Monday, February 9, 2015

Obama Explains It All

President Obama sits down with the braintrust at Vox and gets into some wonkery over his policy positions.  It's actually a pretty good set of interviews,with footnotes, charts, and graphs that the Vox guys have worked in as sort of a running fact check, and it makes for some good reading. The president speaks first with Ezra Klein on domestic policy questions like income inequality:

Ezra Klein
To focus a bit on that long-term question, does that put us in a place where redistribution becomes, in a sense, a positive good in and of itself? Do we need the government playing the role not of powering the growth engine — which is a lot of what had to be done after the financial crisis — but of making sure that while that growth engine is running, it is ensuring that enough of the gains and prosperity is shared so that the political support for that fundamental economic model remains strong
Barack Obama
That's always been the case. I don't think that's entirely new. The fact of the matter is that relative to our post-war history, taxes now are not particularly high or particularly progressive compared to what they were, say, in the late '50s or the '60s. And there's always been this notion that for a country to thrive there are some things, as Lincoln says, that we can do better together than we can do for ourselves. And whether that's building roads, or setting up effective power grids, or making sure that we've got high-quality public education — that teachers are paid enough — the market will not cover those things. And we've got to do them together. Basic research falls in that category. So that's always been true.
I think that part of what's changed is that a lot of that burden for making sure that the pie was broadly shared took place before government even got involved. If you had stronger unions, you had higher wages. If you had a corporate culture that felt a sense of place and commitment so that the CEO was in Pittsburgh or was in Detroit and felt obliged, partly because of social pressure but partly because they felt a real affinity toward the community, to re-invest in that community and to be seen as a good corporate citizen. Today what you have is quarterly earning reports, compensation levels for CEOs that are tied directly to those quarterly earnings. You've got international capital that is demanding maximizing short-term profits. And so what happens is that a lot of the distributional questions that used to be handled in the marketplace through decent wages or health care or defined benefit pension plans — those things all are eliminated. And the average employee, the average worker, doesn't feel any benefit.

And in the second half he talks with Matthew Yglesias on foreign policy issues such as the Arab Spring.

Matthew Yglesias
In the Middle East, where we're still very much engaged despite the draw-down from Iraq, the Clinton administration had a policy they called Dual Containment of Iraq and Iran. The Bush administration had an idea about preventative war and about rollback and democracy promotion. Under your administration, the country is still very involved in that region, but I don't think we have as clear a sense of what is the sort of strategic goal of that engagement
Barack Obama
Well, partly it's because of the nature of what's happened in the Middle East. I came in with some very clear theories about what my goals were going to be. We were going to end the war in Iraq. We were going to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, trying diplomacy first. We were going to try to promote increased economic development in the Muslim countries to deal with this demographic bulge that was coming into play. We were going to promote Palestinian and Israeli peace talks. So, there were all kinds of theories. 
And then the Arab Spring happened. I don't recall all the wise men in Washington anticipating this. And so this has been this huge, tumultuous change and shift, and so we've had to adapt, even as it's happening in real time, to some huge changes in these societies. But if you look at the basic goals that I've set: making sure that we are maintaining pressure on terrorist organizations so that they have a limited capacity to carry out large-scale attacks on the West. Increasing our partnering and cooperation with countries to deal with that terrorist threat. Continuing to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And using the tool of sanctions to see if we can get a diplomatic breakthrough there. And continuing to try to move the Israeli-Palestinian relationship into a better place, while at the same time helping the region as a whole integrate itself more effectively into the world economy so that there's more opportunity. Those basic goals still hold true.

It's actually pretty illuminating stuff here, despite my usual complaints about the Ezra and Yggy Show being too cute by half, they actually do ask some crunchy questions here and get thoughtful and nuanced answer from President Obama.

Vox has also included videos of each question and the President's response, each containing their usual explainer pop-up graphics for context and additional information.  I have to admit, grudgingly, this is well done stuff.

Do check it out.

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