Mr. Kristof is off today, and Bono has his spot. MoDo, in “Fie, Fatal Flaw!”, says President Obama’s legislative career offers cautionary tales about the toll of constant consensus building. The Moustache of Wisdom is in Berlin. In “The Power in 11/9” he says the day in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell was one of the greatest manifestations of people power ever seen and offers important lessons to the Obama team. Mr. Rich says “Goldman Can Spare You a Dime,” and that the less we know about Goldman Sachs, the easier it is for reckless gambling to return to capitalism’s casino. Bono gives us “Rebranding America,” in which he says President Obama reminds us that America is not just a country but an idea, a great idea about opportunity for all and responsibility to your fellow man. Here’s MoDo:
One singular leader who wrote elegantly about his ideals, was swept into the presidency and then collided with harsh reality had some advice for another.
In an interview with Alison Smale in The Times last week, Vaclav Havel sipped Champagne in the middle of the afternoon and pricked Barack Obama’s conscience.
Havel, the 73-year-old former Czech president, who didn’t win a Nobel Peace Prize despite leading the Czechs and the Slovaks from communism to democracy, turned the tables and asked Smale a question about Obama, the latest winner of the peace prize.
Was it true that the president had refused to meet the Dalai Lama on his visit to Washington?
He was told that Obama had indeed tried to curry favor with China by declining to see the Dalai Lama until after the president’s visit to China next month.
Dissing the Dalai was part of a broader new Obama policy called “strategic reassurance” — softening criticism of China’s human rights record and financial policies to calm its fears that America is trying to contain it. (Not to mention our own fears that the Chinese will quit bankrolling our debt.)
The tyro American president got the Nobel for the mere anticipation that he would provide bold moral leadership for the world at the very moment he was caving to Chinese dictators. Awkward.
Havel reached out to touch a glass dish given to him by Obama, inscribed with the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. “It is only a minor compromise,” he said. “But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, the real problems.”
Our president would be well advised to listen. Havel is looking at this not only as a moral champion but as a playwright. Obama (who, as Robert Draper wrote, has read and reread Shakespeare’s tragedies) does not want his fatal flaw to be that he compromises so much that his ideals get blurred out of recognition.
As Leon Wieseltier writes in the upcoming New Republic: “The demotion of human rights by the common-ground presidency is absolutely incomprehensible. The common ground is not always the high ground. When it is without end, moreover, the search for common ground is bad for bargaining. It informs the other side that what you most desire is the deal — that you will never acknowledge the finality of the difference, and never be satisfied with the integrity of opposition. There is a reason that ‘uncompromising’ is a term of approbation.”
F.D.R. asked to be judged by the enemies he had made. But what of a president who strives to keep everyone in some vague middle ground of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, without ever offending anyone?
White House advisers don’t seem worried yet that Obama’s transformational aura could get smudged if too much is fudged. They say it is the normal tension between campaigning on a change platform and actually accomplishing something in office.
Yet Obama’s legislative career offers cautionary tales about the toll of constant consensus building.
In Springfield, he compromised so much on a health care reform bill that in the end, it merely led to a study. In Washington, he compromised so much with Senate Republicans on a bill to require all nuclear plant owners to notify state and local authorities about radioactive leaks that it simply devolved into a bill offering guidance to regulators, and even that ultimately died.
Now the air is full of complaints that Obama has been too cautious on health care, Afghanistan, filling judgeships, ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and rebuilding New Orleans; that he has conceded too much to China, Iran, Russia, the Muslim world and the banks.
The White House Web site that went up during President Obama’s first week in office bragged about the four trips that Senator Obama made to the Gulf region after Katrina, promising to “keep the broken promises made by President Bush to rebuild New Orleans.” He may be doing a better job than Brownie’s boss, but Obama didn’t make his first visit to New Orleans until Thursday. He stayed just a few hours before jetting off to a fund-raiser in San Francisco.
At the New Orleans town hall, 29-year-old Gabriel Bordenave complained about the slow pace of the recovery. “I expected as much from the Bush administration,” he told Obama. “But why are we still being nickel-and-dimed?”
The president gave a technocrat’s answer about the “complications between the state, the city and the feds in making assessments of the damages.”
“Now, I wish I could just write a check,” he added. When an audience member yelled “Why not?” he dryly noted, “There’s this whole thing about the Constitution.”
The president should remember, though, that when you’re cooking up a more perfect Union, sometimes you’ve got to break some eggs.
Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
A few weeks ago, Americans “observed” the eighth anniversary of 9/11 — that day in 2001 when the Twin Towers were brought down by Al Qaeda. In a few weeks, Germans will “celebrate” the 20th anniversary of 11/9 — that day in 1989 when the Berlin Wall was brought down by one of the greatest manifestations of people power ever seen.
As the Obama team tries to figure out how to proceed vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, it is worth reflecting for a moment on why Germans are celebrating 11/9 and we are reliving 9/11 — basically debating whether to re-invade Afghanistan to prevent it again from becoming an Al Qaeda haven and to prevent Pakistan from tipping into civil war.
The most important difference between 11/9 and 9/11 is “people power.” Germans showed the world how good ideas about expanding human freedom — amplified by people power — can bring down a wall and an entire autocratic power structure, without a shot. There is now a Dunkin’ Donuts on Paris Square adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, where all that people power was concentrated. Normally, I am horrified by American fast-food brands near iconic sites, but in the case of this once open sore between East and West, I find it something of a balm. The war over Europe is indeed over. People power won. We can stand down — pass the donuts.
The events of 9/11, by contrast, demonstrated how bad ideas — amplified by a willingness of just a few people to commit suicide — can bring down skyscrapers and tie a great country in knots.
I toured Paris Square the other day with Ulrike Graalfs, a program director at the American Academy in Berlin, where I am a visitor, and she mentioned in passing that she was in America on 9/11, as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and she was a 9-year-old schoolgirl standing on the Berlin Wall on 11/9. I was struck by her recollections. On 9/11, she said, she was overwhelmed by the sense of “anger and hurt” that so many of the Penn students around her felt — feelings so intense it made it impossible for them to see, what she, a foreign student could see, “how much the rest of the world was standing with America that day.” By contrast, on 11/9, “there were people singing and dancing and someone lifted me up on the wall,” she said. “I still get emotional thinking about it. I saw my father jump down on the other side. I was terrified. It was very high. I thought it was going to be the end of my father. He started debating with an East German soldier. But the soldier didn’t do anything. He just stood there, stiff.” People power won, and Germany has been united and stable ever since.
The problem we have in dealing with the Arab-Muslim world today is the general absence or weakness of people power there. There is a low-grade civil war going on inside the Arab-Muslim world today, only in too many cases it is “the South versus the South” — bad ideas versus bad ideas, amplified by violence, rather than bad ideas versus good ideas amplified by people power.
In places like Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan or Pakistan you have violent religious extremist movements fighting with state security services. And while the regimes in these countries are committed to crushing their extremists, they rarely take on their extremist ideas by offering progressive alternatives. That’s largely because the puritanical Islamic ideology of the Saudi state or segments of the Pakistani military is not all that different from the ideology of the extremists. And when these extremists aim elsewhere — like at India or at Shiites or at Israelis — these regimes are indifferent. That is why there is no true war of ideas inside these countries — just a war.
These states are not promoting an inclusive, progressive and tolerant interpretation of Islam that could be the foundation of people power. And when their people do take to the streets, it is usually against another people rather than to unify their own ranks around good ideas. There have been far more marches to denounce Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad than to denounce Muslim suicide bombers who have killed innocent civilians, many of them Muslims.
The most promising progressive people-power movements have been Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution, the Sunni Awakening in Iraq and the Green Revolution in Iran. But the Cedar Revolution has been stymied by Syrian might and internal divisions. The Tehran uprising has been crushed by the iron fist of the Iranian regime, fueled by petro-dollars. And it is unclear whether the Iraqis will set aside their tribalism for a shared people power.
So as we try to figure out how many troops to send to stabilize Afghanistan and Pakistan, let’s remember: Where there is people power wedded to progressive ideas, there is hope — and American power can help. Where there is people power harnessed to bad ideas, there is danger. Where there is no people power and only bad ideas, there will be no happy endings.
Now here’s Mr. Rich:
At the dawn of the progressive era early in the last century, muckrakers attacked the first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, for creating capitalism’s most ruthless monster. “The Octopus” was their nickname for Standard Oil, the trust that controlled nearly 90 percent of American oil. But even in that primordial phase of the industrial era, Rockefeller was mindful of his public image and eager to counter it. “His great brainstorm,” writes his biographer, Ron Chernow, “was undoubtedly his decision to dispense shiny souvenir dimes to adults and nickels to children as he moved about.” Who could hate an octopus tossing glittering coins?
It was hard not to think of Rockefeller’s old P.R. playbook while watching Goldman Sachs’s behavior when the Dow hit 10,000 last week. As leader of the Wall Street pack, Goldman declared surging profits, keeping it on track to dispense a record $23 billion in bonuses for 2009. But most Americans know all too well that only the intervention of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailout money saved Goldman from the dire fate of its less well-connected competitors. The growing ranks of under-and-unemployed Americans, meanwhile, are waiting with increasing desperation for a recovery of their own.
Goldman is this century’s octopus — almost literally so. The most-quoted sentence in financial journalism this year, by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, describes the company as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” That’s why Goldman’s chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein, recycled Rockefeller’s stunt last week: The announcement of Goldman’s spectacular third-quarter earnings ($3.19 billion) was paired with the news that the company was donating $200 million to its own foundation, which promotes education. In Goldman dollars, that largess is roughly comparable to the nickels John D. handed out to children a century ago. At least those kids could spend the spare change on candy.
Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting crusade ultimately broke up Standard Oil. Though Goldman did outlast three of its four major rival firms during last fall’s meltdown, it is not a monopoly. And there is one other significant way that our 21st-century vampire squid differs from Rockefeller’s 20th-century octopus. Americans knew what oil was, and they understood how Standard Oil’s manipulations directly affected their pocketbooks. Even now many Americans don’t know what Goldman’s products are or how it makes its money. The less we know, the easier it is for reckless gambling to return to capitalism’s casino, and for Washington to look the other way as a new financial bubble inflates.
As Wall Street was celebrating last week, Congress was having a big week of its own, arousing itself to belatedly battle some of the corporate suspects that have helped drive America into its fiscal ditch. The big action was at the Senate Finance Committee, which finally produced a health care bill that, however gingerly, bids to reform industries that have feasted on the nation’s Rube Goldberg medical system. At least health care, like oil, is palpable, so we will be able to keep score of how reform fares — win, lose or draw. But the business of Wall Street, while also at center stage in a Congressional committee last week, is so esoteric that the public is understandably clueless as to what, if anything, the lawmakers were up to, if anyone even noticed at all.
The first stab at corrective legislation emerging from Barney Frank’s Financial Services Committee in the House is porous. While unregulated derivatives remain the biggest potential systemic threat to the world’s economy, Frank said that “the great majority” of businesses that use derivatives would not be covered under his committee’s much-amended bill. It’s also an open question whether the administration’s proposed consumer agency to protect Americans from mortgage and credit-card outrages will survive the banking lobby’s attempts to eviscerate it. As that bill stands now, more than 98 percent of America’s banks — mainly community banks, representing 20 percent of deposits — would be shielded from the new agency’s supervision.
If it’s too early to pronounce these embryonic efforts at financial reform a failure, it’s hard to muster great hope. As the economics commentator Jeff Madrick points out in The New York Review of Books, the American public is still owed “a clear account of the financial events of the last two years and of who, if anyone, is seriously to blame.” Without that, there will be neither the comprehensive policy framework nor the political will to change anything.
The only investigation in town is a bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission created by Congress in May. It is still hiring staff. Its 10 members are dispersed throughout the country, and, according to a spokeswoman, have contemplated only a half-dozen public sessions over the next year. Such a panel, led by the former California state treasurer Phil Angelides, seems highly unlikely to match Congress’s Depression-era Pecora commission. That investigation was driven by a prosecutor whose relentless fact-finding riveted the country and gave birth to the Securities and Exchange Commission, among other New Deal reforms. Last week, we learned that the current S.E.C. has hired a former Goldman hand as the chief operating officer of its enforcement unit.
Even as we wait for Congress and its inquiry to produce results, the cultural toxins revealed by our economic crisis remain unaddressed by the leaders in the private and public sectors who might make a difference now. Blankfein may be giving $200 million to “education,” but Goldman is back to business as usual: making money by high-risk gambling, with all the advantages that the best connections, cheap loans from the Fed and high-speed trading algorithms can bring. As the Reuters columnist Rolfe Winkler wrote last week, “Main Street still owns much of the risk while Wall Street gets all of the profit.”
