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Greece Is Just The Beginning Of The Great Austerity Backlash

Howard Fineman   |   July 6, 2015    7:44 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The global politics of austerity seeped into the press room of the White House on Monday, the day after the Greeks voted overwhelmingly to reject a harsh bailout deal with Europe.

Reporters pressed Josh Earnest, President Barack Obama’s spokesman, for details of what his boss thought of the vote and of the bailout deal, and whether he agreed with 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders that the latter was outrageous. Earnest answered with streams of polite words that added up to ... nothing. Obama was staying out of the issue, as he apparently had promised German Chancellor Angela Merkel he would when they met at the G-7 summit recently.

Obama favors “a package of relief and reform,” was all Earnest would say.

Nevertheless, the exchange with reporters in Washington was another of the many signs that the debate over the power that should accrue to money -- and what those who wield it can fairly demand -- is spreading around the world.

It’s a new echo on a global scale of the politics of a much earlier, but in some ways remarkably similar, era in the U.S. As the U.S. became a continental economy in the late 19th century, with vast new hordes of wealth built in railroads, coal, electricity and communications, a political backlash arose. The new “money power” was judged too big and uncontrollable: an engine not of prosperity, but of inequality and corruption. The backlash launched America's Progressive movement, which among other reforms pushed laws to rein in the power of big corporations in the interests of ordinary people.

Now that the planet’s economies have essentially become one, and the world’s top dozen banks control $30 trillion in assets, the callous demands of a new and even larger “money power” is starting to spark a worldwide backlash.

Even the ever-cautious Obama has alluded to it. This past winter, he defended Greece, saying that “you can’t keep squeezing countries that are in the midst of depression” to pay off debt and warning that "eventually the political system, the society can’t sustain it.”

Around the same time, he sent the U.S. Congress a budget proposal with many new spending plans, declaring that it was time to end the “mindless austerity” of his Republican foes. They responded by proposing their stingiest budget plan in years.

This fall, Obama will again be battling the Republican Party over cutting spending to reduce debt -- even as he declines to get involved in the more intense version of the same debate going on in Europe.

Europe, meanwhile, is likely to see the Greek anti-austerity sentiment spread -- in the first instance to Portugal and Spain, which have national elections this fall and winter, respectively. Governments in both countries are responding to heavy borrowing and debt with controversial austerity measures sure to be at issue with the voters. French and Italian national elections are much further away, but the leftist parties in each nation have been invigorated by the fight in Athens. Representatives of parties and movements in all four countries were on the scene in Greece this week, cheering on the Syriza party and trying to learn from its victories and mistakes.

The leftists face long odds despite growing evidence that what British economist John Maynard Keynes warned during the Great Depression (and what Obama said this winter) remains true: You can’t “squeeze” a country into prosperity. Just the opposite, in fact.

This was something the founders of the International Monetary Fund understood. Their original aim was to provide guidance to national governments in economic distress but also to feed in more money where needed, not cut it back. Today the IMF has become something akin to a collection agency, insisting on harsh measures that guarantee the repayment of loans made to vulnerable countries by private global banks.

Something has to change, as the Greeks declared with their vote this weekend.

Planet Politics: The Bushes Are Back

Howard Fineman   |   June 15, 2015    4:08 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- America’s founders hated what Thomas Jefferson called “an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth.”

So you have to wonder what they would think of Barbara Pierce Bush, the 90-year-old, snowy-haired, tart-tongued, blue-blooded matriarch of the Bush family dynasty, who grew up in the wealthy New York suburb of Rye.

She is the distant cousin of one president (Franklin Pierce), the spouse of one president (George Herbert Walker Bush), the mother of another president (George Walker Bush) and the mother of another son who Monday announced that he, too, is running for president: John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.

Is Jeb Bush “artificial” and thus doomed to be resented and dismissed by average (Jeffersonian) American voters? Is he the kind of aristocrat -- self-made of his own “virtues and talents” -- that Jefferson praised and that American voters often have elected?

We’re about to find out.

As of Monday, being a Bush has been as much (if not more) of a burden than it has been a blessing for Jeb. His family contacts have allowed to him to build a war chest of perhaps $100 million. He has built-in contacts in key states and has no trouble getting attention.

But he has been hampered by questions about his older brother’s controversial record, especially George W.’s fateful decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Almost everyone else in America, including his hawkish rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, have now branded the Iraq War an ignorant, colossal mistake.

And yet Jeb seemed surprised when asked about it, and at first defended his brother out of what he said was family loyalty. After days of dodging hesitation, he finally joined with rest.

And he has the burden of inheriting, by inference, his father and brother’s reputations as relative ideological moderates, especially by the Tea Party standards of today’s hard-right GOP.

Jeb has tried to prove his conservative bona fides by being stoutly opposed to abortion and gay marriage. But his family’s history of more open-minded views make Jeb’s own cautious moderation on immigration and public education all the more suspect to the right.

Bush unveiled his campaign slogan Monday and it was one word and an exclamation point -- "Jeb!" -- with no mention of "Bush."

As he enters the race, Jeb is in an unusual position for a member of such a prominent, if not historic, family: not really a clear front-runner, and nowhere near a prohibitive favorite.

The smartest money at this moment is on two much younger men, both more conservative and utterly self-made: Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

In theory, the world’s oldest modern democracy should see a constant churn of names and faces in high places. In truth, political dynasties in America are common and, arguably, becoming more so at a time when Big Money -- personal and corporate -- means so much to the conduct of elections.

And with Jeb’s announcement, the United States and the world face at least the possibility of a 2016 campaign between two dynasties: the Bushes and the Clintons.

And it would be a familiar exercise. From 1980 through 2008, the U.S. conducted seven general elections with a Bush or Clinton on the ballot.

There are advantages to the Bush name and tradition -- and not just connections and access to a giant contributor list.

The Bushes “aren’t the freshest fruit in the basket,” said historian Evan Thomas, who has written extensively on the family. “But they appeal because, to a lot of people, they project an old-fashioned image of service to the country.”

They also have a knack for embodying elements of social change -- a kind of dynasty by adaptation, if you will. H.W. Bush moved to Texas as a young man, just when the U.S. “Sun Belt” was becoming the base of the new Republican Party; George W. cemented that trend and built upon it.

Jeb Bush settled in Florida, now the ultimate “swing” state. And, as fate would have it, he is well positioned to woo the now most influential voting bloc: Hispanics. He speaks fluent Spanish, and has been married since 1974 to Columba Garnica de Gallo Bush of Leon, Mexico. The couple has three children, one now in politics, too.

When Jeb and Columba’s kids were young, the first President Bush referred to them jokingly as “the little brown ones.” The comment was seen as a colossal gaffe; now it’s a potent truth.

In his two terms as governor of Florida, from 1999 to 2007, Jeb Bush -- pushed along by the rightward drift of his party -- took mostly conservative political positions: pro-life, anti-gay marriage, pro-massive tax cuts and anti-business regulation. There were exceptions, on environmental issues, immigration and education standards, but he moved to the right on those and others as he prepared to launch an appeal to the GOP’s core voters.

