Obama’s Legacy – He’s Not Done Yet

Obama SOTU 2015-bWhat should one make of President Obama’s latest State of the Union Address? On the one hand it’s easy to dismiss it as being mere words, nicely spoken but without any real import. After all, there’s virtually no chance of the policies he proposed being put into law by the current Republican dominated Congress.

But his speech was not about specific proposals that he wanted Congress to pass. It was about something else; it was about securing his legacy, and about fundamentally changing the course of future public policy in America.

This was made clear by Obama’s choice of words at the very beginning when he said,

We are fifteen years into this new century.  Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world.  It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.

But tonight, we turn the page.

Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in almost 30 years. …

At this moment – with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production – we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come. [emphasis added]

Financial crisis headlineBarack Obama has guided and overseen a dramatic period of change in America’s history that few presidents have witnessed. He will be remembered as the President who took office at a time when the country was teetering on the brink of financial collapse, the country’s largest financial institutions were insolvent, the auto industry was in ruins, millions of people had lost their jobs, and the national debt had soared to unbelievable levels. (Thank you George W. Bush.)

And what action did he take as president? With a Democratic majority in Congress helping him, in his first year in office, Obama

rescued the automobile companies, jump-started the renewable energy industry, imposed new rules on financial institutions and, most dramatically, engineered a major overhaul of the health care system.

That is no small feat. Furthermore,

On his own initiative [through executive action], he ordered major reforms in immigration policy, forged a landmark agreement with the automobile companies on fuel efficiency and proposed tough restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

That’s quite the legacy in just his first two years in office.

Tea Party RepublicanAfter the 2010 elections, when Democrats lost their majority in the House, Obama was not able to accomplish as much. In fact, thanks to an unrelenting onslaught of opposition from the Republican dominated House (invigorated by the Tea Party) he was put on the defensive, trying to simply retain what he had accomplished in his first two years.

No provocative new initiatives were forthcoming in his 2012 re-election campaign, as he appealed to the moderate middle ground of voters. In the 2014 midterm elections he also held back, trying (largely unsuccessfully) to protect Democrats up for re-election in red states.

But since then – with no more election campaigns ahead of him – Obama has gone on the offensive once more. He has in short order announced a new climate deal with China (demolishing the long standing objection that America can’t afford to curb emissions as long as China refuses do the same), entered into talks with Iran to curb their development of nuclear weapons, revealed extensive new immigration reforms, and (after 50 years of a failed embargo policy) begun normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Obama is determined to leave a legacy behind that will mark him as a real and effective change maker.

Establishing His Legacy

In emerging from the financial crisis, the road to financial recovery was agonizingly slow, hampered in great part by Republican refusal to approve spending initiatives to create new jobs in repairing a deteriorating infrastructure, developing new avenues of renewable energy, and investing in public education.

??????????Instead, Republicans promoted an austerity program of decreased government spending, severe cutbacks in social services to the needy, and continued tax cuts to the wealthy. The U.S. would have come out of its deep recession much sooner and much more robustly if Congress had backed increased social expenditures rather than austerity.

It was almost as if the Republicans wanted to make people more miserable and more desperate in hopes that the economic recovery would fail and people would take their anger and frustration out on the president. It was a cynical strategy, but effective – and it almost worked.

economicrecoveryEven within these constraints, the economy did recover – slowly and painfully while at every turn Republicans gleefully pointed to the continuing high unemployment rate and slow growth in the GDP. But over time the unemployment rate did come down, and the GDP did rise. Now Obama can point to the lowest unemployment rate since before the great recession, and the greatest number of jobs created under any presidency. The stock markets have doubled, economic expansion is now roaring ahead at 5%, and oil prices have been cut in half. The annual deficit has been cut by more than half since Obama took office, and the national debt is now safely under 3% of GDP – right where economists said it should be to get things back to normal.

Is Barack Obama single-handedly responsible for this dramatic turn-around. Of course not. But you know who will get the credit? He will. When people look back in future decades to those frightful days of the second “Great Depression,” they will forget the complexities of all the political infighting, the obstructionism of Congress, the painful sequester forced on the nation, and all the rest.

People will simply remember Obama as the president who pulled the country out of its economic free-fall, who put America back to work, who ended two ill-conceived wars that cost thousands of American lives, who broke the political impasse on immigration, who restored America’s reputation on the international stage, who created the path to energy self-sufficiency, and who (after 40 years of failed attempts by other administrations) finally implemented national health care.

Defining the Road Ahead

Save-the-Middle-ClassAnd now Obama is setting the tone for future public policy in America. The points he outlined in his speech are not policies that he hopes will be enacted by this session of Congress. They look beyond that. They form the framework for a national debate in preparation for the 2016 presidential election.

It is an agenda that Democrats can readily endorse – expanded opportunities for the middle class with the very wealthy paying more of their fair share. Can Republicans embrace such a platform? And if they campaign against it, does that make them the party that only defends the interests of the rich and powerful and doesn’t care about the majority of middle-class Americans? That’s going to prove awkward.

What if Republicans are forced to change their message and (heaven forbid, move leftward) to embrace more progressive social and economic policies?

