Four More Years!

After almost four years of active campaigning, the time has come.  In just a few days, America will collectively choose a president.  On November 6th, I will be casting my vote for our current president Mr. Barack Obama.  I believe this decision is important and complex enough to expound upon somewhat further; not for reasons of persuasion or justification, but rather for communication and documentation.

The Economy.  This topic is incredibly complex and is wrought with dueling statistics and expert panels.  Even the most ignorant of the myriad experts on either side know much more than me on this topic, so I will not deign to try to judge among them.  However, I believe that Mr. Romney’s plan for the economy relies entirely too much on trust.  Trust that the economy will grow at an accelerated rate to help him afford his tax cuts.  Trust that “job creators” will reinvest  their tax savings to hire more workers, rather than cash in profits or take them overseas.  And finally, trust that we will forget that the “Reagan Recovery” he so hopes to emulate led to one of the largest explosions of the national debt in history.  Mr. Obama inherited an economy in free fall, which arguably hit its nadir about six months into his presidency.  To expect us to be completely recovered in only three years is to defy the cyclical nature of history.

Foreign Policy.  Mr. Obama’s foreign policy can seem at first glance to be somewhat muddled and haphazard.  However, I believe this stems from the inherent complexities of international relations in our interconnected world.  I much prefer Mr. Obama’s painstaking deliberation to treat each situation uniquely as well as his wholehearted attempts at multilateralism to Mr. Romney’s one-size-fits-all, with-us-or-against-us approach.  Mr. Romney’s attempts to attack Mr. Obama for being “soft” in Iran or Syria leave no room for him to maneuver except to embroil the United States in more foreign wars which we cannot afford.  Further, while it is vitally important for us to have an unquestioned staunch ally in a volatile region like the Middle East, that is no excuse to equate Israel’s national interests with our own.  While they often do align, and mutual protection is a foundation for our alliance, our national interests must be our own, and must be the President’s focus at all times.

Health Care.  It actually matters very little who becomes President in this regard.  The fact is that Medicare is an extremely expensive entitlement program our nation can no longer afford.  For political reasons, neither side is willing to directly cut benefits to voters, and both sides have pledged to save money.  This must necessarily result in reduced reimbursement to healthcare providers–and subsequently to indirect reductions in benefits through more providers dropping Medicare patients, rationing of care, or the market producing less or lower quality physicians.  The one alternative solution, sweeping malpractice tort reform, has unfortunately not made it to the conversation during this cycle.

Civil Rights.   Mr. Obama has been no saint on civil rights, from failing to close Guantanamo to quietly continuing warrantless wiretapping and other surveillance.  However, the Republicans have squandered the Muslim vote for a generation through a replay of their Southern Strategy.  By systematically demonizing Muslims at the party level, they have made it impossible for us to vote for them.  Michelle Malkin (who advocates placing all Muslims in internment camps) may be a fringe player in the Republican party, but Michelle Bachmann (who advocates a Muslim witch hunt to root out Muslims in the federal government), Herman Cain (who would apply a Muslim litmus test prior to hiring anyone), Newt Gingrich (who compares Muslims to Nazis), and Tom Tancredo (who advocates bombing Mecca and Medina) are most certainly not–in fact, all of them ran for president under the Republican banner.  Add to that the right’s insistence of propagating the Obama crypto-Muslim story as a slur and you have a veritable definition of Islamophobia.  Even the current nominee, Mr. Romney, said in a debate he would not consider a qualified Muslim for a cabinet level post since Muslims do not constitute a large enough proportion of the population to justify it–a reasoning that should also exclude a Mormon from becoming president.  Hiring or not hiring someone based on their religion is a violation of their civil rights and fundamental American principles, and no American (Muslim or otherwise) should allow such violations to creep into governing philosophy.

Leadership. This is perhaps the toughest to judge, and the toughest to quantify.  However, certain anecdotes truly cement this in Mr. Obama’s favor.  First is the decision to green-light the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden.  While in retrospect it seems like an easy decision, prospectively it is much muddier.  There are a myriad of ways this mission could have gone disastrously wrong.  Imagine being engaged in Pakistani airspace by fighter jets we had sold them.  Or storming the compound and mistakenly killing innocent women and children only to find intelligence about Osama’s whereabouts were wrong.  Or having Osama escape, and chasing him through a sovereign country’s streets only to have our strikeforce overcome by a violent mob of Pakistanis.  Almost any alternate scenario would have been an international embarrassment or worse, and would have led to a premature end to Mr. Obama’s political career.  Yes, it is easy for Mr. Romney to say in retrospect he would have done the same thing now that the outcome is known.  It takes leadership and courage to proceed with an uncertain outcome.

