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Each quarter, Counterpoint asks Students, Faculty, and Alumni to answer a Symposium topic dealing with conservative politics and philosophy.


For Winter 2011, we present the Symposium on:


The Obama Presidency


Two years into President Obama's term, Counterpoint's contributors reflect on the record of the First Univesity of Chicago President. What follows are critiques of the President's policies, statements, and actions. There are areas in which we find ourselves mostly supportive of the President: Afghanistan, School Choice, Counter-Terrorism, and Others.

We asked our contributors to write about the Obama Administration by focusing on a specific area of policy, so the range of submissions is eclectic according to the interests of the contributors.


START by Michael Talent

One of the centerpieces of President Obama's foreign policy was the creation and ratification of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. Much has been written about what a poor treaty it is: it is a de facto American nuclear disarmament, it provides a barrier to further American development of missile defense systems, and limits America's flexibility to respond to global disruptions. However, these are all symptoms of a much larger issue in the Obama administration. The START Treaty, and the rhetoric surrounding it, especially when placed in the context of the 2010 National Security Strategy put forth by the White House, exposes an administration whose dedication to internationalism is clouding its ability to adequately assess America's security interests. .

This may be a loaded statement; however, there is no other way of interpreting the administration's action during the debate over START. The administration, and its allies in Congress, pushed for ratification of the treaty in the lame duck session. It is a fair question to ask why a piece of legislation that would significantly affect American power and whose wisdom was repeatedly questioned by many knowledgeable individuals, such as Ambassador John Bolton, would be rushed through the Senate on a last minute vote. Did not such a bill not deserve a much larger debate, with potentially controversial and disadvantageous language stricken, such as modifying the sections dealing with MIRV's and missile defense? That is what common sense would dictate. There are those who would argue that such a move was a practical concern by the Democrats: knowing that the treaty would die in the new Congress. This was, no doubt, a driving force behind the rush. However, what truly motivated President Obama was much more than politics. For President Obama, START was a necessity, not because of some contextual security reason, but because it conformed to President Obama's vision of an international America; a nation that, as he put in his 2010 National Security Strategy, strengthens "international standards and institutions" like the UN. Thus, the president classifies actions into one of two categories: those that promote the international character of the US, which are good, and those that do not, which are bad.

The language the president uses as he discusses torture provides such an example. In the 2010 National Security Strategy, the President categorically condemned the use of torture. There are many arguments for and against torture with regards to its merits as an information-gathering tool, and the brief mentions the cons. However, before these arguments, which do present a security oriented rational for ending torture, the brief condemns it as "alienating the US from the rest of the world." This is not the only example. Only in the vaguest terms and with reference to international cooperation does the brief address matters of US force size and modernization or the ability of the US to, if necessary, unilaterally protects its interests abroad. In short, the brief reduces matters of national security to questions of internationalism.

Ultimately, the most important lesson to take away from President Obama's actions regarding START is that he is going to conduct foreign policy, and especially defense policy, completely through the lens of his internationalist ideology. Foreign policy should not be about dogma, rather, it should be about looking at the circumstances and determining what actions are necessary to preserve American interest, without regard to the conformity of such action to preconceived ideology. There is nothing worse than a committed ideologue running foreign policy, for in his sincerity and good intentions—and one should not doubt either President Obama's sincerity or his belief that internationalism is good—he will be blind to the negative impacts of his decisions.


Health Care by Jeremy Rozansky

What can be said about the new health-care law that has not already been said? The bill will, barring a major calamity, define two election cycles. It has taken more of the President's political capital than anything else and it promises to be the enduring legacy of his presidency.

Although Barack Obama signed his name to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it was neither a proposal he ran on nor a policy he designed. The task of drafting the law was strangely delegated to House and Senate leadership, a group to the left of the caucus as a whole. Still, PPACA has appropriately come to be known as "Obamacare," since he could have pushed for something different or even vetoed this final project.

