Ari Berman | The Nation

Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

The Obama Budget: Challenging or Appeasing the GOP?

In his State of the Union address, Barack Obama threaded the needle by calling for new investments in technology, education and infrastructure and a five-year domestic spending freeze. But those were just words. The president’s budget for 2012, released today, is the true reflection of what his priorities are.

The New York Times has posted a quick summary of what the budget does and does not do. The budget includes additional funds for education, high-speed rail, a national wireless network and a national infrastructure bank, which Democrats and Obama supporters will like. The document also rejects the advice of the administration’s deficit commission and does not tinker with Social Security or Medicare, which will no doubt anger deficit hawks in both parties. At the same time, the president is proposing painful cuts in heating assistance for low-income families, block grants for community development and Pell Grants for needy students—all things that Democrats would no doubt criticize if a Republican president proposed them.

Taken together, the budget outlines $3.73 trillion in spending for fiscal year 2012 and $1.1 trillion in cuts over the next ten years. “If all goes well, that’ll take the deficit down from the 10.9 percent of GDP we're projecting for 2011 to 3% of GDP in 2017,” reports Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein.

Obama’s budget is unlikely to satisfy either critics or supporters of the president. Deficit hawks and House Republicans—who’ve suddenly become proponents of fiscal conservatism (as long as it doesn’t include raising taxes) after eight years of rubber-stamping George W. Bush’s big government corporate conservatism and dramatic expansion of the national debt—are already saying these cuts don’t go far enough. Progressive supporters of the president, meanwhile, are quick to point out the irony of Obama, a former community organizer, proposing cuts to community block grants that help community organizers.

The cuts the president has outlined barely offset the tab of temporarily extending the Bush tax cuts, which added $858 billion to the deficit over two years, including $125 billion for Americans making over $250,000 and slashing the estate tax. If Obama ends up once again extending the Bush tax cuts in 2012, the savings he envisions in the current budget will be completely nullified. Meanwhile, his unwillingness to play hardball with the GOP last year will result in increased hardship in real time for millions of Americans who are struggling to survive this recession. We’re living in odd times when a Democratic president is okay spending billions of dollars on an unpopular and seemingly unwinnable war in Afghanistan but has no problem cutting heating aid for poor Americans in the midst of the coldest winter in memory.

The budget proposal is as much about politics as policy. This plan will have to pass a divided Congress and marks the first step in a long game of political jujitsu with the GOP. “The White House is trying to reframe the debate as the GOP's ‘cut and grow’ versus Obama's ‘cut and invest,’ ” argues Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent.

Yet the president is playing on the GOP’s turf. The debate is over cuts vs. cuts. At a time of 9 percent unemployment, neither party is laying out a roadmap for how to put people back to work and lift the country out of its economic morass.

As I wrote in a recent article for The Nation, "Obama: Triangulation 2.0?":

The president's relentless attachment to "pragmatism," which has become an ideology unto itself, has allowed the GOP's dominant narrative about the economic crisis—that big government, once again, is to blame—to go unchallenged, especially when Obama sides with Republicans thematically on issues like deficit reduction and freezes on discretionary spending and federal pay. “In the absence of an alternative narrative the Republican story is the only one the public hears,” Robert Reich, Clinton's labor secretary and a onetime Obama economic adviser, noted on his blog. Hence the rise of the Tea Party and the potency of antigovernment right-wing populism nowadays.

The media, which have lately become major cheerleaders for fiscal austerity (as long as they are not the target), ain't helping much, either. In an interview with Obama budget director Jack Lew yesterday, CNN anchor Candy Crowley was aghast that the Obama administration had not proposed steeps cuts to Social Security or Medicare. “Where are the big ideas for the big programs that suck money out of the economy?” she asked incredulously. Crowley didn’t even bother to ask Lew about the administration’s plan for creating jobs—and whether they have one. And we wonder why the public thinks the country is headed on the wrong track.

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Credit Obama, Not the Bush Administration, for Seeds of the Egyptian Revolution

Neoconservative supporters of the war in Iraq are already claiming credit for the revolution in Egypt, calling it a victory for the Bush Administration’s so-called “freedom agenda.” But let’s be clear, the pro-democracy movement in Tahrir Square has much more in common with the grassroots, bottom-up spirit of the Obama campaign than the messianic, barrel-of-a-gun foreign policy pushed by George W. Bush. 

Would the Egyptian youth have taken to the streets during the invasion of Iraq? Only to denounce the imperialism and recklessness of the United States. It was only after the election of Barack Obama—and his repositioning of the United States as a friend to the Arab world, most notably during his visionary speech in Cairo in June 2009—that pro-democracy activists in Tehran and Cairo saw a friendly ally in the United States.

