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Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Importance of Keeping the Senate and the Obama Second Term Paradox

(PHOTO: From The Guardian - President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sit in the Oval Office, October 2013).

Recent developments underscore how critical it is that Democrats continue to hold control of the U.S. Senate. As reported by Adam Serwer at MSNBC and by the Huffington Post, it is evident that filibuster reform has been an enormous boost to President Obama. Thanks to the threat of the filibuster being removed from most presidential appointments, Obama has been able to slowly remake the federal judiciary in a more progressive direction. "A majority of appointees on the federal district and circuit courts," Serwer writes, "are Democratic appointees." Further, the President's slate of nominees for the federal bench are the most diverse collection in history, racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, and in background, as many have a history of being involved in Public Defender offices. 

This power is hugely important as these federal judges decide crucial cases that influence American social policy and our understanding of constitutional law for decades, beyond the tenures of the presidents who appointed them. For instance, it was U.S. District Judge Robert M. Shelby, an Obama appointee, who ruled in Utah before last Christmas that same sex marriage ought to be legal in the state. That ruling set off a judicial firestorm and was naturally quickly appealed. A federal appeals court ruling this week reaffirmed Shelby's ruling and this decision may lead to a path that ends with the U.S. Supreme Court finally hearing a case on whether gays have a fundamental federal right to marriage. The President's recent EPA regulations regarding emissions from coal-fired power plants may survive the test of judicial scrutiny thanks to the fact that he was finally able to muster through the Senate his nominees for the D.C. Circuit Court, a very influential body that often hears cases regarding government rules and regulations, as a consequence of filibuster reform. These judges have a real impact on real lives and without a Democratic majority in the Senate for Obama's final two years in office, it will be extremely difficult to fill the vacant seats on the federal bench with progressively minded judges.

Further, another development this week demonstrates how critical it is to keep the Senate in Democratic hands. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that President Obama overstepped his executive authority to make recess appointments when he appointed three nominees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) during a Senate 'pro forma' session in January 2012. Though they could have been more aggressive in their ruling, the Court still somewhat restrained the presidential prerogative of recess appointments, at least from the viewpoint of the Justice Department. Now that filibuster reform has removed the filibuster as a possibility when it comes to presidential appointments, recess appointments have all but disappeared. Nevertheless, the ruling demonstrates that such recess appointments would be difficult to pull off in a Senate controlled by Republicans. The GOP Senate leaders would likely do everything in their power now to ensure that the Court decision is strictly enforced, including lessening recesses to a point at which it would become close to impossible for Obama to make any recess appointments would a Cabinet position be vacated. This would make it more likely that the White House would have to nominate individuals who are not very strong on key issues for progressives but would satisfy the GOP Senate leadership. 

Lastly, on a different note, it was telling that President Obama said this week in Minnesota that he just wants to "say what's on [his] mind" these days as he is freed from the burdens of running for another term. He's certainly done more of that these days, as reflected in his extensive interview with David Remnick in The New Yorker earlier this year, in his blunt comments on gun violence at a Tumblr-hosted event at the White House recently, and in his surprisingly candid remarks on Trayvon Martin and race in America last summer. At this stage, it appears that the President is attempting to carve out a positive legacy that reflects the values he campaigned on, and regardless of how the politics of such language plays out, it is certainly a welcomed development for many progressives. There seems to be an interesting paradox at play. As Obama's approval rating has dipped and issues surrounding the NSA, the ACA rollout, and troublesome events abroad damaged his popularity, he has, in the mean time, become considerably stronger and more progressive on several important policy matters that liberal activists have urged him to improve on and that he has cared about throughout his career. In his second term, Obama is noticeably more accomplished and robust on policy when it comes to climate change and gun safety reform, even stronger on gay rights, shrewder on Iran, and vastly superior on issues of race, the war on drugs, and reforming the criminal justice system, in no small part because of a reinvigorated Attorney General Eric Holder. This may help explain why, despite an overall lower approval for Obama in his second term thus far, the President has held steady among Democratic voters, especially liberal Democrats, who give Obama a resoundingly high approval rating in the mid-80s. Most importantly though, his improvement on these issues in his second term is in the long term better for the country as we finally begin to seriously tackle the menace of global warming, prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, tackle inequalities in criminal justice, and continually expand the rights of LGBT Americans. Given his track record recently on these issues, combined with his impressive first term litany of legislative achievements that are already making a difference such as the Affordable Care Act and the creation of the CFPB as part of Dodd-Frank, Barack Obama is bound to be regarded as one of the more activist Democratic presidents. At the moment, the politics do not look rosy for him or his party but slowly but surely, he's leaving an impressive mark on the country. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Who is Ever Ready to Be President?