Another major test of leadership came this summer, when Mr. Biden unwittingly dragged his boss into the fray of gay marriage.  Mr. Obama was already fully engaged in a re-election campaign which he knew very well would be a fight for the center-ground of the electorate.  Yet, he used the opportunity to state his own personal viewpoint (which risked alienating many middle ground voters) without pandering or massaging it, and without forcing its acceptance by others.  Mr. Romney, by contrast, has shown time and again that he is unwilling or unable to stand up to even the fringes of his party, as evidenced by his newfound criticism of Planned Parenthood–an organization that he found worthy of charitable contribution just a few short years ago.  I simply cannot and will not cede the right to appoint lifetime Supreme Court Justices to someone who has shown a remarkable inability to withstand political pressure.

Mr. Obama has not been a perfect president by any means.  He has not been the president I imagined he would be nor, I venture, the president he imagined he would be.  However, he has certainly made considerable progress amid formidable challenges and united opposition.  Mr. Romney, by contrast, has revealed himself as weak-willed and short-sighted.  On November 6th, I will proudly vote to give Mr. Obama the second term he has earned.

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Rules of Engagement

The second presidential debate just ended, and the internet is abuzz with post-debate spin and analysis.  Unfortunately, the post-debate articles could just as easily have been written before the debate, with a few pesky details to be filled in later, because the actual debate was largely a foregone conclusion.  It consisted of two candidates being asked a certain predictable set of questions from a limited set of topics.  The candidates then focus on one particular word in the question, mentally cross-reference that word with a paragraph from their stump speech and deliver that paragraph, often ignoring the actual question. On every third question, they also invent a down-on-their luck person they met on the campaign trail who used said issue to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Thus, a very astute question on the scope of federal government (should it have a role in setting gas prices) turns into a discussion on clean coal, simply because the word “energy” was mentioned in the question.  Or a potentially explosive discussion on interagency communication breakdown (as evidenced by requests for security funding for embassies) turns into a sparring over word-choice regarding terrorism.   The candidates end up not so much debating as giving dueling mini-speeches–an unfortunate microcosm of our current political discourse where the two sides talk at each other rather than to each other.

In the midst of all of this, facts and figures which are often totally contradictory get bandied about with reckless abandon,  making it so that drilling on federal lands can both increase and decrease over the same time period (depending on the metric and comparators used).  It is a testament to the degraded quality of our collective political discourse that the most accurate statement out of either campaign on strategy was when Romney’s campaign stated they would not let their campaign be “run by a bunch of fact-checkers.”  I believe that for better or for worse (for worse, in my opinion), they got that point exactly right.  In politics, perception is reality, the rest is just facts.  A bell once rung can be silenced, but never unrung.  Thus, Republicans can fact-check Obama’s Libya comments all they want, and even if the President is proven completely wrong, it will at best only serve as feeble damage control for the GOP.

For too long have we let the candidates and the campaigns police themselves for truth and veracity.  They have obviously proven inept or unwilling to do so.  It is time for us to step in and (gasp!) hold our candidates responsible for their statements in real time.  I would propose that the easiest and most universal venue for doing so is the Commission on Presidential Debates.  The debates currently start with a coin toss– a simple and mostly fair method to determine who goes first and one shared with many professional sports.  Perhaps we can borrow other rules from pro-sports to make the debate more meaningful, useful, and truthful.

For the sake of human nature, please take a moment to imagine President Obama in a football helmet dousing himself with gatorade, then flexing and screaming.  Got it? Good.  Now that you’ve got it out of your system, let’s get serious.

Here are some specific suggestions:

1) Challenge flags.  Each candidate can choose three opportunities in the debate to interrupt his opponent for a real time fact check by an unbiased panel of fact checkers.  If the challenger loses the first two, however, the third is rescinded.  This introduces an impetus for truth as well as an eye for strategy (something I’d like our commander in chief to have)

2) Play clock.  The great lesson of Watergate was that the President is not above the law.  Why, then, should they be above the rules?  If a candidate is given two minutes to answer, they should be held to that rule.  The mic for both candidate should be cut immediately after their allotted time for speaking is over.  A president should be able to handle pressure calmly, prioritize quickly, and communicate effectively and succinctly.  This handles all of those attributes.

3) Time outs.  The executive branch of government is more than just a person.  It is an entire team of individuals charged with keeping the legislature and judiciary in check.  For every major decision, we expect the president to confer with his chief advisors.  And yet, during the debates a candidate is all alone.  Between topics, would it be so bad for each candidate to choose  to huddle with his advisors to discuss general strategy and pertinent points to make/avoid, etc? In the end, the candidate on the stage would maintain final control over each decision, just as we expect a governing president to.

