David Sanger Offers A Sobering Analysis Of The President's Budget

From tomorrow's New York Times:

In a federal budget filled with mind-boggling statistics, two numbers stand out as particularly stunning, for the way they may change American politics and American power.

The first is the projected deficit in the coming year, nearly 11 percent of the country’s entire economic output. That is not unprecedented: During the Civil War, World War I and World War II, the United States ran soaring deficits, but usually with the expectation that they would come back down once peace was restored and war spending abated.

But the second number, buried deeper in the budget’s projections, is the one that really commands attention: By President Obama’s own optimistic projections, American deficits will not return to what are widely considered sustainable levels over the next 10 years. In fact, in 2019 and 2020 — years after Mr. Obama has left the political scene, even if he serves two terms — they start rising again sharply, to more than 5 percent of gross domestic product. His budget draws a picture of a nation that like many American homeowners simply cannot get above water.

For Mr. Obama and his successors, the effect of those projections is clear: Unless miraculous growth, or miraculous political compromises, creates some unforeseen change over the next decade, there is virtually no room for new domestic initiatives for Mr. Obama or his successors. Beyond that lies the possibility that the United States could begin to suffer the same disease that has afflicted Japan over the past decade. As debt grew more rapidly than income, that country’s influence around the world eroded.

Or, as Mr. Obama’s chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, used to ask before he entered government a year ago, “How long can the world’s biggest borrower remain the world’s biggest power?”

The Chinese leadership, which is lending much of the money to finance the American government’s spending, and which asked pointed questions about Mr. Obama’s budget when members visited Washington last summer, say it thinks the long-term answer to Mr. Summers’s question is self-evident. The Europeans will also tell you that this is a big worry about the next decade.

Mr. Obama himself hinted at his own concern when he announced in early December that he planned to send 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan, but insisted that the United States could not afford to stay for long.

“Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power,” he told cadets at West Point. “It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry.”

And then he explained why even a “war of necessity,” as he called Afghanistan last summer, could not last for long.

“That’s why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended,” he said then, “because the nation that I’m most interested in building is our own.”

Mr. Obama’s budget deserves credit for its candor. It does not sugarcoat, at least excessively, the potential magnitude of the problem. President George W. Bush kept claiming, until near the end of his presidency, that he would leave office with a balanced budget. He never got close; in fact, the deficits soared in his last years.

Mr. Obama has published the 10-year numbers in part, it seems, to make the point that the political gridlock of the past few years, in which most Republicans refuse to talk about tax increases and Democrats refuse to talk about cutting entitlement programs, is unsustainable. His prescription is that the problem has to be made worse, with intense deficit spending to lower the unemployment rate, before the deficits can come down.

Mr. Summers, in an interview on Monday afternoon, said, “The budget recognizes the imperatives of job creation and growth in the short run, and takes significant measures to increase confidence in the medium term.”

Three Interesting NDN Events This Week - Angelides, Clean Tech, America in 2050

Got an action packed line up this week for those either able to make it to lunch in our offices, or watch on-line.  Tomorrow we start with the Chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Phil Angelides, who will be talking about the necessity of understanding where we have been to help inform the decisions about how to best move forward.

Next up on Thursday is the unveiling of a major new paper by our Green Project Director, Michael Moynihan, proposing a new way to help unlock the transformative power of the clean tech and renewable energy revolution.  Michael has been working on this paper for close to a year now, and if these are areas of interest, you won't want to miss it. 

Finally, on Friday, an old friend, Joel Kotkin, returns to NDN with one of the first public events discussing his compelling new book, The Next 100 Million: America in 2050

So, a full week.  To RSVP or to get more information click here.   And look forward to seeing you at one of these wonderful events.

President Obama, Senators Advance Payroll Tax Cut to Spur Job Creation

This week, President Obama and Senators Schumer and Hatch proposed important job creation ideas similar to those advocated by NDN and Dr. Robert Shapiro over the past several months. At the core of these proposals sit payroll tax cuts or tax credits that reduce the employer’s cost of hiring, which NDN has advocated as the most effective way to spur employment in the near-term. 

