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.

Camaraderie Out of Extremity – Gratitude in the Wake of the bin Laden Assassination


Last night, I was flying with my family back from Portland to Los Angeles. As we strapped ourselves into our seats and powered down our cell phones, a muffled voice came over the plane’s speaker system.

“This is your captain speaking,” said the voice. “Just wanted to let you all know that President Obama is speaking right now at the White House and they killed Osama bin Laden.” Cheers and applause erupted from the elated passengers – among them, a businessman dressed to the nines, a mom traveling with her young son and daughter, and an elderly bearded man dressed in traditional Sikh garb.

When I got home, I had several text messages and voice mail messages waiting on my phone. “GOD BLESS AMERICA,” said one. “Got ‘em!” said another. The social networks (Twitter and Facebook) flared up with similarly nationalistic sentiments: photos of American flags, videos of military marches, assertions of American exceptionalism. Then, at school today, students greeted the news with marked astonishment and awe and – though some were hesitant – many expressed euphoria at the assassination. The last time Americans acted in such patriotic accord was, in fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001.

On September 12, 2001, in the wake of national tragedy, I went with my father to buy an American flag at a local banner store. When we got to the store, we were surprised to find ourselves at the back of a line that stretched around the block. Everyone wanted to buy a flag. Everyone wanted to prove that he or she was a piece of the American puzzle.

And today, as the dust finally settles, camaraderie has returned. Even in the heat of the most vitriolic and polarizing climate in modern political history, Americans seem to be united again around one cause – one ideal. It is evident to me that in times of extremity – and, all too often, only in such times – people collaborate. When two students feel helpless before their history test, they may come together to study. When two companies are faltering on the brink of collapse, they may merge. So too, when Americans feel overcome by mourning, or overjoyed with pride, something magnificent happens.

Tomorrow, of course, we’ll all return to our bickering; Democrats will be Democrats, Republicans will be Republicans, we will be we, and they will be they. But today, as we witness the power of mutual loyalty, I am grateful to live in a country whose citizens sometimes – everyone once in a while – find allies in one another.

This is Truth Be Told’s 100th post.

Financial Floortime – Meeting the Country Where it’s “At”


My younger brother Ezra was diagnosed with autism when I was five years old. Because the neurological disorder puts a damper on socialization, I’ve actively searched for ways to connect with him on an interpersonal level since I was little. Trough trial and error, research, and experience, my family learned about a technique for building relationships with special needs kids called the “floortime” method. It’s the idea that, in order to connect with a child, you have to “meet the child where he’s at.”

Over the past few days, President Obama’s proposed budget has incurred some tough criticism from the left – and justifiably so.

The budget suggests rolling back half of a $700 million community service grant program, cutting a significant portion of funding to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (which, according to the Program’s mission statement, is intended “to assist low income households, particularly those with the lowest incomes that pay a high proportion of household income for home energy, primarily in meeting their immediate home energy needs”), and upping interest rates on students’ college loans.

This budget (or at least its discrepancy with past budgets proposed by Democratic administrations) has been portrayed as an unprecendented onslaught of policies that sympathize with neo-conservative ideals. Liberal pundits have expressed disgust. Members of the president’s own party have pinned him as a Judas-esque figure – a traitor to both his political allies and his own personal narrative.

Through lenses of morality and ideology, they all seem right. This proposal doesn’t align with Obama’s past promises, nor is it in tune with the song of his über-publicized family history that he’s been singing for so many years. But to fully understand the gravity of this budget’s implications, it’s important to recognize one principal idea: he’s trying to win reelection.

Barack Obama is me, America is my little brother Ezra, and this moment is floortime.

The president has identified where Americans are “at” – economically, socially, and culturally – and he’s attempting to meet us there.

From a strictly political perspective, Obama is trying to court conservative democrats, liberal republicans, and middle-of-the-road independents who have been alienated by the dominant party system as a result of America’s polarizing political culture. With a increasingly rapid rate of voters registering as independents, it is clear to the president that he must not associate himself with the country’s already-inflamed political dichotomy, but rather must make an ostensible effort to support compromise.

From a strictly retaliatory perspective, Obama is trying to uncover the nature of the right’s inherent hypocrisy. The proposal is a dare for the Republicans to blink: look, he’s telling them, I’m cutting the programs that you have deemed superfluous. Obama is showing the American electorate that even when he heeds the Republicans’ demands, they still reject his proposals. He’s trying to expose their conscious obstruction of progress.

