Archive for January, 2010

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2010-01-29

Friday, January 29th, 2010

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Must-Reads of the Week: Obama (mythical figure), Democratic Talking Points, Health Care Misinformation & Defenses of Reform, & Musical Predictions

Friday, January 29th, 2010

1. The greatest Obama myth. Jonathn Cohn in The New Republic asks where the Obama he voted for was – before the State of the Union:

[F]or the first time, at least in my memory, Democrats had a leader who consistently outsmarted not just his opponents but his supporters as well. Over and over again in the 2008 campaign, those of us rooting for him would panic over his strategy. Over and over again, Obama proved us wrong. He had an uncanny ability to block out the noise and confound Beltway perceptions, to ignore the ups and downs of the news cycle in order to pursue broader goals. Even for me, somebody who generally resisted the Obama kool-aid, it was something to behold.

I remember the sensation most vividly during the financial crisis of September–when John McCain suspended his campaign and suggested canceling a scheduled debate, in order to return to Washington. Suggesting that a president should be able to campaign and govern simultaneously, Obama rebuffed the proposal–a move for which, I was sure, nervous voters would punish him. Instead, the public rallied to Obama and rejected McCain. They saw a leader who was unflappable, who had his own sense of direction, and who could manage a crisis.

This cool demeanor became his trademark and, eventually, supporters took to emailing around a photoshop image every time political trouble appeared. If you’re on a progressive mailing list, chances are you saw it a few dozen times–a picture of Obama giving a speech, with the caption “Everybody Chill the F*** Out. I’ve Got This.”

Obama left me with the impression he still clearly had that demeanor and confidence – and the speech left Cohn guardedly optimistic.

2. Democratic Talking Points, 2010. Chris Good at The Atlantic posts the Democratic Senators’ 2010 national strategy memo.

3. Woefully misinformed about the health care reform bill. Nate Silver points out that the support of the various proposals within the health care bill are greater than the support for the bill itself – and that the public is seriously misinformed about the contents of it:

What we see is that most individual components of the bill are popular — in some cases, quite popular. But awareness lags behind. Only 61 percent are aware that the bill bans denials of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Only 42 percent know that it bans lifetime coverage limits. Only 58 percent are aware that it set up insurance exchanges. Just 44 percent know that it closes the Medicare donut hole — and so on and so forth.

“Awareness”, by the way, might be a forgiving term in this context. For the most part in Kaiser’s survey, when the respondent doesn’t affirm that the bill contains a particular provision, he actually believes that the bills don’t include that provision. 29 percent, for instance, say the bill does not contain a provision requiring insurers to cover those with pre-existing conditions; 20 percent think it does not expand subsidies.

4. Pass the Damn Bill. Paul Starr, veteran of the Clinton attempt at health reform, argues for progressives embracing Obama’s health care reforms in The American Prospect:

Even with its compromises, health reform is the most ambitious effort in decades to reorganize a big part of life around principles of justice and efficiency…

5. Do you spend hours each day having fun making predictions? Jonah Lehrer on what moves us about music: the patterns in it, and our attempts to predict these patterns.

[Image by Diego Cupolo licensed under Creative Commons.]

Defending Obama’s First Year in Office

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

When the press mentions the online hordes who gathered on the tubes of the internets to push Obama to victory, they are talking about people like me. I started a blog because (along with my unhealthy compulsion to write) I decided to support Obama in 2007; I raised several thousand dollars from dozens of my friends and online contacts; I sent out emails making the case for Obama to my family; I bought a sign to place in my front yard and attended rallies in Brooklyn and Manhattan; I fought against smears in emails and in the social media (on reddit, on digg, on Stumbleupon, on Facebook, and on discussion boards); and on November 4, 2008, for the first time in my life, I walked out of the polling center proud of who I had cast my vote for.

A year on, there has been much commentary about what people like me think now – the young, the wired, the inspired. Were we were just naive and now feel fooled by Obama’s promise of “Hope, change, blah, blah, blah,” as speechwriter Jon Favreau referred to the Obama’s magic formula? Do we think that Obama sold-out to the banks and health insurance industry? Has he disappointed us with his escalation in Afghanistan? Certainly, a good portion of the left has turned against Obama with the passion of scorned lovers – as demonstrated by the histrionic pronouncements of Howard Dean (who denounced the health care bill as a “bigger bailout for the insurance industry than AIG“) and the Village Voice (which labeled the president, “George W. Obama.”)

