If Trump Wants To Be As Popular As Obama And Obamacare, He Has A Way Forward

Well-known philosopher Donald J. Trump, who is a master of comprehending life and human nature, may have found a path to popular acclaim.  Mr. Trump, let’s be real: you crave popular approval, and former president Obama’s approval ratings have clearly gotten under your thin skin.  Also Obamacare’s approval ratings have shot up.  Human nature, as you say–we are already missing our water.  As you yourself said today: “the press is making Obamacare look so good suddenly.  I’m watching the news.  It looks so good.  It’s a little bit like President Obama.  When he left, people liked him.  When he was here, people didn’t like him so much.  That’s the way life goes.  That’s human nature.”

There is a way out of your low popularity, sir.  It is simple: the way out is the exit door, which for your convenience is marked “EXIT.”  I for one am totally prepared to miss you, and even to speak fondly of the many great things you could have accomplished, had you only stuck it out, and matured, and experienced a radical conversion, all of which was possible, if wildly improbable.  But no need to hesitate over hypotheticals.  Sky-high approval numbers are yours for the taking, Mr. Trump.

Obama Sees Some Things And Says Some Things

The President, still Barack Obama, was diplomatic in his news conference today, but he has seen some things about the incoming president, and he said some things to warn Trump and to give heart to steadfast progressives. Obama did not say, “I used to be a rock star celebrity newbie President and now you people just elected the same old same old thing.”  He did not predict that Trump is fated to act like a narcissistic rock star celebrity president who flies off the handle. Instead he let Trump and the rest of us know that millions of real American citizens are going to be hurt unless Trump thinks long and hard and reconsiders much of his stated agenda.

President Obama: I Came As A Mandarin, I Leave As A Mandarin

In a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi today, President Obama replied to a question about Middle Eastern refugees in Europe by speaking of the “distorting effects” on European politics of the crisis. He came as a mandarin and he leaves as a mandarin. By that I mean that Obama’s mindset is to posit a normative non-messy world. As head man of the men of the sacred bone, Obama has interpreted his mandate as maintenance and restoration of propriety and order.  Not an easy job in the midst of so many unruly Americans.

Our next president may or may not share the mandarin/yangban mindset. Hillary Clinton’s actual starting point on foreign policy, as well as domestic policy, is still pretty much a black box to me. Maybe I am just not paying close enough attention, or maybe she is staying vague on purpose–and why not? She is non-Trump, in any case. Can anyone imagine Trump even thinking, let alone saying, what Obama said today? Trump speaking about the “distorting effects” of any messy situation anywhere in the world is impossible to conceive. If you think I am starting to make a pro-Trump argument here, well, no. Trump’s MO seems worse than that of Mayor Daley’s Chicago police; that is, Trump creates and preserves disorder.  We survived eight years of mandarin rule, and we will, I hope, make it through the next four or eight, with or without a mandarin ruler. The risk-averse choice, though, is clearly the youngest woman ever, not the oldest and crybaby-est man ever.

P.S. President Obama’s reported plan to focus on the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to overcome Republican gerrymandering sounds like a potentially worthy act of political penance.

Can Chancellor Merkel Walk And Chew Out Obama At The Same Time? I Expect So

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to visit Washington later this week.  I am confident she can both chew out President Obama over the NSA’s intrusions on her, and walk the important walk of responding with Obama to Putin’s intrusions on Ukraine.  There is a formal equivalence in the sentence above, and I imagine Merkel is not amused at all that her cellphone was (is?) monitored by American signals intelligence.  But Putin’s aggressive destabilization of Ukraine is, I think, a threat to the entire post-Cold War order in Europe.  Russia was invited into groups such as the World Trade Organization and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, seven of whose observers are still being held captive in eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists), but as a recent Carnegie Europe blog by Jan Techau points out, “the Kremlin does not seem to share the principles that the OSCE was designed to uphold.”  Twenty-first century Russia, contrary to the red herring spread by its enablers and apologists, was included in Europe’s security architecture, says Techau (“Why European Security Works Better Without Russia,” 4/29/14).  The “narrative of humiliation and justification that maintains that Russia has been ostracized, excluded, and conspired against” is “wrong on many levels.”  The reason the OSCE is not working as designed is that “no matter what binding or nonbinding agreement Russia has entered into since the end of the Cold War, it has attempted to torpedo the deal from within,” and this applies also “to the Council of Europe and the World Trade Organization, the other major multilateral forums Russia has joined in recent decades….The reason behind Russia’s behavior is its archaic understanding of what constitutes a sovereign nation….Moscow…adheres to the idea that a nation is fully sovereign only as long as it is strong enough to take care of its own security.  This notion means that only a small handful of countries in the world can claim true independence….Russia…can never accept an architecture in which a country of lesser stature has an enforceable legal claim against–or even a formal veto power over–Russian objectives. That makes it amazingly unattractvie for almost anybody to enter any kind of legally binding, or even nonbinding, agreement with Russia.”