All the while he and the family have kept their ties to their old base in New England -- roots symbolized by the Bush summer home at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport, on the Atlantic coast of Maine. Jeb is even building a vacation home in the family compound. It’ll be ready next summer.

“The Bushes have the capacity to embody shifting demographic realities,” said historian Jon Meacham, whose book on the first President Bush, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George H.W. Bush, will be published in November by Random House. “It’s the combination of Walker’s Point (in Maine) with Texas and Florida that has made them a durable political force.”

What some might call aristocracy by adaptation others call by less flattering terms: elitism and the power of corporate money.

The Bushes are all too aware that now is not a moment to be thought of as a professional politician, let alone the scion of a political dynasty. American voters -- indeed, voters worldwide -- have soured on politics as it falls ever more tightly into the grip of ultra-rich individuals and global corporations.

Even Republicans -- the party of business, tax cuts and corporate power -- are facing a grassroots rebellion with the kind of populist fervor that could make life difficult for Jeb Bush.

“I sincerely hope the Bushes are done,” said a top GOP strategist who is working for one of Jeb’s Republican rivals.

“The only thing he has got is name recognition and establishment money,” said this adviser, who insisted on anonymity. “And he would be the worst of all candidates to run against Hillary, because we would lose the advantage on the ‘dynasty” argument.”

Jeb, at 62 years of age, has another, more personal burden: The elder Bushes have always considered him their child most suited to be president. Failure now would be a bitter family scenario.

Jeb was the “smart one” -- the academic, almost wonky one. He was a superb student at the University of Texas. He enjoys reading detailed papers as much as his older brother, former President George Walker Bush, enjoys reading the sports pages. He is the master of every topic he discusses, which are many. Most of the time he can duck and dodge skillfully, or take a stand and drive his point home.

And he is tall -- 6’3”, or 1.92 meters, a good 4 inches or more taller than W. This matters to the Bush family: they like tall and lanky. It comports with their idea of themselves. In 1991, at a White House state dinner hosted by his father and mother, George W. joked to Queen Elizabeth that he was “the black sheep in the family.” He meant, in part, the runt.

Two years after their father lost a bid for a second term, Jeb and George in 1994 began their political journeys to the top. Jeb ran for governor of Florida; George for governor of Texas.

The assumption outside the family was that Jeb would win and George would lose. The hope WITHIN the family was that, if only one of them could win, it would be Jeb.

But, to almost everyone’s shock and surprise, it went the other way -- and the rest, as they say, is history.

Twenty-one years after his early train to the White House ran off the rails -- and after years of soul searching, family heartache (a daughter with drug addiction troubles) and a religious conversion to Catholicism -- Jeb is in.

In the summer of 1994, I flew with him in a small plane across central Florida. He was on his way to a campaign stop in that first, ultimately unsuccessful run for governor.

We flew over the Everglades, the vast, precious and famously threatened wetlands and wildlife refuge. He looked down at the lush expanse below and launched into a discussion of how the water flowed in a shallow invisible river.

In the air, he sounded like a knowledgeable would-be public servant.

But when we landed at a small rural airport in central Florida, a group of his father’s old political retainers and allies came out to the plane to greet him. They didn’t know him well, but they treated him with automatic respect, affection and loyalty.

It did seem a little aristocratic.

Anti-Globalism Has Its Day In DC

Howard Fineman   |   June 12, 2015    4:32 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- The American capital isn't Madrid or Rome, let alone Athens. No people are massing in the streets, governments aren't collapsing and no one is threatening national bankruptcy.

Still, in its own way, the American political system on Friday dared (in at least one legislative vote) to question the benefits of globalization, reflecting the mood of European protesters that have soured on austerity and the power of the European Union.

The U.S. economy has recovered from the Great Recession more successfully than much of the rest of the world. But at the same time, the gap between the richest and the rest has grown into a chasm of historic proportions. In real terms, wages of average Americans haven't moved upward in more than a decade. Meanwhile, CEO pay has skyrocketed.

The House, led by President Barack Obama's erstwhile Democratic allies, derailed his push for a sweeping new trade agreement with 11 Asian countries, and other technical measures designed to enhance the global flow of investment, jobs, manufacturing and telecommunications.

After decades of supporting such deals -- backed by U.S. corporations, establishment opinion leaders and presidents past and present -- a coalition of Republicans and Democrats said no, for now.

The long-term benefits of unfettered global trade, such as they are, are less vivid and dramatically evident than a closed factory, a payroll cut in half or an American company unable to adapt to waves of cheap imports from Asia. This is especially true in the U.S. industrial heartland of the Midwest, but also in much of rural America, where patriotism and resentment of outsiders can sometimes play a larger role in the equation.

Past trade bills have “ruined millions of middle-class jobs,” said Rep. Sander Levin (D), whose Michigan constituency has been hard-hit.

There are numerous lesser reasons why Obama lost the vote as well. For most of his six years in office, he and his superbly credentialed -- but often arrogant and insular -- aides have shown nothing but disdain for the workings of Congress and its members. The president went to a baseball game here on Thursday specifically to plead his case with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who represents a constituency -- San Francisco -- that is as ardently pro-free-trade as any in the country. He went to Capitol Hill Friday morning to plead his case en masse to Democrats.

Pelosi and a large contingent of Obama's own party, however, ended up voting against him.

In voting to put the trade deals on an unpalatable "fast track" earlier, the U.S. Senate inserted -- and the White House accepted -- a provision to pay for retraining workers by cutting federal health care spending by $700 million. That gave House Democrats the tactical opening they needed.

There was also the fact that the details of the deals are effectively secret: Members of Congress can only read them in a secure room without being able to make copies. That mechanism -- fairly routine in trade talks -- did nothing but add to suspicion and cries of elitism around the world.

But there are deeper issues at play.

Poll after poll shows that American voters know that free trade in theory can be a good thing -- and that in any case it's all but inevitable -- and yet they are increasingly skeptical about whether the benefits of it are spread equitably.

What good is a cheaper imported shirt from, say, Vietnam, if you don't have a good enough job to afford it in the first place? And what about the fact that the average CEO now makes more than 300 times the salary of the average worker -- 10 times the ratio of 20 years ago?

These are some of the same questions being asked across Southern Europe by populist movements that have shaken governments, particularly in Italy, Greece and Spain.

Here, there are no workers in the streets. In Washington's way, it was all handled by the lobbyists -- and for once (and it rarely happens these days), the labor unions and their allies won.

Obama & Co. will be back. The need to strengthen Asian trading ties as China rockets to supremacy in the East may in the end be the president's most urgent and effective sales point.

But if American workers are going to be put at risk in the process, Obama needs to admit it, and explain his case more clearly.

France Aims To Save The Planet, Despite 'Blockages' In Congress

Howard Fineman   |   June 9, 2015    2:56 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- A leading French advocate of a global climate change agreement said Tuesday that she thinks President Barack Obama is “committed” to a deal and that he can work around the expected resistance in Congress.

