JFK and LBJ Redux

Corporeality XV: JFK and LBJ Redux -The Difficulties of Separation


Howard Adelman

In the light of the brief examination of each of President John F. Kennedy’s and President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s practices and efforts to operate as both America’s political leader and Commander-in-Chief, let’s recap on the general problem even if the account is not much more than that of a high school civics class. In the American system, the President is both the executive leader of the polity as well as the Commander-in-Chief. In a parliamentary system, the Governor-General, not the Prime Minister, is both Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, two responsibilities assigned to the president in the American system of government and not to a Prime Minister in a parliamentary system.

The American constitution also provides that the military command role be subservient to the political agenda. That means, there is an inherent tension between the two responsibilities, such with radically different agendas and purposes. This tension even exists, though at a far lower level, in a parliamentary system where the responsibilities of the political leader, the Prime Minister, are always completely subject to the will and consent of the legislature and the Prime Minister does not carry the responsibilities and obligations of Commander-in-Chief.

Like a President, the Prime Minister has responsibilities as Chief Executive Officer (appointment of chief justices, head of the military forces and a host of other appointments) and custodian of the economy. Further, though Canada has a Foreign Minister and the United States has a Secretary of State, Canada and the United States may be far more similar in this area than the difference in name implies. For in both countries, the Prime Minster and the President are the chief diplomats and key determiners of foreign policy.

Unlike a President, however, the Prime Minister is responsible for introducing all legislation in Parliament and ensuring passage of all government bills. In the U.S. presidential system, the President may propose legislation and use his influence to obtain passage, but he does not control Congress. He may veto bills passed by Congress, subject to override, and Congress may refuse to pass his proposals. The President’s lack of command and control over legislation while having command and control in the military arena, already creates a propensity for a President to shift the prime emphasis of his office away from domestic legislation towards foreign policy and command of the military where, on appearances, he is not as boxed-in.

In a democratic monarchy (often called a republican form of government), where the head of state is elected and caries both independent executive as well as Commander-in-Chief responsibilities, there is a specific dilemma. For the key issues for a military leader are command and control. The Latin imperium applies. But the key issue for a civilian political leader is exercising influence on Congress. Power entails an ability to coerce. Influence entails an ability to persuade. In a parliamentary system, responsibilities for coercion are delegated, subject to the civilian authority establishing the objectives and norms under which coercive power operates. It seems that, with some exceptions, when the two responsibilities are not assigned to the same person, both the division of responsibilities and the ability of the civilian leadership to ensure that military operations are subordinate to civilian political will, are less difficult. When embodied in the same person, enormous tensions arise both within the political leader and between him/her and the military.

The dilemmas go both ways. Military leaders are used to exercising imperial powers and, in a state with imperial responsibilities, the military brass dislike limitations on those powers when operating in overseas theatres, whether those limitations come from local politicians or from domestic bosses back home. At the same time, if the President as Commander-in-Chief is to exercise his civilian powers, s/he must of necessity place parameters around the use of those military powers. The military leadership has a built-in propensity to test those limits, both because they do not like being trammeled and because they carry the ball on the ground in foreign situations and dislike having their freedom of movement managed from afar, especially if it is by an “amateur.”

Dwight Eisenhower was a great success in this regard for two very different reasons. First, he carried the prestige of a highly decorated military leader of the highest rank. Secondly, and much more importantly, he understood and articulated the general principles in terms of which both bodies within the President must conduct themselves.

The portrait of JFK that finally emerged was not of a leader who was “saved” and who bought into the beliefs of the peace movement. He remained a Cold War proponent. He remained the same person who knowingly promulgated the fabricated “missile gap.” As such, he felt he had to back a plan approved by Eisenhower, but radically revised and made much riskier once he was elected President. But he did not want to appear weak before his military personnel – the military chiefs, the CIA Director, his own Secretary of Defense. How was the bridge constructed and maintained between his military functions and his civilian responsibilities domestically and as a leader of the free world?

The simple answer – they were not reconciled. In the case of the Bay of Pigs, as a Commander-in-Chief, he operated in the hidden and internationally illegal world of covert operations. In the open, he promulgated such doctrines as the Alliance for Progress. His guiding principle with respect to covert operations was that lying and condoning risky and highly illegal breaches of another country’s sovereignty were okay as long as his role and that of the United States could be protected by plausible deniability. Given that guiding principle, he developed into a leader more concerned with public image and public relations, with his legacy rather than with good policy to secure the well-being of Americans and that the U.S. remained loyal to its allies. JFK remained two-faced, but in the case of the Bay of Pigs, his secret self was exposed and he was actually “saved,” not by conversion in what he believed, but by his exposure to the actual performance of the military (CIA and Chiefs of Staff) who were not only willing to keep information hidden, but concocted policies to trap him in a direction and policy he did not want to follow – a direct conquest eventually by American troops of the island of Cuba.

