Questions for Obama

It’s second in my pile on my nightstand.

The marvellous David Olusoga is going to interview Obama on Wednesday. I have a burning question that I’d like him to ask.

Some background first.

I lived in America (San Jose, CA & NYC, NY) for almost 25 years. I followed American politics very closely from about 1996 until the day I came home to England.

I was perpetually disgusted by the Republicans and disappointed by the Democrats until the skinny kid with the funny name burst onto the scene at the 2004 Democratic Convention.

There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America.

I followed Obama closely after that speech and was impressed enough to make a promise.

If Obama…

1. runs for president.
2. is elected and
3. doesn’t suck

…then I will vote for his reelection

The implication being that I would apply for US citizenship, having resisted for so many years.

My hopes grew through the excitement of the 2008 primary campaign. I’d never before heard a speaker who was so able to tell a story; to speak of values and morality — rather than policies and legislation — in words that everyone could understand and agree with.

The highlight for me was the Walls of Jericho speech at Ebenezer church — the best speech of my political lifetime.

I got tears in my eyes all over again watching it just now.

So my question for Obama is: Why did this all stop after you got elected?

They say that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Obama governed in bullet points. I never again heard him speak to the American people this way after he was elected.

Like many, I was disappointed by the legislative failures of the Obama administration. Yes, yes. Mitch McConnell was mean to him and the Republicans blocked everything he tried to do but that’s not the source of my disenchantment.

It’s that Obama never used his platform — the highest platform in the world — to tell moral stories about why his policies were morally essential.

Candidate Obama told us he was going to change the way that the US Government operates.

“If we do not change our politics — if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works — then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.”

“But let me be clear — this isn’t just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it’s about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans.”

The Decline and Fall of Hope and Change

Obama had so many opportunities to remind us that America is a moral nation but never again did we hear him appeal to us to live up to our ideals. He governed with his phone and his pen when he should have been governing us from his pulpit.

Some examples…

Obama campaigned on a “public option” for healthcare during the primary debates. It was the biggest difference between Obama and Clinton on healthcare policy. He made it a moral issue that 45 million Americans did not have health insurance.

After the election, his speeches on healthcare were all about “bending the cost curve” and “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor”. We never again heard about the moral imperative of giving everyone access to healthcare.

Worse, he left the drafting of what became Obamacare to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi who were quick to forget all those campaign appeals to our shared humanity. How might those horse-trading sessions with Stupak and Nelson and Leiberman had gone if they saw Obama on the telly every night telling the 9-year old Ashley’s story of going without food so that her mother could pay for her cancer care?

I consider it a great shame that the greatest political speaker of a generation allowed the Republicans — The Republicans! — to win the moral argument in the public opinion with lies about Death Panels.

Obama missed a moral trick on bailouts for bankers too. Yes, yes. The bail outs happened under Bush but the aftermath and the recovery happened under Obama. It was sickening to see those Goldman Sachs bankers counting their bonuses in the middle of greatest recession in three generations. Was there ever a better time for a Democratic president to take up the cry of “We are the 99%”? Instead, he left it to a bunch of hippies occupying Zuccotti Park and the winning moral slogan for the next couple of years became “Don’t tread on me”.

Occupy Education: Using the Occupy Movements' Hand Gestures to Stimulate  Engagement in Flat Classrooms – Ideas Out There
Jazz Hands in Zuccotti Park

I don’t even know where to start on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill when BP managed to spill 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico when his political opponents’ favourite slogan in the previous election had been “Drill, baby! Drill!

Surely an orator skilled in moral exhortation should have been able to recruit the American people to the cause of environmentalism? Off the top of my head, I can’t remember Obama saying much about it at all.

By the 2012 election, Obama’s rhetorical talents were a fading memory and the Republicans were able to deride him as a reader of teleprompters.

Instead of applying for citizenship, I renewed my Green Card and my next vow, four years later was that, if Trump wins, we are going home. And here we are in Bristol.

I didn’t leave my home of 25 years just because I was disappointed in Obama or because I was appalled by Trump or — worst of all — because 70 million people voted for a cruel, incompetent conman to be their president. But they all helped us make up our minds and I am glad to be home.

Professor Olusoga will surely be tempted to ask President Obama about the meaning of this moment when America’s First Crime Family will finally be leaving the White House or to celebrate with Obama the fact that we will finally have a President again who can speak in whole sentences. Maybe he’ll get really tough and ask about whether the nasty Republicans will be as obstructive to Biden’s agenda as they were to Obama’s. But everyone will be asking him that stuff.