Following Obama’s speech Brian Beutler penned a very insightful piece for the New Republic. He recalled how back in 2008 Obama told the editorial board of the Reno Gazette-Journal that,

Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not.

Beutler maintains that Obama wants to accomplish the same thing – to change the trajectory of America like Reagan did, but in the opposite direction.

This can be seen in Obama’s State of the Union Address. Barely into the speech Obama recounts that

Six years ago today, in the darkest months of the crisis … I stood on the steps of this Capitol and promised we would rebuild our economy on a new foundation.

After reciting a number of his economic initiatives and their success, he concludes by saying,

The verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. [emphasis added]

The phrase “middle-class” economics is new. We have not heard it before. It is meant to signify the opposite of Ronald Reagan’s famous theory of “supply side” economics that focuses on increasing benefits for the wealthy in the belief that they will then create more jobs with their wealth, and the economic benefits will “trickle down” to those below.

trickle-down-economicsThirty years of economic history have shown that supply-side economics is a bust. The rich have simply pocketed their gains and the middle class has not benefited at all. George W. Bush’s naïve belief that providing further tax cuts for the rich would stimulate the economy has been shown to be completely ineffectual.

Obama is calling for an alternate strategy, one that focuses on providing benefits directly to the middle class to stimulate the economy.

It is an established fact that 70% of the economy rests on consumerism. When consumers have disposable income they will spend it on needed (and desired) goods and services. They will stimulate the economy. They will not hoard the money away like the rich, benefitting no one but themselves. They will not place it in offshore tax havens. And they will pay their fair share of taxes, unlike the super-wealthy who employ a raft of tax loopholes to avoid paying their fair share.

“Middle class economics” means investing in policies that stimulate middle class earnings so that they have disposable income to inject back into the economy. It means raising the minimum wage to a level where “the working poor” can actually live off their income and not be dependent on government supplements to survive.

It means providing equal pay for women. It means better early education and better skills training for better jobs. It means increased child support for working parents. It means having access to unemployment insurance and job retraining when necessary. And it means having health insurance coverage to protect from catastrophic financial loss due to illness (the source of 25% of all personal bankruptcies in the U.S.).

This is to be the focus of the new debate leading into the 2016 elections. This is to be the new direction for America. For decades Americans blithely trusted that Reagan’s tax cuts for the wealthy and deregulation would provide a path to prosperity for all.

We have seen how deregulation led to the massive economic crisis that capped the end of George W. Bush’s term in office. We have seen how under Reaganomics the immensely wealthy have vastly increased their wealth while the middle class has scarcely benefitted and the poor are even worse off than before. In the end Reaganomics generated a massive redistribution of wealth, taking from those who could least afford it and giving it to those who least needed it.

It is time to move back to the center, to restore prosperity for the middle class and provide greater opportunities for those who seek to join the middle class. It is time for America to go in a new direction. And Barack Obama is announcing that path.

The Worst President since World War II?


A lot of media attention has been given this past week to a Quinnipiac Poll (released on July 2) that ranks Obama as the worst President since World War II. It’s the kind of headline grabber that conservatives love to latch on to. But if one examines the polling data closely, a rather different picture emerges.

The Quinnipiac Poll listed the last 12 U.S. presidents beginning with Harry Truman (1945-1953), and asked respondents to say which of the 12 they considered to be the worst.

33% picked Barack Obama. The next choice was George W. Bush at 28%.

What do these poll results tell us? It may be simply this: As one of my fellow bloggers has observed,

Whoever is President at the time wins this [distinction]. When this poll was done in 2006, George W. Bush won it. It’s kind of expected and comes with the territory; the current President is always the worst, and then the longer they are away from office, the better they get.

We can see how this is so by placing the 2006 and 2014 polling results side by side:

                             July 2006                                                             July 2014

  1. George W. Bush (34 percent)             1.   Barack Obama (33 percent)
  2. Richard Nixon (17 percent)                2.  George W. Bush (28 percent)
  3. Bill Clinton (16 percent)                     3.   Richard Nixon (13 percent)
  4. Jimmy Carter (13 percent)                  4.   Jimmy Carter (8 percent)

In the most recent poll Barack Obama has (barely) pushed George W. Bush aside as the worst ranked president, followed by Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. One also notes that in the years between these two polls the number of people rating each of these past presidents as worst actually declined. (Bush from 34% to 28%; Nixon from 17% to 13%; Carter from 13% to 8%) Bill Clinton seems to have been rehabilitated the most, as he now disappears from the list.

Generally speaking, the passage of time seems to soften people’s negative judgments of past administrations. As the New York Post reports,

The survey itself appears prone to let people vent their opposition to a current White House occupant.

Thus, Obama

can take solace in the fact that presidents usually see their numbers rise after they leave office.

In capitalizing on the headline of Obama being the worst president, most media accounts have neglected to add that the Quinnipiac Poll also asked the respondents to say which of these 12 presidents they considered to be the best.

As the best president, Obama ranks 4th behind Ronald Reagan (35%), Bill Clinton (18%) and John Kennedy (15%) receiving 8% of the vote. George W. Bush, by comparison, receives only 1%. Reagan, Clinton and Kennedy received similar votes of approval in the 2006 survey (with 28%, 25% and 18% respectively) while George W. Bush was ranked best by only 3%. (Oops! Confidence in Bush’s presidency actually went down after he left office.)