I cannot speak for all of my fellow liberal bloggers, my fellow redditors, my fellow Obama supporters – but I, for one, am not disappointed. During the campaign, I saw Obama as – and exhorted others to support him because – he was an idealistic tinkerer. He inspired with his grand rhetoric but his policy proposals and instincts were epistemologically modest. He understood that the status quo was difficult to change, and that change brought with it its own perils. His proposals sought to pragmatically improve our society a bit at a time – creating processes that would allow for organic change rather than imposing radical top-down measures. For anyone who took the time to investigate his policy proposals, this was clear – that Obama had learned deeply the lessons of Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement – that centralized government action always had unanticipated consequences; yet at the same time, Obama had not rejected the lessons of Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton – that government could also do much good, that collective action was needed to shape our society, and that times of crisis called for, “bold, persistent experimentation.”

Obama has met my high expectations; he has governed seriously and with bipartisan substance. His Congressionalist approach has led to a string of legislative accomplishments rarely seen in Washington and a stronger record of spending cuts than George W. Bush. (Though his predecessor admittedly did not set the highest standard.) He passed a massive stimulus bill supported by policy wonks on the left and right, composed of more than a third tax cuts, but including much needed funding for education, infrastructure, and technological innovation. He pulled the nation back from the brink of a financial crisis and recession without nationalizing the banks or bailing them out yet again. He moved America back from the panicked emergency measures adopted by George W. Bush in the aftermath of September 11. He salvaged some deal from Copenhagen despite the Chinese attempts to undercut America’s position. He appointed a moderate, liberal pragmatist to the Supreme Court. He has made many long-term bets in domestic and foreign policy which we have yet to see play out. And of course, there is his attempt at health care reform – combining the most significant attempt at cost control in a generation with the most significant expansion of access to medical insurance. (The two goals being surprisingly compatible as Milton Friedman acknowledged.) Though this last bill still has not had its fate decided, these are serious and substantial accomplishments that form the basis of a solid legacy. Yet Obama hasn’t been able to achieve his core promise: to overcome the Freak Show that has dominated our political discourse for a generation.

This is the one profound disappointment I have with Obama’s presidency to date. His core promise (which helped him defeat Senator Clinton) was that he would be better able to move past the rabid partisanship and petty squabbles of the Baby Boomers – that he could surmount the influence of the “idiocrats” on our political conversations, as they jumped from petty scandal to scandal, from one moment of faux outrage to another. This Freak Show that dominated our political conversation forced politicians to treat their constituents as children incapable of understanding either why their leaders might be less than perfect or that they could not both lower taxes and increase spending forever. As Obama addressed the issue of Reverend Wright in his campaign, he proved he was capable – at least for a moment – of surmounting this Freak Show mentality, treating the American people as if they were adults capable to wrestling with the difficult issues of race and religion. But since this moment, Obama has seemed unable to fully rise above this Freak Show. With the Tea Party demonstrations in August 2009 rallying against “death panels,” handouts to illegal immigrants, “government mandated abortion” and other myths that were useful in rallying the Republican base (if not in describing the bill), he seemed finally to have lost the conversation. Those with legitimate and conservative concerns, as well as those with progressive ones, were overshadowed by the inchoate anger of the hysterical.

Now that Scott Brown has replaced Ted Kennedy – and with the pundits and media figures and Republicans circling – the Freak Show has declared health care reform dead. Again. For Obama to resurrect this bill, to restore the momentum in his presidency, and prove he is capable of governing and dealing with long-term issues (rather than the political posturing which have marked the past 15 years), he will need to break the hold that the idiocrats have over our political discourse and reconnect with his grassroots supporters instead of playing the inside Washington game. While Obama spent his first year focused on governing and policy, with his State of the Union last night, Obama began to focus on the political task of getting the American people behind him as he attempts to tackle the difficult, long-term issues that have been festering for so long unaddressed by our dysfunctional politics.

