Archive for the ‘Obama’ Category

The Pope of Hope

CVC_TNY_12_23_13_no_date_580pxAn enduring image for me of the decidedly mixed year that is fast passing away is the whimsical cover illustration of a recent New Yorker magazine of the Jesuit Pope Francis spread eagled in the snow, six-year-old like, creating a snow angel. It seems a perfect image of hope in what has often seemed to be a year marked only by discord, strife and bitterness.

From the partisan breakdown in Washington politics, including the now distant memory of a pointless and costly shutdown of the federal government and the more recent abandonment of unemployment protections and reductions in food stamp benefits for millions of Americans, to the deadly and protracted civil wars in Syria and South Sudan and the near civil war in Iraq, from media fixation on the trivial ignorance of Duck Dynasty and Anthony Weiner to the incompetence of the Affordable Care Act roll out, only Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela seemed able this year to cut through the clutter and address something important.

In a superb profile in the same New Yorker with the Argentine snow angel on the cover, James Carroll offers a nuanced assessment of the still-new Bishop of Rome. Yet you come away from Carroll’s profile and the recent reporting of other Vatican watchers believing – even hoping – that this man is the radical that both his church and the world need. And the word radical is used not in its usual polarizing political context of right vs. left, but rather in the context of a moral and spiritual leader who recognizes the need for fundamental change both in tone and substance.

Carroll recounts that the Pope is “a large man with a ready smile” who preaches with fervor and with questions. “What kind of love do we bring to others? . . . Do we treat each other like brothers and sisters? Or do we judge one another?”

Elsewhere it is reported that President Obama sees the surprising Pope as an ally with like-minded notions about the need to shrink the gulf between the world’s rich and poor. However, what Francis has and Obama struggles to obtain may make the Pope a better mentor than a kindred soul. After two successive leaders of the Catholic Church who placed a premium on doctrinaire obedience by the church and its leaders to a our-way-or-the-highway view of social issues like gay rights, contraception and abortion, the new pope seems determined to reform the Catholic bureaucracy and turn the church’s message in a new and better direction with both his words and his deeds.

Symbols are important, as presidents from Lincoln to Reagan have taught us, and Pope Francis seems to instinctively grasp that truth. He has mostly abandoned the Popemobile for a small car, lives in a two room apartment rather than the Vatican penthouse, shuns the red loafers and ermine capes, and, yes, he kisses babies. He has attacked the bloated and corrupt Vatican bureaucracy like a born-again political reformer and dismissed some bishops and scolded others for forgetting – or ignoring – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The spirit of careerism,” Francis warned a recent gathering of new bishops, “is a form of cancer.” And he possessed of enough self-awareness – an indispensable political attribute  – not to shield himself from criticism. “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others,” he wrote in recently, “I too must think about a conversion of the papacy.” That sounds a good deal like a radical with a plan laying the groundwork for a new direction.

One suspects that Francis also is a strategic enough political thinker to understand the value of surprise, the power of the unexpected gesture. As a 76-year old with only one lung Francis could easily have been a caretaker pope, but he’s been anything but so far. Rather he seems like a man in a hurry, at least in the context of a church that is defined by glacial change, who realizes he may not have much time to change things. So, with the surprise of his symbols and the courage of his convictions the pope, it seems to me, is executing on a grand strategy.

First he must change the focus of the church from a hectoring, secretive institution that has become comfortable with constantly saying “NO” to one that actually speaks of its real purpose, which is to serve the poor, seek justice, be inclusive even with non-believers, and advocate for peace. Once that moral authority is established and the bureaucracy is better under control he can move on to even more controversial issues.

One of the many remarkable things this new pope has done is to be gentle with the man he replaced. Under different circumstances and with a different leader having the previous Pope Benedict literally living above the store could have been awkward in the extreme. But Francis has done not only the kind and Christian thing, but the politically strategic thing by tending to his relationship with the uber doctrinaire ex-pope who once led the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office dedicated to keeping the church in line. On Dec. 23 Pope Francis visited his predecessor for prayers and lunch, just the kind of small but telling gesture that speaks volumes and resonates on television.

