Opinion

The Great Debate

Which Mexico for Obama?

When President Barack Obama meets this week with President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico, he will be visiting a country that was much maligned throughout his first term.

Washington has viewed Mexico largely as a source of problems for the United States in the past six years. Many Mexicans, in a mirror image, consider the United States the origin of their troubles. They blame Mexico’s epidemic of violent crime on an insatiable appetite for drugs and loose control over gun and ammunition sales in the United States. In addition, the U.S. financial crisis left the Mexican economy reeling in 2009.

But in the past year, particularly since Peña Nieto’s election in July 2012, Mexico’s standing in the United States and internationally has increased dramatically — along with its national self-esteem.

Though organized crime and violence remain key concerns for Mexico, stories of economic and social reform are now among the headlines. A November Economist article about Mexico was titled “From Darkness, Dawn.” And that message has become a standard media refrain. Some in Washington talked about Mexico as a likely failed state, but that has been decisively debunked. Mexico is now viewed as on the rise, though its homicide rate has fallen only slightly and no one is sure that improvements can be sustained.

In fact, there are many Mexicos for Obama to deal with — the successful and prospering; the backward, corrupt and stagnant; and everything in between.

Obama can close Guantanamo

At his news conference on Tuesday, President Barack Obama for the first time in years spoke about the controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay, which he had promised to close when he first took office.

“Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe,” Obama said, responding to a reporter’s question. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.” He went on to acknowledge that more than half the detainees have been officially cleared for release.

As if to forestall the obvious next question – then why hasn’t he closed it? – the president blamed the prison’s continued existence on Congress. “Congress,” he said, “determined that they would not let us close it.”

The GOP’s immigration problem

Old vaudeville joke:

Man goes to the doctor.  Says he has a pain in his arm.

“Have you ever had this problem before?” the doctor says.

“Yes,” the man answers.

“Well, you got it again.”

Bada-bing.

Now look at the Republicans’ immigration problem. Have they had this problem before? Yes. Well, they’ve got it again.

Republicans had an immigration problem nearly 100 years ago. A huge wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe – Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Jews – came to this country during the first two decades of the 20th century, before strict national quotas were imposed in 1924. These immigrants were largely Catholic and Jewish.

Republicans were the party of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment. The GOP did little to reach out to immigrants, except to try to “Americanize” them and “reform” them (the temperance movement).

Sarin: The lethal fog of war

The Syrian government’s reported use of sarin in its war against rebel forces is ominous. It suggests dissemination of the nerve agent could become more frequent there — whether by the Syrian military or by opposition forces in possession of captured stockpiles. If this happens, many more people will likely suffer the tortured effects of the chemical.

This could weaken the international taboo against such weaponry. No wonder President Barack Obama has warned that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of sarin would be a “game changer.”

For sarin is considered a weapon of mass destruction. As with all chemical agents, effectiveness depends on the purity, the means of dissemination and vulnerability of the exposed population. At worst, chemicals can be devastating agents of death, even if less expansive in their effect than a biological release or a nuclear detonation.

President must address Obamacare ‘train wreck’

When even a key architect of Obamacare says the law’s implementation will resemble a “train wreck,” it is clear that its biggest remaining supporters need to finally level with the American people about what’s in store — starting with President Barack Obama.

The president must step into the breach and explain to the public that skyrocketing premiums and a raft of new taxes, penalties and fees are coming their way.

It may not be easy, but the president has a responsibility to explain as frankly as possible what this law will mean — before its major components take effect. He could start by delivering a major address, just as he did to push the law’s passage, laying out exactly what Americans can expect. He should also instruct his Cabinet secretaries to explain what this could mean as well. Families and businesses across America need time to prepare — and that means they need to know the facts.

The next step on gun control

Politicians know they incur a big political risk if they support gun-control legislation.  Gun-control advocates have to demonstrate that there is also a political risk if they do not support sensible gun legislation.

The only way to do that is to defeat someone who voted against background checks.  Their defeat will become a “teachable moment.”

But who?

Three of the four Democratic senators who voted against background checks on Wednesday are up for re-election next year.  They represent conservative, largely rural states that voted for Mitt Romney last year: Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Max Baucus of Montana.

Obama’s budget bid for a ‘grand bargain’

President Barack Obama’s budget, released Wednesday, is getting a lot of criticism from ideologues on the right and left. That is one of the most encouraging things about it.

Though the president’s budget falls short in several important ways, it demonstrates his willingness to compromise — something most Democratic and Republican legislators have resisted. Now comes the critical stage in any real effort to achieve a “grand bargain,” when the president can show true leadership by bridging the divide between the parties and using the bully pulpit to address the American people in a constructive fashion that can lead to a deal.

The most helpful thing about the Obama budget is that, for the first time, the president has publicly proposed reforms to two key social insurance programs. By adopting a GOP-backed change in the inflation calculator — the so-called chained CPI — the president is accepting adjustments in the cost of living payments for those receiving Social Security.

The price of defying your base

Defying your base is always risky. It can either bring you down — or it can make you look stronger.

Right now, politicians in both parties are trying to pull it off.  Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) – a likely contender for the 2016 Republican nomination – is preparing to challenge conservatives on immigration reform. President Barack Obama is defying liberals on entitlement reform. What are they thinking?

Your base is people who are with you when you’re wrong.  Sooner or later, every politician gets in trouble. He needs people to stick up for him — people who say, “He was there for us and we’ll be there for him.” President Ronald Reagan’s base, for example, stuck with him during the Iran-contra scandal. So did President Bill Clinton’s base during impeachment.

Can Obama inspire youth vote in Israel?

President Barack Obama’s message to Israel last week was both powerful and urgent: You can’t go on like this. The status quo is not a viable option.

That is a direct challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who acts like Israel can go on like this for the foreseeable future. Many Israelis are strongly tempted to believe, with Netanyahu, that the threat of terrorism and the occupation of the West Bank are manageable problems.

“It can be tempting,” Obama said when addressing an audience of Israeli students in Jerusalem, “to put aside the frustrations and sacrifices that come with the pursuit of peace, particularly when Iron Dome repels rockets, barriers keep out suicide bombers [and] there are so many other pressing issues that demand your attention.”

2014: The Democrats’ dilemma

Washington has been fascinated by Republican self-laceration since the 2012 election. Karl Rove triggered a circular firing squad by vowing to take out unwashed challengers in GOP primaries. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal begged Republicans to stop being the “stupid party.” Strategists say the party can’t survive as stale, pale and male. Tea Party legislators knee-cap GOP congressional “leaders” and well-funded political PACs strafe any who dare deviate from the party’s unpopular gospel. Republicans are even talking about changing “Grand Old Party” to something more fashionable.

Representative Paul Ryan’s newest budget will put every Republican on record voting to turn Medicare into a voucher, gut Medicaid, repeal Obamacare, savage investment in education and leave some 50 million Americans without health insurance. Not surprisingly, polls suggest Congress is less popular than colonoscopies, and Republicans poll at lowest levels on record.

The re-engaged president is pressing reforms on immigration, gun violence, gay marriage and climate change. These issues help consolidate his majority – the “rising American electorate” of young voters, minorities and single women.

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