The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Obama Decries the Political Habits That Drove His Career

Former President Barack Obama delivers the 16th Nelson Mandela annual lecture, marking the centenary of the anti-apartheid leader’s birth, in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 17, 2018. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

Yesterday, President Obama stood in a cricket stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, and said a lot of things that could, or should, get conservatives nodding in agreement. But as he offered a grim assessment of both modern American politics and the broader geopolitical scene, you had to wonder when, if ever, he would confront the fact that he had a lot to do with the shaping of modern American politics and the broader geopolitical scene. He certainly had more influence on it than you or I did.

Obama pointed out that history’s many horrific systems of oppression can’t be simplified to a simple narrative of racism: “Whites were happy to exploit other whites when they could. And by the way, blacks were often willing to exploit other blacks. And around the globe, the majority of people lived at subsistence levels, without a say in the politics or economic forces that determined their lives.”

And he took a shot at identity politics: “You can’t [change minds] if you insist that those who aren’t like you — because they’re white, or because they’re male — that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”

Of course … this is the president who made Al Sharpton his “go-to man on race” and who said Latinos needed to “punish” their “enemies.” It’s great that Obama realizes that identity politics can be corrosive to civil society and that they can Balkanize a once-thriving, relatively harmonious society. It just would have been good to hear this wisdom from a president instead of an ex-president.

Obama offered a nostalgic look at the close of the Reagan-Bush era, when a wave of freedom and liberation swept the globe in the aftermath of the Cold War:

As a law student, I witnessed [Nelson Mandela] emerge from prison, just a few months, you’ll recall, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I felt the same wave of hope that washed through hearts all around the world.

Do you remember that feeling? It seemed as if the forces of progress were on the march, that they were inexorable. Each step he took, you felt this is the moment when the old structures of violence and repression and ancient hatreds that had so long stunted people’s lives and confined the human spirit — that all that was crumbling before our eyes.

For Americans and the rest of the world, life in the ’90s was better and safer than it was at the beginning of the 1980s — which is why it is unwise for adults who should know better to say things like, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country” in 2008. Some might even say comments like that are “strikingly ungracious.” Perhaps “Make America Great Again” and “American Carnage” are unduly dark and pessimistic assessments of the country — but they simply echoed the apocalyptic perspective of Democrats in the latter years of the Bush presidency.

Obama said yesterday, “For once solidly middle-class families in advanced economies like the United States, these trends have meant greater economic insecurity, especially for those who don’t have specialized skills, people who were in manufacturing, people working in factories, people working on farms.” Had he focused on this more during his presidency, would Hillary Clinton have lost?

Obama lamented, “In the West, you’ve got far-right parties that oftentimes are based not just on platforms of protectionism and closed borders, but also on barely hidden racial nationalism.” Would those parties have flourished if the Barack Obamas and Angela Merkels of the world had taken citizens’ demands for border security and carefully scrutinized immigration more seriously? How much faith was lost in U.S. immigration controls when the 9/11 hijackers, the Boston Marathon bombers, and the San Bernardino terrorists entered the country legally? Is anyone surprised that many Germans bristled when Merkel decided, unilaterally, to allow in more than 1 million migrants — many of them fleeing the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan?

Former United Kingdom prime minister Gordon Brown was caught on a hot mike calling one of his own supporters a “bigoted woman” because she lamented people staying on public assistance for too long and asked where all of the recent immigrants were coming from. If you’re wealthy and powerful, your life is insulated from a lot of problems in society. Among those problems is illegal immigration, and because you’re not dealing with any crime, any overcrowded schools, any language barriers, you see it as harmless, or even as an economic benefit.

Later in his speech, Obama added, “In the West’s current debate around immigration, for example, it’s not wrong to insist that national borders matter; whether you’re a citizen or not is going to matter to a government, that laws need to be followed; that in the public realm newcomers should make an effort to adapt to the language and customs of their new home.”

How different would the Obama era look if he had emphasized that message at every opportunity?

Obama said progress requires “laws that root out corruption and ensures fair dealing in business.” Does he think the Clinton Foundation fits into that vision? How about the former Obama Treasury secretary Tim Geithner’s tax evasion? How about former congressman Charlie Rangel’s tax evasion? The six-figure and seven-figure sums of unpaid taxes of Tom Daschle, Claire McCaskill, or Al Sharpton? Does Obama grasp why the public might virulently recoil when those who support higher taxes escape serious consequence for not paying their own?

Obama declared, “It’s not just money that a job provides; it provides dignity and structure and a sense of place and a sense of purpose.” Amen, Mr. President! How long have conservatives made this argument in various welfare-to-work proposals?

Some parts of Obama’s speech were great, such as when he directly attacked the idea that human rights, freedom, and pluralism were incompatible with some cultures: “We have to resist the notion that basic human rights like freedom to dissent, or the right of women to fully participate in the society, or the right of minorities to equal treatment, or the rights of people not to be beat up and jailed because of their sexual orientation — we have to be careful not to say that somehow, well, that doesn’t apply to us, that those are Western ideas rather than universal imperatives.”

But in that light, a more generous assessment of the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda” is warranted. It wasn’t naïve or unrealistic or happy talk; it was principled.

Discussing partisanship and division, Obama said, “Maybe we can change their minds, but maybe they’ll change ours. And you can’t do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start.” That’s a great message. But this is the man who responded to GOP criticism of his stimulus package with, “I won.”

And when Obama complained, “Unfortunately, too much of politics today seems to reject the very concept of objective truth. People just make stuff up,” a lot of Americans no doubt heard, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan, and if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” ringing in our ears. Obamacare was passed with the necessary assistance of a pack of lies, with its architect gloating about the “stupidity” of the American voter and boasting that the “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.” Obama hates cynical, dishonest politics — up until the moment he needs it.

Identity politics, cynicism, tolerance of corruption, hardline partisanship, shameless dishonesty, a shallow obsession with celebrities, an appetite for utopian slogans instead of serious and realistic proposals, demagoguery … if all of these forces play bigger roles in American politics in 2018 than they did in 2008, whose fault is that?

Is Phony Appreciation of America’s Intelligence Agencies Better Than an Honest Disregard?

Look, if President Trump thinks that the meddling in the 2016 election was committed by the Russian government but “could be other people also — a lot of people out there,” as he ad-libbed during his press conference at the White House yesterday, then he doesn’t really “accept our intelligence community’s conclusion.”

Yes, it’s great that this administration has been tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush, or Clinton. But no one worries about the Russia stance of Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, or James Mattis. None of them have ever said nice things about Putin, or talked repeatedly about how well they think they would get along with the Russian dictator, or had a lot of business dealings with Russians, or offered moral equivalence along the lines of, “Do you think our country is so innocent?”

It’s not surprising that an administration filled with Pence, Haley, Pompeo, Mattis, and the likes of John Bolton, Rick Perry, Dan Coats, and John Kelly would be tough on Russia. But none of them can speak for the country the way the president of the United States can and does. What we’ve seen is that when given the opportunity to confront Putin and Russia about issue after issue, President Trump whiffs or holds back. The lone exception I can think of came in April of this year, when Trump tweeted, “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

ADDENDUM: My chat yesterday with Tony Katz can be found here.

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