Dr. Robert Shapiro, Chair of NDN's Globalization Initiative and former Under Secretary of Commerce for Economic Affairs, said this about the White House and Schumer-Hatch proposals:

Reducing the cost to hire at a time when the economy is encountering special problems creating jobs simply makes good economic sense, and reducing the employer's payroll taxes on new hires, when the employer is also expanding its overall workforce, is the most effective way to do it.  The proposals advanced by the White House and Senators Schumer and Hatch do just that. NDN has long promoted versions of this approach, and while there are no silver bullets for unemployment, understanding the dynamics responsible for weak job creation now and throughout the 2002-2007 recovery is a necessary first step to restoring real prosperity. Taking targeted action now by reducing the payroll tax for new hires a vital next step.

NDN congratulates the Obama Administration and Senators Schumer and Hatch for offering this important proposal and will work for the rapid passage of this measure. For Shapiro's advocacy of such an approach, which dates back to October, please see:

  • January 20, 2010, The Path to More Jobs and Growth – "It’s virtually the only proposal that’s actually targeted directly at job creation, and it’s effective because it directly reduces a company’s cost to create new jobs. Its’ projected power to boost GDP follows directly from its success in creating jobs, since the new workers would spend virtually everything they earn, boosting output in the goods and services they choose and the jobs required to provide those goods and services." 
  • December 4, 2009, Video of the White House Forum on Jobs and Economic Growth: Encouraging Business Investment, Competitiveness and Job Creation working group in which Dr. Shapiro discusses this proposal. 
  • December 2, 2009, How to Create Jobs in a Troubled Economy"Exempt from payroll taxes the first $3,000 to $5,000 of wages paid in each of the first two years to new hires by firms that expand their work forces."
  • November 2, 2009, The Storms on the Economy’s Horizon"An even better idea would be to jumpstart new job creation by exempting the first few thousand dollars of wages from payroll taxes."

For more of NDN's work on the economy, please see our backgrounder on "A New Economic Strategy for America."

Staring Down the High Tax, Big Government Bogeyman

In prepping for my Fox News appearance this morning, I thought a lot about that old conservative bogeyman of "tax and spend liberal,"  and the current attacks on Obama for being for high taxes and big government.  I've always thought that one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century conservative movement was to reduce the conversation about our economic future into a purely fiscal discussion, about tax cuts and size of government talk - as if there was no difference between the two.  For in ideological terms, the right has believed that tax cuts and smaller government create growth, high taxes and big government stifle it.  But is this true?


The Clinton Presidency - Raised taxes, size of government shrunk, deficits became surpluses, growth exploded, incomes went up. 

The George W Bush Presidency - Cut taxes, size of government exploded, debt and deficits went to historic levels, most challenging recession in 70 years, incomes dropped. 

Oops.  Guess the conservative bromide of big taxes and big government is just that, a terrible and inaccurate bromide.  The economy is a little more complicated than it first appears, I guess.

Of the many things all this means is that Democrats should not give into arguments and statements which however attractive they may sound are untrue.  My own read of the polls is that people don't want the economic conversation to be reduced to a fiscal one.  They want their government to have a strategy that ensures broad based prosperity first and foremost.  They understand, perhaps unlike Washington, that such a strategy must have many parts, of which taxes and spending are only a part.  The message goal here this week is for the President to stay focused on his "strategy," and explain that his strategy is big enough to actually solve the problem most feel - which is ten years of no income games.

People are willing to give the Democrats time to get the economy going, tackle the deficit, create jobs because they understand more than wealthy folks how long the economy has been bad for them, and reasonably, don't expect it to be fixed overnight.  But the American people are only going to give Democrats time if they feel that the government has a plan big enough to actually fix the economy in the years ahead.  Small bore ideas - like small tax cuts for middle class families as we saw in 2009 - aren't going to cut it.  This is not the 1990s.  The troubles with the middle class and the economy are not small - they are big, perhaps the biggest in all of American history.  Small bore initiatives - the "school uniforming" of the economy - aren't going to cut it this year.  In fact there is a strong argument that doing a series of small things may in fact be the very opposite of what is needed, and reinforce that the President and his party really don't get how tough it is out there.  