4) The Blitz.  President Obama effectively criticized Senator McCain in 2008 for suspending his campaign to solve the economic crisis by claiming a president “should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time”.  There is no point in the debate where a candidate’s mettle is truly tested.  No truly stressful point in a debate where a president must perform under unexpected pressure.   This could come in any of a myriad of forms, each with its own challenges.  Would the candidate be forced to speak over loud microphone feedback?  With a time-clock that is inexplicably draining in double-time?  Answer two disparate questions at once, or be posed with a second question halfway through answering the first?  Nobody could foresee some of the historical events of the past decade.  It would be imminently reasonable to expect a president to deal with unforeseen challenges.

I know this analogy is prone to lampooning.  But these approaches are used in professional sports simply because they work in an enterprise where fairness and accountability are the keystones of the entire business model.  Shouldn’t we expect at least as much from our presidential candidates?

(Hat tip to my friend Ali Yusufaly for the general inspiration for this post.)

Terms of Endearment

This nation is badly split.  The presidential election this cycle accurately reflects the acrimony and small-ness that pervades our political perceptions.  As we perseverate over minutiae, our country languishes in self-imposed malaise and our economy teeters on the brink of disaster.   What makes the hyperpartisanship worse is the fact that the country is split almost 50/50 on either side of the divide.

Does any of us really believe that this will change after the 2012 election?  It is unrealistic to think (just as it was in 2008) that we will magically rally around our president and our congress to tackle the major issues of our time.  Given the likely divided nature of our government, and the definitely divided nature of the electorate, the American public can look forward to more fiddling while Rome burns even under the term of the next president.

It is a common theme in presidential politics that first term presidents often “pivot” to the political center in order to buff their chances for re-election, while second-term presidents are “unleashed” from those concerns to return to their idealogical base.

However, Mr. Romney has made too many promises and sold too much of his political capital to the far right of his party to credibly govern as a compromising moderate if he wins.  During his first term, President Romney would need to burnish his credentials as a bona fide conservative in order to convince his base (who is luke warm on him currently) that he is not deserving of a primary challenge.  While President Romney would no doubt vanquish such a challenge, it would be the ultimate pyrrhic victory and likely fatally wound his re-election campaign.  Thus, shortly after election we can realistically expect a lurch to the right from President Romney, which would likely worsen gridlock (without a senate supermajority) and increase the shrill tones of partisan debate.

President Obama, for all of his soaring rhetoric, has not shown a tremendous aptitude for bipartisan leadership and unification of the electorate.  While there may be many reasons for this, it is safe to say that a fair portion of the blame can be laid at his own feet.  As an “unleashed” lame duck president, the right wing warns, he would be free to turn sharply to the left and lead as the unabashed liberal that he inclines to be.  This would also serve (with a Republican house) to worsen gridlock and partisanship.

Lest we get too depressed, there is a glimmer of hope in these scenarios, and it comes from the unlikeliest of sources–President Clinton.  In 2008, it was clear that President Bill Clinton was smarting from the rough and tumble primary contest between his wife Hillary and Mr. Obama.  He was scarce on the campaign trail, and reticent with his endorsements.  In 2012, however, President Clinton gave a tremendous speech at the Democrat’s convention, and has been full-throated in his endorsement of the current president.  It is widely assumed that he is playing nice within the party to help ease Hillary’s (unopposed?) march to the Democratic nomination in 2016.  It is conceivable, and even likely, that in exchange for the badly needed enthusiastic endorsement, President Obama has agreed to throw the full weight of his personality, and his office, behind Hillary’s presumed run in 2016.

President Clinton’s endorsement of Obama has held real value in this cycle.  And in return, President Obama will need to give Hillary something of real value back.  In a very real sense, then, he will not be able to lead as the unleashed liberal that he is, taunting Republicans with brinksmanship at every turn.  Such a term would be considered a failure, and a failed President’s endorsement and party would hold no value.  In that situation all he could deliver to Hillary was his base, a consituency she arguably is more comfortable with than he is.  He will be forced, for her sake and due to promises made, to govern and lead through unification and compromise, in order to win over the middle ground of American politics, the independent voter.

There is good reason to believe that Mr. Romney’s first term would be reminiscent of an “unleashed” second-term president, whereas Mr. Obama’s second term would be more reminiscent of an accountable first-term president.  Given the choice, I prefer a president who feels accountable and motivated to move to the middle any day.