A debate between The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Richard Lowry of The National Review last Thursday in Grand Rapids offered an overview of President Barack Obama’s first one-hundred days in office. For presidents, the first hundred days has become a barometer for how an administration will perform in the coming years.
In advance of the debate, organizers with the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University said that they hoped for “fireworks” during the debate, but instead, the conversation was surprisingly civil and subdued, even as the two disagreed on a range of topics.
Obama and the Economy
The first issue debated was economy. Moderator Gleaves Whitney read the resolution that dictated the first half of the debate: “Resolved: President Barack Obama’s domestic and fiscal policies will likely make the economy get worse.”
Richard Lowry–representing a conservative view–offered some criticism of Obama’s plan, saying that historically big spending packages fail to stimulate the economy and that the current plan is too small to make much of an impact. He pointed to critics on Obama’s left who have said similar things. He also said that the stimulus includes too much deficit spending and questioned Obama’s motives for pursuing the stimulus–and a good portion of his party’s agenda–before the bank bailout.
Katrina vanden Heuvel said that while the stimulus and bank bailout have their problems, the only other alternative at this point is more recession. She said that spending at the federal level will help and urged more spending–as well as a stronger focus on using the stimulus to build a so-called “21st century economy.” She said that the crisis has shattered the idea that “markets can do no wrong.” She said that the bank bailout is troubling as it rewards those who got us into the current situation and that there is a double-standard when it comes to the bank bailout and the auto industry bailout. She also questioned Republicans sincerity on concerns over deficit spending and pointed to the lack of concern they expressed during the Bush years when they enacted large-scale tax cuts for the wealthy.
Obama on Foreign Policy
The most spirited debate of the night came in response to the second resolution: “President Barack Obama’s security policy represents a fundamental break with President Bush’s and thus will make us safer.”
vanden Hauvel said that while there are breaks with the Bush foreign policy–particularly when it comes to engaging Muslim nations and governing as a peace time president rather than a wartime president–there are continuities. She said it remains to be seen whether Obama will pursue the idea of U.S. as empire and questioned the escalation of the Afghanistan War. She also praised President Obama’s commitment to winding down the Iraq War and ending the use of torture.
Lowry argued that there has not been a fundamental break with Obama’s presidency. He said that the substance of Obama’s Iraq policy is not much different than President Bush’s, he is escalating the war in Afghanistan, and is keeping in place many of the features of the “War on Terror” including the USA PATRIOT Act, the terrorist surveillance program, targeted assassinations, indefinite detention, and leaving open the possibility of using torture. For Lowry, these are arguably good things because they will allegedly make the U.S. safer. He also expressed support for the Afghanistan War, arguing it is the only thing keeping the Afghan government in place.
In her rebuttal, vanden Hauvel provided further criticism of the escalation in Afghanistan, arguing that Obama should rethink the policy. She cited counter-insurgency experts who have said that 400,000 troops would be needed to quell the insurgency and said that the U.S. occupation is inflaming nationalism in the country and is destabilizing Pakistan. She further urged Obama not to lose site of the limits of military power.
Video of the Debate
For those wishing to view the debate in its entirety, it is available below: