Mr Obama goes to The Hill

By James Shirbin in Sydney, Australia

9 September 2013


The blog is currently featuring posts written by post-graduate students from the USSC 6903 Foreign and National Security Policy class, taught by Dr. Adam Lockyer. You can see more of their posts here.


The Capitol Building

To widespread surprise, President Obama has decided to seek Congressional authorisation before proceeding with planned strikes against Syria's Assad regime. As Congress is not scheduled to sit again until 9 September, absent an early return by legislators any US intervention in Syria was put on hold for at least a week.

Whatever the outcome of the Congressional debate, the fact that it will happen at all is itself notable, as it represents an unusual departure from the long-term trend against the executive branch seeking legislative approval for military actions.

Ostensibly, power over military matters is split between the two branches: the President is commmander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, but only Congress can declare war. The 1973 War Powers Resolution, enacted over a presidential veto, also requires the president to “consult” with Congress before introducing US armed forces into hostilities.

In practice, however, presidents have largely bypassed the legislature on decisions to commit to military actions, making exceptions only for the largest operations (including both Gulf Wars). Although the United States has deployed its military abroad on hundreds of occassions, Congress has only voted to declare war or authorise the use of force a total of 22 times. Notably, the Clinton administration took the view that it did not require express Congressional approval for the (arguably comparable) 1998 missile strikes against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, or for the 1995 deployment of troops to Bosnia.

Why, then, has the White House taken a different tack this time?

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The lack of strong support from other sources — domestic or international — for any US action against Syria appears to be a major factor.  Russia’s unwillingness to abandon a key regional partner means that UN Security Council approval is impossible; the UK parliament’s refusal to back British involvement means that at least one major US ally will not participate. The administration’s inability to secure the cooperation of key institutions and allies is particularly troublesome in this case, because the stated purpose of any strikes is to enforce an accepted norm against the use of chemical weapons.  In the absence of overseas support, Congress may be the President’s best available source of political backing.

It is also possible that the President sees a congressional vote as presenting a win-win scenario: either Congress endorses action against Syria, in which case the administration will be shielded from criticism from Capitol Hill, or its rejection gives the President cover for his own apparent reluctance to enforce the “red line.” As others have noted, however, the fact that many legislators voted in favour of the use of force against Iraq in 2002 did not blunt their subsequent criticism of the Bush administration’s conduct of that conflict.

The decision to go to Congress certainly does not appear to be driven by any change in the administration’s interpretation of the law.  Both the President and Secretary John Kerry have emphasised their view that the White House has the authority to use military force in Syria without congressional approval.  This is consistent with the position taken by the administration in relation to US involvement in Libya in 2011.

For this reason, it is unlikely that the President’s decision in this instance presages an increased role for the eastern end of Pennsylvania Avenue in future decisions on US interventions. Rather, it is a product of the particular political circumstances at hand. President Obama is seeking congressional authorisation for the same reason the US has sought the support of other nations — not because it is strictly necessary for the use of military force, but because its absence would undercut his argument as to why American action is required at all.

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A populist State of the Union

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

12 February 2013


Tuesday's State of the Union address is President Obama's first major opportunity of his second term to offer a comprehensive defence of his legislative goals. The President's mission this speech — as well as in the years ahead — should be to offer a populist message that allows Democrats to leverage public support for a progressive political agenda.

The 2012 elections were a fairly decisive rejection of the Republican Party platform. President Obama coasted to a second term and Democrats won the popular vote in both the House and Senate elections. However, Republicans maintained control of the House due to gerrymandering and structural advantages and the filibuster still provides the GOP with de facto veto power in the Senate.  As such, the legislative gridlock that's paralysed Washington over the last two years is likely to continue into Obama's second term.

Democrats' best response is to avoid what John Judis dubs an "insider strategy" and "instead transfer the fight for their agenda ... to the electorate where they hold the advantage." This means no more vague statements about priorities and then leaving Congress alone to work out all of the legislative details as Obama did with healthcare reform. Instead, the President needs to take a more active role in shaping bills and applying pressure to the legislature. Obama did this well during his proposal on immigration reform late last month. "If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away," he explained in his speech in Las Vegas.