What this seems to imply is that for all of the present criticism of Barack Obama, he ranks much better in people’s minds than George W. Bush. And that is something the conservative media would rather not report. So don’t expect to see that reported in their coverage.

When the Quinnipiac data is broken down by political affiliation, we find that the results are strongly polarized. 66% of Republican respondents view Reagan as the best president since World War II while only 6% if Democrats do. 34% of Democrats rate Bill Clinton as the best president while only 4% of Republicans do. And 18% of Democrats view Obama as the best president while only 4% of Republicans do. On the negative side, 54% of Democrats see George W. Bush as the worst president since World War II while only 5% of Republicans do, and 63% of Republicans view Obama as the worst president while only 4% of Democrats do. The highly partisan responses are plainly evident.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the White House in WashingtonThe Quinnipiac Poll also rates perceptions of Barack Obama’s handling of various key issues. 55% give him a negative rating for his handling of the economy, 57% rate him negatively on foreign policy, 58% on health care, 40% on the environment, and 51% on his handling of terrorism.

This is not surprising as

the conservative media constantly sends out negative criticisms of the president’s performance on every conceivable issue and rarely has anything good to say about him. Faced with an unrelenting barrage of negative new feeds most people will conclude that the reports must to some degree be correct.

But Barack Obama actually has a long list of accomplishments to his credit. We should not overlook the fact that he brought the American economy out of its greatest financial crisis in 80 years. He has slashed the annual deficit he inherited by over 50%. During his time in office he has also overseen the creation of over 4.5 million jobs. And with the passage of the Affordable Care Act he has accomplished what no other president has been able to do since the goal of providing universal health coverage was introduced by Richard Nixon over 40 years ago.

In commenting on why the Obama administration doesn’t get more credit for delivering such good news, Michael Tomasky of The Daily Beast says that it is largely because

Liberals don’t speak as one big fat propagandistic voice on this subject in remotely the same way conservatives do when a Republican president is in power. …

Imagine that a Republican president produced 45 straight months of job growth coming off the worst financial crisis since the Depression. Lord, we’d never hear the end of it from Fox and Limbaugh and even from CNBC.

I can’t argue with that. Obama clearly is not getting the credit he deserves.

Reaping the Whirlwind in Iraq

IRAQ-UNREST-KIRKUKThe crisis in Iraq continues to deepen. This week an organized militant group calling itself ISIS (short for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) overran Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The group controls most of the surrounding province and ISIS forces have advanced toward Baghdad where they have been responsible for a series of deadly explosions.

ISIS is a radical Sunni organization that split earlier this year from al-Qaida and is seen as even more brutal and militant than its parent group. On Wednesday ISIS took control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, and on Friday we learned that it was occupying the site of a former chemical weapons facility 46 miles northeast of Baghdad that contains a large supply of lethal chemicals.

Historical Context

Mideast map 2To understand the present political situation in Iraq it is necessary to know some of its history.

Iraq lies between Syria and Iran at the head of the Persian Gulf. The national boundaries carved out by the victorious European powers in 1920 shortly after the end of the First World War artificially divided this territory without regard to traditional tribal and religious loyalties. Land disputes and religious rivalries have been problems in this region ever since.

In 1979 the secular government of Iran was overthrown in a populist revolutionary movement that put control of the country in the hands of conservative Shi’ite religious leaders. The Shi’a are a minority within the Muslim world (forming about 10-15% of the total Muslim population), but they are the dominant group in Iran.

In neighboring Iraq the Shi’a also form the majority (over 60%), with the Sunnis, who form 85-90% of the Muslim population worldwide, being the minority (only 20%). In 1968 the revolutionary Sunni-based Ba’ath Party took control of Iraq in a coup and began filling government positions with Sunni appointees. Throughout the years of Ba’ath rule, both the majority Shi’a and the minority Kurdish population of northern Iraq were harshly suppressed.

Saddam HusainSaddam Husain took power as head of the Ba’ath Party in Iraq in 1979. The following year he invaded Iran – partially out of fear that the Iranian Revolution might inspire a similar revolt among Iraq’s suppressed Shi’a majority, and partially out of a desire to replace Iran as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf.

Iran fougnt back and regained most of its lost territory by 1982. After that Iraq was put on the defensive. In 1983 the Kurds of northern Iraq rebelled against the Husain government and attempted to form their own autonomous country.

The conflict went on for 8 long years at immense cost to all sides. It is estimated that half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers died in the conflict along with an equivalent number of civilians. During the war Iraqi forces used mustard gas against Iranian soldiers and sarin gas against Kurdish civilians – both chemicals are considered to be “weapons of mass destruction.” Hostilities were finally ended through a UN-brokered cease fire in 1988 that all sides accepted.

The United States played only an indirect role in the First Gulf War, mainly seeking to protect its economic interests in the region and to ensure the safety of oil shipments in the Persian Gulf. American resentment of Iran was still high following the lengthy holding of American hostages at the at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979-80, and so the United States favored Iraq during the conflict.

