Obama’s historic speech in Havana — finally!

The tragedy in Brussels and the endless election campaign came to overshadow President Obama’s historic speech in Havana, Cuba, yesterday.

So I am posting it here because of its  importance. Finally, the United States and Cuba have broken with the past and started on the road towards a new, constructive relationship.

I am also posting it because of its eloquence, Obama at his best.




Scalia’s death raises the stakes but also the question of reforms

The presidential election campaign all of a sudden got more contentious, more exciting, and more important with the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the leading conservative on the Court.

The voters on November 8 will now decide not only who occupies the White House after President Obama, and who controls the U.S. Congress, but also who, conservatives or liberals, will control the third branch of the American political system, the Supreme Court.

With Scalia gone, the Court is tied, 4 – 4, between conservative and liberal justices. An Obama appointment would almost certainly swing the Court to a liberal majority and, for the first time since 1972, the justices appointed by Democratic presidents would outnumber those appointed by Republican presidents. The change would be monumental.

The Republicans in the Senate led by majority leader Mitch McConnell have instantly made it clear that they have no intention to consider an Obama nominee, no what who that is. The decision to appoint Scalia’s replacement should be made by the next president. But Obama is not elected to a three-year but to a four-year term. He has almost a year left in office and he has, rightly, declared that he intends to nominate a new justice. So we are in for a big fight, a complicating, new factor in an election campaign already fraught with uncertainty and tension.

McConnell, who famously said during Obama’s first term that his primary political goal was to make sure that Obama was not reelected now wants to deny the president, who has already appointed two new high court justices, the chance to appoint a third. McConnell’s stern “no” could have serious election implications for the Republicans and their goal to keep their Senate majority, as NYT’s Nate Cohn outlines. We’ll see how this plays out.

The death of Scalia is also an important reminder of how totally unpredictable the system of appointing Supreme Court justices is. It’s time to change what’s been, rightly, called an undemocratic system by doing away with life time appointments and create more orderly nomination procedures with term limits and a retirement age. In Minnesota, to which I presently spend a lot of attention, the retirement age for the state’s highest court is 70. That’s a bit young, maybe, but why not 75? And why not a 20-year term limit? Or both?

Sadly, such reforms are seldom part of the American political dialogue. They should be, particularly as the politicization of the Supreme Court shows no signs of abating.

Obama on guns — and his State of the Union finally took off

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union last night was not, I am afraid, a speech to be long remembered.  It was good, but ordinary, although at the same time “extraordinarily ambitious,” as Ezra Klein writes on his Wonkblog:

“Imagine, for a moment, that President Obama managed to pass every policy he proposed tonight. Within a couple of years, every four-year-old would have access to preschool. The federal minimum wage would be at $9 — higher than it’s been, after adjusting for inflation, since 1981. There’d be a cap-and-trade program limiting our carbon emissions and a vast infrastructure investment to upgrade our roads and bridges. Taxes would be higher, guns would be harder to come by, and undocumented immigrants would have a path to citizenship. America would be a noticeably different country.”

That is unlikely to happen, as Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus writes, but if Obama meets his most significant and realistic goals – “immigration reform, even modest steps on gun control, an end to the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, a free-trade agreement with Europe and, oh yes, implementation of Obamacare — and manages to keep the economy growing, even if slowly, that’s not a bad list. Plenty of two-term presidents have done worse.”

What Obama mentioned in his speech is clearly popular with the American public, according to Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky but “the Republicans just sat there like statues ignoring” them. They are such crybabies every day about what Obama allegedly does to try to make them look bad. They’re doing plenty well at that themselves.”

“Long gone,” writes The New Yorker’s John Cassidy on his blog Rational Irrationality “is the era when he (Obama) treated Republicans as reasonable men and women with whom he could do business. Nowadays, he is in permanent campaign mode. With the ongoing dispute over taxes and spending still far from decided, he is intent on rallying his supporters whilst depicting his opponents as crazed ideologues and craven defenders of the privileges enjoyed by the ultra-rich. “

Well, ok. Still, in my view Obama’s fifth State of the Union never really took off until the end and when the subject was guns and gun control. “They deserve a vote,” Obama repeated time and again:

“Gabby Giffords deserves a vote; the families of Newtown deserve a vote; the families of Aurora deserve a vote; the families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence – they deserve a simple vote.”