Segolene Royal, France’s minister of ecology, sustainable development and energy, cited an environmental agreement that Obama recently signed with China and the strong climate control language of the G-7 communiqué issued in Germany earlier this week.

“I believe personally that President Obama is committed,” said Royal, speaking to reporters in Washington. “I understand that Congress may not be as committed. That is what I have been told,” she said.

“I am also told that it is possible for the president to move forward even if there are blockages in Congress,” she said. “I see the president using all of his powers to push forward.”

Royal is visiting the U.S. to lay groundwork for the upcoming United Nations climate change conference, known as COP21, to be held in Paris this December. The goal of that conference is a global agreement on climate issues.

But there are indeed “blockages” in Congress -- antagonistic Republicans and even some Democrats from states rich in coal, oil and gas reserves whose economies could be hit hard by the kinds of limits Obama wants to impose to stop global warning. That's why the White House wants the deal to be done under existing U.N. mechanisms -- and not as a separate, freestanding treaty that would require a Senate vote.

Royal’s comments aimed to reassure European and other leaders who doubt that any environmental agreement with Obama will stand.

The French, who will chair the COP21 conference, are determined to help broker the kind of binding agreement that has eluded earlier climate meetings. Having spawned the language and much of the practice of diplomacy -- and the word “diplomacy” itself -- the French see a chance to make history, playing what they regard as their unique role in forging universal moral principles. (They also see a marketing opportunity.)

Royal, 61, is an interesting choice for a high-profile role in that effort.

Once a rising star in French politics, she ran for and lost the presidency in 2007, after which she lost a succession of other lesser political contests. She also found herself in a messy, public feud with the father of her four children -- none other than the current president of France, Francois Hollande -- and his mistress.

But now Royal is back in a very visible post. She's been here in the U.S. for nearly a week talking climate change issues and honoring bilateral ties by hosting parties aboard a replica of a warship that delivered French troops to fight alongside the Americans in the Revolutionary War.

On Tuesday, she talked at length with reporters about the rollout of meetings and statements that will lead up to COP21. (She did so under the watchful gaze, and with the occasional guidance, of the highly respected French ambassador to the U.S., Gerard Araud.)

A gathering of religious leaders of all faiths and denominations is planned, she said, and the agreement's drafters are trying to hammer out final language before December.

A key moment will occur later this month, Royal said, when Pope Francis issues an encyclical on the environment that is widely expected to match the sentiments, if not the language, of the agreement being drafted for Paris.

“I believe it is going to be a very key moment,” Royal said. “It will depoliticize the topic.” When the pope spoke in the Philippines in January, she noted, he drew six million people to one event.

“No head of state could do that,” she said with a laugh.

Hillary Clinton Grabs Early Lead In The World Primary

Howard Fineman   |   May 29, 2015   12:00 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- This April, London was in the grip of a ferocious campaign for Parliament. But on the morning of April 13, neither Conservative David Cameron nor Labourite Ed Miliband led the front pages of the U.K.'s national newspapers. The big news that day was Hillary Clinton, announcing (to no one’s surprise) that she was running for president of the United States.

And so far, she seems to be winning the race overseas.

A recent YouGov poll found that 61 percent of Britons and 59 percent of Germans have a positive opinion of Clinton, while just 20 percent and 24 percent, respectively, see her in a negative light. Fifty percent of Britons and 51 percent of Germans think it would be good for the world if she were elected president.

The former secretary of state is also a hit elsewhere around the world. In Canada, admirers stood in line for nearly 20 hours last year for signed copies of her book. Her speaking fees may be controversial in the U.S., but she spoke to sold-out crowds Up North who were happy to pay.

A Huffington Post examination of Clinton's reputation -- conducted by the HuffPost editions in the U.K., Canada, India, France, Italy, Germany and Greece -- found that Clinton is both widely known and well-regarded for her life story: a feminist, wife and mother with a decades-long career as a public figure in U.S. politics and global foundation work.

Interviews and media reports in those countries produce a portrait of an experienced, durable, almost obsessively well-traveled member of the U.S. establishment, toughened by hard personal times -- a solid, if not glamorous, figure.

To officials and voters alike in those countries, the possibility of a Clinton presidency doesn't suggest radical policy changes. Rather, they see in Clinton a steady hand and a social inspiration.

She was a "proactive Secretary of State," said Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a German who is vice president of the European Parliament, "very important experience, especially in the age of globalization and in times of major geopolitical shifts." Her "left-leaning" policies are similar to President Barack Obama's, he said, "but as the first woman in the highest office in the U.S. she would be a great inspiration for women and girls all over the world."

In Spain, Greece, Italy and elsewhere, the move has been toward “scrap-heaping” the aging political classes, said Lia Quartapelle, a younger member of the Italian Parliament. But that impulse doesn’t apply to the 67-year-old Clinton, she said.

“Hillary is considered an extremely experienced politician,” Quartapelle said. “Her candidacy might prove to be a reassuring element for a country that still shows some last signs of crisis. Her candidacy could count on this image of grandmother-in-chief.”

Clinton is admired -- or at least respected -- for her decades of world travel as first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state. But officials and regular citizens alike were vague at best, suspicious at worst, when asked to judge her accomplishments and strategic vision as secretary of state.

“As secretary of state, Hillary didn’t make any particular impression in Italy, neither positive nor negative,” said Guido Moltedo, an Italian journalist and essayist. “Her stature was neither heightened nor diminished.”

In America, much of the media and all of her enemies focus on the cash that the nonprofit Clinton Foundation has raised and on the emails that she has (or has not) disclosed. They muse on whether she is too suffocatingly familiar an establishment figure to satisfy the American yen for “change.” They wonder about the benefits and risks of her long, sometimes tumultuous marriage to Bill Clinton.

But the various HuffPost sites found that the same life history that makes her vulnerable at home renders her a credible, popular and even reassuring figure abroad.

Voters around the world may not know the details of Clinton’s State Department emails, but they know -- and remain surprisingly moved by -- the sordid Monica Lewinsky saga of nearly two decades ago. While U.S. feminists have criticized her for standing by her man, that sentiment doesn't seem to be widely shared elsewhere. Indeed, Clinton is more likely to be praised for moving beyond the Lewinsky years.

“Hillary Clinton has a rather favorable image in France based on how she dealt with the Lewinsky scandal,” said HuffPost France’s Maxime Bourdeau, as well as "how she bounced back by following her own political career.” That whole episode, he said, “was seen here as a private matter that should never have become as huge as it did in the U.S.”

In Italy, according to Moltedo, “Italian women recognize that ... she faced down a decidedly complicated situation with courage and maturity.”

Clinton's familiarity with and around the globe may be welcomed in a world weary of surprises from presidents who were either disastrously ignorant (George W. Bush) or precariously naïve (Obama).

Just as Britons readily offer an opinion of her, she knows the U.K. well. Clinton campaign advisers were key players in those recent elections, and she is close to the Milibands.

India is another place where Clinton looks good.