In 1982 the U.S. removed Iraq from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (created in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution). This was despite its full knowledge of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the war. It established diplomatic ties with the Husain regime, and began massive arms sales to Iraq.

Although Iran remained on the official list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, the Reagan administration surreptitiously gave military support to Iran as well. Anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry were taken from Pentagon warehouses and sold to the Khomeini regime in Iran in exchange for promises that Shi’a militiamen in Lebanon would release their American hostages. The details of the Iran-Contra affair only came to light long afterward.

Operation Desert Storm

American support of Iraq abruptly reversed course in 1990. In August of that year Saddam Husain invaded Kuwait, accusing it of exceeding its OPEC-set quotas of oil production. A few days later he declared Kuwait to be Iraq’s 19th province and installed his cousin as its military-governor. U.S. President George H. W. Bush termed the invasion a “naked act of aggression” and called for a clear and unequivocal withdrawal of Iraqi forces. The United Nations Security Council condemned the invasion, and within days had imposed sanctions on Iraq.

Saddam soon began verbally attacking the Saudis. Saudi Arabia was the largest oil producer in the Middle East and a strategic U.S. ally. President Bush announced that the U.S. would launch a “wholly defensive” mission to prevent Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia. U.N. Resolution 678 gave Iraq until January 15, 1991 to withdraw from Iraq, authorizing the use of force if Iraq refused to comply. The United States began building an international coalition of 34 countries to support such actions which included many Arab states.

Operation Desert Storm began on January 17, 1991 with an aerial bombing campaign aimed at destroying Iraqi military and civilian infrastructures. On February 24 American ground forces entered Kuwait from their staging area in Saudi Arabia and began the process of liberating the country from Iraqi occupation. They were joined by Arab forces advancing from the East. On 27 February, Saddam ordered a retreat from Kuwait, and President Bush declared it liberated.

Coalition forces then entered Iraq. The Iraqi forces suffered massive casualties while coalition casualties were low. American, British and French forces moved within 150 miles of Baghdad before withdrawing. On February 28, President Bush declared a ceasefire stating that the objective of the liberation of Kuwait had been accomplished.

Some criticized the Bush administration for allowing Saddam Husain to remain in power, rather than pushing on to capture Baghdad and overthrow his government. But the American President was adamant that his military forces would not exceed the mandate of the United Nations, which merely called for the restoration of sovereignty to Kuwait.

Events Under Geroge W. Bush

A decade later, after the horrendous terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001 masterminded by al-Qaida, President George W. Bush, declared war on Iraq claiming that it was in league with al-Qaida and was equipping its members with weapons of mass destruction.

Saddam Husain’s links to al-Qaida were never proven, and the claims tying him to this militant religious group were highly suspicious. Saddam was not a religious person; he knew how to cite Islamic scripture in speeches to show his loyalty to Islam, but didn’t go beyond that. His policies showed a strong secularist rather than religious orientation, and the religious extremists of al-Qaida tended to regard him as a religious heretic and infidel like so many others whom they opposed.

Nor were any weapons of mass destruction ever found in Iraq despite exhaustive searches for them. It soon became apparent that these claims of Iraqi links with al-Qaida and weapons of mass destruction were simply a pretext offered by the Bush administration to rationalize the invasion of Iraq and depose Saddam. Some mused that the younger Bush had vowed to finish the job that his father had left undone, and remove Saddam Husain from power once and for all.

shockandaweIn March 2003 American forces began their massive “shock and awe” military strikes against Iraq. Once American forces had deposed Saddam Husain, they banned his ruling Ba’ath party, systematically dismantled the existing government, and disbanded the Sunni dominated military and police forces. As Fareed Zakaria notes,

[T]he administration needed to find local allies. It quickly decided to destroy Iraq’s Sunni ruling establishment and empower the hard-line Shiite religious parties that had opposed Saddam Hussein. This meant that a structure of Sunni power that had been in the area for centuries collapsed.

Historically there were tensions between these groups, but as writer and peace activist Raed Jarrar explains,

Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites managed to live in the same country for a long time without killing each other, and they lived in the same neighborhoods. They intermarried …

That was before the US intervention. The US destroyed that Iraqi national identity and replaced it with sectarian and ethnic identities after 2003. … [Y]ou can trace the beginning of this sectarian strife that is destroying the country, and it clearly began with the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Developments Under Nuri Kamal al-Maliki

Nuri al-MalikiNuri Kamal al-Maliki was a Shi’a dissident in the early days of Saddam Husain’s regime and spent 24 years in exile after receiving a death sentence. He lived first in Damascas, Syria before moving to Tehran, Iran in 1990, and continues to have close ties with Iran and Syria.

Al-Maliki returned to Iraq aftr the fall of Saddam Husain, and became the deputy leader of the commission formed to purge Ba’ath party officials from the military and the government. He was elected to the transitional National Assembly in January 2005 and was appointed Prime Minister in May 2006.

Al-Malaki has been described as a militant sectarian who after his election began a systematic campaign to consolidate Shi’a rule and marginalize Sunni opposition. Iraq destructionHe is largely held to be responsible for a brutal civil war between the Shi’a and Sunni in Iraq from 2006 and 2009 which necessitated the “surge” in American troop levels to contain massive Sunni opposition to the U.S backed Shi’a rulers.