Pope Francis like Mandela, another great leader who was able to transcend his circumstances, are better politicians than most politicians. They understand that change – political and institutional change – come from a careful meld of arts both soft and firm. Leadership requires both moral authority and sense of purpose. It can mean quiet persuasion delivered with a smile as well as fierce determination to succeed coupled with the energy and drive to execute on a plan. Leadership also means outwitting your opponents and, a lesson Obama has yet to learn after five years in office, a willingness to cajole, flatter and co-opt. But it begins with moral authority.

Perhaps the president’s New Years Resolution should be to not merely quote the pope’s speeches, but adopt his political tactics.

Given what may become the long lame duck presidency of Barack Obama and given the dispiriting lack of genuine leaders elsewhere in the world – think of the thuggish Putin or any of the bureaucrats running western European nations – maybe, just maybe we have reason to hope at the end of this mostly hopeless year that God does work in mysterious ways.

When most we need a reminder of what one man can do on a journey from a jail cell to the Nobel Peace Prize we end 2013 reflecting on Mandela’s remarkable life. And when most we need to believe that someone can articulate with real moral authority the universal truths of compassion, respect, inclusion and peace we at last have a Pope of Hope.

 

Not Getting the Word

ht_john_f_kennedy_telephone_ll_120921_wgDuring the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 – October 27 to be precise – President John Kennedy, the crisis manager-in-chief, was informed that Soviet MiG fighter aircraft had been scrambled to intercept a U.S. spy plane that had wandered into Soviet airspace. Kennedy had been working for days to keep the crisis from escalating into a nuclear exchange and now one U.S. aircraft might well upset the balance of peace, particularly if the Soviets concluded that the U2 spy flight was a preliminary step to a U.S. missile strike.

The president was making his way to the Oval Office after his daily swim that Saturday when he was told by an aide of the unwelcome news of the spy flight. Kennedy reacted with one of his classic one-liners: “There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word.”

Apparently the Obama Administration has turned Kennedy’s one-liner on its head: the SOB who doesn’t get the word in the current White House is the occupant of the Oval Office. As Barack Obama lurches from one crisis to the next he looks more and more like an observer of his own administration. In both of the major political and policy events of the last two weeks – the bungled roll out of the Affordable Care Act website and the revelations about NSA spying on European allies – Obama seems to have been among the last to know of any trouble within his own administration.

First, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius tells CNN that her boss, the president, didn’t know “of problems with the Affordable Care Act’s website — despite insurance companies’ complaints and the site’s crashing during a test run — until after its now well-documented abysmal launch.”

Then over the weekend NSA sources disputed German media reports that Obama knew about the program to listen in to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls. “Gen. [Keith] Alexander [the NSA director] did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel. News reports claiming otherwise are not true.” NSA spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines said in a statement.

Let’s admit the obvious. In an operation as large, complex and secretive as the U.S. government it is humanly impossible for the president of the United States to know everything that he should know. There are not enough hours in the day for that. Any president has to create priorities and allocate precious time to be informed. No president can be “hands on” on everything. But, and it’s a big qualifier, being a successful manager and leader, whether in politics or baseball, requires creating a system to get to the boss the critical and essential information needed to manage and lead. Some things are so critical that the president has to run the meeting.

Three things, at least, seem to be wrong in the second term Obama White House. First is the hands on problem. If there was any initiative during Obama’s tenure that he needed to roll out smartly and without a couple of months worth of glitches it was the launch of “Obamacare.” Yet, to believe Secretary Sebelius, the president was never informed that major problems were likely. Either he wasn’t asking questions or delegated completely the implementation of his signature initiative. Either way he’s been badly served by his staff and his hands off approach to this kind of issue gives him no margin for error when things do go wrong.

Second is the failure of key people in the administration to share vital information with the Commander-in-Chief. I once worked for an elected official who had few rules, but paramount among them was – no surprises. A leader can deal with almost anything they know about. Silence from underlings that allows a problem to grow and fester is deadly. It is managerial malpractice that Obama was not informed weeks ago of the computer meltdown. If he didn’t know that his own national security agency was aggressively spying on foreign leaders then he deserves, at minimum, to be dressed down by Chancellor Merkel. Wouldn’t you have liked to listen into that phone call?