“Our actions will not prevent every senseless act of violence in this country.  Indeed, no laws, no initiatives, no administrative acts will perfectly solve all the challenges I’ve outlined tonight.  But we were never sent here to be perfect.”

And the President returned to his them from the Inauguration about inclusiveness, about “us” and “we.”

”The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem.  They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue.  But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party.  They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can.  For they know that America moves forward only when we do so together; and that the responsibility of improving this union remains the task of us all.”

Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker thinks that Obama’s urgent message that “they deserve a vote” may come to serve “as the rallying cry for 2013,”  and so “if last night was any indication, the two years to come will be far more confrontational. “

So, no political peace is to be expected in Washington.  But Obama, a much different and more self-confident President than in his first term,  got to say his peace, and he made his troops happy.

Tonight’s State of the Union sets the tone for an uphill fight

The Republican presidential candidates went at each other again last night and on Thursday they will be back for another panel discussion ahead of the Florida primary next Tuesday.

Scarcely a night without Romney, Gingrich, Santorum and Paul … so it will be nice, and very interesting, to hear President Barack Obama tonight in his third State of the Union — an important, perhaps decisive, speech that will set the tone for the November elections.

How is Obama doing so far? Not so well, according to Gallup. His job approval for his third year in office is only 44 per cent, which is lower than that of all presidents since Dwight Eisenhower, with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s 37 percent – and Carter failed to get re-elected 1980.

However, Obama’s 44 percent in 2011 equals Ronald Reagan’s in 1983, and Reagan managed to get re-elected the following year, a fact that can give Obama some encouragement.

The support for Obama has steadily declined during his three years as president, from 57 percent his first year to 47 percent his second and now 44 percent. But Gallup also notes that support for him grew during the last quarter of 2011 and that the coming quarter will be critical for Obama.

All presidents re-elected since Eisenhower had over 50 percent in job approval in their respective election year’s first quarter. The three presidents, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush, who failed to be re-elected, all had job approval rates below 50 percent.

This raises the stakes for tonight’s State of the Union.

Gallup’s numbers are fascinating, but if you want to read something beyond the numbers about Obama’s three years as president, I suggest the conservative Obama sympathizer Andrew Sullivan’s recent article in Newsweek, “Obama’s Long Game Will Outsmart His Critics.” It is brilliant. Enjoy!

President Obama: Osama bin Laden has been killed

Osama bin Laden is dead, President Barack Obama announced in a special television address to the nation from the White House just before midnight tonight, nearly ten years after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.

“Justice has been done,” Obama said in his speech.

Bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda and the man behind the attacks in New York and Washington which claimed nearly 3000 lives, died after U.S. Special Forces found him and his family in a house deep in Pakistan, in the town of Abbottabad near the capital Islamabad, and after a brief fire exchange shot him to death. His body is now in U.S. possession. No U.S. soldier was injured in the attack.

Obama said that U.S. intelligence sources received a lead on bin Laden’s whereabouts in August last year and special troops have been closing in on him ever since. According to press reports tonight, the president ordered the attack last Friday.

Obama also said that this is not the end of the fight against terrorism. He said we must continue to be on our guard, stressing that this is not a war against Islam, but a war against al Qaeda which has killed many Muslims.

The news was greeted with great joy, satisfaction, and relief not only in the White House but across America. Outside the White House here in Washington a crowd gathered around midnight, waving American flags and singing the national anthem.

Bin Laden’s death ends a chapter in the war against terrorism,a war that led to the U.S. attacks on Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and then to the invasion of Iraq. It now remains to be seen what repercussions bin Laden’s death could have on the overall fight against terrorism. The state of alert has been raised around the country and on military bases and U.S. embassies around the world.