Barack Obama’s Legacy: Part One – Comparison to John Kennedy

Published: The Morning Call (April 30, 2012)PolicyMic (April 30, 2012)CNN (April 30, 2012)

With one of Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievements on the Supreme Court chopping block and his re-election bid against Mitt Romney shaping up into a close race, many conservative pundits are claiming the president’s legacy is in peril. Since their assertions have received ample play in the mainstream media, I decided it would be appropriate to offer a different perspective.

Here is a look at some of Obama’s most important achievements, nearly 1,200 days into this presidency:

Foreign policy. Per one of the central promises of his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama ended the war in Iraq, with the last U.S. troops being withdrawn in December 2011. He also presided over the tough decisions that led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden, thus helping bring closure to the emotional wounds of the Sept. 11 attacks. Finally, Obama underwent concerted diplomatic efforts to repair relations with nations that had grown alienated from America by George W. Bush‘s policies, particularly with his outreach to the Muslim world as spelled out in his “New Beginning” speech at Cairo University. Only the lingering war in Afghanistan exists as a major tarnish on his foreign policy achievements.

Obama

Domestic policy. Even if the Supreme Court overturns Obama’s health care reform law, he still will have amassed an impressive legislative record, including civil rights measures (the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act), significant financial regulatory reforms (the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act), consumers rights bills (the Credit CARD Act, the Food Safety Modernization Act), and economic relief initiatives for those struck hardest by the recession (the Helping Families Save their Homes Act, the Small Business Jobs Act).

DADT

The economy. Obama stopped the Great Recession from deteriorating into a second Great Depression. Although the first nine months of the Great Recession saw only a gradual climb in unemployment (from just under 5 percent in the last pre-recession month, November 2007, to slightly more than 6 percent in August 2008), the Wall Street meltdown of September 2008 caused it to spiral out of control. Unemployment rose at a dangerous average rate of almost 0.4 percent per month from the time of the crash to May 2009. Once Obama’s stimulus bill began taking effect, however, the jobless rate stabilized; after doubling to 9.4 percent in the year and a half since November 2007, it remained at or under 10 percent for the next 18 months. Since then it has declined, in large part due to a second stimulus Obama appended to the Bush tax cut extensions, with unemployment ranging from 8.5 percent to 9.1 percent throughout 2011 before falling to a low of 8.2 percent in March.

Obama

Overall, the president whose legacy Obama’s is most likely to resemble is the same one with whom he was so often compared only a few years ago — John F. Kennedy.

Some of the reasons for this are obvious: Like Obama, Kennedy broke long-standing barriers of prejudice by virtue of his election (Kennedy for Catholics, Obama for African-Americans) and developed a public image as a charismatic, eloquent and scholarly idealist. Just as important, however, Kennedy also racked up a number of important accomplishments during his tenure, including creating the Peace Corps, signing the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, launching the race to the moon, navigating America through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and using federal troops to help integrate the South.

Inevitably, both presidents also saw their mystiques fade during their administrations, thanks to their own blunders (Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, Obama and the BP oil spill), the disappointment of liberals unhappy with compromises (Kennedy on civil rights, Obama on health care reform), and the venom of right-wingers who not only accused them of being socialists and/or communists but also popularized conspiracy theories fueled by prevalent prejudices, such as claiming Kennedy was taking orders from the Vatican or that Obama wasn’t born in this country.

Like all parallels between history and the present, the Kennedy-Obama analogy isn’t perfect, given the different circumstances in which they governed. In the end, though, Kennedy is still remembered for the barriers he broke and the way his policies helped America, and likely would still be recalled that way even if he had been defeated for re-election in 1964. Regardless of what happens to Obama in 2012 — at the Supreme Court or the ballot box — the same will almost certainly be true for him.

Ron Paul Supporters and Neo-Nazis in the Military

Published: PolicyMic (April 3, 2012)

Nathan Wooten has a portrait of Adolf Hitler hanging in his living room. He named his son after a leader of the German S.S. He regularly posts comments on National Socialist message boards and created a personal profile on a white supremacist social networking site. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, Wooten is a neo-Nazi.

Until last month, he was also a sergeant in the Missouri National Guard.

Some quick context:

– Wooten’s superiors had been aware of his neo-Nazi affiliation for almost a full year, not acting upon this information until it was leaked to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In early 2011, three of Wooten’s colleagues reported that he was openly professing racist views to them.

– His behavior was in clear violation of military regulations, which explicitly forbid its members from getting involved with groups that “actively advocate supremacist doctrine, ideology, or causes.”

– The military’s tardiness in dealing with Wooten isn’t exactly standard practice when it comes to their handling of personnel who get mixed up in politics. Back in January, an Army reservist named Jesse Thorsen appeared in uniform at a Ron Paul rally to endorse the libertarian congressman. As the Associated Press reports, “the military’s reaction was swift” when they heard about this, since soldiers are prohibited from appearing at political functions in uniform or making public political speeches (although they are allowed to vote and attend rallies). Thorsen was punished with a formal reprimand, one that will likely inhibit his chances of advancing through the ranks in the future.