“Hillary Clinton has a positive image in India, mainly because of her engagement with the region,” said HuffPost India’s Anirvan Ghosh. “She is perceived as having a good understanding of the issues facing South Asia.”

A top Clinton adviser, the late Richard Holbrooke, was deeply involved in the region, and the Clinton Foundation's work gives her a different insight into India’s grassroots problems. As a result, Ghosh thinks that a President Hillary Clinton would “continue the recent momentum and push for greater cooperation” with India.

Her familiarity with other areas of the world is a relief to international policymakers. “Hillary has always paid close attention to trans-Atlantic relationships,” said Moltedo. “The same cannot be said for her Republican adversaries.”

Marietta Giannakou, a former member of the European Parliament from Greece, sees Clinton as part of the team that has been moving the U.S. away from Bush’s my-way-or-the-highway approach. Or as Giannakou put it, the Obama administration’s “departure from a less monolithic and unilateral stance towards a more discursive and multilateral approach to global and regional issues.”

Views of Clinton appear to be tempered by views of the U.S. more broadly -- not surprising for an establishment figure.

“Nobody can credibly say whether or not the world and the United States in particular would benefit from another eventual President Clinton,” said Massimo Teodori, an Italian historian, politician and writer. “One thing is for sure: The next president will have to completely redesign the United States’ role in a multipolar world. No one wants us to return to the use of force and 'imperial' arrogance that we’ve sometimes seen come into play during the 20 years following the end of the Cold War.”

A certain degree of skepticism likewise arises in conversations with Greeks. Young professionals and students there seem divided between personal respect for Clinton’s toughness and doubts about her as a politician.

“She is a dynamic woman who seems unstoppable,” said Victoria Alexiou, an architect and interior designer. “But on the other hand, she is a Machiavellist who will do anything to get what she wants. She was keen on the imperialist policies [of the past presidents].”

Maria Chatzianagnostou, a student at the University of Athens, was more upbeat.

“Hillary Clinton is a strong woman who can sustain a political career,” she said. “She managed to comply with the demanding duties of her position. Her election could be a good thing.”

And observers on the left, whether in Athens or Berlin, see one other chief virtue in Clinton: the electoral power to keep the other side out of the the White House.

"All that will happen is that she will be the first woman to occupy the office," said Katja Kipping, chairperson of the Left Party in the Bundestag, "and that, luckily, no Republican will win the election."

Christoph Asche contributed reporting from Munich, Giulia Belardelli from Rome, Maxime Bourdeau from Paris, Anirvan Ghosh from New Delhi, Jennifer MacMillan from Toronto, Marialena Perpiraki from Athens and Ned Simons from London.

Hillary Clinton Is Pitching Herself To Millennials

Howard Fineman   |   May 19, 2015    7:33 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Is Hillary Clinton actually moving left, and if so, why?

The answer is yes, though not on every topic. And the reason is to push young voters' turnout and grassroots organizing enthusiasm as close as possible to the levels that President Barack Obama enjoyed in 2008.

“After two terms of President Obama, it won’t be easy, but our challenge is to again excite the passion of the youngest voters,” Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta told fellow Georgetown Law Center alums at a luncheon last week.

The campaign aims to fire up millennials with both a tailored approach to the issues and innovative use of technology. For the latter, the team recently brought aboard a former high-ranking Google manager to push new initiatives in social media and big data-guided outreach.

As for issues, Clinton advisers and Democrats close the candidate say she will focus on matters of particular appeal to those voters ages 18 to 33. The idea is that she will go strongly to the left on social issues, move somewhat less left on economic issues, and remain a centrist on foreign policy, military affairs and terrorism.

The target areas include climate change and other global environmental concerns, and social issues broadly defined -- including support for same-sex marriage; a path to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants; and criminal justice reforms such as changing harsh sentencing rules, reducing the current reliance on incarceration and opposing "militarization" of local police forces.

Clinton also plans to take a measured, big-picture approach to dealing with the overbearing influence of corporate wealth and the resulting public cynicism. She will advocate a higher minimum wage and support a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision. But she's not about to become an all-out, rail-against-the-banks populist in the manner of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). And as she did this week, Clinton will talk up the role of small business and innovation.

Especially on climate and social issues, the calculation is that the entire electorate has rapidly moved left, led by the youngest voters, whose views on the full range of these topics is starkly more liberal than those of the oldest voters. It’s become almost too easy to ridicule Republicans speaking to young audiences as “out of the mainstream.”

“On climate change, some of the Republicans remind me of Alfred E. Neuman,” said Podesta last week. “What, me worry?”

Economics are a closer question among millennials. Their distrust of big-government solutions is robust; their doubts about the efficacy of programs such as Social Security is deep. They believe in entrepreneurship, if for no other reason than that the old pyramid of lifetime hiring is gone.

So far, Hillary Clinton has avoided taking firm stands on the Keystone XL pipeline or the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. If and when she is forced to do so, she’ll flat-out reject the former, one adviser predicts, and look for less-than-sweepingly ideological reasons to temporarily oppose the latter.

If the goal is to instill passion in millennials, however, there is little reason to dwell on foreign policy, or so it seems. A recent poll shows that the current crop of youngest voters is noticeably less worried about terrorism than the previous cohort.

The overwhelming American consensus is that the Iraq War was a mistake and that the bomb-and-drone approach to ending terrorism and making the U.S. safer hasn’t worked. But that doesn’t necessarily mean voters want the U.S. to withdraw from the world. It’s more likely to mean that voters, especially millennials, don’t see the "Global War on Terror" as central to the 2016 contest. So even though Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state is her top official on-the-job experience, she isn’t going to make it the centerpiece of her campaign.

Republicans will still dwell on what she did and didn't do at the State Department. But it’s doubtful young voters will care.

How Barack Obama Led Us Into The Selfie Century

Howard Fineman   |   May 7, 2015    7:43 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- A new era in American politics was only faintly visible when The Huffington Post debuted on May 9, 2005. The changing time manifested itself in two ways. One was the incandescent smile of a freshman senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. The other was an emerging wave of social media -- Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and, yes, HuffPost.

Ten years later we're living in the Selfie Century, in which individuals and tribes (some ancient, others assembled virally overnight) contend with traditional institutions (such as nation states, governments, political parties and corporations) for control of public life. The next 10 years will be suffused with that tension.

Other conflicts will also shape the decade ahead: the ever-growing gulf between the richest and the rest; the costly chaos of climate change; the possibilities and pain of creating a truly multiracial, multiethnic society; the threats of belligerent nationalism (China and Russia) and bloodthirsty theocracy (the militant mullahs in Iran, a “state” that falsely claims the banner of Islam).

But winning these other battles will require social and digital media to educate and empower people of good will in the United States and around the globe. How do we reach so many individuals without losing the privacy that makes free thinking possible? How do we push governments and corporations to focus on people, not merely the amassing of money and metadata? How do we disrupt unresponsive leadership and yet still govern ourselves?

Obama did not necessarily set out to start this conversation. In 2004, Howard Dean had been the first presidential candidate to really use the Internet as a medium-is-message organizing tool. But Obama took it from there.

