Testing time for Obama

A new Supreme, overhauling health care and energy, North Korea, Pakistan. And did I mention the Great Recession?
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The president and his team

A new Supreme, overhauling health care and energy, North Korea, Pakistan. And did I mention the Great Recession?

Unless some previously unknown scandal or embarrassment surfaces, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor will be confirmed as a Supreme Court justice. But it will be difficult to get the confirmation done over the summer, as President Barack Obama has asked, in advance of the court's October session. Senate Republicans, as is their responsibility, will expose Sotomayor's record and public statements to scrutiny. Hearings will be thorough but not likely to become emotional or destructive.

Sotomayor's story (as Obama's) is appealing. A Bronx Latina, raised by a hard-working, widowed mother, she went to New York Catholic schools, then to Princeton and Yale Law School, ranking high academically. Truth be told, her appointment is highly political. Obama, from the beginning, made it known that all candidates for the Supreme Court vacancy were women. On a short list, Solicitor General Elena Kagan and Judge Diane Wood were deemed the most distinguished substantively. But Sotomayor, in political terms, was a "threefer" — that is, a candidate who would bring Obama credits among women, Latinos, and in New York.

As both a district and appeals judge, Sotomayor was not regarded as an intellectual or conceptual thinker but, rather, as a meat-and-potatoes grinder of liberal/moderate outlook. She issued no important legal decisions. She also was known for sometimes badgering attorneys from the bench and for treating her staff impatiently.

There is nothing wrong, by the way, with any of the above. Past and present justices are not the towering figures which we might regard them to be. Only a few have been truly independent and groundbreaking in their thinking. (During the Johnson Presidency, I once managed a several-week overseas mission of public and private figures which included a sitting Supreme Court justice. We regularly had to rescue him from bars and cathouses along the way). A liberal federal judge, whose integrity and judgment I trust, told me earlier this week that Sotomayor, then not yet nominated for the court, was "just a so-so performer." The Supreme Court is no more populated with supermen and women than the Presidency or Congress.

Once confirmed, Sotomayor likely will be a reliably liberal vote on social issues and, given her prior record, pragmatic on other issues, leaning toward the "empathy" that Obama said he sought in his nominee. She is not what some liberals and Democrats had been hoping to see: That is, an intellectual powerhouse who could provide leadership in the years ahead. That person may yet emerge. Given the ages of those presently on the court, Obama is likely to nominate two or three other justices during his time in office. One footnote: Presuming that Sotomayor is confirmed, all members of the court will be former appeals-court judges.

The final shape of health-care legislation, which Obama has urged be passed by July 31, is not yet in place. As I wrote last week in Crosscut, moderate and liberal Democrats in the House are divided on the scope and cost of a plan; Senate Finance Chair Max Baucus has insisted the Senate version of the legislation be sufficiently bipartisan as to attract 10 or more Republican votes.

Business and labor executives, insurers, health-care providers, and consumer groups support the concept of reform. But, once legislation is finally introduced, they will disagree over the details. The big sticking point remains the prospective cost of a plan. With $1 trillion annual federal budget deficits looming for several years, the plan would cost another $1 trillion, although the administration has budgeted less.

Health legislation's fate will depend in large part on Obama's skillfulness in selling it to the American people as well as to the Congress. If he overreaches, and insists on a big-pricetag plan, he could lose the battle entirely. I expect him to pursue a characteristic pragmatic course, get half a loaf, declare victory, and come back later with additional proposals. In the end, health-care costs will continue rising and millions of Americans will remain without health-insurance coverage. Medicare and Medicaid costs, too, will continue to be on the rise, still awaiting a White House/Congressional fix.

On energy and environmental legislation, Obama has set a late-summer deadline as well for cap-and-trade and related energy policy proposals. Drafting of this legislation lags behind that of a health-care bill, so it is difficult to see the July 31 date as realistic. A shift from fossil fuels to alternative fuels will be costly and time-consuming. It also will be a tough political sell. Legislators of both political parties from oil, natural-gas, and coal-producing states will resist. Moreover, the shift will require consumers to pay added taxes and fuel costs in a difficult economic environment.

I can see an incremental health-care reform bill clearing the Congress this summer. Energy legislation will be much chancier and may have to be deferred altogether.