The President needs to reiterate this message in his State of the Union address. And he also should make a point of reaching out directly to citizens and other grassroots organisations-explaining that he needs their help in getting Congress to take action. 

It's true that political science research shows that the power of the bully pulpit is greatly overstated. The president doesn't have the capacity to bend the public or members of Congress to his will with rhetoric alone. But Obama's objective isn't to change minds; it's to marshal existing public support  for many of his policy proposals. 

Ninety-two per cent of Americans want universal background checks on all gun sales, a figure that  includes 85 per cent of NRA households. Fifty-five per cent support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — a number that's almost certain to grow in coming years as the Hispanic percentage of the population increases. And 68 per cent favour Obama's fiscal cliff proposal to allow the federal government to negotiate prescription prices for Medicare recipients with drug companies.

Democrats faces two conflicting realities. The public is largely receptive to many of their policies and favourable demographic trends mean this isn't likely to change at any point in the near future. At the same time, the American political system — and its entrenched interest groups — make it very easy for a determined opposition to stymie the majority and block change. The challenge for Democrats is to find ways of effectively utilising their advantage in numbers in order to bring about legislative change. I don't have all the answers of how this can be done. But it should start with President Obama's speech tomorrow.


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The mighty, weak presidency

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

2 November 2012


Another observation from Chait's Obama endorsement:

The Republican strategy is perfectly clear and not even very well hidden. Yet many of us don’t accept it as a reality because it does not feel true. We instinctively hold the president, not Congress, responsible, another finding political scientists have measured. The hunger to attribute all outcomes to the president is so deep that the political elite take it on faith. Bob Woodward, who is justly famed as a reporter but whose opinions are interesting only as a barometer of Washington establishmentarianism, blamed Obama because Republicans turned down an extraordinarily favorable budget deal. “Presidents work their will — or should work their will,” Woodward declared, “on the important matters of national business.”

How can a president “work his will” in such a way as to force autonomous members of the opposite party controlling a co-equal branch of government to sacrifice their own calculated self-interest? It is a form of magical thinking, but a pervasive one. Which is exactly why the Republican strategy — making Obama’s promise to transcend partisanship fail by withholding cooperation — has worked.

I agree with this, yet disagree with the conclusion to which it would seem to logically lead: that the presidency is unimportant. Here's how I reconcile a view of Washington in which the president is both vitally important and substantially powerless. (I'm referring here to domestic politics; in foreign policy, the president has a great deal of power, particularly consindering the office's usurpation/Congress's neglection of the Congressional power to declare war and the refusal of every president since Nixon to recognise the constitutionality to recognise the War Powers Act.)

American government is set up so that Congress, the presidency, and the courts are co-equal branches that share power between them. The Constitution is designed so that Congress is more powerful than the president, and although the commander in chief is more powerful than the founders had hoped he would be, he or she is still very much at the mercy of the legislative branch.

Nonetheless, Congress is made up of 100 senators and 435 representatives, and finds it very difficult to work in accord. The president is the single most powerful political figure in Washington, even though he is constantly stymied by Congress, the courts, and his own bureaucracy. It is a mistake to think that governmental failure or success should be attributed entirely, or often even mostly, at the feet of the president. But no one else in Washington has as much power as he does. It matters enormously who the president is, even if his ability to get things done is limited at best.


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The Libya intervention

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

15 October 2012


One of Team Romney's campaign talking points is the Obama administration's supposed disdain for bipartisanship and cooperation with Congress. One can quibble with the president's skills as a negotiator. And there are specific instances, such as the debt ceiling deal, where I wish Obama had more foresight in trying to head off such a crisis earlier in the year. But it's patently absurd to claim that the Democratic Party is primarily responsible for the hyper partisanship of the last couple of years.

And further, it's misleading to focus on the intricacies of Obama's negotiating tactics as opposed to looking at the actual bills he put forward. A stimulus plan laden with tax cuts to entice Republicans. A health care plan created by the Heritage foundation and modeled after Romney's plan in Massachusetts. And immigration reform and a cap-and-trade bill that until recently had received broad bipartisan support.

But one instance where the Republican criticism rings true is in the Obama administration's handling of the Libya intervention. The War Powers Resolution, passed in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, requires "The President to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war."