When it comes to the American healthcare system there are really two major schools of thought, and they happen to correspond neatly to our partisan system. Medical care policy, everyone admits, has three possible concerns: access to care, cost of care, and quality of care. One side of the debate, the liberal side, puts the primary focus on access, based on a fundamental belief in equality or, perhaps, a right to healthcare. They see a healthcare system in which profit-motivated insurers deny coverage to the destitute or the impoverished and they seek to use government to contain the unfortunate consequences of the profit-motive. On the other side, there is no primary emphasis. The conservatives see the healthcare system as a counterintuitive, flawed system for the distribution of any goods—an average family receives medical care from a provider who coordinates with an insurer who is chosen by an employer—that does not harness the ability of the profit-motivated market to lower costs and thereby improve healthcare access and encourage innovation. One side believes a new layer of government regulation and subsidy are required to alleviate the problem; the other side believes government needs to revise the existing regulations in order to change the market. These are two mutually exclusive visions without much in the way of middle ground.

Many complaints about Obamacare have come about the size of the bill (roughly 2,000 pages). This might be a cheap shot except insofar as it reveals the conceit of the new law: that well-studied technocrats can manage something as complicated as how millions of Americans receive highly prioritized and personal services. The law is a network of incentives to mandate insurance and encourage the use of preventive medical care. Aspects of the bill might violate cherished liberties, even constitutionally protected liberties, but more important, perhaps, is the lack of humility in governance that the law reveals. The law is a complicated, convoluted system that tries to subvert emotionally rich decisions by the most bewildering creatures on the planet: American citizens. That, and it's going to cost a lot of money.

The theory behind the law begins with the people who are excluded from health care insurance because insurers are wary of pre-existing conditions. Someone who has a pre-existing condition and is nearly certain to land high medical bills for the insurance agency will only be included by the insurer if they pay a steep premium. This law regulates insurance companies, prohibiting the denial of insurance based on pre-existing conditions and passing on the extra costs to those already insured. To prevent people from waiting until they have an illness or accident to purchase insurance, the law contains two mandates to be included in an insurance plan: an individual and an employer.

The individual mandate works as follows: if a family of four making over $25,000 a year refuses to buy health insurance, they will be fined $2,000. There are hardship exemptions but the fines are mostly examples of what is called "regressive incidence." The fines are disproportionately leveled on the poor, as individuals who will be affected tend to be without a job or in a law-paying job. There is also an employer mandate for all employers with 50 employees or more. Because of a historical accident of wage controls during the FDR Administration, most Americans still get health insurance from their employer. Any business that does not cover just one worker will be taxed $2000 per worker (excluding the first thirty), including workers who are covered. This will especially harm businesses that employ a number of low-skill, low-income workers. Other businesses might find that the fine is much smaller than the cost of insuring and could drop their coverage completely. This is especially exasperated by another provision of the law—the removal of caps on insurance benefits that help keep costs low for employers. The Department of Health and Human Services has already issued over two-hundred waivers that exempt companies and unions from the removal of insurance benefit caps after it was revealed that the hike in premium costs could cause the companies to drop their employees. This amounts to governance not by clear and predictable laws and rules but by an authority's whim—this is always the step after convoluted laws backfire.

For those who are not covered by an employer and choose to purchase health insurance (whether under penalty of fine or not), two broad types of government assistance are available. About half fit into the category of those eligible for Medicaid (incomes below 133% of the poverty line). Many of these people already qualify for Medicaid, which is a state-run program that receives federal funds. Under Obamacare, the Federal Government will eventually pay about 90% of the costs for the newly eligible individuals, meaning that states already in fiscal crisis will have to pay 10% of the medical costs for people they were not previously paying for. The oncoming state insolvency will only come quicker. The other half of the newly insured are put into exchanges, markets where government approval is the only barrier to entry and individuals are given a subsidy to buy health insurance. Those households with incomes between 133% and 400% of the Federal Poverty Line (between about $29,000 and $88,000 today) must pay a progressively increasing percentage of their income toward health insurance (up to 9.5%). The federal government will then pay for the remaining cost of insurance in the exchanges. These costs will exceed projections if firms continue to drop workers into the exchanges.

The program is paid for through new taxes, including increases in the Medicare tax, the fines and fees to individuals and businesses, and cuts to Medicare. The cuts are of four types. First, the federal government will lower payment rates for services, meaning far fewer providers will be willing to take Medicare patients. Official Medicare actuaries have estimated that 15% of hospitals will go out of business in the next decade because of these cuts. These typically have not worked to lower the total costs of Medicare upward as the volume of care increases with an aging population. Second, the law creates the Independent Payment Advisory Board which is authorized to make further cuts to Medicare without Congressional approval. Third, Obamacare authorizes many pilot programs to experiment with new payment models. Fourth, the law cuts Medicare Advantage, a voucher program in which seniors can purchase private insurance. Many of the existing private plans would not be able to withstand the cuts to Medicare Advantage and seniors would have to switch plans. These decreases will be offset slightly by measures that increase Medicare costs by, for example, mandating preventive care and also removing existing incentives to buy generic prescription drugs.

