Secret SOTU

One of Washington‘s favorite guessing games is: “What’s the president really thinking?” Is Barack Obama a former community activist pushing a progressive agenda, a Goldilocks centrist aiming for the perfect bi-partisan porridge, or a reluctant militarist who’s been forced to adopt key portions of the Bush agenda only to discover that he rather likes them? Perhaps he is simply all three. But he’s not likely to show his cards during this year’s State of the Union (SOTU) address.

The president has learned the hard way to be careful with his words. When he spoke during the campaign of “bitter” people who “cling to guns and religion” because of economic adversity, he was savaged for being elitist. Even if the president were to say what he’s really thinking at this point, it would certainly not be in a SOTU, which is usually an opportunity for what one speechwriter has called “forgettable dissembling.” It’s also possible that after years in politics, the president no longer knows what he really believes and has so interwoven pragmatism with principle that, in the presidential calculus, what’s right always equals what works.

Nevertheless, here’s an attempt to look behind the speech’s words to the speaker’s thoughts. I’ve never met the man, never been invited to any White House confabs. I’ve never even been able to sit through one of his speeches. But my office is about six blocks away from the White House. So, like any good Washington pundit who imagines that proximity translates into perceptiveness, I feel entirely qualified to look into the president’s eyes to get a sense of his soul. Here’s what I believe President Obama will be thinking as he reads off the teleprompter:

I stand before you tonight to say that in my next two years in office I will focus like a laser beam on the economy, to make sure that America is competitive, that we are growing, and that we will create jobs not just for today but for the future

Well, I had to say that, didn’t I? Frankly, I wish the unemployment rate was not at 9.1 percent, that Congress had passed a larger stimulus package followed by a job creation bill, and I didn’t have to stand before the American people and pretend that I can change the economy during the rest of my term. The Republicans don’t want the economy to improve over the next two years because that would kill them at the polls. The more people suffer, the more they vote tea party. So the next two years, on the congressional side, will be all about deficit reduction rather than preventing the economy from going into a deflationary spiral. Don’t look to Congress for help with jobs, people! Trying to create jobs with no federal money is like fighting a gun battle with a knife.

Honestly, I’d rather talk to you all tonight about foreign policy. That’s where I can excel. I don’t have to deal with crazy Republicans or back-stabbing Democrats. I can just behave like an executive should behave – decisively. Look how I handled the recent state visit with Chinese leader Hu Jintao. Sure, there was lots of blah-blah-blah, but in the end I extracted $45 billion in Chinese investments, which translates into 235,000 jobs. It’s a sad comment on American politics that it’s easier to enlist Beijing’s help for job creation than to get Congress to pony up the funds.

What I really like doing is going abroad, meeting with foreign dignitaries, and making landmark speeches. People in other countries don’t ask me about jobs, don’t treat me like I’m some glorified employment counselor. As soon as I leave the country, I can talk about the big picture. I can talk about the abolition of nuclear weapons. I can talk about new engagement with the Muslim world. It’s a shame I can’t do that in a State of the Union address. I have to stick to the economic numbers, like I’m the Accountant-in-Chief.

What really gets my goat is that when I do go abroad, the U.S. press can only focus on the little things – did I bow correctly, whose hand did I shake. I scored a deal with Medvedev on arms control. I managed to improve relations with India without upsetting Pakistan. We were able to put together a government in Iraq. I won the Nobel Peace Prize, for crying out loud! And the press goes after Michelle for touching the Queen of England’s shoulder? Tell me: if we were white, would they pull that nonsense?

The world’s people are hungry for a new kind of American leader. But back home, a quarter of all tea party sympathizers think I’m the anti-Christ, literally! I’ve continued almost all the major elements of the Bush counter-terrorism policy. We increased drone attacks in Pakistan. We surged in Afghanistan. We kept in place extraordinary rendition and endorsed military tribunals. And somehow, all of this translates in the minds of an appalling number of Americans into my being…Muslim.