I want to know why Obama stopped speaking to us in poetry.

Or, even better, will we hear his poetry again?

President of my Dreams

I’ve been reading a lot recently about how leftists are supposedly disappointed with Obama because he was not leftist enough and centrists are disappointed because he was not centrist enough. I’m disappointed, but none of that rings true with me, perhaps because I am neither a leftist nor a centrist and my criticism of Obama does not lie along that axis.

Most critics of the critics, like Chait in New York Magazine, rattle off a list of accomplishments that Obama achieved and that liberals should be grateful for. It’s the usual list of left-leaning wishes like health care reform and the draw-down in Iraq that allegedly could not have been achieved by anyone else but, still, none of that addresses my dissatisfaction.

In the centre, conservatives like David Brooks and Douthat claim that centrists are disappointed that Obama wasted his time on health care when he should’ve been focussing on the economy but, nope, that’s not it either.

Conor Friedersdorf comes closer with his continuing observations that Obama has institutionalized some of the Bush/Cheney excesses like starting wars without congressional approval (even wars that I, in principle, might approve of) and the detention and even assassination of american citizens without judicial or congressional oversight. That comes closer to the source of my discontent but it still misses the mark.

An insidious version of the we were dupes narrative says that we, fools all, projected our hopes and dreams on Obama who, like the Mirror of Erised, reflected them back at us. Instead of supporting Obama, we were supporting idealized versions of ourselves. Our disappointment was inevitable when we found that Obama fell short of our impossible aspirations. This narrative infuriates me but I struggle to explain why it does not apply in my case.

Until today, even I could not have articulated where Obama fell short of my expectations. You could’ve listed all the obvious accomplishments and advances and I would have nodded but said… yes……but….but…

Today, Friedersdorf hit the nail firmly on the head.

Here’s Obama circa 2008, via Lawrence Lessig, via Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic:

“If we do not change our politics — if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works — then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.”

“But let me be clear — this isn’t just about ending the failed policies of the Bush years; it’s about ending the failed system in Washington that produces those policies. For far too long, through both Democratic and Republican administrations, Washington has allowed Wall Street to use lobbyists and campaign contributions to rig the system and get its way, no matter what it costs ordinary Americans.”

“We are up against the belief that it’s all right for lobbyists to dominate our government–that they are just part of the system in Washington. But we know that the undue influence of lobbyists is part of the problem, and this election is our chance to say that we’re not going to let them stand in our way anymore. Unless we’re willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change.”

“Unless we’re willing to challenge the broken system in Washington, and stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way, nothing else is going to change.”
“If we’re not willing to take up that fight, then real change–change that will make a lasting difference in the lives of ordinary Americans–will keep getting blocked by the defenders of the status quo.”

And here’s Lessig’s version of Obama’s promise:

I was convinced by Obama. More than convinced: totally won over. It wasn’t just that I agreed with his policies. Indeed, I didn’t really agree with a bunch of his policies–he’s much more of a centrist on many issues than I. It was instead because I believed that he had a vision of what was wrong with our government, and a passion and commitment to fix it… In speech after speech, Obama described the problem of Washington just as I have, though with a style that is much more compelling.

This is it exactly.

When Obama took the throne he was overwhelmingly popular and he could’ve used some of that popularity to hold congress’s feet to the fire to bring about some change we could believe in. He didn’t.

Starting with the stimulus bill and continuing through the long-drawn out health care bill everything was passed with the usual scuzzy compromises – the special deals for the conservative democrats in the mountain states and the reach around for the public sector unions.

He campaigned heavily through the primaries and the general on ending the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than a quarter of a million dollars and on closing Guantanamo. On both those issues, it wasn’t the evil pubbies who did him in, it was the craven politicking in his own party. Either could’ve been a good moment to show that things would be different in Washington. He could’ve whipped out some soaring rhetoric on the presidential megaphone and marshalled some of his popularity into heat for Pelosi and Reid. Instead he played it safe and let the political wheels spin.

In the end his popularity just leached away. What a waste! Instead of investing his political capital in good causes, he hoarded it like a miser. If he had spent some of it to bring the changes he promised, he would have earned interest on his investment ten-fold. Instead he let it moulder in his safety deposit box where it eventually withered away.

The biggest tragedy of all was the way he let the pubbies win the war of words over health care reform. How on earth were the pubbies able to distort a message about controlling healthcare costs into a story about pulling the plug on grandma? Since when have republicans cared about grandmas? Leaving responsibility for selling health care reform in the mouths of Pelosi and Reid was negligence of the worst kind.

