should make President Obama the subject of real targeted criticism until his “buck-stops-here” mentality takes the form of a coherent, comprehensive policy that encompasses his administration’s involvement in tax and law questions as much as it does issues of national security.

We don’t yet know if the IRS and DOJ allegations will grow into convictions, but regardless of circumstance, Obama’s policy should be one of continuity in accountability, not of strategic ignorance that leaves him blindsided and irreproachable. “I’m always responsible,” he said in October. I voted for that Barack Obama.

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.

Guns and Glaciers: Why the NRA is Wrong About Newtown

Remember what Kurt Vonnegut wrote about Sandy Hook Elementary School? It was tucked within the first few pages of Slaughterhouse-Five:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden. I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows as inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“You know what I say about people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers.

Harrison Starr seems to be speaking frankly and directly to a fractured American public, spawned by a fractured Newtown. He is insisting that a race whose end is out of sight isn’t worth running; that an epidemic that can’t be cured overnight is nothing short of a lost cause; that gun violence is better left to hollow prayer and band-aid solutions than to sensible long-term remedies. But Harrison Starr is wrong.

Last Friday, Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association stood behind a mahogany podium and delivered the his organization’s official response to the Newtown massacre. In a sing-song timbre, LaPierre began. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Before he could deliver his next sentence, that statement sank into sea of punditry and antagonism.

On Sunday, LaPierre appeared on MSNBC’s Meet the Press. During the program, host David Gregory offered him – albeit forcefully – an opportunity to clarify his Friday remarks. No clarification was necessary. LaPierre proved unrelenting in his conviction that the principal problem is the person, not the weapon. The mentally ill, he said – or “lunatics,” as he tastefully called them – are the dominant players in the debate over guns in the United States.

Mental illness is surely a factor in the debate. Liza Long’s now-famous Blue Review piece “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” gave voice to a desire to shift the debate from gun control to aid for families of kids who are mentally ill. Long’s son, Michael, is violent, erratic, and – disturbingly, more problematic – undiagnosed. He needs help. And so does his mother. She describes a bleak conversation with her son’s social worker, who advised that the family’s best bet in finding treatment and therapy for her young son was “to get Michael charged with a crime.”

Few deny that the American penal establishment – entangled with the nation’s mental health establishment – is afflicted by deep-seated systemic failures. No one – neither President Obama, nor the vocal families of Newtown’s victims, nor the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (which has more than a million mental health records on file) – professes that the mental health issue should not play a significant role in our national conversation.

Yes, Jared Lee Loughner, who carried out the January 2011 rampage in Tucson, suffered from mental illness. As did James Holmes, who killed 12 people in July at a movie theater in Aurora. As did Ian Stawicki, who made headlines last May when he murdered five in a Seattle coffee house. And it is presumed – though not confirmed – that Adam Lanza did, too. But as Sen. Chuck Schumer said on Sunday, “trying to prevent shootings in schools without talking about guns is like trying to prevent lung cancer without talking about cigarettes.” Yes, many mass shooters are mentally ill. But in want of proper treatment, they kill people – and they do it with guns. So let’s talk about guns.

During the course of their exchange, David Gregory uncovered (and his guest confirmed) that the NRA’s criteria for supporting congressional legislation was straightforward: if an idea may reduce loss of life, it’s worth trying. Gregory followed up by asking LaPierre if the NRA would support any form of reduction of high capacity magazines. LaPierre sang a tune of evasion for a few minutes before conceding that it wouldn’t. Then Gregory asked if there was any gun regulation that LaPierre would support. There wasn’t. Not even one.

It seems to me alarming that the nation’s chief gun advocates can’t – nay, won’t – acknowledge inherent dangers in weaponry, even as a mechanism of mitigating those dangers. Hazard, they say, lurks only in its operators. A December 16 piece in The Atlantic noted that the Second Amendment, while safeguarding Americans’ rights to guns, “doesn’t say a single thing about the right to own bullets.” The same notion was central to an old Chris Rock comedy routine. “I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars,” Rock would say. “Five thousand dollars per bullet…and people would think before they killed somebody.” You remember the old adage about truth in humor.

Taxing or regulating bullets could prove effective in reducing loss of life, thus the proposal fits snugly in LaPierre’s criteria. James Holmes bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet. Had anyone been watching, one might assume that such a purchase would have been a red flag of sorts. High capacity magazines in assault weapons allow a gunman to shoot off thirty or more rounds without having to reload his weapon. But LaPierre and the NRA are adamant: “A gun is a tool; the problem is the criminal.”

