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Feb 23 2009

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Is the Administration in Over it’s Head?

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Forget about the first hundred days; let’s talk about the first month.

What has become of the Obama organizational marvel that rolled over the Clintons and overwhelmed the Republicans last November? The meticulous attention to detail? The enviable strategic planning? The overarching purpose?

When doubters said it wouldn’t survive the campaign, Team Obama moved to Washington and engaged in one of the most impressive and comprehensive transitions in history. Instead of the caricatured egotistical, partisan, power-mongering officials, the Obama transition brought in seasoned, experienced, above all serious people to learn, evaluate and report. For the officials they would soon relieve, they were respectful and professional.

However, somewhere around January 20th the wheels seem to have come off the wagon. Suddenly the Obama administration is acting like the McCain campaign, driven by impulse and the news cycle, tone deaf or at cross purposes with political constituencies and realities, and sorely lacking in planning and options.

Start with the Gitmo Executive Order.  High on symbolism, but woefully lacking in details. It conferred great responsibility on the Attorney General to close  Gitmo in a year come hell or high water.

But the subject is more complicated than that.

First, we are not talking about moving your garden-variety Mafia Don here. The Gitmo detainees are the most dangerous enemies of the United States held in our custody. How we handle them matters not only to liberal interest groups and tut-tutting Europeans (whose glaring historical hypocrisy on human rights can only leave one in stunned amazement), but also to those whom we continue to fight, who look to take the measure of new management.

The Executive Order impulsively voided seven years of carefully prepared memoranda on interrogation without any review, and conferred international rights as well as the promise of access to US courts for detainees.

Stunningly, it ordered a prison closed without saying where the prisoners would ultimately go.  And the President stated that this was in the national security interest. The Administration’s actions here are troubling because symbolism without substance demonstrates a fundamental lack of seriousness.

The same holds true for the Stimulus bill. That wasn’t Barack Obama’s legislation. He “manned-up” and owned it, mind you. But having campaigned on the economy, having staked his candidacy on change with the promise of hope, it is nothing short of mystifying that Obama delegated the most important first act of his presidency to congressional Democrats.

And that crucial decision failed on so many levels.

With irony Hollywood would be hard pressed to match, it was no less a luminary than former Soviet KGB agent and current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who unfavorably compared the Democrats’ course with his own country’s torrid history:

“In the 20th century, the Soviet Union made the state’s role absolute. In the long run, this made the Soviet economy totally uncompetitive. This lesson cost us dearly. I am sure nobody wants to see it repeated.”

The composition of the stimulus, the brutal partisanship, and the searing critiques of flawed legislation could have been avoided had Obama’s workshop put together a plan, as they have on so many other occasions.  Certainly a team that planned such a comprehensive transition could write a bill or at least articulate the key priorities for the pork hustlers on Capitol Hill to gnaw on.

The key lesson of the stimulus process was not a function of the feckless Pelosi-Reid bill, but of Obama not taking ownership of the defining action of his first days in office. Where was Obama on this?

The repercussions of the stimulus bill will be significant. Majorities notwithstanding, the Administration ultimately can’t run the government on Democratic votes alone, especially when it comes to health care reform, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.  He will need Republicans who were shunted aside and cut out, really for no better reason than to prove who was in charge by Madame Speaker. Charm is not a substitute for outreach and compromise. An opportunity to be different and engaged has been lost.

The same lack of seriousness was present when Obama set up Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to layout his Administration’s vaunted plan for financial sector rescue. Like Gitmo, there were headlines, but no details.  The announcement sent the markets it was meant to bolster into a free fall.

And what about the Cabinet announcements?  This is nothing short of bizarre.  Six nominees announced for high ranking positions with tax or ethical challenges?  It has to make or break a historical record.

How did these tax problems elude the people who added Facebook entries into the official government background investigation?

And for the team that made the Internet a new dimension in campaign organizing and fund raising, is there any reason why Al Kamen and the Washington Post have a better listing of who is up for top Administration jobs than the White House website?  Compared to the Bush Administration , Obama website is virtually an Internet Pravda, devoid of more than campaign bromides.

And where is the red line on ethics?  Obama put in place the toughest ethics regulations in history according to Robert Gibbs, the President’s Press Secretary.  That is except for the 17 waivers (and counting) granted for ranking appointees too indispensible and unable to meet the test.  Can this be considered serious with so many exceptions?

Abroad, Hillary Clinton is on a “listening tour” in Asia, still bashing an Administration no longer in power, while conducting an exercise eerily reminiscent of her campaign for a New York Senate seat. What’s next, UN General Secretary?

There’s a power struggle going on in Pyongyang to see who will succeed Dear Leader, which has the Six-Party nuclear talks tied in knots, but Mrs. Clinton is focused on embracing all those global citizens who felt shunned by the Bush administration, and is elevating global warming to the same level as nuclear proliferation.

This is fascinating since the North Koreans have ballpark expertise on bomb making. That’s a clear and present danger.

On the flip side, any gains created by capping US greenhouse gas emissions (and the lost American GDP and jobs it entails)  will quickly be eaten up by the power hungry Chinese who are building a coal fired plant each day. Is the Administration really being serious in raising the priority?

