It’s been a week or so since I’ve had the keyboard time to work on the blog, and a great deal has been happening. So it’s time for an analysis of the headline news, followed in a second post by an epic link-dump.
Obama Cares?President Obama may not be the liberal I and many others hoped he was, but I am increasingly convinced that he’s a very smart guy, and sneaky enough to impress Thomas Cromwell. Given the unprecedented (literally, by the numbers) obstructionism he’s faced on the Hill, the fact that he’s got anything done at all in the last five years is impressive. Everyone’s been watching him like a hawk throughout his second term to see what signals he’d send about federal response to Colorado and Washington passing ballot-legalisation measures for cannabis. Until after the Colorado regulation regime went into effect on 1st January, he said very little and most of not overwhelmingly positive, allowing the Beltway Bandits to fulminate on behalf of the Executive Branch. Then recently he said something very different:
“As has been well documented, I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life. I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”
– Interview by David Remnick of the New Yorker
There’s several intelligent constructs in this very short quote. Firstly, he completely obliterates the idea that smoking weed as a teenager and young adult damages potential life outcomes: he’s President of the United States. Second, he subtly points out that marijuana is not addictive; he struggled to give up cigarettes for thirty years, but reports no issues putting down his bong. Having poked Big Tobacco with a stick, he then pokes Big Booze: that’s a significant line to take, as the direct comparison with alcohol, and the proposal to regulate the industry as alcohol is already regulated, were critical strategic choices in passing legalisation measures in the first place.
Predictably, supporters of liberalisation reacted quickly with a petition to remove cannabis from Schedule I status, which the Executive is empowered to do; after all, the President just said it should be grouped with alcohol, not heroin. This petition will not get Obama to act (sorry, guys) but I do think the tactical shift is important:
The timing of Obama’s marijuana comments is particularly significant, as it comes just after two Democratic governors lashed out at legalization efforts. In Colorado, for instance, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) slammed his state’s voters for legalizing marijuana and promised to regulate marijuana more punitively than alcohol. Similarly, in New Hampshire, Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) pledged to veto a marijuana legalization bill that passed the New Hampshire House.
In both cases, the alcohol-marijuana hypocrisy that Obama referenced was on display. Just as the two high-profile Democratic governors were criticizing marijuana as unhealthy, they were simultaneously promoting consumption of the far-more-dangerous alcohol (Hickenlooper, a beer mogul, hosted a party for his state’s alcohol industry, while Hassan was promoting vodka consumption).
Well, indeed, Mr. Sirota. This is about smoke-signalling. By saying anything this positive, Obama was sending out a clear message to Democratic social conservatives that the leader of their party and the Executive Branch he appoints will accept the ‘States Rights’ argument in this instance. By what he actually said, he reinforced the plank of the current liberalisation platform which has carried most weight across all social affiliations: Democrats, Independents, Republicans, young and old, mid-Western and coastal, white, Hispanic or African-American, urban or rural: it is quite simply irrational that alcohol is legal if cannabis is criminal.
Influence vs. Power in a Madisonian DemocracyPresident Obama is being very clever. Sirota also observes, “Obama still seems intent on trying to pretend he’s just an innocent bystander to — rather than an active participant in — the debate about the drug war. Indeed, while his comments are certainly unprecedented for a sitting president and thus hugely significant, he has a track record of refusing to back rhetoric with action.” And this is exactly how he got DADT repealed, which was the catalyst for change on LGBTQ rights across US civil society. The President knows perfectly well that if he attaches his name to something, Republicans will attack his idea as a proxy for complaining about the black guy in the White House. That’s true even if he nicked the idea wholesale from their Presidential candidate. Unlike Carter, he’s sneaky enough to realise that coming out whole-heartedly in either case, support of gay marriage or opposition the Drug War, would absolutely guarantee the failure of the measure. It would give the racist religious right-wing the excuse they need to mobilise a scorched-earth media campaign, to ‘fire up the base’ in the Bible Belt: black guy, White House, again.
President Obama does not want to be remembered as the guy who legalised weed. He wants to be remembered as the guy who was forced by We, The People to let it happen in spite of his own concerns. And thinking that way makes the eventual success of liberalisation efforts much, much more likely.