The third White House management problem is accountability. If the president doesn’t insist on accountability it won’t happen, and now we see the silly Washington game of members of Congress calling for this head or that, while the White House is left to condones sloppy and silly work on the part of the very people who created the problems in the first place.

One of the great problems of the modern presidency is the so called “bubble effect.” The president and many of his advisers literally live in a bubble with every moment of every day planned and controlled with information and access rationed by jealous gatekeepers who too often act on their own agendas. Briefings from agencies, as we know from pre-September 11 accounts during the Bush Administration, often become a bureaucratic litany of detail that tend to fog any call to action. Perhaps the complexity of the modern American presidency means there can be no other model. If that is the case then it is all the more important that a president insist on candid and timely information from his staff. If he doesn’t get it and subordinates fail in their jobs the answer is accountability.

You don’t fire the president between terms. He, on the other hand, can fire his advisers and he should with some frequency.

 

Go Big or Go Home

Barack ObamaOK, what does Barack Obama do now?

The president might start by remembering that there are three things in politics that can be enormously powerful, but are almost always vastly underrated particularly by risk averse officeholders. The three are acting against type, the element of surprise and the importance of timing.

Mr. Obama could grab on to all three tactics in the wake of the Republican disaster over the federal government shut down and the close encounter of the weird kind with the debt ceiling. The big three could help salvage his second term.

First is timing. The president must have woke up this morning and smiled while thinking that Sen. Ted Cruz, the gift that keeps on giving, is in the United States Senate. Cruz’s Tea Party-fueled crusade to defund Obamacare flamed out like a shooting star over west Texas and left the president with a stronger hand and a united Democratic Party. Sen. Cruz is more popular than ever with a vastly unpopular movement, while Congressional Republicans remain badly divided and without a coherent domestic agenda. The timing, therefore, is right for Mr. Obama to Go Big with a budget, revenue and reform proposal.

Next, let’s consider surprise. During so much of his presidency Mr. Obama has been content, even comfortable, letting Congress take the lead on big things. He did it with his signature Affordable Care Act (ACA) and completely lost control of the political message, a problem that he has never again been able to get in front of. Nancy Pelosi became the face of health care reform and the anti-Obama crowd skillfully framed the issue as a socialist, big government, job killing takeover of health care. Now, during the brief breathing spell post-shut down, the country and the GOP fully expect Obama to sit back and leave the avoidance of the next shut down and the next default dodge to a bunch of members of Congress who are completely focused on the next election. This is the old approach of trying the same thing over and over and hoping for different results. It’s insanity.

Surprise would be for Mr. Obama to lay out in a series of speeches, town hall meetings, interviews and news conferences a detailed plan to get budget/revenue and entitlement reform in place. Timing could meet surprise.

Finally, it’s time for the president to go against type. History may well record that the single worst decision of the president’s tenure was to turn his back on the Bowles -Simpson bi-partisan “grand bargain” to fix the budget, revenues and entitlements for a decade or more, while starting to reduce the national debt. Of course, Mr. Obama tried to make The Big Deal with House Speaker John Boehner and failed, but he also quietly walked away from Bowles-Simpson when he should have clutched the framework. Remember that he created The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and the co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson developed a real plan that gained bi-partisan Congressional support.

The timing, surprise factor and going against type, in this case embracing some GOP needs and holding off the left wing of of his own party, make great second term sense. Political commentator Andrew Sullivan has the same idea, as he has written:

“If the GOP were a genuinely conservative party, actually interested in long-term government solvency and reform within our current system of government, they would jump at this. They could claim to have reduced tax rates, even if the net result were higher taxes. And the brutal fact is that, given simply our demographics, higher taxes are going to be necessary if we are to avoid gutting our commitments to the seniors of tomorrow. They could concede that and climb down from this impossibly long limb they have constructed for themselves.

“I’ve long favored a Grand Bargain,” Sullivan continues, “but recognize its huge political liabilities without the leadership of both parties genuinely wanting to get there. But for Obama, it seems to me, re-stating such a possibility and embracing it more than he has ever done, is a win-win.”

