I started this blog over a year ago to comment on the presidency of Barack Obama. See, I had followed Obama as a freshman US senator and I admired and diligently watched his candidacy in 2008 from the never-ending primaries against Hillary Clinton to the general election campain to that unforgettable night on November 4th 2008. I actually shed some tears when Wolf Blitzer at around 11 pm EST said: “CNN can now say Barack Obama will be the 44th President of the United States.” I still have goose bumps just writing this down. I had hoped, maybe mistakenly in hindsight that Obama would be a different president; different from the cautious watching-the-polls-worries-about-his-re-election  mold, somebody who would challenge the economic and military establishment, somebody who would present a different face of America to the world. He has done nothing of the sort. These are some of his accomplishments so far:

He has passed a healthcare bill that while viewed as revolutionary in the US, is laughable when compared to what is available in other industrialized countries. It’s greatest value to US citizens is that it now requires the transfer of taxpayers’ dollars to private health insurances companies while demanding nothing substantial of them. They can still make substantial profits from sick Americans while adding nothing of value to the healthcare chain.

He just passed a financial regulation bill that does not prevent too big to fail scenarios and thereby leaving the door opened for a potential repeat of the 2008 financial crisis.

He promised to close the Guantanamo Bay Prison but this will certainly not happen. Even if it did, other US foreign prisons such as Bagram in Afghanistan will remain open for business and renditions will continue. So will drone attacks in Pakistan and other foreign interventions in the name of “fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here.”

He has made no efforts to reduce the power of money in American elections, the undeniable “Elephant in the room” preventing any meaningful progress to be made on issues like healthcare and real financial regulation.

He has done nothing for the Peace Process or for the prospect of peace in the Middle East. In fact by continually reaffirming the US attachment to Israel, he has allowed settlement expansion to proceed unhindered thereby expanding “the facts on the ground” that would stand in the way of any potential future peace deal.

He has done nothing to reduce what some have called the “Fear Industrial complex“.

He has done nothing directly to improve the lives of impoverished minorities in the US

For an American president with African roots, he has done nothing of value for the African continent with respect to improving the terms of their commercial interactions with the West. So far he even fares less than George W. Bush

Contrary to his campaign rhetoric, he has done nothing different from his predecessors to improve US relations with Iran or Cuba or Venezuela

And more importantly, he has drawn down in Iraq slightly, only to escalate the Afghan War, committing more soldiers and money to a mission that many now regard as doomed in the way Vietnam was doomed.

So, after a year and half of this presidency, I am convinced that Barack Obama will not be a transformational president.

Things can change of course, but unless a cataclysm natural or otherwise forces him to change course, at best Obama will be as conventional a president as Harry Truman or maybe Bill Clinton was. And I am not interested in staying up late to read obscure articles, gleam facts from foreign journals and read footnotes and a gazillion of political blogs for the purpose of commenting on the actions of a conventional American president. It’s been done. It is being done and one more voice will not change the course of this presidency.

So sayonara friends…

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Happy New Year!

2010 is starting with a new country name added to our fear lexicon: Yemen.

Since the claim of responsibility from Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for the failed Christmas Day plot to bomb a Detroit-bound flight, various “security experts” have invaded CNN, FOX, MSNBC and other cable news outlets trying  to explain Yemen to us: Why did this bombing attempt have a Yemeni connection? What brand of Islam is practiced in Yemen? How should we deal with Yemen?

That last question was actually flashed on CNN on New Year’s Day as some of these “experts” debated the options.   I know it’s almost a cliche now, but I always find it fascinating that we in the West, only seem to become interested in some of these small countries in faraway continents as a result of a war or a security scare of some kind. And as soon as that security scare or war ends or at least victory has been declared by our generals, we retreat. Our interest drops. Our media’s too. But while we’re not looking, the power dynamics in those countries changes. New chiefs  take the reigns of power. And just when we have completely forgotten about them, some nutcase causes mayhem somewhere in one of our cities and we call in the “experts” to tell us why they did what they did and “why they hate us”.

I don’t know how “we should deal with Yemen”. However, I don’t think I need the CNN experts with their graphs and maps to know that the solution to this problem is not another invasion as some are already advocating. There are all kinds of logistical reasons why that cannot even happen. The most glaring being US troop overstretch.

But while we are attempting to find solutions, perhaps keeping our history and geography books open at all times might be a nice starting point. This woud help us all understand the world around us and better grasp why “they” do what they do and why some of “our” actions or the consequences of our actions create the problems that we later have to solve.  Afghanistan is a perfect example. The US armed the mujahedeens to help the Afghans overthow the Soviets. Then the US advisors left. So did the money. As Tom Hanks (playing Texas Congresman Charlie Wilson) in Charlie Wilson’s War said: “We leave. We always leave.”  Then those mujahedeens became allied with the Taliban and took over that country. We were too busy with the dot-com growth and later bubble to pay attention. Then 9-11 happened. We called in the experts. “Why do they hate us?” What should we do about Afghanistan?” The armies of The West have been in Afghanistan for over 8 years. Now US Senator Joe Lieberman or Joe Liberman quoting somebody else is saying: “Yemen will be tomorrow’s war.”

Please, No!

So as expected, Obama became the latest American War President this week. He was one already by virtue of being the Commander-In-Chief of an army engaged in two wars. But it was made official because of his embrace (however reluctant it appeared) of the battles he inherited.

So 30,000 more troops and 18 months to “finish the job” that 8 previous years have failed to put on dent on.

What was he thinking?

Well, politically the plan is masterful. Even brilliant. First he acquiessed to the demands of the Generals which endears him to the military brass. But it also allows him to blame them if it all goes haywire in 18 months.

Second the plan relies on a lot of moving parts Obama can only influence from far, but cannot directly control: The Afghan government, the Pakistanis, The NATO allies, the Taliban. And precisely because of that he can blame them anytime it becomes politically expedient, declare victory an leave.

Third the July 2011 timetable, almost a year and a half away from his re-election allows him to play to all political affiliations. To the Republicans he will say “I did not cut and run. I stayed the course and took the fight to the terrorists!”. Even if they complain about the very presence of an exit date (as they are currently doing), they will commend him for fighting on. To the hardcore anti-war Liberals he will say: “I have an exit date. I only decided to stay because we had to win this thing. I am ending it soon as promised and sending our boys home.” He could even order a few brigades home during the year of the election campaign as a show of sincerity.

Finally, he will remind Independents and all voters that he opposed the war in Iraq and is in the process of bringing it to a close along with the Afghan one. But he cannot run from the battle and that’s why, he will say, there are still some American troops occupying two Mid-East countries.

 After the election of course, if he is re-elected, he would then do whatever he wants written in the history books about the Obama Presidency . That’s politics. And for better but mostly for worse, Presidents are politicians first.

In the real world of war and occupation in Afghanistan, people will continue to die and the stupididty of Wednesday’s decision will ring true.

War is awful. Wars of choice are also awful but blatantly wasteful. Years from now, when the NATO armies have gone home and the Afghans are still grappling with their misery and the Al Qaeda terrorists are still terrorizing from some new cave in Namibia or Yemen or from a five-star hotel in a Western capital, we will wonder what all the dying was for. The idea of invading a single country and transforming it as a way of forever preventing a band of supposedly religious maniacs from ever commiting mischief anywhere else in the world was always silly. 30,000 more troops will not change that.

If you happen to have a few minutes, please follow the link below to watch PBS’s Bill Moyers Journal showcasing another President, Lyndon Baines Johnson grappling with the escalation of another war a few decades ago.

 The similarities are eerie.  

http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11202009/profile.html

Roger Cohen wrote today in the NY Times about an ordinary Israel, as opposed to an exceptional Israel.

I found this column significant in many ways. It captured something that had been the subtext of almost every international discussion of Israel and its actions beyond its legal borders in the last few years.

 As human beings, we usually have clearly defined perceptions of ourselves. In most cases, we are unaware or choose to be unaware of how we are perceived by the world around us. So unfortunately, we end up interacting with the world on the basis of how we see ourselves or how we wish to be seen. Nations do the same. They have national narratives that are sometimes manufactured for social cohesion, sometimes over-idealized versions of real events, sometimes just plain bogus. And unfortunately any external messages directed at them have to get through the thick fabricated glass windows.