Ironically, the exposure through the Bay of Pigs operation made Kennedy much more wary of advice from his military. He was not willing to become the “macho man” as his military chiefs advised and resort first and foremost and almost exclusively to exhibitions of overwhelming force. Force had to be used to support diplomacy and used in a way both proportionate to the real danger but sufficient to foster and enhance the diplomatic agenda. Only in the Cuban missile crisis did Kennedy demonstrate that he had learned to subordinate his military responsibilities to his domestic ones.

We do not know how Kennedy would have applied what he learned to Vietnam when covert operations became exposed and America’s military role could no longer be hidden and, for both effectiveness and the impossibility of disguise, had to evolve into an open war not just backed, but driven by the American military, or, alternatively, scaled back and eventually abandoned, the course as we shall see that eventually took place, but only after enormous cost to both the Indochinese and to young Americans.. We do know that LBJ did not learn from the Bay of Pigs about the perfidy of his own military commanders, but instead enhanced the role of deception and misrepresentation by participating in the concoction of the Gulf of Tonkin fabrication to obtain from Congress unfettered room to use the military for open and more aggressive war. Johnson was inherently a bully, a trait he used to good effect in passing an enormous amount of excellent domestic legislation, but one which did him in when he became an accomplice to military goals no longer determined by and subordinated to diplomatic foreign policy.

The tension was replicated within the military. On the one hand, if a military commander was dedicated to the art of covert counter-insurgency warfare, he or she became suspect in the eyes of colleagues dedicated to and trained in the principles and practices of conventional warfare, for covert operations require deception, but only in dealing with enemies. However, covert counter-insurgency warfare seemed to entail deception in dealing with one’s own superiors as well. So the two forms of warfare were inherently at odds and, during Kennedy’s term of office, the responsibilities were relegated to a different organization than the traditional military, the CIA. But the CIA had to rely on the armed forces for backup and logistics, especially when it overlapped with military functions and became for a period the driver of covert operations. On the other hand, within the military, “The whole field of guerrilla operations was the burial place for the future of any officer who was sincerely interested in the development and application of guerrilla war. The conventionally trained officer appears to feel that guerrilla operations are beneath his dignity.”

When the armed forces took over that responsibility in the Vietnam War after JFK replaced his CIA chief and limited the role of the CIA, it became impossible for the political goals of winning hearts and minds to retain supremacy in competition with narrower military objectives. Instead of becoming the main military objective, “winning hearts and minds” became not only subordinate but peripheral to military agendas. The precedent would influence future behaviour long into the future affecting the relationship between the State Department and the Department of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the second Iraq War, Rumsfeld kicked two civilians from the State Department off the plane taking personnel to Iraq to supervise the polity after the initial military victory. Thus, tossed overboard were State Department plans for resurrecting civilian control in Iraq, along with accurate prognostications of what would happen if they did not. Forty years earlier, the Defence Department combined with the Joint Chiefs of Staff took umbrage with and were incensed by the October 1963 report prepared by the State Department that the war, rather than being won, was at best at a stalemate and that any statistical analysis would show diminishing Viet Cong casualties and losses while their armed attacks kept increasing, When truth confronted power, power squelched the truth.

A number of norms emerge to complement those put forth by President Eisenhower.