For a politician with such obvious rhetoric gifts, Mr. Obama has a strange inability to state the most obvious things in simple, direct and understandable terms.

In the wake of the huge GOP meltdown, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has written, Mr. Obama “spoke abstractly about ‘the long-term obligations that we have around things like Medicare and Social Security.’ He was similarly elliptical in saying he wants ‘a budget that cuts out the things that we don’t need, closes corporate tax loopholes that don’t help create jobs, and frees up resources for the things that do help us grow, like education and infrastructure and research.’

“Laudable ideas all,” Milbank says, but timidly said and lacking in real-world details. “Timidity and ambiguity in the past have not worked for Obama. The way to break down a wall of Republican opposition is to do what he did the past two weeks: stake out a clear position and stick to it. A plan for a tax-code overhaul? A Democratic solution to Medicare’s woes? As in the budget and debt fights, the policy is less important than the president’s ability to frame a simple message and repeat it with mind-numbing regularity.” Exactly.

Are there risks involved? Sure, but what does Mr. Obama really want out of the rest of his second term? Months and months of partisan haggling over non-issues? He should embrace the risk and put it all out on the table, otherwise why be president?

I suspect if one the smart pollsters measuring the declining standing of Sen. Cruz and the Tea Party’s approach to non-governance would ask one additional question they would find that the vast majority of Americans are ready – in fact clamoring for – real straight talk about specific policies that end the politics of going to the budget brink every few months.

The question I’d like to see asked in a national poll is pretty simple: “If President Obama proposed a specific plan to reduce long-term federal spending, reduce tax exemptions and lower tax rates, while ensuring the long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare would you be in favor?”

I’m betting the overwhelming answer would be YES. Timing, Surprise and Acting Against Type = a political strategy. That strategy is – Go Big.

 

The Age of Unreason

urlAs the United States slides into the second week of the “Seinfeld shutdown” – the federal government shutdown about nothing – and edges toward the certain financial disaster that would accompany a government default, who would have thought that one clear voice of reason would come with a French accent.

“If there is that degree of disruption, that lack of certainty, that lack of trust in the US signature, it would mean massive disruption the world over, and we would be at risk of tipping yet again into a recession,” said Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund.

Lagarde, who may find she needs her elegant scarves to protect against the frozen politics in Washington, made her doomsday prediction over the weekend in the capitol of dysfunction where the “wacko bird” fringe of the Tea Party, those who precipitated the shutdown – two first term U.S. Senators, one on the job since January the other for a year longer and the “game changer” from Alaska – demonstrated the range of their intellectual gymnastics by protested that “Obama’s shutdown” had forced National Park Service rangers off the job thereby barricading the World War II memorial on The Mall. Meanwhile, the minority within the minority that is the Tea Party, rallied in front of the White House with at least one protester waving the Confederate flag.

As Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg Tweeted, “in many parts of America, waving a Confederate flag outside the home of a black family would be considered a very hostile act.” But, hey, this is America in the 21st Century, an age of unreason where anything goes, including potentially the nation’s credit and the world’s economy.

By broad and deep consensus from the political right and left, the nullifiers in the Tea Party wing of the one-time party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan will emerge from the last month of sloganeering with lower approval ratings, less chance to take control of the United States Senate, dimmer prospects for winning the White House in 2016 and more determination than ever to take their party and the country in a new direction, even if it is over a cliff.

The Mind of the Tea Party

The modern Republican Party, at least the one we’ve known since Richard Nixon and until George W. Bush, was routinely defined by its opponents as a Chamber of Commerce country club elite, beholden to big business and responsive to Wall Street. But no longer.

A liberal columnist like the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky suggests the historic “business wing” of the GOP must save us all from the Ted Cruz-Sarah Palin wing because “this is the biggest political issue of our time…because a reasonable GOP would make the country governable again. A critical mass of conservative compromisers, with maybe a few genuinely moderate Republicans thrown in, would end this dysfunction more quickly than anything else.”

