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Vin Weber on Obama: I hope he succeeds, but what if he fails?

Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, President Barack Obama
REUTERS
President Obama and Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit in Cairo. Obama sought a "new beginning" between the United States and the Muslim world but offered no new initiative to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The agenda that President Obama has put on the table represents "the biggest change in Washington in any of our lives," Republican bigfoot Vin Weber told a Humphrey Institute audience Thursday afternoon.

Weber, a former Minnesota congressman turned very successful lobbyist and Republican insider, says he sees merit in several of Obama's initiatives, and hopes that they succeed. But the key question he raised, in policy area after area, is: What happens if they don't? It's a fair question and Weber, a conservative Repub insider who has the gift of talking about public affairs in tones that don't make liberals and Dems want to run screaming from the room, didn't answer the question. But by avoiding the hyperpartisan rhetoric that tends to fill the airwaves, Weber succeeded in getting a small audience on a sunny Thursday afternoon to think down the road, past the euphoria many liberals feel about Obama's magical personna, to some serious questions the administration and the nation may face a year or so down the road.

A couple of examples to illustrate the main message:

On the Arab-Israeli conflict: Obama has committed to bringing U.S. pressure for a settlement to the 60-year-old argument. He has done so not at the end of his term, as other recent presidents have done, but at the beginning. He has changed the traditional U.S. starting point -- that the security of Israel is the fundamental priority -- and made the achievement of a two-state solution the top priority. Obamaians, he said, point out that the old approach had been tried and tried and wasn't getting results.

Vin Weber
hhh.umn.edu
Vin Weber

Weber said, as he did on many of these topics, that he favors the approach. Former Sen. George Mitchell is a great choice for special envoy. Obama has "drawn a line in the sand" by declaring U.S. opposition to any expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a hard-liner with even more hard-line elements of his coalition who may bolt at any sign of retreat. Obama has put his own credibility on the line over settlement expansion. "Suppose Netanyahu says no," Weber asked. "What is the president going to do?" A fair question to which, one hopes, someone on Team Obama has an answer, even if they won't divulge it for a while.

On Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan: More than any other issue, Weber believes Obama owed his electoral success last year to his promise to end the war in Iraq. The Dem base preferred Obama to other major candidates on the issue because he had opposed the war from the beginning. But the base was less enthusiastic about Obama's frequent commitment to increase U.S. troop strength (Weber said the Obama message-team has gone to some pains never to call it a "surge") in Afghanistan.

Weber thinks Richard Holbrooke is a great choice for envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But there is plenty of reason to be concerned that violence will increase in Iraq as the U.S. troops depart, that the additional troops in Afghanistan will be unable to pacify that situation, which has defeated all outsiders who have attempted to pacify it for centuries, and that the presence of both nuclear weapons and the Taliban in Pakistan will continue to present apocalyptic possibilities.

Most likely of all, Weber predicted, is that the left will not stick with Obama on that policy the way the right stuck with Bush on Iraq. What will Obama do if Iraq bleeds, Afghanistan quagmires and Pakistan wobbles (or worse than wobbles)?

The Iran dilemma: Obama has assigned Weber's friend (and veteran Mideast diplomat) Dennis Ross to the new policy of "engagement" with Iran. Searching for accommodations that are consistent with both nations' "interests" makes sense, Weber said. He isn't repeating the normal Republican rhetoric about the evils of talking to Iran. But the initiative is still rooted in U.S. insistence that Iran forswear its nuclear program. What will Obama do if engagement doesn't get results, specifically on nuclear questions? And even if it does, Weber said, Arab nations, including U.S. allies, don't want the Mideast to become a two-power region, divided between the "interests" of the Americans and the Iranians. Has Obama prepared for the possibility that improvements in U.S.-Iran relations will come at the expense of U.S.-Arab relations?

What are the limits of the Keynesian revival? Weber asked. On domestic and economic issues, Weber said he recalled that when he came to Washington in 1981 as a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution, critics often remarked that Reagan was "betting the farm" on the "supply-side" theory of economics. Maybe so. But that pales compared to the degree that Obama has bet the farm on Keynesian economic theory (which, he acknowledged, is older and more established than supply-side-ism, but "still just a theory.")

In other words, is there a limit to the U.S. government's ability to borrow and spend to revive the economy? Current levels of debt and deficit are unprecedented since World War II. The theory that eventually a national debt of sufficient size will set off serious inflation has not been repealed and Obama claims to have his long-term eyes on the potential problem.

Weber said he has heard Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke say that the Federal Reserve system has tools and techniques to deal with such a problem, but he hasn't heard Bernanke specify that the tools involve raising interest rates and squeezing the money supply, which will almost certainly drive the economy back into recession.

