A few days before the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy, the weather on the East Coast was sunny and warm. Even with the tension of an upcoming election, there was confidence at the White House that President Obama would win. Although Governor Romney and Representative Ryan declared themselves to be shocked by the results of the election, most Washington governmental and political figures, from both sides of the aisle, believed analysts like wunderkind Nate Silver whose steadily rising certainty for President Obama was nearing 90%.
Sadly, to keep people watching TV throughout the campaign, news commentators had to keep the suspense and uncertainty alive. This “Political-Entertainment Complex” does the American people a great disservice by treating politics as a sport, rather than a referendum on ideas.
Every year, I have the privilege of returning to Washington D.C. to attend the White House Fellows Conference, a three-day briefing organized by the White House, focusing on issues ranging from technology with the Vice-President of Google to educators like Teach For America’s founder Wendy Kopp to Cabinet members like Attorney General Eric Holder and CIA Director (at the time) General David Petraeus to conservative journalist David Brooks of the New York Times and liberal political strategist Mark Penn.
It’s a bipartisan gathering in terms of both the speakers and former White House Fellows. The camaraderie and dedication to bipartisanship is one of the hallmarks of the White House Fellows program – unfortunately, a rarity “inside the beltway.”
Last year, I wrote to you about what President Obama and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger focused on. This time, I’ll describe a wider range of speakers.
Among the most impressive speakers was former CIA Director General David Petraeus, which makes his recent resignation even sadder and more bizarre. In a scandal that’s become “stranger than fiction,” Petraeus spoke about the importance of mentoring (which may have been the beginning of his recent problems) and about knowing what each person working for you needs in order to be motivated. He addressed the differences between the cultures of the military and the CIA and why the CIA, rather than the Defense Department, was running our drones program. Petraeus talked about the “grindstone/cloistered” syndrome of the CIA and how top personnel can’t even speak “off the record” very often with the public, but can be quite outspoken within the CIA.
Attorney General Eric Holder related how he spends 40-50% of his time on national security issues, reaching out around the world to repair alliances frayed by our recent wars in the Middle East. At 8:30 a.m. every morning, Holder is briefed by the FBI about the “threat stream” and it’s disheartening. While violent crime in the United States has decreased over the past twenty years, white-collar financial crimes, which have far-reaching consequences, have increased dramatically. The problem, Holder said, is judicial. While these behaviors may be morally repugnant, can they be proven to be criminally illegal? Moreover, what’s an appropriate punishment beyond fines and restitution? Few people have gone to prison for what happened on Wall Street or in the housing collapse because the law is limited in many of these cases. He also discussed protecting the most vulnerable among us against crime, bigotry and voter suppression.
Right of center New York Times columnist David Brooks (whose children go to a Jewish day school) was most impressive, as he always is in his columns. Calling this election “the least interesting campaign I’ve ever covered,” Brooks gave a historical review of pivotal American figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, and how, because of a clear sense of principles, they were able to inspire in our country a desire to use government to give people opportunity and mobility. Although Brooks supported and was impressed by Governor Romney, Romney’s lack of clear principles was his undoing, according to Brooks.
Brooks acknowledged that President Obama has grown in office from “wanting to be nice to everybody” to becoming incredibly self-confident in fighting for what he believes in and understanding that politics is a “nasty duty” on the way to greatness. Success is a function of drudgery, self-control, serving as an instrument for a cause, developing character and finding a balance between self-promotion and self-effacement. A certain degree of modesty is crucial because it prevents polarization and forces all of us to need and work with the other side.
As a senior at Princeton over twenty years ago, Wendy Kopp founded “Teach For America” and revolutionized education so much that, last year, 18% of Harvard University’s senior class applied for its two-year program of educational entrepreneurship. One third of all of Teach For America’s graduates still work in education as teachers, consultants, principals and professors, giving disadvantaged children a break. With fewer accreditation rules and flexibility in following a syllabus, these creative, dedicated and energetic educators have inspired social change. “We can solve this problem in our lifetime,” declared Kopp, and she was incredibly believable, citing strategies that have brought social work and education together to address the needs of the whole family of students. Creating a culture of achievement in some of the poorest neighborhoods of our country is an immense task, but some of the 350 schools with which she has worked have 90% high school graduation rates, just blocks from other schools whose rates are only 30%. By asking “what skills do these children need to make it in today’s society” and building a curriculum that fosters that goal, these transformational schools exhibit both creativity and leadership. President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and President Obama’s “Race To The Top” have worthy goals, but will they change a society in which more African-American children go to jail than college? Many Asian countries know that their greatest investment in foreign policy and economic success lies in solving the education deficit. Why have we written off so many?
Political strategist Mark Penn asked: “Can you predict the future if you have a five to ten year old view of the present?” Author of “Microtrends: The Small Forces Changing The World” and Vice President of Microsoft, Penn said that “the key to understanding business, politics and society is to discern the small currents and discrete demographics that are creating social niches and driving social change in a wide variety of patterns.”