They are fatally mistaken. If last year we had borne witness to 8,583 murders caused by rocks, I would likely be an advocate of rock control. And had those deaths been caused by umbrellas, I would be in favor of umbrella control. But nearly 70 percent of murders last year were caused by guns. Firearms act as subservient accomplices in homicide. Yes, people kill people. But they kill people with guns.

Gun violence in this country will not end in full until there emerges a new lethal instrument that usurps the gun in efficacy and vogue. With anticipation, we dread that day. Harrison Starr couldn’t have predicted the melting of the glaciers.

The solution doesn’t eliminate the problem, but renders its victims fewer. Wayne LaPierre’s soapbox is wearing thin, and while it would be naïve to think or to claim that we can wholly eliminate gun violence, it would be a deadly crime not to try.

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.

The End of Truth Be Told?

It was during a split second of unfeigned awareness – over a medium-sized cup of lychee berry frozen yogurt that I was sharing with my mom – that I decided to start writing. We’d been talking politics when a knowing smile lit her face. “If you really feel that strongly about these things, why don’t you blog about them?”

I launched a website temporarily called “Legislative Wordplay” a few days after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig began threading its way through the Gulf of Mexico, just before it left a blanket of crude oil on the doorstep of the Gulf Coast; seven months before a deep, rich red seeped into the bluest congress in recent memory; an era bereft of Arab Spring mentalities or Todd Akin abortion gaffes.

And now, here I sit, zipping up my final bags, nearly able to smell the greasy air of the university dining hall. I scroll up and down these web pages. I sift through a chronology of my last two and a half years. This is what I spent my time doing in high school. This is who I was – who I am.

On the whole, I count myself lucky. I am among those who get to do what they love to do. Indeed, the algorithms of geometry and precalculus may have been lost on me, but in their place I threaded the delicate strands of hobby until they evolved into a robust and finely-tuned passion.

This, I think, is where I grew.

I grew between the clicks of a spacebar eroded by time, within the rhythmic cacophony of just-too-ripe metaphors that spilled out onto Word documents. I learned in my craving to discover why some pieces were met with universal approval, while others encountered a discomfited audience brimming with chagrin. And, accordingly, I stretched my intellectual limbs in a struggle to walk the compelling line between sensitivity and contentiousness.

I remember the first truly negative response I received to a piece I had written. My piece had lamented what I had deemed the “suppressed” voice of youth. It was, in retrospect, a hasty and inflammatory few paragraphs that achieved little beyond airing my own frustrations – perhaps with a teacher, perhaps with a parent; I don’t remember. I do remember the commenter’s response: inherently negative and viciously critical. I felt shaken and became defensive by impulse.

I feel blessed and grateful for the limitless words of praise and encouragement that came both before and after such comments. But the fundamental lesson I’ve learned from maintaining this website spills out from precisely those dissenting responses. It boils down to that painful and entirely energizing question of what it means to react, and think, and live critically. Criticism is – like the feeling that overwhelms you after stretching your hamstring just before a long run – the best kind of burning sensation.

I have derived a constructive and straightforward lesson from the time I spent composing pieces for this blog. It is a similar lesson to that which I have taken from the circuitous nature of the Israelis and the Palestinians; from the heretical wit of Christopher Hitchens; from a Congress who swiftly and imprudently approved a war that has since been burned (violently) into the collective American psyche. That lesson is two-fold.

First: Criticism isn’t defined wholly by disapproval or condemnation. It is also part of the powerful and invaluable process of attaining clarity.

And second: When we are forced – either by our own innate compulsions or external influences – to clarify our intent, or spell out the means by which we attain our ends, or defend our bland or disputable viewpoints, we are accordingly forced to become aware. We become our own advocates when we are keenly challenged and engaged. And if it’s as easy as that, then why not challenge ourselves?

This article isn’t characteristic of this blog. Just as this website was never (I should hope) a diary to spew vitriol, it was also rarely a medium to unload my own arbitrary anecdotes. But as a perceptive friend of mine reminded me last week, “at the end, we always think about the beginning.”

Tonight I had the chance to video-chat with my grandparents who live a thousand miles away from me. We were talking about my experiences at camp this summer, and about what the next few weeks (the start of college) may hold in store. And the question arose: what comes next for Truth Be Told Politics?

