Two ideas for rationality from the Obama re-election


The US Capitol building in Washington DC.


Brendan Hoffman

OWLS HEAD, MAINE – Much of what has been written in the week since President Obama was re-elected has focused on the avenues opened to him with a second term under his belt. What, the question is, will Obama do now that he doesn't have to worry about re-election? The implication is so obvious it seldom needs to be stated: a president spends his first four years doing what is politically advantageous so he can get re-elected so in his second term he'll be free to take those risks, politics be damned, to do what is good for the country.

So why not move to a 6-year, one-term presidency whereby whoever is in the White House would focus all his energies, without worrying about his re-election, on the country's business.

But, then, that's hardly the entire problem. With our divide-and-fail, checks-and-balances form of government, how successful can any president be, first, second, or only term, if the other party controls the House? That, of course, is not a problem in a parliamentary system, where, by definition, the party in power has the power.

So why do we have this antiquated form of government, designed some two and a quarter centuries ago, when the motivating concept was that if the chief executive had monopoly control, we'd gradually end up with a monarchy or a dictatorship. Maybe not an entirely irrational fear in 1787, but this is the 21st century. Time is compressed; it took two weeks then to travel from Washington to Boston; it takes less than two hours now; and two seconds to exchange emails (more about that later). The urgent economic and domestic problems we face need urgent solutions. Instead, a stalemated government has its hands tied; we push the problems down the road, we don't solve them.

Why do we permit ourselves to be constrained by a form of government that may have been revolutionary in the 18th century but is stagnant now? One of the true architects of our system of government, Thomas Jefferson, would be appalled at how we sacrifice efficiency for tradition. (And if you want to really look at where tradition has lost its meaning, how about the electoral college -- but we'll worry about that next time the popular vote is ignored.)

Ever the revolutionary, Jefferson saw the need for constant re-evaluation, for continual change, to assure that outdated ideas and conventions did not tie our hands: "The earth belongs always to the living generation," he wrote. "They may manage it then and what proceeds from it as they please."

But changing our form of government may take a little time. So, in the meantime, how about a few less dramatic changes: like a constitutional amendment that would get money out of politics. The Obama-Romney race cost more than $2 billion, not counting what was spent on congressional races. In England, political ads on television are against the law. Now, that's an interesting concept.

Or something a little easier: legalizing pot. Two states just voted to do so. The "war on drugs" over the last 40 years has led to a quadrupling of those in our prisons. Our incarceration rate is approximately 10 times that of Western Europe and triple that of those we deem human rights violators, China and Russia. The "war" itself has been estimated to cost about $1 trillion (that's $1,000,000,000,000), has spawned drug cartels that make the Al Capones of the Prohibition Era seem like two-bit criminals, while creating a vast underclass of casual drug users whose subsequent criminal records will keep them forever on the fringes of society. It will be interesting to see if more states move towards legalization or if, instead, the federal government acts to overturn or neutralize such a sensible approach.

But bottom line: an amendment to get money out of politics, or a move towards wrapping up our failed war on drugs, is about as likely as Michele Bachmann becoming president.

Now that we've unburdened ourselves of weightier but irrelevant political fantasies, let's head back to the real news of the day, General Petraeus and his biographer. One nightly news anchor summed up what he believes should be our focus, "Who knew what, when?" While meanwhile, the more conspiratorial amongst us worry, aping New York Congressman Peter King -- one of the best examples of why Congress's approval rating is in the single digits -- "It just doesn't add up."

What really doesn't add up is why Petraeus is such a hero anyway. Did we win the Iraq War? If so, why is the government of President Maliki closer these days to Tehran than to Washington? Well, then how about the Afghan War? Yeah, I know, it's not over till it's over, but as our soldiers pack up and leave, is there anyone out there who thinks we'll be celebrating our final exit two years hence with a victory march through Manhattan?

So, we've got a hero of two lost wars, a straight arrow now somewhat bent, a model family man who was carrying on an affair through traceable emails -- ok, that's the modern form of communication, but hey, we're talking about the guy who was running the agency that invented breaking into emails. And whose affairee got into a cat-fight with another female friend of the war hero/straight arrow/model family man/CIA chief. Was our hero having two affairs simultaneously? Or perhaps a ménage a trois? And now we've got a shirtless FBI agent who was a friend of the second female friend. A ménage a quatre? And it just surfaced that Petraeus's replacement in Afghanistan has exchanged thousands of pages of emails with the second female friend. Ménage a cing?

No indeed, it doesn't add up. Or, maybe it does, but who can do all the math? My own theory is that Paula, the biographer, purposely set the scandal in motion to promote her book (and sales now, like Petraeus's armies then, are surging). And rumor has it that Paula, even as we write, is in touch with Hollywood negotiating the screenplay. They haven't settled on a title yet -- "Four Stars, Two Wars, Two Women, and The Horse You Rode in On" is the current proposal. Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman are on track for the female leads, and for the spy chief who's gone back into the cold, it'll be Daniel Craig.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East

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Tagged: United States.