Seven Tough Questions for Barack Obama

With a little help from Mac Secrest, and inspired by the blog comment of Deb Bridges, a “Republican for Change,” I decided to write down a few of my “tough questions for Barack Obama,” to play devil’s advocate.

1. INEXPERIENCE: You’ve been compared to John F. Kennedy in the excitement that you generate, but also like him, you lack executive experience. Shortly after taking office, President Kennedy approved a disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion that even his allies and supporters, in retrospect, chalked up to his inexperience. Another presidential candidate you’ve been compared to is Jimmy Carter, who had served just four years as governor of Georgia. When he assumed office, he was revealed to be an arrogant innocent who believed he could run Washington with his “Georgia mafia,” his statehouse team, and went on to make so many mistakes as to alienate half the members of his own party. What lessons do you take from history, from previous presidents’ failures? Do you have a strategy to compensate for your lack of executive experience? Or is it even possible to compensate for lack of executive experience?

2. TEST OF TOUGHNESS: You’ve stated that you will meet with some adversarial foreign leaders “with preparation but without precondition,” and have cited President Kennedy’s 1961 summit in Vienna with Soviet Premier Khrushchev as an example. But as two experts noted in a New York Times editorial, that meeting was a disaster. The Soviets sized Kennedy up as “very inexperienced, immature,” not particularly tough, “without guts,” in Kennedy’s own critical self-assessment to journalist James Reston. Two months after that meeting, Khrushchev gave the go-ahead to build the Berlin Wall, an act of aggression, and decided to take the risk to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, sensing that JFK would not challenge him. How are you going to demonstrate that you’re experienced and tough enough not to be taken advantage of in the way that Kennedy was?

2. DEFICIT: You’ve proposed a tax cut for most Americans. You would eliminate taxes on social security for senior citizens making less than $50,000 a year. These proposals will reduce revenues. You’ve proposed multi-billion dollar increases in health care spending. You propose more spending on roads, bridges and infrastructure. You’ve proposed massive new spending to make college far more affordable for every student who wants to go to college. And you’ve proposed spending billions to invest in environmental initiatives, to make the nation independent of foreign oil in 10 years. You voted in favor of a multi-billion dollar bailout to the financial services industry.

How can we as a nation sustain ourselves with this orgy of deficit spending without severe consequences? Once entitlements and military spending are paid, after this bailout of the financial industry, there will essentially be nothing left for new programs. Are you not concerned about the budget deficit? You talk about a “peace dividend” coming from the end of American involvement in Iraq, but that could be eaten up by increased involvement in Afghanistan.  Do you have any serious, viable, credible plans to reduce the deficit, or the national debt, or to at least see that it doesn’t increase exponentially with all your programs?

3. Despite all the hope and hype invested in your candidacy, with so little wiggle room on the federal budget, won’t you be a president who just makes nice speeches, who is actually able to accomplish very little of a domestic agenda in terms of launching new programs?

4. You propose to eliminate the $97,000 cap on social security taxes, meaning income over that limit would be subject to a 12.4% tax. But to do this, you’ll have to take on political powerful senior citizens and AARP. Do you really think you can beat them?

5. Isn’t it true that millions pay no tax at all…just ignoring the tax codes, and most aren’t, like Wesley Snipes, caught and if they were, they’d go a long way toward balancing the budget? Are you going to crack down on those who don’t pay their fair share of taxes?

6. HUBRIS. We have had a long line of presidents whose arrogance and hubris were their Achilles Heel — presidents who governed with their gut, who under-estimated and mis-perceived the challenges of war, who flouted rules and chose selfish interests “because they could.” Did it not take a heckuva lot of hubris to decide as a freshman senator that you were experienced enough to be president of the United States? How are you going to guard against hubris once in office?

7. Do you really believe that you will substantially reduce the influence of lobbyists, or the pernicious role of money in the political process? Lobbyists have a constitutional right to make their case, to petition the government, and rich people have a constitutional right to make political contributions, to seek access and influence. That has always been the case, in all of American history. Do we have real reason to expect that you will be able to change this if you are elected? Is it good leadership to raise false hopes?

Anybody who reads this blog regularly knows I lean toward Barack Obama. Some readers might accuse me of being “in the tank” for him. But I believe that all of us, no matter what our political leanings, have doubts and questions for those we tend to support as well as those we’re more skeptical of. We’re not a nation of white-hat Democrats and black-hat Republicans or vice versa. In politics, there’s a rally-around, join-the-team, bandwagon effect that discourages people from vocalizing their questions and their doubts, and encourages knee-jerk partisanship.

I agree with Tim Russert that tough questions are important for leaders to hear before they make tough decisions.

Originally published on my old blog, October 1, 2008.

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