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The Obama Presidency Invites Contempt | The Nation

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The Obama Presidency Invites Contempt

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“I am ready to sign on this speech with both hands,” said Israel’s racist, revanchist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who opposes not only peace with the Palestinians but equal rights for Israeli Arabs, after Barack Obama’s speech to the United Nations opposing Palestinian statehood.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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The architects of our foreign-policy disasters would prefer we simply forget the past.

“Listening to [Obama], you would think it was the Palestinians who occupy Israel,” added Hanan Ashrawi, the extremely moderate Palestinian politician and frequent peace negotiator. Remember when Obama began his presidency, ready to take on the rejectionists like Lieberman on both sides and offer US support to those, like Ashrawi, arguing for the necessity of making compromises for peace? Well, welcome to our world, one in which, given enough time, the president can be depended on to adopt the arguments of adversaries and ignore—when he does not mock—the concerns of his supporters and allies.

This tendency is unmistakable regarding the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not only frustrated every attempt by Obama to push the two sides toward peace; he and his government have gone to great lengths to humiliate the president while doing so. Recall Vice President Joe Biden’s March 2010 visit to Israel, when he was greeted with an announcement that Israel was expanding its illegal building program in East Jerusalem.

Next came Netanyahu’s May 2011 address to a joint session of Congress, at the invitation of the Republicans. There, not only did the Israeli leader repudiate—at least rhetorically—longstanding mutual understandings that peace between Israel and a future Palestinian state would be based on Israel’s return to its 1967 borders “with mutually agreed [land] swaps”; he also pretended that Obama had not even mentioned the land swaps but had insisted that Israel return to its original borders with no adjustments at all. Even worse, during an Oval Office photo opportunity, Netanyahu lectured the president on live television for nearly eight minutes, and again ignored his words for the purpose of ginning up phony outrage among Israelis and “pro-Israel” American Jews. How did Obama respond? By giving a speech at the UN that even Lieberman admired, and offering the Palestinians the back of his hand.

The Israelis sure knew their man. This is, after all, the same president who ran as an environmentalist but who—following two years of Republicans’ know-nothingism regarding almost all forms of science—ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to abandon its pursuit of new curbs on emissions that worsen disease-causing smog in US cities. He did so despite the fact that, as Al Gore explained, the all-but-certain result would be “increased medical bills for seniors with lung disease, more children developing asthma, and the continued degradation of our air quality.”

It is also the same president who ran as a Keynesian but now spouts Republican rhetoric on the economy. (“Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs.”) Ask yourself: did Barack Obama happen to change his mind on all these issues—and a whole host of others—because he changed his entire political philosophy overnight? Or is this a politician who, when faced with recalcitrant opposition, would rather switch than fight?

Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men tells a story of President Obama led by the nose by Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner, both protégés of Robert Rubin—the fellow whose policies helped enable the economic crisis whose consequences they were seeking to address—and pursuing policies accurately defined by Paul Krugman as designed to “protect the interests of creditors, no matter the cost.” According to Suskind, when Obama expressed interest in breaking up Citigroup—not coincidentally the bank that paid Rubin’s astronomical salary at the time—his economic advisers simply ignored him. “The bottom line is Tim and others at Treasury felt the president didn’t fully understand the complexities of the issue, or simply that they were right and he was wrong,” then–Deputy Treasury Secretary Alan Krueger told Suskind.

Politically, this strategy has worked about as well as the Israel-Palestine peace talks. In the crucial swing state of Florida, for instance, a Quinnipiac University poll finds that 57 percent of the voters questioned disapprove of Obama’s performance. He loses 47 to 40 in a hypothetical race with Mitt Romney. Even more amazing, however, Obama is running statistically even with Rick Perry, a candidate who calls Social Security a “lie” and a “Ponzi scheme,” in the state that is to elderly Social Security recipients what the Burning Man festival is to pierced hippie anarchists.

Small donors, another crucial metric for any Democratic candidate, are also abandoning Obama, according to a front-page New York Times report, owing to his “overly conciliatory approach to Congressional Republicans” and/or his “lack of passion.” “When I was pro-Obama in 2008, I was thinking of him as a leader who could face the challenges that we were tackling,” said one interviewee. “Now I am seeing him as just an opportunistic politician.”

What is so ironic—and infuriating—is that Obama’s original policies were not just smarter but more popular than the ones he now feels compelled to embrace. This disjunction led the Times editorial board to observe, “Despite what the Republicans loudly proclaim, Americans do not buy into economic theories that were disproved 25 years ago…. [They] do not see the deficit and ‘big government’ as the main problem, and they do not buy the endless calls for slashing spending and reckless deregulation. A solid majority said creating jobs should be the highest priority for the government now and that payroll taxes should be cut to help with that.”

If only Americans had a president willing to fight for their beliefs.

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