The Conciliator-in-Chief

“Now I could stand up here and say, let’s get everybody together, let’s get unified, the sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing. And everyone will know we should do the right thing, and the world will be perfect. But I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be. You are not going to wave a magic wand and make the special interests disappear.” - Hillary Clinton in Providence, Rhode Island on February 24, 2008

One of the more memorable moments in the race for the Democratic nomination in 2008 came two years ago today when then Senator Clinton unleashed a torrent of sarcasm mocking the then Senator Obama as unrealistic and hopelessly naive in his approach to politics. It is thus indeed ironic that tomorrow President Obama will seek to salvage the healthcare reform package currently mired in the Congressional mud with a "let's get unified" gathering at the Blair House, an event that the GOP is calling "The Blair House Project" — after the 1999 horror movie "The Blair Witch Project." For President's sake, David Alexrod might consider hiring a celestial choir if only to combat such evil spirits. Otherwise, I am afraid the Republican leadership in attendance is unlikely to be moved much less exorcised.

Thirteen months into the Obama Presidency, Clinton's assessment is as valid as ever and of increasing concern. The President has spent a year courting the Republicans with precious little to show for his efforts. The Republicans, meanwhile, have largely achieved their aims of grinding government to a halt and seem poised to make substantial electoral gains come November's mid-term elections. Obstructionism may make for ugly governance but it sure seems likely to pay handsome political dividends.

What compromise has been achieved in the halls of government has largely come at our expense, not theirs. The public option is off the table, while tort reform seems forever on it. It is not just healthcare reform, if it can be called that at this point, that is stalled; it is just about every major part of the Democratic agenda. The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, the American Clean Energy and Security Act and the US Postal Service Financial Relief Act - all passed by the House - languish in the Senate. In total, 290 bills sit gridlocked in the Senate's docket stalled by the partisan tactics of Mitch McConnell and Company.

It is increasingly evident that the President's style as the conciliator-in-chief is not working. The strategy is unlikely to peel away a single Republican vote even as it jettisons wholesale the progressive agenda. More tragically, the probability of the President modifying his consensual approach to governing is nil. He is who he is. In his soul, he remains the community organizer who just wants to bridge differences and forge compromises. But the back halls of Washington are a far cry from the streets of south side Chicago. 

It is not that I bemoan the President's good-heartedness, his level-headedness or his even-handedness but there comes a point when one has to ask where are the results of this reaching out to the other side? It is as if the cause of Obama's Presidency is bipartisanship simply for the sake of bipartisanship. The policy be damned, but get me Olympia Snowe's vote seems to be his mantra.

While the President did campaign on the necessity of changing the tone in Washington, the GOP remains tone-deaf. What is there to say when Minority Leader John Boehner rails that  the President “basically crippled the summit expected on Thursday by coming in with a rerun of the same failed bill that couldn’t pass the House or Senate.” For a President who is hailed as a being attentive, he tunes out the vitriol that emanates from the GOP to his own detriment. He simply refuses to take the GOP at their word. Furthermore the White House seems blind to the reality that their approach is alienating the fickle to start Democratic base. It is as if our support isn't wanted. It's a rare progressive who is going to get excited over mandated insurance that ensures the bloated profitability of the insurance industry. 

All this is preface to what sparked this: Sheryl Gay Stolberg's insightful article that looks at the President's style of leadership in today's New York Times:

Ever since his days as a young community organizer in Chicago, Mr. Obama has held fast to the belief that by listening carefully and appealing to reason he can bring people together to get results, an approach that in Washington has often come up short.

He is not showing any signs of changing his style. But he is facing perhaps the toughest test yet of his powers of persuasion: winning the votes he needs, in the face of unified Republican opposition and a deteriorating climate for Democrats, to push his health care measure through a skittish Congress.

Mr. Obama has not been the sort to bludgeon his party into following his lead or to intimidate reluctant legislators. And while he has often succeeded by relying on Democratic leaders in Congress to do his bidding — the House and Senate, after all, both passed versions of the health legislation last year — it is not clear whether his gentle, consensus-building style will be enough.

Let me be brief and blunt: the President's belief is predicated on the assumption that he is dealing with rational actors. His premise is that the GOP can be reasoned with yet the evidence for such a belief is scant. This is not the party of Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt or even Gerald Ford or Jacob Javits. This is the party of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, James DeMint and James Inhofe. For every Lindsey Graham, there are ten Joe Wilsons. For every Olympia Snowe, there are ten Virginia Foxxes.

There's more...

The President's Weekly Address

In his weekly address, the President points to outrageous premium hikes from health insurance companies already making massive profits as further proof of the need for reform. Looking ahead to the coming bipartisan meeting on reform, the President urges members of Congress to come to the table in good faith to address the issue. Hope springs eternal.

The Prisoner of Karachi

The New York Times reports that Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a "founding father" of the Afghani Taliban and the number two in command behind the blind cleric Mullah Mohammed Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, has been captured in a joint US-Pakistani operation in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and commercial capital. According to US government officials, the capture of Mullah Barader occurred "several days" ago and remains in Pakistani custody, with both US and Pakistani intelligence officials taking part in interrogations.