  1. The conduct of counter insurgency war deserves equal respect with conventional warfare.
  2. In both types of warfare, the battle for “hearts and minds,” the corollary of the pre-eminence of the civilian over the military, must always trump mere military goals.
  3. War in whatever form is a science as well as an art and reverence for factual accuracy is not only basic, but needs to be revered even more when the “military” are engaged in counter-insurgency and covert warfare; the breach of this guiding principle became obvious when General Maxwell prevented Lt. Col. John Paul Vann reporting that the casualty figures claimed for the Viet Cong were grossly distorted because most of the dead were non-combatants.
  4. As a corollary, delusion must be avoided and critical thought deeply embedded in operational planning, as it was clearly not in the Bay of Pigs fiasco or when General Harkins was promising victory within a year and the ability to reduce American troops on the ground in six months or in the report of Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense, and Maxwell Taylor, then Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reassured JFK in October of 1963 that the military task of the U.S. in Vietnam would be completed within fifteen months with only some residual cleaning up to do.
  5. Truth must never be sold out for “good” public relations. Piling lie upon lie is always bad public relations. CIA Director John A. McCone rejected pessimistic reports in favour of “sugaring the pill,” deleting lines from a report such as, “The struggle in South Vietnam will be protracted and costly [because] very great weaknesses remain and will be difficult to surmount.” The South Vietnamese government lacked “aggressive and firm leadership at all levels of command, poor morale among the troops, lack of trust between peasant and soldier, poor tactical use of available forces, a very inadequate intelligence system, and obvious Communist penetration of the South Vietnamese military organization.” Instead, the principal directive was, as distributed by the army in Vietnam to personnel was as follows: “Your approach to the questions of the press should emphasize the positive aspects of your activities and avoid gratuitous criticism. Emphasize the feeling of achievement, the hopes for the future, and instances of outstanding individual or personal credibility by gilding the lily. As songwriter Johnny Mercer put it, ‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative’.”
  6. Pluralism of input before final decisions are made is critical. Competing advice from other perspectives must receive a full and fair hearing. This was not the case when Senator Mike Mansfield, the Senate’s leading expert on Southeast Asia, advised LBJ to give serious consideration to the North Vietnamese feelers offering to guarantee a neutral South Vietnam in return for U.S. withdrawal, for the war cannot be won with “a limited expenditure of American lives and resources somewhere commensurate with our national interests in south Viet Nam,” contrary to Robert McNamara’s insistence that the U.S. would have to expend whatever it took to ensure a communist defeat.
  7. Tolerance along with pluralism must vanquish enforced unity and its twin, repression, and cannot make situations acceptable and tolerable, such as the treatment of Buddhists by the Catholic-dominated leadership in Saigon, especially when soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam poured liquid chemicals from tear gas grenades onto the heads of praying Buddhists in Huế. Recall the iconic picture of the Buddhist monk setting himself on fire in Saigon in protest against President Diem’s policies. Recall also the almost as famous cold and cruel response of Madame Nhu, President Diệm’s sister-in-law: “I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others.” In the meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, David Cabot Lodge Jr., was organizing the plot with American military commanders, ARVN officers and White House backing, the overthrow of the House of Diem.
  8. Ensure your allies and alleged friends treat other allies and friends with the respect they deserve, in contrast with the way the Saigon Military Dictatorship treated the Montagnards (disarming the very civil self-defence forces the Americans had armed and trained, thereby undermining Operation Buan Enao. (This bears parallels with Erdogan’s Turkey bombing America’s armed and trained (and most effective) Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, in Iraq.)

The role of political leader and the role of Commander-in-Chief present in the same person inherently rest on a fundamental tension that is not only difficult but almost insurmountable to overcome. The tension introduces grave deformities in anyone who tries to fulfill both roles. More importantly, as we shall see, the office attracts both those who are inherently schizophrenic in some fundamental way as well as eager to assume the role of a Warrior Hero.


With the help of Alex Zisman


Obama3. Obama as One of the Greats 31.01.13

Obama’s harshest critics continuously and mindlessly repeat that Obama is one of the worst presidents in American history – comparable to Jimmy Carter. Under Cater, there was virtually no economic growth while interest rates rose to 19%. Under Carter, the mullahs took over Iran and created a base for anti-Americanism for the next four decades. Carter gave away the Panama Canal and failed to prevent the Russians from invading Afghanistan. Merrill Matthews who advertises himself as exploring exposing liberal nonsense wrote a piece for Forbes (14 September, 2012) “Obama’s Jimmy Carter Redux On Economic and Foreign Policy”. “Carter inherited a bad economy, just like Obama, and then promptly proceeded to make it worse by adopting Keynesian spending policies. In four long years of the Carter presidency, the economy floundered.” As Robert Schlesinger scribbled in U.S. News and World Report, “Carter was a bad president, Obama is an awful president.” (12 September 2012)

Linking Obama to Carter carries a message well beyond the assessment of Obama. First, Bill Clinton, who remains highly popular, is bracketed. Second, the characterization allows Republican George W. Bush, who has the reputation as one of America’s worst presidents, to escape notice so one can conveniently forget that his ratings fell precipitously from the highest ever given an American president after 9/11 to one of the lowest by the end of his presidency. Third, the characterization allows Ronald Reagan, another Republican and initiator of supply-side Reaganomics, to be ranked among America’s greatest, thereby reinforcing the mantra of the economic right in support of tax “relief” to produce greater government revenue.