But efforts at containment had to be directed toward the Shi’a leadership as well. As one observer close to the situation has reported,

Time and again, American commanders … stepped in front of Maliki to stop him from acting brutally and arbitrarily toward Iraq’s Sunni minority. Then the Americans left, removing the last restraints on Maliki’s sectarian and authoritarian tendencies.

In the two and a half years since the Americans’ departure from Iraq in December 2011, Maliki has centralized power within his own circle, cut the Sunnis out of political power, and unleashed a wave of arrests and repression. … With nowhere else to go, Iraq’s Sunnis are turning, once again, to the extremists to protect them.

Before George W. Bush left office, he negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement with the government of Iraq which stated that

All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.

When President Barack Obama came to office, he realized that situation in Iraq was extremely unstable. He tried to negotiate a new agreement with al-Maliki allowing a contingent of American troops to remain on the ground to continue working with the Iraqi forces and assist the transition to peacetime rule. A necessary condition of this agreement was that U.S. troops would be granted immunity from prosecution for actions in Iraq. This clause is a standard part of Status of Forces agreements that the United States has with other countries. Al-Maliki refused to agree to this condition, and the talks collapsed. Obama was thus legally unable to extend the presence of US military forces in Iraq beyond the withdrawal deadline negotiated by President Bush.

The Current Situation

After enduring years of brutal oppression by Prime MInister al-Maliki and the Shi’ite military command, many Sunni Iraqis have become radicalized against the government. Some have come to see the ISIS militants as potential deliverers. Although most Iraqi Sunnis reject the extreme religious views of ISIS, many have nevertheless welcomed them as political liberators.

ISIS soldiersISIS is an extremely well organized and well-funded military movement. ISIS commanders set up local governments wherever they go, collect taxes, and even offer social services.

They are not a“terrorist” group in the usual sense, but rather a well financed radical political movement with an organized administrative structure and an estimated $2 billion in assets.

The appaling irony is that before the American invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush, there was no discernable presence of al-Qaida in Iraq. But after years of American soldiers targeting Iraqis in trying to defeat al-Qaida insurgents who made their way into the country, and after tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians being killed by American forces, many Sunnis have turned to al-Qaida sponsored groups for support.

Al-Qaida was not a direct threat to Iraq before American forces landed. Now, with the Americans gone, they are the largest threat the Iraqis have to deal with. And they may very well end up controlling a sizeable portion of the country and threaten Mideast stability for some time to come.

Photo credits: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images; European Press Photo Agency

Nelson Mandela’s Canadian Connection

NELSON-MANDELA-1991426This week as the world remembers the legacy of Nelson Mandela, Canadians are recalling his special relationship with this nation. As Evan Solomon, host of CBC Radio’s program The House, noted on Saturday,

If Nelson Mandela belongs first to South Africa and then to the world, he also belongs uniquely to Canada, where he was made an honorary citizen. It’s a special bond forged in the midst of the international struggle against apartheid by the Prime Minister [of Canada] who, against great pressure, brought sanctions against South Africa.

Back in 1985 the call for sanctions against the apartheid government on South Africa was an extremely contentious issue. Both President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were firmly against it. But that year Canada elected a new Conservative leader named Brian Mulroney who took a different view.

Mulroney, Brian (DHC 5)As Brian Mulroney recalled on Saturday when being interviewed by Solomon,

I felt when we came in that the support that Canada had been giving to Mandela and the ANC and the fight against apartheid was both tepid and inconsistent with our values. If Canada stands for anything internationally as a modern medium-sized power, we should stand for the protection of human liberties and civil rights, and here we were with the greatest human liberties struggle on the face of the planet going on, and we were not raising the flag with the vigor that we ought to have been. So I made this a priority of the government and indicated to the Cabinet that we would fight this at the United Nations, at the G7, at the Commonwealth, and at the summit of the Francophonie [an international organization of French-speaking nations].

This policy was carried out by Canada’s foreign minister, Joe Clark, who championed Canada’s opposition to the apartheid regime on the international stage. At the time, Canada was the only G7 nation to take such a resolute stance against apartheid.

Mulroney recalls that

with the United States and the United Kingdom out, Canada was the leading industrialized Commonwealth player and G7 player who was in full support of Mandela. They needed a white industrialized country in support of the ANC’s objectives. And we were it.

From his prison cell on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela learned on a BBC broadcast that “a young Canadian Prime Minister had taken control in Canada” and had made Mandela’s cause Canada’s top international priority. Mandela intently followed developments as the movement gained ground, and was immensely grateful for Canada’s leadership in pushing to end apartheid.

Soon after the world celebrated Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in May 1990, Mulroney recalls that Mandela phoned him and said,

Because of the tremendous support that Canadians have given me and given my movement, I would like to make my first trip to a democratically elected parliament to speak before the Parliament in Ottawa.