But Tomasky and many others, including many Democrats, underestimate the fear – and I use that word advisedly – that has helped create the world view of the current and more populist GOP. The Tea Party not only loathes the president, but also Wall Street, much popular culture, the media “establishment” – other than Fox News – and, most importantly, the leadership of the Republican Party.

Writing in the New York Times Thomas Edsall notes that, “animosity toward the federal government has been intensifying at a stunning rate. In a survey released on Sept. 23, Gallup found that the percentage of Republicans saying the federal government has too much power — 81 percent — had reached a record-setting level.” Combine that sentiment with “the findings of a Pew Research Center survey released four weeks ago. They show that discontent with Republican House and Senate leaders runs deep among Republican primary voters: two-thirds of them disapprove of their party’s Congressional leadership — John Boehner, the speaker of the House, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader.” In short, the most Republican of Republicans dislike almost everything about their government, including the strange man in the White House and their own leaders.

Some of the most interesting and insightful research into the mind of the Tea Party voter comes from respected Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg who recently conducted a series of detailed focus groups to try and understand the thinking that has become the driving force in the new GOP politics.

“While many voters, including plenty of Democrats, question whether Obama is succeeding and getting his agenda done,” Greenberg reports. “Republicans think he has won. The country as a whole may think gridlock has triumphed, particularly in the midst of a Republican-led government shutdown, but Republicans see a president who has fooled and manipulated the public, lied, and gotten his secret socialist-Marxist agenda done. Republicans and their kind of Americans are losing.”

And there is this: Tea Party adherents “think they face a victorious Democratic Party that is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support. It starts with food stamps and unemployment benefits; expands further if you legalize the illegals; but insuring the uninsured dramatically grows those dependent on government. They believe this is an electoral strategy — not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view.”

If you embrace the idea, as many Americans quite clearly do, that the country is lost to them, then there is little to be lost from using what little power you have to shut down the government and blow up the economy. It’s the gruesome political equivalent of the U.S. commander in Southeast Asia who infamously declared that the Vietnamese village had to be destroyed in order to be saved.

Nullification

William Faulkner’s great line seems more appropriate than ever: “the past is never dead, it isn’t even past.” And the heart of the Tea Party message – that the country is doomed by the unconstitutional actions of an illegitimate president – is, as novel as it might seem daily on cable television, far from a new phenomenon. Frank Rich is one of the best at connecting the dots of our politics once our tiny attention spans have moved on to the next big thing. He reminds us in his latest New York magazine essay that we’ve seen this movie before.

“The political tactics and ideological conflicts are the same today as they were the last time around [1995].  Back then, the GOP was holding out for a budget that would deeply slash government health-care spending (in that case on Medicare) and was refusing to advance a clean funding bill that would keep the government open. The House also took the debt ceiling hostage, attaching a wish list of pet conservative causes to the routine bill that would extend it. That maneuver prompted Moody’s, the credit-rating agency, to threaten to downgrade Treasury securities, and Wall Street heavies like Felix Rohatyn to warn of impending economic catastrophe. The secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, juggled funds in federal accounts to delay default much as his protégé Jacob Lew was driven to do in the same Cabinet position now. Leon Panetta, then Clinton’s chief of staff, accused the Republicans of holding ‘a gun to the head of the president and the head of the country’ and likened their threats to ‘a form of terrorism.’”

The past that truly isn’t dead is what Frank Rich calls the precepts of the great pre-Civil War nullifier, John C. Calhoun, that have found voice in the 80 or so House Republicans who would destroy the economy to destroy Obamacare and, of course, given the current occupant of the Oval Office there are other factors at play.

“It was inevitable that when a black president took office, the racial fevers of secessionist history would resurface and exacerbate some of the radicals’ rage,” Rich says in helping us understand that rebel flag waving protester yesterday in front of the White House. But he also correctly notes that “to brand this entire cohort as racist is both incorrect and reductive. It under­estimates their broader ideological sway within their party. The unifying bogeyman for this camp is the federal government, not blacks or Hispanics, and that animus will remain undiminished after Obama’s departure from the White House.”