And along the way the President and his party will have to do everything they can to stare down the high tax, big government bogeyman who will be very present in the national debate this year.  People don't like taxes, but they will like governments who are unwilling or unable to do what is required for them and their families to succeed even less. 

Last week I penned a piece for Salon on the economic way forward, Crafting A Response to the Rise of the Rest.  You can find it here.

Crafting An American Response to the Rise of the Rest

Salon Magazine asked me and a few others to offer their thoughts on the first year of the Obama Presidency.  My short essay is below.  A version of the essay can be found on the Salon site here. 

Crafting an American Response to the Rise of the Rest

The first year of the Obama Administration was largely reactive to an agenda left by the previous Administration.   The new President and his team have spent their time cleaning up the extraordinary messes left for them – financial crisis, the Great Recession, Guantanamo, exploding deficits, Iraq, deteriorating Afghanistan and Pakistan – and attempting to tackle problems left unaddressed for far too long – climate change and energy policy, health care reform and immigration reform.  

In that regard the agenda of President Obama’s first year was determined to a great degree by the Bush Administration’s strategic reaction to a global political and economic environment which no longer exists.  While President Obama cannot escape the governing inheritance left to him, he can do more to discard the outdated vision and rhetorical framework which came along with it, and begin to offer a much more compelling, modern and Obama-driven take on the challenges ahead and how we must meet them. 

At the core of this 2nd generation Obama narrative must be a strategic response to the most significant transformation taking place in the world today, what Fareed Zakaria has called the “rise of the rest.”  The twenty years of American-led economic liberalization and globalization which followed the collapse of communism has brought – with extraordinary rapidity - dozens of countries and billions of people into the modern economy.  Their growing geopolitical and economic might is creating a radically different global environment than America faced in the 20th century, and arguably even 5-10 years ago when the Bush Administration made the strategic choices Obama is wrestling with today.  

The true scope of this transformation is only really becoming apparent now, and it leaves our new President with the historic opportunity, and tremendous responsibility, to craft a comprehensive strategic response to this global “new politics” of the 21st century.  It will also allow him to extricate himself from the anachronistic rhetorical framework suited for another day and another President. 

This new strategy might have three main elements:

Challenge America To Raise Its Game
– The global economy of the 21st century will be much more competitive for our companies, workers and capital than the century just past.  In the decade since China entered the WTO, for example, median income in the US has actually declined, an unprecedented event we believe is directly tied to more virulent global competition characteristic of this new age.  If America is to have rising standard of livings in the face of what will be extraordinary competition coming from China, India, Brazil, Mexico and many other countries, we will have to raise our game, try harder, invest smarter, accelerate innovation, lessen our exposure to foreign energy sources, over time bring our government's spending and income more in line, modernize our health care system, continuously upgrade our skills and radically improve our public schools.   This agenda is not about enabling the “recovery" of an economic age which will never return, but about building a 21st century American economy and workforce that can successfully compete in a much more competitive world.   

Reimagine the Architecture of Global Governance – The rising powers and their people will want – and deserve – a seat at the global rulemaking table.   We’ve seen the early stages of this new era with the recent discussions about updating the IMF, the swapping of the G20 for the G8 and the assertiveness of India, China and other nations at the recent Copenhagen conference.   The day in which the “Western powers” can call the global shots has come to an end, new arrangements will have to made, and a new and different role for America will have to be crafted.   Existing foreign commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, and our global counter-terrorism efforts, will need to be explained in this new geopolitical context. 

But at the same time America will have to become a much more spirited advocate for ensuring that this new global political table is one where the traditional American formula of free markets, political liberty, democracy and the rule of law is not watered down or worse replaced by a much less liberal global formula.  At this time when so many people across the world are working to improve their own societies is the most important time for America to recommit itself to the values which have done so much to improve the human condition in recent decades. 

Modernize Government So It Can Do More With Less
– With a huge percentage of the federal workforce hitting retirement age soon, it is an opportune time to start thinking creatively about we can reinvent America’s government for the digital age.  Can we replace large bureaucracies with more entrepreneurial, problem-solving oriented, leaner work forces using the extraordinarily powerful set of new digital tools available to them to deliver better outcomes for less money?  Getting more for less will not only help deal with the growing federal debt, but also help free money up to make the investments needed for America to build a 21st century economy. 

By reorienting his government around meeting the challenge of the rise of the rest and a much more competitive age, President Obama can extricate himself from a faded strategic orientation of a bygone era; give the nation a powerful national mission to rally around in the years ahead; and help ensure continued American prosperity and pre-eminence in a vastly changed world outside our shores.

Update: See this related essay about the role of the ever tougher struggle of every day people in recent American elections, The Great Volatility in the American Electorate Today.

The Great Volatility In The American Electorate Today

My thoughts tonight? I repost an essay, The Key to the Fall Debate: Staying Focused on the Economy, I originally published on September 3, 2009.  It ran all day on the front page of the Huffington Post, and I think still speaks to the political moment:

Sept 3, 2009 - The last few months have not been particularly good ones for Democrats.  That's the bad news.  The good news is there a clear roadmap for how they can use the coming months to get back on track, and it revolves around staying relentlessly focused on the economy and the struggle of every day people.  

1) The Lack of Income Growth for Average Families is the Greatest Domestic Challenge Facing America Today.   Depending on how you cut the data, American families have not seen their incomes rise in at least eight, and perhaps, ten years.  Even in the Bush recovery, which was by many measures, robust, median incomes declined, poverty levels increased, debt loads exploded.  The typical American family ended the Bush era making $1,000 less than at the beginning. 

Basic economics tells us when productivity increases wages and incomes rise.  When GDP expands, jobs are created at a certain rate.  Neither of these events took place in the Bush era, leading us here at NDN to argue that there is a large structural change being brought about by globalization that is making it harder for the American economy to create jobs and raise the standard of living of every day people.

That median incomes dropped during a robust economic recovery made the Bush recovery different from any other recovery in American history, and has made the current Great Recession different from other recessions.  The American consumer was already in a very weakened state before the current recession, which is why the recession has been more virulent than many predicted, and why the coming "recovery" might be so anemic.  The economy seems to be going through profound, structural change, making old economic models anachronistic.  We are literally in a "new economy" now, one that is not well understood, and one that is confusing even the President's top advisers. 

Simply put, getting people's incomes up is the most important domestic challenge facing those in power today.  It is not surprising that other issues like health care, energy policy and climate change are being seen through a prism of "will this make my life, my economic struggle better today?" because so many families have been down so long, and things have gotten an awful lot worse this year.   Regardless of what they hope to be graded on by the public, the basket of issues that will do more to determine the success of the President and his Party is both the belief that things are getting better, and the reality that they are for most people. 

2) The Public Believes the Economy Is By Far and Away the Most Important Issue Facing the Nation Today.   In poll after poll this year, the public has made it clear that the economy is their most important issue, with really nothing coming in a strong number two.  The new Pew poll out this week maintains the basic ratio we have seen for months: mid 50s say the economy is number one; 20 percent of the American people say health care is their number one concern; and literally "zero" pick energy (see the chart to the right).

While one could mount an argument that one should not govern by polls, one can also ignore them at their own peril.  The country wants their leaders focusing on what is their number one concern - their ability to make a living and provide for their families in a time of economic transformation - which also happens to be, in this case, the most important domestic issue facing the country. 

My own belief is that one of the reasons the President and the Democrats have seen their poll numbers drop is that they have spent too much time talking about issues of lesser concern to people while the economy has gotten worse.   There is a strong argument to be made that the President and the Democrats have taken their eye of the economic ball, and are paying a price for it.  This doesn't mean the President shouldn't be talking about health care, climate change, education, immigration reform, but they must be addressed in ways that reflects both their perceived and actual importance; and as much as possible discussed in the context of long term and short term benefit for every day people and not abstract concepts like "recovery," "growth," "prosperity," which in this decade are things that have happened to other people. 

We have long believed that the lack of a sufficient governmental response to the increasing struggle of every day people has been the central driver of the volatility in the American electorate in recent years (see here and here).  Given the poll and economic data of recent months it is possible that the conditions which have created this volatility remains, and simply cannot be ignored for too long.

