Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An American President: The Case for Obama 2012

Barack Obama knows the American Dream because he’s lived it . . . and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love. And he believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity . . . you do not slam it shut behind you . . . you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed. – Michelle Obama, September 4, 2012

For the past four years, I have closely followed the presidency of Barack Obama. I embraced  Obama’s candidacy in the early stages of the Democratic primaries in late 2007, spent many weekends canvassing local neighborhoods and knocking on doors to get out the vote in the summer and fall of 2008, and celebrated his election and inauguration in January 2009. I supported Obama then, despite his relative youth and inexperience, because I saw a man of character, vision and common sense; a man who remains cool under pressure and looks at the long term effects of policy, who exercises good judgment. Obama the man impressed me as uniquely capable of uniting this country at a time when our political and social fabric had been torn asunder by eight years of go-it-alone unilateralism in foreign policy and a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in economic policy.

Four years ago, Obama was the only viable candidate committed to ending the tragically flawed War in Iraq and refocusing our efforts in Afghanistan; jumpstarting the hunt for Osama bin-Laden and restoring America’s reputation abroad; and addressing America’s health care crisis while working to restore the American economy in a fair and sensible manner.

From the moment Obama was sworn in as president on January 20, 2009, he has been attacked from the right as an enemy of free enterprise and criticized from the left for coddling Wall Street and caving to conservative demands. I have not agreed with everything Obama has done as president  – more on that later – but I have not forgotten the enormity of the burdens he inherited and the incredible political obstructionism he has confronted along the way. A fair assessment of Obama’s record suggests he has delivered on his key promises and put the country on the right track. Is he perfect? Of course not. Are we exactly where we would like to be? No. But the Republican alternative to Obama in this election is a spineless man with no core beliefs, who as far as I can discern would have us revert to the very policies that resulted in economic calamity, tragic warfare, massive deficits, the highest degree of inequality since the 1920’s, and a damaged American psyche. I’ll stick with the guy we have.

The Economy. When President Obama took office, the world financial system was on the brink of collapse and the American economy was experiencing its worst decline since the Great Depression. The United States was losing 750,000 jobs per month and the GDP was declining at a rate of nearly 9 percent. Before Obama placed his hand on the bible, unemployment and debt were soaring at record levels and the economy was in free fall. While it is appropriate to ask if we are better off today than four years ago, one cannot fairly judge the performance of the U.S. economy under President Obama without acknowledging the terrible conditions he inherited. The declining economic indicators of his first year were out of his control. A fair assessment must allow for the time needed to implement new policies. Economies are always slow to shift course, especially following a collapse of world financial markets.

It is irrelevant whether and to what extent the policies of President Bush are properly blamed for the sordid state of affairs Obama inherited. I personally do not believe any President has as much control over or responsibility for the economy as is popularly imagined; from the price of gas to the value of the dollar on international markets, presidential policy makers exert little control. I do blame President Bush for converting the budget surplus of 2001 into eight straight years of record deficits and a growing debt burden, for this was the obvious and fully expected result of two unfunded wars, a prescription drug plan not paid for, and large-scale, across-the-board tax cuts. But other aspects of the global financial crisis, the trade imbalances, and the worldwide recession were not the fault of President Bush any more than high gas prices are the fault of President Obama.

So, let’s simply acknowledge that President Obama was confronted with the worst economic crisis the country had faced in nearly 70 years. How did he respond? Obama did several things at once. He put a floor under the free fall and prevented a downward spiral that could have led to the Second Great Depression. He single-handedly saved the Big Three automakers from collapse, saving more than 1 million jobs in the process. He drove the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided much needed stimulus and prevented cuts to state governments that would have cost at least 300,000 education jobs and hundreds of thousands of police officers, firefighters, and other state and local government workers. He reappointed Ben Bernanke as head of the Federal Reserve, backing the Fed’s use of record-low interest rates to better enable bank lending and economic growth. And he put his administration’s full support behind the Targeted Asset Relief Program (TARP), first implemented by President Bush, which allowed the country’s major financial institutions to survive and prosper and world financial markets to stabilize.

