OBSERVER COLUMNS

As Goes North Beach So Could Go New York

San Francisco and New York are different cities with different politics, demographics and economies, but they, more than any other two cities in America, are at the nexus of progressive histories and what are sometimes euphemistically referred to as disruptive economies. The voters of North Beach and surrounding neighborhoods will send a message in San Francisco in November, but observers in New York should take note as we move toward our own citywide elections in 2017.

Borscht Belt: Will Israel Spurn America For Russia?

The emergence of a Moscow-Jerusalem axis in the next decade, may not occur, but it cannot be ruled out and would dramatically remake the politics of the Middle East, most likely making that region a more violent part of the world where the U.S. has even less influence. This is not good for the U.S., and not an ideal scenario for Israel either. The only real winner would be Russia. There are many good reasons for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, and millions in both countries that badly want to see that relationship become even stronger over time. Looking at what Israel would do if forced to find another patron, only makes that even more apparent.

Sorry You’re Not Charlie; and You’re Not Ahmed Either

Few of us have the extraordinary combination of bravery and artistic talent of Honore, Charb, Cabu, Wolin and the other victims of this killing, so perhaps Tweeting “Je Suis Charlie” is the best way we can show solidarity with the victims, and their views. However, there was another way that the world could have made a meaningful gesture of solidarity. What if everybody who Tweeted “Je Suis Charlie,” had instead Tweeted a link to the cartoons that so offended the Islamist killers? What if every celebrity who held up a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, or every marcher who waived one, displayed an enlarged copy of the cartoon instead? Similarly, what if all those Facebook profiles were of the offensive cartoons, not the inoffensive slogan?

Is Obama Strong or Weak? Coming Vetoes Will Test the President

President Barack Obama . (Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)

President Barack Obama . (Photo by Pete Souza/White House via Getty Images)

For the last six years, President Obama has been pilloried by opponents as a power-hungry President willing to ignore constitutional constraints to pursue his radical left-wing agenda. Ted Cruz, the Republican Senator from Texas and likely presidential candidate in 2016, made this charge in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece in January in which argued that “Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency, none is more dangerous than the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat.”

Such criticisms are not surprising given that Mr. Obama took office on a groundswell of hope for progressive change and has presided during a very partisan period in American history. It is, however, somewhat notable that this perception coexists with a not quite as widespread view on the left that Mr. Obama has been a weakling, unwilling to take strong progressive stances, too quick to compromise and often failing to speak out about various injustices. Cornel West is a good standard-bearer for this view of the President. “[H]e [President Obama] acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair.” It is not at all clear how both these views of the President can be true at the same time, but these two perceptions have defined how the right and left have viewed the President since 2009.

Mr. Obama has just over 25 months remaining in his presidency, and will spend almost all of it with a Republican majority in both houses of congress. Given how difficult it will be to pass presidential initiatives through a Republican-dominated congress, it is very unlikely that any major legislation will come from the White House during the next two years. The President’s use of an executive order on immigration reform is an example of how the Obama administration may have already given up on passing any meaningful legislation during what is left of his time in office. The Republican congress, however, will likely propose a great deal of legislation. How the President responds to that will be informative.

The President will likely veto most of the legislation produced by the Republican Congress. If this happens, his image as timid will erode, but the conservative criticism of the President will seem more accurate. This will not help the President garner popular bipartisan support, but it may help him among his progressive base. Since the midterm election, President Obama has taken a strong stand on internet neutrality, signed an executive order on immigration reform and nominated a progressive candidate for attorney general. This suggests that the President has been strangely reinvigorated by the drubbing his party received last month. Either that or he feels he has nothing left to lose during the remainder of his presidency.

A policy of bold nominations, executive orders and freely using this veto pen will do little to change the image that many conservatives already have of the President. In fact, it will do the opposite and reinforce the conservative narrative that President Obama pursues his left-wing goals despite an election in which the American people have clearly rejected them, and the President himself.

