Two unrelated but significant political issues warrant consideration as we round out the week. Yesterday, Senate Republicans upheld a filibuster on a jobs bill. Earlier in the week, the Obama administration, and the intellectual courtiers that surround it, received its sharpest, and finest, rebuke of its foreign policy.
"The bill is simply too expensive and I simply could not support it," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, explaining her vote not to allow debate on a bill that would have extended unemployment benefits to those still looking for work and provided monies to states and localities facing their own budget nightmares. This is what is known as being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
The economic recovery is marked by two primary characteristics: It is halting and it has been accompanied by severe amnesia. The halting quality means that we seem to take two steps forward and one back, home sales go up one month, but then the unemployment rate stays flat, and at an alarmingly high rate. One day the Dow goes up, and the next day it plummets. This is frustrating, but the last thing we should want to do is see states and municipalities lay off policemen and social workers and teachers to meet their strained budgets. Apart from the harm to public safety, public welfare and public education that such cutbacks would entail, we would be increasing the unemployment rate, depriving these public servants of their livelihoods and, critically, of their purchasing power when we most need them to be out spending their money to get the economy moving again.
Sen. Collins is not entirely wrong to be worried about government debt, but in the midst of a recession, we want the government to be stimulating the economy and going into deeper deficit spending as needed. The Federal Reserve’s announcement this week that it is keeping interest rates at such historic lows was made possible because the worldwide anxiety about the economic future has driven investors across the globe to the most trustworthy of investments, U.S. government bonds. Why should foreigners be willing to trust the future of the U.S. government but Senate Republicans won’t? Shame on them.
Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, is one of the three smartest people in the world. And he has penned a damning critique of Obama’s foreign policy from a liberal perspective. I know that Leon’s and my concerns are similar, but I also think that my concern about Obama’s foreign policy, and indeed about his entire presidency is different from Leon’s. In two essays, one at TNR in response to Michael Kazin and one this morning in the Post in response to Fareed Zakaria, Wieseltier makes the case for a more robust support of democracy advocates in Iran and elsewhere. His most damning sentences are these: "The White House would like us to think that the alternatives before us are just a sermon or a war. Like Obama and many other liberals, Kazin has fallen for the Bush-Cheney idea of democratization, according to which it takes place at the barrel of a gun. It suits Obama’s reluctance to challenge Muslim societies in any seriously critical way, his multicultural preference for celebrating their otherness and addressing them religiously, his realism costumed as idealism, to have the policy of democratization represented in the American mind by the Iraq war."
It is the case that too many liberals have allowed George W. Bush to give internationalism a bad name. The Obama foreign policy looks more and more like that of Papa Bush and Brent Scowcroft in some kind of multicultural drag than the heir to the tradition of FDR, Truman and Kennedy. Of course, as Wieseltier should concede, there is a reason liberals stop with Kennedy. It is not only the legacy of Bush fils but the legacy of LBJ and Vietnam that still makes many liberals wince at the thought of intervention. Sarajevo was enough of a tonic for most of us, but not for all. A night of watching MSNBC would show Wieseltier how deep is the leftie aversion to the use of American force abroad, and he should give the President some credit for staring that part of his political base down.
One of Leon’s charges does not ring true. In discussing Afghanistan, he worries that the timetable for withdrawal may have less to do with the needs of democracy in Afghanistan than it does with the needs of the Democrats back home. In Jonathan Alter’s book about Obama, The Promise, of which I have a forthcoming review in the print edition of AMERICA, the most dominant theme is the President’s commitment to the belief that "good policy is good politics" and his near constant insistence that political discussions be kept distinct from policy discussions. Alter sees something noble in this, but I see a misunderstanding of democracy, especially when constructing a war strategy where it is the President’s unique contribution to build and maintain popular support for the effort. My worry is not that the Afghanistan timetable relates to domestic political needs, but that it doesn’t, that there is a side to Obama who thinks that if he devises the smartest policy, people will come to recognize that fact and embrace it, if not immediately, over time as the positive results become obvious.
This approach may work in Obama’s favor if the economy turns around before his re-election effort, but the struggles for freedom around the globe will not be completed by 2012 and the American people need more than a thoughtful strategy, they need a moral vision that explains and defends that strategy. He must learn how to appeal to more than our brains: The rationale for the promotion of democracy and justice is a moral rationale. Bush buried that important fact in hubris and wishful thinking. Obama may be burying it in rational analyses and expectations. There is nothing wrong with wishing, and Lord knows we want our leaders making rational analysis, but Obama must find a moral voice and vision to explain and defend his foreign policy.