And from a strictly symbolic perspective, Obama is trying to plead and reason with the American voter. He’s trying to show the average voter that everyone is hurting – and, therefore, he must sacrifice causes that he knows are important – programs that he personally benefited from. There a lot that’s wrong with this method of association, but the president is making it look as though he’s bringing the White House some proletariat anguish.

The president is gauging America’s interests and responding accordingly, though sometimes overly-politically. It’s okay to disagree with his decisions (I do) and it’s healthy to doubt his motives (I do that, too), but amidst any questions of morality we may have, we must remember: Barack Obama is trying to get reelected.

Report Card – A Brief Response to SOTU


Substance

He had a few different jobs to do from a few separate perspectives.

In the Eyes of the Left

He had to lay out his agenda in a definitive manner and avoid digressing from the party script. He had to concede little and give the Republicans much to mull over. He had to acknowledge the presence and potency of the new House majority, but suppress its voice to the best of his ability. He had to talk about guns — in light of Tucson — and talk about civility in light of the political climate. He had to promise to veto a healthcare repeal and vow to protect the middle class. He had to win over the “green” people, make education a priority, and address immigration reform. The list was endless. From the outset, the Democrats were not likely to be pleased.

From this perspective: B+

He covered most issues and did, in fact, present his agenda. Contrary to White House spin before the event, his speech was pretty partisan. It was sprinkled with a unifying tidbit here and there, which made it seem like somewhat “kumbaya”-esque. He neglected some key social issues (evidently for political purposes), but for the most part, his speech didn’t concede too much.

In the Eyes of the Right

Was there anything that the president could have said that would have pleased the right? Well, he could have said that he supports full gun-ownership rights and would be more than willing to sign a repeal of the healthcare bill. He could have said that taxes on the rich needed to be lower and that the issue of the declining quality of public education should take a backseat to more ‘important’ problems like regulation. He could have said that our two wars needed to be continually waged until every building in Baghdad and Khartoum is burned to the ground. In other words, to please the Republicans, he would have had to become a Republican.

From this perspective: D

He was partisan in one direction.

Appearance

I haven’t seen a whole lot of coverage of this element of the speech but I thought that the way the chamber looked during the speech was fascinating. For example, because the members were so intermingled, even when Obama spoke a line that only Democrats stood or applauded for, it looked as though the entire House chamber rose.

I also found a somewhat disheartening irony in the appearance of the House chamber. For the sake of unifying around a common cause, each member of Congress (among others working on the Hill) wore a white and blue-striped ribbon on his or her lapel. This was intended to honor the victims of the shooting in Tucson and keep Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in the head — in Congress’ thoughts.

Here’s the irony: each Democrat wore the ribbon on his or her left, each Republican on his or her right. Nice job, Congress.

Implications

Ostensibly, the SOTU was a call for unity. If ever there was a place where the idea of unity and cohesion could take precedence over partisan gridlock and resistance to compromise, it would not be Capitol Hill. And Barack Obama knows that, which is why he sugar-coated his speech with a bipartisan flare. But the agenda that he set out in his speech covered left-wing talking points. The vitriolic mood is going nowhere.

An Electorate on Edge – The Role of Patience in the Healthcare Debate


I drove to a coffee shop earlier today in an attempt to seclude myself from the minute-to-minute shuffle that accompanies the process of moving houses (that my family is currently wrapped up in). I had pages and pages of history notes to sift through — so I just needed a place where I could clear my head and forge forward.

A few minutes after I’d sat down at a table and started looking though my notes, I realized that I’d forgotten to retrieve one last bit of information on the North’s Civil War strategy. So I opened up my laptop, dragged my cursor down to the blue ‘Safari’ icon, and waited as the tiny clock-like pinwheel on the URL bar twirled and twirled.

But I quickly became impatient and within seconds found myself wearing out my index finger by tapping incessantly on my keyboard’s ‘enter’ key. I couldn’t stand the seven-second wait for my browser to load. I needed immediate gratification at the risk of my own sanity.

And then I had one of those ‘a-ha’ moments (the ones that used to be depicted in old Tom and Jerry reruns when a giant lightbulb would appear above a character’s head): I realized that my agitation wasn’t an isolated incident. I’m a junior in high school, so it’s no secret that patience isn’t my forte; but neither is it that of the American populace. We’re an electorate on edge, a country whose thirst for instantaneous indulgence usurps any bit of willingness to roll with the punches when the going gets tough.

Last week, the House — sporting its fresh coat of red — voted to repeal the landmark healthcare bill that promised to to insure over thirty-two million additional people, end health insurance companies’ implementation of lifetime coverage limits, forbid discrimination against patients with pre-existing conditions, and — in essence — overhaul the broken healthcare system and its tired regulations.