What ensues is the war of the Dung beetles, a war between the conservatives and the liberals in American politics. The evening before last I listened to an episode on CBC’s As It Happens (also heard on Public Radio in the USA). The host was interviewing Eric Warrant, an Australian zoology professor and researcher at Sweden’s University of Lund. His research focuses on dung beetles at the edge of the Kalahari Desert. In an ingenious experiment that involved putting dark visors on one set of dung beetles and see-through visors on another group, his team made the amazing discovery that dung beetles, after first dancing on their dung balls to get the lay of the land and establish a direction, then use the milky way to guide themslves. This allows them to roll their dung balls across the desert floor in a straight line to ensure that the results of their hard work are not stolen by lazy predatory competitors. Dung beetles that could not see the milky way ended up rolling their dung balls endlessly in a circle. Are you a blinded dung beetle who cannot see the milky way and end up circling the wagons endlessly, or are you clear sighted enough to be guided by the stars to move forward in a straight line? Which is the party of mythos and which the party of logos?

From the outside, the war over labelling who is the best and who is the worst president is a war between policy nerds playing with dung. But that is the appearance. Underneath is a war about which set of players has the advantage of celestial guidance so that a clear goal can be set and followed more or less in a straight line based on stamina, strength, persistence and determination to preserve what has been gathered through hard work and ingenuity. These are the measures of a successful president. Can the president lead a team that can roll the shit he encounters into dung balls and get those orbs of dung as far away in as fast a time to ensure that the lives of beetles can be sustained and improved?

Before we look at the record of Obama’s first term and the account of his cheerleaders that praise him as a heaven-sent leader, it is helpful if we first measure his task against the shit left behind by his predecessor. Whether one ranks George W. Bush with James Buchanan, Zachary Taylor, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Pierce — or whomever you choose as America’s worst president — there is a wide consensus among historians, though not among his defenders, that George W. Bush, unlike his father, was a bottom feeder. Ignore the one-off failures, such as his inept response to Hurricane Katrina. Do not overlook Bush’s successes – the provision of prescription drugs for the elderly and the prevention of any other attack after 9/11 by al-Qaeda terrorists on American soil. His intentions on educational reform in the No Child Left Behind program were widely applauded, though leaving its implementation totally in the hands of states was questioned. Bush Jr. tried to get immigration reform through Congress but failed. He was a free trader unable to get Doha supported. He even initiated a successful large six trillion dollar stimulus package when the economy got into trouble soon after he was elected. These successes are often overlooked and even buried because many of the other goals were viewed as misguided and the failures were so outstanding and egregious.

Though Bush won office on a program as a domestic policy president, and he initially instituted tax cuts, including large tax cuts for the rich, the general consensus is that Bush’s worst error was to take America into Iraq on the ostensible grounds that Iraq was building nuclear weapons and was in cahoots with the terrorists. Even if one accepts the argument that Bush sincerely believed Saddam Hussein had a program of producing weapons of mass destruction, Bush clearly spun some of the evidence. He also avoided taking the relatively small amount of extra time needed to test and falsify his beliefs.

His second largest error was in implementation. His administration dismissed both the Iraq civil service and the army, creating legions of well-trained enemies and reducing Iraq to anarchy and a horrific civil war. The third charge was that he mismanaged the economy, piled up deficit after deficit and failed to reign in runaway stock brokers and bankers. Then he went into Afghanistan, all the time authorizing torture techniques, including waterboarding (enhanced interrogation), and failed to prosecute these alleged terrorists in accordance with American law and principles of human and legal rights. Bush did very little about the almost two million refugees and IDPs in and from Iraq and failed to protect what was once a population of two million Christians now reduced to less than 100,000. (Obama has continued that neglect – Richard Russell “Obama Ignores the Fears of Middle Eastern Christians,” Crisis Magazine, 28 January 2013.) Iraq continues to be unstable as is Afghanistan.

Bush can be fairly charged with putting politics before sound policy processes and to have fumbled as badly on Iraq and terrorists as Buchanan did in the Dred Scott Case that denied rights to Blacks. Bush’s indecisiveness and procrastination over years and failure to fire Donald Rumsfeld as Secretary of War perhaps was not at the level of Buchanan’s indecisiveness and inaction on slavery and secession, but it came close. Bush went into Afghanistan which Obama characterized as a war of necessity in contrast to Iraq as a war of choice and a wrong one. It is difficult to know whether the failures in foreign policy can be considered greater than the economic mess he left behind.

By the time Obama was inaugurated, the US was in a downward economic spiral. The deregulation introduced under a democratic president, Bill Clinton, morphed into a financial wild west show under George W. Bush. So Obama entered office in a year in which the numbers of unemployed grew by two and a half million. The unemployment rate reached 10%. (It has since receded to 7.8%.) GDP shrunk. Instead of hovering around the average growth rate of GDP of just over 3%, by the last quarter of 2008, GDP went down by 8.9%. The housing market collapsed. Home values shrunk dramatically. Banks fell. Brokerages closed.