In the summer of 2008, President Clinton, when asked if Barack Obama is ready to be president, demurred and answered, "you can argue that nobody is ever ready to be president." "I certainly," Clinton explained, "learned a lot about the job in the first year." (Clinton went on to strongly endorse Obama as "ready to be president" in the Democratic National Convention weeks later). Four years later, Steve Schmidt, John McCain's campaign manager in 2008, appeared on Morning Joe, following the release of HBO's Game Change (based on the book), to make the case that neither Sarah Palin nor John Edwards - the losing VP nominees of the major parties in 2008 and 2004, respectively - were qualified to be president. Beyond these musings, as has been well documented, there were various questions raised by not just Bill Clinton but a variety of politicians, media figures, and activists in 2008 as to whether President Obama was prepared for the White House given his limited experience. Hillary Clinton famously ran an ad in March 2008 depicting her as a capable leader who could answer a phone call, implicitly on serious national security concerns, at 3:00 a.m. Months later, Sarah Palin would be widely derided as unprepared for the office, with Matt Damon describing the prospect of her presidency as a "bad Disney movie" and Obama even running a TV ad specifically chastising McCain for his choice.

Bill Clinton faced similar questions as those posed to Obama about his own preparedness in 1992. President George H.W. Bush claimed that his dog knew more about foreign policy than Bill Clinton and Al Gore while Pat Buchanan said at that year's Republican National Convention that their foreign policy experience was limited to visiting the International House of Pancakes. Four years before that, it was Dan Quayle who was maligned as not being prepared for the office as Lloyd Bentsen derided him in the VP debate as being "no Jack Kennedy." 14 years earlier, it was President Gerald R. Ford who was questioned by NBC's Tom Brokaw as to whether he was "intellectually" up to the job of being president. As far back as 1960, when John F. Kennedy ran and was criticized for his ostensible lack of experience, there have been questions about whether candidates are truly up to the task of the presidency.

All of this begs the question of something that my friend Jack Cartwright and I discussed recently: who is ever really qualified, or ready, to be president? For one, anyone who is 35 years old, a natural-born citizen (have that birth certificate ready!), and a U.S. resident for at least 14 years is technically qualified to be president. What makes one truly qualified and ready for the awesome responsibilities of the Oval Office though? Despite all of the media attention afforded to this question in some presidential races, it really does not matter a whole lot to voters as long as the candidate agrees with them on the issues. Indeed, party affiliation and ideology are among the most reliable indicators of how individuals will vote, especially in a general election, way more so than whether a candidate has enough experience or preparedness for the position. On the one hand, this makes sense given that, just by human nature, you would want someone in power who shares your world view. So why does this question even matter? Well, on the other hand, it can be troubling given that the candidate might be so ineffective at carrying out the policies you prefer that he or she could potentially make those policies more maligned (this was among the many arguments made by Ted Kennedy-supporting liberals in 1980 about President Carter, who was also questioned about his preparedness for the presidency in 1976). That latter point, combined with the history of presidents having to guide us through perilous moments like the Osama bin Laden raid or 9/11 or the Cuban Missile Crisis or the world wars or the Civil War, makes the question of readiness all the more important. It is for these reasons - the fact that a president may be so woefully inexperienced that he or she could not effective promote the public policy their campaign championed and the fact that a president may not be able to be a steady hand at the tiller in times of crisis - that this question is worth examining.