“We are upholding the true doctrines of the Federal Constitution,” the former Senator from Mississippi Jefferson Davis said in 1861 when he took the presidency of the eleven southern states who thought they could leave the Union after the election of a president the rebels considered illegitimate. It is not merely an historical oddity that today many of the highest profile leaders of the Republican Party from Cruz and Rubio to Cantor and Graham represent those eleven states – the true base of the GOP – in the U.S. Congress. Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky never seceded, but rather as the great Civil War historian Gary Gallagher once quipped, “joined the Confederacy after the war was over.” The great geographic outlier in the current GOP leadership is the embattled John Boehner from Ohio, a state that has produced eight Republican presidents, five of whom fought on the Union side in the War of the Rebellion.

Still the nullifiers have had some success because, as Thomas Edsall says, “a determined minority can do a lot in our system. It has already won the battle for the hearts and minds of the Republican House caucus. That is not a modest victory.” The same movement, we should remember, caused state legislatures from Idaho to Arizona to flirt with legislation to “nullify” the federal “tyranny” of Obamacare and many of the reddest states have refused to accept a key aspect of the law, the expansion of Medicare. It will be another victory for this philosophy when the Tea Party selects the next GOP presidential candidate, a Republican disciple one suspects far removed from the party’s last two candidates – John McCain and Mitt Romney.

No one knows the impact of the victory for the hearts and minds of the House Republican caucus more than the combative Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic leader, who has been calling the shut down audibles for the Democrats. Knowing that this great civil war likely won’t be over any time soon, Reid – the former boxer – would love to go for a knockout, but will settle for a split decision. When your opponents think you’ve lied your way to power and believe the country is being destroyed it is not a great leap to say that the Founder’s Constitution is on their side, while they wrap themselves in the battle flag and fight, as another southerner used to say, “until the last dog dies.”

The elegant and precise International Monetary Fund president, Madam Lagarde, a member of the Socialist Party in France, must find all of this enormously confusing, not to say frightening. Like the rest of us, she’d better get used to it. True believers, after all, don’t often change.

 

What’s In a Name

Washington-RedskinsNow for something completely different…

While the nation dangles one foot over the fiscal cliff and while most of the federal government remains shut down, the epicenter of American politics has yet another crisis to confront – the name of its football team.

I knew the controversy swirling around the National Football League Redskins had reached crisis proportions when Lanny Davis, the slightly oily adviser to those in trouble, started issuing statements on behalf of the mostly tone deaf Redskins’ owner. Davis, you may remember, advised Bill Clinton in the Monica days and more recently helped out a charming fellow named Laurent Gbagbo who, before he was forced from power to face charges of torturing his political enemies, was quaintly described as the Ivory Coast’s strongman. Davis told the New York Times in 2010 “controversy is what I do for a living.” Welcome to the Redskins’ beat.

Davis was engaged – controversy is what he does after all – after President Obama weighed in on whether the Washington, D.C. team should change its name. “I don’t know whether our attachment to a particular name should override the real legitimate concerns that people have about these things,” Obama told The Associated Press.

“These things,” of course, would be names and mascots for sports teams that at least some Native Americans (and others) find offensive. Now you might think with all that the president has on his plate from Syria to Ted Cruz, from a debt ceiling to tanking approval numbers that he would have deftly sidestepped the question of the Redskins’ name. But to his credit, even while giving half the country another reason to dislike him, Mr. Obama answered the question and a million dinner table conversations were launched.

Maureen Dowd began her column on the controversy with this: “Whenever I want to be called a detestable, insidious proselytizer of political correctness, I just bring up the idea of changing the name of the Redskins at a family dinner. What if our football team’s name weren’t a slur, I ask brightly. Wouldn’t that be nice?’

Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder once said he would “never” change the name, but in post-Lanny Davis mode he struck a quieter, if no less certain, tone. “I’ve listened carefully to the commentary and perspectives on all sides, and I respect the feelings of those who are offended by the team name,” Snyder wrote to the Washington Post. “But I hope such individuals also try to respect what the name means, not only for all of us in the extended Washington Redskins family, but among Native Americans too.”