3) The Way Forward - Make The Struggle of Every Day People The Central Focus Of the National Debate.    The great domestic challenge facing President Obama is to ensure that, in this new age of globalization and the "rise of the rest," the country sees not "growth" or "recovery" but prosperity that is broadly shared.  Until incomes and wages are rising again, fostering broad-based prosperity has to be the central organizing principle of center-left politics.  It is a job we should be anxious to take on given our philosophical heritage, and one that we simply must admit is a little harder and more complex than many have led us to believe.  

Luckily, the President has been given three significant events in September to begin to make this rhetorical and governing turn - Labor Day next week, and the G20 and UN General Assembly meetings in late September.  He can use this events to re-knit together his argument, weaving in health reform and energy/climate change (and we believe immigration reform too) along the way.  For there is no broad-based prosperity in 21st century America without health care costs coming down (which has to happen to allow us to cover more people), and a successful transition to a low-carbon economy.  Even though the Congressional committee and legislative process requires these to be separate conversations, in fact they are one conversation, one strategy for 21st century American success, one path forward for this mighty and great nation. 

Vice President Biden's speech about the economy today is a very good start in this needed repositioning.  But much more must be done.  In a recent essay I wrote:

There have been calls from some quarters for a 2nd stimulus plan, an acknowledgment that what the first stimulus has not done enough to stop the current economic deterioration.  This may be necessary, but I think what will need to be done is much more comprehensive than just a new stimulus plan.  Future action could include a much more aggressive action against foreclosures, a more honest assessment of the health of our financial sector, an immediate capping of credit card rates and a rollback of actions taken by credit card issuers in the last few months, a speeding up of the 2010 stimulus spending, a completion of the Doha trade round and a much more aggressive G20 effort to produce a more successful global approach to the global recession, the quick passage of the President's community college proposal, enacting comprehensive immigration reform which will bring new revenues into the federal and state governments while removing some of the downward pressure on wages at the low end of the workforce, and recasting both the President's climate and health care initiatives as efforts which will help stop our downward slide and create future growth.

These are some thoughts on how to re-engage the economic conversation but many other people also have great ideas on what to do now that the specter of a true global depression has been averted, and we have the luxury of talking about what to do next.  Which is why NDN is launching a new series of discussions on the global and American economies.  We begin next week with Dr Jagdish Bhagwati and Dr. Rob Shapiro.  Keep checking back on our site for the next events in this important new series based in Washington, DC but also webcast for anyone to watch no matter where they are.

The bottom line - the recent decline in the President's poll numbers are reversible.  The key is for he and his Party to make the struggle of every day people their number one rhetorical and governing concern.  A "new economy" is emerging in America, and it is not has been kind to most Americans.  Getting incomes and wages up in this new economy of the 21st century is in fact the most important dmoestic challenge facing the country, and one the American people are demanding a new national strategy for.  This fall is the time for the President to make it clear to the American people that he understands their concerns, has a strategy to ensure their success in this new economy, and will make their success the central organizing principle of his Administration until prosperity is once again broadly shared.

Update: In early July I wrote an essay, Not Taking the Presidential Eye Off The Economic Ball, which also looked at some of these same themes.

Join Me This Thursday for Special Presentation - The Dawn of a New Politics

I hope you will join me this Thursday, January 14th for a special presentation, “The Dawn of a New Politics." This hour long presentation takes an in-depth look at big changes happening here at home and abroad which are making the politics of the 21st century very different from the century that just past.  Among the subjects we will take a deep dive into:  

Accelerating changes in global technology and media. Twitter, Facebook, DVRs and the rise of cable TV, smartbooks, notebooks, web video and satellite TV, Droids, Nexuses and iphones, Smartphones, Kindles, Tablet PCs.  A new media and technology age is emerging globally, putting ever more powerful tools in the hands of every day people.  It is radically transforming the way people across the world and here at home communicate, advocate, organize, govern and do just about everything else we do;

Extraordinary demographic changes taking place here at home. Huge waves of immigration.  The rise of the Millennial generation, the largest in US history. America now on a path to be a "minority majority" nation by 2042.  The demographic changes playing out in the US today are among the most consequential in all of American history, which among other things is forcing each political party to forge new and very different electoral coalitions and electoral maps;

Globalization and the "rise of the rest." Twenty years of globalization and economic liberalization has helped bring about what Fareed Zakaria has called "the rise of the rest."  This process has brought about a degree of modernity, education, affluence and access to information to billions of people in developing nations inconceivable even a decade ago, a development with profound implications for America and the world.