Most of the financing of the bill rests on two assumptions: the Medicare cuts will be implemented wholly and effectively and the number of people using exchanges will be about 19 million. Of course, the impact of the across-the-board cut in Medicare will be supplemented through the annual passing of the "doc-fix" which offsets some of the payment reductions to healthcare providers. This was originally part of the bill but was excluded so that the Congressional Budget Office's scoring mechanism would show no addition to the deficit. Moreover, the figure of 19 million enrollees in the exchange program assumes that businesses would not be dropping employees at the rate they have been. (Former CBO chief, Douglas Holtz-Eakin estimates 35 million could be dropped by their employers.) This, combined with promised tax increases such as the ones on "Cadillac" health insurance plans that are likely to never materialize as well as promised cuts that are also likely never to materialize, suggests that one should bet on Obamacare adding to the deficit.

What we have then, is a strange and convoluted new entitlement, sure to expedite the march toward American default. It not only preserves a terribly inefficient system, it makes it more obtuse and then subsidizes it. The Republican Party has rightly made the replacement of Obamacare its primary legislative goal. A replacement should begin by targeting the way people buy insurance. There is no reason for medical care consumers to have their insurance purchased by a third party (their employer). Moreover, there is no reason why the insurance model of payment is predominant. Insurance is for protection against terrible scenarios, not for predictable expenses. No car insurance covers an oil change. Because the insurance model minimizes per-treatment expenditures, price is hidden from the consumer, and he therefore over-consumes at higher prices. If individuals had a choice of health coverage arrangements as opposed to being funneled into an insurance plan by an employer or the government, many would be attracted to the more cost-effective combination of Health Savings Accounts (tax-deductible account to pay for predictable expenses) and catastrophic insurance (to pay for expensive, unpredictable treatments). The plan that best provides the market-model that encourages cost-effectiveness and maintains a concern for equity is the defined contribution model proposed by Tom Miller of the American Enterprise Institute and James C. Capretta of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. There are also more cost-effective ways to deal with the problem of the exclusion of those with pre-existing conditions, such as high-risk pools.

Errors, even in governance, can be corrected. Obamacare set up a system that entrenches the existing problems in health care and does not provide requisite consumer choice. The law went the direction of greater government involvement in the distribution of medical care. In fact, it needed to go the other direction and clear away a number of the existing government-induced convolutions. The layers of government in healthcare should be rolled away and simplified, even going past the point at which Obamacare is repealed. It was the wrong vision; it was the wrong law.


Abortion/Bioethics by Tom Palmer

President Obama was elected as a moderate; he presented himself as fiscally and socially center-left, even promising a net spending cut. But there is one area in which Obama has never presented himself as anything but unmoderated: abortion and bioethics policy.

The president believes firmly not just (as with most pro-choice advocates) that abortion is an evil outweighed by countervailing goods like female autonomy but that abortion is in fact morally neutral. Thus, on the campaign trail, he was careful to speak only of his desire to reduce unwanted pregnancies. He never repeated the traditional Democratic mantra of "safe, legal, and rare" because to declare that abortion ought to be "rare" would imply that it is something other than a routine medical procedure.

The Obama administration has not delivered on most of its promises. The one set of promises on which the Nobel Peace Prize winner has delivered are his most divisive: his promises regarding abortion policy. Granted, presidents are limited in the steps they can take to further the abortion license in a country in which the Supreme Court has already decreed that license to be unlimited. President Obama has already taken every step available to him. He has appointed two stalwartly pro-abortion Supreme Court justices, Sonia Sotomayor and, more disturbingly, Elena Kagan, whose interference (while in the employ of the federal government) in the expert amicus briefs filed by doctors in Casey vs. Planned Parenthood helped ensure the continuation and strengthening of Roe's ban on abortion-limiting legislation.

