Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

27 December 2006

Barack Obama and Colin Powell

The Presidential Field Today
Obama's Qualifications
What Powell Could Add

In their collective wisdom, the American people have repudiated the politics of fear, division and hate. The Bush administration will grind on for two more wearying years, but its misguided and divisive revolutionary fervor is spent. From now on, it must work under the watchful oversight of a Democratic Congress and with the knowledge that the people want unity, not division, and honest government, not “spin.”

The Presidential Field Today

It is therefore not too early to think about 2008. The two current putative front runners are Senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Does either have what it takes to repair our divided and largely dysfunctional country?

Although trying to re-invent herself as a centrist, Senator Clinton is almost as much a polarizing figure as George W. Bush. Rightly or wrongly, conservatives see her as a “far-left liberal.” Many women resent her for what they see as her having tolerated her own moral and psychological abuse. Her candidacy rubs all the raw wounds left open by our still-ongoing transition between militant feminism and tolerant gender equality.

Through no fault of her own, Senator Clinton also carries much of the baggage of her husband’s presidency and the failed attempt to impeach him. Her candidacy would reopen all those old wounds, to the detriment of the nation and any attempt to reunite it.

Finally, Senator Clinton’s position on the political spectrum is still an enigma. Many of us, including this writer, will find it impossible to evaluate her centrist credentials—let alone discern her moral core—until we draw much closer to the 2008 general election and Senator Clinton finishes re-defining herself.

In the view of this writer and many others, Senator Clinton has no chance of winning a general election, especially against a universally admired figure like John McCain. If you’re a Democrat, you have to recognize a Clinton candidacy for what it is: political suicide.

Senator McCain has a different problem. His moral core is plainly evident. Indeed, his moral leadership is his most attractive quality. He played a key role in reforming campaign financing, preserving the traditional confirmation process for judges, and retaining legal restraints on torture. He has tried—although so far vainly—to steer a middle course on energy and immigration policy as well. In comparison, Senator Clinton’s list of legislative accomplishments is meager, if not non-existent.

Yet McCain, too, carries baggage from the past. Once tarred as a “maverick,” he allowed himself to be overrun by the Bush-Rove juggernaut. Lately he has been too quick to make amends with a runaway regime with which his moral principles clearly and irreconcilably conflict. He is getting on in years, and it is unclear whether he can or will withstand further pressure to bend his principles. The compromises that he may yet have to make in order to win the Republican nomination may cause us all to wish that he had remained a benevolent moderating influence in the Senate.

There is therefore reason to doubt the genuineness of Clinton’s centrist credentials and the durability of McCain’s. Neither has a towering intellect—a quality in such self-evident short supply in the Bush Administration. Is there anyone better?

Obama's Qualifications

From his political debut at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Senator Barack Obama (D. Ill.) has established himself firmly and irrevocably as a centrist. That quality, combined with his unique life story, has made him the current “rock star” of American politics.

By itself, rock-star celebrity makes many folks uneasy, including this writer. Our last two presidents once achieved that status, seemingly out of nowhere, only to crash and burn, demeaning and damaging our country and our politics in the process. The last thing we need is another “rock star.” What we need is sober, mature and penetrating judgment.

To see whether Barack Obama possesses those qualities, one must read his book, The Audacity of Hope. This writer did so and came away impressed.

In the first 35 pages, Senator Obama describes the origin of our current political polarization, beginning with the upheavals of the civil-rights struggle and the Vietnam-War protest era. Nowhere has this writer seen a more brilliant, penetrating and beautifully written analysis. Not only is there superior intelligence and understanding of what got us where we are; there is a sensible prescription for what ails us. No one can read this work without crediting Obama’s centrism and understanding its personal origins. It is as deeply felt and thoroughly thought out as John McCain’s love for our military or Hillary Clinton’s ambition to become our first female president.

Obama’s books* are not the only testament to his superior intellect. In his law-school days he was President of the Harvard Law Review. This obscure but elite legal publication, edited and partly written by students, selects its leaders purely on merit. The process involves a series of secret ballots reminiscent of the way the College of Cardinals elects a Pope. The most important criterion is writing skill, with ability to lead and control extremely bright and aggressive young minds a close second. Obama’s elected tenure as the Review’s top officer reflects peer evaluation of his writing, analytical and leadership skills, at a young age, by some of the nation’s most talented and egotistical students.

A more recent testament to Obama’s intellect is his ten years teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago School of Law. That school is among the top ten national law schools generally. In constitutional law, it is among the top three. By all accounts Obama was a superb teacher and thinker, whose loss when he went into politics was greatly mourned. With a man like that in the White House, we won’t have to worry about a president “forgetting” that our government has three branches or that Congress and the Supreme Court have important roles to play even in wartime.

Yet intellect, leadership and even a solid grounding in constitutional government are not enough. A president must have a moral core that the nation—all of it—respects.

Here, too, Obama shines. He is a self-confessed and unapologetic Christian. His love for his wife and children glows through every chapter of his book. He makes common cause with the so-called “religious right” in believing that America without God is impossible.

Yet Obama shuns the religious right’s intolerance and absolutism. His is a Christianity secure in faith and humble in intelligence. He not only tolerates, but celebrates, differing beliefs and views, even on such hot-button issues as abortion and homosexuality. Obama has a great mind’s ability to attract people whose faith is absolute, without scaring the hell out of those who value reason over faith and intelligent compromise over absolutism. If anyone is uniquely prepared for the religious struggles we now face at home and abroad, it is Obama.

Given the perfect fit between times and temper, one might suspect that Obama’s tolerance is contrived. I think not. He was the product of a racially mixed marriage. He was raised and educated in Indonesia and in Hawaii, our most racially diverse and arguably most tolerant state. His tolerance and inclusiveness were inbred and appear genuine. He not only talks the talk, but he has walked the walk, since long before he entered politics.

So is Barack Obama the perfect candidate? Is he too good to be real? Every human being has flaws. He must have some. What are they?

So far as this writer can see, Obama has only one serious flaw, and it is obvious. He has no significant experience in military or foreign affairs. Given the time in which we find ourselves, with two foreign wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) in progress and two more (Iran and North Korea) threatening, that is a serious deficiency.

History shows how important that deficiency can be. Many have compared Obama to Jack Kennedy in charisma, self-deprecating humor, and a rare ability to connect with people from every walk of life. Yet Kennedy brought us the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis—which nearly destroyed the world—and the first fateful steps into the quagmire of Vietnam. Whether blame should fall on Kennedy and his crew, or whether his evident inexperience caused the Soviets to test him too severely, are matters for historians to debate. But it is clear that Al Qaeda, Iran, Sunni Iraq and North Korea will be no more gentle in testing an inexperienced new president than were the Soviets in Kennedy’s day.

George W. Bush provides a second example, if one were needed. His experience as a politician comprised six years as governor of Texas. Besides a few tutorials from Condoleezza Rice and Saudi Prince Bandar, he had no knowledge of or experience in foreign affairs when he took office.

Two of Bush’s appointees—Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld—had had some experience in defense years or decades earlier. Yet in their most important single decision, to invade Iraq, all three ultimately ignored the advice of the man with the most thorough, most recent and most relevant experience: Colin Powell.

What Powell Could Add

Colin Powell was the only member of the administration who had served over three decades in the military and had achieved the rank of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. His advice was not to invade. When the decision was made, he advised sending far more troops than Rumsfeld, enough to do the job. The decisions to ignore his mature, expert advice were a triumph of ideology over experience, whose results speak for themselves.

