BBC BLOGS - Justin Webb's America

Archives for January 2009

Obama confuses his enemies

Justin Webb | 20:02 UK time, Friday, 30 January 2009


This is the kind of domestic flak that President Obama will take for his charm offensive on Iran. And it would be difficult - would it not? - to argue that Charles Krauthammer is wrong in the essentials of his case.

The point is that Mr Obama understands that case himself - the case that says: "Come off it, America IS better, and has a decent case to put before the court of world opinion."

But he also understands that there may be advantages to not making it, indeed to making the opposite case (to the extent that he did in that al Arabiya interview).

In fact, I wonder whether he really disagrees with the Krauthammer position.

George W Bush said what he thought. The new man is capable of sophistry in the matter of confusing his enemies...

Obama offensive

Justin Webb | 06:13 UK time, Friday, 30 January 2009


This is what I meant about Oba-my-goodness-what-do-we-do-now, as we should now term it: the confusion felt in foreign hearts and minds as the Obama years get under way.

The Iranian president responded to the overtures from the Obama White House with a list of grievances from yesteryear - almost as if nothing had changed. Perhaps they are kidding themselves that nothing has.

But Obama is nothing if not strategic and the to and fro from the various factions will mean little to him: if he wants to be friends with the Iranians (or anyone else for that matter) there is nothing they can easily do about it. They are being subjected to an offensive and they are scrambling to find their defence.

Stimulus talk

Justin Webb | 15:10 UK time, Thursday, 29 January 2009


Nobody knows whether it will work, but plenty of people are gearing up for a spending spree, though judging by most of the local paper coverage (for instance this or this) the stimulus bill is hardly a charter for a splurge on useless projects that benefit no-one.

The real question is whether the money will surge into the economy or drip in. The latter is probably no good.

As for the Republicans, well they have taken a gamble and it is at least possible that the result will be a time in the wilderness as the nation recovers and names newly-opened schoolrooms and roads and smartgrid emporiums after Barack H Obama...

Or there again, if that doesn't happen, Republicans could find themselves back in fashion, though only if they have something to say - this advice (don't filibuster and play nicely) is surely wise.'

The case for brains in politics

Justin Webb | 17:19 UK time, Tuesday, 27 January 2009


Many of my colleagues - you know who you are - are not among the leading brains of their age. I am certainly not.

But some of these not-so-bright journalists are nevertheless very able. They are creative and insightful and able to communicate effortlessly.

Others are enormously bright: again some of these folks are successful, some less so.

My point: there are fields of endeavour where being bright is plainly a sine qua non (the higher reaches of academia etc.) but journalism is not one, and nor is politics and government.

Bright people make awful mistakes because they are over-confident or unseeing or because they just do not inhabit the same planet.

The latest reminder of the brightness of the Obama lot came to me in this breathless press release from my alma mater

Reading through Peter Orszag's resume, there is no doubt that he is on top of things in the upstairs department.

He runs as well so we are led to believe he is rounded. (Incidentally for those monitoring British influence on the US, the LSE/Obama nexus is interesting - particularly given Jed Bartlett's LSE doctorate)

Anyway, let's see what the new budget director can do. There is unquestionably a case for brains - made just after the election with great passion here, but there is a case against as well made by an equally fine columnist in the same paper more recently.

Richard Nixon was the brightest of the recent American presidents wasn't he? With Clinton a close second. What does this tell us?

Prospect of a thaw?

Justin Webb | 06:17 UK time, Tuesday, 27 January 2009


This interview is a big deal. The tone is studiously non-belligerent. It will confuse some in the Middle East even further - in particular, perhaps, persuading Iran's most senior leaders that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not perhaps the best man to counter the Obama appeal. Obama will do nothing dramatic for a bit but if Ahmadinejad goes (or is not allowed to stand in the next Iranian election, which seems at least possible) then the prospect of a real thaw seems real. And a quiet acceptance by the US of Iran's domination of Iraq, which is a gloriously unintended consequence...