Israel, Roger Cohen says in his piece “does not see itself as normal. Rather it lives in a perpetual state of exceptionalism”. So it can have nuclear weapons while demanding that the US help prevent Iran from getting them. It can refrain from signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) while demanding that NPT signatories like Iran live up to their obligations. Basic notions such as fairness do not factor in these types of talks because there is the view of “we are rational, THEY are not!” and therefore it follows that “we can be allowed to do things THEY can never be forgiven for doing.”  Now, Israel unlike many other nations on this earth was born out of a tragedy. A great tragedy. But as Cohen rightfully observes, that does not mean it should refrain from  ”deal[ing] with the world as it is, however discomfiting, not the world of yesterday.”

As Cohen quotes in the piece, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has often said that the only way to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons is “for the Iranian government to decide that their security is diminished by having those weapons as opposed to strengthened .” So what if the US as part of its Iran Strategy tried to convince Israel to go the way of South Africa and get rid of its nuclear weapons as a way of persuading the iranians that their security will not be compromised by not developing a bomb?

The Israelis would never agree to it, of course, but let’s imagine that they did for a second.
Because one important way and I believe the most important way to look at this Iran Nukes conundrum is through the lens of regional control and regional security. Israel has been the “Big Boy” of the Middle-East for the past forty years or so. Egypt reared its head for a bit in the days of Nasser and Sadat. But they were quickly smacked in the Six-Day War and in the Yom Kippur War. They then decided it was best to sign a peace treaty, get a Nobel Peace Prize for Sadat in the bargain and move on. Then Iraq rose slightly with a little help from the Reagan and George H. Bush administrations. They quickly lost their power when Saddam picked a fight with the Ayatollas to start the 8-year long Iran-Iraq war that drained them financially and otherwise. The American invasion of 2003 took care of whatever power was not erased by the UN sanctions that preceded it. The Gulf states (Bahrain, Koweit, Qatar, UAE, Oman) have as much military strength as five African bees.  Yet Israel with a lot of US financial and military help has remained strong.

So now the Iranians look to be on the rise again, paranoid and fearful. They do have valid reasons to be fearful. From Tehran, the Mullahs look to the east and they see NATO troops in Afghanistan (including nuclear armed nations like the US and the UK) and further east, they see Pakistanis with nukes. Indians with nukes. Further west, they see Israelis with nukes. In addition to being in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US has a presence in the Gulf States. If you couple this with the constant threats of bombardments as enunciated by both US and Israeli officials, it is no wonder the Iranians want to get nuclear weapons as a way of preventing an externally-imposed regime change.

Some will argue that Iran is not governed by “rational leaders” and therefore cannot be held to the same standard as other nations. I disagree. And I am not alone in this view. Many decades of Iranian peaceful co-existence with its neighbours back me up on this. So does the NY Times’ Roger Cohen in the piece I quoted at the start of this post. “Iran makes rational decisions,” he writes. “Rather than invoking the Holocaust — a distraction — Israel should view Iran coolly [and] understand the hesitancy of Tehran’s nuclear brinksmanship.”

So in many ways, the road towards Obama’s nuclear-free world and therefrore a nuclear-free Middle-East, goes through Tehran as much as it goes through Tel Aviv.

In awarding the Peace Price, the Nobel Committee has gotten it blatantly wrong in the past. Sometimes it failed by omission. Many times it failed to research the complete body of work of the person being honored. Sometimes hope triumphed. And in some small instances, the Prize actually went to all too deserving individuals.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 to Barack Obama on Friday represented perhaps a combination of all these past failures. To understand this, one has to re-examine the body of work of President Obama so far, but also the history of the Prize itself and its past winners through the lens of peace and peace-making. 

In 1938, the Prize was awarded to the International Office for Refugees. However the short list for the following year included one Adolf Hitler. Now, while this seems bizarre today with over seventy years of hindsight, the German Fuhrer was greatly popular as an international figure in 1938. He was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1938 and most of the horrendous crimes against humanity for which he is known today were yet to be committed. His desire for continental conquest was well known. So was his racism. Yet the Committee somehow saw him as a peace-loving man worthy of their shortlist.

In 1973, the Peace prize was given to both Henry Kissinger & Le Duc Tho for negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, a war they escalated into Cambodia through Operation Menu and that ended up taking the lives of over 2 million Vietnamese people. Earlier in 1971, the NY Times published the Pentagon Papers that detailed the deception campaign of the Nixon/Kissinger cabal to keep the public uninformed about their war machinations. Whether this history was considered when the Nobel Committee decided on the Prize is anybody’s guess. But as a double dose of irony, on September 11th 1973, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon and the CIA would concoct a coup to overthrow the democratically-elected President of Chile: Salvador Allende. And the co-winner of the Prize, Le Duc Tho would refuse it because he did not believe the end of the war with the US meant peace for his country and continued fighting against the south vietnamese until 1975.

In 1960 the Prize went to Albert Lutuli, the ANC President.

In 1964 the Prize went to Martin Luther King, jr.

However Mahatma Gandhi was short-listed five times in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, 1948, but never won. Yet Yasser Arafat & Menachem Begin won The Prize.

In a final tidbit of historical WTF moments, George W. Bush & Tony Blair were both short-listed for The Prize in 2002. So was Hamid Karzai who the British-Pakistani writer Tariq Ali refers to (jokingly, I am sure) as “The Great Puppet of Kabul.”

So this is the history that gave us this year’s selection of Barack Obama.

The Committee said it was for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” But the obvious reply based on the facts of the last 8 months would be: “He has done nothing of the sort!” In a Q&A that followed the announcement, the choice was clarified as a way of nudging Obama to continue the work he started on nuclear non-proliferation and re-including the US in the community of nations.

 Right.

 If Obama is working so hard at worldwide peace-making, why was White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs waffling this week trying to explain why Obama did not seem to want to meet…of all people…The Dalai Lama. Amnesty USA even reported that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decided that China’s human rights record will not top her China agenda. Could all of this dillying and dallying have less to do with peace between China and Tibet and more to do with the $1 trillion dollars the US owes China or the commercial relations that need to be maintained there?

Many have pointed to the recent talks with Iran, the US decision to scrap a European Missile Defense system and the fact that Obama chaired a UN Security Council meeting on Nuclear Non-Proliferation. While those are worthy noises that are a breath of diplomatic fresh air when compared to the idiotic bombast of the previous occupant of the White House, they do not constitute anything worthy of an international prize. It is important to note that Iran has not stopped developing nuclear weapons as a result of anything Obama did or said. On the contrary, because of the recent threats and demands, Iran has actually developed new Uranium enrichment sites. There is also no indication that Russia has reduced its stockpiles of weapons or is prepared to do so because of any action Obama has undertaken either.

The record of the US itself under Obama is still dismal, if peace on earth is the goal. The United States is still occupying two sovereign countries: Iraq and Afghanistan. And one of the first orders Obama issued when his Afghanistan strategy was announced, was to order the deployment of 21,000 new US troops to Afghanistan. And if he is to act on General Stanley McChrystal’s recent request, many more thousands of US soldiers will be shipping out to Afghanistan in the coming weeks and months. Renditions are still taking place. Guantanamo is still open and may not close next year as Obama originally promised. But even if it does close, the Bagram prison in Afghanistan will remain open. And on the same day the Nobel Committee was rewarding Obama, it was announced that the US is preparing a $15 billion military buildup in the Pacific island of Guam.

Some have indicated that Obama’s overtures to the Muslim World have swayed the Nobel Committee. But while Obama has made two speeches in the capitals of two majority-Muslim countries (Turkey and Egypt), he has done nothing to act on any of what he spoke of in the speeches. Netanyahu is still expanding Israeli settlements into Palestinian territory without any fear of US repercussions. Women still can’t drive in Saudi Arabia, a strong US ally. Hamas is still being its violent self. And just as a way of extending more olive branches all around the Middle East, the US has used its position in the UN Human Rights Council to both undermine the Goldstone Commission Report on the Israeli assault on Gaza and force Mahmud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership to defer its adoption.

Finally, to those who say the Nobel Prize is a “down-payment on Obama”, one can just as well say: sometimes down payments can be for purchases that turn out to be worthless.

Maybe one day President Barack Obama will do enough to deserve this prize. We all hope so, given his power as the leader of the so-called Free World. But so far, the amazing promise that drove thousands to fill Grant Park in Chicago on November 4th last year, has only translated into Bush-Lite policies and in the words of one former presidential candidate, “lipstick on a pig.” The Nobel Committee should have spent more time examining the dirty spots on the pig’s back before falling in love with the lipstick.

There’s been a lot of talk about the role and size of government recently. Some of those opposed to Obama’s healthcare reform attempts do so because they do not believe that a “big government” is a good thing for them or for the country.

Obama himself in a recent 60 Minutes interview on CBS saw the arguments about the size of government as “what defines left and right” in the US. So the standard narrative goes something like this: Conservatives believe in small government, individual freedom and private enterprise. And Liberals believe in human rights and the maintenance of something called “the common good” that government is in charge of ensuring. Hence “big government” is a Liberal thing and small government ensures that the power of the “free market” is released. “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Ronald Reagan used to say.   

Well, after many decades of Reaganism and I would argue Reaganism taken further than Reagan himself took it, it has become self evident that some of these ideas that grew into maxims should be quietly retired.  

The 80s were the heady days of “greed is good.” Financial regulations tumbled. Unions were smashed. The social safety net that up to that point had been the accepted norm in most of the Industrialized West was being questioned and revamped in the US, Britain and then later in the decade, in Canada when the Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney came to power.

When the 90s rolled around and the Clintons came to Washington, again the question of the size of government came back on the table when Hillary attempted to reform the US health insurance system. For the remainder of the 1990s in much of the West (with the exception of the usual suspects in Europe, i.e. Sweden, France,etc…) however, it looked like Reaganism had triumphed. This was the era of Globalization and it was inevitable. Even supposedly Left-of-Centre leaders like Tony Blair accepted that definition.

“The temptation [today] is to use government to try to protect ourselves against the onslaught of globalization by shutting it out, to think we protect a workforce by regulation, a company by government subsidy, an industry by tariffs. It doesn’t work today, because the dam holding back the global economy burst years ago,” he wrote .

Well after the debacle of Enron, World Comm and more recently Lehmann Bros, Bear Stearns, AIG, Bank of America and others, after the non-action of the Bush Administration following Huricane Katrina, after 9/11, after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it is safe to say some amount of government intervention would have alleviated those crises early on and a significant amount of government involvement after the crises prevented an abject collapse. Government, it turned out was not the problem. Government actually ended up contributing significantly to the solution. Alan Greenspan that now somewhat disgraced Dean of American Finance recognized in his mea culpa in front of the US Congress that he was wrong in assuming that the self interest of the  banks would allow them to protect their own shareholders.

For individual citizens too, government plays a major role and those who deride it in effect minimize their own power to effect change in their society. After all, in democratic societies, working within the constitutions and charters that oversee our systems, we elect leaders to represent us and we are expected to keep them honest throughout their terms in office. We have that power and responsibility. If our societies were fully run by corporations as some in the Libertarian circles would have it, our power would not be dictated by the mere fact of our citizenship, but by the size of our wallet; i.e. how many widgets produced by a given corporation can we buy? how many voting shares do we have in a corporation that controls a given aspect of our existence?

So for the working stiff or even for the working rich, governments are not the enemy. And a society where they are rendered powerless makes most of the population equally powereless.

We were probably wrong to believe that he was a revolutionary candidate. But after 8 years of Bush who could blame us?

Obama ran as a centrist candidate with a radical message. His Healthcare plan even then was not what most Progressives would have agreed with. Single-Payer it definitely wasn’t. His economic plan was a wishy-washy amalgam of clean energy/regulating Wall Street/Re-negotiating NAFTA. After the debacle of the subprime mortgage meltdown, a proper economic plan would have involved a revamping of the financial system, a requirement that Congress institute stringent regulations on investment firms and eliminate the possibility of other bailouts because of a “too big to fail” status. But again Progressives bought it because the alternative was too dreadful to even contemplate. So they campaigned for the Land of Lincolner.

Now after more than 6 months in power, after the novelty has worn off, after months of “Yes We Can!” should have become “Yes Let’s Do It!”, we all realize that the person that we supported from near and far is really a centrist who plays a Progressive on TV.

Barack Obama is a middle-of-the-road, serial compromiser President. He will probably remain that way for the remainder of his term unless his voting base forces him to become something else. And so since he’s been in power, he’s enacted middle-of-the-road compromises:

1- Bailout of the banks when the banking system as it was shaped with its reward of speculation was the root cause of the crisis

2-A continuation of the US presence in Afghanistan that is less and less justifiable.

3-Indefinite detention of some Guantanamo prisoners

4-Bagram re-christened as the new Guantanamo

4-Continuous unquestioned support for Israel, even if in speeches there is some scolding

5-Now, a poorly presented, badly worded and overall incoherent healthcare plan that keeps the basic problem in place: the profit motive. 

Nobody should have to make a profit from the illness of others.

Healthcare is not a product like Nike tee-shirts or Snickers chocolate bars and sick people are not mere consumers. This is precisely why most industrialized nations have single-payer systems or some highly regulated private system (Switzerland for instance). Embedded in that is the recognition of the fact that every citizen is entitled to decent heathcare irrespective of their financial worth. There is also a recognition of the fact that we cannot pretend to be simply buying a healthcare product when we are in the dizzying, worried, anxious, scared state most people are in when they walk into a hospital.

The profit motive is the elephant in the room of the healthcare debate. 

But Senate and congressional Democrats, many of the ones (like California’s Henry Waxman) who believe in single-payer, say they don’t have the votes to pass single-payer so they took it off the table. They’re not even sure they have the votes to pass a bill with the Public Option. “Then get the votes!”, one is almost tempted to shout. What happened to fighting for what is right? Who said “Change we can believe in” was easy? Why vote for officials who only settle for the possible and never dare to even entertain a belief in what at first glance appears impossible? What happened to the America that saw a shining Republic through the barrel of an 18th century English cannon? what happened to the courage that saw the Voting Rights Acts through the racist eyes of a Ku Klux Klan hood? What about the 40-hour work week? universal suffrage? None of those things seemed possible at first. The congressmen, senators and citizens of those days didn’t have the votes. But they fought for the votes. They lobbied, they bargained, they argued, many died. What happened to that spirit?

Some of us believed that “Yes We Can!” wasn’t just a campaign slogan.

So there he was, concluding an almost perfect news conference where he made the case for Health Care Reform to the American people; the perfect steak was ready to be served to the media masses for public consumption. The apprentice cook, six months into his training looked to have mastered the recipe.  Then at the last minute, he decided to add a little sizzle, just to “jazz things up a bit”.

The next day the masses cried foul. The steak was too salty, too much pepper, too much coriander, not enough this, too much that. What was that sizzle? What colour was it? where did he get it from? Was the cook born in the US? Should he have held that salt-shaker like that? 

Nobody talked about the steak.

Obama, the “post-racial president”, walked right into the Henry Louis Gates minefield and subsequently killed the very headlines he was trying to create around health care reform. Irrespective of the circumstances of the Gates affair, he shouldn’t have waded into it at all. Not this time.

Race is an important subject in American politics. It has always been, since the creation of the union. But Healthcare is critical to America’s survival as an economic powerhouse. And any attempt to reform it should not be held back by the same tired arguments that have always held back important discussions in American politics. The ballooning individual and national healthcare costs, the growing number of uninsured Americans and the sheer shame for a country so rich, yet still reliant on groups like Remote Area Medical  should have prevented Obama from discussing anything but healthcare during that press conference. But he did and gave the 24-hour news channels 24 hours of nonsensical material to regurgitate back to the dumbed-down masses.

Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr would have been fine. He was fine even before the news conference started. He went on the Gayle King Show, he would have gone on other shows to discuss the matter of his arrest and any ramifications or national discussions that were meant to be had. He didn’t need Obama’s help. Racial discussions are  a tricky affair, which is precisely why Obama avoided them for most the campaign until his former Pastor forced him to confront them. Why he chose to engage this time is anybody’s guess.

But in one sense the distraction was useful. It gave some of us time to read the fine prints and peruse the back pages to realize that although Obama discussed reforming the Health Care system, what both congress and the Senate are proposing does not amount to much reform because it does not eliminate the cancer at the heart of the system: the profit motive.

Nobody should be allowed  to make a profit when the health of human beings is involved. That is precisely why all industrialized nations either have a single payer public healthcare system or a heavily regulated private one where the profit motive has been neutralized.

If the purpose of running for office is to acquire power and if the purpose of acquiring power is to do some sort of lasting public good with it, then it would be fair of the American people to expect Pres. Barack Obama’s report card to show significant accomplishments by the time the 2010 congressional elections roll in.