The idea of investing in the real economy — the one that might create jobs for Americans — remains outré in this culture. Credit to small businesses remains tight. The holy capitalist grail is still the speculative buying and selling of companies and the concoction of ever more esoteric financial “instruments.” The tragic tale of Simmons Bedding recently told in The Times is a role model. This successful 133-year-old manufacturing enterprise was flipped seven times in two decades by private equity firms. Investors made more than $750 million in profits even as the pile-up of debt pushed Simmons into bankruptcy, costing a quarter of its loyal workers their jobs so far.
Most leaders in America are against this kind of ethos in principle. Last month the president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, contributed a stirring essay to The Times regretting that educational institutions did not make stronger efforts to assert the fundamental values of pure intellectual inquiry while “the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism.” She rued the rise of business as the most popular undergraduate major, an implicit reference to the go-go atmosphere during the reign of her predecessor, Lawrence Summers, now President Obama’s chief economic adviser.
What went unsaid, of course, is that some of Harvard’s most prominent alumni of the pre-Faust era — Summers, Blankfein, Robert Rubin et al. — were major players during the last two bubbles. As coincidence would have it, the same edition of The Times that published Faust’s essay also included an article about how Harvard was scrounging for bucks by licensing a line of overpriced preppy clothing under the brand Harvard Yard. This sop to excessive materialism will be a scant recompense for the $11 billion Harvard’s endowment managers lost in their own bad gamble on interest-rate swaps.
Obama has also passed through Harvard. (Disclosure: so did I.) He too has consistently said all the right things about the “money culture” of “quick kills and bloated bonuses,” of “reckless behavior and unchecked excess.” But the air of entitlement that continues to waft from his administration sends another message.
In particular, the tone-deaf Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, never ceases to amaze. His daily calendars reveal that most of his contacts with the financial sector in the first seven months of 2009 were limited to the trinity of Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan. And last week Bloomberg News reported that his inner circle of “counselors” — key advisers who, conveniently enough, do not require Senate confirmation — are largely drawn from the same club. It’s hard to see how any public official can challenge a culture that he is marinating in, night and day.
Those Obama fans who are disappointed keep looking for explanations. Is he too impressed by the elite he met in Cambridge, too eager to split the difference between left and right, too willing to compromise? As he pursues legislation, why does he keep deferring to others — whether to his party’s Congressional leaders or the Congressional Budget Office or to this month’s acting president, Olympia Snowe? Why doesn’t he ever draw a line in the sand? “We know Obama has good values,” Jeff Madrick said to me last week, “but we don’t know if he has convictions.”
What we also know is that if Teddy Roosevelt palled around with John D. Rockefeller as today’s political class does with Wall Street’s titans and lobbyists, the tentacles of the original octopus would still be coiled tightly around America’s neck.
And last but not least here’s today’s guest columnist Bono:
A few years ago, I accepted a Golden Globe award by barking out an expletive.
One imagines President Obama did the same when he heard about his Nobel, and not out of excitement.
When Mr. Obama takes the stage at Oslo City Hall this December, he won’t be the first sitting president to receive the peace prize, but he might be the most controversial. There’s a sense in some quarters of these not-so-United States that Norway, Europe and the World haven’t a clue about the real President Obama; instead, they fixate on a fantasy version of the president, a projection of what they hope and wish he is, and what they wish America to be.
Well, I happen to be European, and I can project with the best of them. So here’s why I think the virtual Obama is the real Obama, and why I think the man might deserve the hype. It starts with a quotation from a speech he gave at the United Nations last month:
“We will support the Millennium Development Goals, and approach next year’s summit with a global plan to make them a reality. And we will set our sights on the eradication of extreme poverty in our time.”
They’re not my words, they’re your president’s. If they’re not familiar, it’s because they didn’t make many headlines. But for me, these 36 words are why I believe Mr. Obama could well be a force for peace and prosperity — if the words signal action.
The millennium goals, for those of you who don’t know, are a persistent nag of a noble, global compact. They’re a set of commitments we all made nine years ago whose goal is to halve extreme poverty by 2015. Barack Obama wasn’t there in 2000, but he’s there now. Indeed he’s gone further — all the way, in fact. Halve it, he says, then end it.
Many have spoken about the need for a rebranding of America. Rebrand, restart, reboot. In my view these 36 words, alongside the administration’s approach to fighting nuclear proliferation and climate change, improving relations in the Middle East and, by the way, creating jobs and providing health care at home, are rebranding in action.
These new steps — and those 36 words — remind the world that America is not just a country but an idea, a great idea about opportunity for all and responsibility to your fellow man.
