Tilting at Windmills

January/February 2011 Cool Hand Barack … Don’t let sleeping lies dog … Capitalism could break your heart …

By Charles Peters

Finally, an audience!

The members of the Foreign Service owe a great debt to Julian Assange. He got their cables read. One of the major frustrations of Foreign Service officers has been getting their voices heard amid the vast clutter of information arriving in Washington every day. Stanley Meisler, the veteran foreign affairs correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, tells of the time a Foreign Service officer in Africa pulled him aside at a cocktail party and asked if Stanley would please read one of his cables. He was proud of it, but feared no one of any consequence in Washington had even looked at it.

Several years ago, in testifying before the commission investigating 9/11, then CIA Director George Tenet was asked why nothing was done in response to a cable that reported one of the 9/11 terrorists had entered the United States. Tenet confidently replied, “I know that nobody read that cable.” And you can be sure when Hillary Clinton recently praised the quality of the leaked cables, she did so because she had just read many of them for the first time—and only because of WikiLeaks.

In the press, Obama only leads when he bleeds

Remember how Obama’s apparent inability to secure an expected trade agreement with South Korea led to front-page stories like “Foreign Policy Setbacks Deepen Obama’s Wounds”? Then you may find it curious that when South Korea agreed to the treaty on December 2, the story received only the most modest coverage, failing to appear on any front page I was able to find.

Knows when to fold ’em—and fold ’em, and fold ’em

Back in 2007, when I was beginning to get excited about Obama, a friend’s son, who lives in Chicago and knew Obama—and liked him—told me he wasn’t supporting him for president. I asked why. “He’s not a fighter,” he said.

I couldn’t understand. After all, it seemed like Obama was fighting hard for the nomination. The first sign I saw of what the son meant was the distaste for tough debate that Obama manifested during the campaign—which led to his losing most of the debates with Hillary Clinton. And the problem has since become even clearer. He signals a willingness to compromise far too quickly, so that he seems to give away too much before negotiations have really begun. This happened with the stimulus, the health bill, and his tax cut proposal. In fact it’s interesting to recall how quickly he caved when Charles Gibson, who was the moderator in two of the 2008 debates, insisted that Obama reconsider the roughly $100,000 ceiling he was then putting on income he would exempt from a repeal of the Bush tax cuts. Within days Obama had raised the figure to $250,000.

Cool Hand Barack

But it is important to emphasize that Obama has a compensating virtue—he is tenacious. He may not ask for enough originally, but he perseveres until he gets something. And that something, while falling short of liberal ideals, usually isn’t bad at all. Indeed, his legislative accomplishments during his first two years are matched by few presidents in our history.

The latest example is the tax cut deal. What he got, considering that the Republicans held the stronger hand, is pretty remarkable. The cut in the payroll tax alone, which the media constantly describes as 2 percent, actually amounts to almost one-third of the payroll tax burden for the average man. And remember that the payroll tax is the largest tax paid by those earning $80,000 a year or less.

Other measures like the earned income, education, and child tax credits, as well as the extension of unemployment benefits, also help the average family, as indeed does its share of the extension of the Bush tax cut. And even the part of the deal we liberals detest, the extension of the tax cut to the wealthy, will provide some stimulus for the economy. Those fat cats will spend part of that money. And the cuts will deprive them of the excuse that they constantly cite on CNBC and Fox News for not hiring: “uncertainty about the extension of the Bush tax cuts.”

More stimulus will come from the provision giving businesses the ability to write off the entire cost of capital expenditures in the first year. Anyone who has ever run a business knows that this will create new jobs. Indeed, what Obama got was the impressive stimulus package that had seemed unobtainable all year long, and that liberals like Paul Krugman had berated him for not getting.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.


  • amarige on May 07, 2011 11:13 PM:

    the mirror of the political démocratie of Obama...
    the republicans are on the corner,like a fox,to take his place .
    it,s imperatif to play safe,in transparency ,to rebuild the power of America.

  • Mike on June 12, 2011 7:32 PM:

    So the tax cuts to the rich will act as a stimulus? It feels like I've heard that theory before. Oh, that's right, from every GOP candidate and talking head in the history of the world ever.

    Basically this post makes a good case that Obama is a sensible, pragmatic, reasonable, moderate Republican.