I interviewed Obama several times back then and since. The power of his personality, intellect, energy, biography (biracial, reared by a single mom, international experience) and ease with people he doesn’t know -- all were impressive, marketable and instantly, if somewhat distantly, charming. Anyone who saw the young senator in the corridors of the Capitol in the spring of 2005 knew -- and knew that he knew -- he was going places.

It wasn’t clear when. The Republicans were large and in charge, or so it seemed. President George W. Bush had just won a second term, though barely. The GOP controlled both houses of Congress and was rising in the states. Bush’s war in Iraq (which Obama had utterly opposed) was grinding on, and yet an exuberant economy (irrationally exuberant, in former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan's words) allowed Bush to cut taxes and support some generous new programs, such as added drug benefits for seniors.

But that same year saw the Bush unraveling. The reason was Hurricane Katrina. It produced pictures of an unconnected and seemingly callous president gazing down at a devastated New Orleans from an aircraft. That, plus his lack of granular knowledge of his aides’ actions, crippled him politically.

America wanted a connected president.

So it’s no accident that Obama and social media rose together. They were made for each other. However cool he could be in private -- and the air around him can get frigid -- he and his presidential campaign amassed 20 million “friends” on Facebook. He was the sunny side of a new day to his supporters, while his intimate omnipresence provoked deep fear among foes, who saw him as some kind of Orwellian force. He dug even deeper digitally in 2012, mining mega data to target a get-out-the-vote drive with far greater pinpoint accuracy than ever before.

The conventional wisdom about the Obama decade is that he was a better candidate than he has been a president. But that may be wrong.

Though income inequality has grown on his watch, the United States (and the world) avoided economic catastrophe in 2008 and 2009, and the U.S. economy overall is reasonably strong again. The president had a lot to do with that.

He pushed through an expansion of health care, taking the risk despite an utterly rejectionist GOP. The launch of Obamacare was an unholy administrative mess. But it has become more useful and popular, and Republican candidates won't have much of a target in 2016 -- if they even try to shoot at it.

Obama promised to end the war in Iraq and did so, even if Islamic State militants have filled the void in some parts of that country. He wound down the war in Afghanistan, too -- a war he said was necessary to fight. While the results in that region are mixed at best, U.S. political strife over the conflicts has died down. GOP presidential candidates decry Obama’s alleged foreign policy weakness, yet there is little talk in Republican ranks of pouring troops back in.

There have been glaring failures in the Obama years. His robust use of drones abroad and digital surveillance at home has been unnerving to supporters, who thought his background as a constitutional lawyer would make him more cautious. Only recently, and well after being safely re-elected, has he highlighted the ruinous poverty and neglect of African-American communities in beleaguered cities, where local cops and citizens struggle to find peace.

Once he promised the nation renewed civility, bipartisanship and unity. But he could never overcome or outmaneuver GOP petulance. Their stance shocked and annoyed him, and after a while, he stopped bothering to try. The result: a further decline in trust of leaders and government.

Ironically, the dangerous toxicity in public debate that Obama hoped to calm thrives on the same social media that boosted him. Social media can enable tribalism or worse. Even as it shines a light on public and private misconduct, it can aid those who would respond violently or give tyrants the power to suffocate dissent through constant surveillance.

If social media is to live up to its promise, we have to figure out how to use it to do more than win an election or stage a protest or make a point or sell a product or promote ourselves. We have to use it to help heal the country, find answers to pressing problems and nurture a global community that is suddenly aware of its own existence.

In other words, the next decade is about using social media for the benefit of society. Let’s hope it works.

Can Rand Sell '60s In 2016?

Howard Fineman   |   April 7, 2015    2:05 PM ET

LOUISVILLE, K.Y. -- Jimi Hendrix’s trippy/soul version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" was on the sound system in the Galt House ballroom just before Rand Paul’s campaign kickoff.

The sign behind Rand on the stage as he spoke was too long for a bumper sticker, but it also echoed the 1960s: "DEFEAT THE WASHINGTON MACHINE/UNLEASH THE AMERICAN DREAM." Of course: We are all leashed dogs, enslaved by a relentless, soulless, distant (and warmongering) government. Somewhere, Ho Chi Minh is smiling.

When Rand began to speak about the ills of America, he sounded like a guy with a bullhorn at an Occupy rally.

“Both political parties and the entire political system are to blame!” he shouted.

Personally and philosophically, Rand Paul is (and is selling himself as) a foe of the System. Even though he has trimmed some of his antagonistically libertarian and isolationist views, he is at heart a rage-against-the-machine guy. He likes to argue and fiercely thinks he is right. He likes to take on things that are bigger than he is.

His claim is a barrier-crossing, outside-the-system youthfulness: adept at social media, critical of the war on drugs, outraged at invasions of privacy by the government, skeptical of war as a means of achieving peace and eager to reach out to African-Americans and other minorities.

Kids of the “Facebook generation” don’t want to jail people for victimless crimes, bail out the big banks and allow intrusions into their lives, he told the cheering and largely youthful crowd. They believe that “what happens on your cell phone is none of anyone’s damned business.”

Nor do they want the “droning of American citizens” -- an issue that brought Paul to the U.S. Senate floor for a 13-hour standing filibuster that made him a national figure.

“Stand with Rand” was a hot phrase on Twitter, and is now a campaign slogan. But there are some serious risks in his Jimi Hendrix strategy.

One is whether he can temper and channel his anti-establishment vibe in a time more of sullenness than boiling anger, a time when people fear a rising generation of terrorists and the Republican Party is still more traditional than Rand claims to be.

He punches above his weight. Without his Texas cowboy boots, he can’t be more than 5 feet 6 inches tall, give or take an inch. He has always looked younger than his age, now 52. He grew up as “Randy,” shortening it to Rand on the understandable advice of his wife, Kelley Paul. “When I first met him at a party I thought that he was 18,” she said in a video shown at the event. “He was 26.”

He can be short-tempered, especially when confronted by those who insist on disagreeing with him. “Wait until he runs into some annoying woman in Iowa and she gets in his face,” said one conservative in the crowd, who insisted on anonymity because he wasn’t a Rand supporter. “He’ll have had three hours of sleep. Let’s see what happens then.”

But the biggest risk is that he can’t become -- let alone be seen -- as the same kind of trimming, deal-making politician he denounces.

There are some signs that he is at risk. Tuesday's event was slickly orchestrated -- as slickly as that of any Washington insider.

His hawkish remarks about Iran make him sound like just another Republican. And then there's his deal with GOP insiders in Kentucky to be on the ballot as both a Senate and presidential candidate in March of 2016. There will surely be other deals down the road.

Another obvious risk is that Paul is running what amounts to a general election strategy, with a broad message aimed at swing voters in the middle. But his first early direct sale will have to be in states such as Iowa and South Carolina, where GOP voters are far more traditional, hawkish and religious.

But in the meantime, he got a rousing send-off here. The song they played when he was done was “Break on Through to the Other Side” by the Doors.