Healthcare was (as most issues in this presidency are) a highly partisan battle. It further polarized Washington. It created enemies out of friends. But, of course, one side won, and the bill’s policies began to take effect in the weeks and months after its passage. The White House website says that all of the aforementioned policies among “other changes including new benefits, protections and cost savings will be implemented between now and 2014.”

Hold on a second. So does that mean we have to wait?

And now America’s fuse is lit and Congress’ spiral of reverse gratitude is already spinning. Republicans have long been tapping their feet and anxiously looking at their watches; and as soon as they got into power, they pounced.

Michele Bachmann wants to “repeal [the] president and put a president in the position of the White House who will repeal this bill.” Despite the gravity of that demand and — in my opinion — its breach of both civil and human rights, Bachmann represents a growing mass who expect something from nothing. It’s the same portion of the population who expected the economy to be “fixed” within months of Obama’s election and are “shocked” to find out that he’s done “nothing” to repair the economy.

Things take time. Long-run investments are what sustain economies. If the United States (or even my family, for that matter) only made short-term economic choices and divested from every stock or venture that didn’t immediately yield a massive positive result, it would be in a much downgraded position. When healthcare hasn’t finished coming into effect and Republicans already decide that it hasn’t quite done the trick, that’s an irresponsible decision.

Patience.

Civil Disobedience – What if the Democrats Had Compromised Less?


It’s time to admit that the ship of any sparse hope of party unity has sailed long ago.

There no such thing as “typical” in Washington anymore. The crossroads at which we find ourselves is one of many options, many grim and fatalistic prospects. Capitol Hill is a grab-bag, a random potpourri of eclectic figures, off-color parties, members of those parties who don’t necessarily fit any particular mold.

The right has moved right-er, the left has moved left-er, and the center–well, the center’s slowly evaporated into the already polluted air. Polarizing figure after polarizing figure has made the front page. For every thousand people who follow a radical Republican, a thousand more follow a deranged Democrat.

Harmony’s ship has sailed.

And so the question becomes: what are the practical implications of the emergence of such an atypical political climate? (Warning: I’m about to commend the Democrats. This may sound unusual, as they haven’t done anything right in quite some time. If this is not something that you can handle, please stop reading here.)

Today, in the wake of President Obama’s compromise with Republicans (that got the middle class out of the doghouse and extended unemployment insurance at the expense of allowing the top two percent of income earners off the hook), Democrats in Congress, understated as they may have been, displayed a distinct type of civil disobedience.

The Republicans held the middle class hostage. Why? Because they could. The White House put an apologetic stamp of approval on the Republican tax plan. Why? Because they had to. But today–knowing full well that in just a few short weeks, the tables will take a very sharp turn–Democrats stood on principle.

America, on this crazy journey over the past two years–during which steady duplicity has replaced morality and a dark blanket of fear has shrouded any remaining hope–we’ve lost our sanity. Like water from a sponge, politics has been drained of its conscience. But today the Democrats finally grew a pair and stuck to their principles. If they had committed themselves to their values–started protecting the middle class at a lesser expense–would we be in this position today?

Peculiar Leakage


This will be very quick, because I have quite the workload right now, but there was a story tonight that caught my eye and bothered me quite a bit. In fact, I read it, and my response was so vocal that my dad had to come in and make sure that I was alright. Here’s the deal:

For months now, it has been speculated that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel would eventually resign from his prestigious post to run for Mayor of Chicago. The rumor has never been confirmed, but it’s been generally accepted that Rahm wouldn’t remain at the White House until the end of the term. Key term: never been confirmed.

It seems that the White House thought that now would be a good time to leak that Rahm has officially decided to leave the White House. Sources “close to Emanuel” say that they “see nothing that will stop a run.” Fine. Great. Cool. Let’s get some fresh blood moving around the West Wing. But really? It’s thirty five days until the midterms, the Democrats are trying to repair their image as a cohesive, unified, calm/cool/collected party, and this is when they decide to leak it? Hmm.

It is, however, important to remember that this White House doesn’t do things by accident. David Axelrod is always shaping the next “message of the day,” so is this an attempt to garner bipartisan support or tear down a sectarian threshold of sorts? Rahm is a polarizing figure who has alienated a lot of Republicans (and, for that matter, Democrats). Perhaps this meant to look like a stride toward the beginnings of political re-cooperation.

Update: Pete Rouse, who, during his time as an employee and Chief of Staff in Congress, was known as the 101st Senator, is likely to become the interim Chief of Staff.