There have been other recent instances in which the military encountered controversy due to the ideological views of its members: Gary Stein, the Marine Corps Sergeant who created a Tea Party page on Facebook, said he would refuse to follow President Barack Obama’s orders if he disagreed with them; Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, had repeatedly advocated violence against Americans prior to his bloody rampage, although the military failed to act when they heard about it; and intelligence expert Craig Baxam was arrested after his efforts to assist a Somali affiliate of Al Qaeda were discovered. On each of these occasions, however, the ultimate problem was not the political views of the soldiers, but rather the fact that they had openly declared either a willingness to insubordinate their commander-in-chief (Stein) or sympathy for America’s avowed enemies (Hasan, Baxam). As such, their situations are not comparable to those of Wooten and Thorsen, for whom their expression of certain political beliefs is the primary matter at issue.

The key difference is that the military was wrong for what it did to Thorsen. It is unrealistic to claim that a soldier who has one set of political opinions is incapable of effectively serving citizens with differing views, since by that logic all soldiers would be required to abandon their Constitutional right to free political thought upon enlisting. While it makes sense to prevent soldiers from adopting or advocating philosophies that will (a) undermine their ability to perform their duties as required and/or (b) render them unable or unwilling to respect and protect all of their fellow citizens equally (see Stein, Hasan, and Baxam), it is absurd to argue that those requirements are violated by simply supporting an ordinary political candidate, be it Ron Paul or anyone else. Similarly, while the military has the right to demand that its members not claim that their personal political views represent the ideas of the institution as a whole, it is ridiculous to claim that a soldier who simply makes his occupation known while espousing certain beliefs — be it by wearing a uniform or actually stating his vocation — is implicitly conflating his individual perspectives with those of his larger organization. Unless he directly makes that claim, the institution entrusted with defending our Constitution should always err on the side of guaranteeing the rights prescribed in that document to its personnel.

I anticipate that these views may surprise some of my regular readers, given that I have written editorials in the past criticizing Ron Paul for his misrepresentation of Constitutional history and urging his supporters to avoid the dangers of dogmatism (I also noted that white supremacists are a part of Ron Paul’s coalition, although they are far from being a majority within it). Nevertheless, they must remember that true progressives place a high premium on the integrality of freedom of thought, one best captured in the writings of Voltaire (one of my favorite authors) and summarized by the aphorism of his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The protection to which Thorsen is entitled, however, does not apply to Wooten. Subscribing to neo-Nazi political views is not the same as believing in libertarianism (like Thorsen), progressivism, centrism, or conservatism. While those ideologies may have wildly different positions on important policy questions, none of them inherently relegate any class of citizens to a status of basic civic inferiority. Neo-Nazis, on the other hand, do not respect the human rights of African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Jews, and other ethnic groups they deem to be “lesser.” Consequently, a neo-Nazi like Wooten cannot be reasonably expected to do the duties he owes to all his fellow citizens, which disqualifies him from military service on a fundamental level. Even worse, because his responsibilities as an honor guard involve being a physical symbol of American values at the funerals of deceased servicemen, it is downrighting insulting to World War Two veterans to have them posthumously honored by a man who openly reveres the tyrant they risked their lives to topple. As such, it was unconscionable for Wooten’s superiors to knowingly allow him to remain in service, especially in light of how other officers immediately punished Thorsen for an offense that was, at the very least, far lesser in scope (assuming one even believes that it should be an offense in the first place). A public accounting of their decisions must be made, with jobs lost if the justifications are shown to be inadequate.

I won’t offer any hypotheses as to why Wooten received superior treatment than Thorsen, since intelligent speculation is impossible without firsthand access to the private documents issued at the time on those subjects. Instead I will conclude with a personal confession: I am far from unbiased when it comes to discussions of neo-Nazis. When I read about someone like Nathan Wooten, I am reminded of a 12-year-old boy who nearly lost his life in an anti-Semitic hate crime, one in which his peers tried to drown him in a lake while chanting “Drown the Jew!” Before that incident, he had schoolmates confront him with the charge that he worshipped Satan, inform him that he wasn’t allowed to play with them because their parents didn’t want Jews in their homes, show him swastikas that they had drawn on their binders and carved into their desks for his consumption, and pelt him with coins as a particularly cruel way of mocking the stereotype of Jewish greed.

That young man, as you may have already guessed, was me. I learned many things from that ordeal, but foremost among them was the knowledge that — while I may disagree with individuals like Jesse Thorsen — there is a fundamental difference between opinions that differ from my own and ones that imperil my very existence. Nathan Wooten’s beliefs fall into the latter category, and people who share them have no place in positions of power or influence in any free society.

Arlen Specter’s Horrendous Stand Up Comedy

When I first heard that Arlen Specter was going to hit the stand-up comedy circuit, I was pretty excited. If nothing else, such a decision from an ex-Senator shows cojones, a commodity that is in distressingly short supply among most of those associated with public life. Beyond that, Specter is in a valuable position to offer sharp commentary about how our government is run. After spending thirty years as one of the Senate’s leading moderates, as well as serving as District Attorney for Philadelphia and assistant counsel on the Warren Commission, his vast personal experience has given him an authority on politics and politicians that even his fiercest detractors can’t dispute. While it’s unlikely that this alone could have ever been enough to put him in the same league as today’s leading comic luminaries — it takes deep artistic skill to be a Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Trey Parker, or Matt Stone, to say nothing of joining the ranks of American satiric legends like Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Will Rogers, and Groucho Marx — it could have at least made his act a particularly insightful one.