After today’s announcement of Al Franken  as the winner of last November’s Minnesota Senate race, the Democrats now have 60 senate seats and 257 congressional seats, more than enough to push through the Democratic President’s agenda. Any fears of a filibuster have now been eliminated. There is no longer a need to court Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins or any other so-called moderate Republican. The Democrats, if they only allow themselves to agree can now bring Americans single-payer Universal Healthcare, enact proper regulations of the financial industry, withdraw troops from Iraq, withdraw troops from a useless war in Afghanistan, confirm Sotomayor to the Supreme Court and much more…

But I suspect very few of those things will happen. Obama is a serial compromiser and Democrats and Progressives in general relish argument and debate even when it stands in the way of useful  and valuable accomplishments. And that’s probably going to be the Legacy of the 111th Congresss: immense possibilities but very few tangible results. I would love to eat my words in a few months but I don’t think I will.

Obama made his long-awaited address to the “Muslim World” today. He made a similar address to the Turkish parliament back in April, but this was THE speech that Obama promised to give even before he got elected. It was supposed to be the speech that launches “the new beginning”, the new relationship between the US and the over 1.5 billion Muslims of the world.

The reactions to the speech so far have been mixed although many have praised the gesture. One could argue that any gesture made after the bluster and belligerant “with us or against us” approach of the Bush administration would have been welcome.

So let’s dissect some of the points of the speech and weigh them against the reality on the ground.

Obama warned Palestinians against the use of violence to fight the occupation and scolded the Israelis about the continuous building of settlements. While both points are valid on their faces, they are merely words in the face of the daily tribulations of both camps in this conflict. After all, what are the Palestinians to do in the face of the daily humiliations of the occupation administered in great part with US-supplied weaponry? Should they simply offer the other cheek and hope that their oppresors will see the light? History shows us that although violence in of itself has never allowed a liberation movement to succeed, it has always been a component of the struggle from colonial Africa to India to the US  to Cuba to South-Africa. Ignoring that fact is simply choosing to float in a Hope cloud.

As for the settlements, just this week, Netanyahu was reiterating that his government will continue building settlements, this after  US Secretary of State Clinton and Obama himself indicated the US government’s disapproval of such acts. Would the Israeli government be sanctioned by having its aid withheld? If not, what will be the actual repercussions of continuing to build on occupied land and thereby establishing what Ariel Sharon used to call “facts on the ground” that will stand in the way of any future peace deal?

Obama spoke of the US leaving Iraq and not wanting “bases or claim on their territory or resources”. So why is the US building what looks very much like permanent bases all over the country (see map) and the most fortified embassy in the region? Will Obama request a repeal of all the oil laws that the Bush administration pushed Iraqis leaders to adopt? Surely economically, given its dependence on Mid-East oil, the US could not afford such a move. So does that not indicate that any exit from Iraq would merely be a departure of troops but a peservation of  some form of control that would guarantee that the Iraqi pumps remain open to US tankers? Would that be “leaving Iraq to the Iraqis?”

On the issue of Iran and nuclear weapons, Obama said that “no nation should pick and choose which nations have nuclear weapons” and he reiterated the standard US position demanding that Iran “comply with its responsibilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)”. The unspoken part of this argument of course is that Israel has nuclear weapons, but is not a signatory to the NPT. Neither is Pakistan which also has nuclear weapons and is a US ally. So the sin of Iran seems to be that it chose to sign a treaty under which it can now be scolded for doing what other nations do and get rewarded for with US military aid.

On women’s rights,  religious tolerance and human rights, Obama merely repeated platitutes that cannot be taken seriously given the continuous US support for the regimes of the Middle East that deny those very rights to their citizens. What’s the value of hopeful words about freedom spoken by a US president in a place like Egypt where Hosni Mubarak has been waging war against hopeful freedom advocates for almost 30 years with US support? What’s the value of hopeful words when the Saudi monarchs have been stifling the hopes of women in their kingdom for generations with the complete acquiescence of US presidents? Why talk when the US president has so many levers he can pull to force action?

Obama can be praised for making the trip, appearing concilliatory and more importantly acknowledging some facts that although  known for years by all, were never publicly accepted by a sitting US president; namely the US involvement in the overthrow of the democratically elected former president of Iran Mohammed Mossadegh. But to use that very American expression, “where’s the beef?”

Obama spoke eloquently and forcefully in Cairo as Obama almost always does. However, Obama the presidential candidate has to quickly morph into Obama the leader of the so-called “Free World”  and resist the use of speeches as substitutes for tangible policy changes.

You’ve probably heard it spouted by many a right-winger out there. Socialism! Obama is a Socialist! We’re becoming socialists! And perhaps the tone makes it sound like”we all have leprosy now!” 

Well, at its core socialism sprang from the need to have more egalitarian societies. Its recent origins can be traced to the Industrial Revolution and the ravages it caused to the working class while the owning class prospered. Attempting to create more egalitarian societies is not flawed in of itself. The need to have all members of  society treated justly and fairly is not unreasonable in of itself. 

Socialism, like capitalism, like communism, like any ism in fact has its shortcomings and its flaws. But one must not accept the blanket characterization that the mere whiff of it is bad for a country.

So Obama and many western leaders think at this stage of our progress, it is best for the state to own the means of production in some sectors. Why not? Big deal! The private sector made a fine mess while it controllled our lives over the past many years so maybe a different, perhaps steadier hand is required.

I for one don’t think it is a bad idea. Not for the short term anyway until we figure out where we’re headed.

Obama’s Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was pushing a new Administration line this week-end on Face The Nation.  Speaking of Rush Limbaugh, he said he is: “the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party.” Got that? Rush Limbaugh, a radio talk show host is being presented as the intellect of America’s opposition party. The point of this positioning is to minimize the force of any ideas coming from Limbaugh and therefore from The Right. In addition, because Rush Limbaugh came out and said he wanted President Obama to fail, he can be easily presented as the antagonistic republican who loathes his country so much so that he does not even wish its president well. This is briliant from the Democrats given that beyond saying “NO” to everything the White House proposes and beyond pushing their usual “Tax cuts and Small Government” line, the GOP has nothing to offer after 8 years of Bush/Cheney.

 Now some have dismissed Rush, but it seems everytime a Republican does, he ends up coming back to apologize for the offence. This week-end, Michael Steele the new RNC chairman had to come back on his words after he called Rush “simply an entertainer”, then Minority Whip Eric Cantor , then Bobby Jindal joined the fray hailing Limbaugh as a “great leader for conservatives.”  This, on the heels of his dismal rebuttal to Obama’s Almost-State of the Union address last week.

Just in case you thought the loss last November did not rattle republicans, chew on this: Sarah Palin is still polling higher than most other conservatives leaders.

If only the mid-term elections could be helf today, the Democrats might be well on their way to getting that filibuster-proof Senate.

What are Western soldiers doing in Afghanistan? Is it to “reconstruct” the country as some of our leaders keep telling us? Is it to root out Bin Laden? Does it matter still? Is it in preparation for the impending takeover of Pakistan by the Taliban? Is it to act as a potential shield given the tensions between the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and India and their WMDs?

Listening to recent pronouncements from our leaders, one wonders.

First President Barack Obama admitted to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) in a recent interview that a “win” in Afghanistan (I am paraphrasing here) meant preventing the country from becoming a launching pad for attacks on the US and its allies. That is a very scaled down version of the lofty goal of George W. Bush which was among other things transplanting democracy to the Land of Burqas and Poppies.  

Then this week-end, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, speaking to Fareed Zakaria of CNN said: “Frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency! ” Now that is as blunt as anybody can get. Then there are the increasingly reluctant European allies who view this mission as similar to that other doomed one in Iraq.

So why is the West in Afghanistan given all these parameters?

I will venture some explanations here although as a word of caution, I don’t accept these as valid reasons for stationing thousands of troops in a foreign country. I simply think this is what is guiding our leaders’ decisions. So here goes…

I think first there is the WMD factor. India and Pakistan are at loggerheads over Kashmir and other recent entanglements including the Mumbai attacks. Pakistan is increasingly shaky given the military’s power over the executive branch and the Intelligence services’ links to insurgent groups. So since the worse case scenario of this situation is either a nuclear Pakistan leaking secrets to insurgents or a nuclear Pakistan going after a nuclear India, the West deeems it necessary to be present and ready to intervene. Here’s why this does not work however: preventing any conflict between these two countries is a matter of diplomacy. There is no military deterence for nuclear armed enemies. The presence of foreign troops in either of these countries has in the past only served to rally the population againts the foreigners viewed as “invaders”.