Rand Paul Ready To Run As His Own Meme

Howard Fineman   |   April 7, 2015    7:41 AM ET

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Rand Paul is Kentucky's junior senator and the son of another GOP politician, but when he launches his presidential campaign here Tuesday, he won't dwell on his regional, party or familial roots.

Louisville is the home of one of the most powerful Republicans in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has endorsed Paul. But McConnell won’t “Stand with Rand” on Tuesday. He'll be far away in a corner of the state attacking President Barack Obama.

The candidate's father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, ran for president repeatedly as a libertarian Republican and still has a dedicated following. But dad won’t speak at the launch, and it wasn’t clear until the last minute that he would even attend.

None of them would aid the message Rand Paul plans to send.

In his pre-launch video, Paul stands alone in front of the camera, an Ayn Randian figure taking on the crushing Washington “machine.” It’s an image made for the stark symbolism of the Internet, for a generation of young adults reared on digital games. It's an image meant to go viral among American voters.

When he announces his bid for the White House, Paul will present himself as -- and try to become -- the first social media-native, crowdsourced candidate for president. He is candidate as meme.

And so, after his announcement with the reporters and the cameras, Paul will go online to host a Q&A on Facebook.

He and his advisers think that this out-of-the-ether-and-onto-the-net-everywhere strategy is both the medium and the message: a digitally distributed way to “disrupt” Big Government.

It’s about who the candidate is and how his campaign is run, as much as about what he says and the policies he espouses. Just as Barack Obama first campaigned for president on the basis of who he was and wanted to become -- “We are the change we have been waiting for,” he famously said -- Paul will try to make the way he connects with voters the point of his candidacy.

Such a strategy could help him avoid discussing certain inconvenient stands and beliefs, such as his doubts about climate change, gay marriage, historic federal civil rights laws and Israel’s role as a special ally of the United States.

It could help distance him from his father’s sometimes squirrely views on topics such as the evils of “fiat” money.

And it could help him obscure his reliance on the kind of old-fashioned, time-honored political dealing that will ensure he can run simultaneously for president and for re-election to the Senate. (Even John Galt needed a job.)

All of this makes a man named Vincent Harris a key player in the pageantry not only of the presidential announcement but of the entire campaign.

Harris is a social media guru from Austin, Texas. He worked for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), now a presidential candidate too, for three years before switching over to the more purely libertarian world of Rand Paul. Harris' views on the campaign suggest a lot about Paul’s approach to politics and, if he is elected, to governing.

Harris and I talked on the eve of Paul’s announcement:

Are you going to stay based in Austin or, for this campaign, will you be at headquarters?

Austin is one of America's tech hubs. Dubbed "Silicon Hills," it has some of the best entrepreneurial talent in the country. The campaign will be tapping into Austin as well as Silicon Valley talent, and I will travel between the two tech hubs and central campaign.

How do you think that Rand Paul’s campaign is going to break new ground in terms of use of social media, big data, whatever?

It's already been shown that Senator Paul is willing to engage in a different way online. He wants to use digital not to talk at voters but have a two-way dialogue with them. Senator Paul is uniquely positioned in the potential field on both sides of the aisle to be the digital candidate of 2016. I watched him in action at the South by Southwest tech conference. Everywhere he went, people walked up and said they shared his viewpoints. Young, normally complacent 20-somethings were engaged at his speech there.

He is putting together the infrastructure to [break new digital ground] with offices in both tech hubs. Digital will permeate all aspects of the campaign. Fundraising, voter contact, grassroots, all will be driven by digital and a strong centralized database infrastructure.

Around the Super Bowl, the senator asked supporters around the country to print out and create paper footballs called "liberty football" and take a picture with them. People across the country did! And he highlighted them on his social channels. That's the type of digital campaign he will run -- one that empowers supporters and volunteers, who are the most important asset in a campaign after the candidate himself.

So the "launch" of a presidential campaign these days isn't really for the traditional PR, but as a direct organizing tool?

President Obama broke down digital barriers. He blazed a path on how to run a proper digital campaign. Senator Paul will walk down the path and blaze a new one. So much has changed since 2012 and certainly [2008]. Millennial moms are using their smartphones as their primary source of news. How can a politician reach them?

What will be different about Senator Paul is that he wants his supporters to take part in the campaign itself. What objects do people want to buy in a campaign store? Can you help us design graphics? Are you talented at video editing? Here are raw video files -- create your own. Be a brand advocate for the senator. We want to utilize our supporters' talents. That is the modern-day door knocker. That will be Rand Paul's digital volunteer.

Empowering individuals. Decentralization. This is the core of the senator's ideological philosophy and it will play out in this campaign.

The email exchange was edited for length and clarity.

Planet Politics: What The Iran Deal Means For Obama's Foreign Policy Legacy

Howard Fineman   |   April 2, 2015    5:49 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- His hair almost fully gray now, his tone somber but earnestly hopeful, President Barack Obama stood in the White House Rose Garden Thursday and made a case for the centerpiece of his second term, for his vision of how to handle dangerous enemies, and for his own role in history.

This was Obama at his own personal summit, carrying out what he views as his destiny: a coolly practical peacemaker.

Invoking three Cold War presidents -- John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan -- the 53-year-old Obama, still young by global statesman standards, claimed to have reached, with Iran, a tentative deal for the ages.

In doing so, Obama said, he and his Big Power partners were showing how, in the 21st century, military might is not the only way, or even the primary way, to advance the cause of peace.

At one point, Obama remarked that at the height of an earlier, more dangerous era of confrontation with the Soviet Union, a young President Kennedy had said, “We should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate.” Kennedy ultimately negotiated, as did Nixon and Reagan in later years. Arms limitation deals arose. The Soviet Union collapsed.

The Iran deal, if and when finalized, will be to Obama’s second term what the Affordable Care Act was to his first: an unforced, high-risk, presidency-defining choice. Once again he is diving into a complex, seemingly insoluble problem. Once again, he risks not only failure but also further division in an already dysfunctional American political system.

His critics took only minutes to begin denouncing the tentative deal. The Republicans who control Congress will almost certainly try to derail it. And even if they act in good faith, they may well modify the deal so severely that Iran will walk away.

There are many reasons to doubt Iran’s intentions -- not least because, as Obama himself acknowledged, Iran continues to deploy terrorists worldwide, build missile systems and use proxies to control capitals like Baghdad, Beirut and Damascus, as well as, now, the country of Yemen.

It’s not just the Israelis who fear Iran. The Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have sectarian and ethnic fears about Shiites and Persians that stretch back a thousand years.

But if there has been one consistent motif to Obama’s public life, it has been his willingness to look for answers that do not begin and end with military force.

It was an anti-war speech about Iraq in 2002 that ultimately allowed Obama to get the inside track on Hillary Clinton in 2008. His pledges to end military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan were key to his victory in the general election.

The American people wanted the opposite of what they had come to see in President George W. Bush -- a bombs-away “decider” who knew little and cared less about other cultures, and who had no imagination for solutions not military in nature.