BRIAN MULRONEY, NELSON MANDELAMandela made that trip to Ottawa in May 1990 to tumultuous acclaim, and delivered what Prime Minister Mulroney called the most memorable speech to Canada’s Parliament since that of Winston Churchill in 1939. On the floor of Parliament he thanked Prime Minister Brian Mulroney who, he said,

has continued along the path charted by Prime Minister Diefenbaker who acted against apartheid because he knew that no person of conscience could stand aside as a crime against humanity was being committed.

And addressing all Canadians, he stated,

We are deeply moved that today you honour … us, who were outcasts only yesterday, to experience if only fleeting, what it means to stand and speak at a place whose existence is based on the recognition of the right of all the people to determine their destiny, and whose purpose is to ensure that that right is guaranteed in perpetuity. We are made better human beings by the fact that you have reached out from across the seas to say that we too, the rebels, the fugitives, the prisoners deserve to be heard.

In May 1994 millions of viewers around the world watched as Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa. He served in that capacity until 1999. During that time, Mandela distinguished himself in working to heal that nation’s wounds in the wake of the oppressive apartheid policies that until then had divided South Africa’s European and indigenous populations.

Alberta’s current Premier, Allison Redford (then a young lawyer) worked closely with Mandela during those years in trying to rebuild the legal system in South Africa. In 1996 Mandela oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the many crimes committed under apartheid, and it did much to heal that nation’s wounds.

Canada’s close relationship with Nelson Mandela continued, and on November 19, 2001, he became the first living person to be made an honorary citizen of Canada.

Belatedly, Canada came to recognize that South Africa’s apartheid laws had been constructed to a large extent on Canada’s own Indian Act of 1951 (updated from an earlier act of 1876), which placed the affairs of all “status” Indians directly under government controls. Canadian aboriginals have suffered greatly under the provisions of that act. Of particular concern is the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse experienced by generations of aboriginal children who were taken from their homes and placed in residential schools.

TRUTH-AND-RECONCILIATION-COMMISSIONIn 2007 Canada established its own Truth and Reconciliation Commission built upon Mandela’s model used in South Africa to hear testimony from survivors of abuse in the residential schools, and to heal the wounds suffered by Canadian aboriginals over a 120-year period. The commission expects to complete its work by 2014.

Mandela’s relationship with Canada has now come full circle. Just as Canada provided key support in Mandela’s struggle to establish justice for the native people of South Africa, now he has provided Canadians with a model for establishing a greater measure of justice for Canada’s aboriginal population.

Nelson Mandela’s influence and legacy reaches far beyond his homeland of South Africa. It is making an important difference in Canada as well. And for this we are truly thankful.

Credits: Getty; Fred Chartrand/CP; Wm. DeKay/CP; CP

Unfinished Business

March on WashingtonThis week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of over 200,000 people.

Even those of us like myself who are white and old enough to remember that event find it difficult to recall the perilous struggle of those involved in the American Civil Rights movement.

Last week the independently produced movie The Butler was released starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and a stellar cast of other well-known actors. Today I went and saw it and found it to be extremely moving.

movies-the-butler-posterThe movie traces the history of the American Black experience through the eyes of a single man over a period spanning eight decades. He is Cecil Gaines, a black man raised on a cotton plantation who witnesses horrifying brutality as a boy before leaving to find employment as a hotel waiter and is eventually selected to become a butler at the White House. He serves as a butler to eight presidents, from Eisenhower through Reagan.

Ever silent, observant and inconspicuous (invisible really), Gaines witnesses the inner workings of the White House through the period of the civil rights movement and beyond. His necessary passive detachment from the events of the day is contrasted with that of his oldest son, who becomes involved with the civil rights movement, becomes a Freedom Rider, is present when Martin Luther King is assassinated, and for a time becomes part of the radical Black Panther movement.

The film is about the silent suffering of those contending with benign forms of racism and the violent suffering of those struggling with its overt manifestations. The film dramatically juxtaposes these two is several memorable scenes. It is about broken lives and the courage to continue on each day – to do what one must do. It is about tenacity, perseverance, and commitment to one’s self and to others. It is, all in all, a remarkable story.

63-Civil-Rights-March.enlargedIn the opening week of the film’s release over one third of those coming to see it in the U.S. were African-Americans. It was as if they were waiting for this story to be told. Leonard Pitts Jr., in the National Memo, reports seeing elderly African-Americans bringing their grandchildren in tow to watch the movie. He emphasizes that, “This isn’t your average summer movie crowd.” It is as if they have brought their grandchildren to see The Truth – as in “The Truth of How Things Were, and how that shades and shapes How Things Are.”

The Butler tells us the truth about America’s racist past, but the story itself is fiction. Anyone watching the film should understand that it is not a documentary, and it is not a personal biography. It is a fictional narrative created around real historical events.

The butler in question did serve in the White House for 34 years to eight Presidents. His real name is Eugene Allen; he died in 2010. The bare outline of his life and career provide the framework for the story. But the details of his childhood and his interactions with his wife, neighbours, and two sons are fictional creations. (A very good summary of the film’s adaptation is found here.) They provide the necessary elements for a gripping drama, and that drama is compelling.

civil-rights-1963-grangerThe depiction of the African-American experience during those years is, unfortunately, all too true. The repeated scenes of racial bigotry depict actual events – the lynchings, the sit-ins, the Freedom Riders, the violence – they are all part of that history. And it is very unsettling.

