Testing time for Obama, and the nation

Much is riding on Obama's speech this Thursday, and whether he finds the inner strength to be a courageous, forthright leader in a choppy sea of troubles.

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President Obama announces the death of Osama bin Laden.

Much is riding on Obama's speech this Thursday, and whether he finds the inner strength to be a courageous, forthright leader in a choppy sea of troubles.

It's easy to be lulled by our marvelous late-summer weather and such diversions as Bumbershoot, but right ahead lie some big problems and decisions impacting our well being for an extended period. It's difficult to be optimistic. We need to talk frankly.
Our economy: The most recent economic data are demoralizing.  Some 14 million Americans are unemployed, 9 million working part-time but needing fulltime jobs, and another 6.5 million have lost their jobs and quit looking for new ones (and thus no longer even counted among the labor force).  A majority of black teenagers are not fully employed and effectively on the streets.

These numbers have scared President Obama and his administration. Obama's scheduled Thursday night speech was to have been a presentation focusing on short-term job creation.  Now it is being transformed into a more important one presenting job-creating proposals of a far larger scale. A separate presentation is to follow shortly on the equally vexing issue of long-term federal debt; more about that below.
There already has been a lot of stimulus in the Obama years: $4 trillion in federal deficits; $1 trillion in the so-called stimulus plan; and zero interest rates courtesy of the Federal Reserve. But unemployment still is above 9 percent and appears likely to hover there through 2012. Expected job creation has not taken place because of long-term structural changes in the economy, and those trends are not likely to bend more than slightly after new stimulus measures are applied following the presidential speech.

Western Europe's financial systems and economies are even more fragile than ours. Neither global nor domestic U.S. demand is likely to rise enough in the near future to trigger significant economic growth and hiring.
Even if we survive this economic flat spot, we still will have to contend with the huge public and private debt overhangs, which will have a dampening effect on longer-term growth. The numbers are well known. Federal debt alone already is above $14 trillion, with $1 trilion-plus to be added in each of the next 10 years. The congressional bipartisan Gang of Twelve, co-chaired by Sen. Patty Murray, is charged with framing a plan to address this by Thanksgiving.  It is off to a promising start, with hearings scheduled on the root causes of the debt and appointment of a respected Republican congressional staff member as staff director.
But, listen: Even if the Obama jobs proposals are stronger and more effective than expected and even if the Gang of Twelve comes up with a credible plan that can gain bipartisan acceptance, we're still fated to experience historically low growth and high unemployment over the next decade.  Yes, decade.
National security:  We observe this week the tenth anniversary of 9/11.  During that decade we have degraded the leadership and capacities of the core Al Qaida group.  But we are still subject, at any time and place, to a terrorist attack to be carried out by a handful of Islamic fundamentalist true believers. In the interim, we have imposed domestic security measures that have in many cases lacked common sense and have been expensive.  Anyone traveling by air is familiar with onerous airport security measures which fail to distinguish between possible terrorist suspects and obviously innocent everyday travelers.  Exquisite political correctitude was imposed in these procedures, from their Bush administration beginnings, so that no person of any gender, race, religion, age, or national origin  might take offense at screenings.  All of us, therefore, were to be screened equally — at huge public and private cost as well to airports and air carriers.

In the meantime, big security holes exist in air-cargo screening and in rail, bus, auto, and water transportation.  Public and private buildings now operate with security safeguards. Osama bin Laden has been proven right in his prophecy that the United States and other Western countries would spend many billions, and tie themselves in knots, trying to protect themselves against 9/11 repetitions.
Otherwise we have been drawn into regional interventions that we would not have attempted had it not been for 9/11. The George W. Bush administration believed false intelligence that Saddam Hussein had ongoing nuclear, biological, and chemical-weapons programs and possibly intended to share them with fundamentalists.  We thus waged war in Iraq and, only now, are making our exit from that country — leaving in our wake a regime that, quite likely, will tilt strongly toward Iran after our departure.

We defeated the Taliban in Afghanistan but have since found that its leaders, and related fundamentalist groups, have established bases of operation in Pakistan that we can only degrade with remote-control drones. The present caretaker government in Afghanistan is likely to last only until our promised departure (still a full three years away), at which time the Taliban are likely to reassume their domination of the country.  It will not really matter, in any case, because we have no real vital interest at stake there.  The real threat in the region is that fundamentalists could seize power in nuclear-armed Pakistan, but we are in no position to intervene militarily there.
Then there has been the Obama administration's recent attempt — amid the "Arab Spring," first cousin to the Bush administration's "freedom agenda" — to establish reformist, democratic regimes in Middle Eastern countries previously governed by oligarchs (although sometimes Western-leaning and cooperating oligarchs).  The most recent military intervention has been in Libya, where the United States has "led from behind" by sending money and material to rebels but leaving immediate military operations to NATO partners, who soon ran into equipment and munitions ahortages. Qaddafi will soon be gone but the constitution of the new rebel government is still uncertain, and these rebel forces include a number of al Qaida supporters.  There have been internal killings between rival tribes and factions, and some 50,000 Libyans are estimated to have been killed in this civil war.