2- The perenial “let’s get them there so we don’t have to fight them here” argument: The Taliban is based in Afghanistan & Pakistan. Al Qaeda and other affiliate terror groups are also based in the Middle-East. So if they were to be fought and destroyed as units there, they will cease to be a threat to the West in the West. This argument works if one assumes that the Taliban, Al Qaeda and all the other groups that hold a deep hatred of Western societies are units that once destroyed in a specific geographic location can essentially be eliminated and prevented from threatening societies anywhere. Ever. This assumption however ignores centuries of colonial adventures that prove the exact opposite. Nihilistic organizations or ones that view their mission as their people’s overarching cause tend to be very loosely structured. The guiding principle being their message. Once it catches on, leaders can be killed or jailed, bases can be ransacked, the message lives on. It becomes like a virus that can only be completely destroyed if all the infected victims are located, except as more are located, more are infected.  Think of the FLN in Algeria in the 1960s or the Mau Maus in Kenya in the 1950s or the ANC in South Africa or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser.  Insurgencies work because of their knowledge of  the terrain, of the language, of the culture and customs and their overall ability to hide or resurface depending on the conditions on the ground.  The history of Afghanistan is the blatant proof. That is perhaps why Stephen Harper recognized that they cannot be defeated in their own countries. So one has to wonder: why risk resources and lives trying when there are more pressing problems at home?

Some people have been enquiring about these…

Pres. Obama's brother Mark Ndessandjo - He lives in China

Pres. Obama's brother Mark Ndessandjo - He lives in China

 

The Obamas wedding

The Obamas wedding

 

Obama's half brother Bernard Obama (in red)

Obama's half brother Bernard Obama (in red)

Pres. Obama and his Kenyan grandmother Sarah Hussein

Pres. Obama and his Kenyan grandmother Sarah Hussein

Pres. Obama with his American grandparents

Pres. Obama with his American grandparents

Now if you want more,… the Chicago Sun Times did an elaborate album on the Kansas side of President Obama’s family here:

Well, it had to come to this. A party with as much history and pride as the Republican party does not simply wither away and die in silence. 

Republican Judd Gregg withdrew today as Obama’s chosen Commerce Secretary. And in case you were stuck in No-TV-No-Radio-No-Internet-No-Newspaper-land, Obama has had significant difficulties getting his stimulus package passed in the Senate with Republican opposition. Seen from a distance this would appear to simply be Washington working in as partisan a manner as Washington usually does. But an alternate explanation could also be proposed here. It could be argued that Republicans have strategically decided to go to war with Obama and have bet many re-elections on this stance. The goal of this approach could be to run on an  anti-Obama, anti-Pelosi, anti-Harry Reid platform in the mid-term elections then gain enough ground in 2010 to reconstruct themselves along some sort of coherent set of policies that would have, by then been crystalized.

This can be deduced from the following:

1-Rush Limbaugh goes on air to say he wants Obama to fail. Now regardless of party affiliation, it would be normal to assume that citizens want their president to succeed, especially in difficult economic times when the economic welfare of the nation is what he has at heart. So to clearly take the opposite stance means one only cares to protect the purity of their ideology. Because success for Obama (and for the nation as a result) would mean success for his ideas, liberal ideas and therefore defeat for the opposite propositions. Limbaugh and his ilk want none of that, even if the country goes up in flames in the process.

2-No Republicans vote for the Stimulus in congress and only 3 usually “convincable” ones in the Senate.

After 8 years of  G. W. Bush tax cuts for the rich, over-inflated federal government, a country endebted to China for possibly a generation, 2 wars and many unresolved conflicts around the world, one would assume that the Republicans would accept that some of their stalwart propositions have failed and should be retired. Tax cuts alone do not stimulate an economy, especially when they are targetted at the upper class that does not need the help. Financial industries need regulations. A state cannot rely on the self-interest of bankers to protect the national economic interest. Self-interest has a way of being very selfish.  Perpetual war-making as a way of taming foreign populations cannot be a substitute for real diplomacy, that is, talking to others.

But apparently that message has not gotten through yet. Dick Cheney even out of office is still metaphorically shooting people in the face. Senate and house Republicans continue to push for tax cuts and small governement as THE solutions.

3-The timing of Judd Gregg’s withdrawal. More here…

So what should Obama do?

Don’t fight back. You only end up covered in mud which is what Republicans want. Obama has campaigned on “Change” and bipartisanship. He should stick to his current approach as long as he has an advantage in the house and some room to maneuvre in the Senate. Mid-term elections will dictate in which direction the citizenry wants him to take the nation.

Ok let me pull an Obama here: “I screwed up!”

I wrote a few days ago that I thought Tom Daschle would be confirmed as HHS Secretary despite his problems. Well, we all know what happened yesterday.

I also said I thought having a Republican as Commerce Secretary would allow the Dems to finally get their filibuster proof senate majority because the NH governor would appoint a Democrat.

 Ooops!!!

Well, there is much to repair for the Obama administration with the stimulus package in danger of not passing in the Senate, a new tax-compliant HHS Secretary to find and the Mid-East always on the verge of exploding. And with the unemployment numbers for January coming out on Friday there will be even more alarming data to chew on. But negative situations create the best Presidents: Lincoln had the Civil War, FDR had the Great Depression and WWII, Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs. If Obama manages to get the US out of its current jam, future bloggers will be adding the following phrase to that list I just presented: “Obama had the Economic meltdown of  2008/2009”.

Well, another Obama nominee ran into trouble over unpaid taxes. According to the AP, “Former Senator Tom Daschle filed amended tax returns to report $128,203 in back taxes and $11,964 in interest.” This is to cover back taxes for 2005, 2006 an 2007. This after he was picked by Obama to head the Health Services Department and once the transition team discovered the discrepancy.  This is the exact same issue that arose for Tim Geithner the now Treasury Secretary. This may be less of an issue for Daschle, a veteran of the Senate that many see as highly competent and a diligent public servant. So I think this issue may be a small setback, but he will be confirmed.

The Obama team is also looking the Commerce Secretary post vacated since Bill Richardson withdrew. Late reports from ABC and CNN are now indicating that Republican Senator Judd Gregg from New Hampshire is the front runner for the post. If this is confirmed on Monday, it would be a case of really smart politics for the Obama administration. Because the departure of Gregg would force New Hampshire governor John Lynch , a Democrat to make an appointment. With the shenanigans of the Franken-Coleman race yet to be resolved in Minnesota, this will bring the Democrats closer to the filbuster-proof 60 seats.

Stay tuned…

Obama was on The Hill today trying to sell his stimulus plan. The administration hopes to get more than a few Republicans on board so as to have the bill pass resoundingly in both houses. Early victories usually envigorate an administration.

Hopes indeed. There is animosity in both camps that will not disappear overnight.  Hard-core Republicans think small government, tax cuts and less regulation are the best way to stimulate an economy.   Hard-core Democrats think spending programs, more regulation and taxes are the best way to empower the government to help “working people”. These basic ideological stances are not gonna change overnight. So Obama will not get his 80 ‘Yea’ votes in the Senate this time around. But the bill will most likely pass easily.

The signal Obama’s visit on The Hill sends however  is good one. It says: “I am here. I am willing to hear you out. Let’s work together!” And as the cliche goes, it is easy to hate somebody from a distance. It gets harder to hate them once you’ve met them or sat across the table from them. That’s what Obama is banking on. He’s hoping to establish the kind of rapport that will make it difficult for lawmakers to simply reject any future White House proposals on ideological grounds.

He’s learning fast. His approach so far seems to be: take every single thing George W. Bush ever did and do the exact opposite. After all when was the last time you saw W. on The Hill… trying to win over Democrats?

Many news outlets including ABC and CNN are reporting that Obama sat for an interview with the Arab channel Al Arabiya earlier today. His Middle-East Special Envoy George Mitchell is also heading to the region to begin talk with the Israelis and Palestinians.

This is good politics for Obama. I think this is part of his charm offensive that started last Tuesday to show a clear break from the Bush administration that essentially gave carte blanche to Israel and did not engage the so-called “Arab or Muslim Street” at all. Whether this translates into anything  substantial in the short term is anybody’s guess.  As CBS’s 60 Minutes reported last night, both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict are working hard to establish what George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon once called “facts on the ground” that would essentially kill the two-state solution. For Israelis, that means VIP roads, settlements, more settlements and the separation wall in the West Bank (called a “fence” by some political-correctness advocates). For Palestinians, that means procreation. Because having more children per family would generate what has been dubbed the “demographic advantage”, essentially destroying the notion of a Jewish State. Even Lybia’s Muammar Qaddafi was proposing a one-state solution in an op-ed in the NY Times on the week-end albeit with a complete right of return for the Palestinian refugees.