By the beginning of 2010, as the stimulus took effect, the financial system had recovered (in the end, most of the TARP funds loaned out by the federal government were repaid), the auto industry had turned the corner and now competes fiercely and profitably on world markets, and monthly net job losses became monthly net job gains. Since then, the United States has added over 4.5 million private sector jobs and unemployment has declined from a peak of 10.2 percent in late 2009 to just over 8 percent now.

It is true that unemployment remains far too high and the economy has not grown as fast and as deep as everyone had hoped. I sided three years ago with economists such as Paul Krugman who argued that the stimulus was not large enough, that we needed a massive influx of government-created, New Deal-style jobs directed at putting people immediately to work, fixing and repairing the nation’s infrastructure, and sparking a faster economic recovery (see “The Lingering Great Recession: Jobs Needed”). President Obama took a more cautious, less Keynesian approach. The resulting job growth occurred in the private sector, offset partly by fewer government jobs. But neither Paul Krugman nor I had to deal with Republican intransigence and the rise of the Tea Party. Presidents must not only implement policy, they must deal with political reality. And there was simply no way the Obama administration could have pushed for more stimulus without sacrificing its ability to get things done on other fronts. That is the way Washington works and, while this president is less enamored of the political game than many of his predecessors (think Clinton, LBJ, FDR), he has demonstrated a masterful capacity to understand what can be achieved and what cannot.

It is a myth that Obama simply spent hundreds of billions of dollars in wasteful government expenditures. In fact, one-third of stimulus “expenditures” were in the form of middle class tax cuts, which affected 95% of all taxpayers. Another third was in restoring cuts to state and local governments to prevent massive layoffs of teachers, police officers, firefighters and other essential government workers. The actual spending that did occur was properly targeted on re-building the nation’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, tunnels, and schools – which have been badly neglected and are in great need of fixing; on education; and on an historic commitment to clean energy. And by expanding America’s social safety net, Obama ensured that the poor and the unemployed would be taken care of while investments were made in low-income housing, food stamps, and child care.

Everyone agrees that the resulting recovery has been slower than desired, the deepness of the worldwide recession more profound than we were led to believe at the end of 2008. But once the stimulus, the bailouts, and the looser monetary policies of the Fed went into effect, we went from a net loss of 750,000 jobs per month to net gains of nearly 150,000 jobs per month in 2010 and 2011. Economic growth is slower than we would like, but it is a substantial improvement over where we were and shows the economy is moving in the right direction. Are we better off than four years ago? Simply put, yes. According to a study of economists at Princeton University and Moody’s Analytics, Obama’s stimulus package alone created over 2.7 million jobs, and without the stimulus, bailouts, and lower interest rates, unemployment would have risen to 16.5 percent, more than double what it is today.

Reforming Health Care. With the Affordable Care Act, President Obama has achieved what no President before him was able to accomplish. Every progressive president in the 20th Century, from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, tried and failed to enact a comprehensive national health plan. The failure to do so was among Harry Truman’s most bitter disappointments and nearly destroyed Clinton’s presidency in his first year. Despite vitriolic opposition from the right, what has come to be known as Obamacare is far more moderate than its critics claim. The much despised individual mandate, for example, was pioneered by the conservative Heritage Foundation and championed by Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney (until President Obama embraced the concept). Much to the disappointment of his liberal supporters, Obama quickly gave up on the public option in an attempt to appease conservatives. The foundation of the Affordable Care Act is a much expanded client base for private insurance and drug companies. Health-care exchanges, set to begin in 2014, are another conservative concept adopted by Obama’s health plan. Indeed, Obamacare is far to the right of Clinton’s 1993 proposal and very similar to proposals originally advocated by Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bob Dole in 1996.

While many innovative cost-saving measures are yet to take effect, in the last two years we have experienced the lowest increases in health care costs nationwide than at any time in the past decade. Although not the single-payer, universal system that is my preference, the Affordable Care Act has moved the country in a more compassionate and fiscally prudent direction. It expands coverage to 30 million people previously uninsured, prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions, expands Medicaid and strengthens Medicare, allows parents to keep their children on family health plans until age 26, and disallows insurance companies from dropping patients after they become sick. The Affordable Care Act is a singular achievement in American history and makes the United States a kinder, more decent society.