Rather then obtain congressional approval for the engagement, the administration claimed that because there were no actual hostilities taking place the War Powers Resolution did not apply. It's a pretty implausible argument and one that the President's Office of Legal Council rightly rejected. The US Navy was lobbing cruise missiles into the country and drones were carrying out attacks within its borders. To claim these actions don't constitute "hostilities" is to render the term essentially meaningless.

Of course,  Obama isn't exactly unique in his desire to act unilaterally. Every president has claimed the War Powers Act to be unconstitutional. And other administrations have sent troops abroad in fairly similar circumstances. But with the extralegal actions of the Bush administration still looming large, it's troubling to see the president exploiting such loopholes. A precedent for the next president to use in justifying their own extensive war-making powers.

Regardless of the intervention's merits the legislative branch had good reason to be frustrated with the flimsy legal analysis used to exclude them from the decision making process. And in a saner universe, Republicans would focus on this incident when highlighting the adminstration's unwillingness to work with them. But, the problem is, they're very much in favour of granting the president these type of powers. And thus had no interest in dissecting the constitutionality of his actions. It's become a recurring theme for the GOP; pass over the substantive critiques of the president while trying to blow other non-issues out of proportion.

 

 


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The power of the presidency and Obama on gay rights

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

17 May 2012


Andrew Sullivan summarises the gains Barack Obama has made for gay rights:

His first step was getting rid of the HIV travel ban, already signed by Bush, but not yet implemented. Again, the process dragged on for months—but the White House insisted it was better to have everything in perfect legal order so the change could not be challenged. It came through.

Then he endured a hazing by gay activists and writers (including me) on his slow pace on gays in the military. But we were wrong. He made the brilliant calculation that he would not push it right away, as Clinton did, and he would not be the front person to advocate the change. Adm. Michael Mullen would do it, backed by Republican Defense Secretary Bob Gates. By bringing the military top brass and Gates slowly on board, he outmaneuvered the Republicans. Even then, he almost ran out of time, but clinched it after the 2010 midterms. He worked our last gay nerves. But when an openly gay solider asked a question at a Republican debate, a photo of a lesbian couple kissing during a Navy homecoming was reprinted around the country, and a Navy veteran asked his Marine boyfriend to marry him in what was the first proposal involving two gay men on a U.S. military base, the sheer scope of the cultural change was astonishing.

On marriage too, Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder had already made the critical decision that the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional on its face, that discrimination against homosexuals warranted heightened legal scrutiny, and that therefore the administration would no longer defend DOMA in court, as it had in its first two years. In other words, by February 2011, Obama and Holder put the significant weight of the Justice Department behind the constitutional logic of marriage equality. Immediately, the lawyers in the Proposition 8 case in California claimed this as a “material” or legally significant development. It was. And, of course, if discriminating against gays in marriage violates the equal-protection clause, as the Justice Department claims, then DOMA is doomed. And in making that decision, Obama did far more to advance marriage equality substantively than he did in his recent interview. To add icing to the cake, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech for the first time asserting that, for the United States, gay rights were integral to human rights across the globe, and the U.S. would conduct diplomacy accordingly.

This, by any measure, is an astonishing pace of change in one presidential term.

Whether you think Obama's done too much or not enough on this issue, I can't see how these don't count as real and substantive gains. Which is why I don't understand when people claim that Obama hasn't achieved anything in his term or that — in grim echoes of the end of the Clinton years — that it doesn't matter which party is in the White House. This is just one issue, but it's an example of the way elections have a real impact on a nation. I'm the first to tell you the power of the presidency is often overstated, and that even seasoned oberservers too often overlook the significance of Congress and the states, but let there be no mistake about it: the president is the most powerful single political actor in the United States, and who that person is matters.


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The unpowerful Presidency

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

21 March 2012


President Harry S. Truman once griped that people expect far more of the president that he is capable of delivering:

[The President] has to take all sorts of abuse from liars and demagogues … The people can never understand why the President does not use his supposedly great power to make ’em behave. Well, all the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway.