Still, if the economy picks up a bit over the next year, I expect he’ll be re-elected. This time around, instead of soaring rhetoric, I expect he’ll pull out the dirty tricks. People will still pull the lever for him with heavy sigh that at least he’s not as bad as the other guy.

/heavy sigh. Time to renew my green card.

“If we do not change our politics — if we do not fundamentally change the way Washington works — then the problems we’ve been talking about for the last generation will be the same ones that haunt us for generations to come.”

– Barack Obama, 2008

Inane Heath Care Debates

Paul Krugman says that

The debate over the public option has, as I said, been depressing in its inanity.

and over at the New Majority, David Frum asked his contributors

Tens of millions of Americans lack health insurance. Extending coverage to them has been a core goal of health reform proposals since the 1960s. President Richard Nixon offered a universal health plan in his first administration, but since then Republicans have hesitated to commit the nation to so costly an undertaking. Is it time to rethink? Should Republicans accept universal coverage as a goal?

Our survey says


The twenty-something responses to Frum’s question had a few common threads. The most common was that universal healthcare would conflict with American values.

To insist upon guaranteed universal healthcare for every living person in America is to insist that healthcare is a universal right, which it is certainly not. If it were, then all Americans (especially conservatives) would be moved by the Declaration of Independence which reminds us that government was instituted to secure these rights to demand nothing less than socialized medicine. But, once again, it’s not.


Finally, it is not who we are as a nation.  We are not a welfare state.

Another theme is that,

The U.S. has a system of universal coverage now – it’s called “show up at the emergency room” – and while it is far from perfect, the overwhelming majority actually seem pretty content with it – at least any time we get down to the specifics of some other form of “universal coverage.”

The last is that the proposed health care reforms are a trojan horse for a complete government takeover of healthcare.

This is the equivalent of “dumping” by undercutting competitors” prices, even at a loss, to take market share but without the hit to earnings that some companies are willing to take.  The Democrats see this as an option to keep insurance companies honest.  I see it as a first step to what Obama et. al. have repeatedly clamored for over the years (new rhetoric notwithstanding).  A first step towards an ultimate take-over of the entire healthcare system by the single payer entity, Uncle Sam.

And these are from the non-crazy conservatives (you should hear what they say at The Corner).

The only great post comes from an enemy plant. It starts well.

The answer:  Mexico, Turkey, and the United States. Ok, what is the question?

What are the only three OECD-countries, the 30 largest free market democracies, broadly defined, in which sizable numbers of citizens lack health insurance?

Not company our nation usually keeps.  Nor should it.  The idea that we can’t afford universal health insurance, as many NM contributors say, is just, well’s just say, it’s a bit more plausible coming from Mexico and Turkey, countries which are famous for sending legions of their people to wealthier countries like the U.S. and Germany. That enormous sum of money that Republicans keep warning us about “oh my goodness, over $1 trillion spread over ten years, the money it would take to insure about 97% of our population (to do it well, it would probably take about $1.4 trillion)” is less than 1% of our country’s estimated GDP over that same ten year period. [snip] We can afford a defense budget larger than that of the next 20 countries combined.  We can afford an unfunded war in Iraq now in its sixth year.  We could afford to pay for the prescription drug bill and gratuitously launder about $200 billion of the taxpayers money to the insurance industry.  Yes, the United States can afford this.

He also takes on the story about how Stephen Hawking would have been left to die if he had been British and had to rely on the NHS.

But did it make any of you wonder: What would happen to an American who suffered from what Hawking suffers from, or cancer, or severe heart disease, who lacks health insurance? Say, even the least sympathetic case, one of those arrogant 25-year olds, who think they are going to live forever, and wake up with a deadness in their legs, and are diagnosed with MS. I know someone like that, perhaps you do, too.  What happens to those people in America when they don’t have insurance? What happens after they show up at the emergency room, in Bradley Smith’s inelegant phrase?  This is what a number of you seem to think is fully the equal of having quality health insurance (of the kind you yourselves have, about which more later).  So you’re diagnosed with MS or ALS, or you found some blood in your stool time and again, and you go to the ER, and you’re diagnosed with colon cancer. So:  you followed Mr. Smith’s advice, and you showed up!!  Now what?