He has also appointed pro-abortion judges to the Federal Courts of Appeals—including a judge whose pro-abortion activism made him a laughingstock in the federal judiciary. "For seven years," wrote renowned appellate Judge Frank Easterbrook in 2002, "Indiana has been prevented from enforcing a statute materially identical to a law held valid by the Supreme Court in Casey, by this court in Karlin, and by the Fifth Circuit in Barnes. No court anywhere in the country (other than one district judge in Indiana) has held any similar law invalid[.]" The lawless culprit? Obama's 2009 nominee to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge David Hamilton. Judge Hamilton now sits on the appellate court which held that he had engaged in a truly unprecedented abuse of discretion in the cause of counteracting Indiana's limited intrusions on the abortion license—intrusions that had been approved even by pro-abortion Justices Kennedy, O'Connor, and Souter.

President Obama has taken steps to maximize the federal funding of abortion abroad, as in the Mexico City policy. He has of course also taken steps towards the federal funding of abortions domestically, in which case he would be the first President ever to oversee the circumvention of the Hyde Amendment.

There are other less salient areas of bioethics. While political realities have forced the president to downplay his abortion policies—in his muted statement on this year's Roe anniversary, he declined to even utter the word "abortion"—those realities permitted him to celebrate his decision to roll back the Bush compromise, which allowed federal funding of embryonic stem cell research while declining to pay for the destruction of new embryos. The public supports stem cell research without nuance, thanks to a systematic campaign by Democrats and interest groups to conflate embryo-destructive and other forms of stem cell research. But since the public opposes cloning, he "banned" federal funding of human cloning—in appearance. The president in fact banned cloning only for reproductive purposes. That is, funding of cloning is impermissible unless it is done with the intention of destroying the clone for the purposes of medical research. The president's policy is, in practice, a ban on not killing whatever human clones researchers choose to create.

President Obama also decided to replace the morally serious and ideologically diverse President's Council on Bioethics with a new panel of scientists whose mandate was not to determine the proper ends and means of science, but to deal with means and largely bury bioethical debates. It is, of course, impossible to formulate a bioethics policy with no ends in mind. Those ends are now simply subjected to less scrutiny. Given the unpopularity of the ends favored by the president and the fringe supporters of his bioethics policies, it is perhaps an understandable move.

The Obama presidency has, in many ways, been a wonderful thing for the country. The election of the first black president is a truly great symbol of how this nation can overcome its greatest sins. It is a testament to the potential for democracy to right wrongs. How tragic, then, that President Obama's tenure so far has also been such a failure of American democracy. While a sizeable majority of Americans supports permitting abortion only in cases of incest, rape, or danger to a mother's life, President Obama has moved abortion policy from where it stood—far, far to the left of the American consensus—to an even further fringe, not merely permitting but sanctioning and funding the deliberate killing of human beings. Most tragic of all, he has been given two chances, and may yet have more, to perpetuate the Roe regime through the appointment of Supreme Court Justices unwilling to accept the proposition that all human life deserves protection. The great triumph of American civil rights may have set the greatest civil rights cause of our day back another forty years.


Civil Rights by Josh Lerner

As we are often reminded, President Obama is our first African American president. As he has often reminded us, he was going to transcend simple racial categories to establish the first post-racial presidency. While the veracity of the first claim is hardly in doubt, the facts pertaining to the state of "race" within the Obama Administration hardly lead one to the conclusion that it is in fact post-racial, but rather that this administration has taken an intense interest in questions of race and unequal treatment in American society.

To understand the Obama administration position on race, three pertinent observations must be made: one, the Obama administration often pays extraordinary rhetorical interest in moving beyond race while at the same time, failing to do so. Two, the tenured civil service, now unmoored from the restrictions of the Bush administration, is acting more than ever on the question of race, in ways that are neither democratically responsive, nor intellectually receptive to outside ideas. Finally, the ways in which the president and his higher-level political appointees deal with the question of race show a distinct interest in demonstrating a strong position on racial issues, especially between blacks and whites.

First and foremost, the entire logic of the Obama administration's position on race is built on two contradictory yet omnipresent premises: as a nation, we need to "transcend the topic of race," and, at the same time, discrimination against African-Americans is systemic, inherent, and terrible, and therefore it is the job of the executive branch to remedy this social malady. So the rhetoric of the Obama administration focuses on healing racial scars and "reaching out for unity," while the administrative apparatus operates from the assumption, so helpfully verbalized by Attorney General Eric Holder, that when it comes to race we are essentially "a nation of cowards," unwilling to properly remedy past wrongs.