The policy of being just cautious enough to infuriate his progressive base, while acting boldly enough to enrage conservative detractors has worked better than many on the left or right might think for Mr. Obama. President Obama has spent much of the last six years causing people on the left and the right to get angry at him while handily winning reelection, and six years into his presidency, maintaining a level of popular support very comparable to those of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush at the same time of their presidency. It is also very possible that the Republican Congress will provide precisely the foil Mr. Obama needs for his popularity to rebound over the next two years. But maintaining this balancing act may no longer be possible for the President. An emboldened Republican Congress will force Mr. Obama into a corner where he can either fold entirely or come out fighting. Thus far, he appears to have chosen the latter, and deliberately or not begun to undermine the progressive criticism he has confronted during much of his presidency.

Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

Policy Brutality at Home Batters America’s Image Abroad

Demonstrators during a die-in. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Demonstrators during a die-in. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Last week, following the Staten Island grand jury’s acquittal of N.Y.P.D officer Daniel Pantelano of charges related to the death of Eric Garner, Stephen Walt, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, pointed out that “[t]he treatment of black Americans has long tarnished our national mythology of the ‘melting pot,’ and with it the smug belief that Americans is the ideal model for the rest of the world. This latest episode reminds us that the country still does not live up to the ideals that it likes to preach to others.The United States hasn’t been able to fix its racial divisions in a century and a half, but we thought we could settle some equally deep divisions in a few years in foreign countries that we barely understood. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the very definition of hubris.”

Mr. Walt is a well known, respected, but not an uncontroversial scholar of international affairs. Recently, he received attention for a spirited, nuanced and thoughtful critique of U.S. and European policy before the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year that runs deeply counter to conventional wisdom in Washington. Mr. Walt also co-wrote a less thoughtful report in 2007 examining U.S. policy towards Israel that dressed up the Jews-are-controlling-American-policy trope in respectable academic sounding language. Nonetheless, he is right about Ferguson, Eric Garner and the impact of that on the U.S. ability to promote human rights and democracy abroad.

To most Americans, regardless of party or political views, it is reasonably apparent that if the U.S. seeks to be the moral arbiter of the rest of the world, then what happens within our borders will probably receive a fair amount of scrutiny. Even those who support grand jury decisions, like those in Ferguson or Staten Island or who believe the demonstrators are unlawfully rioting, likely understand that these events do not make the U.S. look good to the rest of the world. Many Americans may not care what the rest of the world thinks of us, but our foreign policy cannot be separated from that.

This argument, however, is likely to be lost on a foreign policy establishment that has too deep a commitment to a foreign policy that, among other things, views the U.S. as the model and judge of issues of democracy and human rights. This commitment is sometimes unspoken, and perhaps even unconscious, but unequivocal. The programs and policies that from that commitment seem, at best, more difficult to implement and, for many in the U.S. and abroad, bizarrely hypocritical, after events like these two acquittals. Police brutality, racially-charged policing and criminal justice may seem like domestic policies, but every time a police officer does not stand trial for shooting an African American, it makes it harder for the U.S. to speak convincingly to the rest of the world about things like democracy and human rights.

Foreign policy makers do our country a disservice by ignoring that. One of the forgotten aspects of the Civil Rights Movement during the mid-1960s was that apartheid in the American south had become Kremlin propaganda that was very damaging to the U.S. in much of the world. Thus, improving racial equality was, for many white policy makers, a Cold War strategy more than a moral imperative. There is little evidence that today’s largely self-contained foreign policy establishment, regardless of personal views on Eric Garner or Ferguson, has made a similar connection.

Even as thousands demonstrated throughout the country in recent weeks, U.S-funded aid projects throughout the world aimed to improve people’s lives and strengthen the rule of law in many countries. Much of this work was undoubtedly very productive, but it becomes much more difficult by high-profile incidents that spotlight deep flaws in American democracy. Mr. Walt calls this “hubris,” but it is also a reflection of the depth of denial that too often characterizes how American elites view the rule of their country in the world.

Lincoln Mitchell is national political correspondent at the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.