In his piece for The Nation today, “How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak,” former Obama campaign blogger Sam Graham-Felsen tells the story of how an Egyptian human rights activists and blogger came across a comic book from the 1950s that told Martin Luther King’s story. She translated it into Arabic, and pro-democracy activists used the nonviolent tactics of King and Gandhi in their protests in Tunisia and Egypt. The Obama campaign provided a more recent example of how the seemingly unexpected—the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the leader of the free world—could become a reality.

New technology, of the sort pioneered by the Obama campaign, wasn’t a be-all-and-end-all for Tunisian and Egyptian activists, but it was an essential organizing tool. After all, the Obama campaign proved that online and offline organizing—using My.Barackobama.com, for example, to figure out how to most effectively turn out voters in Cleveland, Ohio—could form a powerful combination when fused together. Writes Graham-Felsen:

The Internet has helped activists weave history into the present, to promote examples of nonviolent movements that have succeeded elsewhere, learn from those that failed and rapidly evolve their nonviolent tactics as their own movement progresses.

That’s not to say that the Obama administration should claim credit for the bravery of the Egyptian people, nor did it handle the Egyptian crisis perfectly. Over the past two weeks, Obama’s team vacillated between supporting democracy and autocracy, as I wrote this week, and couldn’t decide if “stability”—the buzzword for supporting autocrats in the region—trumped the demands of the protesters. In the end, the incoherence and arrogance of Hosni Mubarak’s speech on Thursday night forced the administration’s hand and gave the president no choice but to push for his exit. But it was Obama’s initial response to the uprising on February 1 that set the tone for American foreign policy:

Over the last few days, the passion and the dignity that has been demonstrated by the people of Egypt has been an inspiration to people around the world, including here in the United States, and to all those who believe in the inevitability of human freedom.

To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear: We hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your children and your grandchildren.

Who knows what will happen from here, and whether the Egyptian military regime can be trusted to preside over a real transition to democracy? On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama often invoked a famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr. (who was paraphrasing nineteenth-century abolitionist Theodore Parker): “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That vision is especially hard to comprehend in a region dominated by tyranny, but today, the Egyptian people proved that it still rings true.

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Can Olbermann and Gore Democratize the Media?

Today former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann announced that he’s joining Current TV, the cable channel started by Al Gore, as its “chief news officer” and host of a primetime news show.

Incidentally, I did an in-depth article about Current TV in 2005 for The Nation, charting its early evolution and growing pains. Gore and his business partner, Joel Hyatt, originally envisioned Current as an attempt to democratize the media through user-generated, grassroots video reports. But along the way, that original idea became repacked as slick, MTV-style content trendily aimed at Generation Y.

As I reported:

What began as an effort to challenge Rupert Murdoch and the right-wing domination of the corporate media has transformed into a business proposition to lure a youth audience with lofty rhetoric, new technology and pop-culture content. Gore and Hyatt didn’t have TV experience, so they ceded creative control to industry people who did. Along the way, “democratizing” the media—their buzzword from the get-go, which they described as giving space to ordinary young people—became more important than politics or elevating television’s dismal content. What emerges on August 1, Current’s launch date, could resemble an interactive grad-school version of MTV. Current may still improve youth television and usher in a wave of new technology, but it isn’t likely to change the media, or the world. “Less and less they’re trying to run a company with a social mission,” says Orville Schell, dean of the Berkeley School of Journalism and a member of Current’s board of directors. “They want something that’s new and interesting and economically viable.”

Interestingly enough, Gore, after initial talks with industry insiders, explicitly rejected the creation of a liberal alternative to Fox News, which in many ways is what Olbermann created at MSNBC.

As they queried friends in the industry for advice, Gore and Hyatt kept hearing the same refrain: There is no market on TV for a liberal channel. No one will watch it. No advertiser wants it. No cable operator will put it on the air. So they turned to an emerging demographic that appealed to both advertisers and visionaries. Twentysomethings were defining their buying habits, coming into their own politically and were underserved creatively on television. The decision was made to launch a youth network.

Media critic Douglas Rushkoff pushed the vice president to embrace what he termed MoveOn.org in prime time: TV that could make civic affairs cool. But Current largely eschewed that route and has been in an identity crisis ever since, caught between the whims of youth culture and a desire to do substantive TV.

At MSNBC, Olbermann proved there was a market for liberal news and civic affairs done in a confrontational, fast-paced way. “Nothing is more vital to a free America than a free media, and nothing is more vital to my concept of a free media than news produced independently of corporate interference,” Olbermann said today. Perhaps Keith’s arrival will allow Gore to do what he’d initially envisioned all along.

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The DLC Is Dead

Ben Smith of the Politico reported yesterday that the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the mainstay of the New Democrat movement for thirty years, is on the verge of bankruptcy and has decided to immediately “suspend operations,” likely for good.

I’ve followed the DLC closely over the past decade and wanted to share a few thoughts on its passing (it’s such a solemn funeral). The DLC, under the leadership of former Congressional aide Al From, grew quickly in the 1980s and early 1990s, as aspiring Democratic politicians—most notably, Bill Clinton—gravitated to the organization, which existed to break the power of liberal interest groups inside the Democratic Party and attract support from the business community. By associating themselves with the DLC, Clinton and other New Democrats were able to shed the “big government, tax and spend” stigma of the McGovern/Mondale years, raise big dollars from corporate America and pick up establishment support in the Washington media. Inside the White House, Clinton largely followed the DLC program of balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation, relying on DLC aides like Bruce Reed, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck to implement domestic policy. A top aide to Jesse Jackson groused of the Clinton-era Democratic Party, “The DLC has taken it over.”

But the DLC’s influence began to wane in the Bush Administration as its accommodation instincts, an asset politically in the Clinton years, came to be viewed by many rank-and-file Democrats as doing more harm than good to the party. For example, at a Rose Garden ceremony announcing the Congressional resolution to authorize the war in Iraq, current and former DLC chairman Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt flanked George W. Bush. New leaders like Howard Dean and new groups like MoveOn.org emerged to challenge the DLC, and the arrival of a fresh liberal power center posed a major threat to the organization. Even former New Democratic stalwarts, like Kamarck and New Democrat Network President Simon Rosenberg, began to distance themselves from the DLC’s harsh attacks on Dean supporters and liberal Democrats. I wrote about the DLC’s loss of power in a feature article in The Nation in 2005 entitled "Going Nowhere: The DLC Sputters To a Halt." I think it holds up pretty well today.

Here’s a short excerpt:

After dominating the party in the 1990s, the DLC is struggling to maintain its identity and influence in a party beset by losses and determined to oppose George W. Bush. Prominent New Democrats no longer refer to themselves as such. The New Democratic movement of pro-free market moderates, which helped catapult Bill Clinton into the White House in 1992, has splintered, transformed by a reinvigoration of grassroots energy. A host of new donors, groups and tactics has forged a new direction for Democrats inside and outside the party, bringing together vital parts of the old centrist establishment and the traditional Democratic base. The ideological independence of the DLC, which pushed the party to the right, has come to be viewed as a threat rather than a virtue, forcing the DLC to adapt accordingly. Corporate fundraisers and DC connections--the lifeblood of the DLC--matter less and less: Witness the ascent of MoveOn.org and Howard Dean's election as chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). "It's not that the DLC changed," says Kenneth Baer, who wrote a history of the organization. "It's that the world changed around the DLC."

The group’s support for Joe Lieberman in the 2004 Democratic primary and fierce opposition to Dean, in particular, backfired rather spectacularly. As I wrote:

No candidate embodied the New Democrat ethos better than Lieberman, whose moral purity, hawkish views and name recognition earned him early Beltway supporters. Thus, when Howard Dean came into view, the DLC was quick to underestimate Dean's potential resonance with Democratic voters, misjudge the transformative nature of his campaign and mischaracterize the ideological bent of many of his supporters. After supporting a losing candidate in Lieberman, the unpopular war in Iraq and an outdated platform, attacking Dean was the only way the DLC could shift the Democratic debate.

"What activists like Dean call the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party is an aberration; the McGovern-Mondale wing, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home," From and Reed wrote in a fiery memo titled "The Real Soul of the Democratic Party" on May 15, 2003. Four days later, after Dean won the endorsement of the 1.5 million-member public employees union AFSCME, the DLC denounced the union as "fringe activists." But others were having second thoughts--about strategy and the DLC. As Dean surged ahead, DNC chairman and Clinton confidant Terry McAuliffe told From to quiet the attacks. All nine Democratic contenders skipped the DLC's annual convention in Philadelphia.

For his part, Dean became the first serious presidential candidate to challenge the DLC openly since Jesse Jackson. But along with his clear antiwar stance, Dean frequently invoked his record of balancing budgets and his A rating from the NRA. (In fact, in 1996 the DLC had praised re-election of "the centrist Gov. Howard Dean" as indicative of a blossoming "New Democratic leadership.") This led many analysts to wonder whether the DLC's animosity was more about power than ideology. "Mr. From fancies himself a kingmaker," wrote then-Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt, "and Dr. Dean hasn't supped sufficiently at his table."

