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

02 November 2012

Obama and Romney: A Handy Comparison Chart

[For comment on the Libya kerfluffle, click here.]

The Economy
Foreign Policy
Health Insurance
Terrorism, War and Military Policy
Footnote on Job Flows

Candidate comparisons are a tradition on this blog. There was one for Obama and Hillary Clinton, and one for McCain and Obama. Each correctly predicted the outcome.

In a recent post, I despaired of comparing Obama and Romney similarly. The reason was Mitt’s incessant flip-flops and salesman’s changes in position and emphasis.

A president—any president—must handle everything. Few aspirants to the job have anywhere near the breadth of actual experience needed to do that. So comparing rivals requires looking at what they say, as well as what they have done. And that’s what I did in my two previous comparison charts.

With Mitt, that’s simply impossible. What he says changes from week to week and even from day to day. It depends on his audience and the time frame. So I thought I couldn’t make a decent comparison.

The solution, however, is obvious: compare deeds, not words. That’s what this post does.

You might complain that this approach gives Mitt an inherent disadvantage. He’s held elected office for only four years, compared to the President’s sixteen: eight years as state senator in Illinois, four years as U.S. Senator, and four more as President.

But isn’t that a large part of what voters ought to consider in deciding? A president’s job is inherently political. It affects all of us and every aspect of our lives. A president’s role in making war and foreign policy is particularly important, as Congress plays virtually no role in those fields.

So in comparing candidates, shouldn’t we compare deeds in every field, not just the narrow field of rescuing failing private businesses with private-equity investment? When you apply for a job as a computer programmer, even forty years as lead vocalist in a rock band won’t get you very far. Relevant experience and achievement matter.

One other preliminary point: the following chart contains a few entries for which I could find no single identifiable act of the President as cause. They just happened on his watch. Since the GOP has consistently blamed him for all the havoc that Dubya caused, as well as all the effects of thirty years of counterproductive GOP ideology, it seems only “fair and balanced” to give him credit for the good things that happened on his watch. These few points are identified with the legend “[on watch]” after the date(s).

In the chart below, nearly all the links are to external news sources. I have tried to find sources with general credibility, avoiding those with partisan reputations.

Here is the comparison chart:

The Economy:

The President:

2009: continues Dubya’s financial bailouts and pushes though $870 billion stimulus plan, preventing economic free fall from becoming second Great Depression

2009: in “cash for clunkers” program, provides cash incentives for consumers to exchange old cars for new, higher mileage ones, resulting in estimated 714,000 new-car sales

2012 [on watch]: through various mortgage-adjustment programs and Fed’s intervention turns housing market around, with rising home prices and falling inventories of unsold holds in key city markets.

2012 [on watch]: net private-sector job gains rise to pre-crash levels

Romney: No national achievement


The President:

2009: in “cash for clunkers” program, provides cash incentives for consumers to exchange old cars for new, higher mileage ones, resulting in increased mileage for an estimated 714,000 cars

2009: In stimulus, provides incentives for solar and wind energy, which encourage installation of solar arrays at private expense

2011-2012: negotiates voluntary agreement with US auto industry to double average fuel-economy ratings (miles per gallon) by 2025, without legislation or litigation; then implements deal in federal rules

2011: invests $3.4 billion of federal money, with $4.6 billion of matching private-sector investment, in smart electric grid

2009-2011: opens selected federal areas for exploration and drilling for oil and gas, with moratorium on new drilling after the Great BP Oil Spill, resulting in net increase in oil production

2009-2012 [on watch]: increases domestic production’s share of total US energy needs to 83 percent, highest since 1999

Romney: no significant national or state accomplishment (Massachusetts is not an energy producer.)

