Tinker, tailor, president, spy: American politics at the end of 2014


The November 2014 elections already seem ancient history. Yet in barely seven weeks a host of major events have transpired, raising interesting questions about Barack Obama and the future of American politics, both short and long term. Let’s review some of them and see what they potentially mean.

The End of the Cold War…Finally?

The Cold War is over. Long live the Cold War! These are the sentiments best captured by two events this past week–Obama moves to normalize relations with Cuba and the president threatens action against North Korea for hacking SONY. Both events

Cuba and North Korea are perhaps the two last iconic symbols of the Cold War. They conjure up images of the Bay of Pigs, the Missile Crisis, and a divided peninsula and war that would never end. The two countries were supposedly the last two communist countries standing, and they both were surrogate grounds for the conflict between the US and USSR. But at least in the case of Cuba and Castro, it also represented a host of other rumors and conspiracies about the assassination of JFK, the FBI, CIA, and spying.

We embargoed Cuba for 50 years with no avail. No real good came of it and in fact one could argue that the embargo and US politics toward Cuba did more to hurt America’s relations with South America than help it. It also meant that we had little leverage with Cuba when the inevitable day came when the Castros were no long around. Obama’s move was smart–it represented or reflected the new realities of the world. The generation that wanted to maintain the embargo is largely dead or gone (keep that in mind Senator Rubio) and Cuba is no longer a front line for the Cold War.

North Korea is different. It is no longer the surrogate struggle between the US and USSR. It represents a new type of battle–cyber-terrorism. There is an old adage that says the most countries are militarily prepared to fight the last war. The same is true with the US. We still think of war and terrorism as the use of bombs and bullets or of physical invasion of one country by another with troops, planes, or even drones. Think of terrorism and we think of 9/11. But that is old thinking according to Richard Clarke who in Cyber War points out how vulnerable the US is to cyber terrorism and also how badly prepared we are to fight it.

The US may be one of the most wired and computer connected societies in the world. Such sophistication means there is a lot to hack–anywhere from official government defense sites to power plants, trains, planes, financial institutions, and private companies such as SONY. Clarke argues we are hackable, that are defenses are poor, and that the US is overall ill-prepared to fight back. The terrorism is what happened to SONY and that it what the future 9/11s will look like.

Obama has vowed action against North Korea but options are limited. Very little of Korea is computerized so points of vulnerability are fewer. We have little trade with that country and few think that the president is prepared to deploy old-fashioned arms against it. For now there is a standoff.

This is the new Cold War. But this is not the only part of it. The new Cold War is the on-going battle against ISIS. And the new Cold War is how the Ukraine has become a symbol for what looks like a lingering or rekindling of the old Cold War between Russia and the United States.

The Lost Soul of American Politics

The on-going stories of race and policing in America and the Senate CIA torture report together raise troubling images about America, especially when one considers the reactions to both. They paint a partisan and racially divided picture about the use of force against citizens and non-citizens around the world. Collectively, they also question the moral legitimacy of the US.

One of the defining characteristics of America–or at least Americans like to believe–is that we are different and that we embody a set of moral principles that distinguish us from the rest of the world. This exceptionalism–America as the shining city on the hill-gave us moral authority over the rest of the world. Yet police violence and torture of prisoners destroy any credence in that exceptionalism.

There is also something wrong with the law that sanctions repeated police use of excessive force. I used to teach a class on police criminal and civil liability under state and federal law, including what is called §1983 violations. It is not easy to win these claims. The law and the public favor the police. Maybe once that was appropriate, but knowing that we have scores if not hundreds of police shooting Michael Browns per year leads one to question whether the law has tipped too far in favor of the former. Conversely, I remember once doing a WCCO radio show years ago when news of torture fist hit the news. I explained the Geneva Accords on treatment of prisoners and then took calls. Repeatedly military vets called in to condemn torture declaring that they learned that if we tortured they (the enemy) would do the same to us or that we would be no better than them. No surprise that John McCain was one of the few Republicans to condemn the CIA.

My point here is that the Senate report itself was not a surprise. We have long since known that torture does not yield good information. Nor should we have been surprised that the torture existed. We have known that for years. The real surprise is how some such as Dick Cheney seem completely morally tone-deaf and, to a large extent, how Barack Obama seemed to distance himself from the report.

A New Obama Presidency?

For a president who was supposedly rendered irrelevant by the 2014 elections, Obama is perhaps finally showing that there is still life to his presidency. Yes he blew it on the Senate torture report, and ISIS, and on Syria. But increasingly his moves on immigration and Cuba look bold. While too much of his first six years has been marked by timidly, there is a glimmer of hope for progressives that his final two years will not be marked by constant capitulation to the Republicans.

However, there are still nagging doubts about his presidency for many on the left. What will he give away to protect Obamacare or make it look like he is a compromiser? The mistake the progressive made in 2008 was to think he was progressive. He was compared to George Bush but not compared to many other Democrats. Obamacare was a Republican idea he embraced. Obama was or became a Wall Street candidate who took more money from the too big to fails than any other candidate in history. Obama has done more to kill off campaign finance reform and limit in politics than any candidate in history. Yes he protested Citizens United but he has raised more money than any other presidential candidate in history. He was the first to opt out of the presidential voluntary public financing system, and he just signed a bill dramatically raising contribution limits to political parties. His tenure a president will be footnoted as the one where money took over politics.

Start Your Engines

The Iowa straw poll is eight months away and the Iowa caucuses are barely 12 months out. The 2016 presidential race is upon us. All speculation is on Clinton v Bush, but not so fast. But are running with a sense of inevitability but both are candidates with tired old names who may no longer represent where the parties are. At this point it is equally probable that either or both of them get their party’s nomination, but it is equally probable they do not. Clinton has a better chance given a weak Democratic field, but a serious challenge from the left (almost anyone for the Democrats will be from the left) could change the equation for her. For Bush, there are many other potential rivals such as Rand Paul who excite the base more than him. Finally, both Clinton and Bush have many liabilities that could be exploited. Long records in office give opponents lots to attack.