All right … I don’t speak for the rest of the world. Sometimes I think I do — but as my bandmates will quickly (and loudly) point out, I don’t even speak for one small group of four musicians. But I will venture to say that in the farthest corners of the globe, the president’s words are more than a pop song people want to hear on the radio. They are lifelines.
In dangerous, clangorous times, the idea of America rings like a bell (see King, M. L., Jr., and Dylan, Bob). It hits a high note and sustains it without wearing on your nerves. (If only we all could.) This was the melody line of the Marshall Plan and it’s resonating again. Why? Because the world sees that America might just hold the keys to solving the three greatest threats we face on this planet: extreme poverty, extreme ideology and extreme climate change. The world senses that America, with renewed global support, might be better placed to defeat this axis of extremism with a new model of foreign policy.
It is a strangely unsettling feeling to realize that the largest Navy, the fastest Air Force, the fittest strike force, cannot fully protect us from the ghost that is terrorism …. Asymmetry is the key word from Kabul to Gaza …. Might is not right.
I think back to a phone call I got a couple of years ago from Gen. James Jones. At the time, he was retiring from the top job at NATO; the idea of a President Obama was a wild flight of the imagination.
General Jones was curious about the work many of us were doing in economic development, and how smarter aid — embodied in initiatives like President George W. Bush’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief and the Millennium Challenge Corporation — was beginning to save lives and change the game for many countries. Remember, this was a moment when America couldn’t get its cigarette lighted in polite European nations like Norway; but even then, in the developing world, the United States was still seen as a positive, even transformative, presence.
The general and I also found ourselves talking about what can happen when the three extremes — poverty, ideology and climate — come together. We found ourselves discussing the stretch of land that runs across the continent of Africa, just along the creeping sands of the Sahara — an area that includes Sudan and northern Nigeria. He also agreed that many people didn’t see that the Horn of Africa — the troubled region that encompasses Somalia and Ethiopia — is a classic case of the three extremes becoming an unholy trinity (I’m paraphrasing) and threatening peace and stability around the world.
The military man also offered me an equation. Stability = security + development.
In an asymmetrical war, he said, the emphasis had to be on making American foreign policy conform to that formula.
Enter Barack Obama.
If that last line still seems like a joke to you … it may not for long.
Mr. Obama has put together a team of people who believe in this equation. That includes the general himself, now at the National Security Council; the vice president, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; the Republican defense secretary; and a secretary of state, someone with a long record of championing the cause of women and girls living in poverty, who is now determined to revolutionize health and agriculture for the world’s poor. And it looks like the bipartisan coalition in Congress that accomplished so much in global development over the past eight years is still holding amid rancor on pretty much everything else. From a development perspective, you couldn’t dream up a better dream team to pursue peace in this way, to rebrand America.
The president said that he considered the peace prize a call to action. And in the fight against extreme poverty, it’s action, not intentions, that counts. That stirring sentence he uttered last month will ring hollow unless he returns to next year’s United Nations summit meeting with a meaningful, inclusive plan, one that gets results for the billion or more people living on less than $1 a day. Difficult. Very difficult. But doable.
The Nobel Peace Prize is the rest of the world saying, “Don’t blow it.”
But that’s not just directed at Mr. Obama. It’s directed at all of us. What the president promised was a “global plan,” not an American plan. The same is true on all the other issues that the Nobel committee cited, from nuclear disarmament to climate change — none of these things will yield to unilateral approaches. They’ll take international cooperation and American leadership.
The president has set himself, and the rest of us, no small task.
That’s why America shouldn’t turn up its national nose at popularity contests. In the same week that Mr. Obama won the Nobel, the United States was ranked as the most admired country in the world, leapfrogging from seventh to the top of the Nation Brands Index survey — the biggest jump any country has ever made. Like the Nobel, this can be written off as meaningless … a measure of Mr. Obama’s celebrity (and we know what people think of celebrities).
But an America that’s tired of being the world’s policeman, and is too pinched to be the world’s philanthropist, could still be the world’s partner. And you can’t do that without being, well, loved. Here come the letters to the editor, but let me just say it: Americans are like singers — we just a little bit, kind of like to be loved. The British want to be admired; the Russians, feared; the French, envied. (The Irish, we just want to be listened to.) But the idea of America, from the very start, was supposed to be contagious enough to sweep up and enthrall the world.
And it is. The world wants to believe in America again because the world needs to believe in America again. We need your ideas — your idea — at a time when the rest of the world is running out of them.