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American Thoughts

This Bill Kristol praise of President Obama's Oslo speech reminds me to recount briefly  conversations I had with a half-dozen folks who don't like Obama, and what they thought of the speech.  First, they were surprised by it.  Second, their view is that Obama acted and spoke as the American President, rather than as an ideologue or a party leader, and they all thought that this was the first time he did this; although one guy claimed he also did it at West Point.  Third, they thought that his references to being "head of state" with the obligations and duties attached, was significant.  (I note that while I consider the "head of state" formulation to be true--as was his mentioning that he is the "American commander-in-chief"--I thought that overly European in it's mode).  Fourth, these folks thought that he said what he said in part because of the long deliberation he was involved in over sending troops to Afghanistan; he learned much about geopolitical necessities (my words).  And last, there was a general feeling that giving the kind of speech he gave justified his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize; a good use of opportunity.  There were, I should add, a minority of people who don't trust him, and will never trust him, regardless of what he says or does; but, that is another matter, beyond discussion.  A few days ago I finally heard the whole of the speech on C-Span and tried to listen to it as a European might (never mind others for a minute) and realized how important the American President is in his person and in his speech: Because he has a massive amount of authority not only because of the country he represents with its principles and its power, but also in this case because he is post-Bush (who lost his authority) president, a black American man, a Democrat, even a man of the left, who also happens to seem especially smart.  Because of this (and the international media attention and praise he has so far received) the things he said were only surprising at first; on second thought, the speech by the American President was not surprising because they were essentially American thoughts, and therefore not only interesting but also, as always, consequential.  And even Europeans can't help noting that you do show respect to the opinions of mankind; you actually speak to them and with them; sentiment for them isn't enough.  Yes, you Americans remain an interesting people.  Note the Teddy Roosevelt quote from Kristol.  Those words also might be imperfect, as might Obama's, but they could only be said by Americans.
Categories > Presidency

Discussions - 21 Comments

Obama, in all probability, is making a political play here. Let's watch his actions. The words some are praising contradict his previous career. To put it mildly, a great deal of caution is in order. The fact that Obama spoke in an American idiom is secondary at best.

I'm amazed at the fuss over the speech, both on the left and the right. Is it really so striking that Obama didn't endorse full-blown pacifism? With the exception of Jimmy Carter, there's not a president in the 20th century--Democrat or Republican--who wouldn't have endorsed those same sentiments.

That is exactly what incites all the comment: RELIEF. The Nobel Peace Prize selection committee was clearly hoping for more "hope and change" than they had seen from any American president except Carter in the selection of Obama for the prize. We are all tremendously relieved that Obama did not give them what they wanted in that acceptance speech.

Of course, David Frisk and others are right. We will have to wait and see what Obama actually does. At this point, a modern Teddy Roosevelt in the White House would be so much better than what has been in evidence that our own hope springs up. Just let Obama go on a big-game hunt as a photo-op and keep up the "big stick" rhetoric and we all might feel comfortable enough to allow him his domestic agenda in gratitude.

I am worried that the speech and a measure of sense about the war are all about that: a political trade-off. He doesn't feel he can do much about the world situation and foreign policy, so he will maintain something like status quo there. Perhaps he can transform America through his domestic agenda, leaving his personal stamp there. If his domestic policies turn us decisively from a capitalist (free) model of economy to a command one, then what? I am uncomfortable with my speculations about that.
My point is, we are so relieved that Obama did not say, yes, to peace at any price for America and the world. We are so relieved that we cannot stop talking about it.

Kate, I agree with your sense that foreign and defense policy comes second to domestic policy for Obama. I don't think that Obama is indifferent to Afghanistan becoming an Al Qaeda client state, but I fear that if Obama thinks that quitting Afghanistan will be the key to passing Huge Lefty Domestic Program X, he will abandon Afghanistan.

On the other hand, if he thinks that being seen as the President who led the US to defeat will cripple him politically, he will do what he can not only to stick it out, but to win.

So I suggest that we conservatives do what we can to make good defense policy good politics too. That includes praise when Obama does the right thing in either deed or word and giving him political hell when he doesn't.