Some have wondered why Obama would want to meddle in this conflict right now when he has the US economy on the ropes and he needs some victories in congress  for some of his proposals. I say if there is a chance of a solution at all, it better be proposed now or the parties have to start working on it now. Any solution will be a difficult one, full of compromises on both sides. In addition, it will take time to be accepted and local leaders, Israelis and Palestinians will have to sell it to their constituencies and eventually implement it. So it is better to start now when Obama’s approval rating is high across the globe.

In addition to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is the matter of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; there is the Mubarak dictatorhip in Egypt that lingers and fails to provide any support in any of the issues of the region when it could do so much; there is Iran flexing its muscles. And there is Syria, always an unavoidable piece because of its control of Lebanon and its support for other groups including Hamas.

Obama has his hands full. But goodwill, the kind Obama enjoys at the moment can go a long way towards opening even the most stubborn of hearts.

I found this pic on flicker and I think it properly captures my sentiments on this historic day:obamamessage1

official bbama presidential portrait

official obama presidential portrait

This is the official presidential portrait as released by the Obama transition team. The amazing fact of the US having elected its first African-American president will really hit home when people walk into US embassies abroad on January 21st and see this face staring back at them.

Tim Geithner the former President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank  and Obama’s choice for Treasury Secretary is under hot water today and his confirmation appears to be less of a fait accompli than one would have thought a few weeks ago.

Apparently Geithner employed a housekeeper whose immigration papers expired for a few months. He also had some back taxes that he only paid to the IRS after the Obama vetting team discovered the issue. As Treasury Secretary, he will oversee the IRS.

Not a big deal one might say, but there are other issues surfacing about Geithner tenure at the New York Fed. Politico is reporting that under Geithner’s watch, companies like CitiGroup which were supposed to be held to the highest regulatory standard were allowed to  blow “billions on subprime mortgages and other risky deals that ultimately forced the biggest bank rescue in U.S. history.” If he could not keep an eye on these companies in his home state, how would he handle it at the national level?

Will any of this hamper his confirmation? probably not because of the dire economic circumstances. Nobody on The Hill wants the country to go on too long without anybody steering the the economy.  But when added to the Bill Richardson withdrawal and the Blagojevich/Burris shenanigans it presents some distractions that some Republicans could latch on to. 

Then again, maybe the inauguration celebrations will overshadow a lot of this and set the Obama ship smoothly sailing along.

Andrew Cohen has a piece in today’s (Monday Jan 12th) New York Times highlighting the lack of Arabs or Persians in Obama’s possible Middle-East negotiating team. In fact, not only does this team not include any Arabs or Persians, it is made almost exclusively of American Jews. This fact was also highlighted by Joe Klein of Time Magazine.

Although this team has not been officialized yet, if it remains as expected, it will be yet another way Obama will showcase the fact that his “change you can believe in” is more of a “change you can dream about”.

I just read Paul Krugman’s blog post on Sanjay Gupta as a possible Surgeon General. It was such sweet relief to realize that I was not alone in holding the man in low esteem ever since that spat with Michael Moore over the facts in the documentary Sicko.

Don’t get me wrong. I do have my issues with Michael Moore as well as with his film. But overall, on the facts, he was right about what ails the US healthcare system. Gupta as a Medical correspondent for CNN was supposed to critique the film and as in most critiques, highlight factual errors, exaggerations, looseness with the truth and overall provide as objective an opinion as is expected of a journalist about the film. He did none of that. His review was such a hatchet job that Moore had to provide point by point rebuttals on his website and even in the “debate” between the two that took place on Larry King Live, Gupta kept on repeating his falsehoods aided by the talking corpse himself who forgot that his job was to moderate. 

After watching that, I wondered what justified Gupta’s review of the movie. Was it personal? It couldn’t be. He was (and is) a university professor, a neurosurgeon, a former special adviser to then First Lady Hillary Clinton. Why would he pick on Michael Moore? Was it ideological? Was he one of those free-market conservatives who just hate “socialized medicine”? Gupta did not seem to have an ideological bend. Then maybe it was a professional issue; Gupta as a Doctor in the US Healthcare system that was being attacked, also felt attacked and wanted to strike back.  Well, not quite either. After all, many other American doctors who work dutifully in the US system recognize its shortcomings and do not get any flack for speaking up about it.

So why was Gupta so opposed to Sicko to the point of fudging facts and journalistically botching a review? I could only draw the same conclusion Krugman has drawn. Gupta was perfectly happy with getting “things  wrong in a socially acceptable way.” In other words, he was aware of the public mood on the issue and he chose to align his critique to that socially acceptable opinion irrespective of the facts. This is the kind of behavior pathological social-ladder climbers learn to perfect early. This is typical of  what the Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul calls a “courtier” or a “Voltaire bastard”; a man who either has no opinions of his own or is perfectly happy to substitute them with anything that can advance his career, create new friends that can advance his carreer or open doors to new careers or new revenues. That is unfortunately also a character flaw in my book.

 Now, Sanjay Gupta may be very qualified to be Surgeon General. I do not know. I am not qualified to make that judgement. What are the required qualifications for that job, anyway? But one thing is certain. A Surgeon General of United States should have a closer relationship with facts than Sanjay Gupta does. He or she should certainly hold opinions backed by empirical evidence and be willing to stand by those opinions regardless of the public mood. That after all is one of the indicators of a good scientist.

Rachel Sklar called Sanjay Gupta  a dick. I will not do such a thing. But if pushed, I will happily quote Sklar.

obama inauguration pic

obama inauguration pic

Talk about presidential branding!

Boy, how  things just tend to happen when nobody is paying attention, huh!

Let’s see, since most of North America took a break to open presents, eat too much, drink too much and generally stay away from anything of importance, the following important things happened:

1- Israel & Hamas decided to start another mini-war

2-Rod Blagojevich gave the finger to the whole Democratic party by nominating Roland Burris to the US Senate

3-Bill Richardson withdrew as Obama’s Commerce Secretary because of corruption investigations

4-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid more or less reiterated his belief that George W. Bush is the worst President the United States ever had.

5-Obama proposed a ginormous stimulus package with a mix of personal and business tax cuts as well as job creating infrastructure programs.

 6-Roland Burris went to the US Senate and was refused a seat

7-Leon Panetta was mentionned as Obama’s pick for CIA chief much to the chagrin of many including Senate Inteligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein

8-Sanjay Gupta (of CNN fame) was floated as a possible Surgeon General of the United States

9-Al Franken almost won a senate seat in Minnesota

What to say about any of these? Well, maybe one word here and there would do for now. We all just got back,right?

On the Burris issue, I would say either way the Democrats play this, they’re in for a lengthy legal battle unless either Burris chooses to withdraw or is somehow “bought out”. But it seems that by all legal accounts,  as the still governor of Illinois,Rod Blagojevic was fully entitled to make the nomination. How this plays politically though,… well,…

On Richardson withdrawing, it is truly sad, because I would have liked him as Secretary of State instead of Clinton. But in politics, illusions tend to be reality more so than in other environments.  And as such, even talk of an investigation was enough to prevent Richardson from coming back to Washington. Too bad. Hopefully Obama gets a second term and he could serve then.

On Israel and Hamas, I have nothing to add other than this is just another battle in a long war that will never end unless a President of the United States is willing to stake his presidency on resolving the conflict.

Let’s hope Obama is thatPresident.

Happy Holidays to all!

The Obama Transition Team finally releases its report on who contacted Blagojevich. The report is available here.

No surprises that it finds nothing wrong with its actions. This was always a charade anyway. It has no bearing on the legal proceedings and it certainly has nothing to do with Blagojevich’s guilt or innocence. This is more about the Obama team proclaining to the world: “This guy is a scumbag and the worst thing here was that we talked to him!”

Pastor Rick Warren has been invited to speak at Barack Obama’s inauguration and that has sparked some controversy around the blogosphere and the mediasphere. This is because Rick Warren does not hold what could be described as “open-minded views on homosexuality in general and gays and lesbians in particular.

Obama has explained his decision by using his now familiar phrase “we can disagree without being disagreable”  and also mentioning that other religious people with views different from Warren’s have also been invited to speak and this tableau of differing points of views is therefore representative of the diversity that exists in America.