No Bible for second oath

Justin Webb | 15:05 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009


Sorry to go on about religiosity - and I read with interest those who disagreed with me, and each other, on this - but surely the fact that President Obama swore his second oath without using a Bible tells us something hugely important? Something that will cheer those (including plenty of religious folk) who think the church-state balance has become skewed in recent years.

Obama and Roberts knew perfectly well that you don't need a Bible to become president - there have been oaths taken without one in the past - but in the Bush White House you can bet they would have found one for the second swearing in. Even if they had had to send out to CVS (Boots!).

In the Obama White House it was no big deal. Religious beliefs for him are essentially private.

If the second oath was legally the one that counts then one can say he was sworn into office without using a holy book.

Staying on to help out

Justin Webb | 03:03 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009


Glad I alerted you to Oathgate - and it is clear now why Obama was so unamused by Biden's joke about Roberts' memory: they must have been having The West Wing style conversatons about the need to re-do the oath during the afternoon and the president did not appreciate the matter being joked about before it was settled.
After spending time at the White House myself I left the building and bumped into a friend who was a senior Bush administration lawyer - now (rather sheepishly) back at work for the new president. Apparently he's been asked to stay for a week to help out - in a very senior position in a very important department of state. This transition really is unique in modern times...

First impressions

Justin Webb | 21:32 UK time, Wednesday, 21 January 2009


How was President Obama's first full day for you?

A British paper seems to have discovered an important development, hidden in plain sight as it were. But generally, I thought it was all rather quotidien, this bright shining moment in history.

The executive order to close Guantanamo Bay was not ready. Stem Cell research went unmentioned. And the changes in funding of charities that give abortion advice seems to have been hidden in a desk drawer by Rick Warren.

Best story of the day - Joe Biden's delicious joke that his memory is not as good as Chief Justice Roberts'. (Mr Obama was stony faced as he listened. Senior White House staff groaned.)

Seriously folks: did the messing up of the oath matter? Some think it did...

Freethinkers welcome!

Justin Webb | 23:25 UK time, Tuesday, 20 January 2009


Non-believers are welcome in Obama's America! This phrase from his speech struck me as a rather pointed effort to include a group of Americans - those who are not blessed by God - in the general mood. This was it: "A nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and
Hindus - and nonbelievers."

Not in itself a dramatic move away from faith - and he certainly was not referring to himself - but a shuffle at least away from the religiosity of the Bush years. It will be these tonal changes that make Obama's America much more palatable to Europeans. Freethinking, in the old-fashioned sense of not professing a religion, is about to become acceptable in polite American society in a way it has not been since Richard Nixon first began the tradition of invoking the Lord whenever possible.

Will the world respond to America's Moment?

Justin Webb | 18:18 UK time, Tuesday, 20 January 2009


Some innocent celebration here.

On the Mall, the moment of magic was the moment he (finally) got to the end of the oath. Tears and kisses all around.

America has shown the world how it will treat this new force in the land, at least in the early days. But the world has yet to respond: Europe with troops for Afghanistan; Iran with fewer flag burnings; Israel with calm rational thinking about its future; Osama Bin Laden by admitting that he was wrong?

Exactly: some things won't happen. And when they don't happen... ?

Politeness on the Metro

Justin Webb | 14:29 UK time, Tuesday, 20 January 2009


A woman on the Washington Metro taps me on the shoulder. I thought I might be treading on her foot. But no: "I am so sorry I am pressing against you!"

These out of town folks are unused to public transport. Most Americans are, but the Washington Metro is coping pretty well so far - aided by the sheer joy of the travellers. Perhaps all rush-hours for the next 8 years will be celebrations...

On the subject of iconography, meanwhile, I see there is a claim that the most famous image of all has been traced to a particular photo.

Iconography of Obama

Justin Webb | 19:16 UK time, Monday, 19 January 2009


They were selling Obama condoms after the Lincoln Memorial event last night. Today in Georgetown there is an exhibition of Obama paintings and posters - the iconography putting me in mind of religious art. I say this not to be sour, in fact the opposite: this is big.