“This word is an insult. It’s mean, it’s rude, it’s impolite,” Kevin Gover, who is Native American and directs the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “We’ve noticed that other racial insults are out of bounds. . . . We wonder why it is that the word that is directed at us, that refers to us, is not similarly off-limits.”

Here’s my guess: sooner of later, given a hard push by the ever image conscious NFL leadership and with what will surely be mounting pressure from political and business folks, the Redskins will take a new name. Gover, the Native American head of the Smithsonian museum, suggested a novel name – the Washington Americans. That may catch on and actually could be a tribute to the real Americans. But in the meantime Lanny Davis and others are left to defend the Redskins by pointing out that it’s not just the D.C. football team that has a potentially offensive name. There are the Atlanta Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Edmonton Eskimos. Not to mention the Utah Utes, the Florida State Seminoles and the Orofino Maniacs.

Orofino, Idaho, of course, is home not only to the high school Maniacs, but an Idaho state mental hospital. There is disagreement about which came first, the nickname or the facility, but the monicker has stuck through the years and helped create some memorable headlines. My personal favorite – “Maniacs Run Wild, Kill Kamiah.” Efforts to change the name have be labeled, well, crazy. Don’t mess with my Maniacs or my Redskins. No offense intended, of course.

The University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux are no long either fighting or Sioux. After prolonged controversy the school dropped the “Fighting Sioux” nickname in 2012 and currently has no name. State law actually prohibits the university from renaming its sports teams until 2015. Let me get a jump on that and suggest the North Dakota “Damn Cold Winters.”

While we’re on the subject, I don’t generally like sports teams named after animals. Too many Lions and Tigers, Badgers and Eagles. The best sports names are unique and help tell a story. The Packers, for example, or the 49ers. I like the name, but have never been a fan of the Dodgers. The Minnesota Twins make sense to me. Also the Montreal Canadiens. Not so much the transplanted from New Orleans Utah Jazz. I’m not sure jazz is even legal in Utah.

Mr. Controversy-Is-My-Business Lanny Davis says in defense of the Redskins that the name is 80 years old and, of course, is used with no disrespect. Really. I grew up near the Pine Ridge Sioux reservation in South Dakota and no white guy, at least one in his right mind, would call a member of the tribe what the Washington teams calls itself. The Confederate battle flag has been around for more than 150 years, but it is now widely recognized as a symbol of white supremacy. The Ole Miss Rebels banned the stars and bars from football games for just that reason. Atlanta was once home to the minor league baseball “Crackers,” but that slang put down of poor whites wouldn’t fly today.

“Come to our reservation,” says Ray Halbritter, head of the Oneida Tribe that is leading the effort to change the D.C. team name, and “get up before everybody, families with children, and start out by saying how many cute little redskin children you see in the audience. Then try and tell us that you’re honoring us with that name.” No one has taken Halbritter up on the offer according to Joe Flood who has written at Buzzfeed about Native American reaction to the name controversy.

Yes, the Redskins will eventually change their name. The only real question is how much turmoil will be created and how long it will take. After all, as Maureen Dowd says, “All you have to do is watch a Western. The term ‘redskin’ is never a compliment.”

 

A Failure of Politics

bigstock-syria-3770337When an American president finding himself slipping between the two stools of ill-considered military because he must “save face” or preserve “credibility,” our history shows that we’re about to make a serious, serious mistake.

From Harry Truman to George W. Bush American presidents have committed the United States military to wars based on every justification imaginable from containing Communism to changing a regime to protecting human rights. Lyndon Johnson, we now know, was afraid of being accused of being soft on Communism, so he doubled down on a failed strategy in Indochina in the 1960′s. Bush launched a war in Iraq in order to bring democracy to that made-to-British-order country and we’re still finding out – ten years on – how that mistake is playing out.

Barack Obama was elected and re-elected in no small part because he said he was determined to end America’s endless wars, but now he finds himself on the cusp of military action that could well define his presidency and jerk the violent Middle East into a wide-open regional war. As political analysts Larry Sabato says, “Syria’s in the Middle East. What could possibly go wrong?”