Be that as it may. That was the expected explanation and anyone who has followed Obama’s campaign for the past 2 years could have written those words for him.

I think the real explanation lies elsewhere. Obama is a shrewd politician as his campaigns both during the primaries and the general election illustrate. He knows how to look at the state of affairs and rejig an electoral map to his advantage. He won against Hillary by determining that the caucus states would give him an advantage he could not get in straight primaries in bigger states. So his team went into caucus states early and built local teams that for the most part gave him the delegates he needed. In the general election, he took a page out of the Howard Dean book and decided to forego the Red State/Blue State map that had been set for the past two elections.That strategy gave him wins in traditionally Republican strongholds like Nevada, Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia.

The selection of Rick Warren as a speaker during the 2009 inauguration is the first move of the 2012 re-election campaign of Barack Obama.

 Rick Warren is representative of a section of the Evangelical voters that Obama has courted for most of this campaign. This extended olive branch along with programs like the continuation of Bush’s Faith-based initiative that he annonced earlier in the campaign will show Obama as a Christian who cares about his faith but who is willing to accept other Christians with differing views in the fold. He can then reinforce that message during his presidency through programs, specific speeches, appearances in strategic churches in strategic states,etc,…

In terms of the issue at the center of the controversy, I think it’s too early to tell how the Obama admnistration will handle gay and lesbian issues and I certainly don’t think we can gleam anything from the selection of Rick Warren as an inauguration speaker.

I wrote a post a few days ago questioning the tightness of the case against Blagojevich with respect to the Senate seat sale. Seems the NY Times’s been wondering the same thing …

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/16/us/politics/16legal.html?_r=1

Caroline Kennedy’s name is being mentionned over and over in the media as a potential US Senator to replace Hillary Clinton (D-NY). I don’t really know how I feel about that because I don’t really know that much about Kennedy’s positions on any major issue national or foreign. I just know that she supports the President-Elect and has the kind of instant name recognition any aspiring Hollywood actor would kill for.

So it is neither here nor there for me. The one thing I feel strongly about is the fact that citizens should have a say in these replacements. If a US or State senator resigns or cannot for any reason perform their duties, the constituency should vote on a replacement. It should not be something that is left to a governor. I know there are economic reasons for it and there are logistical ones as well, such as getting candidate nominations in time, giving them time to campaign, debates,etc…

But even if we only had to give candidates three months to campaing for a special election, that would still be better than having somebody nominated. Nominations as Blagojevich made painfully obvious are just another way for governors to reward friends or obtain news ones that would stuff their pockets now or in their future lives as board members of companies in the private sector. There are enough loopholes contributing to the undermining of the political system as it is. This is one that we could easily erase.

In case you missed these tidbits of information, here they are:

1- Bush got a shoe thrown at him by an Iraqi reporter in Baghdad today during a news conference. Read the Huffington Post’s account here:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/12/14/bush-visits-iraq-for-fina_n_150832.html

2-Obama wants to retreat to Chicago during his breaks instead of Crawford Texas or Kennebunkport, Maine and other “exotic” locations. I feel sorry for his neighbours. Then again their property values just went way up last month when Obama won. So they have nothing to complain about.

3-Mccain scolded his fellow Republicans today on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, asking them to focus on the stimulus packages instead of looking for a scandal around Obama’s association with Blagojevich.  Is this the Old-New McCain?

And finally, yesterday’s post on Blago & Obama generated quite a response out there and there were a few things that got misinterpreted on various blogs that referenced my post.  So let me just reiterate the gist of my point:

Rod Blagojevich is a politician; a stupid politician, but a politician nevertheless. His major mistake in this whole scandal was that he allowed himself to be taped while he talked about the misdeeds he wanted to perform.

 Now, while I accept that he was planning illegal acts and fully  disapprove and condemn his plans, I cast them alongside the acts of other politicians everywhere who always make nominations or select accolytes for positions based on previous good deeds. I scratch your back, you scratch mine as the cliche goes. For us simple citizens, it appears improper and it is improper because we vote for these individuals thinking that they will select the best qualified candidates for these jobs and serve the county, the state or the nation to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, many of them are only making sure their mortgages (on all their homes) are paid.

But we must not despair because for every Blagojevich out there, there is an FDR doing his/her best. We have to believe that, otherwise democracy crumbles and we might as well just pack our bags and move to Baghdad where the shoes are still flying high and democracy is laying low.

Illinois Governor Profile

Well, political news for the past week has been dominated by the Big 3 bailout and the Blagojevich scandal. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this scandals holds some lessons or at least some points that need to be fleshed out because they are relevant to the political landscape beyond Illinois.

I-Blagojevich is really accused of doing nothing outside of merely JUST plotting to do something. Most of the tapes that have been made public so far only highlight him (and his wife) talking about what they expected for the nomination of somebody to replace Barack Obama as a US Senator. He did not actually DO anything. So on that front, one could perhaps argue that he’s only guilty of airing out his sleazy thoughts before carrying out the sleazy acts.

II- Even if Blagojevich was actually caught DOING something, that is actually accepting favors for Obama’s Senate seat, although that would be illegal, it would not be in its essence outside of the norm of what politicians do routinely. Let me make this clear: I am not advocating the sale of  Senate seats; what I am saying is that generally speaking, politicians do favors for a reason. There is, for the most part, always an expectation of a payback. It is not written anywhere, sometimes it may be discussed in backrooms between aides or simply assumed, but it happens. Tom Daschle guides Obama through the US Senate. Tom Daschle gets the Health Services Secretary job. Bill Richardson jumps the Clinton ship to the Obama one and turns the news cycle away from the Rev Wright scandal. Bill Richardon gets the Commerce Secretary job. Bill & Hillary Clinton let “friends” stay in the Lincoln bedroom. “Friends” contribute to Bill’s campaign and Hillary’s campaign and Bill’s presidential library. “Major Contributor” makes substantial donation to a candidate’s campaign, “Major Contributor” gets an Ambassadorship in Mexico City, Buenos Aires or Panama City. It is how the game is played. As Blagojevich said in one of the tapes: “you pay to play.” So I guess a plausible argument could be made that Rod Blagojevich’s major flaw was that he played the sometimes ugly game of politics on the phone when he knew he was being recorded.  And that alone should disqualify him as a governor of Illinois.   

III- The good thing about this scandal (if there is such a thing) is that it comes at a time when nothing else outside of the corny “heart-warming” Christmas stories fill the airwaves. It gives us something of a first course before the big turkey which will of course be the Obama inauguration. It also allows us to see how Obama handles distractions. We got a glimpse of that a bit during the campaign with the Jeremiah Wright incident. But this is a President-Elect managing a scandal when he wants us to focus on his appointees and his program for the nation.  So far, I can’t say Obama has passed the test with flying colors. But there is time for learning on the job. After all, scandals are as American as Monica Lewinsky and the ability to proclaim one’s innocence by using a simple and easily graspable phrase like: ” I am not a crook!”

Obama’s transition team has announced that he will hold a press conference tomorrow at 9:30 am ET to discuss Blagojevich,…ummm … I mean healthcare.

Speculation is that Tom Daschle will be unveiled as Health Secretary since he’s been leading the Transition on Healthcare evangelisation.

Stay tuned…

Many of us have been wondering whether the Progressive version of Barack Obama would show up at some point during this transition. We may be forced to wait forever if Steve Hildebrand has his way. Hildebrand is a former Obama adviser who published an op-ed on the Huffington Post today basically telling Progressives to shut the f&*^$ up.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-hildebrand/a-message-to-obamas-progr_b_149089.html

 

Obama “was elected to be the president of all the people – not just those on the left,” he wrote. So stop with the complaining about the appointments and the policy tilt to the center and the pro-business talk in his bailout pronouncements and the appointment of Larry Summers and Paul Volcker and other very pro-Globalization Clintonites.

Thanks.

After 8 years of Bush and  two wars and pro-rich folks, pro-business tax cuts, after Katrina and Guantanamo, after  Rumsfeld’s “free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things”, after Rumsfeld’s “you go to war with the army you have”, after Alberto Gonzalez and Abu Ghraib and fake mushroom clouds to justify real shocks and no awe, after Condi buying shoes in New York while Black people drowned in New Orleans, after Dick dreaming of Iraqis seeing occupiers as liberators, after 8 years of stagnation on the Israeli-Palestinian front, after 8 years of anti-intellectualism, I think it was normal for The Left to expect a Democratic president to be slighly leftist or at least pretend to be for a few months. After all, that wing of the Democratic party gave him the nomination. He ran on an anti-war platform and defeated an establishment candidate mostly on the strength of that argument. Now as is the custom, he wants to “govern from the center” and eventually come back to the leftists in 2012 when their vote will be needed to give him 270 electoral votes. We’ve seen this show before. And ironically it was brought to us by The Man from Hope.