Foreign Policy:

The President:

2009-2012: With help of Secretary of State Clinton, organizes international boycott of Iran, including its oil; works hard to overcome China’s and Russia’s objections and get them on board

2011: after seeking “reset” in chilly relations with Moscow, secures approval for military overflights of Russia and its former satellites’ territory for allied operations in Afghanistan

2011: after peaceful Tahrir Square “revolt” in Cairo, pressures Egyptian government [see “Egyptian Revolt” after “Read More”] to remove dictator Mubarak, resulting in first peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt’s five-millennium history

2009-2012: with “humbler”, more cooperative and less unilateral foreign policy (which Dubya had promised before 9/11!), improves US standing abroad and reduces rising anti-American sentiment, especially in Middle East

2012: with success of sanctions on Iran, promise of aid in air strikes as last resort, and forceful diplomacy, gets Israeli Prime Minister to postpone air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, first reported as scheduled for April, then July

2012: for first time ever, Tehran merchants protest ailing Iranian economy and plummeting rial (Iran’s currency), showing that sanctions are hurting Iran badly


2000-2002: as head of International Olympic Committee, reduces corruption, improves reputation, and secures 2002 Winter Olympics for his spiritual home in Salt Lake City

Health Insurance:

The President:

2010: negotiates with Congress and pushes through the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare”—the most sweeping reform of health insurance since Medicare—restricting pre-existing condition exclusions and lifetime caps on benefits, allowing most children to be covered by parents’ health insurance to age 26, limiting modification or cancellation of insurance for health reversals, and ultimately covering 29-30 million new non-elderly insureds.[top of page 13]


2006: Negotiates and pushes through health-insurance reform in Massachusetts, which becomes model for Affordable Care Act, including “mandates,” thereby raising insured fraction of Massachusetts’ residents from 90% to 98%

2012, June: In primary campaign, disclaims own achievement in Massachusetts and vows to repeal Affordable Care Act

2012, June: In general election campaign, vows to repeal only mandate-taxes that insure full coverage, but to retain popular parts of Affordable Care Act already in effect


The President:

2009, August: in “cash for clunkers” program, provides cash incentives to consumers to exchange old cars for new, higher mileage ones, resulting in estimated 714,000 new-car sales

2009: with $80 billion bailout of GM and Chrysler, saves majority of American auto industry, as well as 1,000,000 jobs in industry and suppliers

2009, November: pushes through beefed-up unemployment insurance, raising time limit for unemployed workers’ “safety net” to 99 weeks

2009-2010: with stimulus, fiscal and monetary policy, plus careful monitoring of financial sector, limits maximum national unemployment rate to 10.2%, as compared to 25% in Great Depression

2009-2011: with stimulus, fiscal and monetary policy, brings private-sector quarterly net job gains back to pre-crash levels by year-end 2011

2012, October: reduces national unemployment rate to 7.9%

Romney: no national achievement; Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation at the end of his tenure as governor

Terrorism, War and Military Policy:

The President:

2009: after exhaustive review, orders temporary “surge” of 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, with goal of reversing gains of Taliban

2011, May: orders risky ninja strike on compound where Osama bin Laden is hiding; kills bin Laden with identifiable body and witnesses; secures “treasure trove” of intelligence on Al Qaeda Central

2011, June: after bin Laden’s death announces goal of transitioning national security to Afghan forces and pulling US combat forces out by 2014

2011, December: after overseeing extended transition of national-security tasks to Iraqi forces, pulls all American forces out of Iraq, ending war that Dubya started

2010-2012: focuses counterterrorism “war” on drones and ninjas, decimating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen and irreconciliable Taliban in Af-Pak region

2011, March: after late start, orders Air Force to lead allied air strikes on Qaddafi’s forces, preventing humanitarian catastrophe in Benghazi, supporting rebel movement, and ultimately resulting in Qaddafi’s death and national self-government in Libya

2012: Announces “no nuclear weapon” policy for Iran, leaving all options, including military option, on table


No experience in armed forces or command, ever, and therefore no achievement.

2012: after criticizing plan for 2014 combat pullout from Afghanistan throughout primary campaign, endorses plan without conditions in second presidential debate, but claims he could implement it better

* * *

So just who is the “empty suit”?

Footnote on Job Flows: Following is a graph of quarterly net private-sector job gains or losses, in thousands, for the entire nation, for the calendar years 2006-2011:

The raw data come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. What they show is that, as of year-end 2011, private-sector job growth had rebounded to about the same level as under Dubya, in the last full year pre-crash.

So what accounts for the apparent discrepancy from news reports? These data represent private-sector jobs. They do not include government jobs. Total job growth is lower because the GOP was trying to drown government in a bathtub at the same time as the President was trying to grow all jobs.

The Libya Kerfluffle

One of the many things that disqualify Mitt Romney from the presidency is his attack on the President for the tragic deaths of our emissary and part of his team in Libya. Romney’s attack demonstrates his utter failure to understand the realities of diplomacy and foreign policy in a changing and dangerous world.

How so? Let me count the ways.

First, blaming the President for failing to know—immediately!—what went on in a chaotic combat situation—let alone blaming him for the deaths—is absolutely absurd.

Ambassador Stevens and his small team were, on the diplomatic side, analogous to a small platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan. Suppose such a platoon took a wrong turn on a mountain pass, was attacked by Taliban, and badly mauled. Suppose also that relief troops, called in by radio, arrived too late to help.

Would you expect the President to know immediately what had happened? Would you blame him for the fact that relief forces arrived too late?

Absolutely not. A whole chain of command would be responsible, from the general in the theater, to the platoon leader on the ground. If the President had to obsess about the position and situation of every small team on the ground, everywhere in the world, he wouldn’t be doing his job of controlling overall political strategy (not even military strategy). More than that: he would be interfering with the military experts who command day-to-day strategy and tactics.

Second, Romney’s attack relies on unstated assumptions that are wildly unrealistic. He assumes that diplomatic personnel in foreign countries are entitled to absolutely security and to rely on American forces for it.

That’s utter nonsense, especially in places like Libya.

Diplomatic staff operating on foreign territory are subject to their host countries’ rules, regulations and permission. International law treats the embassy grounds as American territory (hence the possibility of political asylum for refugees) and entitles diplomats to limited immunity from search, seizure, imprisonment and other legal penalties. But the nature, size and type of American security forces are always subject to foreign law and foreign control.

American diplomats abroad have to negotiate permission for every detail of their on-site security forces, including type, number and weaponry. For obvious reasons, you can’t just bring a battalion of Marines into a foreign country, house them in an embassy, and expect to keep them there.

So American diplomats abroad rely primarily on foreign security forces for their protection from demonstrators and mobs. They keep very small forces of Marines at hand, to be used only if a mad protestor or two gets by foreign security forces and through the gates.

If we Yanks or anyone else doesn’t like the restrictions a particular foreign country imposes on embassies or security forces, we can protest through diplomatic channels. If that doesn’t work, all we can do is close the embassy and withdraw our ambassador. Our primary recourse for security in every country in which our diplomats work is to local police and armed forces.

Third, these normal rules and customs of diplomatic security operate best in established states with viable governments, armies and police forces. But Libya today is not an established state with a viable government, army or police forces. It’s the chaotic residue of a bloody revolution, in which rival contenders to power and bands of mercenaries and hoodlums duke it out in the streets with automatic weapons mounted on pickup trucks.

In that environment, we might have better secured our personnel by bringing in a brigade of Marines with all their heavy weapons, armor and vehicles. But we never wanted to have “boots on the ground” in Libya, for fear of creating another Iraq or Afghanistan. That’s why we never used more than air power to help the rebels.

Even more important, our diplomatic purpose in Libya was (and is) to make friends, find out what is going on amidst the chaos, and influence Libya’s developing into a stable self-governing modern state that treats oil as the global commodity it is and uses the proceeds for the benefit of all its people.

Another goal is to avoid fights at all costs. The last thing we need is to convince yet another Islamic nation that we have designs on its territory, or are insensitive to “collateral damage” to its innocent civilians.

So there is no way, consistent with international law, our mission in Libya, and the realities there, that we could have provided out diplomatic staff with foolproof protection from what happened. Apparently they were subject to a planned attack by disciplined and prepared forces with weapons much heavier than any Libya’s chaotic authorities would likely have permitted us. Even in retrospect, the only realistic alternative to what happened was not to have run the mission at all, i.e., never to have sent the Stevens team.