The answer is a peculiar one: I don’t know. There exists, in this thrilling and hurried passage, a wealth of unknown. Will I be writing about politics? Or will another fascination catch my attention? Will I even be writing on this blog? Writing is my criticism; and criticism yields clarity. And God knows that we need clarity.

Whether I’ll keep writing here is uncertain. You have left me with much to think about. So I, in turn, will leave you with this: For clicking on your TBT bookmark even when there was little of interest in the news; for reading through those pieces of mine that seemed rant-esque; for allocating precious moments during your busiest days to compose a comment or e-mail me a response; for sharing my writing with your own friends and relatives; one hundred and thirty-five posts later, I cannot thank you enough.

Fluorescent Traffic Signals – Why the GOP Needs to Read More Shakespeare

We seem to be a country continually prone to missing the signs.

We’ve heard the story of the drowning man who refused the aid of three rescue boats, confident that God would save him; the novice batter who had just been pitched two change-ups, and didn’t realize that the fastball must be next; the chain smoker who was warned by doctor after doctor that tobacco is the leading cause of lung cancer.

We read in the literary canon of tragic figures like Macbeth, whose fall comes with a series of hints and premonitions. We remember domestic events of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries – assassinations, breaches of national security – which many still believe could have been prevented, had officials seen the signs – or, more significantly, been looking for them.

We do, perhaps – in both our most ostensible and most intimate pursuits – suffer from an epidemic of ignorance toward much that points us in the right direction; we have a frequent proclivity to forgo society’s beaming and fluorescent traffic signals.

The epidemic could not come at a less opportune time for its latest victim. It evokes the words of John McKnight, in an introduction to his The Careless Society: “It is the ability of citizens to care that creates strong communities and able democracies.” The latest victim seems blatantly not to care about, nor to take heed of warnings issued by the events of the recent past. That victim is the Republican Party.

On George W. Bush’s final day in office, his approval rating had tanked to 22%, the lowest final rating in Gallup’s more than seventy-year history. In the months – even years – leading up to the presidential election of 2008, Bush was easily the least-popular president since our nation’s founding.

The American legacy that he left, it was widely believed on both sides of the political spectrum, was one that would necessitate desperate and thorough repair. John McCain – once a maverick – had recently become a Bush-policy convert and had cultivated a record of supporting some of the president’s most controversial decisions. For him, the race should have been over as soon as it began. For the democrats – who could easily have been the party of consistency and virtue – a win should have been comfortable and clean.

As we remember, the race for the Democratic nomination was the furthest thing from clean; more accurately, it was a long, excessive, and grimy process of mud-slinging and insult-dodging. Only in June, just a few short months before the nominating convention, did Hillary Clinton swallow her pride and, with a memorable and tepid, “this isn’t exactly the party I’d planned,” step aside for Barack Obama.

But in between the beginning of primary season and the eloquent Clinton exit crept many, many opportunities for what should have been the most electable Democratic ticket in American history to self-destruct. The party teetered and tottered – allowing each candidate to expose weaknesses and further wither any chances of a left-wing White House. Some argue that the scrutiny of the primary campaign simply brought on the vetting process a few months early. However, when Clinton told reporters that she couldn’t drop out because “Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June in California,” and when Obama was steadily attacked for his relationship with his pastor, the candidates were only adding more ammunition to the ever-quickening automatic weapon of the GOP.

We have begun to hear echoes of 2008’s teeter and totter in this year’s Republican primary. While President Obama’s approval ratings don’t nearly equate to those of his predecessor, he is not considered to be widely popular, and has certainly ticked off many who would have sworn their allegiance to the Candidate Obama three years ago. By many accounts (though most are anecdotal and few are based in statistical evidence) Obama could be just as beatable as a Bush-type figure. Without doubt, a soon-rising and largely-backed Republican nominee could quell much of the poll inflation that Obama has received from his incumbency.

By letting the Wealthy Greaser duke it out with the Pillsbury Doughboy of American Values, the GOP has proven its marked lack of regard for American electoral trends. The longer Mitt Romney shares an antagonistic stage with Newt Gingrich, the more difficult it will become for the ultimate nominee to defeat the president. Of course, this isn’t the advice I would give the candidates themselves.

What would I tell them? Keep fighting; it’s good for you.