Voice

The president's underappreciated, undersold success stories

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Obama administration is its inability to own its successes. While this is hardly a weakness that will be cited by the president's opponents in the upcoming campaign, or even one that they will acknowledge, perhaps, it will impact the outcome next November. Because the Obama track record on many fronts is much better than the administration gives itself credit for.

They could be doing much, much more to tout what is an impressive litany of successes. 

While the list of those successes is long and compelling-defeating Bin Laden, getting out of Iraq, helping to oust Qaddafi, restoring our reputation internationally, resetting our international priorities to better coincide with our long term interests (the "pivot" to a focus on Asia), producing meaningful healthcare reform, producing significant financial services reforms, stopping the downward spiral in the economy and laying the foundations of recovery, etc. -- let me focus on three areas that deserve much more attention and appreciation.

The first of these is our international economic policy. I worked for President Clinton on these issues and during our tenure there was always a sense they were front and center among the administration's priorities. But during the first year's of the Obama administration, the domestic economic crisis dominated and beyond the international repercussions of the market meltdown other econ issues couldn't seem to wedge their way up to being front of mind for the president or his top advisors.

That has changed. A couple years ago the president made a bold-seemingly out of the blue-call for the U.S. to double it's exports over the next five years. With growth averaging over 16 percent a year since then, they are on the path to do so. The U.S. Export-Import Bank has broken all records in terms of financing of U.S. exports. Three trade deals got through a divided Congress-against substantial opposition from within the president's own party. The TPP process is moving forward. Trade laws are being enforced more aggressively. U.S. pressure on China regarding its currency is beginning to have an effect. U.S. active involvement in European debt discussions has been forceful and played a meaningful role in moving them forward (admittedly working against strong internal EU headwinds). The U.S. has actively begun a program to attract foreign investment in the U.S., a long-overlooked area of great importance. Exports are contributing heavily to recent growth. The president's Export Initiative is working beyond what anyone had any reason to hope was possible.

So where's the party? Why isn't the president celebrating each of these landmarks and sending his surrogates across America with this message of success? He can prove he is creating jobs and growth and making material progress at getting globalization to work for the U.S. He should be shouting it from the rooftops. (I know we would have been during the Clinton years. Indeed, we celebrated much smaller accomplishments much more aggressively.)

The next of these is our policy with regard to Iran. In recent days it has become clear that the sanctions against Iran are working vastly better than anyone should have expected. The Europeans are now tightening them further with a planned oil embargo against the Iranians -- a display of unity and shared purpose within the Atlantic Alliance that might at one time have seemed as far-fetched as the idea that sanctions could work in the first place.  I know I was betting against them having real traction. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Chinese have joined in constructively. Admittedly, they're doing it to finagle lower oil prices. But whatever their motivation, this is the first major Mideast issue that has required their involvement and they have played a useful role. Further, this is no accident. All of these moves have come thanks to purposeful, tireless behind the scenes diplomacy by the United States.

Further, the pressure brought on the Iranians has not just been economic. From Stuxnet to covert attacks on their nuclear facilities and personnel, the U.S. and our allies have demonstrated that there are useful forms of pressure that fall between toothless soft power and over-the-top applications of "shock and awe" type force. 

Will the efforts work? To some degree they already have. The Iranians are feeling serious economic pressure and certainly their nuclear efforts have been setback some. Further, it is now completely accurate for the U.S. and its allies to say that they have tried every avenue other than force to get the Iranians to comply with the demands of the international community. Whether in the future, these efforts are proven not to have stopped the Iranian nuclear program or whether they trigger  meaningful political changes, they have been well-conceived, tirelessly pursued, comprehensive and smart. It is really difficult to imagine, in fact, any other president or Secretary of State doing better so far with a harder problem. That's a big "so far," but it nonetheless is also another area for which the president deserves vastly more credit than he has gotten.

The third of these is the president's new policy with regard to resetting defense priorities.  Admittedly, the Panetta plan for cutting spending was just unveiled today during the president's trip to the Pentagon. But it has been percolating for weeks.  More importantly, it should be seen in the context of the current political environment. Imagine, a president running for re-election is willing to argue for substantial defense spending cuts ($450 billion over a decade) even though he knows it will bring him an onslaught of criticism and constant attacks from his opponents that he is "soft" on defense. There is nothing soft about being willing to take such heat in order to do what is right for the country. 

Frankly, I think the cuts are far too small and the U.S. can go much further without materially impacting our status as the world's sole and uncontested superpower. As the president notes, even with these cuts we will still be spending vastly more than every major military power in the world combined. 

But when people suggest the president is weak or not a leader -- and there have been episodes during the budget and tax and healthcare battles where he has been fairly open to such criticism -- they need also to think of what he is doing in this case. It is very strong and a genuine service to the American people.

Mitt Romney, the almost certain Republican nominee, will run on reputation and track record as a turn-around artist and will be a much more credible and effective candidate than many Democrats currently understand. But the president -- if he and his team simply make their case more effectively, systematically and energetically -- can offer a story that's even better. He's actually doing remarkably well in the world's toughest job right now, and he is and has been doing so under truly extraordinarily adverse circumstances. This is one of those circumstances in which the substance is better than the PR -- and it's time for the White House's political and communications brain trust to get out a clean sheet of paper and begin to make new and better plans for claiming the credit the Obama team deserves.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

A dictionary of American politics -- Part I (GOP Speak)

George Bernard Shaw once observed that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. But now we live in the Internet Age and English has, in way that still galls the Gaullists, become the lingua franca of e-cosmopolitans. The result is that now our language can separate Americans not just from the English but from all the world.

This is especially true when customs and culture and quirks of local context enter into matters. For example, someone outside the United States might pick up a newspaper or log on to a website to read about this week's Iowa caucuses and conclude that they were an important political event in the U.S., that the winners won or that the losers lost. After all, that's what the words on the page or on the screen seemed to say. But the reality is that to understand what's going on in U.S. politics, the international observer really needs some kind of translation device, a U.S. politics to English dictionary, that will help reveal the real meaning obscured by the words.

So let me try to help. Here are a few key translations that may be of use during the current Republican campaign. Note, there are similarly twisted definitions used by Democrats which I will get to later:

Ron Paul:  This is electoral English for "none of the above."  When voters cast a vote for Paul, it is less for the man (there really is a Ron Paul) or his policies (a strange brew of Austrian economics, isolationism, and a late night television ad for solid gold medallions commemorating the historic events at Area 51) than it is a protest vote against the system. 

Ron Paul Supporters: These are young white guys who have never had a date who need something to occupy them until the movie of "The Hobbit" is released...or they are older libertarians who believe that the Fed is where Bilderbergers meet to devalue the dollars they need in order to buy the guns with which they intend to protect their homes from space aliens or people from New York.

Ronald Reagan: This is not a reference to the real Ronald Reagan -- an American president from a while back. Instead it refers to an imaginary, idealized vision of a conservative president developed by the right wing of the Republican Party. Reagan was hardly a true conservative, growing government enormously, creating burgeoning deficits, actively working with Democrats, depending heavily on compromises that drew him closer to a Democratic sub-group that supported him, and hardly living by anything that might be considered the "family values" touted by the religious right. 

Conservative Base of the Republican Party: This is a term for the small minority of right wing Republicans who have been successful at conveying the idea that they control the Republican Party even though they have not be able to select a single genuine member of their faction as the party's candidate since 1964.

Attack Ads: These are what candidates call ads that (often accurately) recount weak parts of their records. Oddly, these are often acts of compromise that actually should be seen as the high points of their public service careers. The synonym for "attack ad" when it refers to an ad you would run against an opponent is "the truth."

Winning: This is not to be confused with the term "winning" made popular by deranged, drug-addled actor Charlie Sheen to refer to the disasters that made his career a shambles.  But it does share some similarities in that it seldom actually refers to winning. Candidates who finish second or third or even fourth or fifth in primaries might be said to have "won" because...well, because they don't want to admit they have lost. Which they did. A recent great example of this kind of spin is when after the Iowa caucuses, Ron Paul observed that if you counted the two guys who finished ahead of him as one guy then he would have finished second. 

Getting Tough with Iran: On a variety of policy issues what candidates say is very different from what they actually mean or intend to do. Therefore it is very important for non-native electoral English speakers to understand the real meaning of key foreign policy assertions lest they fear some of what is promised actually might happen. For example, GOP candidates, in an effort to show they are strong on defense will bend over backwards to say they will/would attack Iran to stop them from getting nuclear weapons. They are no more likely to than any American president -- which is to say, they are probably likely to support an attack on Iran by the Israelis if it needed to be made (as would the Saudis and a number of other of Iran's uncomfortable neighbors.)

Punishing China: This is another promise to be taken with a grain of salt. Mitt Romney, the almost certain GOP presidential candidate, has said he will be tough on the Chinese on trade. He won't be. His friends in business lean heavily against alienating the Chinese whose market is so attractive to them. So he'll rattle the economic saber but should he win election he will pull his punches.

Socialism: This is not a reference to the political theories of Karl Marx nor any descended from them. Rather it is a term used by Republicans to describe any government program that benefits parts of the population other than the rich or big business. It is designed to make the President of the United States seem more godless and "other" like. It implies he speaks Russian or Chinese to his children while burning American flags in secret possibly satanic rituals.

Europe: Hotbed of "socialism."  A synonym for failure...despite the fact that much of northern Europe outperforms the U.S. by almost every economic and quality of life measure.

Israel: A country Republicans profess to love...primarily because so many of them believe that someday God will need it to progress with his plans to consign all the current residents of the country to Hell. 

Big Government: This is a reference to all government programs that do not actually provide benefits to rich people or big business. 

Defense Spending: This is the spending that Jesus Christ himself requested in the Bible.  It is the foundation of America, our economy, our goodness and our only line of defense against godless heathens -- especially ones that don't look like us.

The Constitution: This is a document that most candidates are so confident no one has read that they feel free to use it to justify any position they might hold...provided they can't actually find a better reference to it in the Bible. In fact, many Republican voters believe that the constitution is actually a part of the Bible, kind of along the lines of those "extras" that come with a DVD. All of it, that is except the "separation of Church and State," a thing which they view as a figment of socialist imaginations probably created by the same Europeans who made up that absurd idea of global warming.

Democracy: The system of government in which rich people and select corporations express their choice for candidates by voting with their money which, as the Supreme Court has upheld, is actually "speech" and protected, of course, by the Constitution.  

Money: Speech

Speech: Money

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