Fourth and finally, to have expected the President to know, immediately, precisely what happened to such a small diplomatic team in such a remote and chaotic place is utterly absurd. It would be like expecting him to know the details of every death in that hypothetical platoon attack in Afghanistan. In the best of times and places, it takes weeks or months for formal reports on such things—the only really reliable evidence—to work their way up the chain of command.

You would expect Fox to make this tragic incident the basis of a nonsensical attack on the President. Nonsensical attacks have been Fox’ modus operandi since the President took office. But you’d expect a man who seeks our nation’s highest office to know and act better.

Most of all, you would expect a candidate for our highest office to put things in perspective. We used our Air Force, and no other forces, to help the Libyan rebels because we didn’t want to become militarily involved in Libya. Although it took a bit longer than we expected, our Air Force, together with its NATO counterparts, achieved its mission. Qaddafi is out of power and dead, and Libya is beginning to form a self-governing society, in its own chaotic way.

We are now trying to help in that process. We are also trying to build on Libyans’ gratitude for our aid by making friends there for the long haul. A large security force, or a bloody battle to secure our station would have been incompatible with those goals.

Ambassador Stevens and his team members were heroes. They died to advance our overall mission in Libya.

That mission, so far, has been largely successful. To attack the President for these tragic deaths misses the larger significance of our efforts in Libya. It’s like blaming a president for the loss of a platoon or soldier in a winning war. It’s a meaningless political kerfluffle that misses a much larger point: our successful ongoing support of the Arab Spring—a genuine indigenous liberation movement that Thomas Jefferson would have been the first to support.

Following is a comment that I posted on Bloomberg.com today, explaining these points in more detail:

From the start, Americans were sympathetic to the Libyan rebels. But the Administration delayed in providing military assistance because we had no idea who the rebels were.  That's not surprising: we've had no significant presence in Libya, commercial or military, for decades.  We had to get even basic information from Italy and France, which had closer historical ties with Libya.

At the last moment, when Qaddafi's tank brigades and primitive air force were about to slaughter the remaining rebels holed up in Benghazi, we struck.  Unique American air assets, assisted by NATO aircraft, took Qaddafi's weak air force out of play.  Thereafter, NATO air forces protected Libyan civilians and rebel forces from Qaddafi's armor and remaining air power as much as possible, i.e., whenever the tanks were not so close as to risk "collateral damage" to civilians or rebel forces.

The result was Qaddafi's removal, his eventual execution by rebels, and Libya's first chance in 40 years at rational self-government.  Many Libyans were (and still are!) immensely grateful for American and NATO aid, whatever they might feel about Israel and our Mideast policy generally.

Ambassador Stevens and his tiny team went to Benghazi, the seat of the rebel movement from the outset, for good but dangerous purposes.  They went to make friends with Libyans, find out who the victorious rebels were, and (if possible) influence them to organize a sustainable government for all Libyans that would not be inimical to American interests.

The situation on the ground in Libya was—and still is—fluid, uncertain, and chaotic.  There is no way that Stevens could have brought significant security forces with him without arousing suspicion and opposition.  He probably would never have secured permission from whatever Libyan forces controlled the needed space.  (Note how our tiny follow-on security team initially couldn't get permission to leave the airport, even after the attack.  Trying to fight their way out would have just made the situation worse.)

Stevens and his crew undoubtedly knew the stakes and the risks before going in.  So did the extremists.  That's why they attacked: to prevent us from helping Libya become a viable, self-governing nation that will sell Libya's oil on the world market efficiently and for Libyans' benefit.

Stevens, his tiny team, and the brave intelligence officers who tried to help them were heroes.  They were soldiers fighting for a cause that most Americans, and even many Libyans, have trouble understanding.  Part of that cause was making durable friendships for us in an Islamic world that is undergoing rapid and chaotic change.  You don't make friends by going in like Rambo.

The Libya that Stevens and his team found was nothing like France.  It wasn't even like Yemen.  It was a nascent country in chaos, with no recognized authority or army, and with rival groups fighting for dominance.  Likely no American involved had a weapon heavier than a rifle; probably most had only handguns.

They were heroes doing their very dangerous jobs, just like our troops in Afghanistan.  If you could summon them back and ask them whether they expected security like that in our embassies in England or France, they would laugh in your face.



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