Tunisia and Egypt have deposed oligarchs but successor regimes have not yet fully evolved. We are trying to oust the present Syrian regime but thus far have succeeded only in enraging it and contributing to the deaths of many thousands of Western-encouraged democratic protesters.

In short, we can applaud that bad leaders have been deposed in many Arab and Muslim countries but we are still not certain about the intentions and efficacies of their successor regimes.  Will it be, as in the past, a case of "new boss just like the old boss" in those countries? Optimists say no; realists are dubious.
Some 6,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  A recent Brown University study estimated that some 137,000 civilians had lost their lives in those two countries and in neighboring Pakistan as a result of those wars and 7.8 million refugees created. The same study put the wars' overall costs to the U.S., including interest payments and veterans care, at $4 trillion.  Qute a contribution to the overall federal debt.
What next? Given our domestic financial and economic pressures, as well as those being faced by European partners, will we back off and limit future interventions to those where our vital interests clearly are at stake?   It will take wise leadership to do that. In meantime, many administration, congressional, and media voices are still crowing about the "victory" achieved in inconsequential Libya.
Leadership:  Many of us invested great hope in President Obama.  We saw his cosmopolitan upbringing, biracial origins, educational background, and oratorical skills as contributors to larger-minded leadership than we had received under the previous two presidents. What we did not count on, however, was his thin experience in governance and public policy.  His policy views generally derive from the politically correct Ivy League climate of his school years; his political habitudes are mainly Chicago Raw, learned during his rise as a state legislator and U.S. Senator. 
There is no reason, by the way, that someone out of politically correct Ivy League origins, or the tough Chicago political school, could not nonetheless be an effective and large-minded leader.  Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and many of our first-tier presidents had origins which many scorned when they took office.  Yet they led brilliantly at times.   Now, when truly challenged, Obama has a chance to rise above the indifferent first years of his presidency to make the remainder of 2011 and 2012 truly productive years of leadership.

We should watch Thursday's speech closely to see if he focuses on the issues rather than on his poltical opposition, avoids blame-placing on others, accurately defines the challenges to be met, and is unafraid to make big proposals that have a chance to make a policy difference. He will have to offer far greater specificity with his proposals than he has done with earlier proposals in his administration.  Until now, he mainly has offered broad policy outlines and left Democratic congressional leaders to fill in the substantive detail.   These should be his own proposals for which he will take full responsibility.
If Obama has disappointed, so have the 2012 Republican aspirants who have entered the field to date.  Among them, only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Utah Gov. and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman have offered sensible economic-policy alternatives and dared to challenge the hard-conserative orthodoxy being marketed by other GOP aspirants.  Huntsman has zero chance of winning the nomination.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann have contended with Romney, the 2008 runnerup for the nomination, at the top of Republican preference polls.  I expect both to self-detonate quite early in the primary season. They have simplistic, emotional appeals which presently rouse true believers but which will not withstand policy scrutiny.  Both candidates repel independent voters and many moderate Republicans.

Other than Romney, the only possible Republican nominee with potentially broad and moderate appeal is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who thus far has insisted that he is not a candidate. Christie, as Romney, has governed a Democratic state and can relate to Republican, Democratic, and independent voters alike.  He has a marked difference in style from Romney, however, with a plain-spoken populism that appeals to so-called Reagan Democrats in particular. ("Get the hell off the beach!" he recently told New Jersey residents who were slow to leave the oceanfront during Hurricane Irene).
Neither House Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is galvanizing or of high voltage intellectually. We cannot expect them to do much more than react constructively to Obama proposals — if Obama, in fact, makes them. "The president proposes, the Congress disposes," the old dictim says, and that is how things work most of the time when we have a strong president prepared to lead.
It's hard to see much sunshine immediately ahead.  But we will be able to avoid the worst storms if we can get past the perilous months immediately ahead.   My hopes presently ride with Obama and the possibility that he will rise to the occasion Thursday, and from Thursday onward, and govern as if there was no 2012 election — only a country to be led for however long he occupies the White House.  If he leads effectively, that might be for a longer period than he suspects.


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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.