TIME nation

Missed Chance on Immigration

Obama had an opportunity to do something great. Instead, he hid behind the politics

A few weeks ago, I was accosted by a guy who said, contemptuously, “I know why you still have your job.” I asked him why, stupidly. Turned out, he didn’t really want to tell me–although he insisted he knew–because he said I’d just deny it. But in the midst of his splutter, other facts emerged. I was part of the liberal media establishment, working in clandestine fashion with President Obama. Our secret mission was to stage an ethnic revolution by allowing all sorts of immigrants through the border and getting them to vote. “People like me tell the truth,” the man said, “and people like you call us racists.” An interesting rhetorical ploy, since it did appear by all the evidence that he was one, although I didn’t mention that … because he’d just deny it.

I report this decidedly unpleasant incident because it is pure distillate of the latest stage of anti-Obama paranoia. The first was that the President was not an American and was quite probably a secret Muslim. The second was that he was a socialist, trying to have the government take over everything–like health care–so that money could be transferred to the deadbeats. Now he’s trying to undermine American democracy by having all these furriners fake their way into our voting booths. The real news here, I think, is that immigration–not Obamacare–will be the hottest of buttons in the November elections. According to a recent Gallup poll, immigration is now the No. 1 issue for Republicans. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that only 3% of Republicans and 2% of Democrats thought Obamacare was the biggest problem.

For the first 190 years of U.S. history, opposition to immigration was mostly about religion–Catholicism and Judaism. For the past 50 or so, it’s been mostly about race–Mexicans and other Latinos. Nativists have always existed in both parties, and they’ve gotten particularly noisy over this ugly summer, as terrified Central American refugees flowed toward the border–which is really why the President decided to postpone his plans to expand immigration rights until after the November elections. The fate of several moderate Democrats, in states where aversion to illegal immigrants is fierce, will determine whether the Senate goes Republican. Nativists have won temporary victories in the past, but it has become clear that there are no limits to the basic American principle: the things we have in common are more important than the things that divide us. Most academic studies show that immigration is a net plus for the economy (unless there is an illegal deluge, which there hasn’t been, despite the recent refugees). “Give us … your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” has been at the heart of the American exception, along with democracy and freedom.

The President has eloquently spoken of this basic principle in the past. With a mom from Kansas and a dad from Kenya, he embodies it. But he has abandoned the high ground and seems a bit panicky now, dodging immigration reform even though he believes in it, thereby offending all sides. There are various explanations, none of them very noble, for Obama’s diminishing ability to convince anyone of anything. I think the problem has been there from the start: he is not a natural politician and, consequently, places too much faith in those who are alleged experts in the art. He buys their discombobulated, amoral strategies. He uses their language: he talks about “optics” when he plays golf instead of spending a vacation day in quiet reflection after an American journalist is beheaded. He sounds cynical. He almost never makes a straight-ahead moral argument. That was true on health care, where he never mentioned the fact that the program was a matter of simple fairness: the poor had medical coverage through Medicaid; the working poor and many self-employed were stuck.

On immigration, he announced his prevarication by telling Chuck Todd, “And I’m being honest now, about the politics of it,” while insisting politics had nothing to do with his delayed action. A working politician should never use the words honest and politics in the same sentence. In this case, the President’s disingenuous claim led to a cascade of rhetorical malarkey. Disappointed Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell blasted Obama for not going through with his Executive Order even though he and most Republicans thought it was illegal. Why would he do that? Because he thought unilateral action by Obama on immigration would help Republicans in November.

There has always been politics. Some of us love its primal intricacy and elegance. But politics without moral content becomes an exercise in competing cynicisms, with progress an occasional, almost accidental, consequence. And in such an atmosphere you have to wonder why Barack Obama is playing games with one of the core issues that define who we are as a country.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

TIME politics

A Battle of Two Veterans

In an edgy political year, a former Marine tests a longtime Democratic pol for a seat near Boston

I first wrote about former marine captain Seth Moulton three years ago–and he got ticked off at me. The story was about the leadership potential of the post-9/11 generation of veterans. I described Seth, who is 35, as “the” Harvard valedictorian in June 2001. “That’s not right,” he corrected me. “I was a commencement speaker. There were others. You make it sound like I’m bragging.” I wasn’t surprised that he got up in my face, though. When I’d first interviewed him, he said of his generation of veterans, “We hate the divisive politics of the baby-boom generation. They’re running the country into the ground.” Oof, I replied.