In addition to running the Taliban’s military operations, Mullah Baradar runs the group’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura so called because the Taliban's leaders for years have been thought to be hiding in or near Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, the restive province in southwestern Pakistan. Here some more background on Mullah Adul Ghani Baradar from a Newsweek profile in July 2009:

In more than two dozen interviews for this profile, past and present members of the Afghan insurgency portrayed Baradar as no mere stand-in for the reclusive Omar. They say Baradar appoints and fires the Taliban's commanders and governors; presides over its top military council and central ruling Shura in Quetta, the city in southwestern Pakistan where most of the group's senior leaders are based; and issues the group's most important policy statements in his own name. It is key that he controls the Taliban's treasury—hundreds of millions of dollars in -narcotics protection money, ransom payments, highway tolls, and "charitable donations," largely from the Gulf. "He commands all military, political, religious, and financial power," says Mullah Shah Wali Akhund, a guerrilla subcommander from Helmand province who met Baradar this March in Quetta for the fourth time. "Baradar has the makings of a brilliant commander," says Prof. Thomas Johnson, a longtime expert on Afghanistan and an adviser to Coalition forces. "He's able, charismatic, and knows the land and the people so much better than we can hope to do. He could prove a formidable foe."

No one among the Taliban—least of all Baradar himself—will say he's taken Omar's place. On the contrary, Baradar portrays himself as a loyal lieutenant carrying out the orders of his absent boss. "We are acting on [Omar's] instructions," he told NEWSWEEK via e-mail in a recent exclusive interview. He didn't reveal how or when he gets those instructions, saying only that "continuous contacts are not risk-free because of the situation."

Yet while Taliban fighters are reluctant to be seen criticizing Omar in any way, they clearly imply that his deputy has a more modern, efficient style of command. Baradar is consistently described as more open, more consultative, more consensus-oriented, and more patient than Omar. Taliban operatives say he's less mercurial and more willing to hear different views rather than act on hearsay, emotion, or strict ideology. "Baradar doesn't issue orders without understanding and investigating the problem," says a commander from Zabul province who met with him in March and asked not to be named so he could speak freely. "He is patient and listens to you until the end. He doesn't get angry or lose his temper."

That's raised another question: whether the Americans and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai might ultimately be able to strike a deal with Baradar. His influence among the insurgents—and with Mullah Omar—is unmatched, and he's not as close-minded as many of the leaders in Quetta are. Back in 2004, according to Maulvi Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban cabinet minister who now lives in Kabul, Baradar authorized a Taliban delegation that approached Karzai with a peace offer, even paying their travel expenses to Kabul. That outreach fizzled, but earlier this year another two senior Taliban operatives sent out separate peace feelers to Qayyum Karzai, the Afghan president's older brother, apparently with Baradar's approval, according to three ranking Taliban sources. They say the initiatives were quickly rescinded. Still, when NEWSWEEK spoke to the elder Karzai last week and asked him about the story, he did not deny that such contacts had taken place, saying only, "This is a very sensitive time, and a lot of things are going on." Publicly, Baradar, who belongs to the same Pashtun tribe as Karzai, has scoffed at peace efforts, denouncing them as a ploy to split the insurgency. But that may simply reflect his feeling that the insurgents currently have the momentum.

Baradar can take much of the credit for rebuilding the Taliban into an effective fighting force.

There are a number of takeaways to the capture of Mullah Baradar. First it took place in Karachi, a teeming city of over 14 million people, suggesting that much of the Taliban's leadership has migrated away from the border areas. Mullah Barader may have been forced to flee from the increasingly less secure hiding places alongside the Afghan-Pakistani frontier as a result of the increased number and ever more effective strikes by unmanned predator drones.

There's more...

The President Proposes a Bipartisan Summit on Health Care

President Obama has proposed holding a bipartisan summit on February 25th at the White House in the hopes of restarting the now seemingly sidetracked health care reform packages. The event would be televised presumably on C-Span but perhaps as well by the cable news networks.

The story in the New York Times:

Mr. Obama made the announcement in an interview on CBS during the Super Bowl pre-game show, capitalizing on a vast television audience. He set out a plan that would put Republicans on the spot to offer their own ideas on health care and show whether both sides are willing to work together.

“I want to come back and have a large meeting, Republicans and Democrats, to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward,” Mr. Obama said in the interview from the White House Library.

Mr. Obama challenged Republicans to attend the meeting with their plans for lowering the cost of health insurance and expanding coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans. Republican leaders said they welcomed the opportunity and called on Democrats to start the debate from scratch, which the president said he would not do.

The move by Mr. Obama comes after weeks in which the administration has appeared uncertain about how to proceed on his top domestic priority since Republicans captured the Senate seat previously held by Senator Edward M. Kennedy. House and Senate Democrats had been increasingly at odds over what the bill should say, how to move ahead tactically and, in some cases, whether to continue at all.

The idea for the bipartisan meeting, set for Feb. 25, was reached in recent weeks, aides said, as part of the White House strategy to intensify its push to engage Congressional Republicans in policy negotiations, share the burden of governing and put more scrutiny on Republican initiatives.

I personally prefer the combative Obama as opposed to the accommodating one so I am not sure what to make of this proposal. It seems that it runs the risk of endlessly extending an already tortuous process.


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