Will the Iran deal work? Will it fall apart politically in the U.S.? No one knows, but Obama can perhaps take some comfort from the fact that he has already lived the domestic version of this narrative.

Consider Obamacare.

It was complex beyond measure, with so many interrelated parts that even experts had trouble comprehending it all.

Republicans in Congress hated it, and tried to defeat it any way they could.

Obama had staked everything on the deal, seeing it as the crown jewel of his economic and domestic agenda. He was constantly on the phone with the negotiators. He knew the details.

In the end, Obama won. And Obamacare is working much better than its GOP critics claimed it would.

On Iran, the president is arguing, in effect, that he is even more skeptical than Reagan was in his day. While dealing with Soviet leaders on nuclear arms control in the '80s, Reagan vowed to “trust but verify.”

Obama insists that he doesn’t “trust” Iran at all, and he assures us that the world -- specifically, the International Atomic Energy Administration -- can indeed “verify.”

Well, the Iranians have successfully hidden secret nuclear facilities for years. Now Obama is saying that “a diplomatic solution is the best way” to prevent Iran from doing it again.

It may take many years to know whether Obama is right. But no one should be surprised that he has faith in his own strategy.

The Presidential Bid Of Ted Cruz, The Reddest Meat Of The Right

Howard Fineman   |   March 23, 2015    8:32 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- The audience should have belonged to Sen. Rand Paul. After all, the thousand or so clean-cut millennials in the D.C.-area ballroom were members of Young Americans for Liberty, a student group founded by Paul’s father, former Rep. Ron Paul.

The kids chuckled appreciatively as Rand unspooled his tart, college-dorm-room disdain for government. But he didn’t fire them up. Neither did Utah Sen. Mike Lee, the thoughtful-sounding son of a Reagan-era U.S. solicitor general.

The man who got them cheering, who got them going, who got them roaring with derisive laughter and bubbling with anger at the depredations of liberals was: Sen. Ted Cruz.

Striding the stage like Elvis (if Elvis had been a college debater at Princeton and a brilliant student at Harvard Law), Cruz was the firebrand whom the conserva-geeks wanted to either meet or become.

That was more than a year ago, when the first-term senator from Texas was still in the hard-right afterglow of his bid to shut down the government in a vain (in both senses) attempt to stop Obamacare.

Much of the rest of the country (including Republican leaders in Congress) viewed Cruz as a vaguely scary renegade, and the GOP establishment’s official grumpy grandpa, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), dismissed him as a “wacko bird.”

But the Young Americans for Liberty loved his loathing of the party elders, and his determination to shove a stick between the spokes of the System.

And it is that emotion -- across-the-board opposition to every “liberal” idea that exists, and disgust with the System in all of its manifestations -- that Cruz hopes to tap for the energy he thinks can somehow lift him to the presidency.

Uncorked anger doesn’t usually win presidential nominations, let alone presidencies. People want hope and uplift in the White House and not just expressions of outrage. The president is the person who is supposed to make things work.

To some, the 44-year-old Cruz gives off a vaguely scary aura of cheerful menace. For now, as Cruz officially announces his 2016 bid, he is nearly an asterisk in the early GOP polls, well behind somewhat less apocalyptic personalities, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

But there are several reasons to take Cruz seriously.

The first is that his angry approach may fit the times. Even as the voters depend more and more on government and politics -- perhaps for that very reason -- their regard for the machinery of both continues to plummet to new lows.

Cruz doesn’t like either party, and neither do the American people.

And he has the tools with which to attack.

Cruz is a driven, laser-focused character. Even his liberal law professors at Harvard regarded him with a mix of awe and dread.

He was grown in the intellectual petri dish of second-generation combat thinking about conservative strategy, led by the Federalist Society.

Cruz beat the establishment in Texas like a drum. They hate him for it, but he is also going to raise a lot of cash in, yes, Texas.

He is as pure an across-the-board conservative as it is possible to find in what has to be regarded as the big leagues of politics: culturally, fiscally, in monetary policy, in foreign policy.

Cruz is triple 7s on the slot machine of issues: anti-abortion, a global-warming mega-skeptic, to the right of Likud on Israel, anti-immigration to the max, big on defense spending, etc.

He is a libertarian, traditional conservative, war hawk and evangelical Baptist son of a preacher who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba. There are plenty of philosophical and tactical contradictions in Cruz’s construct, but he ignores them all.

His array of hot-button positions and his hunger combine to make him, on paper, a potential force in the early primary and caucus states, where true believers matter most.

He is an academic star with two Ivy League degrees.

Yet he is making the formal announcement of his candidacy at the Falwell family’s evangelical enterprise, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.

At Liberty, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, they don’t teach evolution; they teach what their website calls a “robust, Young-Earth creationist view of Earth history.”

Cruz is an anti-intellectual intellectual, if there is such as thing. And that could be just perfect for the Republican Party of today.

When Wendell Ford Gave A Stemwinder, You Believed

Howard Fineman   |   January 23, 2015    2:56 PM ET

WASHINGTON -- It was decades ago, and I forget whom Wendell Ford had come to Louisville, Kentucky, to stump for. But who the Democrat was mattered less -- it always mattered less -- than that Ford was there to speak on his or her behalf.

"Get ready for a stemwinder," my Courier-Journal colleague Ed Ryan told me. Ryan, who could be a tough character, said this as if talking about a beloved if faintly comical uncle.

The memory rushed back to me Thursday when the word spread that Ford, after a long battle with cancer, had succumbed at the age of 90.

Back then, we gathered in a union hall on a hot autumn day somewhere in Jefferson County. Ford had recently been elected to the first of his four terms in the Senate. Still, it was clear that Washington would never turn this Kentuckian into a sedate, smooth-talking grandee of the Potomac.

He started his speech in a low rumble, making caustic fun of the Republican candidate, whoever that hapless creature was. Then, voice rising, he declared the Democrats’ devotion to the common man. Finally, he let loose a raspy, three-pack-a-day, foghorn blast of testimony in favor of the character and commitment of what’s-his-name.

And he meant every word.

With the faith of a preacher and the urgency of a tobacco auctioneer, Wendell Ford spent a lifetime testifying to the power of politics and government to help ordinary people -- in Kentucky and across America.

He could play nasty, and he could play rough. But one sensed that he never did it to enrich, ennoble, enshrine or empower himself. He did it because he wanted ultimately to do good and do right. And that meant he actually had to accomplish something legislatively and not just talk about it! How rare is that in the spin-drunk politics of today?

This is a case of special pleading, but one of the many reasons I liked Ford is that he always had respect -- strained to near the breaking, I’m sure, from time to time -- for the press. In that sense, I identify him with a time long ago when politicians and reporters were natural antagonists but not mortal enemies, when there was a bond of mutual regard not only for each other’s (sometimes well-hidden) decency, but also for Commonwealth and Country.

I love Kentucky, and Ford had a lot to do with it. Things are more direct there, and openly funnier, and laced with a wry appreciation for the stories you tell on a porch in the late afternoon. Once, journalists and leaders could join in. Not now.