Consider the actions taken by the Obama administration over what has been called the "New Black Panthers Case." The Black Panthers case focuses on an incident during the 2008 Presidential election in which two men, King Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson who are both prominent members of the radical racialist group, stood outside a Philadelphia polling booth holding nightsticks claiming to be "providing security." Immediately, accusations of voter intimidation swirled, particularly when a video of the duo was posted to Youtube, in which King Samir Shabazz, while holding his nightstick, yells racial epithets at nearby white voters. Such action is clearly outlawed in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, an act designed to keep the Bull Connors of the world at bay and allow for the safe participation of all in the most crucial of democratic activities.

Should this not have been an open-and-shut case of voter intimidation? Not according to the Department of Justice. According to J. Christian Adams and Christopher Coats, career DOJ attorneys put in charge of prosecuting the case, DOJ really had very little intention of litigating the case from the beginning. In the words of Christopher Coats: "I had people who told me point-blank that [they] didn't come to the voting rights section to sue African American people." Adams testified to the US Commission on Civil Rights that he was "told by voting section management that cases are not going to be brought against black defendants on [behalf] of white victims."

Both Coats and Adams resigned over what they considered to be a horrendous failure of justice in the Obama administration. Furthermore, when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights began to investigate the Obama administration's handling of the case, Department of Justice officials began to stonewall the Commission, doing their best to keep the Commission in the dark. Granted, the particulars of the New Black Panthers Case are rather unimportant and the general effects from the case will not be widely felt, but it is rather what the case implies that is significant here. The Black Panthers case, more than anything else, signifies the lengths to which the Obama administration has allowed the civil service, the part tasked by political appointees to prosecute cases, to act in a completely unmoored way. Consistently, the Obama administration's approach to issues of a racial tenor has been to defer when the victims are white, and to aggressively pursue when the victims are black.

This incident was far from an isolated one. Consider the absence of prosecution on voter fraud cases, highlighted by the demasking of the fraudulent behavior of ACORN employees last year. The Motor Voter Fraud investigation in Missouri was hardly pursued at all by the Obama administration. The allegations that people were being left on the Motor Voter registrations long after death were ignored by the Department of Justice on the grounds that it was not an important case at all, and that "voter fraud is not a serious issue." According to Adams, the official position of the Office of Civil Rights in the Justice Department, and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Julie Fernandes in particular, was that any enforcement of Section 8 of the federal "Motor Voter" law, requiring states to regularly purge their voter rolls of dead people, felons, illegal voters and those who have moved out of state was simply not of any importance. Adams quotes Fernandes as saying, "We're not interested in those kind of cases. What do they have to do with helping increase minority access and turnout? We want to increase access to the ballot, not limit it."

Furthermore, when called to testify in front of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about this issue, the Justice Department flat-out refused, furthering suspicions that the "most transparent administration ever" is covering something up. But simply not prosecuting certain transgressions is far from the only offense against civil rights the Obama administration has perpetrated. Just as egregious are the cases it has chosen to pursue, particularly ones dealing with the same Voting Rights Act that they chose not to enforce when it came to the Black Panthers Case.

One of the more controversial elements of the Voting Rights Act is Section 5, in which districts deemed to have a problematic racial history—as of over 40 years ago—need to petition the federal government if they are going to change any laws related to voting or voter registration. When the city of Kinston, North Carolina, a majority African-American town, passed a ballot initiative in 2008 changing city council elections from partisan to non-partisan, the Department of Justice refused to authorize this change, using Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

The reason the Justice Department refused to allow the change? They worried that voters in a non-partisan election would not chose the "right" candidates, and, since the city of Kinston is overwhelmingly Democratic, one can only conclude that politics was the primary motivation for this bizarrely patronizing act of political subjugation. One merely has to peel back the layers of odd and disingenuous assumptions built into this decision to truly understand what the Justice Department thinks it is doing. The soft bigotry of low expectations indeed!

The final incident I wish to highlight is something that has not garnered nearly as much press as any of the other incidents I have described, the Office of Civil Rights interest in pursuing claims of "disparate discipline" in public schools throughout the nation. "Disparate Discipline" takes the already dubious logic of disparate impact—a provision of Title VII claiming that different levels of impact of a policy can be, in and of themselves, evidence of discrimination against adversely affected parties—and applies them to high school disciplinary policy. Thomas Perez, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the Department of Justice, said, "[S]tudents of color are receiving different and harsher disciplinary punishments than whites for the same or similar infractions, and they are disproportionately impacted by zero-tolerance policies—a fact that only serves to exacerbate already deeply entrenched disparities in many communities," establishing the need for federal intervention.