Arguably, the answer does not depend exclusively on the extent of experience in political office of a certain leader, as Jack and I agreed. As Jack pointed out, Abraham Lincoln only served a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives - and before that eight years in the Illinois state legislature - yet he was an absolutely remarkable and exceptionally brilliant leader amid the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson's political experience was limited solely to the governorship of New Jersey for just two years yet he was a strong and effective leader in several respects, successfully implementing various progressive domestic policies despite the country being majority Republican and leading Allied forces to victory in World War I. John F. Kennedy, though maligned for his supposed inexperience, was an amazingly capable leader throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis. Barack Obama, despite only serving four years in the U.S. Senate and seven years in the Illinois Senate, has, in my opinion, demonstrated admirably calm, cool, and collected leadership in situations such as the financial crisis, avoiding a Depression, and in the raid on Osama bin Laden (General McRaven offered significant praise for his handling of the latter). However, a significant amount of political experience is no detriment. George H.W. Bush, arguably the most qualified president in history, was a good leader in the sense that he navigated his relationship with Congress very well and had a rational, nuanced foreign policy. Lyndon B. Johnson's experience as Senate Majority Leader was instrumental to his understanding of his former congressional colleagues in working to push through his Great Society programs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as governor of New York and as assistant secretary of the Navy, was a tremendous leader as well. Nevertheless, George W. Bush, despite serving six years as governor of Texas and being surrounded by politics his whole life (as my friend Haydn pointed out), was arguably not a good leader given his unwise decision to invade Iraq and sustained mismanagement of the war and his horrid response to Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, some political experience is probably necessary because it gives one the necessary understanding of the political process, the tools and skills of managing relations with legislators, and the comprehension of public policy issues and their implementation that can make one a solid leader. However, merely because x candidate has more political experience than y candidate does not make y candidate less prepared for the presidency.

However, the answer does arguably depend, to some extent, on the professional background of a candidate. Ulysses S. Grant, though having a remarkable history as a Civil War general, was an ineffective leader given the rampant corruption in his administration. His lack of any elected political experience may have contributed to this problem. George W. Bush may have been surrounded by politics because of family history before his governorship but his life experience prior to the governorship included jobs like running a failed oil business and being an owner of the Texas Rangers and so this did not necessarily give him the kind of skills to be prepared for the presidency. Jimmy Carter, a politically ineffectual president in terms of promoting his domestic priorities, suffered as well from a lack of varying professional experience as he relied solely upon advisers from Georgia and was way too much of a micromanager - thanks to the kind of skills he learned in previous jobs - to be effectual. This question of professional experience is important because it is arguably the distinction between what made Barack Obama, in my judgment, qualified to be president but Sarah Palin, in my opinion, not ready to be president. Prior to Obama's political experience, he was already an incredibly impressive individual and that professional experience gave him important skills for the presidency. He was a civil rights attorney, constitutional law professor, an accomplished author, the president of the Harvard Law Review, a leader of a statewide massive voter registration initiative, and a community organizer helping poor people stay in their homes in the south side of Chicago. This experience mattered because it gave him the kind of argumentative, rhetorical, management, and intellectual tools, skills, and background that helps one be an effective president. On the other hand, Sarah Palin, prior to her governorship, was a mayor of a small town, on a city council of a small town, and chair of an oil and gas conservation commission. Before that, she was a local sports news broadcaster and beauty pageant. This limited professional experience did not give her the depth of understanding of public policy that Obama boasted in 2008.

Further, personal characteristics and qualities of a president, especially the temperament of a leader as Jack explicitly argued, are important in the sense of preparedness. You need a steady hand at the tiller and someone who can provide calm, measured, cool, and reasoned leadership in times of crisis, danger, and uncertainty. This is one of the arguments Obama made against John McCain in 2008 as he directly called into question McCain's "temperament" at that year's Democratic National Convention. Voters seemed to agree as McCain was ridiculed for his "erratic" behavior- as many in the media described it - during the campaign while Obama was widely praised for his calm stewardship abilities.

In the end, the kind of person who is prepared to be president is someone who ought to have some kind of political experience, important and relevant professional experience, and the right personal stamina and calm-headedness to handle the task of the presidency. However, I agree with this assessment: "I feel like it really depends on the person," Jack said. Really, that answer to the question, though frustratingly simple, is very much true. All of the evidence that has been presented here, and in our long history of presidential elections featuring candidates of varying qualities, shows this to be accurate. In 2016, we will have to judge for ourselves. When it's 3 a.m., who do you want answering the phone?