In fact, there is a real risk that the media, far from over-emphasising the impact of the coming of Obama, tend to underplay it, assuming it is, at heart, just another transfer of power, when it is, arguably, something else entirely.

I was reading the other day that someone (Norman Mailer?) called JFK the "edge of mystery" - the point being made that the same could be said of O.

Meanwhile, a man who relies on many good books rather than one for his inspiration and education is being given plenty of advice. What strikes me about this list is its hesitancy in the pursuit of Western values. To many, this will be a good thing, a necessary corrective.

But I wonder whether Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy - Bush's favourite book and a worthy presidential reader - might eventually be sought out by this president as he comes face to face with those who (still) burn American flags and regard Americans as scum...

The changing face of the presidency

Justin Webb | 22:43 UK time, Friday, 16 January 2009


Message to RomeStu - that was from David Frum, President Bush's speechwriter. "Not as nice and not as stupid," was the precise phrase I think.

Meanwhile, for those who are lifting their eyes to the glory of the Union rather than the failings of any one president, this is strangely hypnotic. I have just noticed that Barack Obama (the last one) is the first black man...

Prosecutions for waterboarding?

Justin Webb | 18:44 UK time, Thursday, 15 January 2009


The suggestion from Barack Obama's nominee for Attorney General Eric Holder that waterboarding is torture will add fuel to the fire of the effort to prosecute Bush officials.

There is little doubt that the practice has been considered torture by previous American administrations as the Washington Post made clear years ago and the Justice Department itself has been concerned about the advice it gave on the subject. So what now?

Meanwhile, this effort at defending the Bush legacy is well worth reading. I would add that the relationship with China - which could have gone horribly wrong - was generally well handled by the Bush team...

Hillary and US humility

Justin Webb | 17:19 UK time, Wednesday, 14 January 2009


The coverage of Hillary Clinton's love-in with her fellow senators has been well received by supportive voices at home and abroad , and the general view has been that the detail is, as it were, to follow.

But there was a story hidden in the hearing which everyone (me included) rather missed: One of the criticisms of Obama's foreign policy from otherwise supportive people abroad has been that his promised new effort to pacify Afghanistan is fundamentally unrealistic.

Mrs Clinton did not use that word but in a fascinating exchange late in the day - after the newspaper stories had been written - Senator Kerry put it to her that the US needed "a large dose of humility about what it is we are trying to accomplish" in Afghanistan, and urged her to be redouble the thoroughness of the various efforts to work out a new strategy there.

She gave every indication, it seemed to me, of accepting his case. This doesn't mean a U-turn in Obama policy in Afghanistan but it does suggest an understanding that the conflict cannot be won by bringing in extra troops, and a willingness to look at new less ambitious goals.

The Bush Conundrum

Justin Webb | 18:07 UK time, Monday, 12 January 2009


We have had the final press conference - prepare for the Bush legacy programmes.

I have even done one myself (for BBC Radio Four and the World Service) in which a member of his extended family talks frankly about how upsetting they have found the last few years. Others tell us he got what he deserved.

If you hate him or love him, the fair-minded programmes will be a disappointment. But for the dispassionate, disinterested observer one question seems to me to rise above all the others, and still be worth asking: why is there such a clash between what he appears to believe about human beings and what many of his fellow human beings believe about him.

At the presser he was warm - typically warm - about everyone: the press, Barack Obama, even the "opiners" who have been opining bad things about him.

He threw in some pointed lines about how the Republican party needed to be inclusive and welcoming to immigrants.

And he seemed genuinely to get why Mr Obama's inauguration is such a big deal in America's racial history.

Yet for many people, this man is an ogre whose willingness to gamble with other people's lives and wellbeing is matched only by his cocky inability to understand why people might not approve.

This is the Bush Conundrum: humane Bush versus cowboy Bush. Both exist.

Restless America

Justin Webb | 22:46 UK time, Friday, 9 January 2009


The point I think is that America's greatness - for want of a less emotionally-charged word (its salience perhaps, or its significance) - is lodged in the vibrancy of the place.