The same with what Weber called "the largest expansion in the role of government in our history." Suddenly (and he would eventually acknowledges that this process started under Bush, with AIG, etc.) the federal government has a huge ownership stake in major banks, insurance firms, and now auto companies. Like it or not, the most successful products made by GM and Chrysler over recent years were SUVs and small trucks, the kinds of vehicles that the "new owners" (meaning the federal government) seem to abhor for reasons flowing from the energy/environment policies of the administration. The second largest stakeholder in GM (behind the federal government) is the UAW, which would seem to undermine the likelihood of future savings in the area of labor costs. How realistic is it to think that the companies can return to profitability under this scenario? Weber asked. Obama has said that he has no interest in a long-term program of government ownership of these industries, but "have we figured out how we're going to back away from all of this?" A fair question.

Larry Jacobs
hhh.umn.edu
Larry Jacobs

During the Q&A with Larry Jacobs of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, Weber said that if the government ownership of those industries remains problematic, how to get rid of that ownership stake may be a big issue for whomever challenges Obama in 2012.

Under Jacobs' prodding, Weber acknowledged that Bush policies that greatly increased federal involvement in local education policy (No Child Left Behind) and a major expansion of entitlement benefits (Medicare Part D) had "delegitimized the basic Republican argument" about small government. But the increases in the role of the federal government under Obama "dwarfs all of that."

Jacobs also pushed Weber to acknowledge that the two recent tax-cutting Republican presidents, Reagan and the second Bush, had seen big increases in the deficit and undermined the claim that tax cuts lead to healthy economies. Weber wasn't buying that one. He still believes that the tax policies of the early Reagan years kicked off 25 years of prosperity and that the mistakes that have undermined that prosperity were not mistakes of excessive tax cutting.

The current fiscal crisis of California shows what happens to a state that taxes and spends, he said, and predicted that "a tax revolt is just over the horizon."

On matters of pure party politics, Jacobs asked whether Obama has cleverly helped to elevate some of the least popular Republicans -- specifically former Veep Dick Cheney and radio flamer Rush Limbaugh -- into the most prominent faces of the party, and how Republicans could escape that trap.

Weber replied that the two biggest elections in 2009 will be the races for governor in Virginia and New Jersey (the only two statewide races this year). Keep your eyes on those races, he suggested. Republicans seem to be nominating very appealing, electable candidates. And early polls suggest that the Repubs have a shot at winning both. If they do, that will be a "sign of viability" for the Republicans far more significant than the fun the Dems may have with Limbaugh.

Audio of the entire program (it's about 90 minutes) is available here.

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Comments (13)

Within each decision resides the possibility of failure. To suggest this as a weakness is to state the obvious.

As logical to say, "Are you sure you want to wear clothing today? What if you fall down and rip either your trousers or your shirt ... or both!"

Of course, a consequence of action may be failure. Of course, there may be problems. A more responsible discourse might have been to pair possible solutions to perceived problems.

The former Congressman has benefited in many ways from the opportunities provided him by the citizens of Minnesota. Perhaps he'll share his wisdom with us by providing solutions to the problems he perceives.

And of course failure may also be the consequence of INaction.
Note that California's practice of legislation by initiative has resulted in California NOT being able to raise taxes commensurate with spending. This is a good part of their problem.

"Vin Weber on Obama: I hope he succeeds, but what if he fails?"

Simple: try something different. A critical difference between this President and the prior one is that President Obama is not addressing problems ideologically. He has talked extensively about seeking positive results more than at reaching some kind of liberal nirvana. I think that people like Vin Weber who try to define Obama ideologically - perhaps based on his statements about Iraq - are trapping themselves by using a label that is not entirely applicable. Certainly the left within the Dem party is waking up to their own error in that regard.

"The current fiscal crisis of California shows what happens to a state that taxes and spends, he said."

This is a classic non-sequitur. It's government's job to tax and spend. That's how it collects money, and gets things done.

What he should have said, and it applies to Minnesota as well, "The current fiscal crisis in California shows what happens to a state that refuses to set taxes at the necessary rates for the level of spending they want."

Or, if you're of the No Taxes persuasion, "The current fiscal crisis show what happens to a state that refuses to slash spending to the level they're willing to collect in taxes."

Either of these statements are defensible, Weber's is just empty talking-point bluster.