The only evidence produced for disparate discipline so far is the commonly acknowledged difference in disciplinary actions for blacks over any other race. They have yet to produce any evidence that this is not merely a result of different rates of offense, or because African-American students tend to attend schools with harsher disciplinary policies, but instead have assumed that such a difference necessarily stems from racism. The idea that we would need to federalize school discipline over such shoddy claims highlights the general approach this administration has taken towards racial politics in America.

This approach to race belies a presidency built on the promising language of racial transcendence. When viewed in conjunction with other public absurdities, like the "Beer Summit" between Obama, Henry Louis Gates (an African-American Harvard professor) and the police officer who wrongly arrested him, it becomes clear that Obama's language on race and his intentions are fundamentally separate deals. It is impossible to be the "post-racial" president if race is an inexorable part of the way your administration does business. Nor can we hope to get beyond issues relating to "the color of our skin" if we see racial bogeymen around every corner.


Don't Ask, Don't Tell by Taylor Brogan

The recent repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy has largely been applauded by the news media, center-right to far-left adults, and nearly everyone else under the age of twenty-five. It has been branded as a "major victory for Obama," and President Obama himself said, "sacrifice, valor and integrity are no more defined by sexual orientation than they are by race or gender, religion or creed."

I agree with Obama—qualities like sacrifice, valor, and integrity have absolutely nothing to do with sexual orientation. That is precisely why Don't Ask Don't Tell was the ideal policy. It did not prohibit homosexual people from serving in the military; rather it removed sexual orientation from the equation entirely. By repealing DADT, the senate has effectively turned sexuality into a bigger issue for the military than it needs to be.

Many have argued that it does not matter whether gays serving in the military reveal their orientation or not, and to a certain extent, this is a valid point. Outside of combat, it really would not matter whether you or any of your fellow comrades were openly gay. However, the subject of unit cohesion becomes the tipping point on the repeal-or-not scale, especially with regards to maximized lethality and survivability in combat units.

Preventing gay men from revealing their sexual orientation is the same as preventing women from serving in the front lines of combat; it's not about rights, it's about unit cohesion. If two members of the same unit were romantically involved with one another, that could pose a serious threat to the completion of the mission. Indeed, the military study conducted in light of DADT found that the majority of soldiers who opposed the repeal were combatants. The ugly truth about the military is that the primary objective in most missions is to kill the enemy; saving your fellow combatants takes a backseat to that objective. By adding transparency to sexuality, the opportunity for relationships to come into being within units is increased tremendously, and the implications of that cannot be ignored or written off as homophobic fear-mongering.

Again, it's not about rights; it's about practical and effective policy-making within the military. I believe that it would be an absolute travesty if we prevented gay people from serving in the military. If you are willing to lay down your life for your country, and if you are able, then you deserve nothing but the support and respect of your fellow citizens. Don't Ask Don't Tell allowed for a situation in which sexual orientation was a non-issue. By repealing it, the senate has effectively opened up a potentially very dangerous can of worms.


Free Trade by Alastair Cleve

During his presidential campaign, President Obama emphasized his free-trade credentials. He made it clear that he would support free trade, resisting pressure from groups recommending protectionist "remedies" for national economic lethargy. He emphasized that he is a man of vision and values: that he believes in decency, free trade, and market-based solutions. He impressed much of the country when he proposed performance-related pay as a measure to incentivize improvement in public education, thereby becoming the first Democrat since Roosevelt to challenge the hegemony of teachers' unions. Barack Obama seemed intelligent, pragmatic, and independent enough to lead the country through a dreadful financial crisis without creating a system of perverse incentives or acquiescing to unions and trade groups. Despite this, however, his government produced tremendously expensive pieces of legislation such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Car Allowance Rebate System—i.e. cash for clunkers. And on September 11, 2009, President Obama almost ignited a trade war with China by signing into law tariffs of 35% on imported Chinese tires. The United Steelworkers union had complained that the increasing flow of imports from China was creating competition and forcing factory workers out of work. Wanting to be seen as a leader for the downtrodden and jobless, the President quickly sacrificed his principles on the altar of populism. Not only was he saving jobs, the President was protecting Americans from that terrible evil: the choice of buying tires at a lower price.