Investing in Clean Energy. The nation’s first black president may also be our first green president. Obama has made an historic commitment to power America with clean, renewable energy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil and dirty coal. Under Obama, we have doubled our renewable energy capacity, from solar panels to wind turbines, producing enough clean energy to power all five boroughs of New York City. Part of this success is due to the stimulus bill, which targeted $94 billion for unprecedented investments in projects from weatherizing federal buildings to building solar thermal plants in the Mojave. Half of the investment comes from tax incentives and loan guarantees that require matching private sector funds and investments. The administration has adopted new fuel efficiency standards that require automakers to increase the average, unadjusted fuel-economy rating of their vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, more than double the efficiency of today’s cars. This will conserve nearly two billion barrels of oil annually and reduce carbon emissions by 21 percent. And by executive order, federal agencies must now reduce their carbon pollution by 28 percent over the next ten years, enough to eliminate 101 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere, equivalent to the climate-heating pollution of several small countries.

Protecting Consumers and Students. Obama has overseen the most sweeping reforms of Wall Street since the Great Depression, fashioning rules under the Dodd-Frank legislation that prevent banks from using consumers’ money to invest in high-risk financial instruments. He established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect consumers from unethical lending and credit practices. Through the Credit Card Act, the major credit card companies must now include a box on your statement that provides how long it will take to pay off your debt by making only the minimum payment, and they cannot so easily lure college kids into mountains of debt by providing easy credit.

Obama has enacted stricter and more effective food safety laws. And he reformed the federal student loan program by lowering the cost of student loans and allowing students to repay them over 20 years as a low, fixed percentage of their incomes. As explained by President Clinton in Charlotte, this means “no one will ever have to drop-out of college for fear they can’t repay their debt. And it means that if someone wants to take a job with a modest income, a teacher, a police officer, if they want to be a small-town doctor in a little rural area, they won’t have to turn those jobs down because they don’t pay enough to repay their debt.”

Civil Rights and Liberties. The most significant and lingering civil rights issues at the start of Obama’s presidency were (1) the right of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military and (2) to enter into state-sanctioned marriage with someone of their choosing, a constitutional right deemed sacred by all other Americans. To his credit, the president secured the consent of the top military brass in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a humiliating policy that forced gay service members to lead dishonest lives in order to serve their country. And although he had previously opposed same-sex marriage, he has since publicly expressed support for the right of all Americans, gay or straight, to marry. He has extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, changed housing rules to disallow discrimination in public housing on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, issued a Presidential Memorandum reaffirming the rights of gay couples to make medical decisions for each other, and pushed for the United Nations to adopt a policy supporting gay rights worldwide.

Foreign Policy and Peace. Mitt Romney is not anxious to engage President Obama in a foreign policy debate, because by any reasonable measure, Obama’s record in this area is stellar. As promised, he ended the War in Iraq and oversaw the efficient withdrawal of American troops, quietly putting this tragic and flawed war behind us. He immediately refocused American military and intelligence efforts to capture and kill Osama bin Laden and, when the moment of decision came, overruled the Secretary of State and Vice President in ordering the riskiest alternative before him, the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed America’s number one global enemy and produced a large cache of new intelligence against al Qaeda. Republicans have sought to ridicule Obama for taking any credit, but as Andrew Sullivan has noted, “If George Bush had taken out bin Laden, wiped out al Qaeda’s leadership, and gathered a treasure trove of real intelligence by a daring raid, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now. But where Bush talked tough and acted counterproductively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies. . . .”

In Libya, Obama ordered the intervention that ousted Gadhafi and protected Western oil supplies at minimal financial cost and no U.S. casualties. He did not act unilaterally, but respectfully and appropriately involved our European and NATO allies, an approach that also has served us well in confronting Iran. Indeed, a combination of strict sanctions, diplomacy, and internationally coordinated pressure on Iran has proven far more effective than grandiose threats of war.