Major fissures emerged within the New Democratic movement as the DLC lost longstanding ideological and organizational support. Elaine Kamarck repudiated her "Politics of Evasion" argument--which laid out the policy blueprint for Clintonism--in a series of Newsday columns, arguing that the Dean campaign rendered the DC establishment "pretty much irrelevant." After Kamarck endorsed Dean in early January 2004, the DLC-friendly New Republic wrote: "Al From's Head Explodes." "The Democrats are not where we were fifteen years ago," Kamarck now says. "I think it's great that there's been a resurgence in grassroots activism on the left side of the party."

There were more recent problems for the DLC. The group suffered additional credibility blows during Joe Lieberman’s independent Senate candidacy in 2006 and DLC chairman Harold Ford Jr.’s quixotic and short-lived bid for the Senate in New York. What was left of the New Democrat base gravitated toward the new group, Third Way, which boasts close ties to centrist members of Congress and the Washington press corps. When From retired in 2009, the DLC’s state and local chapters began to disappear. It seemed like only a matter of time before the Washington office closed as well.

To be fair, the DLC was also a victim of its own success. Former DLC CEO Bruce Reed ran the Obama Administration’s deficit commission and is now Vice President Biden’s chief of staff. Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel was a devotee of the organization, as are many members of the administration’s economic team. Obama, though never close to the DLC, nonetheless appears to share the group’s pro-corporate inclinations and philosophy of compromise. “DLC is not out of business,” blogger Max Sawicky tweeted to me yesterday. “HQ has moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

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Democracy vs. Autocracy in Egypt: Which Side Is the Obama Administration On?

“Now means now," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said when asked about the Obama Administration’s position that the transition to democracy in Egypt must begin immediately.

But over the weekend, “now” turned into some unspecified date in the future, as the Obama Administration backed away from its stance that Hosni Mubarak should resign and Egyptian pro-democracy activists should formally be brought into a transition government.

Reported the New York Times:

The United States and leading European nations on Saturday threw their weight behind Egypt’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, backing his attempt to defuse a popular uprising without immediately removing President Hosni Mubarak from power.

American officials said Mr. Suleiman had promised them an “orderly transition” that would include constitutional reform and outreach to opposition groups. “That takes some time,” Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton said, speaking at a Munich security conference. “There are certain things that have to be done in order to prepare.”

But the formal endorsement came as Mr. Suleiman appeared to reject the protesters’ main demands, including the immediate resignation of Mr. Mubarak and the dismantling of a political system built around one-party rule, according to leaders of a small, officially authorized opposition party who spoke with Mr. Suleiman on Saturday.

Nor has Mr. Suleiman, a former general, former intelligence chief and Mr. Mubarak’s longtime confidant, yet reached out to the leaders designated by the protesters to negotiate with the government, opposition groups said.

Instead of loosening its grip, the existing government appeared to be consolidating its power: The prime minister said police forces were returning to the streets, and an army general urged protesters to scale back their occupation of Tahrir Square.

Protesters interpreted the simultaneous moves by the Western leaders and Mr. Suleiman as a rebuff to their demands for an end to the dictatorship led for almost three decades by Mr. Mubarak, a pivotal American ally and pillar of the existing order in the Middle East.

Is the Obama Administration turning its back on the brave pro-democracy protestors in Tahrir Square, siding instead with the repressive Egyptian military establishment? From what we can discern of the current political situation, it seems that way. Despite his idealistic rhetoric last week, when Obama told the Egyptian people, “We hear your voices,” his administration has recently been empowering the very people the pro-democracy protestors want to replace.

On Sunday, Suleiman—Mubarak’s controversial former spy chief and a longtime military strongman—met with the Muslim Brotherhood and representatives of pro-democracy groups, but failed to agree to any of the their main demands. Reported the Times:

While both sides acknowledged the meeting as unprecedented, its significance quickly became another skirmish in the battle between the president and the protesters. Mr. Suleiman released a statement—widely reported on state television and instantly a focal point in Washington—declaring that the meeting had produced a “consensus” about a path to reform, including the promise to form a committee to recommend constitutional changes by early March. The other elements echoed pledges Mr. Mubarak had already made, including a limit on how many terms a president can serve.

Leaders of the protest movement, including both its youthful members and Brotherhood officials, denounced Mr. Suleiman’s portrayal of the meeting as a political ploy intended to suggest that some in their ranks were collaborating.

Though the movement has only a loose leadership, it has coalesced around a unified set of demands, centered on Mr. Mubarak’s resignation, but also including the dissolution of one-party rule and revamping the Constitution that protected it, and Mr. Suleiman gave no ground on any of those demands.