It seems the president may not even be particularly good at PR. Ezra Klein has a rather persuasive article in the New Yorker that's worth your time. His argument is that presidential speeches aren't very effective at moving public opinion. In fact, if anything, they harden opponents' opinions against whichever issue a president is pushing:

The experience helped to crystallize something that Lee had been thinking about. “Most of the work on the relationship between the President and Congress was about the President as the agenda setter,” she says. “I was coming at it from the perspective of the increase in partisanship, and so I looked at Presidents not as legislative leaders but as party leaders.” That changes things dramatically. As Lee writes in her book “Beyond Ideology” (2009), there are “inherent zero-sum conflicts between the two parties’ political interests as they seek to win elections.” Put more simply, the President’s party can’t win unless the other party loses. And both parties know it. This, Lee decided, is the true nature of our political system.

To test her theory, she created a database of eighty-six hundred Senate votes between 1981 and 2004. She found that a President’s powers of persuasion were strong, but only within his own party. Nearly four thousand of the votes were of the mission-to-Mars variety—they should have found support among both Democrats and Republicans. Absent a President’s involvement, these votes fell along party lines just a third of the time, but when a President took a stand that number rose to more than half. The same thing happened with votes on more partisan issues, such as bills that raised taxes; they typically split along party lines, but when a President intervened the divide was even sharper.

This is an uncomfortable truth for those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about American politics. It's tempting to see the president as a powerful figure, capable of shifting public opinion through the mere force of his words. (I've written previously about the fondness pundits have of urging the President to give a "paradigm-shifting speech.") Hearing that the president's influence is often less than nothing is an unpleasant reality check. It's satisfying to argue that, for instance, the president should talk more about jobs and expect that will translate into real legislative outcomes. But if the facts don't support that argument, it's be dishonest to keep making it.

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Don't get me wrong: the president is still a powerful figure — more powerful than any other single actor in Washington. That's why presidential elections, as well as the presidency itself, are the subject of such close attention. And as Kevin Drum points out, and Klein acknowledges, the presidential bully pulpit still has its uses. But it's always useful to have a reminder that the US government is a system of shared power, and a lot more power exists outside the executive than within it.

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Seven mistakes Aussies make when talking about US politics

By Erin Riley in Sydney, Australia

4 January 2012


As we turn to the Iowa caucuses, there are a few mistakes that it’s easy for Australians to make — and frequently do — when discussing US elections. So here’s my list of seven mistakes Aussies often make when they talk about American politics.

1) They assume American political parties are homogenous

American Political parties truly are big tent — in each party, there are a wide spectrum of beliefs and voting patterns in Congress. Using a conservative-progressive scale, which is oversimplified but has its uses, the most progressive Republicans are more so than the most conservative Democrats. Within parties, there are groups that hold different things to be valuable. Assuming “Republicans are X” or “Democrats are Y” really underestimates the huge amount of variety in US politics.

And this variety is important because most legislation is bipartisan. Caucuses arranged around issues are incredibly useful. They allow Congresspeople who represent districts with similar issues to join together. Representative Sam Farr, for whom I interned in 2010, is the co-chair of the House Ocean Caucus, a bipartisan committee primarily made up of representatives from coastal districts for whom Ocean management issues are important.

Related: Assuming American political parties have party discipline.

2) They don’t realise political philosophy is actually pretty important

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Political philosophy plays a far more obvious role in American politics than it does in Australia, yet as Australian observers, it’s easy to focus on policy itself, rather than the philosophical debates that underlie it. Often, the issue for many Republicans isn’t whether something like health care is a good thing, but whether it should be the responsibility of the federal (rather than state) government. The boundaries of government, what government exists to do and what it does not, and which government ought to be responsible for things is a far more central and important part of the American political conversation.

By representing the debate as being about whether something is good, rather than whether or not the US federal government should be the ones doing it, much of the important nuance in the debate is lost.

3) They assume that foreign policy is important to voters

While as non-Americans, its easy to get caught up in foreign policy issues, the truth is that elections aren’t usually won or lost on the power of foreign policy. The economy matters more. Cultural issues matter more. A small subset of Americans vote on foreign policy, but most don’t. in 2012, it will be the economy that matters most.

4) They overestimate the power of the Presidency

Oh, this is a big one. It’s amazing how often Australians talk about the President as though they operate as the Prime Minister. The role is very different. Separation of powers — which we talk about in the Australian system but don’t really experience in the same way — is key. Congress makes the law; the President does not. Saying “the President will do this” or “Obama should have done that” displays a very naive understanding of what the Presidency actually can and can’t do.

I don’t want to get all primary-source on you, but it’s worth looking at the Constitution at this point. Here are the powers of the Presidency:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

Compare that to the powers of Congress:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;–And

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Congress is far more powerful, and the President far less, than many understand.

5) They think Evangelical Christians are very influential

Yes, they’re there. Yes, they vote. Yes, they vote in large numbers. But if you want to look at voting blocks that really influence elections, the age and wealth of voters is far more significant. Conservative Christians do not rule the United States with an iron fist, and there are plenty of people in both parties who identify as Christian yet don’t support traditional “culture war” issues.

6) They assume it’s a story of good guys vs. bad guys

This is more of a summary of many of the points above, but given the Democrats’ pretty significant popularity in Australia, often there’s a tendency to treat Republicans as the bad guys. In reality, their policy positions are far more varied and nuanced than once might assume, and the vocal, tea party type is just one of many kinds of Republicans. Portraying all Republicans as hard-right, super conservative Evangelicals is lazy, and it doesn’t at all serve to help us understand the US more comprehensively. It does, however, feed into anti-American stereotypes which abound.

7) They think the US would be better off with a Parliamentary system

People often talk about the problems in the US Political system as though they are fundamental- it’s either the existence of a powerful extreme conservatism or the lack of a parliamentary system that causes most of the problems. They’re not. The separation of powers, the incredible diversity of US political parties and the centrality and importance of individual rights is part of what has made the US the great modern democracy. Yes, it is flawed. Yes, it needs some tweaking. But these are not fundamental problems.

Rather, there are some pretty significant structural issues that have caused a lot of the US’s current political problems. You could significantly reform the US system not through huge, fundamental system change, but a couple of minor adjustments:

  • National popular vote for the President. Get rid of the electoral college
  • Change the Senate representation rule to reduce the massive disparity. Introduce a tiered system where the largest states get 6 Senators, the mid-sized states get 4 and the small states get 2. That way, you preserve the state-based nature of the Senate, but understand the interests of a citizen of Montana should not be weighted at 66x those of a citizen of California.
  • Get rid of the filibuster. Allow the Senate to pass legislation by a simple majority. The supermajority plus the current Senate representation method means that Senators representing just over 14% of the population can prevent something from passing. That’s hardly what the framers of the Constitution could have had in mind. Yes, that tyranny of the majority is a real and important thing to consider, but that’s what the Bill of Rights is for.
  • Eliminate anonymous holds on nominations. They’re just undemocratic.

This post was originally published at ErinRiley.com.au

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How to talk like a President

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

5 August 2011


Justin Elliott wonders whether Texas Governor Rick Perry's Lone State twang might remind voters too much of President George W. Bush. He goes on to discuss accents with Allan Metcalf, an expert on Presidential speaking styles. Metcalf:

In my book I say that there are two ways of sounding presidential. One way is to be distinguished and elevated, starting with the example set by George Washington and his immediate successors, who were highly educated and very well spoken. That tradition also goes up to the present with someone like Barack Obama, who has a rather well-spoken, high-end style. But then also, going way back to Andrew Jackson, is the notion that the president should sound like a man of the people. George W. Bush particularly made a point of sounding down-to-earth rather than elevated. I was impressed in the CBN excerpt [above] by the way Perry on the one hand sounded down-to-earth — he used "snitch" and "kinda"—- but on the other he was talking about "laboratories for innovation" and clearly in command of dignified language as well.

I'd say, from my non-expert point of view, that President Bill Clinton had that same talent of fitting dignified language into down-to-earth speech patterns. To be honest, though, the down-to-earth speaking style is what most readily comes to my mind for all Presidents, which has more to do with political cynicism than the cultural background of those who seek the position. Few people drop their gs with such a determined consistency as do those who aspire to elected office.