Moulton’s commencement speech was notable because he used the occasion to announce that he was joining the Marines. He said it was his civic responsibility to serve his country. If he didn’t, someone else would have had to take his place in Iraq, a war he thought was “crazy.” He served four tours there, the first two as leader of a combat platoon involved in heavy fighting. But Moulton’s real distinction was his ability to put together teams of Iraqis to build things. General David Petraeus heard about this and asked Moulton to assemble a team–architects, engineers, construction workers–to build a fort on the Iran border. He would be competing against an American private contractor, who had won a similar contract on the border. Moulton’s Iraqi team finished the job in one-third the time as the private contractor and at one-fifth the cost.

Three years later, moulton is running for Congress in Massachusetts’ Sixth District, which covers the suburbs north of Boston. He is running as a Democrat against John Tierney, 63, a nine-term Democratic incumbent. The winner of the Sept. 9 primary will face Richard Tisei, a formidable moderate Republican who is gay and who nearly beat Tierney in 2012. I know the district well, having begun my career covering politics in Peabody, Mass., centuries ago. Indeed, I covered Tierney’s uncle: city councillor James “Silver Fox” Tierney, of whom the city purchasing manager once said, “If we’d had the wisdom to send the Silver Fox to the [state legislature], he might have put half the city on the payroll.”

That is what politics is like in Boston, or used to be. John Tierney isn’t as colorful as his uncle. He has been reliable but not particularly inspiring. He has been a lockstep liberal vote. When you ask him about the paralysis in Washington, he will cite several recent cases of bipartisan triumph–the Veterans Affairs reform bill–but ultimately blames it all on the Republicans, with some good reason. He is a strong favorite to win the primary, well organized, well funded and well endorsed, by Senator Elizabeth Warren among others.

But he has two very serious problems. The first is the tinge of corruption, which stems from his wife’s rather sketchy family–two brothers, one on the lam in Antigua, who were indicted for their involvement in illegal gambling activities. Tierney’s wife Patrice pleaded guilty to helping her brother file false tax returns as part of the case. The brothers said the Congressman knew everything. A close friend of Tierney’s described the brothers as “dirtbags” who were getting back at Tierney because he refused to help them. The scandal was the big issue when the Republican Tisei nearly beat Tierney in 2012. It remains semitoxic.

In August, retired general Stanley McChrystal endorsed Moulton–the general’s first venture into partisan politics–and said the race was about “character.” I asked Tierney what he felt about that, and he said, “Well, [Moulton] worked for the guy.” Which was not true: McChrystal noted how painful it was for an Army officer to endorse a Marine.

Tierney’s other problem is that this may just be the year when the public starts to toss out incumbents on general principle. I saw several people approach Moulton during a day of campaigning and tell him that it was time for Tierney to go. Moulton has, sadly, become more prudent about what comes out of his mouth–and he has refused to distinguish himself from Tierney on most issues. He’s running on freshness and dynamism. He’s shown some of that in his campaign, joining his staff and volunteers in public-service projects throughout the district. And with more decisions looming on Iraq, he says, “the veterans on the committees that make those decisions shouldn’t only be Republicans.”

At a lovely Democratic Party reception in Gloucester harbor, the local establishment came together to support Tierney. He gave a relatively rousing stump speech, but his friends seemed worried. Jean Villa, a local activist who ran his first campaign, said, “I’ve been talking issues with him forever. He knows his stuff.” But, she added, “I always have a sense of how a race is breaking. This time, I’m just not sure.”

