eyes on the U.S.

President As Enigma: The Seven Mysteries Of Barack Obama

Leading from behind?
Leading from behind?
Philippe Boulet-Gercourt

PARIS - Naive or arrogant? Daring or cautious? Four years after he entered the White House, Obama remains an enigma.

Naive or cunning?
"I never saw someone so competitive. What is the only thing that Barack Obama hates more than losing? Losing twice," confides Robert Gibbs, his former press advisor. But Obama wants to win fair and square. When he plays basketball, he is furious if he thinks any of his opponents are letting him win.

One possible psychological explanation: fatherless and marked by the feeling of being "different," Obama has struggled all his life to be an insider, at Harvard, the University of Chicago, or Washington, by proving his exceptional qualities.

This, however, is the same Obama that the left calls naïve, and accuses of having wasted nearly two years trying to compromise with the right on healthcare reform, before finally being forced to pass the measure without a single conservative vote.

Instead of gauging his strength and coming into the arena ready to fight, Obama believed his popularity and charisma would be enough to create a spirit of compromise, just as he let himself be persuaded that he could demand that Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu stop any further settlements in the West Bank and it would just happen. This seems strangely naive for a fierce competitor.

Outgoing or solitary?
A rock-star president who enthralls crowds, with a radiant smile and contagious charisma-- everyone thought that Obama's arrival at the White House would be the end of the boring, early-to-bed George and Laura Bush era. 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would be an open house for artists, welcoming, engaged.

The reality, four years later: a solitary president who spends his free time mostly with his family. "This is the best spot in the whole White House," he recently told journalist Michael Lewis, pointing to a second-floor balcony. "Michelle and I come out here at night and just sit. It’s the closest you can get to feeling outside. To feeling outside the bubble."

As with Bill Clinton, people get goose bumps when Obama comes into the room. He electrifies those he meets. But the comparison stops there. Clinton was a virtuoso of relationships with the political world, alternating phone calls, cocktail parties and backslaps. Obama, though, often is the despair of his advisors, refusing to pick up the phone to thank, cajole or consult people.

Trusting or arrogant?
The president’s nickname "No-drama Obama" has stuck in all fairness. Obama keeps his temper under control and does not react impulsively. This could be seen during the 2008 primaries, when he was far behind Hillary Clinton, but never seemed to panic. As president, he has never given the impression of reacting erratically to events, like Bill Clinton.

Obviously, there is a thin line between self-confidence and arrogance. Bush's strategist Karl Rove once said maliciously about Obama, "He’s the guy at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette, that stands against the wall and makes snide comments about everyone who passes by." That is unfair. But there was a hint of Obama's top-of-the-class arrogance in the last televised debate, when he said: "I think Governor Romney maybe has not spent enough time looking at how our military works."

Inexperienced or skillful?
Dan Germain, a Texas Republican, says, "I don't know why Obama was elected. What had he accomplished until then? He had spent two years in the Senate without doing anything. Then as soon as he gets elected, he gets the Nobel Peace Prize!"

For the past four years, the Republicans have been trying to promote the image of an accidental, novice president, incapable of guiding the country out of the crisis, while Mitt Romney, in contrast, "knows how jobs are created and destroyed."

A learning period is a reality for every president, and there was no ready solution for a crisis this brutal and unpredictable. Of course, Obama did not arrive at the White House completely unprepared. He was surrounded by many Clinton-era advisors. It is true, though; that it took him a while to understand how Washington works.

According to Ron Suskind in Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, Larry Summers once confided to then Budget Director Peter Orszag, "You know, Peter we're really home alone. There's no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes."

Daring or cautious?
Obama is both. Cautious, when he acted to promote the Stimulus Package or to help millions of homeowners struggling with their mortgages. Cautious, too, when he decided to treat Wall Street with kid gloves in order not to rock the finance boat.

Cautious, however, in foreign policy in relation to China, Russia, or Israel, to the point of being described as a president who "leads cautiously from the back."

That was a few weeks before the Bin Laden operation, and no one since then has accused Obama of being timorous. But he does sometimes-- and only sometimes-- give the impression of being calculating, to the point of backing off from an obstacle rather than trying to overcome it at the risk of injury.

On the left or in the center?
An essay published this fall in Harper"s magazine caused a stir in the microcosm of the American left. Thomas Frank, an influential thinker, writes, What Barack Obama has saved is a bankrupt elite that by all means should have met its end back in 2009. He came to the White House amid circumstances similar to 1933, but proceeded to rule like Herbert Hoover.” The left, in particular, cannot understand how the president could have surrounded himself with men close to Wall Street, like Larry Summers or Tim Geithner.

Paul Krugman, who won the Nobel Prize for economics, is critical too, admonishing the president for a too-timid Stimulus Plan. Krugman does admit the historic importance of the healthcare reform, for which Obama risked his presidency. If he is re-elected, Obama will be able to implement the most important healthcare reform in the American security system since Medicare, the health insurance for the old created by Lyndon Johnson in 1965. That is on the left, isn't it?

Dove or hawk?
It is one of the most familiar zinger of Mitt Romney"s campaign: Obama began his presidency with an “apology tour” abroad. This is not true, of course, but that does not keep Romney from hammering away at the theme. "I will not and I will never apologize for America." Implied, of course, is: as a good Republican, I will be a hawk, unlike Obama who was a dove like Carter.

The accusation is absurd when addressed to the man who approved the extraordinarily daring raid to kill Bin Laden. What is true is that Obama has never given a clear picture of his views on military force. When is it legitimate or excessive, necessary or superfluous? This could be seen in Libya, even if, in the end, it was Obama himself, against the advice of his generals, who decided to save Benghazi. This is seen, too, in Syria. "They had a hard time getting into step with the Arab Spring," says James Mann, author of The Obamians, a book on Obama's foreign policy.

First they changed the paradigm, going from support for dictatorial regimes to a preference for democracy. It was an enormous change, but they have encountered a number of problems in applying this principle to countries like Bahrain. So they have opted for support of "reform." Translation: reform does have to mean a regime change.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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