Sunday, April 20, 2014

Writing Off Putin

The White House may be signaling a new approach to its standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The headline in Sunday's New York Times reads, "In Cold War Echo, Obama Strategy Writes Off Putin." While such a strategy may not address short-term issues, it may be the best approach in the long-term.

President Putin's ultimate ambitions are not known, though it is clear he is using the seizure of Crimea and threats against Ukraine in part to strengthen his position at home. Russia's economy is struggling, and government is riddled with corruption and cronyism. Human rights abuses abound in Russia, as does suppression of free speech. Russia has slowly been slipping in relevance on the world stage.
President Obama has had great difficulty getting European support for crippling sanctions against Russia. The problem is that many European countries are heavily dependent on Russian gas and oil resources. And many global banks and businesses do not favor harsh tactics.
The challenge to reining in Putin is complicated further by Russia's role in difficult negotiations with Iran over its nuclear enrichment program, and the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. American troops and equipment are also passing through Russia to Afghanistan.
President Obama and President Putin have spoken by phone several times since the crisis in Ukraine began earlier this year. The American and Russian accounts of those conversations vary widely, but they agree that no real progress was achieved.
Last Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry brokered an agreement with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Ukraine, and European diplomats. The agreement calls for pro-Russian gangs to give up the government buildings they seized and lists other steps to de-escalate the crisis. President Obama greeted the agreement with skepticism last Thursday, and pro-Russian groups continue to occupy the buildings. Meanwhile, an estimated 40-thousand Russian troops remain in place just across Ukraine's eastern border.
President Obama and European allies have identified additional sanctions that can be imposed on Russia. And there are reports that the Pentagon is planning on expanding NATO's presence in Eastern Europe by deploying troops and fighter jets into Poland. Nonetheless, President Obama has ruled out going to war over Ukraine.
While the administration debates its long-term plans with Russia, The New York Times reports that there is a debate within the administration over how far to go in the short-term. Conservatives have been critical of the president's tactics for not being strong enough. But the president is focused on isolating Putin with sanctions and other forms of pressure. According to the Times, he has concluded, even if there is a resolution to the current Ukrainian crisis, "he will never have a constructive relationship with Mr. Putin," according to aides.
Given Russia's weak economy, President Putin cannot easily take on the additional costs of annexing Eastern Ukraine. Military intervention would be difficult and costly for Russia. Further, Putin has already cast himself, by his actions to date, as an unreliable partner to much of Europe.
Putin is a bully who cannot be ignored. But President Obama and Western allies are on the correct course by continuing to tighten sanctions and by applying other meaningful steps to isolate Putin. In time, even Putin's own people will likely tire of his act.   

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Pivot Point for Democrats

 The 2014 midterm elections are little more than six months away, and already the Republican Party is feeling giddy about the prospect of big wins in several U.S. Senate races, perhaps enough to give the GOP control of both houses of Congress. This may appear to be surprising if one considers that Republicans are in the minority nationally on most key social and economic issues, especially among Blacks, Latinos and women.

Most Republicans want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, but they can't agree among themselves on how to replace it. And they were dealt a bit of a blow when President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that more than seven million Americans had signed up for health care by the deadline, far exceeding expectations. That number is likely to be much higher when the final count is in.

Now the health care law is starting to pick up some positive momentum, with a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showing 49% of all Americans now support the law, while 48% oppose it. That is nearly a 10% swing to the positive since last November. And the ACA's favorability rating is likely to improve since the enrollment numbers were so strong, and most of the Republican lies and myths about the law have been shown to be untrue.

So a Republican controlled Congress will likely do all it can to bring an end to Obamacare, even if it is piece by piece. What makes Obamacare so repugnant to many Republicans is that it is viewed as another "government handout," like food stamps, unemployment insurance and many social programs. Their view is that the poor and hungry are largely freeloaders. So if Republicans get their way on Obamacare, several million people who now have signed up for the ACA will lose health care and have nothing to replace it.

A majority of Americans across the nation do not agree with Republicans on most social issues, like same sex marriage and equal pay for women. Many states, heavily gerrymandered following big GOP wins in the 2010 state legislative and gubernatorial races, are slowly rolling back existing social reforms.

The Republican Party is made up largely of older and white voters. These are the very people who are most likely to vote during off-year elections, especially when Republicans play on their fears. For instance, the fallacious cries of death panels? Or the ridiculous charge that Obama has become the "imperial president." Or, that Obama is violating the constitution and should be impeached!

Unfortunately for Democrats, many of those who are mobilized by fear and anti-Obama feelings are typically not well informed. They are easy prey for GOP political spinmeisters. And there is no penalty for lying about your opponent.

President Obama was reelected by a sizable margin with the help of young people, minorities and women. But these voter groups do not usually turn out in large numbers for midterm elections. To make matters worse for Democrats, Republican controlled state legislatures are doing all they can to restrict voting access in many states. For instance, some states have voted to end voting on Sundays, the only day many minorities, who work long hours and travel great distances to work, can vote without a loss of pay. Some Republican controlled statehouses have reduced the number of polling places, frequently choosing to close those in more heavily Democratic districts. Republicans claim this is all due to incidents of voter fraud, but the facts show that the number of voter fraud cases nationally is minuscule.

Of course, Republicans are against any meaningful immigration reform. They believe that most immigrants who become citizens will also become Democrats. I wonder why that would happen?

Meanwhile, in Washington Tuesday, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI), the party's budget guru, drew fire from all sides with his latest federal budget proposal. The Ryan budget calls for deep cuts in so-called safety net programs, education, job training, Pell Grants, and for transforming some social programs into "block grants," which will leave each state to deal with the program. He also proposes huge tax breaks for the rich. Democrats see Ryan's budget as a real liability for Republicans. But, not surprisingly, conservative Republicans think it doesn't go far enough.

Take, for instance, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. "The latest Ryan budget is not an April Fool's joke," Palin wrote on her Facebook page Tuesday, "But it really IS a joke because it is STILL not seeing the problem; it STILL is not proposing reining in wasteful government overspending." The Palin posting reflects the vast schism that currently exists within the Republican Party.

Yet, because more "red state" senate seats are up this election, Republicans are poised to make some major gains. The challenge for Democrats will be to mobilize the Obama coalition.

You think there is gridlock in Washington now? If the GOP wins both houses of Congress in November, nothing meaningful will get done for two years, and many good social programs will come under crippling attack. Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) will endlessly bask in the television lights as he wastes even more American taxpayer money investigating everything from Benghazi to the First Family's dogs.

Democrats must begin a full court press around the many accomplishments of President Obama, especially Obamacare. Democrats must go on the offensive now, and rally party supporters, especially the young, minorities, and women, from coast to coast. Democrats must make sure that all Americans fully understand what they may lose if they do not vote this coming November.