Which brings us to the connection between Powell and Obama. No one—repeat, no one—in public life today has more or better experience, relevant to our current international difficulties, than Colin Powell. His combination of longstanding military leadership with varied and extended cabinet-level civilian responsibility is unique today. It is nearly unique in our nation’s history, shared only by a handful of prominent historical figures like Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Marshall, who gave us the Marshall Plan. Yet Powell has repeatedly refused to run for president, apparently to spare his wife the vicious personal attacks that inevitably accompany presidential politics in our polarized society.

Powell also has another vital quality, which complements Obama’s intellect, youth, energy, charisma, and lack of political baggage. Powell is the only figure of national stature who has a consistent record of demonstrated good judgment—before the fact—on the most important issues of our times. This author has described how Powell’s judgment was right in Gulf I, in Iraq, on the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, and on the Chinese spy-plane crisis, which is now nearly forgotten but could have turned this century’s history sharply for the worse. If you are looking for sober, mature, and prudent judgment to correct the impulsive ideological blunders of the last six years, you need look no further than Powell.

Obama’s and Powell’s resumes fit together like hand and glove. Obama has the extraordinary intelligence, the penetrating insight and understanding, the religious faith tempered with reason and tolerance, and the genuine heartfelt centrism to be a great president. He also has the charisma, the “common touch,” the youth, the energy and the lack of political baggage to get elected. Powell has mature, sober judgment, demonstrated repeatedly under fire. He has all the experience that Obama lacks, while refusing to run. Yet despite his enforced gaffe at the United Nations, Powell still enjoys the admiration and respect of the American people, and he has shown no reluctance to serve in appointed positions. Put the two together, and you have an unbeatable combination of brains, energy, tolerance, centrist politics, mature judgment and experience.

It is probably too much to expect that Powell would switch parties and support Senator Obama, far less if his fellow warrior McCain were the Republican nominee. Yet even a slight hint by Powell that he might serve if called on by a president-elect Obama would help put to rest qualms about Obama’s inexperience. This writer, for one, would sleep much better at night knowing that Powell would serve as Secretary of Defense in 2009 no matter who won in 2008. No one else would have anywhere near the same chance of repairing a Pentagon so badly broken by Donald Rumsfeld.

With a mere hint that Powell might serve, Senator Obama’s chief deficiency would fade away. Careful selection of an experienced, senior vice-presidential candidate would also help, but not nearly as much as the expectation of a Powell Pentagon. For no politician who might be asked to serve as vice president could hope to compare with Powell’s unique record of military and Cabinet experience, let alone sober, mature, and ultimately correct judgment under fire.


It is unlikely that our national position will be perceptibly better in 2008 than it is today. Likely Iraq will still be in disarray, and our troops (as Iraqi President Talibani recently requested) will still be there. Likely Osama bin Laden, Zawahiri, or both will still be alive, or their status and whereabouts uncertain. The twin menaces of North Korea and Iran will not go away. Global warming will have progressed two more years, with minimal effort on the part of the Bush Administration to join international efforts to retard it. China will be two years richer, stronger and more polluted, and our trade and budget deficits two years larger. Energy independence will be just as much a dream as it is today. Our inner cities and our secondary education will not have improved perceptibly, and the sterile debate over school vouchers will continue.

These problems are all serious and intractable. In an effort to stay in power, a small clique of radical Republicans, led by evil genius Karl Rove, has distracted attention from these vital problems with such irrelevancies as abortion, homosexual marriage, and hypocritical attacks on leaders’ personal sexual morality. Further distractions of this sort could be disastrous to our nation and the world.

Senator Obama has the intelligence, understanding, and leadership skill to get us out of this morass. His centrism, tolerance, youth, energy and lack of political baggage make him electable. With the participation of Powell, an Obama administration would have experience and maturity, as well as youth and brains. (I would like to say “or someone like Powell,” but unfortunately there is no one in public life remotely like Powell today.)

The combination is irresistible, if only our half-broken political system could figure out how to make it. Let’s hope that Obama and Powell, both men of immense intelligence, love of country and good will, can figure out how. Our collective future may depend on their doing so.

* Obama's first book, Dreams from My Father, was autobiographical.

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