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It would be thoroughly unfair to Perry if voters compare him to President Bush because of his speaking style, but he's by no means the only Republican this cycle who may have found his background to be a disadvantage. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, if he had ever seriously contemplated running for the GOP nomination, would almost certainly have found his surname to be a drag on his campaign, and there has been speculation that Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour decided not to seek the nomination because voters would recoil at being asked to replace their country's first black president with a white man from the Deep South. Until President Obama won in 2008, it was taken as political gospel that only a Southerner could succesfully campaign for the presidency as a Democrat. As spurious a rule as that was, Dems like John Kerry and Michael Dukakis certainly didn't benefit from their New England roots. Apart from Perry, no serious GOP contender this year is from the former Confederate states. Could Southern Republicans have gained an electoral toxicity of their own?

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Deconstructing birtherism

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

2 March 2011


I imagine the first time I heard about the provision of the United States Constitution requiring the president to be a natural born citizen was in the context of a Seinfeld joke. In a 1996 episode of the show, Frank Costanza, the father of Jerry's neurotic sidekick George, explains that he has no interest in politics because, as an immigrant from Italy, he cannot hold the top job. "I refuse to vote," he shouts, absurdly. "If they don't want me, I don't want them!"

This is one of the absurdities of the belief that Barack Obama was not born on the United States. Before this conspiracy came along, who thought about the natural birth requirement outside of the context of a wacky sitcom gag? The requirement is unusual itself; in principle, United States law treats all its citizens the same, regardless of how they came to be a citizen. Yet when it comes to holding the top job, the country suddenly creates two classes of citizen: natural born and naturalised. It's such a blatant transgression against the dictum that all men are created equal that I recall in earlier times there was even talk that Republicans might amend the natural-born requirement out of the constitution to facilitate an Arnold Schwarzenegger run.

Birtherism is in the news again because Republican presidential possible Mike Huckabee affirmed Obama's qualification for the presidency in a way that some folks see as being far too friendly to the 41 per cent of Republicans who have doubts about the president's place of birth. (Huckabee claims he believes Obama was born in Hawaii because Bill and Hillary Clinton are too dastardly and effective to not have dug out the truth if it were otherwise.) I agree, however with Jonathan Bernstein and Adam Serwer that for Birthers this is not literally about where Obama was born.

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Bernstein:

I don't buy it. This is where birtherism gets tricky. In its wildest forms, birtherism is about a massive conspiracy to install a conscious, deliberate enemy of the United States in the White House. It's nice that Mike Huckabee doesn't subscribe to that. But in its more plausible, and presumably more popular forms, it's really just a way of saying that Barack Obama isn't a "real" American.

Serwer:

Even with post-birtherism, though, the ultimate objective, to undermine the president by portraying him as un-American, is achieved -- without sounding like you have a closet full of tinfoil hats.

(You might recall that I made a similar argument last year about people who think Obama is a Muslim.)

Let us suppose for a moment that somehow the Birthers are correct and Obama genuinely is not a natural born citizen of the United States. In which case: So what? Yes, our fictional Kenyan-born Obama would not constitutionally be permitted to be president, but it would not change the fact that he was elected to the position by a significant majority of the vote. Were those 2008 voters really casting a ballot for Obama because of his birthplace, or was it because they actually wanted him to be their president? 

I'm quite confident in saying it was the latter. Arguing technicalities does not change the fact that Obama is president because America wants him to be. I realise the futility in trying to apply sense to conspiracy theories, but birtherism as a concept only makes sense if it is seen as a symbolic argument that really claims Obama is not legitimately American at all. In that conception, the 2008 electorate was duped by a nefarious outsider, and his foreign-birth is proof not of his illegitimacy for the presidency, but of his outsider status.

America, it is oft said, is a nation founded on an idea. It's less often said that nobody in America really agrees on what that idea is, beyond nebulous conceptions of freedom and opportunity. To many on the right, Obama's policies are fundamentally at odds with what they conceive the American idea to be. That's why some of them grasp for proof that he is literally, and not just metaphorically, unAmerican. It's a sufficiently widely-held belief that more Republican leaders need to be working to refute it. It's a shame, however, that they tend to use Huckabee's technique, rather than that of Arizona GOP Congressman Jeff Flake:

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Wacky Presidents Day link of the day

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

22 February 2011


Presidents Day has been and gone in Australia, but in America it's still Monday, and hence still the holiday. In my mind, the best way to celebrate what was once known as Washington's Birthday is to salute the imaginativeness of the Internet as applied to the occupants of the Oval Office and their character traits. Last year I linked to a list of the sexiest presidents. For 2011, how about this draft guide to the talents of the 43 illuminaries in the world of professional football? Some of my favourites:

1. William Howard Taft, Nose Tackle. A big man with good hands. Thicker than a copper bathtub through the ass, an important asset when talking about nose tackles. Nimble enough to construct Anti-Trust legislation and then properly evaluate it as a jurist. Endurance (one term) is an issue.

5. Bill Clinton, Running Back. An amazingly elusive open field runner with penchant for fumbling the ball with the game on the line. Character issues are a genuine concern, as he once texted inappropriate images to a female trainer. Gets great penetration. Often found out of position; puts ball where it shouldn't go. Conditioning is suspect.

42. Barack Obama, Wide Receiver. Too little football experience to properly evaluate here; already holds Heisman Trophy for some reason, though.

(H/t to Colin Seiler for that one.)

Speaking of presidents and football, and since I've just finished re-reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, here's Hunter S. Thompson biographer Willam McKeen recounting the single interview Thompson got with his bete noire, Richard Nixon:

Hunter was one of those reporters following Nixon around in the early days of the [1968] primary. And after an event one night in New Hampshire he was getting juiced at the bar with some of his other reporters when one of the Nixon aides came in and said, "Listen, the old man has a 75-minute drive to the airport to catch his private Lear jet. He wants to talk football. None of us know football. Thompson, you know football. Will you sit with the President and talk to him?" And the minute you bring up any other subject but football, we're dumping you out the car by the side of the road in the frozen tundra of New Hampshire. So he said, okay.

Given his love for the sport, I have no doubt Nixon would be disappointed at his number 27 rating in the draft pick list above.

Finally, I'm grateful to the Associated Press for clearing up something I have to check on every year. According to its Twitter feed: "It's Presidents Day." No apostrophe; "Presidents" is an adjective in this case.


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Dude in Chief

By Jonathan Bradley in Seattle, WA

6 November 2010


President Barack Obama and Comedy Central's Daily Show host Jon Stewart

The Wall Street Journal is a bit upset that Daily Show host Jon Stewart called the President "dude" when he appeared on the Comedy Central program last week:

Obama said that administration official Larry Summers did a “heckuva job” on financial reform–and the President suggested his words were deliberately chosen to echo the language George W. Bush used to praise FEMA official Michael Brown during Hurricane Katrina. Stewart jokingly told the president, “You don’t want to use that phrase, dude.” Was it disrespectful for Stewart to address the president using a term that’s more commonly exchanged between two college guys sharing a bong?

I'm going to say no. Sure, "dude" isn't the standard term of address for the American head of state. But keep in mind a few things: The proper title, Mr. President, was chosen by George Washington so as to diminish the deference afforded the country's leader. California and its surfers didn't exist back then, so we can't be sure what Washington would have thought of "dude" specifically, but we do know he didn't want Americans to treat their leader with too much King-like esteem.

It's true that America is a more formal country than, say, those of us in Australia are used to. I recall a USSC-hosted event that included former opposition leader Kim Beazley answering questions from members of the public. As the Centre's CEO Geoff Garrett aptly commented on the night, you would not find Americans calling a leading politician by their first name, as the Australian audience members did unself-consciously as they approached the microphone that night. Egalitarianism is all very well, but America is a country that treats earned positions as being worthy of some level of demonstrated respect.

But, 'dude'? Probably a poor term of address if meeting the President in an official capacity. But let's not forget that this cuts both ways. As Stewart famously told CNN, the show that once lead into his features puppets making prank phone calls. The Daily Show is hardly the most Presidential forum in the world. In fact, Obama was appearing there specifically to remind the show's viewers of the connection they had with him. And politicians — not just Obama — are always pulling silly stunts to convince us that they're just like us: try bowlin', beer-drinkin', and g-droppin' for a start. Dude, who can blame Stewart for treating a politician as if he actually was just like the rest of us?


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