From the Executive Editor
In November of 2008, the cover of this magazine announced that "The President Doesn't Matter -- as much as you think." Our point was not just to provoke but to remind readers that, for all the expectations many of us held for the potential of a Barack Obama presidency, the power of the White House is not absolute. Institutions, ranging from the Senate to the Federal Reserve to the military establishment, define the limits of what's possible. The first year of the Obama administration has surely demonstrated that we were on to something. While the president and his inner circle are no doubt responsible for many of the disappointments of his first year, several of those failures can be traced to the forces of stasis and corruption. In this second year, we have a chastened sense of possibility and are beginning to look at areas where progress can be made while avoiding some of the obstacles.
A notable, quiet failure has been the promise to restart the Middle East peace process on a new footing. While the administration's declaration that a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict was in the U.S. interest was potentially transformative, old ways of thinking have prevailed since. In this issue Daniel Levy and Amjad Atallah, both veterans of past negotiations, propose a fresh agenda to get the process moving again.
Also in this issue, we welcome Monica Potts, who joined the Prospect as an associate editor in January. Monica, who spent several years at the Stamford Advocate and The New York Times, writes here about an anti-poverty policy on which progress might be possible because there is long-standing bipartisan interest -- focusing on the role of fathers in poor families, something that Obama has spoken about for years and is now beginning to take action on. And in the chart starting on page 18, we identify some other policies where either bipartisan support or the ability to exercise power through executive order makes significant change possible.
Sometimes, the president really does matter.
-- Mark Schmitt
"Reform" without change
In response to Dayo Olopade's profile of Attorney General Eric Holder ("Eric Holder's War") Stephen Rhode, a constitutional lawyer, writes, "I thought your April Fools' issue had come early when I saw the astonishing March cover story about Holder's 'crusade to reverse the legacy of the Bush Justice Department.' On the contrary, Holder has aggressively defended Bush policies and practices, including detaining terrorism suspects indefinitely without trial, employing the state-secrets privilege, blocking the release of photographs disclosing torture, and continuing the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens. Worse yet, Holder has refused to authorize the investigation and, if warranted, prosecution of any former Bush officials who violated the federal Anti-Torture Statute."
Reader Carol Paris, a member of Physicians for a National Health Program, finds little comfort in Paul Starr's argument (in "Underrating Reform") that the health-care bill, with all its flaws, is a stunning achievement: "Starr suggests that the compromises and concessions made by the Democrats in Congress in no way diminish the legislation's significance. But if anything, this 'stunning historical achievement' only succeeds in shining a bright light on pay-to-play politics in Washington -- and on the spinelessness of the Congressional Progressive Caucus."
Robert Gerald Livingston, a visiting fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., points out an aspect of Germany's economy that Eamonn Fingleton misses in his feature ("Germany's Economic Engine"): "Since 1994, Germany has transferred huge amounts of money from the richer German states in the West to the poorer ones in the East. Financed by a 'solidarity surcharge' of 5 percent on income taxes, these transfers amount to more than the United States' contribution to all of Western Europe in three years of the Marshall Plan -- and they will continue for at least another decade. Germany's Constitution makes the federal government responsible for 'bringing about equivalent conditions of life' throughout the country. Imagine Connecticut agreeing to do as much for Mississippians!"
A Sorry State
Reader Ruth Bamberger seconds Robert Reich's call (in "What Happened to Democracy?") for an end to backroom politicking. She writes, "Using commissions to formulate and recommend policies to Congress should be the exception rather than the rule. However, there may be no other option available to surmount the present impasse in Congress. The Republicans are obstructionist to anything the Democrats put forward; polarization is entrenched; and wealthy special interests currently dictate legislation and finance campaigns. We're in a sorry state, indeed, and until we enact public financing of campaigns and require the TV industry to allocate sufficient free time for candidate debates, forums, and/or town meetings, needed changes will not happen."
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