An open letter to President Barack Obama: congratulations – now, how will you spend your political capital?



Dear. Mr. Obama:

Congratulations. US forces, acting under your command, have hunted down and killed our nation’s most notorious enemy. Many Americans are celebrating tonight, while others are more reflective. But I think most of us agree that Osama bin Laden had to be brought to account for his crimes against this country as well as those he committed against others around the world.

Now, as the excitement begins to wane, it’s time to begin contemplating what next? bin Laden embodied our “war on terror,” and your predecessors invoked his name in launching wars against two nations. In one case we invaded a country innocent of any involvement in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and have, in the course of prosecuting that war, killed in excess of 100,000 civilians. In the other instance, there is reason to question just how guilty the ruling regime was of harboring and/or aiding al Qaeda, and there is no doubt whatsoever about the role of US foreign policy in destabilizing that culture over the past 30 years.

In sum, we created bin Laden. We created Saddam Hussein. We trumped up the rationale for an illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. And these counts are barely the beginning of the lengthy indictment of American misbehavior in that region of the world. We might take a measure of satisfaction in the death of Osama bin Laden, who was an objectively terrible human being, but cold analysis of the facts surrounding the last century of our foreign policy ought to leave us feeling a bit like Victor Frankenstein: there wouldn’t have been any need to kill the monster if we hadn’t created it in the first place.

Still, as we say these days, it is what it is.

Mr. President, a few years back your predecessor found himself asserting that, in the wake of the 2004 elections, he had earned some political capital, and he was going to spend it. Mr. Bush may have overestimated how much capital he had, but there is absolutely zero question that tonight you have as much political capital as you have had since election night, and maybe more. This is fortunate for you, because you have taken quite a beating since your inauguration. You campaigned on the theme of “change we can believe in,” but the reality is that your first couple of years have felt awfully familiar. Your biggest “victory” up until now has been a healthcare bill that touched off a strong, health insurance stock-led market rally the day it was passed. This is because it benefited the very interests it was supposed to curtail. You have been accused of a negotiating approach that believes in surrendering before the fight even starts, and most of the people who seem to reject these criticisms are people who are profiting from your actions.

In other words, your first two years on the job have not climbed your legacy far up the side of Mt. Rushmore.

But tonight, despite all of that, you have political capital. You have brought down in a vile mass murderer who eluded the smack-talking, all-hat-no-cattle George Bush, the man who declared “mission accomplished,” ironically enough, eight years to the day before your momentous announcement last night. You also managed to time the breaking of the story so that it slapped down this week’s episode of The Apprentice – it’s hard to imagine that anyone at all watched the show, and those who appreciate the subtleties of political theater couldn’t have scripted May 1, 2011 any better if they’d had a magic wand to work with. Well played, sir.

So: how are you going to invest your political capital? There is surely much that needs doing. For starters, we have a lot of servicemen and -women who need to come home. Our infrastructure, which you talked about once upon a time, is still crumbling. Fixing it would generate significant economic activity and generate millions of desperately needed jobs. We are still concentrating an obscene amount of money in the hands of the richest Americans – our wealthiest 400 people have as much as our 150 million poorest, a condition that is as morally appalling as it is economically unsustainable. We’re still pumping carbon into the environment at a rate that threatens to destroy the planet. Our competitors around the world are slowly but surely displacing us in our historical role as world leaders because they’re educating their students while we administer tests to ours. And, by the way, that healthcare bill still isn’t doing anybody aside from the health insurance companies any good.

We can’t solve all our problems in six years, but we can set ourselves well down the road. In one fell swoop you’ve gone from being a man I thought could only win re-election as a result of Republican ineptitude to being a man who I think should be able to win handily in 2012. And between now and January 2017, when you hand the reins over to your successor, there is every reason to believe that a man of your intelligence, wit and charisma can lead an American citizenry that proved in November of 2008 that it really, really does want change.

I have not been your biggest fan, Mr. President, because I am not in the habit of confusing what a person says with what he or she does. Your record, to date, is objectively to the right of Richard Nixon’s, and it’s hard to argue with Noam Chomsky, who said, in a speech several days ago, that “Richard Nixon was our last liberal president.” Cynical, but true.

This said, I’m also not so jaded that I would dismiss the actions of a president who truly worked toward greatness by spending his political capital on the goodwill of the nation.

I’m ready to be your biggest fan, Mr. President. Please, spend your capital wisely.


Samuel Smith

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