Instead of lauding the legislation that saved the auto industry and that launched the largest ever infrastructure program since the post WWII period under the Republican Eisenhower administration, Conrad Black bemoaned that a $10-trillion of national debt accumulated from 1776 to 2008 became a $16-trillion debt, ignoring that this is less as a percentage of GDP than the debt incurred during WWII and without acknowledging that the debt was an investment (admittedly a risky one) to save the nation from past follies to allow the country to grow in the future. Black left out the fact that $1.6 trillion of that debt was largely due to lower revenue because of the Bush tax cuts. $1.4 trillion of the debt was due to the higher interest charges because of the growth in the debt. Almost $3 trillion was the consequence of the costs of Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without requiring the American taxpayers of the time to pay for those wars. Obama included those expenditures in the budget instead of expending those amounts as supplemental appropriations. The major changes in how indebtedness was recorded, not just the costs of war but future medicare liabilities and other obligations, alone accounted for a $2.7 trillion increase in the cost of the debt. The Obama stimulus was responsible for less than a trillion of that debt.

Further, Black failed to note that former Democratic Party presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson (even with the Vietnam War and the Great Society Program), Carter and Clinton all reduced the public debt, while the two Bushes, Reagan and Ford all increased it. At the end of the George W, Bush administration, David Stockman, a stalwart Republican who had served as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Reagan administration, opined that the ideological tax cutters were to blame for the deficit. (“Four Deformations of the Apocalypse,” The New York Times, 31.07.2007) The extra funds bailed out the financial sector, rescued the auto industry, invested in infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.) in a way not seen since the Republican Eisenhower post-WWII administration, and invested as well in education and in clean energy. Obama appears at least to have led America back from the brink of a second great depression. But it is difficult to prove a harm that never took place or, to put it more positively, an unseen benefit. But like Black Matter, the evidence for its existence can be indirect.

So the economic war was a domestic one. On one side were the Democrats rooted in Keynesian counter-cyclical economic theory who voted for The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. On the other side were Republicans who under George W. Bush’s first administration supported a stimulus to spur job creation and growth – that also worked -but were now wedded absolutely and strictly to trickle-down economics, tax cuts characterized as tax “relief”, reliance solely on the private sector to spur economic growth and, with the exception of the defence budget, offer dramatic cuts in the government sector. They promised that the debt would come down through extra tax revenues. It never did.

What were the results? Obama’s champions claimed his stimulus worked magnificently. It would have even worked better if it had not been shortchanged. In compromising with magic fears and protestations of the Republicans, the Democrats eliminated more funds for the Head Start and more investment in infrastructure, specifically high speed rail transportation (support was only $10 billion) that would have created even more jobs and allowed the economy to recover more robustly. The high-speed rail program nevertheless remained moribund until 2012 because of the resistance of Republican state governors. Instead of 13 high-speed rail corridors in 31 states, Americans will only have two – in California and in the Boston-Washington corridor. But if the Republicans were going to vote with ideological solidarity, and if Republican state politicians were going to ally with their Washington colleagues, why did the President not go for broke and push through a $1.2 trillion stimulus package?

As depicted in detail in Michael Grunwald’s 2012 volume The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Economic Era (New York: Simon & Schuster), Obama’s champions lauded the stimulus package for its outstanding accomplishments in saving the financial industry, rescuing the auto industry, and creating 2.5 million private-sector jobs. The Obama Administration revamped the Student Loan Program and saved $62 billion while, at the same time, making the loans cheaper for students and making provision for repayment based on future earnings, a proposal we made as a University of Toronto student council before the Bladen Commission in 1960. According to Grunwald, the long term economic transformation was broad, deep and of unprecedented historical proportions both in relation to the past but, more importantly, as a new foundation for the future. According to Grunwald, the stimulus provided the: “biggest and most transformative energy bill in history”; “biggest and most transformative education reform bill since the Great Society”; “biggest foray into industrial policy since FDR”; “biggest expansion of antipoverty initiatives since Lyndon Johnson”; “biggest middle-class tax cut since Reagan”, and, of course, the greatest revolution in health care policy in America since WWII, an innovation that had been defeated so many times before. Obama managed to pass The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but that Act did not even make provision for a single payer system as in Canada even as a test case. Support for new infrastructure was huge as it was for new green initiatives.