"I fear that if Obama thinks that quitting Afghanistan will be the key to passing Huge Lefty Domestic Program X, he will abandon Afghanistan."

Wow. What political cynicism!

All right, Steve Thomas. Talk us down. Explain why that political cynicism as regards Obama is incorrect. I used the word "worried" and Pete says, "I fear..." and if you are sure we are incorrect, please, tell us why.

Kate, how can I be "sure"? I probably can't even be persuasive. But I have listened carefully to Obama since before the election. The Oslo speech was a mighty statement of a basic position that is not brand new to him. (And so, with some hesitation, I voted for him.) I say "mighty" statement -- stealing from Frederick Douglass -- because I believe the president has now been deepened by his office and the vantage point it gives the office holder.

The parenthetical expression is in the wrong place.

Steve is right. Recall that some liberals were upset about Obama's inaugural address:

Steve, I suggested just that in some earlier post responding to the speech and I hope it is true.

John Moser, I remember that and know plenty of liberals are and have been upset at Obama over his more moderate rhetoric.

Today's Kim Strassel editorial in the WSJ sums up the real worry:

…wherein she says, "They want a health-care program that inevitably leads to a value-added tax and a permanent welfare state. Big government then becomes fact, and another Ronald Reagan becomes impossible. See Continental Europe."

Steve, are we conservatives all wrong about that? The concern we are expressing above, the cynicism, is over that objective. We are choking on that and worrying, even fearing, that objective which could drive all of the Obama political objectives and therefore is making Obama's relatively tough foreign policy rhetoric necessary.

I hope you are right about the president deepening in office. The alternative is horrible, but I see it just as easily as your position and those people are persuasive about it. Do we trust to hope?

Kate - We already have a big welfare state, and we do need changes in how health care is provided and financed. (Whether either of the current bills will do that. . . ?) I don't see how another RR is impossible, though of course such talent and character are rare. So, yes, on that I think conservatives often allow themselves to be swept away in the moment. And yes, face it, we will need more federal revenue.

Steve, perhaps if I took out "Huge Lefty Domestic Program X" and substituted "a cap and trade program that was part of a global agreement that would reduce carbon output and arrest climate change" or "a healthcare plan that would reduce the rate of cost growth and produce a more equitable distribution of medical services".

None of this is to say that Obama is unpatriotic or anything. What was the Baker-Hamilton Commission's report but an extended rationalization and disguise for American retreat from Iraq? And James Baker might be alot of things, but I don't think he is alienated, unpatriotic ect.

I think that Obama takes his responsibilities and Commander in Chief seriously. but what if Obama decided that his most cherished domestic policy goals and maintaining a major counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan has become mutually exclusive? I'm not confident about how Obama would decide in such a case and it is not a question I want to know the answer to.

I think it is quite possible that such a direct conflict of priorities will never take place. As I wrote above, conservatives should do everything they can to make maintaining the counterinsurgency effort good politics for Obama and make retreat or some Biden-inspired neo-Rumsfeldian light footprint strategy lousy politics. Which is to say that conservatives should support and even honor Obama when he is right.

But I do worry about the day that Obama gets news that his approval rate has fallen to 43%, that 25 American troops have died in Afghanistan in the last two days, that John Kerry has introduced an amendment to the war funding bill that included an hard timetable for American withdrawal, and that he has a meeting with Joe Biden in which the Vice President will explain that there is an easy way out

Steve, when is it good for the state to take more of our private liberties? For you to say, "government is already big." does not effectively persuade that it ought to be bigger.

Are you suggesting that our health care systems are failing? They are not. What's failing are the government programs, Medicare and Medicaid. The current effort is "needed" to rescue those programs, not to rescue the American health care system, which is in fine health. Much of the problem with health insurance has to do with state regulations and a lack of free markets for insurers and insured. Then there is tort reform -- this is all too complex for a blog argument. Besides, if you are telling me that government control of our lives is a benefit, no matter what, then there is really no point in arguing.

Kate - We just disagree about the state of American health care, including the contribution of tort settlements and awards to the problem.

As for government intervention in the economy (and in our "lives"), of course I don't think it is a benefit "no matter what." Who thinks that? Sometimes yes, more often no.

Part of the problem with government intervention in the economy is the impingement of the economy on life. Changing from a free/capitalist economy to a command economy seems liable to have repercussions in our private lives. Don't you think so?

I suppose at the moment, there is really no knowing what is in the current health care plan or how it will effect any individual well-being. The legislation seems an ever-changing mystery and reading about it reminds me of listening to my kids talk about playing one of the vast and complex Internet/video games they get involved in: World of Warcraft or Mafia Wars. This business of "we must pass something, even something that is not good or is ineffective -- we can always fix it later" is distressing in any circumstances, but somehow especially in this case.

Kate - You are of course right in a general sense. But we don't have a "command economy." You think we're headed that way on a slippery slope. I think we're trying to make a "mixed" economy work in a global environment, and that a substantially freer market is an interesting academic exercise. I also think health care is currently a massive example of market failure, extending way beyond Medicare and Medicaid. I suppose in these respects at least I am, to any conservative, a good natured moderate, therefore exasperating.

But like you I don't like command. Every semester I have to pretend to construct "KSDs" for my courses. Weberian rationalization marches on, and not only from government. (I have it relatively easy, with no real enforcement so far. I can well imagine that in some places this nonsense does real damage.)

I don't see any way around "fixing it later" -- both because of the politics and because of the complexity of the systems and the uncertainties about how people and institutions will respond. "Fixing it later" might appear just cynical or opportunistic. But from another angle, we can think of it as Congressional "oversight." Republicans do seem poised to fix it later.

I think I am the moderate. If what I say is happening is correct and our government does nothing about the health care system, for example, then here we are tomorrow or next year or five years from now, ready to fix the problem from familiar ground. Hospitals work. Doctors work. Insurance companies work. Although all could work better, we agree. They do work right now, which is why people come from countries with national health programs, especially Canada, to get fixed up here.

If what you say is true and a major overhaul goes into effect right now, changes everything, then where are we if it doesn't work the way it is intended to work?

This or that small adjustment in our mode of managing payment might be just what is needed to make the whole system hum along more beautifully than it does. Allowing health insurers to tool more affordable products according to what the market will or will not bear seems better to me than the sort of price fixing and mandates that state and federal legislation and regulation have imposed to the detriment of the system. Save us from the experts.

Which reminds me that I have had to look up KSDS and what I eventually found reminded of going to work in education and meeting the jargon. At first it scared the heck out of me. Then I looked the terms up and decided that a rose by any other name must smell as sweet; there was nothing important in the jargon-laden directives that I would not have done anyway. Although I would have merely taught to achieve the goals without all of the charting and agony. The end product, a well-educated person in the subject, is desirable, and I have found that if I can achieve that no one much cares, at least where I work, how I get to the goal.

Couldn't that be true with health care, as well? Government will mandate this and that and all of the inventiveness and liberty will go out of the medical process just as surely as it has out of everything else government has touched. That may do for Europe, but it will just not do for the US.

Kate - Normally I believe in incremental and experimental change in big problems. Question: who made this impossible in health care? I'd say the Republicans! They dug in their heels, did they not?

I'm happy to think us of both as moderates.

Then from one moderate to another, I say, good for the Republicans (and Joe Lieberman)! If they had not dug in their heels, what kind of plan would we be looking at now? Not an incremental one. Of course, are we looking at incremental change now? Hard to say, but from here it looks like a Bismarckian sausage.

A sausage, certainly; not "incremental." And not my preference. What makes it Bismarckian? (Or are you thinking of social insurance in general? If so, do you oppose social insurance as such?) We'll see what the political fall-out will be: both sides are betting.

Sorry, "Laws are like sausages. It's better not to see them being made." or "The less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they will sleep at night." is often attributed to Otto Von Bismarck.

I think want is better dealt with locally and as personally as possible.

In my morning's reading : which is Bill McGurn wondering if arrogance is a virtue, among other things. I have a little while to poke around to try to see what is in the current sausage. I was going to keep arguing with you, but I don't think either of us know with any specificity what we are arguing about if we keep discussingthe current legislation on health care. I am wondering if any but a very few people know the whole at this point; maybe nobody. I am hearing about a section that severely curtails second amendment rights. That is alarming, but I don't know if it is true, do you?

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