Presidents in a democratic society are especially prone to populism. Former Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and both Bushs succumbed to protectionist pressure. Pundits like Lou Dobbs perpetuate the insidious myth of a rising China determined to steal all of our jobs. This tragedy of populism is that it often leads to unintended consequences. A myth has been created that we can reduce our imports but increase our exports: that we can have a German-led growth model, whereby we sell everything from textiles to pharmaceuticals to an eager world yet import very little for ourselves. The problem of this thinking lies in currency exchange markets, which exist so that individuals may trade currencies with the ultimate end of purchasing goods and services in the home of the respective currency. If we are unwilling to buy foreign products and therefore trade dollars on international currency markets, then where are foreign countries meant to get the dollars with which to buy American products? Currency markets exist because trade exists. To be sure, it is true that fluctuations in exchange rates can be traced back to various phenomena—such as yield differentials, relative rates of inflation and economic growth, and current account surpluses and deficits—but, broadly speaking, the strength of a currency reflects the demand of foreigners for goods and services from that country as well as the investment potential in that country. In the nineteen-nineties, the strength of the U.S. Dollar reflected strong economic performance, stable growth in the money supply, fiscal responsibility, and demand from foreigners for U.S. Government securities. To ignore this link between export markets, import markets, and exchange markets can have terrible economic consequences.

But the biggest tragedy of protectionism lies in the unseen economic growth. Centuries ago, China was the world's largest economy: a true dynamo and center of innovation and culture. But then it closed its borders to international trade and quickly sank into poverty as the rest of the world—in particular, trading cities like Venice and Amsterdam—became exceptionally wealthy. The Middle East experienced a very similar history. Once the center of mathematics and science, it quickly fell behind the West as dictatorships tried to control international markets while failing to promote Western innovations such as limited liability law. International competition puts downward pressure on prices, upward pressure on quality and forces people to specialize in that in which they have a comparative advantage. A true world market has the potential to unleash mankind's innovative spirit in a way that could have profound benefits for everyone. Despite these benefits, however, Obama is not very interested in broad-scale free-trade and that, after his presidency, not much will have changed: partisanship will still fill the halls of Washington and only special free-trade arrangements will exist with our allies, such as with Korea and India, whereas broad-scale, open, free-trade will be sacrificed in an effort to protect workers from growing international competition. Moribund industries—particularly automotive industries—will continue to be subsidized, preventing that capital from being reallocated to more productive means. It seems that Reagan was right when he said "government's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: if it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it." In the long-run, however, we are only hurting ourselves by kowtowing to the protectionist mystique.


Transparency by Ben Silver

Communication between people and their government is essential to the health of American democracy. Americans are constantly giving feedback to the government; frequently we send messages to the federal government through our votes, protests, and donations. But the business of government is a two-way street. In order to keep the government responsive and accountable to the people, our government and its officials must maintain a high degree of transparency. Historically speaking, Americans have largely remained in the dark about many governmental operations, like Japanese internment camps or deep-rooted lobbying in Congress. It is because of these past abuses that Americans ought to know what the government and its officials are doing.

This ideal of government being responsible to the people is exactly what President Obama has been calling for since the most recent presidential campaign. Presently, the White House website claims that, "[The Obama] Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government."

In the 2008 election, Americans heard the presidential candidates making promise after promise. Part of the post-partisan promise included a general shedding of the influence of special interests, thereby increasing transparency. To do so, the President proposed three policies which would considerably heighten government transparency: a centralized internet database of lobbying reports, ethics records, and campaign finance filings; a pledge to allot five days of public internet review after non-emergency bills are passed, but before they are signed; and a promise to televise all negotiations of the high-stakes and heavily industry lobbied Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. These policies would have allowed Americans to better observe their government. Rather than go through the futility of reading thousand-page bills prior to becoming law, citizens would have the opportunity to examine the basics of the bill, formulate opinions, and support or reprimand their representatives. But these proposed policies received little, if any, attention from President Obama in his first two years.