This powerful presentation will take a look at all these issues and more, and if you have the time there will be time left for thirty minutes of spirited discussion at the end. For those wanting to make sense of all the political news of the last few weeks this presentation will offer some very relevant context. 

This presentation of “The Dawn of a New Politics” is free and open to the public, so feel free to bring friends and colleagues along. And for those who cannot make it in person, the presentation will be webcast live, in high-definition, for any one in the world to see, starting at 12:15 pm ET. Feel free to forward this invitation on to any one you think might be interested--the more the merrier, in-person or on-line. For those who may have seen earlier versions of "Dawn," this new one is substantially retooled, and will be fresh to anyone who has not seen it in the last six months or so. 

To RSVP for lunch and the in person showing of “Dawn,” please contact Jessica Singleton at To watch live, just follow this link ( at 12:15pm and sit back, watch and listen.   NDN is located at 729 15th, St, NW between H and New York, just a block or so from the White House and Treasury.  The presentation will take place in our event space on the 1st floor. 

For additional reading on the arguments in this presentation, click on the various links below.  

Thanks my friends and Happy New Year to you all.  

Related Reading:

Anticipating the Coming Debate Over Foreign and Security Policy,, 12/31/09

The Key to the Fall Debate: Staying Focused on the Economy,, 9/3/09

Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century, Demos, 7/24/09

Obama: No Realist He, Huffington Post, 6/16/09

On Obama, Race and the End of the Southern Strategy,, 1/4/08

The 50 Year Strategy; Beyond '08: Can Progressives Play for Keeps? by Simon Rosenberg and Peter Leyden, Mother Jones, 10/28/07

A Laptop in Every Backpack, by Simon Rosenberg and Alec Ross,, 5/1/07

The Foreword to Crashing the Gate, 3/7/06 (a book by Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong)

The Iranian Uprising Escalates

As hard as it to get information out of Iran (no foreign reporting is allowed), it is now very clear that something very significant has happened and is in the process of happening there today.  The opposition to one of the worst governments of the modern era is spreading, growing more organic, more national, and from what we saw today even more courageous and brave. 

A NY Times's blog, The Lede, has incredible accounts today of both the insanity of the government itself, and brutal reports from the streets of Tehran and other cities. 

The Obama Administration issued the following statement in response to the widespread murdering of every day Iranians by their own government:

We strongly condemn the violent and unjust suppression of civilians in Iran seeking to exercise their universal rights.  Hope and history are on the side of those who peacefully seek their universal rights, and so is the United States.  Governing through fear and violence is never just, and as President Obama said in Oslo - it is telling when governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation

More soon. 

Update 830pm Mountain Time: Despite the extraordinary steps the Iranian government has taken in recent months to contain the information flow from inside Iran to the rest of the world, we - all of us - are able to watch graphic scenes of Iranian government repression in almost real time.  The people of Iran have through the year desperately attempted to share these images and accounts using the modern tools available to them - mobile devices, facebook, twitter, youtube and email.  That we are able to see so much despite the government's efforts should be a powerful warning to other repressive regimes that there is no going back now in this digital age.  These new tools are giving regular people just too much power. Repression has a powerful new opponent, one of the most powerful it has ever had - the ubiquitous global communications network that really is, truly, always on and increasingly everywhere.

Consider this new passage from The Lede:

The Lede will continue to follow events in Iran and sift through the evidence of protests and clashes posted on the Web in the days ahead. The Iranian journalist and blogger Omid Habibinia notes that this final video we will embed today appears to show a Basij militia building in Tehran burning on Sunday at or near the country’s state-run oil company. The fact that more than half a dozen people can be seen in this clip recording the incident suggests that we will continue to have a lot of material to sort through.