Even though Weber can talk without ranting hyperboly, he's still a supply-side devotee of deregulation that doesn't want to face what his policies wrought. What he recalls as 25 years of prosperity, I recall as lurching form one crisis to another with the common cause of deregulation and indulging "greed is good". I see 25 years of spending down what had been built over prior decades, and the current crisis came because our inheritance is finally spent. Time to go work and earn some pay, which in governing terms means it's time to raise taxes and spend smartly. No more crony capitalism.

1) "Suppose Netanyahu says no." Then Obama should follow up his words with action -- no more U.S. military support for Israel's wars against its neighbors or its use of bulldozers to level the homes of Palestinians whose house lots they want to use for expansion, usually with most of their stuff inside because they haven't been given time to find a new place to live.

2) According to a 2006 study by Dean Baker, the Medicare Part D benefit that Republican lawmakers and the insurance and drug industries forced through as a privatized program costs $80 billion per year more than merely adding drugs to Medicare as a new benefit would have. The $80 billion is in both taxpayer dollars AND the extra money seniors have to spend on excess premiums, co-pays and doughnut-hole purchases because Medicare is forbidden by law to negotiate drug prices!!

This is one case where government as the single-payer would save us tons. As would a single-payer national health care plan. The study should still be available at www.cepr.net.

Well, duh, what happens if you make any decision? Or no decision? Consequences, right? Hope Weber wasn't paid a lot for the talk.

The Obamination has already failed. While the Narcissist in Chief mesmermizes the media with his sophistry, vicious austerity measures are in place.

July 1 is the start of a new fiscal year in 48 states, and state governments are now in the throes of deciding how to cutback or deny care, or otherwise "disenroll" some of the 49 million poor who have come to receive medical treatment under the Federal Medicaid program, which is administered through the states, and funded by Federal and state monies combined, with each state deciding eligibility within their state. For most states, Medicaid now ranks first or second of expenditures from the state general fund budgets. The national average is for 17 percent of state budgets to go to Medicaid, and related health care for the poor. Already by 2005, Medicaid was financing the births of nearly 40% of children born in the United States, according to Senators Maria Cantwell, Hillary Clinton, and others fighting the Bush administration's attempt to cut Medicaid funding then.

Four years later, there are no cuts left, in any state, that do not mean killing people. Witness the White House briefing this past week:

EIR's Paul Gallagher took the floor to accuse the Obama Administration of defining some lives as "not worthy of being lived," just as the Nazis did earlier, Obama's National Economic Advisor Larry Summers took the floor to clarify that "The coverage savings that the Administration anticipates to go with expansion of coverage, are being paid for, in large part, by direct changes in identified costs paid to providers; measures such as 'Medicare Advantage' reform. THOSE MEASURES, ON THOSE PROGRAMS, MEDICARE AND MEDICAID, WILL PROVIDE FOR A BALANCED BUDGET."

Thereafter, Budget Director Peter Orszag himself jumped in to say that "cost containment" in medical expenditures is necessary, to keep the system "budget neutral." During this period, "A SIGNIFICANT SHARE OF SHORT-TERM COSTS WILL COME FROM SAVINGS FROM WITHIN MEDICARE AND MEDICAID...."

As the event was ending, White House Staffer Linda Douglass told Gallagher that Obama was proposing $300 billion in cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, and that this figure is given in the President's budget proposal.

Make no mistake: while Banker's Boy Barack gives trillions to bail out Wall Street, federal Medicare and Medicaid cuts, on top of state cuts, will kill masses of people.

What if Obama fails?

We still will be better off as a nation, because in his attempts to fix the US economy, encourage peace in the Middle East, contain Al Quada and rein in health care costs he will have shown genuine good faith and an earnest interest in the welfare of others besides his political base.

Consequently we will have already improved on the Bush-Cheney years of American decline and disgrace

Eric Black said: "On the Arab-Israeli conflict: Obama has committed to bringing U.S. pressure for a settlement to the 60-year-old argument."

If Eric really thinks that this Mideast conflict is only 60 years old, he very ignorant of history.

Is it just me who cannot recall Mr. Weber so publicly fretting about President Bush failing? Or was that a given?

The election is over. Obama won.

I am currently immersed in a tome about the rise of democracy in America, and am struck by how history seems to repeat as those who lost predict a dire future, and those who won predict a chicken in every pot, nirvana, and all good things no matter what the winner does.

That same history, however, shows how fast the worm can turn in our country, and the bitter disillusionment that often follows a big win.

Mr. Weber seems to be taking an urbane approach, pointing out pitfalls instead of just predicting a dire future. Still, he is in that camp.

I think I'll wait a year or so to see what actually develops.

Vin Weber=neocon, one of the original PNAC boys. This should always be noted when his name is mentioned.