We should remember one thing as Tea Party supporters jubilantly support their momentum and energy with Scott Brown’s election: 14 months is a very long time in this political age. Interpreting political movements in light of the Feiler Faster thesis, it’s not surprising that it was just 14 months ago that the Obama grass roots which seemed ascendant now seem dormant; and 14 months from the August birth of the Tea Party movement happens to be November 2010.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

An excellent State of the Union

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

Peter Baker summarized my strongest impression, the most striking moment, from last night succinctly in his lede:

By now, President Obama can hardly be under any illusions about the depth of the partisan divide as he seeks to reboot his presidency. Yet he still seemed surprised on Wednesday night when he could not get Republicans to applaud tax cuts.

My impression was that Obama was bold, confident – even cocky. His tone was more conversational than usual – as he treated Congress more as a partner than an audience. Republicans meanwhile demonstrated that they were emboldened and felt vindicated in their obstinacy by last week’s result in Massachusetts. Extrapolating from last night, they seem content to continue to obstruct as much as they can and to take no responsibility for their actions as they try to pass off all the blame for governance onto Obama and the Democrats. They didn’t applaud when Obama talked about taxing the big banks to make up the difference in TARP. They didn’t applaud when Obama talked about fiscal responsibility. They didn’t applaud when he mentioned the tax cuts he had instituted for 95% of Americans (over their objections.) It still remains an open question though as to how much responsibility the public will place on Republicans for obstruction – and how much credit they will give Obama for “fighting the good fight” as well as reaching out to his opponents.

But last night seemed to strike exactly the right tone to me, and to inaugurate the more political season coming.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Downside Risk and Upside Potential

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

David Plouffe:

Only if the plan becomes law will the American people see that all the scary things Sarah Palin and others have predicted — such as the so-called death panels — were baseless. We own the bill and health-care votes. We need to get some of the upside.

This quote suggests the flip side of the focus on downside risk that Ezra Klein observed. It seems a rather good approach – and a substantial improvement from Bush’s continuous insistence that we much achieve the upside and that admitting the downside was failure. Plouffe’s political instinct on this is much the same as mine, as I expressed some months ago:

To break these idiocratic forces, Obama needs to force these controversial measures through and allow the Republicans opposing it to demagogue it in every way possible. Then make sure there are strong transparency measures in place. And then let those who predicted a Holocaust look foolish. It’s the first step to discrediting their methods and reforming our national conversation.

Before You Watch Obama’s Speech Tonight…

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Read these three takes on what Obama must or should do. Each piece is worth reading in full – but following are excerpts.

Andrew Sullivan:

If he cannot do that, if he punts on this bill, or if he is passive and uncommitted, then those of us who placed hope in his leadership skills will have to acknowledge we hoped too much. The test of leadership is sometimes staying a course even when all the polls and pols have turned against it on a dime. There are times when a president should preside; but there are also times when he must lead.

I have one simple test: if the health bill dies from neglect and irresolution, Obama is no leader.

Ezra Klein:

Depending on what they think will happen, observers bring up two well-worn narratives from the campaign. The first is Obama’s tendency to patiently let the fury of the news cycle abate before attempting to change its direction. You saw this in the months before Iowa, they say, where a listless campaign recaptured its spark with Obama’s tremendous speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner. You saw it in the Summer of 2008, when John McCain and Sarah Palin seemed to be surging, and Obama was holding his money and negative firepower in reserve. You saw it in August, when Obama let the townhalls play out and Congress return to session before giving his first national address on health care.

Pessimists, however, point to a very different narrative. Obama, they say, has not shown himself a fighter for his policy commitments. His time as a national figure was short, adulatory and unmarred by hard causes or lonely battles. During the primary campaign, he was battered by John Edwards and Hillary Clinton on social policy, surviving mainly on the strength of his personal narrative and his opposition to the war in Iraq. His strategy on health care was to compromise with industry, compromise with Congress, and seek the path of maximal consensus, which has resulted in an ugly bill that doesn’t excite supporters and doesn’t comfort voters. This is all, they say, part of a pattern of conflict-aversion that the president’s supporters have refused to acknowledge.

Steven Pearlstein on the “State of the Union speech Obama would give in a more honest world“:

[A]s a country we seem to have completely lost the will and the capacity to collectively confront these challenges. Our union has been torn asunder by a clash of ideologies and special interests and brigades of power-hungry partisans that has resulted in a paralyzing political stalemate. In response, our citizens have become angry, cynical, distrustful and dispirited.