This is why in the midst of the news flowing out of Iran today I tweeted (simonwdc if you want to follow):

Increasingly feels like the great ideological battles of our coming century will be less left vs right, and more open vs closed.

Given all that has happened in the Middle East in recent years, and the role Iran has played, what is unfolding in the streets of Iran may be the most important set of political events taking place any where in the world today.  The global legitimacy of the leaders and institutions in power are being destroyed now, weakening Iran's hand in the nuclear negotiations taking place now, for sure, but also, eventually, weakening the hand of their political allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and other countries in the region.

But it is also a powerful warning to the repressive regimes in the region - US allied or not - that the will of their own people can no longer be dismissed as before.  For a region so despotic these events - cries of death to the current elected President - must be both thrilling for champions of democracy, and terrifying to its opponents.

So given all this, should our President, on vacation, getting a very needed rest, do more? is the statement released today, stronger than similar statements released earlier this year, enough?  What else could be done? Should be done? Can the free nations of the world do more than suggest that we are watching?  The answer, I think, has much more significance than just the events unfolding in Iran now.  It will help lay the intellectual predicate of what we will come to know as the Obama foreign policy doctrine in the coming years.

I weighed in on all this in quite a lengthy essay back when the Iranian Uprising began in earnest. 

I can't stop watching the images coming from Iran, and feel myself wanting to do much more than blog and write.  I end by wishing the people of Iran, potentially sacrificing so much in the face of such a horribly dangerous and repressive government, well in their inspiring struggles in the days ahead.  My thoughts, prayers and wishes are with you.

Tues Afternoon Update: Many news agencies have reported the arrest of Iranian opposition leaders today, and the Lede has more videos of the clashes yesterday.   At his press conference this morning, the President said this about what was happening in Iran:

The United States joins with the international community in strongly condemning the violent and unjust suppression of innocent Iranian citizens, which has apparently resulted in tensions, injuries and even death.

For months the Iranian people have sought nothing more than to exercise their universal rights.  Each time they have done so they have been met with the iron fist of brutality, even on solemn occasions and holy days.  And each time that has happened the world has watched with deep admiration for the courage and the conviction of the Iranian people, who are a part of Iran's great and enduring civilization.

What's taking place within Iran is not about the United States or any other country -- it's about the Iranian people and their aspirations for justice and a better life for themselves.  And the decision of Iran's leaders to govern through fear and tyranny will not succeed in making those aspirations go away.  As I said in Oslo, it's telling when governments fear the aspirations of their own people more than the power of any other nation.

Along with all free nations the United States stands with those who seek their universal rights.  We call upon the Iranian government to abide by the international obligations that it has to respect the rights of its own people.  We call for the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained within Iran.  We will continue to bear witness to the extraordinary events that are taking place there.  And I'm confident that history will be on the side of those who seek justice.

Tues PM Update - The NY Times is reporting that the Iranian government has lashed out at the West, for, I guess, paying attention to its murdering and jailing of its own people. 

Thinking About Avatar This Morning

Like many Americans this past week I went to see Avatar last night with my dad and my two sons.  The buzz on the web about Avatar has been intense, and much more favorable than what the critics have mustered up so far.  Count me in as one of those who thought it was something more than a traditional film, so full of imagination and visual power that it was different in kind than most films today.  It was, perhaps, a portent of what is to come, as advances in animation and 3D - and the ability for visionaries like Cameron - to imagine what to do with these extraordinary new tools available to them today.  

But what is sitting with me this morning is its message.  At its core is a very direct anti-Americanism, or least an anti-corporatist/militarist America, and in that sense it feels very much like a film originally conceived and reactive to the global image of America during the Bush era.  

Without giving away too much for now, I kept thinking that in many ways this film was really designed for a global and not just an American audience.  At its core it is an attempt by a harmonious people to repel the advance of what can best be characterized as American imperialism.  This sentiment is sure to strike a chord with a great many people in the developing world today, and speaks to something that I have been concerned about for some time - that for many in the world today the US has become the latest manifestation of West's imperial/colonial tradition, a tradition which frankly did a great deal of damage to many societies and cultures across the world. 