And this piece - just read the first three paragraphs - makes the case wonderfully well. To run a political party in the US is to be engaged in a constant effort just to keep up.

To run a competing nation you have to make the same effort. Certainly, lots of nations change, but often slowly and resentfully and fitfully: America alone embraces change in its fundamental makeup.

(China embraced change, yes, but imposed it from the top). Of course, to many Americans this is not really a plus. They would like a rest from this restlessness. But a rest is nowhere to be seen.

American power lives on

Justin Webb | 17:27 UK time, Thursday, 8 January 2009


Yes yes yes. The point about demography (in the penultimate paragraph) is particularly telling and often overlooked.

Obama's intriguing CIA pick

Justin Webb | 20:25 UK time, Tuesday, 6 January 2009


First: thanks so much to all who have left such kind messages.

I am deeply aware that our situation is hardly worth mentioning when compared with the suffering of other parents and other children. We brought our boy home from the hospital. And we can pay the bills.

Dave_h - for my money - hits the nail on the head with the simple fact that the US system is just so much more expensive, per capita, yet doesn't deliver commensurate results.

The challenge for Mr Obama is not to spend more but to spend more wisely and fairly.

I always thought his line about watching his mum haggle with the healthcare companies while she was dying of cancer was one of the more genuinely moving sections of his stump speech: it will be fascinating to see whether, in four years or eight, that situation is unthinkable here.

Meanwhile, the first really interesting and risky decision of the Obama presidency (alright - the second after HER) is the choice of Leon Panetta as the head of the CIA - a choice to be formally announced soon.

I remember meeting Mr Panetta some time ago and coming away with a sense of shock at how gentle and courtly he was - genial, relaxed, softly-spoken and solicitous in a manner that almost no senior public servant ever is (Andy Card would be the nearest, in my experience).

The case against him seems to be that he is not tough enough to take part in interrogations. Not of bad guys (though he would be a great "good cop"), but of CIA guys who apparently like to keep their business to themselves.

Perhaps this is a signal that they have to grow up.

I see the always sensible Sam Donaldson thinks Panetta will not make it through the confirmation process - but if Obama is really serious about imposing his will on the bureaucracy he may feel this is a battle he has to win.

I suspect this is a better take on the matter than Sam's.

This stuff about who checked with whom just does not matter, and Dianne Feinstein risks looking a bit behind the curve if she makes too much of a fuss...


I see the Obama team are planning to get a TV doctor - albeit a well qualified one - to lead the nation's medical care.

Wow! My colleage Robert Peston for Chancellor of the Exchequer? Christiane Amanpour for Defense? Wolf Blitzer for transportation? (He could do those airport announcements: "Caution, the moving walkway is ending... ")

Health care heartbreak

Justin Webb | 07:28 UK time, Monday, 5 January 2009


Apologies for the long break in posts. My son fell ill over Christmas and has been diagnosed with type one diabetes.

He can still have a long and happy life but no longer a care-free one and nor can his parents!

So we find ourselves at the receiving end of the health service I have heard George Bush describe as the best in the world and Barack Obama describe as seriously flawed. Both are right of course.

I desperately want a cure to be found and I have every confidence that if it is found it will be found HERE - in a nation that creates the wealth, and fosters the humanity, necessary to do the job.

But to arrive back from the hospital - confused and, frankly, a bit heartbroken - to find a bill already in the letter box, that's tough. And we are insured so the next day a letter from the insurers arrives telling us they have reviewed the case and decided to pay (note the language - how kind of them!) but if we hadn't been insured or if the insurers had behaved differently .......

The amount by the way for a night's stay and associated treatment is nearly $3,000. Even the co-pay which I handed over in the pharmacy on Christmas Eve (for the kit which is now part of our life) set us back a couple of hundred.

Of course the Obama reforms would not necessarily change this - his plan is not for a European style national health service. But as a user of the current US system I have to say the bills feel cruel, particularly when they apply to sick children.

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