Jan Techau, unfortunately, has accurately appraised the behavior and standpoint of today’s Russia.  Merkel and Obama have a tough job in that U.S. and German finance and business oligarchs seem to be lobbying hard for looking the other way.  In another sense, though, it should be easy for the political leaders of Germany and the U.S. to see that they need to act based on a longer-term horizon than their economic elites seem able to imagine.  Moreover, Obama and Merkel are aware that their “job creators” cannot “build it themselves” in that they need protection and support from government–and sometimes much more support than road maintenance.  Sometimes governments in democratic regimes are compelled, based on a long-term strategic worldview, to defend their citizens against the rogue behavior of countries like Putin’s Russia.  Doing so is not high-risk behavior, it is risk management and mitigation.

And meanwhile Obama might be well advised, since he is no longer running for office and only lives once, to reconsider some of his insupportable, petulant, and unworthy responses to the Snowden leaks.  It is high time to acknowledge, which he has not yet done, that we have a surveillance state, as a German official said recently, “acting without any limits.”

Ultranationalism OK For Me But Not For Thee?

Kimberly Marten, professor at Barnard College, pointed to a change in Putin’s way of referring to “Russians” on Tuesday (in a Washington Post “Monkey Cage” blog post and in an interview with “Here and Now”) that she found ominous: Putin had been careful to say “Rossisskii,” which means persons of any ethnicity or nationality living inside the borders of the Russian Federation, but on Tuesday he switched to “Russkii,” meaning ethnic Russians only.  I imagine this shift to Russian ethnic nationalism is likely to play well with his intended core audience, but it does make his propagandistic claims that his goal is combatting abusive Ukrainian “ultranationalists” even more ludicrous, in spite of the spectacle of Svoboda thuggishness at Ukrainian state TV.  (The Onion’s commentary from inside Putin’s soul: “Thanks for being so cool about everything,” to the U.S., Europe, and pretty much the whole world!)

The least Western media can do is to report on Putin’s actions without retreating behind the journalistic “view from nowhere” as if that excused historical illiteracy.  Of course Russia has longstanding historical ties with Ukraine, and Russia has national interests, and Sevastopol’s Russian naval base is an important warm-water port.  But, as Daisy Sindelar writes in “Ukraine Unspun” (at rferl.org), “Crimea, which has been claimed by a number of empires during the past millennium, has never really been an inseparable part of anything.  Russia wrested it back from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century [thus the Crimean Tatars are more “native” Crimeans than Putin’s St. Petersburg and Moscow cronies–and are being pushed off their land by Putin just as they were by Stalin], and the peninsula spent only 37 years as a part of the Soviet Union’s Russian Republic before being transferred to Ukraine [Putin is unlikely to rehabilitate Kruschkev].”  So much for Putin’s assertion that “in people’s hearts and mind, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia.”  Sindelar deconstructs several other specious and ahistorical claims made by Putin, such as “[in] Russia as a whole…not a single ethnic group has been lost over the centuries.”

Speaking of deconstruction, Putin does have a sharp eye for the soft underbelly of Western and specifically American hypocrisy.  He sometimes even speaks the truth, and should be heeded when he does.  But Putin’s main goal, to create cognitive dissonance, resignation, and paralysis in European public opinion, can and should be resisted.  If he points to hypocrisy and unfreedom in the “free world,” we Westerners can and should listen and become better citizens for it, but with respect to Ukraine the least we can do is offer some real material support, at the probable cost of some inconvenience, to promote the worthy cosmopolitan project begun in the aftermath of World War II with the Franco-German coal and steel pact.  Merkel and Obama may have failed so far to induce Putin and Russia to move toward Western norms and normalcy, and Putin is using EU governance weaknesses to his advantage in the short term, but it is possible–and urgent–for Europeans to think and plan more strategically in the light of the caesura of 2014.  We should not be drawn into a permanent zero-sum or negative-sum mindset, and we should not dwell in Putin’s dystopic mental world full-time, but it would be unwise to plan and act as if Putin has not strayed far from the international law he purports to uphold.