Ann Marie Slaughter, the former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department, agreed and added that many future career paths will be moving among three professional sectors – government, business and non-profits – so that leaders become “culturally competent,” comfortable with multiple sources of funding, and appreciative of the role of business in improving society. Too many people get stuck in one sector and end up demonizing the others. We need “connected capitalism,” she said, so that we don’t end up living in a world of too many “demobilized, violent men” who resort to crime and terrorism. That’s why the Clinton Global Initiative meets on the West Side of Manhattan at the same time that the UN General Assembly meets on the East Side, so that there can be synergy among diplomats, CEOs, NGOs, think tanks and faith-based organizations, coordinating the goals of public diplomacy with the power and needs of governments.
While the General Assembly meeting at the UN is “speed-dating for diplomats,” CGI brings world leaders and opinion makers together for three days of thematic panels. We live in a “billiard ball world,” a “Legoworld,” she said, in which political power relationships are constantly being reconfigured. It’s very possible that, in ten years, we’ll even be closer to Iran than Saudi Arabia!
As for the recent election, many whom I heard or with whom I spoke at the White House Fellows Conference accurately predicted that:
1. A diverse coalition of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews, women, gays and those under 30 would ensure victory for President Obama.
2. Despite his personal awkwardness and inability to find his center between “moderate Mitt” and “severely conservative Mitt,” Governor Romney was the best choice for the GOP among those Republicans who ran. In addition, Mormonism became validated in American culture.
3. Obscene amounts of money spent by the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson ($50 million) on the GOP side and Hollywood and Silicon Valley for the Democrats (more than 2.2 billion by both sides) will probably not lead to reform as long as the Citizens United decision stands. (By the way, Republicans spent $8 million on Jewish outreach; Democrats, $2 million).
4. The Jewish Obama vote dropped by 4-5 points to 69-70%. (The Jewish GOP vote has ranged from George H. W. Bush at 11% to Reagan at 35%.) Israel was decisive for only 10% of Jewish voters as their number one criterion compared to the economy (53%), healthcare (32%) and Social Security and Medicare (23%). (Still no anti-Israel candidate could ever gain Jewish support.)
5. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s feuding with President Obama upset American Jews and Israelis (which may prove problematic for Bibi in Israel’s January 22 election).
6. Jews would continue to be liberal on abortion, birth control, gays and universal healthcare. Among the interesting results that pollsters found were that 79% of American Jews support a two-state solution, 80% believe that it’s necessary in order to preserve Israel’s Jewish character and is in the national security interest of the United States. 81% believe that the United States should play an active role in bringing Palestinians and Israelis together, including putting forth a peace plan, but only 69% want the United States to make disagreements with Israel and the Palestinians public. (84% even want Bill Clinton to serve as a special Middle East envoy!) A plurality of American Jews want to give time to Iran to see if sanctions and diplomacy can work and 58% support Obama over 26% for Romney in dealing with Iran.
7. Ten Jews will be in the Senate and twenty-two in the House – a decline from twelve and twenty-seven, elected in 2010 respectively. Retiring veteran lawmakers include Senators Joseph Lieberman and Herb Kohl and Representatives Gary Ackerman, Barney Frank and Bob Filner. Those in the 113th Congress will be:
- Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA); Diane Feinstein (D-CA); Richard Blumenthal (D-CT); Ben Cardin (D-MD); Carl Levin (D-MI); Al Franken (D-MN); Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ); Charles Schumer (D-NY); Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Bernie Saunders (I-VT). In the House, Susan Davis (D-CA); Alan Lowenthal (D-CA); Adam Schiff (D-CA); Brad Sherman (D-CA); Henry Waxman (D-CA); Jared Polis (D-CO); Ted Deutch (D-FL); Lois Frankel (D-FL); Alan Grayson (D-FL); Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL); Jan Schakowsky (D-IL); Brad Schneider (D-IL); John Yarmuth (D-KY); Sander Levin (D-MI); Elliot Engel (D-NY); Steve Israel (D-NY); Nita Lowey (D-NY); Jerrold Nadler (D-NY); Allyson Schwartz (D-PA); David Cicilline (D-RI); Steve Cohen (D-TN) and, the lone Republican, Eric Cantor (R-VA)
8. Additional predictions from the White House Fellows Conference:
- The Electoral College will not be abolished.
- A major third party will not arise to challenge our two-party system
- Gerrymandering to keep Congressional representatives in their safe seats will continue in most states.
- The fiscal cliff, curb or slope will yield a bipartisan, somewhat unsatisfying compromise by both sides.
- There will be immigration reform over the next two years because Democrats promised it and Republicans learned the price of using terms like “self-deportation.”
- Political polarization will sadly continue, but perhaps at a lower level of demonization.
Let’s hope for the best and let’s also play our part by being active citizens involved in causes, based on our varied ideologies, promoted with a balance of passion and respect for the other side.
Best wishes for a joyous Hanukkah,
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis