Barack Obama’s first press conference brought to mind the news conferences that John F. Kennedy presided over after becoming President in 1961. I remember them well.
Yesterday’s occasion carried much of the anticipation and intensity that surrounded JFK’s appearances, but without the air of electric excitement that used to accompany the Kennedy events.
The world has moved on since then but remarkably, there are distinct similarities in both the nature of the issues and the responses from the President (or President-elect). There was humor in both, whether it was Obama comparing himself to a shelter “mutt” on the question of a puppy for his children, or Kennedy, on being asked about the influence of the press, admitting that he was “reading more, and enjoying it less.”
There were other, more troubling, points of similarity.
In Kennedy’s first press conference as President, a gentleman of the press (there were only male reporters in attendance) asked JFK why he dealt only with “America’s position in the world” in his inaugural address. His reply was “because the issue of war and peace is involved, and the survival of perhaps the planet, possibly our system, and therefore this is a matter of primary concern to the people of the United States and the people of the world.”
Barack Obama, in his Chicago news conference, warned that Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon “is unacceptable. We have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening.”
As President, Obama wil doubtless face many tough questions as he meets the media during his time in the White House. None, however, are likely to be as difficult as Kennedy’s appearance the day after having taken responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
“I do not think that any useful national purpose would be served by my going further into the Cuban question this morning. I prefer to let my statement of yesterday suffice for the moment.”
That was probably the low point of Kennedy’s term, but it was not the only setback he faced during his first year in office. Soon after, Kennedy found himself out maneauvered by Nikita Khrushchev at the Vienna Summit. This was followed by the erection of the Berlin Wall. It led to Kennedy’s visit to Berlin where he made his famous speech, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
The big difference in the political scenario facing the two Presidents is the economic crisis that Obama will inherit. Kennedy came to office at a time of great international tension, but of relative economic tranquility at home.
In 2009, Obama faces potential setbacks at every turn:
- What if whatever new aid package he pushes through Congress fails to blunt the economic downturn?
- What if the deployment of more troops to Afghanistan merely deepens the quagmire that NATO forces seem to have gotten themselves into?
- What if either the U.S. or Israel become enmeshed in war with Iran?
In looking over the transcript of the early JFK news conferences, I shivered when I read the last question asked of him at his first meeting with the press in the White House.
Had he given any thought, he was asked, to the “problem of succession in the case of injury, illness or some incapacitation.” Kennedy answered: “Nothing has been done on it as yet, but I think it would be a good matter which we could proceed on.”
Congress has since dealt with this matter, refining the process of Presidential succession. It best be left there.
The clock is running down on the election campaigns in both Canada and the U.S. And now only one issue really counts – the economic crisis, what the U.S. government is doing about it, and what Canada can do to stay out of the mess.
Senator Obama has edged into a narrow lead in the U.S. polls, while in Canada the Conservative party ends the second week of the campaign with what appears to be a double digit margin over the Liberals.
Canadians may fret over Conservatives gaffes while they try to figure out what the Liberal Green Shift could cost them. But these things are inconsequential compared to the financial armageddon that the U.S. is flirting with.
Don’t think the rescue package announced by George Bush is the end of the problem. Worry about the American dollar collapsing in its wake. Fret about the probabilility of hyperinflation, followed by a depression as bad as anything the world went through in the 1930s.
Yet, the same old malarky is still being spouted by the mainstream media, especially the Wall Street Journal. Take this beauty from today’s online edition:
“The point of this intervention is to stop a global panic caused both by government mistakes and private excess. The goal isn’t to control markets but to revive them.”
Totally wrong. In announcing the U.S. government’s $700 billion rescue effort, President Bush described the action as “a big package because it was a big problem.”
Lack of Regulation the real problem
The big problem, in fact, has been the dominance in the U.S. of a political and economic philosphy that has encouraged manipulation of the economy by a relatively unregulated and unscrupulous financial services industry that has sucked up billions of dollars in return for worthless scraps of paper.
The problem had its origins, a reader has reminded me, in decisions by the U.S. government under Presidents Clinton and Bush to promote home ownership among low income families. It became extreme when the Bush administration decreed that 56 per cent of Federal Housing mortgages should go to this sector. Conveniently, this created a vast new market for an animal called ”subprime mortgages” – 100% financing and $500 down. The story is well told in this Village Voice article.
These worthless mortgages, wrapped into arcane financial packages no one really understands, were peddled to American and Canadian banks. When home buyers began defaulting as higher interest rates clicked in (as every mortgage vendor knew would happen), financial institutions around the world found themselves holding a trillion dollars of questionable investments.
The crisis has hit the UK as wellas the U.S. Canada has avoided the meltdown so far due to its more cautious lending practices and stricter mortgage regulations.
The result is a mass of angry and embittered voters in the U.S., and a bewildered Canadian electorate.
It is almost pathetic to watch the once honorable John McCain rail at Barack Obama for supposedly being a prime cause of the current panic. After all, Obama’s been in Washington four years, compared to McCain’s 22 years. And McCain has always opposed close regulation of the financial industry.
McCain was one of the “Keating Five,” the five American senators involved with savings mogul Kenneth Keating in the great savings and loan scandal that almost ripped apart the American economy under President Reagan — all because of lack of regulation.
American voters will have to decide whether they wish to support a candidate whose main strategy, beside launching baseless smears of his opponent, is to attack the record of his own party that has been in control of the White House for the past eight years and of the Congress for most of the past twenty.
Canadian voters should tell the party leaders that it’s time to drop the pointless “poopin’ puffin”-type attack ads and lay out a real plan to insulate Canada — at least to the extent that we can — against the kind of economic piracy that’s become endemic to the American way of life.
Yep, I mean it. That’s a brilliant cover The New Yorker magazine has this week. The one showing Barack Obama in Muslim garb and his wife Michelle as a gun-toting black anarchist.
It’s brilliant because it taps into the powerful imagery of satirical comment in a way that the written word alone never can.
It’s brilliant because it’s shot down Republican hopes of slandering, either overtly or covertly, Obama as some kind of Muslim sympathizer, or as soft on the war on terrorism. I can’t imagine John McCain ever going this route himself. But there are uncounted numbers of his right-wing supporters who wouldn’t hesitate to do so. McCain’s comment that the cover is “totally inappropriate” is helpful, under the circumstances.
Obama supporters who are causing a furor — some calling for a boycott of the magazine — should reflect more thoughtfully on the nature of political journalism. But what can you expect in a society drenched in “political correctness”?
As New Yorker editor David Remnick says, “The idea is to attack lies and misconceptions and distortions about the Obamas, and their background and their politics.”
Political strategizing aside, the controversial cover serves as a useful reminder that freedom of expression cannot be curtailed — ever — if democratic societies are to retain their core values. Just as Canada’s Western Standard magazine had every right to publish the Danish cartoons about Mohammed, the New Yorker must be able to present this stunningly original political perspective without facing such extreme verbal abuse.
Of course, people also have the right to say what they think of anything they see or hear, in print or any other media. But let’s all relax a bit. Perhaps James Carville put it best: “I don’t know what the big deal is.”