There's also plenty of trouble overseas, starting with North Korea, whose only card is the nuclear card. This poor, otherwise backward country sees a nuclear capability as its ultimate security guarantee. Moreover, time and again, it has leveraged its nuclear program in such a way as to get financial, economic, and other concessions from the outside world. Its most recent underground detonation and missile tests are intended in particular to test Obama.

Thus far his statements on the matter, and U.S. posture, have been the same as President George Bush's several years ago. Public condemnations and referrals to the United Nations create the appearance of action. But they are not truly action. South Korea and Japan, within close range of North Korean weapons, are in a state of high anxiety. Russia and China, North Korea's other near neighbors, have publicly denounced these latest tests. China, of all countries, has the strongest leverage with the North Koreans as its lifeline supplier of food, energy and financial credits.

More talking, waiting, and "diplomacy" are unlikely to trigger a course change in North Korea. The United States, in its present financial/economic vulnerability, has little leverage with China, which holds a huge share of our public debt. Direct military action against North Korean nuclear-related facilities is not an option. It almost certainly would trigger furious and destructive non-nuclear attacks against both South Korea and Japan. Special operations, to take out key facilities, are not practical in North Korea. Embargoes, blockades, and seizures of North Korean overseas assets would raise the ante. In the end, China remains the key.

Just as vexing is the current situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan is run by a corrupt, discredited central government. Its principal source of export earnings is narcotics. Real power lies with tribal leaders. Across the border in Pakistan, Al Qaida and Taliban leaders have a refuge for operations in Afghanistan. The Pakistan government is corrupt and ineffectual. Some parts of the Pak military and intelligence services are in bed with the Islamic radicals. Under U.S. pressure, military operations are now being mounted in Pak/Afghan border areas. But the Pak military continues to put far higher priority on stationing of troops along the Indian border.

A worst-case scenario would see the radicals seizing power in both Pakistan and Afghanistan and taking control of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. The U.S. would have to take whatever action was necessary to forestall such a development. In the meantime, U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan are steadily rising. U.S. and Congressional opinion are gradually turning against our commitments there. Defense Secretary Bob Gates (this year's U.W. graduation speaker) recently estimated that the U.S. "had maybe a year" in which public support would continue to be sustained for the enterprise.

Obama is being tested here just as he is in North Korea. Already he has agreed to a change in U.S. commanders in Afghanistan and a shift to a strategy somewhat akin to the "surge strategy" which led to greater stability in Iraq. This involves more special operations, provision of security to populated areas, and fewer conventional operations such as those which led the former Soviet Union and other prior foreign occupiers to ultimate grief.

Meantime, Iraq remains more stable than even two years ago. The Iraqi government continues to extend its sovereignty throughout the country. Daily life is returning to normal for ordinary citizens. What remains to be seen, of course, is what will happen as American forces gradually begin their drawdown, leading to withdrawal in 2010. With luck, the country will remain relatively stable and viable. On the other hand, sectarian violence could break into the open and chaos result. Once withdrawn, U.S. forces would not be reinserted, although short-term operations could be undertaken from neighboring countries to help restore stability in crisis situations.

Iran, by the way, is continuing its involvement in Iraqi affairs, sending money and agents to help Shiite factions there. Its leaders, though not as unstable as North Korea's, remain committed to development of an Iranian nuclear capability. Israel has said it will take its own military action to negate that capability if and when it is further developed. We would not join in such an action. But we might not be able to avert it. There, as elsewhere, our options are limited.

Finally, what about the financial/economic situation, which dominated everything a few months ago? We will be unable to address any international or domestic priority without the stabilizing of our own financial and economic systems. We do seem to have seen the worst of the situation. At the cost of trillions, major banks no longer are in danger of failure. General Motors and Chrysler are painfully, and at major taxpayer cost, working through their crises. GM, at least, is likely to survive; Chrysler is more problematic. Consumer sentiment is rising. Inventories are being reduced, setting the stage for new production.

Surveys of economists show a majority now predicting the economic downturn ending sometime late this year or early in 2010. But it will be months thereafter before employment will rise and ordinary citizens will begin to feel secure.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.