The Truth needs to be told, even (or especially) when it is painful. Aging African-Americans know the truth of their experiences in the long and difficult struggles to end segregation. They know the struggles for fair treatment that continue even today. The New York Times reported this week that

According to a Pew Research Center poll released Thursday, nearly twice as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly by the police. More than twice as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly by the courts. And about three times as many blacks as whites say that blacks are treated less fairly than whites at work, in stores or restaurants, in public schools and by the health care system.

We white folks need to know the Truth of these realities too. Most of us are out of touch with the black American experience. We are not directly affected by it. It is not our story. It is not our history. It is not our experience. As Paul Waldman recently stated in his essay in The American Prospect on “the Privilege of Whiteness,”

[I]n all my years I’ve never been stopped by a cop who just wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. I’ve never been accused of “furtive movements,” the rationale New York City police use for the hundreds of thousands of times every year they question black and Hispanic men. I’ve never been frisked on the street, and nobody has ever responded with fear when I got in an elevator. That’s not because of my inherent personal virtue. It’s because I’m white.

I will never have to sit my children down and give them a lengthy talk about what to do and not to do when they encounter the police. That’s the talk so many black parents make sure to give their children, one filled with detailed instructions about how to not appear threatening, how to diffuse tension, what to do with your hands when you get pulled over, and how to end the encounter without being arrested or beaten.

My hope is that The Butler will not only help the grandchildren of those who went through the civil rights movement to understand what that struggle was about. My hope is that it will help all of us to understand what was a stake and what remains at stake in the ongoing struggle for human rights today.


Republican Party’s Shift to the Right

The Republican Party of today had gained a reputation for being dogmatic, ideological, intransigent and combative. It takes positions far to the right on most major issues. It has become dominated by a faction that until just a few decades ago represented only a small minority position within the Party as a whole. That vocal faction now seeks to define the entire party in its own image.

GeoffreyKabaserviceSMWhat accounts for this wholesale shift to the right, and what does it portend for the future of the Republican Party? These issues are addressed in the recent meticulously researched book by the respected Yale historian Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (Oxford University Press, 2012).

In the Preface of his book, Kabaservice provides an overview of the events that produced this ideological shift within the Republican Party. He explains that

The form of conservatism that now wholly controls the party did not even exist until the 1950s, and remained a minority faction for many years afterward. … It is only in the last decade or so that movement conservatism finally succeeded in silencing, co-opting, repelling, or expelling nearly every competing strain of Republicanism from the party, to the extent that the terms “liberal Republican” or “moderate Republican” have practically become oxymorons. [p. vxi]

How did this transformation take place? Kabaservice explains,

During the 1950s a new breed of conservatism, which became known as the New Right, developed in reaction to President Dwight Eisenhower’s brand of political moderation which, at the time, appeared to dominate the GOP. [p. vxii]

Frustrated by the moderates’ influence on Republican Party politics, the New Right sought to bring together conservatives in a well-defined counter movement.

The immediate goal of movement conservatism was to seize the GOP’s presidential nomination by taking over party organizations and the forums in which national convention delegated were chosen. The longer-term goal was to transform the Republican Party into an organ of conservative ideology and purge it of all who resisted the true faith. [pp. vxii-xviii]

This process would take decades, and it would suffer some early early setbacks. But in the end the New Right triumphed over the moderates and redefined Republican Party politics as a whole. Kabaservice explains,

Barry GoldwaterThe history of the struggles between moderates and conservatives in the Republican Party opens with the 1960 GOP national convention, which marked the first time that the New Right entered the Republican political scene in a significant way. It was also the last moment when moderates exercised anything close to dominance of the party. … [T]he period from 1960 to 1964 witnessed the conservatives’ capture of most of the Republican Party machinery, culminating in the nomination of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater as the 1964 presidential candidate. Goldwater and his supporters set the tone for the conservative movement ever after by mobilizing a base of right-wing populists, refusing to compromise with moderates, and pursuing a Southern strategy aimed at attracting civil rights opponents to the GOP. [p. vxiii]

These events set the stage for what Kabaservice calls a “civil war between the party’s moderate and conservative factions.” [p. 30] In a recent interview Kabaservice states that the 1964 Republican nominating convention was a brutal affair. At the convention,

[The Goldwater camp] gave absolutely no quarter to Republican moderates, no voice whatsoever. Conservatives stood behind Goldwater’s rejection of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and they ripped up a lot of what the Republican Party had stood for through the previous several elections. Barry Goldwater’s statement that if you’re not committed to our cause you should leave, and that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice — these were messages to the moderates that they were not wanted in the Republican Party. That they needed to go.

The New Right triumphed at the 1964 nominating convention, and Goldwater’s supporters saw this as their “golden moment.” But when it came to running against the Democratic nominee, Lyndon B. Johnson, Goldwater suffered a humiliating defeat, with Johnson winning the election by a landslide.