My favourite line:

People who couldn’t afford care would just be left to die on the street after all, if they can’t afford healthcare, tough luck.  Just as if they can’t afford to buy that car, or a house, or sofa, or a lamp.  We don’t say, “Just show up at Crate and Barrel, you’ll get an emergency sofa, if you’re just dying to have one.”

I have been very frustrated by the health care debate because it is so completely lost in wonkery. I can’t help think that if Obama stood up and painted the big picture of what this is really about…

Nor is it, ironically enough, like the sustained care that Stephen Hawking received from the socialists at the NHS. And isn’t it odd, too, that we act as if people in these other countries we know well, entirely civilized, advanced countries like Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, France, even the UK are dropping dead on the streets of the cities and town as if from the Black Plague every day.  Oddly enough, many of us have been to these places, and this isn’t true, people receive excellent medical care at less cost than our system provides.

…if he turned Eugene Debs’ excellent essay…

American conservatives write often about patriotism and love of nation.  I wonder:  Do they ever feel even a tiny bit of shame, maybe at least the blush of embarrassment, when reading that our country lacks the minimum level of social decency promulgated by every one of its peer nations and that we stand at the bottom in this category with the likes of Mexico (a nation Americans frequently mock) and Turkey? That even a dictatorship like Singapore provides universal care? That our great free market ally, Taiwan, does so, too? That this is just something that nations across the world, and conservatives, liberals and social democrats simply agree is a benchmark of modernity and civilization, no more controversial, but every bit as essential as the traffic light.

….into the kind of towering rhetoric we heard from him last year, the whole debate would be over by now.

How many parties do you need for bipartisanship?

I agree with Buffet’s criticism of Obama (via Slate):

BUFFETT: I think–I think a lot of things should be–job one is to win the war, job–the economic war, job two is to win the economic war, and job three. And you can’t expect people to unite behind you if you’re trying to jam a whole bunch of things down their throat. So I would–I would absolutely say for the–for the interim, till we get this one solved, I would not be pushing a lot of things that are–you know are contentious, and I also–I also would do no finger-pointing whatsoever.

I want Obama to live up to his promise of bipartisanship even as the other side decides to roam out on the distant plains of the political spectrum. I want Obama to make it easy for Spector and Graham and McCain to support him.

Earmarks are only 2% of budget so we shouldn’t worry about them, says Jon Stewart. That’s a better argument for getting rid of them than keeping them. Think of all the bipartisan goodwill you could buy with that 2%.

I haven’t filled in my N-400 yet.

The future of the Republican Party

I finally watched both Obama’s speech and Jindal’s rebuttal. Obama was magnificent – it has been a while since I said that – but what was more striking was how stupendously bad Jindal was.

I have been reading the commentary about Jindal’s speech on the conservative blogs all week and everyone agrees how bad it was – but so many of them focussed on his delivery and noted that he has 3 years to work on that before the 1012 election.

But it wasn’t the delivery that was bad – though God knows that was awful – it was the content. The content was just dismal. It was a curious mixture of non-sequiturs (Jon Stewart noted the incongruity of following a complaint about the crap government response to Katrina with a complaint about money to understand volcanos) and outright dishonest sleight of hand. And WTF was that about with the sheriff and the boats?

The Dems astounded me for 7 years with their crapness. I think the Pubbies are on course to outdo them.

Even David Brooks thinks so:

America can be better than it has been

I have read plenty of commentary about the significance of Obama’s election but none have resonated the way this did.

Obama’s idea, put simply, was that America can be better than it has been. It can reach beyond post-9/11 anger and fear to embody once more what the world still craves from the American idea: hope.

America can mean what it says. It can respect its friends and probe its enemies before it tries to shock and awe them. It can listen. It can rediscover the commonwealth beyond the frenzied individualism that took down Wall Street.

I know, these are mere words. They will not right the deficit or disarm an enemy. But words count. That has been a lesson of the Bush years.

You can’t proclaim freedom as you torture. You can’t promote democracy as you disappear people. You can’t stand for the rule of law and strip prisoners of basic rights. You can’t dispense with the transparency and regulation essential to modern capital markets and hope still to be the beacon of free enterprise.

Or rather, you can do all these things, but then you find yourself alone.

Obama will reinvest words with meaning. That is the basis of everything. And an American leader able to improvise a grammatical, even a moving, English sentence is no bad thing. Americans, in the inevitable recession ahead, will have a leader who can summon their better natures rather than speak, as Bush has, to their spite.

Maybe it is because the writer is also an expat Englishman. Roger Cohen cast his first vote as an American citizen for Barack Obama, as I will cast my first vote for his *re-election.