TIME nation

Detroit: America’s Emerging Market

How the city can teach us to reinvest the rest of the U.S. economy

In August, a year after I wrote a TIME cover story on Detroit’s bankruptcy, I visited Motown again. This time I found myself reporting on a remarkable economic resurgence that could become a model for other beleaguered American communities. Even as Detroit continues to struggle with blight and decline–more than 70,500 properties were foreclosed on in the past four years, and basic public services like streetlights and running water are still spotty in some areas–its downtown is booming, full of bustling restaurants, luxury lofts, edgy boutiques and newly renovated office buildings.

The city struck me as a template for much of the postcrisis U.S. economy–thriftier, more entrepreneurial and nimble. Many emerging-market cities, from Istanbul to Lagos to Mumbai, share similar characteristics, good and bad. The water might be off on Detroit’s perimeter, but migrants are flooding into its center, drawn by lower-cost housing and a creative-hive effect that’s spawned a host of new businesses.

Much of the resurgence has been led by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, who a few years back decided to relocate his company’s headquarters downtown, moving from the suburbs to take advantage of the city’s postcrisis “skyscraper sales,” as well as the growing desire of young workers to live in urban hubs. “If I wanted to attract kids from Harvard or Georgetown, there was no way it was going to happen in a suburb of Detroit, where you’re going to walk on asphalt 200 yards to your car in the middle of February and have no interaction with anyone in the world except who’s in your building,” says Gilbert, 52.

Since 2010, Gilbert has created 6,500 new jobs downtown, bought up tens of thousands of square feet of cheap real estate and brought in 100 new business and retail tenants, including hot firms like Twitter, as well as a bevy of professional-services firms. Lowe Campbell Ewald, one of General Motors’ advertising agencies, recently moved back downtown after years in the suburbs, citing better client-recruitment possibilities there. Companies of all types are catering to a growing number of young entrepreneurs who are making the most of cheap real estate (Quicken subsidizes rents and mortgages) and local talent (southern Michigan still has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of industrial-product designers) to create new businesses. For instance, there’s Chalkfly, a dotcom that sells office and school supplies online, and Shinola, the cult-hit watch company that advertises $600 timepieces as “made in Detroit.” Their success is already raising rents–per-square-foot rates have doubled in the past four years–and bringing in tony retail brands like Whole Foods.

The question now is how to spread the prosperity. The answer starts with better public transportation. Motown has always been a disaster in this respect. It used to be that nobody wanted to go downtown; now nobody wants to leave. The M-1 Rail, a new public-private streetcar due to be completed in 2016, aims to link neighborhoods. GM, Penske, Quicken and other firms are contributing the majority of its $140 million cost, and the rail will be donated back to the city within a few years. Studies show that a similar project in Portland, Ore., has generated six times its cost in economic development. In the past few months, officials from New Orleans and Miami have visited Detroit to study the project.

Reinventing Detroit’s manufacturing sector is the next step. That means connecting the dots between the public and private sectors, businesses and universities, and large and small firms. Detroit’s old industrial model was top-down: the Big Three dictated terms to thousands of suppliers, who did what they were told. The new model will be more collaborative. Many of the innovations in high-tech materials, telematics and sensors are happening on campuses or at startups, with the aid of groups like the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The University of Michigan has become a test bed for driverless cars. A new federally funded $148 million high-tech manufacturing institute just opened in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.

One could imagine the automakers playing a key role in this resurgence by investing more broadly in local innovation, via their own venture-capital arms. Ford, which acquired a local digital-radio technology startup last fall, is beginning to do just that. It would provide a much needed injection of cash into the city’s innovation economy and offer the automakers a new line of business.

Ultimately, it will take all that and more to ensure that Detroit’s downtown rebirth grows into a boom that is more broadly shared.

TIME nation

Obama Goes to War (With Congress)

The President began bombing ISIS on his own, but only Congress can start a war

Earlier this summer, Virginia Senator Tim Kaine found himself in the Grand Foyer of the White House playing the foreign policy–hypothetical game with President Obama. Over drinks with some Senate Democrats, the President mentioned Kaine’s article that day in the Washington Post demanding a congressional vote to authorize any new military action against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the armed extremist group overtaking large chunks of Iraq.

