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Report Card on President Obama: MIT Experts Assess President Obama on Afghanistan, Climate, and the Economy

11/09/2010 4:30 PM Bartos theater
Richard Samuels, Ph D, '80, Ford International Professor of Political Science, Director, Center for International Studies; Henry D. Jacoby, Professor of Management, MIT Sloan; Barry Posen, Ford International Professor of Political Science at MIT, Director Security Studies Program; Simon Johnson, Ronald A. Kurtz (1954) Professor of Entrepreneurship, Professor of Global Economics and Management, MIT Sloan School of Management

Description: President Obama scored abysmally on his mid"terms. A trio of MIT professors renders harsh judgment on the president half"way through his administration, and their assessments may leave listeners "weeping or depressed," in the words of moderator Richard Samuels.

National security expert Barry Posen reviews the administration's strategy and implementation of the war in Afghanistan. This conflict was adopted by the president and many Democrats as "the right war" following the wrong"headed invasion of Iraq, says Posen. But after investing tens of thousands more troops, and nearly $100 billion a year in Afghanistan, there remains uncertainty about how to complete the mission: to clear out the Taliban, secure critical regions, and build up a successful Afghan police force and government. While the Pentagon seems to support an "open"ended project aimed at defeating the Taliban," the president appears intent on limiting the venture, with the aim of drawing down troops beginning in July 2011.

But Posen is skeptical of the overall project: Afghan politics are corrupt, rife with ethnic rivalries, and the administration is incompetent, so the idea of setting up a government "to compete with the Taliban probably won't work well." Though there are frequent reports of killing Taliban leaders, "many doubt the Taliban can be killed off as fast they regenerate," and there is little chance of serious negotiation with them. The creation of a functioning Afghanistan "looks like a costly, lengthy gamble," but the strategy is driven by politics, says Posen: "Democrats are quite concerned not to appear authors of defeat."

The U.S. missed a vital opportunity to take the lead in addressing climate change, says Henry "Jake" Jacoby. Early on, the Obama administration "hurt prospects for progress," putting healthcare reform first when it had a choice between "the health of the people and the planet." And the administration didn't forcefully back either the House or Senate versions of climate legislation, which attempted to produce an "economically rational" approach to pricing greenhouse gas emissions. Then came the recession, which doomed any chance for moving climate legislation forward, since it "made imposing costs very difficult," says Jacoby.

What troubles him more is that the Obama administration has essentially "given the pulpit over to people against any action, and deniers." Republicans seem to be winning the war of public opinion, claiming that measures against climate change will strangle the economy, and are now pressing to relieve the EPA of its power to regulate CO2. The "outlook is dark," says Jacoby. "The word carbon is not said in polite company, and won't be said in Washington."

While it is a "terrific achievement" that we avoided another Great Depression, Simon Johnson is still "giving out failing grades" to this administration. Although Obama and his economic advisers basically got it right with the stimulus, they shockingly departed from best practices around banking policy, he believes. When major banks flounder, you close some of them down, fire managers, eliminate boards of directors, but "whatever you do, you cannot provide these banks with an unconditional bailout," he says. Rewarding banks for bad behavior is plain shocking and leaves us in "a very awkward and unpleasant position." By making banks too big to fail and sidestepping tough financial reform, he says, recovered banks will fight all the harder against any effort to be reined in. "By building implicit subsidy schemes into the structures in which banks survive," we are stuck with "a few banks with excessive power," and the "administration is responsible for setting us up for serious trouble down the road."

About the Speaker(s): Richard J. Samuels is also the Founding Director of the MIT Japan Program. In 2001 he became Chairman of the Japan"US Friendship Commission, an independent Federal grant"making agency that supports Japanese studies and policy"oriented research in the United States. In 2005 he was elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Samuels served as Head of the MIT Department of Political Science between 1992"1997 and as Vice"Chairman of the Committee on Japan of the National Research Council until 1996. Grants from the Fulbright Commission, the Abe Fellowship Fund, the National Science Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation have supported nine years of field research in Japan.

Samuels' next book, Securing Japan, will be published in 2007 by Cornell University Press. His previous books include Machiavelli's Children: Leaders and Their Legacies in Italy and Japan, a comparative political and economic history of political leadership in Italy and Japan,and "Rich Nation, Strong Army": National Security and the Technological Transformation of Japan,and The Business of the Japanese State: Energy Markets in Comparative and Historical Perspective.

His articles have appeared in International Organization, Foreign Affairs, International Security, The Journal of Modern Italian Studies,and The Journal of Japanese Studies.

Samuels received his Ph.D. from MIT in 1980.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Center for International Studies

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