Then I saw his routine.

The first word that comes to mind is “sad.” Specter isn’t being the elder statesman whose jocular wisdom enlightens his listeners as it makes them laugh. Hell, he isn’t even being the charismatic octogenerian whose deficits in edginess are at least offset by a certain degree of grandfatherly charm (although in fairness, charm was the last quality ever associated with the man nicknamed “Snarlin’ Arlen”). Instead he comes across as a dirty old man, telling sketchy jokes that build up to predictable punchlines and, even worse, reveal absolutely nothing interesting about their targets.

Take this jab at Bill Clinton: “I called Clinton up on his 65th birthday and I said, ‘Bill, congratulations on being 65. How do you feel?’ He said, ‘I feel like a teenager. The problem is, I can’t find one.'”

First, the set up doesn’t quite work there, since “How do you feel?” is hard to misinterpret as “What do you feel like doing?” (a miscommunication central to the joke’s payoff). There is also the problem of the joke being painfully unfunny, like a riff Carlos Mencia might have stolen from one of Jay Leno’s lesser monologues. Most significant of all, though, is the fact that it utterly wastes Specter’s inside knowledge of Clinton, instead using him as an interchangeable punchline. Is there anything about that quip that is specific to President Clinton, as opposed to any celebrity with a reputation for licentiousness? If you replaced the name (and possibly age), couldn’t you use that exact same crack about Hugh Hefner or Charlie Sheen or David Letterman or Tiger Woods?

Here is another example, this time at the expense of Herman Cain: “What people don’t know is that Cain had a longstanding problem since he was an adolescent: No matter how hard his teachers tried, they couldn’t persuade Herman Cain that ‘harass’ was one word.”

Again, along with being utterly devoid of comic merit, this joke simply takes low-hanging fruit — a characteristic popularly associated with Herman Cain’s image — and uses it for an insulting pun that could apply to any famous figure accused of sexual harassment. Considering that Arlen Specter served in Congress at the same time that Cain (the self-proclaimed “outsider”) was giving advice and assistace to Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, it seems like a terrible waste for him to avoid availing himself of that kind of insider knowledge in the name of generic one-liners.

Two final samples, one on Chris Christie and the other about the late Ted Kennedy: “In the last hurricane, Christie’s seashore house was totally demolished. He didn’t mind too much that the house was destroyed, but he was really very upset that it destroyed his entire library – both books. And he wasn’t finished coloring them.”

“So I was sitting there enjoying the [Senate gym] hot tub when in comes my colleague Ted Kennedy, in his birthday suit. 285 pounds. Teddy flops into the hot tub like a walrus. You know the story of rising tide lifts all ships? Well my head hit the ceiling.”

It’s bad enough that these jokes, like their predecessors, could apply to any celebrity whose reputation is frequently ridiculed (in this case for stupidity or obesity). What makes them worse, though, is that he actually gets the public images wrong for these two figures. Few people immediately associate Chris Christie with stupidity or Ted Kennedy with corpulence; if anything, much richer and more obvious material can be mined from the former Massachusetts Senator’s reputation for drunkenness and womanizing (to say nothing of Chappaquiddick), while the New Jersey Governor is the superior target for fat jokes. Indeed, Christie himself had a better quip about his weight than anything Specter has thought up, once remarking that his size can be taken as a desire to keep Dunkin Donuts employees working during the recession.

Even if Specter’s jokes hadn’t been more substantive, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been funny. History offers plenty of examples of great political humor based solely on wit instead of experience-based insight, including: President Calvin Coolidge’s legendary retort to author Dorothy Parker when she bet she could make the famously reticent president utter at least three words (“You lose.”); Sir Winston Churchill’s response to Lady Astor when she said she’d poison his tea if he was her husband (“If you were my wife, I’d drink it.”); President John Kennedy’s answer to a child’s question about how he become a war hero (“It was absolutely involuntary. They sunk my boat.”); and Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson’s challenge to the right-wing Republicans who kept smearing him during his 1952 presidential campaign (“I have been thinking that I would make a proposition to my Republican friends – that if they will stop telling lies about the Democrats, we will stop telling the truth about them.”). That said, because those politicians were merely reacting to spur of the moment circumstances imposed upon them rather than designing entire comic routines, it makes sense that they weren’t tapping into the full breadth of their career experiences for material. Because Specter presumably spent time planning his jokes, his failure to do this is more than a crime against quality comedy. It is a squandered opportunity.

Maybe he should remember the humorous insult from history that I consider to be my personal favorite, one directed at President Chester Arthur from a mysterious female friend named Julia Sands: “What is there to admire in mediocrity? Why do you take such comfort in half measures? Does it never strike you that there must be back of them only half a mind – a certain half-heartedness – in fact, only half a man? Why do you not do what you do with your whole soul? Or have you only half of one?”