Perhaps Ralph Nader had a point. A third party might be the counterbalance required to keep Democrats on edge so as to get some form of a progressive agenda implemented.

It is early days, but  let’s hope Steve Hildebrand does not really speak for Obama and the reality of his presidency will align with the hopes we held while we cheered him along as he campaigned.

obama_family

 

The Times of London reports today that Barack Obama’s grandfather was a Mau Mau and was abused by the British in the 1950s. This will make for some interesting discussion when Gordon Brown meets the new Prez in the coming months.  There are also lawsuits that have been brought forth by the government of Kenya. I wonder if the Obama family will want to get in on that.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/africa/article5276010.ece

Obama asks political-appointee ambassadors to pack their bags and get ready to depart on January 20th 2009. I guess he’s got his own friends and polical acolytes to reward for supporting him…

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-trail/2008/12/03/obama_gives_political_ambassad.html?hpid=topnews

 

I hope Howard Dean gets an Ambassadorship to Canada, London or Paris. He did some decent work at the DRC and definitely is the godfather of the whole 50-state strategy and the techno driven campaign that propelled Obama to the White House.

Apparently according to Al Franken’s people, they are now ahead by 22 votes in his race with Norm Coleman for a Minnesota Senate seat. This is according to http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/

Stay tuned…

healthcare word cloud

healthcare word cloud

This is from Change.gov. Apparently this is the word cloud showing the 100 most used words when discussing healthcare in America.

Ok…

Obama and Biden were with the governors today insisting on the need to maintain the lines of communication open between the federal executive and the states. Who can blame them? The problems facing the country are “ginormous” and nobody has a perfectly luminous crystal ball. So Obama & Biden will surely take the help wherever they can get it.

More on that here:

http://thepage.time.com/2008/12/02/pawlenty-we-appreciated-meeting-with-obama/

“Rhambo” Emmanuel was also talking today, briefing the press on the activities of his new boss. This is early days, but I know between now and Easter, somebody in the press is gonna be told what Rahm really thinks about them. Ok, I have totally bought into the luminiscence of that crystal ball. But it would certainly give us a small side show for a few days, something we may need from this otherwise very disciplined Obama Team.

Oh two more items:

1-James Steinberg will be named as Deputy Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton at State. Thank God! I was afraid that smug and sometimes arrogant Richard Holbrooke was gonna be back at State. But either way, more Clintonites coming back to their old jobs or something close to that.

2-Bill Richardsom will be officially unveiled tomorrow (Wednesday) as Commerce Secretary. Poor guy! Leaving the sunshine of New Mexico for the Commerce Department after putting his neck on the line for Obama after the jeremiah Wright nonsense.

Oh well, either way it’s back to the future in Obamaland!

Well, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia just won the Senate run-off in that state defeating Jim Martin by 59% to 41%. So it looks like that filibuster-proof senate will remain elusive for Obama.

But fear not. This is probably just  a good thing. Obama campaigned on bipartisanship.  Moving beyond the divisions of yesteryear and brnging the country together. One only hopes he can actually execute on that and try to get a few Republican senators on side for some of his agenda items.

I hate to bring it back to Hillary, but I feel this is where her presence in the Senate could have been useful to work with Ted kennedy to get moderate Republicans like Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar on Obama’s side.

Anyway the actual details on the run-off are available here:

http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/12/02/georgia.senate/index.html

Obama NS Team

Obama NS Team

Well, the National Security team was unveiled today.  No surpises on this list. All the names were already leaked last week.

As this team continues to be presented, I am astounded by the number of old hands coming back to their old departments or related jobs in other departments. Susan Rice (who I like) is back in the mix as she was under Madeleine Albright in the Clinton years. Jim Jones is also back in the mix, so is Eric Holder who was at Justice in the Clinton years and Gates who will probably be the only Bushite to keep his job.

Then there is Hillary…

I have to admit, I have struggled to understand this pick and everyday I fail to see how it makes sense.

One argument advanced is that Obama is trying to heal the wounds of the campaign and further unite the Democratic Party.

I thought that was done already.

The original fear after the primaries was that White women, working class voters and other Hillary supporters were not going to vote for Obama. They did. He won. Hillary herself (along with Bill albeit late) threw her support behind Obama during the campaign. She could help him in the Senate by helping push through his agenda among friends and foes. So why bring her in the inner circle where she could be a disturbance?

The other argument is that Obama is trying to neutralize a threat. Well, he already won the election. How much of a threat was Hillary really going to be in the Senate as the Senator from NY? Was she going to plan a mutiny to unseat a President of her own party? Was she gonna try to run against him seeking re-election in 2012? So what was there to neutralize? I thought any threat was neutralized by the election win? Wouldn’t the best way to neutralize any threat be to simply govern well for four years and thereby make a second term easy to win? Why neutralize Democrats now? If there was somebody to neutralize I would think it would be moderate Republicans such as Tim Pawlenty or Bobby Jindal. If Obama brought Pawlenty or Mitt Romney or even John McCain in his cabinet, he would have essentially left the Republican party to the Sarah Palin small mind, social conservative types and that would almost certainly assure him re-election in four years.  As most analysts concluded in election post mortems, that wing of the Republican party is a dying one.

The last thing commonly mentionned is that Hillary has connections among world leaders that are valuable at State. Well, the Clinton baggage certainly isn’t valuable at State. I mean, notwithstanding all the talk of releasing lists of donors, getting Bill’s speeches vetted by the new White House, etc,… There is always a scandal lurking behind Bill Clinton. And that will sooner than later come out to embarass the Change President. And those world leader connections can be re-established. Obama has some political capital now as the anti-Bush President-Elect that could be leverage towards creating those links. 

And what are we to make of the relegation of Bill Richardson to Commerce Secretary and John Kerry to …well…nothing Obama has to do with but certainly a post of some importance as the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee? These two individuals supported Obama at crucial times in the campaign and their remuneration for that support pale in comparison to the Grand Prize bestowed on Clinton for essentially just being a primary rival.

 Hopefully Obama has planned the workings of this team in his mind. But the clash of egos could become too much for even his Unflappableness Barack to handle. I just hope I eat my words in a few months.

I love the Slate gabfest. Dickerson, Bazelon and Plotz are smart, witty and most of the time very informed on the subjects they discuss. And while you’re on Slate’s website, check out the Culture Gabfest as well.

http://www.slate.com/id/2204120/

And they didn’t even have to slip me a couple of Obamas …umm…Benjamins for this.

The President-elect issues a statement on the attacks in Mumbai. Nothing new in the words, except the usual condemnation. maybe more substantive news to come after the holidays and once more is known about the  reasons for the attacks and the perpetrators.

http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1108/16020.html

While you’re working on that turkey, hear what the Preseident-Elect has to say about the country’s future…

http://change.gov/newsroom/entry/special_preview_of_the_president_elects_thanksgiving_address/

message for obama

No it is not an endorsement. I wouldn’t mean anything anyway if it was.

There is apparently a book of messages for the President-Elect available on blurb.com. Follow the link below.

http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/446172

I don’t know why people bother with these types of things anyway. Presidents usually proceed based on ideology (e.g. Bush) or based on facts for the pragmatists. I think Obama belongs in the latter camp. But blurbs in a random book are not the types of facts that can have any impact on his policies, I would venture… A buck has to be made and egos have to be tickled, I suppose…

On to some serious news: yet another news conference today on the economy and the appointment of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker as chairmain of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Austan Goolsbee a campaign economic adviser and of NAFTA-gate fame, would serve as the board’s staff director and chief economist as well as a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

I guess this is meant to reassure The Street  that all lameduckishness aside, and ofrgetting all this talk of “there is only one president at a time”, Obama is slowly taking charge.

Checkout pics of the Obamas at a Food Bank in Chicago

http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2008/11/26/21425/745/268/666902

The Obamas were on ABC tonight. The video is available here in case you missed it!

http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/President44/story?id=6329959&page=1

Earlier in the ay the whole family was handing out chickens on the South side of Chicago…

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/11/26/obama-familys-thanksgivin_n_146725.html