In response, moderates within the Republican Party “staged furious efforts to retake control.” They organized around causes such as civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. They formed publications and think tanks to counter the New Right ideology promulgated in William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. Volunteers and party workers promoted the presidential candidacy of moderates like Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney. They had to contend with dirty tricks by a new breed of activists like Karl Rove within the Young Republicans organization. Republican feminists went head to head with Phyllis Schlafly and the National Federation of Republican Women. The gains were only temporary. Some of the talented young moderates of that era like Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and Donald Rumsfeld would later change sides and become prominent figures representing the New Right. [p. vxiii]

A critical mass of moderate Republican politicians remained in office after 1970, although their numbers dwindled, and moderate ideas continued to have some influence on the GOP’s positions. [p. xix]

220pxPresident_Reagan_1981The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980, however, marked a resurgence of conservative ideology within the Republican Party, ushering in a nearly mythical “golden age” in the collective memory of the New Right. Moderate Republicans have never recovered. Kabaservice states that

In the years after Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 … the moderates did not simply die out, but were killed off by conservative enmity from within their own party as well as Democratic opposition and their own failures. The first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed the final decline and virtual extinction of moderates’ power and representation in the Republican Party. [p. xix]

Kabaservice concludes the introduction of his book by noting that

There remain millions of voters who define themselves as moderate Republicans, and millions more who would vote for moderate Republican candidates if they could find them. But the complete domination of the conservative infrastructure in party politics, and the absence of moderate efforts to counter grassroots movements like the Tea Party, means that the GOP has for all intents and purposes become a uniformly ideological party unlike any that has existed in American history. It has also become a party that has cut itself off from its own history, and indeed has become antagonistic to most of its own heritage. This unprecedented transformation of one of our major parties is likely to change our entire political system in ways that ought to concern all Americans.

Rule and Ruin presents a fascinating study of the rise of the new conservatism that thoroughly dominates the Republican Party today. Kabaservice provides a great deal of historical detail in tracing these developments, and I will report more of his findings in future posts.

A Significant Miscalculation

Reinhart_RogoffIn 2010 two Harvard professors, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, published an academic paper in which they showed that once the national debt rises beyond 90 percent of GDP, average growth rates fall precipitously to near zero.

rogoffgrowthvsdebtovergdp_zpsc983eb14Their analysis drew on data from 44 different countries over a 200-year period. These findings were later republished in the book This Time is Different, which won numerous awards and became a best seller.

The study was quoted by many Republicans and even a few Democrats as conclusive proof that the U.S. economy (which had reached this 90% mark early in 2010) was at a critical ‘tipping point.’ Comparisons were made to Greece (its debt to GDP ration topped 113% in 2009), and alarm bells were raised about the danger of American insolvency and a looming economic collapse.

The Reinhart-Rogoff report became a chief pillar in the argument against any additional stimulus spending that might expand the national debt. Instead, deep budget cuts and austerity were the order of the day if America was to be rescued from looming catastrophe.

It turns out that Reinhart and Rogoff’s findings were dead wrong.

Thomas HerndonIt took a 28-year old graduate student named Michael Herndon to discover the errors. This spring he was completing an assignment for an econometrics course that required him to replicate the data analysis of a well-known study. He chose Reinhart and Rogoff’s 2010 paper because of its significance, but then found that he was not able to replicate their results.

He repeatedly emailed Reinhart and Rogoff to get an explanation. Reinhart finally sent him the raw data and told him to sort the answer out for himself. He did. In going over the data spreadsheet, he discovered some errors in their calculations.

I clicked on cell L51, and saw that they had only averaged rows 30 through 44, instead of rows 30 through 49.

The missing rows contained data from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia – countries with highly developed economies like the United States – that have sustained solid growth even while maintaining high debt-to-GDP ratios. The inclusion of this additional data seriously undercut the report’s main thesis that high debt prevents economic growth.

rogoffgrowthvsdebtovergdpcorrect_zpsba357786Rather than showing average economic growth plunging precipitously from 2.8% to -.1% when the 90% threshold is reached, the revised calculations show a decline in the growth rate to 2.2%. Significantly, this matches the average economic growth rate in the U.S. over the last three years. Right on target with what one would expect. It is slow – less than what one would like. But the economy is by no means dead in the water.

Yes, large indebtedness does weigh upon an economy. No one disputes that. But the revised data clearly shows that there is no sudden plunge after a certain level. There is no looming cliff. There is no cause for panic. In fact, the cost of paying off the debt as a percentage of GDP is actually less now than it was in in Ronald Reagan’s final year as President. No one was shouting fiscal crisis at that time.

The solution to the high GDP-to-debt ratio is to grow the economy. Austerity will not do this. Austerity slashes government spending, which eliminates jobs, which reduces production, which lowers overall GDP. The goal is to decrease the value of the debt-to-GDP ratio. The smaller the GDP, the higher the ratio. (To use a simple example: a Debt/GDP ratio of 8/10=80% but a ratio of 8/9.5=84%.) Reducing the GDP through austerity does not bring down the overall debt-to-GDP ratio; it has the opposite effect. Growing the economy, on the other hand, does bring down this ratio. (E.g. a Debt/GDP ratio of 8/10.5=76%).

It’s simple math. Unfortunately the economists neglected to do the math properly and our politicians blindly followed their lead. One should always check the facts behind the arguments. Fortunately, someone finally did.