The Law Professor in Chief, who campaigned for office promising to rein in executive power, proposed some scenarios. “He’d say, ‘Here’s the situation. Do you think I have executive authority to act?'” Among the possibilities Kaine recalls: What if there is an imminent threat to a U.S. embassy? “We generally agreed on most of them,” says Kaine. But not all.

Two months later, those debates are no longer hypothetical. Since Aug. 8, Obama has unilaterally ordered more than 100 bombing runs on ISIS targets in northern Iraq, citing his authority under Article II of the Constitution to protect U.S. lives and offer humanitarian aid. Hundreds of military advisers have been dispatched to Iraq, along with shipments of lethal equipment to proxy forces in the region. Through it all, the White House has maintained that Obama has no plans to seek permission from Congress, which returns from recess on Sept. 8.

The Constitution gives the President the power to defend the country as Commander in Chief, but it delegates the power to declare war to Congress. Kaine is one of several Senators who believe Obama has stretched his powers about as far as they can go. “I am worried about the consequences of Congress basically saying the President can decide unilaterally which organizations to launch air strikes against,” says Kaine.

The Obama Administration, meanwhile, has been signaling that the conflict with ISIS is likely to expand before it contracts. U.S. officials worry about what they believe are hundreds of ISIS fighters with Western passports who could attack Europe or the U.S. if they return to their homelands. General Martin Dempsey, who chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that defeating ISIS will require action by U.S. or other forces on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. Days later, Pentagon sources leaked news of new U.S. surveillance flights over Syria to better map out ISIS positions, a possible prerequisite to expanded bombing efforts. “Rooting out a cancer like [ISIS] won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” Obama said on Aug. 26. Though the White House insists no decisions have been made for an expanded campaign against ISIS, no one denies that preparations are under way.

The ironies of the situation are striking. A President who helped build his national profile by opposing the war in Iraq now must decide whether to force a vote on a similar military adventure just weeks before midterm elections. But the commander who deferred to Congress rather than launch air strikes on Syria last year may not be able to attract the votes on Capitol Hill that he has in the past claimed to need. “I believe our democracy is stronger when the President acts with the support of Congress,” Obama said one year ago. “And I believe America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together.”

There are plenty of reasons for the White House to avoid a bitter debate over a new war in the Middle East. Obama’s attempts to get approval from Congress for the last round of Syria strikes failed to muster the required votes, and it divided his own party, upsetting many on the left. He has also spent some of his second term celebrating what he described as the coming end to the war on terror, a goal that seems increasingly distant. Congressional leadership on both sides is skittish about a vote. “Neither he nor the Congress wants to have this dance now,” says Jack Goldsmith, who led the Office of Legal Counsel for President George W. Bush. “That’s really what is going on.”

In the meantime, the White House has been searching for a legal justification for a protracted military campaign that doesn’t involve going to Congress. A 2002 congressional authorization to use force in Iraq remains on the books, but the White House announced in July that the document “is no longer used” and should be repealed. That leaves the 2001 congressional authorization to pursue those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, which a White House spokesperson says the Administration is “currently reviewing” to see if it applies to ISIS.

But Obama allies like Kaine, who otherwise supports Obama’s ISIS campaign, say that document clearly doesn’t cover ISIS, which did not exist in 2001. Far from being a partner of al-Qaeda, ISIS has emerged as a rival in the region. And in 2001, Congress rejected a White House request for broader authorization to allow military force against threats unconnected to al-Qaeda.

A third option–perhaps the most likely outcome–is for Obama to declare that his constitutional powers allow him to continue the conflict without Congress. A Vietnam-era law requires the President to seek congressional authorization for hostilities within 60 days of their launch, or begin military drawdowns; that deadline would expire after Oct. 7. But Obama never sought such authorization for the bombing campaign that toppled Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Instead, his lawyers argued that the limited nature of U.S. support for air strikes on Libya did not amount to “hostilities” under the law.

In the end, the greatest risk for Obama in avoiding Congress may be to his legacy. No court is likely to force him to stop military action, and Congress is unlikely to unite around a demand for a vote. But Obama has repeatedly promised the American people a more democratic approach to warfare. As so often happens in the Oval Office, the President must now decide whether to pay a political price to uphold his public vows.

