Aug 25th 2009

Another Long Hot Summer

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute

Summers are rarely kind to American Presidents. Despite Congress being in recess and Washington slowing to a quiet crawl, it is in August when issues heat up and boil over and when presidents appear to lose control of their agenda.

With media no longer focused on events in the capitol, news becomes more diffuse and less manageable by even the most capable White House professionals. In this context, ferment becomes the story of the day and presidents are forced to struggle to gain control over issues and define their message.

This has been the case, more often than not, in the 18 years that I have been writing this weekly dispatch. It was true for George H.W. Bush. It was true for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. And now it is Barack Obama who must contend with the perils of a long hot summer.

Brushing aside, for the moment, the manifestations of deeper social discontent that exploded (and were callously exploited) a few weeks back, there are substantive issues challenging this President that are being debated across the country. Two, in particular, make clear the difficulties he is facing.

The principle topic of concern, of course, is the debate over health care reform. The Congressional town meetings and conference calls, now matched by sessions organized by the White House, are of historic proportions, involving more Americans than I can recall in an open debate on an issue of national importance. The organized and, to some extent, manufactured disruptions that characterized the first weeks of these gatherings have given way to a more substantial, though at times still testy, discussion of the problems facing the US health care system. By now hundreds of meetings have been held with Members of Congress and Senators hearing the concerns, debating the fine points of policy and answering the questions of tens of thousands of constituents.

At first, advocates of reform had to contend with a series of bogus issues created, and cruelly exploited, by opponents-that under Obama: health care would be rationed, older citizens would be euthanized to cut costs, citizens would be forced to surrender their current health care plans and be subjected to a government run program, etc. These myths have, for the most part, been debunked and the debate has moved on to issues of the cost of reform and whether or not creating a "public option" to compete with private insurance companies is the best way to promote cost-cutting competition and provide greater access to insurance for those who are currently without a health care plan.

It is here, in this real debate over costs and the "public option," that the President faces a dilemma. He, like most Democrats, has supported a public program, but efforts to create a bi-partisan compromise bill in both the House and Senate preclude such a "public option" since Republicans are loathe to support any expansion of government that would compete with the private sector.

Eliminating the "public option" may win a few Republican votes for health care reform, but will, in all likelihood, result in the loss of support of many liberal Democrats who see the "public option" as central to the entire health care reform effort.

On the other hand, should the President embrace the plan promoted by liberal Democrats, he runs the risk of not only forgoing Republican support, but also of losing the votes of more moderate Democrats who are concerned with the negative impact increased costs will have on the expanding federal deficit.

Hence the debate.

The "sleeper" foreign policy issue of the summer is neither Iraq nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is Afghanistan, and it is dominating the news as a result of a combination of factors: a dramatic increase in US troop strength, a rising death toll, a contested Afghan Presidential election (featuring a cast of less than compelling candidates), and growing concern over the "logic" of this war and its costs.

All this is causing some unease among liberal Democratic lawmakers. Already feeling tested by what they see as signs of Administration "backsliding" and excessive compromise on domestic issues, progressive Democrats in Congress are threatening to push back.

They'll have public opinion on their side. Once seen as the "good war," more favored by the public than the Iraq war, support for involvement in Afghanistan has soured, with recent polls showing a strong majority now opposed to the Afghan war-including 70% of Democrats.

The stakes are high, especially considering all the other irons the Administration currently has in the fire. Losing in Afghanistan may not be an option, but "winning" has never been clearly defined. And, with American casualties rising, the President runs the risk of losing political support among liberals in Congress-a group already being tested in the health care debate.

While this may be President Obama's first summer in the White House, he is no stranger to the trials of August. Just two years ago, Hillary Clinton was seen as the inevitable Democratic nominee. Obama, it was said, could give a great speech and inspire, but his campaign was having difficulty gaining traction. And one year ago, Obama was again down in the polls, his anticipated bump following the Democratic Convention erased by John McCain's surprise announcement of then Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.

In each instance, the mettle of the man was tested, and in each case his ability to inspire, out organize and out maneuver his opponents proved decisive.

Governing is, no doubt, more difficult than running, but a candidate's performance is a good indicator of his capacity to govern: the ability to define a message and gain control of public perception, the ability to mobilize opinion, and the ability to forge alliances and craft a winning consensus.

Given this, I am betting that when the heat of summer gives way to the hard work of fall we will see real progress on health care reform as well as efforts to craft a new Afghan policy.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."
Feb 20th 2021
Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, circa 1670, (Job Adriaenszoon Berckheyde).
Feb 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "Global regulators will no doubt be concerned about a potential volatility spillover from digital asset prices into traditional capital markets. They may not permit what could quickly amount to effective proxy approval by the back door for companies holding large proportions of a volatile asset on their balance sheets."
Feb 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Since Russians began protesting opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s imprisonment, the security forces have apparently had carte blanche to arrest demonstrators – and they have done so by the thousands. If Russians so much as honk their car horns in solidarity with the protesters, they risk personal repercussions. The official response to the protests goes beyond the Kremlin’s past repression. It is war."
Feb 6th 2021
EXTRACT: ".......like Biden, Roosevelt was certainly no revolutionary. His task was to save American capitalism. He was a repairer, a fixer. The New Deal was achieved not because of Roosevelt’s genius or heroism, but because enough people trusted him to act in good faith. That is precisely what people are expecting from Biden, too. He must save US democracy from the ravages of a political crisis. To do so, he must reestablish trust in the system. He has promised to make his country less polarized, and to restore civility and truth to political discourse. In this endeavor, his lack of charisma may turn out to be his greatest strength. For all that he lacks in grandeur, he makes up for by exuding an air of decency."
Feb 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Europe must not lose sight of the long game, which inevitably will center on China, not Russia or relations with post-Brexit Britain. China is already establishing a presence in Iran, and demonstrating that it has the capital, know-how, and technology to project power and influence beyond its borders. Should it succeed in turning the Belt and Road Initiative into a line of geopolitical stepping-stones, it might soon emerge at Europe’s southeastern border in a form that no one in the EU foresaw."
Jan 29th 2021
EXTRACT: "One sign of this change is that, unlike all recent Democratic administrations, Biden’s hasn’t paid obeisance to Wall Street by giving bankers top jobs. The new Secretary of the Treasury, Janet Yellen, is a former Federal Reserve chair and academic who has made it clear that she understands the country’s pressing social needs. Moreover, Biden consulted Warren on her economic views, and has named a former Warren adviser as Yellen’s deputy. Yellen’s appointment demonstrates that Biden shares the insight that enabled Trump’s rise: that too many Americans feel that they cannot get a fair share. "