For American audiences this idea of America as an imperial power rather than as history's most powerful  inspirational liberator will create a narrative dissonance, a non-comforting message during this holiday season.  In our historical narrative and understanding of ourselves, America was born through the overthrowing of an arrogant, greedy colonial power, and has remained - WWII, Cold War - in our minds liberty's greatest global champion.  There really isn't a narrative available in the US today that positions us as imperialists/oppressors, which is why this film will be so jarring for some, and why I think its ultimate audience is global, not here in the US. 

That for many the experience of Western imperialism/colonialism has been so culturally devastating, and there is a great worry and fear rampant in the world today that America rather than a brake on that global tradition has become its latest champion is a global dynamic that I think many American elites are simply unprepared for today.  I have felt it in my travels these last few years.   There is a restlessness out there as societies across the world mature, modernize, and their people become more educated, affluent and information rich.  There is a growing desire for self-determination alive in the world today by the world's rising powers and people, a sense that as they master the first stages of modernization they want to manage the next stages with less intervention  - cultural, economic, political - by the West.  Fareed Zakaria has described this dynamic as the "rise of the rest," which for us here at NDN is seen as a new stage in the recent extraordinary wave of globalization which has spread across the world these last 20 years.  

We are in so many ways entering a new stage in the geo-politics of the globe, something that I still think we are simply not talking enough about here in the US. For many I know there was a naïve sense that with Bush gone the global American image and cultural power would be in "recovery," returning to where it was before the misguided and damaging years of Bush.  But as the current Administration is discovering, the global Pax Americana which kept the world peaceful and prosperous needs to be seen now as a relic of 20th century global politics, and not something that is going to convey to this new century.  New global arrangements, with America in the lead but playing a different role, will need to be fashioned.

So while I am not agreeing with the characterization of the US in Avatar, it cannot be dismissed as the rantings of a Hollywood liberal.   Cameron is tapping into something deep and powerful flowing through the world's rising people today, and in that sense this great movie really be even greater than the historically significant special effects so many have focused on so far. 

Go see it.  It is an incredible film, one of the best I've ever seen.  And feel free to share your thoughts about it here.

Update: In a very short period of time Avatar has broken $1b in receipts, with only a third of that coming from the US.  It has become a truly global media event, quickly.

Update Mon Jan 4 - Gideon Rachman pens this interesting column in the FT, "America is Losing the Free World," which explores some of the same themes.

Should Access to Mobile Networks Be a Universal Right?

A few days ago my friend Alec Ross sent around a link to this statement from State: 

The United States welcomes the United Nations’ final passage of the resolution calling upon the Government of Iran to respect its human rights obligations fully. In passing this resolution, the international community has demonstrated once again its deep concern about the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran and the government’s failure to uphold its obligations under its own constitution and international human rights law.

The resolution, first adopted last month by the UN Third Committee, expresses deep concern over the brutal response of Iranian authorities to peaceful demonstrations in the wake of the June 12 election. It calls on the Government of Iran to abolish torture and arbitrary imprisonment, as well as any executions carried out without due process of law. Furthermore, it calls for the end of execution of minors, as well as the use of stoning as a means of execution. The resolution also calls on Iran to release political prisoners, including those detained following the June election. Finally, the resolution calls on Iran to cooperate fully with and admit entry to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance.

Those in Iran who are trying to exercise their universal rights should know that their voices are being heard.

We should all be pleased the International Community is taking the brutality of the Iranian regime so seriously.  But I kept wondering, throughout this statement, should we putting access to mobile networks in as one of those rights denied by a repressive regime? Iran has repeatedly, and comprehensively, shut down access by regular people to their own mobile devices throughout this recent government crackdown against dissent. 

For some this may sound a little too techie.  But is it? If increasingly the way you connect to your friends, your family, the outside world, the way you get your information, news, conduct commerce, learn, the place you store your photos, your family videos, your messages from your son from school all live on these networks why should the government be able to shut them down?  Is arbitrary imprisonment of a few people really that much more malevolent than the arbitrary, capricious closing down of mobile devices for millions of people?

Obama has floated the idea of access to the global communications network as being a universal human right.  Should it be? 

Would love your thoughts on this one.

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