It’s hard to know if we’re witnessing the transition to democracy the Obama administration called for or a farce in which Suleiman and remnants of the Mubarak regime rig the democratic process and consolidate their power in advance of promised elections in September. “To ask a dictator to implement democratic measures after thirty years in power is an oxymoron,” opposition leader Mohamad Elbaradei said last week.

Sometimes bold action and moral clarity can be more politically pragmatic than the cautious, old-guard diplomacy undertaken by the Obama administration in recent days. Wrote Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post:

It's worth remembering what has led to the rise of Islamic extremism and anti-American rage in the Middle East. Arabs see Washington as having supported brutal dictatorships that suppress their people. They believe that it ignored this suppression as long as the regimes toed the line on American foreign policy. If Washington is now perceived as brokering a deal that keeps a military dictatorship in power in Egypt, de jure or de facto, the result will be deep disappointment and frustration on the streets of Cairo. Over time, it will make opposition to the regime and to the United States more hard-line, more religious and more violent. That might be the real parallel to the forces that led to the Iranian revolution.

This is a critical moment in Egypt, and the exact time when the Obama Administration, after hedging its bets for two weeks, needs to make clear which side it’s on. 

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Obama Organizing Adviser Reflects on Arab Pro-Democracy Movement

Marshall Ganz, an expert on community organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is no stranger to social movements. He came of age with the civil rights movement in Mississippi, and César Chávez and the United Farm Workers in California. He also mentored many of the young activists who became the backbone of the Howard Dean and Barack Obama campaigns. (Ganz is a major character in my book, Herding Donkeys. Nation subscribers should also check out Sasha Abramsky’s profile of Ganz this week).

Last year Ganz spent time in Jordan and Syria training a new generation of community organizers in the Arab world. In Jordan, Ganz hosted a training for civil society groups convened by the mayor of Amman. Over Thanksgiving break, he worked with budding youth leaders in Damascus, under the auspices of Syrian First Lady Asma al-Assad.

He reflected on his recent work in the region after watching pro-democracy movements in Egypt and Tunisia with great interest. “My experience was a groping toward reform,” Ganz says. “That has been playing out in different ways.”

The protests in Tunisia, Ganz said, “lit a spark of hope” across the Arab world. “Without the anger, there’s no motive,” he says. “Without hope there’s no sense of possibility.”

Ganz’s words conjure the rhetoric used by Barack Obama in the 2008 campaign. Ganz said the young people he met in Amman and Damascus were fascinated by Obama’s election. “They were very interested in how this happened,” he said. “The whole idea of change from the bottom up is a different idea. The whole idea of leadership that isn’t rooted in top-down authority is a different idea. It’s a different idea than models of leadership that are essentially military.”

Regardless of the eventual outcome of the protests in Egypt, it’s now apparent that a new, small-democratic political model is emerging in the region. “From my point of view, encouraging the development of civil society leadership is fundamental to democratic practice,” Ganz says. “There’s a space in which to do some really good leadership development work. But I’m always pinching myself.”

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Neocons Attack Egyptian Dissident Mohamed ElBaradei, Again

Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has recently emerged as a leading figure in the Egyptian pro-democracy movement and a credible alternative to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

ElBaradei’s emergence has angered pro-Mubarak neoconservatives, such as Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, which is closely aligned with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. “There is a myth being created that ElBaradei is a human rights activist," Hoenlein told an Orthodox Jewish website on Sunday. “He is a stooge of Iran, and I don't use the term lightly. When he was the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for which he got a Nobel Peace Prize, he fronted for them, he distorted the reports."

Hysterical rhetoric about ElBaradei is nothing new. The same people who were wrong about Iraq’s nonexistent WMD program are once again trying to distort his work, this time as a prominent dissident in Egypt.

Over at Firedoglake, Marcy Wheeler has an excellent recap of the past neoconservative smear campaign against ElBaradei. Before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration pooh-poohed his warning that there was “no evidence of ongoing prohibited nuclear or nuclear-related activities in Iraq” and paid no attention to the fact that the administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein was pursuing enriched uranium from Niger was based on forged documents, according to IAEA reporting. Despite the fact that almost everything ElBaradei said about Iraq turned out to be correct, the Bush Administration tapped his phone and led a major campaign to prevent him from leading for a third term at IAEA. Lawrence Wilkerson, a top aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell, said that then–UN Ambassador John Bolton was “going out of his way to bad-mouth” ElBaradei. Nonetheless, ElBaradei was unanimously re-elected as IAEA chief in 2005 and, shortly thereafter, awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his arms control work. “I don’t think we were effective in our campaign to oppose him,” Bolton later admitted.

Nonetheless, the neocons who wildly hyped and distorted military intelligence in Iraq were determined to once again undermine ElBaradei when it came to Iran’s WMD program. “Mohamed ElBaradei is an apologist for Iran,” Bolton said in 2007. Why did Bolton say this? Because ElBaradei has refused to endorse a US- or Israeli-led attack on Iran, much to the chagrin of neocon war cheerleaders. The former IAEA chief has publicly criticized the Iranian government for not cooperating sufficiently with his agency, but he’s also been careful to note that robust diplomacy is the ultimate solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff.

In a 2009 interview with the Washington Post, ElBaradei called a military strike against Iran “absolutely the worst thing that could happen.” He continued:

“There is no military solution.... If a country is bombed, you give them every reason—with the support of everybody in the country and outside the country—to go for nuclear weapons, and nobody can even blame them.

“We've seen in our last report that Iran is not accelerating its production of enriched uranium. Whatever the reason—technical or political—it is something we need to take into account. We don't see an imminent threat tomorrow. “

In a 2007 profile, the New York Times called ElBaradei “an indispensable irritant to Iran and its foes.”

ElBaradei’s clashes with both Tehran and Washington will likely serve him well in Cairo, as he navigates the murky landscape of the current Egyptian regime. He’s been highly critical of Arab autocrats and the Western governments that prop them up. “Western policy towards this part of the world has been a total failure, in my view,” he told the Guardian in March 2010. “It has not been based on dialogue, understanding, supporting civil society and empowering people, but rather it's been based on supporting authoritarian systems as long as the oil keeps pumping.” He’s recently called on the Obama administration to stop supporting the Mubarak regime. If ElBaradei continues to annoy neocons in Washington, it means he’s probably doing something right.

UPDATE: Former Bush speechwriter Ari Fleischer added his voice to the anti-Elbaradei neocon caucus, posting on Twitter: "I don't trust Mohamed ElBaradei. For America, he would be bad news of a different kind." It appears that the Bush Administration's so-called freedom agenda does not apply to democratic leaders it does not like.

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Egypt's K Street Connections

Given that the repressive government of Egypt received $1.5 billion in military and economic aid from the US government in 2010, it’s not surprising that it is also well represented in Washington’s lobbying community on K Street.

Chris Good of TheAtlantic.com notes that since 2007 the Egyptian government has paid the DC-based lobbying firm PLM Group $1.1 million per year. PLM is run by Democratic powerbroker Tony Podesta (whose brother John is a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and current head of the Center for American Progress), former Democratic Rep. Toby Moffett (who represented Connecticut’s 6th district from 1975-–83) and former Republican Speaker of the House Bob Livingston. According to their contract, PLM was hired to provide assistance in all facets to the Egyptian embassy and “identify, as early as possible, any weakness and/or problem areas in Egypt's image within Congress or the Executive Branch and advise on ways to deal with such areas of concern.” Presumably that image makeover is kicking into high gear right now, as the Egyptian government attempts to downplay the images of tear gas being directed at pro-democracy protesters in the streets of Cairo.

The Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica add more details about how PLM lobbyists have helped the Egyptian regime on military matters:

Lobbyists for Egypt had at least 279 contacts on military issues, the bulk of which occurred when PLM Group accompanied delegations of Egyptian military officers to meet members of Congress, administration officials and representatives from defense contractors including BAE Systems, General Dynamics, General Electric, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. All five have done business with the Egyptian government, selling tanks, fighter jets, howitzers and radar arrays to its military. At the time of the meeting with the contractors, Podesta Group counted BAE Systems, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin among its clients, while the Livingston Group represented Raytheon.

Last year James Gibney of The Atlantic provocatively called on the United States to cut off aid to Egypt and Israel, pointing out that the billions of dollars in aid spent annually on each country has brought the US government little in return. Today Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to strike a balanced tone toward the recent protests in Cairo, urging both the government and protesters to exercise restraint, while pressing Hosni Mubarak to respect “universal human rights” and “engage immediately with the Egyptian people in implementing needed economic, political and social reform.” But on K Street, that balance of power is decidedly in favor of an increasingly discredited Egyptian regime.

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At White House, Axelrod Outlines Obama's Post-SOTU Strategy

Yesterday afternoon, I was fortunate to attend a roundtable discussion at the White House with Obama strategist David Axelrod and a small group of left-leaning reporters and bloggers. A day after the State of the Union Address, Axelrod offered few specifics of how the president planned to move forward on his call for new investments in technology, education and infrastructure alongside a five-year domestic spending freeze, but signaled there could be a major showdown with Congressional Republicans over how to fund the federal government in a few weeks, perhaps reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s clash with Newt Gingrich in 1995. (You can read the whole transcript over at Daily Kos).