And it is, indeed, our president's responsibility to enact these reforms—especially since he promised them not long ago. If President Obama can initiate and pass trillion dollar spending bills and squeak through a wildly controversial health care law, surely he could have gained a substantial amount of support for transparency reforms in his first two years, especially with one of the largest majorities in Congress since the Johnson era. These simple facts seem to suggest that the president has become no better than the average Washington politician—he has lost the "outsider" moniker he once proudly carried. If he truly did care about renewing the relationship between the government and governed, President Obama surely would have, at the very least, suggested these reforms to Congress. But his lack of care for transparency improvement is apparent in his decision to push through health care reform without his proposed condition of televised negotiations

During these first two years of his term, it is unmistakable that President Obama did not transcend Washington or change how business is done there. If the second half of Obama's term is anything like the first, then it is, unfortunately, all too likely that President Obama's promises on transparency will remain empty, a fact that certainly will not help revitalize the broken relationship between Americans and their government.


The Middle East by Yiftach Ofek

As these lines are being written, the future of the Middle East is less certain than it had been for decades. As the world looks to Egypt, the most-dominant of the Arab countries, the final word from the White House remains to be given. At the chance of anachronism, we nonetheless still offer to gain some insight from Obama's policy in the first two years of his tenure.

George Bush made the Middle East a cornerstone of his foreign policy, and so, upon election, Obama correctly recognized that this would be the global arena in which his policy of "Change" would be tested. Obama perceived Bush's policy as based on cultural chauvinism towards the Muslim population of the region, a conceited conception of American power, a staunch belief in unilateralism, and an unquestioning fidelity to America's regional allies. All these, according to Obama, prevented Bush from making progress on several important fronts, and caused a deterioration in America's relationship not only with the people of the Middle East, but also with Europe. When Obama took office, he sought to change all that. As he fittingly entitled his Cairo Speech in June, 2009, this was "A New Beginning".

Reading the Cairo Speech now, it is striking how candid Obama was in the policy goals he set out to accomplish. Instead of Bush's supposed chauvinism, Obama offered understanding and conciliation. Instead of misguided military force, he offered engagement. Instead of unilateralism, he offered cooperation; and fidelity was replaced by revision. But Obama drew our attention to more than just policy change. He pointed out the change in personality, becoming perhaps the first American president to declare publicly his personality as a strategic asset.

Thus, it was not only policy change that was of importance to Obama's Middle East policy. It was also the belief that he was the man to carry it out. Unsurprisingly, one of his first steps when he took office was to appoint two senior diplomats to serve as his personal emissaries to two of the region's most problematic areas. This was Obama's way of showing his commitment to regional affairs. The two diplomats were the now-deceased Richard Holbrooke, who was sent to the Afghanistan/Pakistan area; and George Mitchell, who was sent to mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. Both men, of course, had impressive personal records. Holbrooke was credited with the Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia, and similarly, Mitchell was a pivotal figure in brokering peace in Northern Ireland. But even impressive records do not help when sent on impossible missions. Obama's personal efforts to "engage" were perceived in the region not as a tour de force, but as a sign of weakness. WikiLeaks proved to all that despite the best intentions, Obama's Middle East diplomatic corps was perceived across the region as a ring of nudniks - a good word from the Yiddish lexicon signifying "nags", - not as representatives of the world's only superpower. The only real achievement could be credited to Mitchell, who managed to unite Israelis and Palestinians in agreement that they would much rather deal with Hillary Clinton's no-nonsense approach than the White House's "engaging" diplomats.

Respecting differences is of course a worthy cause, however the "blanket argument" against the use of military force may have had unintended consequences. Again, it was perceived as a weakness, making it nearly impossible to make progress on any issue in the region: human rights, democracy, women's equality, and above all, Iran. Iran is the Middle East's most pivotal issue. Fear of the Ayatollahs has been proven by WikiLeaks to be shared by all governments in the region, and it is therefore Iran – and not, as previously assumed, the Palestinians – that is the most important issue to tackle. Resisting Iranian tyranny and Ahmadinejad's grandiose power schemes would allow the Obama administration the diplomatic leverage needed to restore America's status in the region, not Obama's personality. At the moment, it seems that Obama's Middle East policy is based merely on not being George Bush. Unfortunately, it is this very attitude that is preventing him from making progress. Does "Change" in the Middle East actually mean no change at all?

Obama's indecisiveness in the first few days of the Egyptian revolution very much reflects a continuation of this trend. This is not to deny that Obama is currently found in a very inconvenient position. Deliberation is a welcome sign from a leader. But there's a caveat. His leadership has to be established first. The Middle East is yearning for American leadership. Will Obama be that leader? We cannot tell. But at the moment, in a region eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Messiah, the resurrection of Christ, and the reappearance of the Hidden Imam, they are still waiting for the leader Barack Obama.



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