Leading foreign policy conservatives, including Robert Kagan, a national security adviser to John McCain, has strongly praised Obama’s Asia policy. Obama has made China a key strategic priority, adding to U.S. military presence in the Pacific while challenging China on human rights, trade, and economic espionage. He also has taken significant steps to reduce the threat of nuclear war by negotiating further reductions in America’s and Russia’s nuclear arsenals.

I was disappointed in Obama’s decision not to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and I have taken issue with the legality and collateral consequences of Obama’s increased use of drone missile strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. I continue to believe that drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill and display an American arrogance that reflects poorly on American values in the Muslim world. But admittedly I am more willing to trust Obama’s instincts and decisions on these highly sensitive, secretive matters, because Obama’s words and deeds suggest he is at least sensitive to the long-term effects of American military might. Obama signed a detailed Executive Order banning torture and the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that undermined the rule of law and degraded America’s standing in the world and he has closed a number of secret detention facilities. In short, Obama acts like a Commander-in-Chief concerned for America’s long-term interests.

The Alternative. If I had lingering doubts about an Obama second term, and I do not, they would be erased by a look at the alternative. Mitt Romney is a poor second choice not because he is a bad person. I do not doubt that Mr. Romney is a relatively nice man. Like the President, he has a beautiful family and appears to have been a good father and faithful husband. But on matters of policy, on where he stands on fundamental values, on where his heart rests, I simply haven’t a clue. In Massachusetts, Romney was a moderate, pro-choice Governor who openly supported gay rights and designed a health care plan upon which the Affordable Care Act was modeled. Only six years ago, he was a strong proponent of the individual mandate, which he knew then was essential to the state’s ability to provide and pay for universal coverage. Romney has since reversed his position 180 degrees on these and so many other issues that I do not know who Mitt Romney is or what he would do if elected. To obtain his party’s nomination, Romney has proved willing to say anything. He is beholden to the right-wing extremists of his party, although I cannot help but question whether he believes everything he says, or how long it will be until he says something different. In Romney, I do not see a man with any core principles.

A Matter of Character. No president or man is perfect. Obama is no exception. He has made his share of mistakes. There is much unfinished business. The economy continues to grow at too slow a pace. Unemployment remains too high. The deficits must eventually be brought under control or the federal budget will be consumed by interest on the debt, making it more difficult for the government to do the very things liberals and progressives care most about. But I continue to believe in this president and I remain confident in America knowing he is in the White House. He has conducted himself with grace and calm in very trying times. He has managed crises and conflicts with intelligence and dignity. I trust him to do all he can to keep our troops from harm’s way while protecting the freedoms we most cherish. He believes, like I do, in a country that values fairness and productivity, safety and liberty, individual responsibility and community. I love what Obama said in Charlotte during his acceptance speech, because it summarizes precisely how I understand the essence of the American ideal:
We insist on personal responsibility, and we celebrate individual initiative. We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world [has] ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship . . . a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. . . .

We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems. . . . As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together – through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.
It makes no sense to reverse course now. I believe too much in this country to not give this president an opportunity to finish the work he set out to do. I continue to believe that no one is better equipped to bridge the gap between red America and blue America than President Obama. He is not a Democratic president. He is an American president. And should remain so for four more years.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On the Water's Edge: Another Dose of Heschel

Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. . . . [To] get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed. – Abraham Joshua Heschel
Last week, Andrea and I spent time in the northernmost portions of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the air is clean, the water clear, and the sky a deep blue. There is something about life at the water’s edge that causes one to reflect upon the wonders of nature and the magnificence of the Earth. Walking each morning along the shoreline and looking out over the horizon, I am humbled by the abundant beauty of the world in which we live. This is especially so where vast expanses of water meld into cloud formations that line the borders of the universe. From here, I become temporarily transported into another place and time, far from the hustle of everyday life. The country’s political divisions are muted, economic concerns set aside, the pressures of life momentarily forgotten.

The Canadian geese are at home as they congregate along the sandy beach, unhurried and content to let time pass slowly as the trees sway quietly in a late August breeze. The sun reflects off the lake’s surface as mild waves calmly swish to shore. A small boat anchored near the coastline rocks silently as the undercurrents of Lake Michigan gently caress its underside. I feel the presence of God on these walks, alone in my thoughts; the peacefulness of the universe fills me with awe.

