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|October 23-29, 2008
Back to Letters
Two guys named Joe
by Paul Danish
It’s hard to know which Joe is giving Barack Obama more trouble these days, Joe the Plumber or Joe the Senator. Joe the Plumber (actually Sam the Plumber; his real name is Samuel Wurzelbacher) popped into Obama’s life after the candidate knocked on his door while campaigning in Holland, Ohio. Joe (Sam) popped out and asked Obama a question about taxes. In the course of answering it, the candidate volunteered that he would like to use the tax system “to spread the wealth around.”
This was not exactly a revelation — Obama’s proposed tax cut will send income tax rebate checks to the 40 percent of U.S. households that don’t pay income taxes, after all — but it sure reframed the campaign’s economic debate in a hurry.
But it’s Joe the Senator who is turning into the real problem.
At a fund-raiser in Seattle on Sunday, Joe Biden (Joe the Senator’s real name) unburdened himself of the following observation:
“Mark my words… It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking. We’re about to elect a brilliant 47-year-old senator President of the United States of America. Remember I said it standing here if you don’t remember anything else I said. Watch, we’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy. And he’s gonna have to make some really tough — I don’t know what the decision’s gonna be, but I promise you it will occur… I guarantee you it’s gonna happen… And he’s gonna need help.”
The allusion to Kennedy is particularly apt. Kennedy was tested by international crises not once, but three times during his first seven months in office. He flunked all three, and as a result the world came within a gnat’s eyelash of nuclear war the following year.
Kennedy’s three tests were the Bay of Pigs disaster (April 15-20, 1961), the Vienna Summit (June 3-4, 1961), and the Berlin Wall (begun August 13, 1961). In the first, he got cold feet in the middle of a CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba intended to topple Fidel Castro and abandoned the rebel army on the beach. In the second, he tried to be accommodating and willing to compromise in the face of two days of bullying by Soviet Premier Nikita. Khrushchev came away from the meeting convinced Kennedy was weak and indecisive. In the third, he acceded to the construction of the Berlin Wall.
As a result, Khrushchev thought he could get away with placing nuclear ballistic missiles and Soviet troops in Cuba. Kennedy drew the line at that, but the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis almost resulted in nuclear war.
Will a President Obama do any better in responding to international crises in his first year than JFK?
Obama is no Kennedy.
Kennedy was a war hero who shared the values of his generation regarding both American exceptionalism and the need to stand up to totalitarianism. Khrushchev perceived Kennedy as personally weak and indecisive, not as ideologically ambivalent.
With Obama it will be different. Adversaries will see him both as having no stomach for the fight and as being indifferent both to the strategic and ideological consequences of abandoning it.
Why? Because for the two years he’s been running for president he has told anyone who will listen that he wants to cut and run in Iraq. America’s adversaries will have every reason to believe he is telling the truth, and thus to conclude that he lacks the backbone to stand up to them anywhere else.
Joe the Senator (did I mention he’s running for Vice President?) says he can think of four or five scenarios that could turn into international crises generated to test Obama.
No doubt. The world’s bad actors are probably already discussing them. For example:
• A Tet-style offensive in Iraq or Afghanistan or both. “Obama? My brothers, he is already withdrawing from Iraq. He thinks America was wrong to be there in the first place. He won’t come back if we strike. So why not kick the Americans in the ass on their way out the door to make it appear we defeated them?”
• Iran goes nuclear. “Obama? When we chant ‘death to America,’ men like him feel guilt, not anger. My brothers, he is withdrawing from Iraq. He will not get involved with us.”
• A Russian attempt to establish military bases in Venezuela. “Obama? The Cold War is over, so he thinks there is no reason to confront us. Comrades, he is withdrawing in Iraq; he runs from fights, even when he’s winning. So why not go for it?”
And so on.
It was only later, during a fund-raiser in San Francisco, that Joe the Senator thought to add that those who test Obama will find out he has “a spine of steel.”
Try aluminum foil.
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