While indicating that Obama will focus on cutting the deficit “in a responsible way” in the coming years, Axelrod also stressed that the president would not wholeheartedly embrace the rigid austerity politics currently being pushed by the GOP. “Dealing with spending is part of the equation, but it’s not the only part of the equation,” Axelrod said from the Roosevelt room. “And reducing the debt and dealing with spending is not in and of itself a growth strategy. And that’s where we may maybe have a philosophical difference [with Republicans].”

He continued:

The president doesn’t believe that it is enough simply to cut the budget or reduce the debt or reduce the size of government. In the world in which we live, if we do that and don’t educate our citizens and lead the world in that; if we don’t innovate; if we don’t have kind of basic infrastructure that we need to be competitive, then we’re not going to prevail.


And so as we cut, we’ve got to do it in a responsible way and make sure that we’re not cutting those very things that are going to allow us to continue to be a dominant economic force and create opportunity for our people.


Axelrod seemed confident that a debate over these differing approaches to the coming budget, which will be released in mid-February, would work to the administration’s advantage.


Part of what the President did last night and what he’s doing today in Wisconsin and what he’ll continue to do relentlessly is make the case for this growth agenda, for this strategy, to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the world. 


And hopefully there will be public pressure and support on Democrats and Republicans to support this strategy. If you don’t support this strategy, then the question is what is your strategy? What is your strategy for growth? 


I think people are going to be asking that question. And we have an answer.


And presumably Congress is going to then turn their cards over and say how they would do it differently. And we can have a discussion, the American people can participate in that discussion, as to the priorities.


You can’t just swirl around in the land of the theoretical forever. 


Beyond the budget, Axelrod promised that Social Security privatization, of the kind proposed by Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan, was a “non-starter,” though he did not unequivocally rule out future cuts to the program.

Said Axelrod:

In the long term there are issues on the horizon relative to Social Security. Among younger Americans, there’s a profound suspicion that Social Security isn’t even going to be there. And among older Americans, there’s a great deal of anxiety about tampering with it.


And our goal is to make sure that the program is strong and secure. The president laid out his principles last night, and we’re willing to have a discussion, but those principles are going to inform the discussion.

This is a delicate time because I don’t think you want to start pre-negotiating or pre-discussing issues to the point where people say, well, there’s no point in even sitting down and talking about this stuff. 


There’s not going to be a bipartisan agreement for him to veto. I think if there’s a bipartisan agreement that it’s going to be hammered out around the principles that he articulated last night or it’s probably not going to move forward.


Axelrod also emphatically rejected the rampant conventional wisdom that Obama was repositioning himself politically after the midterms to appeal to the center of the electorate, saying that Obama has always been a "progressive" but "he has never been particularly dogmatic."

I give you, as God is my witness, my word that we have not had a repositioning discussion here.  We have not talked about let’s move three degrees to the right.  That’s not the way we view this.

My reaction to the election is we have to go back to first principles and really think about what it is that drives us and what it is that has been so central to Barack Obama’s public life and outlook, because some of that has been sort of ground down in the minutia of day-to-day governing here. 


And it’s important to project your principles and not just your plans, because the plans don’t mean anything unless people know where you’re going.  And so, I mean, there’s nothing that the president said last night that I couldn’t draw a straight line from to speeches that he has made way back to 2004. 

There’s no doubt he is progressive in his outlook and that’s what he believes in. 


But he has never been particularly dogmatic. That was true in the legislature. It was true when he was in the Senate. He has always been willing and able to work across party lines and find areas on which people could work together. His fundamental view is you don’t have to agree on everything, or even most things, to work together on some things. 


And so there was no sort of grand repositioning, there was just a desire to (a) make sure that we lead with our principles, and (b) look for opportunities, particularly in the new world in which we were living, to find those areas on which we can agree and move the country forward. And that’s what we did during that lame duck session. That’s what he wants to do now.

Axelrod admitted that some major topics were left out of Tuesday night’s speech. “His strong feeling was that last night’s speech should be focused as much as possible on the economy,” Axe said of the president. “And so it wasn’t the typical State of the Union speech, which is generally like seventy one-off issues connected by some weak connective tissue. This was an argument and it was an argument about a specific challenge facing the country.”

What to do about guns in the wake of Tucson was one of those missing issues. Axelrod promised the president “will engage in that in that debate…. this is an important issue and he’ll speak to it.”