It is times like these when I find myself revisiting the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, exploring once again his writings on God, religion, and the human quest for understanding. Heschel is uniquely capable of describing the ineffable. His words have a way of touching the soul and connecting God and man and nature. Although concerned primarily with issues of justice and compassion, Heschel spoke also of the mysterious wonder of God’s universe; the feelings of awe and “radical amazement” that help us gain a deeper perception of the divine. “Awareness of the divine begins with wonder,” he wrote. “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.”

Heschel turned religious assumptions upside down. He spoke not of humanity’s search for God, but of God’s search for man. The purpose of religion is to help us respond to God’s need for humanity, God’s challenge for us to heal and repair the world, to live at peace with one another, to lead lives of love and compassion. “The Almighty has not created the universe," he said, "that we may have opportunities to satisfy our greed, envy and ambition.”

Heschel wrote often about God, prayer, and the nature of human life, topics to which everyone, of all religious faiths, could relate. He did not waste time trying to prove the existence of God, but instead explored how we can cultivate our inner lives to become aware of God’s purpose for the human experience. His words were ecumenical in nature and resonated widely as he sought to unite rather than divide people of diverse backgrounds. To Heschel, “prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive” of humanity’s callousness and indifference. “Prayer must never be a citadel for selfish concerns but rather a place for deepening concern over other people’s plight.”

Heschel’s writings combine a universal sense of spirituality with humility and respect for the divine. He taught that God has a stake in the life of every human being and that “God’s voice speaks in many languages, communicating itself in a diversity of intuitions.”

He understood also the importance of the Sabbath; to renew the soul and find sustenance one day a week. To help us survive the materialism and spiritual degradation of modern society, a concept diminished not only among Jews but Christians as well. “Gallantly, ceaselessly, quietly, we must fight for inner liberty” to remain independent and liberated from the material world. “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man.” Although I have never committed to its practice, I am conceptually drawn to the notion of the Sabbath as a day to reflect, study, and pray. The world would be a calmer, more fulfilling place if more people of faith practiced the Sabbath as envisioned by Heschel.

Even in a country as “religious” as the United States, the true notion of the Sabbath is mostly a relic of the past. Like Heschel, I struggle with the failures of religion in human life. Too often, instead of ennobling humanity in its search for answers to life’s ultimate questions, religious institutions are confined to creeds, rituals, dogmas, and their institutional advancement. Heschel expounded upon this in a series of lectures he gave at the University of Minnesota in 1960, published in an essay entitled “Depth Theology” in The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1967):

[T]here is an inherent weakness of religion not to take offense at the segregation of God, to forget that the true sanctuary has no walls. Religion has often suffered from the tendency to become an end in itself, to seclude the holy, to become parochial, self-indulgent, self-seeking; as if the task were not to ennoble human nature, but to enhance the power and beauty of its institutions or to enlarge the body of doctrines. It has often done more to canonize prejudices than to wrestle for truth; to petrify the sacred than to sanctify the secular.
Heschel taught we must strive to see the world from God’s perspective; to give voice to those who suffer in silence, fight injustice, and emulate God’s compassion for human beings. He recognized the limitations of language to convey what is essentially unique, the mystery of faith and humanity’s response to God. The religious institution loses its way when “faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit.” Among the most vital dimensions of religion, often missed “because of its imponderable nature . . . is that which goes on within the person: the innerness of religion. Vague and often indecipherable, it is the heart of religious existence.”

Walking along the shores of Lake Michigan last week helped me to reawaken my sense of awe and wonder, to ponder the essence of God and nature. Upon returning to Philadelphia and confronting the reality of everyday existence, I am forced to examine life anew, to see the divine in my fellow human beings and to perceive the world through the eyes of God. It is comforting to know that we are not alone. Although incapable of complete understanding, I am reminded of God’s presence in nature, in humanity, and in the messy reality of life on Earth. As Heschel reminds us, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”