Of course the program greatly increased the economic power of the government in direct counterpoint to Republican ideology. But, according to the Republicans, economic growth was only a “meagre” 2.2% in contrast to growth which Obama’s critics claim was at double that rate under Republican presidents and even the Clinton administration. In fact, the growth rate under Reagan was almost the same as that under Jimmy Carter – 3.4% compared to 3.3% – while the growth rate under Bush Sr. was 2.2% and under Bush Jr. was 2.0%. (See the data quoted from the Bureau of Economic Analysis in the right-wing Liberty Bulletin “The Reagan Years: A Sobriety Test,” 26 January, 2012.) Unemployment rolls dropped by a million, though it still hovers at 7.8%, but Republicans complain that the real rate of unemployment is much higher as indicated by the drop in the labour force participation rate from just over 66% in the beginning of 2008 to 63.6% at the end of 2012. In any case, Obama had promised a maximum unemployment rate of 9% and it reached 10% for one month in October of 2009 and averaged 9.6% in 2010. In 2011 it hovered for most months at 9%, finally dropping to 8.5% in December. After that, the decline proceeded steadily. (U.S. Labour Board Statistics, US Department of Labour) Conrad Black could have contrasted the 50 million on food stamps with the 18 million before he took office. For in the process, the USA has become a much deeper and wider welfare state — but without the European tax revenues to support it.

So the Republicans agree that Obama has expanded government programs but Republicans characterize these as creating a more powerful, larger and more intrusive federal government that compromises the individual’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Though it is difficult to argue from what did not happen, the Great Recession did not become the Great Depression which lasted longer with almost four years of steady decline compared to the 18 month decline in this recession (recall that the 1973-5 and 1981-2 recessions each lasted 16 months). In the Great Depression, GDP fell an unbelievable 27% compared to only a 5% decline in the Great Recession. Unemployment rose to 27% in the Great Depression and not the one month maximum of 10% of the work force in the Great Recession.

According to his cheerleaders, Obama has emerged as one of America’s greatest presidents whatever else he does in a second term facing an intransigent Republican controlled House of Representatives. He is great, not because he introduced more rather than less regulation that Black favours. He introduced regulation reform where it was needed: pay discrimination to protect women and unemployment benefits that did not discriminate against gay couples; regulation of automobile credit cards and tobacco advertising. Obama updated hate crime regulation to bring real criminal activity more in line with the way Canada treats (or used to treat) criminals. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 tightened capital requirements on banks and restricted predatory lending to prevent the abuses that were the catalyst of the 2008 crash in the housing market. One of the most forceful and pithy defences of Obama’s record can be seen and heard in a replay of Rachel Maddow’s rave on MSNBC on the eve before the election. See also the editors’ Comment in The New Yorker of 29 October 2012. Obama has certainly had many articulate champions.

If the economic stimulus was so successful and so revolutionary, if the defence was so clearly made, why did it not gain greater support, especially since the election campaign ignored the advice of James Carville and Stanley Greenberg not to run on his economic record but only on his economic promises for the future? (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/19/james-carville-stanley-greenberg-obama-economy_n_1990403.html) Why did Obama’s approval just simply correlate with the votes he received unlike the situation of any other president on inauguration? If Obama had convinced voters to support him, including many as I will show tomorrow who did not agree with his economic package, why has his approval rating not improved?

Tomorrow: The Reluctant Obama Supporter

[Tags Obama, President, USA, Great]

Obama2. His Cultural Conservative Critics.30.01.13

I vividly recall in the summer of 1987 when Michael Marrus brought up to our cottage Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. I read the book and offered Michael what I thought was a devastating critique. Though the book was a surprising best seller, little did I anticipate that it would become the cultural bible for social conservatives whom I would be analyzing 25 years later. Cultural conservatives are radically different than economic conservatives. Cultural conservatives believe strongly in using the state for social engineering, not to facilitate greater equality or even greater equality of opportunity but to facilitate the reinforcement of a set of social values. Economic conservatives are adamantly opposed to the engineering state.


David Frum, as an economic conservative, has been highly critical of the cultural conservative attempt to take control of the Republican Party agenda and claims that, because of them claims, “The Republican Party is becoming increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America.” (“How the GOP Got Stuck in the Past,” Newsweek, 11 November 2012) Unlike his friend and fellow economic conservative, Conrad Black, Frum opined that, “When eco­nom­ic conditions are as bad as they were in 2012 and the incumbent wins anyway, that’s not ‘close’.”  Frum is inclined to blame Romney’s election loss to Obama on the cultural conservatives (otherwise known as the combative conservatives) and the reason why “the GOP is becoming the party off yesterday’s America.” Instead of Romney running as a strong fiscal conservative with a track record as a competent manager with a pragmatic disposition, Romney was forced by the cultural conservatives into a corner in order to win the nomination to refashion himself and come across as a contradictory weak-kneed amorphous persona. My interest is to analyze the nature of that opposition and to try to understand the extent to which that opposition demonizes Obama and is responsible for the chasm between Obama’s public image and the reality of his policies and actions. Frum wanted the cultural conservatives to be reborn as social conservatives and become religious and secular activists for the needy independent of a nanny state. However, Rick Santorum was the only Republican candidate who recognized that the middle class had become economic losers.