Vice President Joe Biden went to Europe to show that a new team with a new approach was in town. Biden vowed to press the “reset” button on US-Russian relations by making noises of compromise on US deployment of anti-missile systems in the Czech Republic and Poland.

The system, mind you, is aimed at the Iranians and not the Russians, the bluster of Russian generals notwithstanding, who know the limited number of NATO missiles could be quickly overwhelmed, even by antique Soviet weapons.

For this unreciprocated concession we learn that the Russians are forming a rapid deployment force with Central Asian republics, to respond to crises in tense border areas…such as Poland or Afghanistan.

And Joe’s timing could not have been worse.

Let me say that again, Joe’s timing could not have been worse.

After Biden’s announcement, Iran launched a satellite, proving that it has the technical sophistication to build longer-range missiles, including potentially, inter-continental range missiles. It was these types of weapons that the Polish and Czech-deployed anti-ballistic missile systems were intended to detect and destroy missiles in the “boost phase.”

And, adding insult to injury, the UN announced that its Inspectors had found 209 previously undisclosed kilograms of enriched uranium in Iran, giving the Islamic Republic enough material to build an atomic bomb.

Previous warnings of an Iranian nuclear “breakout” by former Vice President Dick Cheney or Israeli Intelligence – tagged as war-mongering by Iran engagement enthusiasts, including the poor El Baradei who had to make the announcement – seem suddenly more sober.

But what did the former Administration do to stop this, leaving this bedeviling problem for Obama?

Well, the Bush administration supported UN and European efforts to negotiate with Iran.  An approach articulated and endorsed by leading Democrats who assumed that Bush was rushing off  to another war, since two weren’t enough. Attempts by the Bush administration to get tough through sanctions failed every time due to Russian or Chinese resistance with little assistance from the squeamish Europeans who talk loudly and carry a little stick.

Now it’s over to Obama.

Is the Obama Administration serious about delaying missile defense when the nation it was aimed at has developed long-range missiles and potentially atomic arms?

Also as part of a new foreign policy, President Obama sought to convey the symbolism of the change in power by dispatching Special Envoys to troubled regions. But like the Gitmo announcement, having George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke in the greater Middle East does little substantively to the day to day operations but to raise expectations in an area renowned for burying hope.

True, Holbrooke, who wants a Nobel and Hillary Clinton’s chair by normalizing relations with Iran, has made soothing statements concerning the constructive role Iran can play in Afghanistan, raising unexpected eyebrows elsewhere.

In fairness, this was before Iran was firing off intercontinental missiles and disclosure of all that uranium. Perhaps more alarming is the on-again off-again cease-fire between the Taliban and the government of Pakistan, which went public right after Holbrooke left for a visit with the India.

George Mitchell has the harder task.  To get the Middle East peace process “back on track,” the Israeli electorate has given him Benjamin Netanyahu as a negotiating partner. This is like the AFL-CIO being given Walmart as a strategic partner.

It is proof that amid symbolic hope, there are events that are beyond the control and influence of the US; that we do not create each result by our own policies, and that like everyone else, we sometimes have to react to the reality created for us.

On the bright side, Obama went to Canada singing the praises of free trade and ditching NAFTA renegotiation for the time being.  This was a terrific Republican talking point during the campaign and now,  a welcome adjustment to reality.

Of course this pearl in the oyster will only cause indigestion among the diehards who helped make Obama the nominee and fully expected trade agreements to reflect regulations that the US itself won’t sign onto.

With all of this swirling, perhaps the President needs to take the advice of his own Vice President and hit the “reset button.”

There needs to be some recognition, first and foremost, that haste is the enemy of good; in matters of politics, policy and public affairs.  Also, symbolism is most effective when it is integrated, timely, thorough and conclusive.

Team Obama of 2007 intuitively recognized the long road ahead and the unforeseeable twists and turns along the way. A measure of that foresight would go a long way right now with the contemporary problems he faces today.  The goal is not to see how much Obama can do in his first 100 days; it is to craft the policies that solve our problems during his term.

Obama came to office with unrivaled moral authority and a lesser stated and unfair expectation of infallibility. That the President would be taken down a notch as the abstract became real is Washington is an axiom. But beyond the apparent alarming vacuouness of Obama’s first 30 days, comes a companion fear of overexposure and overreach; to try and do too much too fast, without focus or principle.

Obama seeks inspiration from the examples of Lincoln and Roosevelt.  But it was Carter and Clinton who lost their credibility on the shoals of hyper activity without meaningful result.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average has dropped almost 1,000 points since January 20th. Citibank stock has dropped 36%. Manufacturing giant GE has dropped 28% in the same time period. There is a point where simply blaming the previous Administration becomes an inadequate substitute for real leadership. The Administration needs to move beyond blame to solution.

The best play for Obama is back to basics.

His success in the campaign was encapsulated in the masterful way he slowed time. The candidate did not allow the clock to run him. When the financial crisis first broke, it was that deliberateness that defined Obama as something different and strangely more consequential than McCain.

That lesson seems lost in the frenzy of assuming power. Policy is looking increasingly frivolous, implemented by rookies who don’t understand the responsibilities of leadership. Obama could immediately help himself if he would only nominate people for the Senate to confirm so that he is running the country with more than White House staff.

Just a suggestion.

Of course Obama has the time to make the course correction if he sees the light.

We’ll check back.

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