–WITH REPORTING BY JAY NEWTON-SMALL AND ZEKE MILLER/WASHINGTON

TIME nation

Beyond a Simple Solution for Ferguson

Why we need to address race relations in a thoughtful, provocative way

At first, it seemed a perfect metaphor for 400 years of oppression: a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager multiple times. He is shot with his hands up, it is reported, at least once in the back. The young man is a “gentle giant” with no adult criminal record. He seems guilty of nothing more than walking while black, albeit down the middle of the street. This takes place in a town that appears to have been cryogenically preserved from the 1960s, before the Voting Rights Act was passed. An estimated 67% of its citizens are African American; its government is melanin-deprived. The mayor of Ferguson, Mo., is white; 50 of the 53 police officers are white. Demonstrators come out to protest the atrocity–nobody is calling it an “apparent” atrocity yet–and the police respond in gear that makes a St. Louis suburb look like Kandahar.

But the perfection of the metaphor is soon blurred by facts. The gentle giant, Michael Brown Jr.–nicknamed Bodyguard by his friends–seems pretty intimidating in a surveillance video, in which he is seen taking cigarillos from a convenience store, tossing the diminutive clerk into a snack display as if he were a bag of Doritos. The alleged robbery occurs 10 minutes before the confrontation with the cop. The inevitable Rev. Al Sharpton says the video is an attempt to “smear” the young man. Then more facts emerge, and other eyewitnesses allegedly describe a more aggressive Michael Brown–more like the fellow in the video. An autopsy, requested by Brown’s parents, shows six bullet wounds; the kill shot is into the top of the victim’s head–which raises another possibility, that the officer, Darren Wilson, fired in self-defense. And now we have a metaphor of a different, far more difficult sort: about the uncanny ability of Americans to talk past each other when it comes to race relations, and also about the struggle between facts and metaphoric truths.

Sharpton has made a living off metaphoric truths since the late 1980s, when he promoted a terrified young woman named Tawana Brawley, who claimed that she had been raped by six white men, including the local prosecutor. Her story was later shown in court to be false, but the metaphoric truth was undeniable: black women have been casually violated by white men in America for 400 years. The undercurrent was strong enough that few black leaders rose up to take on Sharpton. The fetishizing of black sexuality by white men (and women) was too close to the bone, an infuriating historic truth.

But we have developed new historic truths over the past 50 years. A great many bodega owners won’t see Michael Brown as a metaphor for anything. They see potentially threatening customers every day. Blacks represent 13% of the population but commit 50% of the murders; 90% of black victims are murdered by other blacks. The facts suggest that history is not enough to explain this social disaster.

You can’t convict a terrified, undertrained cop of murder for trying to defend himself, if that’s what the facts show–but all too often in the past, we’ve exonerated racist thugs who were clearly guilty. We can’t ignore the barbarity that got us here: lynching was a fact, too, not a metaphor. Oddly, the election of Barack Obama–poor guy–has blunted the conversation about race relations, at least on the white side. We elected a black man with a Muslim name to be President. What other country would do that? The conversation has also been blunted, honorably, by the President himself in the face of some of the most tawdry race-baiting since Selma. And it has been blunted by leaders of the black community, who don’t want to harm Obama’s presidency by criticizing him. In a recent New Republic article, Jason Zengerle makes a strong case that hatred of Obama mobilized Alabama conservatives to take over the state legislature in 2010 and strip black officials of the power they had gained since the 1960s.

Race remains an open wound. There is a new generation of black intellectuals who are raising the issue in thoughtful, provocative ways. “The Case for Reparations” by the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates is compelling, even if the case is not a particularly strong one. We’ve had 50 years of drastically improved political, educational and employment opportunities for blacks, which have produced a burgeoning middle class, but a debilitating culture of poverty persists among the urban underclass. Black crime rates are much higher than they were before the civil rights movement. These problems won’t be solved simply by the recognition of historic grievances. Absent a truly candid conversation about the culture that emerged from slavery and segregation, they won’t be solved at all.

TO READ JOE’S BLOG POSTS, GO TO time.com/swampland

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