This recognition is not what drives the vast majority of cultural conservatives. William Bennett, needless to say no relation to Naftali Bennett leader of the Habayit Hayehudi pro-settler party in Israel that I wrote about last week, was the Secretary of Education in the George Bush Sr. administration from 1985 to 1988.  In a CNN piece “Republicans lost the culture war” dated 14 November 2012, Bennett drew attention to the claim that the Republicans were involved in a culture war more than a war over economic doctrine. (http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/14/…/bennett-gop…/index.html – United States) Cultural conservatives are a different breed than economic conservatives. They cite Plato and his dictum that the future depends on who teaches and what they teach. For cultural conservatives, the Lefties who preach multiculturalism rather than a one-size fits all American identity, who praise socialism and disparage capitalism, who teach relativism rather than certain moral precepts, who celebrate diversity at the cost of faith in American exceptionalism, who sew class divisions with special privileges, including preferential university admissions for minorities, need to be displaced and cultural conservatives with their moral foundations in family, faith, freedom, community country and moral conduct restored to supremacy. The universities and colleges have to be retaken or America is lost. Their battle is not an intellectual exchange but an institutional takeover.


Though William Bennett and Naftali Bennett are not blood relatives, they share a number of common traits. Both are paired with economic conservatives to pull the conservative polity further towards what is represented as the right. In the Israeli election, Naftali Bennett was the one to make Netanyahu more extreme, yuktzan Netanyahu, in contrast to Yair Lapid who was elected to make Netanyahu more moderate, yemurkaz Netanyahu. The cultural right in America also works to pull the Republican Party more towards the right.


Samuel Goldman in The American Conservative offered an analysis of “Naftali Bennett and the Continuing Appeal of Religious Nationalism” (14 January 2013) just before the elections in the wildly mistaken expectation that Naftali Bennett would possess the second largest cluster of seats in the Knesset. The legacy of the religious Zionists under Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son Rabbi Yehuda Kook was revived with the settler movement to re-establish religion as the foundation of the new Israel by becoming the settlers on the new frontier of Samaria and Judea and officers in the IDF. Religious settlers would displace socialist kibbutzniks as the icon of Israel reborn. Instead of the religious playing a role of keeping religion alive simply by partnering with the secular leading Zionists, or feeding off the trough of the state as religious welfare bums, the religious would soar into a leading role through their sacrifice and messianic leadership.


What are the ideological similarities of both groups? Naftali Bennett proposed annexing 62% of the West Bank and turning the remainder into a self-governing Bantustans. Imperialism married to exceptional state leadership inspired by religious precepts was alive as an ideology. The cultural right in America and Habayit Hayehudi both represent religious nationalist sentiments, to return the core of the respective nations to their true home, the heartland of America and Judea and Samaria respectively. If the West Bank settlers want to occupy Israel (see Ari Shavit’s piece in Haaretz on 3 January 2013), the cultural right want to retake America. They do it with a pincer movement by effectively establishing their own party, The Tea Party in America, and by taking control of a mainstream party by driving out the more moderate members, Meridor and Begin in the Likud in Israel and Colin Powell and the Rockefeller heirs in the Republican Party in America.


Though cultural and religious conservatives can be distinguished, unlike the link with economic conservativism which is only opportunistic, religious and cultural conservatives overlap considerably, though only the religious conservatives openly oppose the separation of religion and state and want to revive the influence of religion on politics. Both cultural and religious conservatives want to advance their goals through political participation in party politics. Both politicize religion. Basically they believe that a nation is held together by common bonds drawn from religious or classical sources. Their enemies are relativism and diversity when it comes to the national core values. Instead of multiculturalism, they espouse a more authentic version of identity. In Israel, the foundation stones of authentic life are the land of Israel (Eretz Israel), the Torah and Am Israel (the people of Israel). In America, the foundation stones are the American heartland, the American constitution interpreted as the genesis code for a great nation, and the people of American, an identity projected in the ideal image of small town America.


Rogers Brubaker, a colleague consulted when we undertook our study of genocide in Rwanda, wrote an article called “Religion and Nationalism” that was published in the journal Nations and Nationalism in 2011. Instead of regarding religion and nationalism as analogous phenomena or explaining nationalism through religious motifs as Sanford Levinson did in his book on Constitutional Faith (Princeton University Press) whereby a set of beliefs that had been secularized provided a sense of coherence to the American identity by being embodied in the Constitution, or adopting a third option and demonstrating how politics and religion were intertwined by politicians such as George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter, the cultural right propagate a distinctively religious or quasi-religious form of nationalism.


Nationalism itself aspires to a congruity between the nation and the state. That is why separatists in Quebec and Scotland, though they currently come from the left and oppose religious nationalism, seek to secede. The state has the job of protecting the nation. Further, they espouse a fundamental ground for authority in the spirit of the nation whence the values that bind the nation arise. Those values provide the basic legitimacy for the activities of the state. The nationalism that became predominant in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries was secular and defined in opposition to and rivalry with religion. It espoused that individuals operated not only in two autonomous realms of religion and state but in a multitude of autonomous realms, the universities, the economy, the polity, civil society. The new religious nationalism said that if these realms were allowed to remain autonomous, the nation would disintegrate and wither away. The greatest danger to the nation came from the universities for they taught students that relativism and secularism were the norm. Instead of making claims for the nation that conjoined with religious claims, as Bush Jr, and Jimmy Carter had, religion was seen as providing authenticity to the nation. Instead of politicians just using religious symbols to advance their political programs, in religious nationalism, God spoke to his people; his people received their inspiration from religion which was both the foundation for the nation and the state, and the guarantor of the integrity of both.   


As Roger Friedland argued in an older 2001 article, (“Religious Nationalism and the Problem of Collective Representation (Annual Review of Sociology 27, 125-152), collective solidarity is located “in religious faith shared by embodied families”. The family is the backbone of the nation. Politics cannot be dependent on inclusiveness and diversity

So why do the cultural conservatives hate Obama even more than the economic conservatives? After all, Obama is a very strong family man. He is not only a Christian but claims in his writing to have been born again, not in the sense that he suddenly received the light and the spirit of Jesus took over his very being, but in the sense that he was brought up without faith in Christianity and returned to embrace that faith of his mother’s parents as an adult. He has confessed his sins and made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as his saviour “I am a Christian, and I am a devout Christian. I believe in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I believe that that faith gives me a path to be cleansed of sin and have eternal life.” As Joel Hunter (former president of the Christian Coalition started by Pat Robertson and author of A New Kind of Conservative as well as a Methodist and spiritual adviser to Obama) has testified, “There is simply no question about it: Barack Obama is a born again man who has trusted in Jesus Christ with his whole heart.” But Obama is a liberal. As he said in a 2006 speech, “secularists shouldn’t bar believers from the public square, but neither should people of faith expect America to be one vast amen corner.”


Most community conservatives decry these claims as a fraud and a ruse. Because Obama’s Christianity harks back to the social gospel, to social service and taking care of those in need and not to conservatism. Obama is a strong family man and a Christian who is a twentieth-century liberal. In 2008, when presented with a choice between someone who was not born again, McCain, and Obama, many actually voted for Obama. Those numbers declined in 2012, but still an estimated six million evangelicals supported Obama, particularly if they were young. Why? Because they too were Christian liberals and supported healthcare, support for education and a fairer allocation of taxation relative to income.  (http://www.christianpost.com/news/young-born-again-christians-lose-interest-in-obama-barna-group-says-84496/#2M6aplFRqYIGEz9g.99)


The strident opposition comes from evangelical Christians who are social conservatives for whom Obama’s family and Christian values give them apoplexy. A secular liberal is one thing but a Christian and a strong family man who is a liberal is another. The fight over alternative worlds versus alternative economic ideologies is much more heartfelt and vicious. Since it is about the moral quality of the person, it is doubly disconcerting to see the leader of your country as apparently upholding your religious and family values so if one is a community conservative, it is imperative that the ostensible believer be revealed as a fake and a dissembler. Denigration and demonization become central to the cause of discrediting Obama.   


So we have two groups, one adamantly and the other doubly opposed to Obama and eager to blacken his name and portray him as not only opposed to what they believe but as a failure. Is that sufficient to explain the alignment of his electoral support with his approval rating? After all, many a politician who one would not vote for is seen as a success even if one disagrees with his or her political agenda. To try to probe deeper I will examine first Obama`s cheerleaders and then his equivocal supporters.

[tags Obama, USA, President, politics, community conservatives]