By the way, Putin will gain credibility on referendums when he accommodates the 1992 pro-independence Tatarstan referendum and then allows a free and fair vote, with international observers, in east Prussia, including Immanuel Kant’s home town of Konigsberg/Kaliningrad.  Not to mention a positive response to today’s news of a request for an independence referendum in St. Petersburg!

P.S.  If Obama’s “reset” with Russia was naive and misbegotten, he may have Lloyd Blankfein, among others, for company.  Businessweek reports today that Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are “being forced…to reexamine their bet on friendlier relations between Putin and the West.”

Update 3/22: OSCE observers head to Ukraine, 100 at first, maximum of 500; Russia had stonewalled on this for a week but dropped objections Friday (the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is composed of 57 nations in Europe, Central Asia, and North America, and as with the EU unanimity is needed to move forward with anything).  I think this makes Russian disruptions and destabilizations somewhat less likely leading up to national elections May 25.  Once those elections happen, Russia may be much less able to claim with any plausibility that Ukraine is being hijacked by fascist brigands.  In sum, a good sign and the first real signal of possible de-escalation, though the observers will not be allowed into Crimea at all.

If Senator Feinstein Only Cared About My Privacy Too, That Would Be So Nice

Senator Dianne Feinstein made a speech on the Senate floor yesterday that ought to put wheels in motion to make CIA head Brennan worry about spending prison time.  But her pugnacious, blind-eyed, and pigheaded defense of the NSA over the last nine months diminishes the moral authority of her accusatory speech.  She seemed nonchalant about other people’s Fourth Amendment rights, but suddenly got very touchy about her own.

It would be fabulous if she as well as John Brennan and Mike Rogers (House Intelligence chairman) and President Obama would realize that they ultimately have no place to hide from our scrutiny of their transparently self-serving utterances, and that they will be judged mercilessly if they do not act as public servants rather than privileged mandarin rulers.

Should Chief Justice John Roberts Be Impeached Because He Defended A Florida Mass Murderer?

The U.S. Senate yesterday voted against the nomination of Debo Adegbile to become head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  Seven Democratic Senators heeded pressure against Adegbile’s nomination by the Fraternal Order of Police, who objected to the nominee’s participation in a legal appeal against imposition of the death penalty on a convicted cop killer from Philadelphia.  I do not recall any opposition by the police union to the nomination of John Roberts to become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court–even though Roberts helped defend a man convicted of killing eight people in Florida.  As a NYT blog notes, there seems to be a new hierarchy of victimhood.

The brave work police do to protect law-abiding citizens against criminals is not advanced or promoted by attacking the adversarial system of law, in which part of a lawyer’s job involves defending some nasty people along with some who have been unfairly accused.  Lawyers are often scorned and ridiculed, sometimes for good reason, but if police unions or anyone else campaign selectively against some judicial or governmental nominees because they did their part in a system designed to presume innocence until proven guilty, they are sowing the wind.  Of course lawyers defend plenty of dirtbags–that’s part of their job.  If you have a problem with that, you are inviting anarchy.  If a police union attacks some murderer-defending nominees and not others, they (and I am not talking about cops on the beat, but about the Fraternal Order leaders) are promoting a nasty, brutish, and short life for everyone.  I am not taking a position here on the sleaziness or uprightness of lawyers as a class of people.  I am attacking the lack of professionalism and self-discipline on display here by an organization representing police, which may have the power going forward to block some nominees but will likely do itself little credit thereby.  The president of the fraternal order of police called the nomination a “thumb in the eye of our nation’s law enforcement officers.”  Not true, unless the law enforcement officers are going to be judge and jury too.  We are all part of a system in which legal representation, even for horrible people, is close to the heart of what makes us civilized and free.

Reasonable And Unreasonable Warrants

The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB.gov) released a 200+ page report today “on the Telephone Records Program Conducted under Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act and on the Operations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.”  Before I venture an opinion on what the report says or doesn’t say, I need to take some time to actually read it, so as to understand the chain of reasons, that is the warrants, the Board used.

I can say, though, that Congressman Mike Rogers, head of the House Intelligence Committee, whom I disparaged in a blog post yesterday, criticized the majority report (the 2 Republican members issued separate analyses) for overstepping themselves by weighing in with “unwarranted legal analysis.”  A curious charge, given the Board’s explicit statutory mandate to consider relevant laws, not to mention that one of the PCLOB’s five members is Patricia Wald, a retired federal appeals court judge.  Mike Rogers may have law enforcement experience, but if he knows the difference between a particular warrant and a general warrant, or the reasons the American colonists hated writs of assistance, I would be so shocked I would take off my hat and bow to him, even on a zero-degree day in January.  What Rogers and Feinstein (and Obama, though with more panache, of course) seem to be presuming is that we cannot afford no stinking Fourth Amendment anymore, because requiring any reasons or preconditions for surveillance is such an inconvenient bore.

I would just note for the moment that the PCLOB issued the report this week on their schedule, and President Obama last Friday gave what the White House billed as a “pretty definitive statement” on the NSA programs on his own timetable.  The Board should thus not be criticized for stepping on President Obama’s message.  And Edward Snowden is free, for now, to do video links with EU commissions or online live chats with the freesnowden website (as he did today).  He is pretty clearly speaking for himself, not for Putin or the Russian spy services, as some reckless and frankly goofy pro-NSA propagandists have claimed.  He is certainly a fascinating interpreter and witness, though not now (or ever) an interpreter with any special privilege or prerogative.  I am inclined to agree with Virginia Eubanks’ point in her recent piece in The American Prospect, “Want to Predict the Future of Surveillance? Ask Poor Communities,” where she asserts that Snowden’s Christmas message “trotted out the hoary old cliches about George Orwell, Big Brother, and the end of privacy.  But for most people, privacy is a pipedream.”  For Eubanks, there are four “lessons” about surveillance we can learn from the experiences of marginalized groups as governments’ “test subjects”: surveillance is a civil rights issue; to a hammer everything looks like a nail; everyone resists surveillance, not just the bad guys; and privacy is not the problem (in brief, more important is connecting the world of digital communications with the worlds of active citizenship, democratic governance, free expression, and civic participation).

 

Is The Deep State Using The Dimwitted Twin Brother Of Sam Gamgee To Discredit Edward Snowden?

I do not actually have any specific evidence that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MIch.) is being manipulated by minions of the deep state to impugn Edward Snowden’s integrity by claiming that he may be taking orders from the Russian spy services.  I just feel like Congressman Rogers couldn’t possibly have shown up in the green room of that Sunday talk show the other day with a “go bag” on his own initiative, because he seems so much less intelligent than his twin brother, Sam Gamgee, companion of ringbearer Frodo Baggins.  (Oops, I think I just leaked a state secret.)

Meanwhile, I wonder why a reputable news source such as Reuters would diminish its credibility by putting out this headline about Rogers’s insinuation: “U.S. lawmaker investigates whether Russia behind Snowden’s leaks.” The story itself gives no indication that Rogers has investigated diddly squat, merely repeating speculations Rogers made on Meet the Press, with Senator Dianne Feinstein as echoing chorus.  As Snowden himself put it in an interview with The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer posted yesterday, why then did he go to Hong Kong first?  And, he said, “spies get treated better than” getting “stuck in the airport forever.”  Snowden remarked that “it’s not the smears that mystify me, it’s that outlets report statements that the speakers themselves admit are sheer speculation.”  According to Mayer, he “went on to poke fun at the range of allegations that have been made against him in the media without intelligence officials providing some kind of factual basis: ‘We don’t know if he had help from aliens.'”

P.S. President Obama’s speech on the NSA surveillance programs last week was, as usual, nuanced and serious-sounding (and he largely got the headlines I guess he wanted, e.g. “Obama Proposes NSA Reforms”).  And David Remnick’s New Yorker profile of Obama reveals, again, our president’s analytical capacities and scrupulous evenhandedness, for example, in the passage where he cautions progressives not to assume that all criticism of him (or of President Clinton) is the product of nullification fever, but also cautions conservatives against the convenient fantasy that he is out to crush states’ rights.

P.P.S. Blogger Marcy Wheeler at Empty Wheel has posted an annotated version of President Obama’s NSA speech, and follow-up posts detailing blind spots and self-serving assumptions in Obama’s remarks.  I do not know whether Obama or any surveillance state spokesperson will try to answer her (and how they have any answer for Jon Stewart’s spot-on ridicule is beyond me), but her critique goes into nitty gritty far beyond obvious criticisms such as Obama’s punt to Congress.  Conor Friedersdorf’s analysis in The Atlantic was also pungent: “Obama Accepts the Logic of Staying Terrorized.”  (I apologize but I do not seem to be able to give direct links.)

Does Robert Gates Speak For The Deep State?

In the old days, the deep state remained silent.  The deep state did not stoop to “me generation” blabbering.  But a former head of the NSA, Michael Hayden, was recently caught chit-chatting on his cell phone on an Amtrak train with a friendly reporter about NSA policies. And now Robert Gates has written another memoir (From the Shadows was published in 1996; this week we have Duty).  Gates, who has worked for the national security apparatus since the Nixon administration, has every right to feel the way he apparently does about Joe Biden or Rahm Emanuel.  But would discretion not have been the more valorous route?  Gates protested the other day that he was not trash-talking President Obama himself–sorry, but that is what you did.  Would Yoda (if that’s what they called you around the cabinet table) have stooped to rat out other people?  If you were really shocked, shocked, at the politicized motives of Obama operatives, and offended that they made you feel invisible while they, you felt, naively criticized what they saw as the foolishness of the W. Bush years–begging your pardon, but what the heck were you really expecting when you signed up for another tour, this time with Barack Obama?  C’mon, Gates, get a grip on yourself.  If you really speak for the deep state, the deep state has become pretty petulant, and that worries me almost as much as some of the NSA revelations.

Lying People Of The Year, 2013

Pope Francis Person of the Year?  And Edward Snowden Runner-Up?  No quarrel from me.  They shared a knack for inviting everyone to think again about how we frame big issues like faith and freedom, and for prodding us to consider anew our obsessions and biases, our risk aversions and mental shortcuts.

Let us thus turn our attention to lying liars, a target-rich environment every year I suppose, but 2013 had at least its fair share.  Politifact’s Lie of the Year has been health law-related four out of five years  since 2009: first “death panels”; then “government takeover of health care”; then in 2011 a Democratic Campaign Committee claim that “Republicans voted to end Medicare” (I think Paul Ryan’s plan would in fact have sabotaged it, but on we go); to 2012 with a non-health Mitt Romney interlude–so many options here!; and to President Obama this year: “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”

That was true for about 98% of Americans with health insurance, so I read, but 2% is still a lot of Americans to mislead, especially on such a serious and nerve-racking issue.  Even so, I would say Obama’s blithe assurance back in June that NSA surveillance amounted to “modest encroachments” might have been an even bigger whopper.  It has not reassured me about whatever else he says.

General Keith Alexander, soon-to-retire head of the NSA, lived in the shadows for almost all of his career, but found himself obliged to prevaricate, mislead, evade, and misinform in public this year.  I am not sure how many lives he may have saved.  Nor do I have a clear sense of how many outright lies he uttered–perhaps fewer than the unpersuasive James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence–but Alexander’s public Congressional testimonials qualified him in my book for scary-good virtuoso performance artist of the year.

Am I unfairly neglecting Vladimir Putin?  He capped off the year with an attack on “genderless and fruitless so-called tolerance.”  Pooty Poot (President W. Bush’s nickname for him) apparently noticed that the new Pope seems incapable of rendering proper judgments, and is stepping into the breach, taking up the white man’s burden and defending conservative values lest civilization fall into what he called “chaotic darkness.”  With which he is well acquainted.

P.S.  On Thursday John Boehner, who seemed to some to embody the conservative white man’s burden as he bowed low to the right-wing astroturf groups, seems to have snapped, going off in a big way on those very pressure groups as treacherous liars.  Such a topsy-turvy year! And so sad that, I fear, neither Boehner nor Putin, let alone General Alexander, can bring back the happy conservative values days when Dick and Jane and Spot were just Dick and Jane and Spot, and their problems were real and serious.

Update later Friday 12/13/13: The Guardian reports that the White House-sponsored review of government surveillance will recommend minimal changes, and will not recommend stopping bulk collection of Americans’ phone data.

Dumb Wars, Dumber Classifications

Barack Obama told us in 2002 that “I don’t oppose all wars…. what I am opposed to is a dumb war… a rash war.” And his May 23 speech showed his wish to get past the perpetual war on terror mindset, bearing in mind there will be more attacks from various directions. Who is wise enough and has a powerful enough megaphone to call out and persevere against dumb and dumber top secret classifications?