* Assuming he doesn’t suck (2 down, 1 to go)

Inspire us

Obama made his name by giving great, set piece speeches like the magnificent Walls of Jericho speech at the Ebineezer Church but, since the primary election has been over, he seems to have very consciously toned it down a little. His recent speeches have been more traditional campaign speeches as though he was wounded by the superstar digs. Even his DNC speech was pretty conventional by Obama standards.

I have been hoping for one last big speech on a topic less mundane than Winning Elections.  I think it’d be well received and do him a lot of good – especially among the people that are only now starting to pay attention to what he has to say.

But I have to say – even his speeches on Winning Elections are pretty good.

Especially when you compare them to this.

Would the real Obama please step forward?

I have been checking the reactions to the debates on all the partisan blogs and it really is astounding how one-sided the commentary is on both sides. I saw a poll – which I can’t find again 🙁 – saying 95ish% of democrats and republicans claimed that ‘my candidate won the debate’.

I wonder if the problem is group think? You are in a crowd watching your guy when someone shouts ‘Hell yeah!’ and you are like ‘hell yeah!’ and ‘that’s bullshit!’ and then you watch the remainder of the debate through partisan-tinted glasses.

Over at The Corner, they seemed to be watching an American Super Hero take on a North Korean Fifth Grader in a wrestling match. They certainly weren’t watching the same debate as me. Except one guy…

I have been hanging out at the corner for a few weeks now and they really are an odious bunch. They are allegedly the cream of the conservative intellectual movement but – with two shining exceptions – you’d never guess it to read them. The worst of the whole bunch is Jay Nordlinger who is from the Why do liberals hate America school of conservative thinking.

So I was mightily surprised to read his debate summary which had gems like these

35. If I were an ordinary American who didn’t know anything, I’d say, “Hmm, Obama sounds okay; a moderate fellow. And don’t we need a change? Bodes ill.”

39. Amazing to have Obama, a left-wing Democrat, denounce tremendous spending and an orgy of spending. He’s a very good campaigner, sadly.

43. Obama said, “General Petraeus has done a brilliant job” will that sit well with the General Betray Us people? But I imagine they’ll sit still for anything in a general election, just to get Obama in.

and his conclusion…

70. I think many people will take away the following impression: They would both make a good president. They’re both solid, centrist, centered, informed, capable. But if I want a change, and Lord knows this country needs a change, I should vote for the Democrat.

More here. Go read them. They are actually pretty good.

It was almost as if he had convinced himself that the conservative talking points about liberals were true and – for the first time ever – he was hearing a real liberal speak. What? They don’t hate the troops? I thought that liberals were all tax and spend !! Why does he want to kill Bin Laden when everyone knows the democrats love terrorists!

I wonder if this…

As is my custom, I’m writing my comments without hearing any other commentary. I am unaffected by other opinions.

…made any difference?

Apparently many of his readers were shocked too.

Many, many readers have written that my quick points on the debate depressed them why did they have to be taken down, after being so up after McCain’s impressive performance? No one need be depressed: McCain did very well. He held up our end, as I said at the bottom of my notes. Of course, he has the advantage of the better positions.

But Obama’s more like a pro — more like a professional debater — than a politician who happens to do all right in such settings. Not that that is necessarily the most effective thing, politically: There is such a thing as being too smooth.

And his rationale – when he is finally exposed to liberal policies instead of conservative talking points about liberal policies?

Obama is pretending!

What’s depressing, to a person like me, is that Obama has mastered the trick of coming off as perfectly moderate…

Wait until he finds out that we really DO love the terrorists and we want to tax the middle class and give the money to crack whores and we really DO want the government controlling your doctors! Mwuhahaha!

Who cares what a bunch of scientists think?

During the administration of George W. Bush, vital parts of our country’s scientific enterprise have been damaged by stagnant or declining federal support. The government’s scientific advisory process has been distorted by political considerations. As a result, our once dominant position in the scientific world has been shaken and our prosperity has been placed at risk. We have lost time critical for the development of new ways to provide energy, treat disease, reverse climate change, strengthen our security, and improve our economy.

We have watched Senator Obama’s approach to these issues with admiration. We especially applaud his emphasis during the campaign on the power of science and technology to enhance our nation’s competitiveness. In particular, we support the measures he plans to take – through new initiatives in education and training, expanded research funding, an unbiased process for obtaining scientific advice, and an appropriate balance of basic and applied research – to meet the nation’s and the world’s most urgent needs.

A Bunch of Scientists