The President stunning mishandling of the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria has its roots once again in the president’s remarkable disdain for the grubby, critical work of politics. He’s backed himself out on a very long limb largely because he’s refused to engage the political institutions that could have both helped shape the U.S. response to a tin-horned dictator fighting for his life, while destroying his country and given the White House the cover it should have to order – or back down from – touching off the Tomahawk missiles.

First, the Administration dismissed going to the United Nations to attempt to rally world support for action against the Syrian regime with the faulty excuse that Russia’s Vladimir Putin would surely veto effective U.N. action. Of course Putin, a guy playing his own game, would continue to defend his Syrian allies, but so what. I would have liked to have seen the impressive new U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., the noted human rights authority Samantha Power, make the world’s case to the Security Council. The contrast between the moral authority of Power and the United States and the bankrupt cynicism of the Russians, particularly when it would have all been broadcast on Al Jazeera, would have been powerful and important.  The U.N. like the U.S. Congress is politics writ large and Obama and his advisers simply blew this world-class moral authority photo opportunity because the politics apparently looked like a loser. The was miscalculation on an historic scale.

Second, when Obama effectively boxed himself in to eventual military action when he declared that Syrian use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would demand a response, he failed to immediately engage Congress, which just happens to be required by the Constitution, but which would also have provided a political safety valve by involving Obama’s Republican critics in a decision with mind-numbing consequences.

Imagine for a moment if Obama would have immediately had the bi-partisan Congressional leadership and the Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees to the White House. Even better if he could summon them to Washington from their home state politicking during the August recess. He could have publicly insisted that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee do its job and conduct hearings on just what the appropriate U.S. response might entail and let the D.C. press know that he was working the phone to talk to guys like Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Tom Foley. He could have had Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush in for a visit. In other words, he might have engaged in politics. The failure to do so is nothing short of political malpractice.

For all of his ability to employ soaring rhetoric, Obama has a curiously tin ear when it comes to using the Oval Office as the ultimate power play stage in the world. In a crisis the photo of action can be as important as the action.

Failure to embrace the time-consuming, personal and intense political engagement, both on the world and Washington stage, now finds the increasingly isolated and shrinking Obama presidency left to go it alone. It must drive the far right crazy that the French – the French! – are one of the few countries ready to help the U.S.

The once “special relationship” between London and Washington now sits discarded on the curb of the Middle East. Congressional critics from the left and right are demanding, as they should, that Congress not merely be consulted, but actually approve military action. Obama must recognize now, having failed to engage with the politics of bringing Congress along, that he might well lose a vote on military action, as British Prime Minister David Cameron did. That is a risk he simply should have been prepared to take, and as a Constitutional scholar he must know that the law and history require him to take it.

[Update: President Obama did announced today that he will request Congressional authorization for military action against Syria.]

Assume for a moment that the president had mounted a full-court political press and still lost a vote in Congress authorizing military action. Again – so what? He could look the world – and the American public in the eye – and said, “I tried, but our political system refused to engage.” Ironically, sometimes in politics you win by losing. The president could have positioned his Republican Congressional opponents as the party unwilling to take a moral and military stand against chemical weapons. In such a case he would have driven a deep wedge between the John McCain wing of the GOP and the emerging, neo-isolationist Rand Paul wing.

So, in this summer of our discontent, Obama and the country are in a tough spot. Promising to take action against Syria and failing to do so has consequences. Limited military action, particularly when there is no realistic way to anticipate what will happen the day after the action, has consequences. Failing to bring the politics along with the policy has consequences.

The stark reality of Syria, as well as the larger Middle East, is that American military power has reached its limits. None of what ails the region will be solved by a missile strike – even a limited on – and the cost in American blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq is dismal proof of the folly of U.S. “boots on the ground” in a region where religious, sectarian and tribal fights have been a fixture since before Jesus confronted the Romans. As David Brooks wrote today in the Times, “Poison gas in Syria is horrendous, but the real inferno is regional. When you look at all the policy options for dealing with the Syria situation, they are all terrible or too late. The job now is to try to wall off the situation to prevent something just as bad but much more sprawling.”

Barack Obama confront this history and his own presidency with his decisions. He has made it all even more difficult by his failing at politics.