Then there are the progressives. I never promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. They greeted my surge plan as if it were some great betrayal. I said all along that we were fighting the wrong war in Iraq and we should shift our attention to the right war in Afghanistan. Sure, I prefer diplomacy to war. For one thing, it’s cheaper. But I’m no pacifist. We’ll start pulling out troops from Afghanistan in July, and I’m emphasizing that in this speech. But as any strategist knows, you have to put down cover fire before withdrawal, and that’s what the surge is all about.

Meanwhile, we haven’t gone to war with Iran or North Korea. True, relations with those countries haven’t exactly improved. But I haven’t given any easy ammunition to the right by “appeasing” those countries or risked overextending our military capabilities by attempting more aggressive measures.

I’d love to talk about climate change and renewable energy and trade policy. I’m a wonk at heart. But I learned during the campaign that Americans are not interested in the details. They’re like consumers who buy complicated electronics, don’t bother to read the instruction manuals, and then complain that things don’t work. They want me to fix the economy like they want the plumber to fix the leaky faucet or the electrician to repair the porch light. At our December press conference after the tax deal, I let Bill Clinton handle all the details of the package with the press. Bill’s better at that, anyway. People don’t feel he’s lecturing. Maybe it’s his accent.

After the attack in Tucson, some Democrats and Republicans are sitting side by side tonight in the chamber. Don’t be fooled by this show of temporary affection. The next two years are going to be ugly. So, even though I’m not getting into the weeds with foreign policy in this speech, look for me to focus on international relations in the second half of my term. Like I said, I like to travel. And frankly, Afghanistan and Pakistan are looking a lot safer these days than Washington.

Thank you. I’d better add that God bless stuff or else even more Americans will think I’m Muslim. And good night.

Hope in the Muslim World

It took a while for Washington to support the protestors in Tunisia. After the demonstrations had begun, Congress signed off on $12 million in security assistance to the Ben Ali government. But when the dictator decamped, the Obama administration finally came out strongly in support of democracy in the Arab world.

“Although it is easy to dismiss Obama’s comments as simply a last-minute show of support to the winning side, this shift indicates the significance of what happened in Tunisia,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) senior analyst Stephen Zunes in The United States and the Prospects for Democracy in Islamic Countries. “Rather than Washington controlling the course of events influencing the Arab street, the Arab street is influencing policies emanating from Washington.”

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the United States has to tread very carefully on the blasphemy issue. In the wake of the assassination of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer because of his support for reforming the blasphemy law and his meeting with one of its victims, the pope and others have called for the outright repeal of the controversial regulation. “Pakistan’s blasphemy law is in desperate need of reform,” writes FPIF contributor Tarique Niazi in Liberal Pakistan under Extremist Assault. “But outsiders should refrain from calling for its repeal, given the fragile political balance inside Pakistan today.”

Drugs and Murder, Art and Activism

This week, FPIF columnist Laura Carlsen tells the story of Marisela Escobedo. “Marisela Escobedo’s life changed forever in August 2008 when her 16-year-old daughter Rubi failed to come home,” she writes. “What was left of Rubi’s body was found months later in a dump — 39 pieces of charred bone.” Escobedo doggedly pursued her daughter’s murderer only to get assassinated herself. Read The Murdered Women of Juarez to find out the rest of the story and how it connects to Mexico’s ongoing war on drugs.

Finally, we excerpt a chapter from a new book on art and politics out of the Netherlands. Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization features manifestos, stories from activists, theoretical analyses, and great photos about artists focused on politics in a “borderless” world.

In the chapter Art, Activism, and Permaculture, Lars Kwakkenbos interviews Isa Fremaux and John Jordan, founders of the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination. Here Jordan talks about theater and disobedience: “During our Great Rebel Raft Reggata experiment, we had had 3,000 policemen, several helicopters, and the world’s media lined up against us. Whilst we had over a hundred people running though the woods with treasure maps, digging up buried boats which had bottles of rum in them and then simultaneously launching onto a river to go and block a coal fired power station. I mean these are great moments of theatre, adventurous, poetic, and also pragmatic – one of the boats shut down a third of the power station. We think that the world changes through storytelling and myth-making.”