Wed | Oct 17, 2018

Obama endorsed Portia

Published:Sunday | April 12, 2015 | 12:00 AM

It has been an extraordinary week with the visit by US President Barack Obama and the convergence on Kingston of numerous heads of government and dignitaries. People, including my children and I, spilled out to catch a glimpse of 'the real big man'. Were they listening to what he had to say about Jamaica?

Perhaps the most shocking thing, to my ears at least, was the unofficial, but nonetheless unmistakable endorsement of Portia and her minister of finance.

Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised. Mr Obama has shown himself prepared to do and say things that look very much like endorsements of foreign leaders, even when there are electoral contests on the horizon.

Just recently, the Labour Party in Britain was livid because Obama seemed to endorse Prime Minister David Cameron. The Daily Mail, unafraid of the extended headline, went with 'Brotherly love: Obama gives his 'bro' Cameron an extraordinary pre-election endorsement as his 'outstanding partner''.

So his actions here were not unprecedented.

Anyhow, in case you're wondering if it really was an endorsement, let's consider the facts and circumstances.

Most obviously, Mr Obama could have flown directly to Panama. It's not as if Air Force One was short on fuel and had to stop over to fill up. If he was looking for a small break from Washington, DC, there are many other places he could have decamped for a night. Few nations wouldn't welcome him. Nowadays, it seems even Iran would like a visit. Cubans, I suspect, whatever the feelings of their government, would be overjoyed. So you're pretty much down to Russia and North Korea that would rather he didn't drop in for some small talk.


Message sent


Generally, it's understood that for the president to visit a country is to telegraph a message. The president doesn't decide his itinerary on a whim. And while delivering views on Cuba and Venezuela to the Caribbean was obviously part of his plan, he could have done that effectively from the Bahamas, Barbados, or Trinidad. Packing the presidential toothbrush and alighting for Kingston wasn't a random decision.

Then consider his words. Remember the president isn't a talk-show host or newspaper columnist who can afford to use language loosely. He is carefully and meticulously scripted because his words topple or sustain regimes, move financial markets, and turn the spotlight of the press and public opinion on to issues.

So when he took the occasion of the joint press conference to say, "We support the ongoing reform efforts in Jamaica to deal with its public debt", those are words scripted in Washington that he got on the plane to come here and deliver. Then at the UWI town hall, he responded to a good question by the incoming guild president about debt relief by, first, ignoring the debt-relief portion of the question, then proceeding to say that "the current Government has been wise to work hard and abide by the IMF provisions". He came to say that.

Look, it's an enormously difficult 7.5% primary surplus agreed with the IMF. It was done because we wanted to take their money. And back in 2012, they didn't trust Jamaica's willingness to enact reforms after the last administration buckled under the bitter medicine and ran. They know our history: when it's politics versus economics, the politics wins.


Fiscal management


It's worth pausing to note that there's some irony in Obama stumping for tight fiscal management here. Never mind that it's undoubtedly the right way for us to proceed, it's just that this is also an enormous problem in the US.

The Brookings Institution, a DC-based liberal-leaning think tank, just published a paper titled 'The Federal Debt is Worse than You Think', pointing out that the US federal government will soon return to unsustainable trillion-dollar deficits. On the current trajectory, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office "estimates that the accumulated debt held by the public will reach an astounding 180% of GDP by 2039". This doesn't capture Social Security, Medicare, and interest obligations, which, if included, show a ginormous fiscal gap that strains the English language to describe.

Anyway, what does Obama's endorsement amount to? I think it's too early to say what it means in practical terms. Jamaicans have proven that they will listen to Mr Obama, but they don't take on board his pronouncements uncritically. To give an example, at the town hall meeting, his comments about Cuba would have got, let's call it, nuanced reception. So did his quip about opposing discrimination because of who people "choose to love", his shorthand for gay marriage.

That's because Jamaicans tend to support the liberals in US politics, not least because of their stout defence of entitlements and benefits. But in our own domestic politics, our common social views are far more conservative. And while robustly supporting tax increases when they are to be levied in the USA, we feel oppressed by the lower rate of taxation imposed here. We like him, but we're not taking him on when it comes to certain things.

Still, the explosion of attacks on the prime minister of Jamaica on social media is an indication that the endorsement carries some weight and that some people are worried. It tells me that somebody is running up and down like mad ants because a fire has been placed near to the nest.

It's been pointed out that the most useful political character trait is good luck. Good politicians are lucky politicians. Well, Mrs Simpson Miller, apart from everything else, is lucky. Oil prices are falling, the Venezuelan government is holding on, the Chinese are spending, and Barack landed on The Rock to lend her a hand. He got a reception of more hugs and kisses than he's likely to ever experience again. But equally important, Obama hugged and kissed back.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to