Mitch McConnell is capable of that kind of politics, too. The Senate majority leader is no orator, but the fact that he's from Kentucky gives me hope, perhaps naively, that there is a pilot light of warmth (and perhaps a little Henry Clay-like statesmanship) buried within that frigid character.

My father died young, when I was a young journalist in Kentucky. He was a war vet, a heavy smoker, a Democrat, a lover of politics and history. I saw and heard echoes of him in Ford (which, in retrospect, may have cost me some journalistic distance in covering the senator). Both loved America and believed that the fact they were born and raised here was a blessing beyond words.

The last time I saw Ford give a stump speech was in Lexington in 2010. We were on the steps of the University of Kentucky administration building. The sun was shining on a warm October afternoon. All the local Democratic pols were there, and former President Bill Clinton had made it into town to gin up the crowd for Senate candidate Jack Conway.

After a parade of too-long addresses by other worthies, it was Ford’s job to introduce the former president. Among yellow-dog Kentucky Democrats, this was equivalent to Bach opening for Beethoven, or Patsy Cline for Loretta Lynn.

Frail and stooped but still energetic, Ford got to the podium and began to speak. It was as though nothing had changed in 40 years: the low rumble, the rasp, the foghorn blast -- all bathed in late afternoon sunlight.

Ford reached the crescendo. "When Bill Clinton was president," he thundered, "THE STREETS WERE PAVED WITH GOLD!" Everyone laughed and cheered in unison.

And for a second you believed it, because it was Wendell, and he had just given a stemwinder.

Planet Politics: The U.S. Is Back, But Still Cautious In The World

Howard Fineman   |   January 21, 2015   11:30 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- The speech is, after all, called the State of the Union, not the State of the World. So perhaps President Barack Obama can be excused for dwelling on the American economy in his remarks Tuesday night, and all but ignoring the economic and political crises of the planet.

There was lots of talk about how the U.S. has come back from the Great Recession, and about the president's plan (which the Republican-dominated Congress is likely to reject) to use new government programs and tax cuts to make up for the troubling stagnation of middle-class wages.

But however assertive Obama was about the durability and creativity of the U.S. economy, he had little to say about global matters -- from economics to terrorism to the environment.

And if America is indeed "the indispensable nation" its leaders claim, then Obama needs to be more frank, active and visionary about the world than he was on Tuesday.

There was, to begin with, barely a mention of Paris. The president uttered all the usual boilerplate about tolerance and the essential peaceable nature of religions, but he sounded no new alarms and proposed no new ideas for dealing with a justifiable planetary obsession with terrorism.

This has consequences everywhere, including America, where -- now that the economy is strengthening -- some polls are beginning to show terrorism and national security among the top voter concerns.

The president tiptoed past a lot of topics related to war as we now know it.

Drone strikes are not a foreign policy. No one believes that the U.S. is truly finished with military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. And what evidence is there, really, that Iran is bargaining in good faith to give up the nuclear-power status its leaders clearly covet?

Meanwhile, it's difficult to see how the president's "middle-class economics" proposals will counteract the truly injurious aspect of globalized capital -- the relentless downward pressure on wages.

But the man who joined former President George W. Bush in bailing out and protecting the American financial industry will not suggest systemic global reforms. And he didn't do so on Tuesday.

Instead, he pushed for a sweeping new trade agreement with countries in Asia other than China. He surely has geopolitical reasons for doing so (the U.S. doesn't want a Chinese hegemony in the region). But Obama did not mention what the U.S. unions know, that such a deal would be a mixed blessing at best for the very middle class he wants to save.

Finally, of course, there was talk of global warming. On this score, the president offered as evidence of progress his deal with the Chinese to limit carbon emissions -- a welcome development, to be sure.

But if scientists are correct that the odds of catastrophe are soaring higher all the time, then the president had a duty to propose an urgent, sweeping plan on Tuesday -- and to offer to use his newfound confidence to make it happen.

There was surprising swagger in Obama's step Tuesday night. But it surely seemed more impressive to those within the U.S. than those outside of it.

Planet Politics: America's Bloody Conscience

Howard Fineman   |   December 10, 2014    8:21 AM ET

WASHINGTON -- Fourteen years ago, Sen. John McCain took his wife and son with him back to Hanoi, Vietnam, where he had spent six years as a suffering and tortured prisoner of war.

The family stood together in the small concrete cell in which he had lived -- barely -- with broken bones yet unbroken will.

Surrounded by TV cameras and reporters (I was one of the latter), the family gazed solemnly at the scene. The wife and son had tears in their eyes; McCain seemed at times to be fighting back a welling memory of fear, bitterness and fury.

I remembered that scene Tuesday, and wanted to retell it for our readers around the world, as we in Washington tried to digest the contents and deeper meaning of the new report on the U.S. use of torture in the so-called “War on Terror.”

America can be a brutal superpower, especially when -- as rarely happens -- it is attacked. Yet it likes to think of itself as a country with more lofty rules of combat and behavior than the run of imperia that have come before it.

Are Americans really of two minds, one without a conscience and one with?

The answer is yes.

The two sides of the American theory of war-making are etched in McCain’s 78-year-old, battle-scarred face.

He was a daringly cold-blooded bomber pilot, eager to rain down hellfire on Vietnam at the height of a disastrous war there.

The son and grandson of U.S. Navy admirals, McCain’s instincts still run toward the making of war and dropping of bombs, whether on Saddam Hussein or al Qaeda or ISIS.

And yet there is another side to the warrior. He was shot out of the sky over Hanoi and spent six years as a prisoner of war. He was tortured. He was beaten within an inch of his life. Under inhuman duress, he did and said things he regrets.

And when the U.S. Senate’s Democrats released the summary of their report on the widespread use and questionable benefits of torture methods during the Bush administration, it was McCain -- conservative, Republican, friend of the Pentagon -- who rose in the Senate to lament the picture painted in the document.

It showed that the Bush-era use of “enhanced interrogation methods” had "stained our national honor," he said. And he meant it.

It’s easy enough to be cynical about what the Democrats were up to in this report. They wanted to heap retrospective blame on Bush and his cronies. Yet at least some top Democrats knew -- or had reason to know -- that their own cry for blood and retribution after 9/11 would lead where it did.

The Democrats wanted to insulate themselves, and by extension, President Barack Obama. The president may not authorize torture, but he nevertheless is raining down drones in Afghanistan -- drones that kill supposed terrorists and innocent civilians alike.

Bush defenders and the Central Intelligence Agency race to defend themselves, and call Democrats complicit. But supporters of the program not only let things get horribly out of hand, they also covered up efforts to find out the truth of what they did.

McCain’s cry was from the heart. His heart is as American as they come, and full of genuine regret for what we did.

Some commentators here are mystified and infuriated by the airing of this report. Why give propaganda ammunition to our enemies, they ask.

But it is in the American grain for us to publicly question -- eventually -- what we do in the name of war and power. If we seem like hypocrites, so be it. The second-guessing is real enough, and the world should encourage us to do more.