The foreclosure crisis was another major omission. Axelrod said the administration would have more to say about housing “in the next few weeks.”

He also signaled the president would veto the House Republicans' "No Taxpayer Funding For Abortion Act” if it passed the Senate. “His position on this issue is well known,” Axelrod said. “And we believe that it was addressed responsibly in the health care bill in the first place.”

After two grueling years in Washington, Axelrod is excited to soon be returning to Chicago, where he’ll advise the re-election campaign. “When I think about Washington, I think about what my mother used to say to me when I was a kid. She used to say, ‘I love you, I just hate the things you do.’” 

And he had this piece of advice for incoming White House adviser David Plouffe: “I’m going to tell Plouffe, we’re doing great right now, don’t screw it up.”

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Obama Reassures Democrats (Mostly) in SOTU Address

On the eve of President Obama’s State of the Union Address, I queried a number of prominent Democratic political strategists and policy experts and asked them to name the most important issue for the president to focus on in year three of his presidency. The answers included: reduce everything to jobs and put people back to work, reclaim economic populism from the Tea Party, help struggling homeowners, and protect Social Security and Medicare. So how did Obama do on these fronts? Did he address the concerns of Democratic voters and position himself favorably for the next two years? Or did he miss a prime opportunity to tell the nation what he believes in and will fight for?

Let’s review the issues one by one:

Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

“Jobs must be our number-one focus in 2010,” President Obama said in his last State of the Union address. Then he spent much of the year ignoring the issue. This year, the president made it clear he won’t make that same mistake again.At stake is whether new jobs and industries take root in this country, or somewhere else,” he said.

As the core of his speech, Obama outlined a three-part plan to “win the future,” consisting of “Investments in innovation, education, and infrastructure.”If enacted, these investments would amount to Stimulus 2.0. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world,” Obama said.

Toward that end, Obama called for (1) Investments in biomedical research, information technology and clean energy technology; (2) hiring “100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math” over the next ten years and extending a $10,000 tuition tax credit for students who finish four years of college; and (3) Rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure. “America is the nation that built the transcontinental railroad, brought electricity to rural communities, and constructed the interstate highway system,” Obama said. “Over the last two years, we have begun rebuilding for the twenty-first century.… Tonight, I’m proposing that we redouble these efforts.”

These spending proposals will excite Democrats who believe the Obama administration needs to do more to help spur a true economic recovery. At the same time, Obama pledged to “freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years.” So it’s unclear where he’ll find the money to fund all the critical investments he called for. Nonetheless, it was nice to hear Obama emphasize, at least for one night, jobs, jobs, jobs alongside cut, cut, cut.

Reclaiming Economic Populism

After making a JP Morgan exec (Bill Daley) his chief of staff and appointing the chairman of GE (Jeff Immelt) to head of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, Obama continued his outreach to the business community in his speech. He noted that “the stock market has come roaring back [and] corporate profits are up,” and pledged “to lower the corporate tax rate for the first time in twenty-five years,” double exports by 2014, finalize a new trade deal with South Korea and review government regulations. “Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation,” said the CEO-in-chief.

But the president also called for an end to corporate tax loopholes and called on Congress “to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies.” In addition, he made it clear that he does not want to extend the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, which he temporarily renewed in December, beyond the next two years.

Despite the GOP’s unabashed corporate conservatism, many Americans still see Obama as a friend of the banks rather than as an advocate for Main Street Americans. I’m not sure last night’s speech will change that perception.

Protecting Social Security and Medicare

The president praised his bipartisan debt commission, which recently proposed significant changes to Social Security and Medicare. “I don’t agree with all their proposals, but they made important progress,” Obama said. Many progressives were worried that Obama might embrace cuts to these beloved programs, but he chose not to, at least for now. Howard Dean credited a “huge progressive coalition” for convincing the president to stand firm.

“To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations,” Obama said. “And we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.”

Obama was less clear when it came to protecting Medicare, speaking vaguely about “reducing healthcare costs, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit.” He noted that his healthcare reform law will help solve this problem, but sided with Republicans on the need for “medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.”

Obama mostly played it safe in his remarks on the deficit, but he can shore up his standing among Democrats by simply affirming that cuts to Social Security and Medicare are no longer on the table.

Helping Homeowners

Mike Lux, CEO of Progressive Strategies, calls the foreclosure crisis “the great sleeper issue” in American politics. Well, it’s still a sleeper, since Obama didn’t say a word about housing in his speech, even though a million homes were lost to foreclosure last year. There are only so many topics a president can address in the State of the Union, but chalk this up as a missed opportunity in an otherwise solid, if somewhat bland, speech.


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