Economists have long recognized that what distinguishes successful and wealthy countries from those that are poor and failing is not their natural endowments or even their level of human capital, but rather the quality of their institutions. By institutions, economists refer not only to governmental, business, educational and civic entities, but also the formal rules and informal protocols by which decisions are made, disputes are resolved, commerce is conducted and people interact. It was the quality of its institutions that led our country to become the richest, most powerful and most admired on the planet. Now the deterioration of those institutions threatens our standing in the world…

No institution, however, has deteriorated more than the one in which I stand now, the U.S. Congress, which has transformed itself into a hyper-partisan swamp that fails to live up even to its most basic constitutional duties — making timely appropriations, confirming nominees for top positions and declaring when we are at war. You have saddled the country with a monstrous debt and projected deficits that will bankrupt the nation, yet you refuse even to allow an independent commission to draw up a reasonable plan to cut spending and raise taxes. You have spent a year deliberating on the urgent issues of health care, global warming and financial regulation, yet so far you have been able to agree on nothing.

My own take: Obama decided to spend his first year playing an inside game getting substantive policies through and legislation passed. 2010 would be about pushing initiatives that might not pass, about idealistic leadership rather than pragmatic deal-making. Tonight marks the pivot between the two. The only real question in my mind is what Obama will choose to do on health care. He can try a short-term political move by offering a re-written and even more modest health care bill that Republicans have demanded – while being prepared to blame them for rejecting it anyway as they likely would do. Or he can focus on the longer-term politically and on policy and ask the House to pass the Senate bill with changes being made afterwards through reconciliation. My bet is – given that most reports suggest that the debate on what approach should be taken is ongoing – Obama will do what he always does and hedge. He’ll say he is willing to consider a stripped down bill but that a bill must be passed even if that means the House has to accept the less progressive Senate version. Of course, he’ll say this in less wonkish terms.

But at this point, hedging is exactly what Obama shouldn’t be doing. Sullivan and Klein are largely right. Which is why I hope Obama is finally able to take hold of the political conversation for this moment, to tell a story about his presidency that helps the nation understand him, and that demonstrates why it is essential for the Democrats to pass health care reform immediately.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Charlie Crist, Democrat?

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Jonathan Chait suggests a strategy to get popular Florida Governor Charlie Crist what he wants (a Senate Seat) as well as the Democratic Party what it wants (another Senate seat):

As I see it, he has two options. First, he can bow out of the primary, campaign energetically for Rubio in November, and hope the party moves to the center far enough for him to run again at some future date. Second, he can make the case that the party has gotten too extreme for him — a legitimate case, as Crist is genuinely moderate on most of the key issues — and run for Senate as an independent or as a Democrat. Neither option is particularly easy, though the second seems easier than the first.

And now it looks like Crist just might be thinking along the same lines. Apparently he plans to join President Obama for his political appearance this week in Tampa.

Story-Teller-In-Chief

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

The New Yorker‘s Junot Díaz explains the role of the president:

A President can have all the vision in the world, be an extraordinary orator and a superb politician, have courage and foresight and a willingness to make painful choices, have a bold progressive plan for his nation—but none of these things will matter a wit if the President cannot couch his vision, his policies, his courage, his will, his plan in the idiom of story.

I entirely agree with this – and have made similar arguments myself over the months. Politics is primarily about story – and I feel that Obama has focused on policy accomplishments over politics for this past year, thus allowing himself to lose control of the narrative. In a sense, this seems deliberate – with the lead up to the midterms coming with a pivot back towards politics, where Obama would be more concerned about pushing forward the right issues rather than getting some accomplishments done.

But one thing I struggle a bit with – and wonder how Díaz would approach it – is to more specifically define and describe these stories.

Hard to Believe: The Newest Allegation in the Edwards Scandal

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

I wrote about the John Edwards affair a few days ago.  The next phase of this scandal is the book by close Edwards aide Andrew Young who took the blame for the affair with Rielle Hunter and for impregnating her. He since had a falling out with Edwards, and written a tell-all (to pile two clichéd phrases together) – so his most sensationalist claims should be treated with skepticism. From the perspective of the “story” of this scandal though, it was hard to see how the Edwards affair could get more tawdry – how Young’s account what had come before. But as reported by Louise Radnofsky and Susan Davies in the Wall Street Journal, Young clearly has advanced the story even further!

Young describes his alleged discovery of a compromising videotape of Edwards and a naked, pregnant lover, identified by Young as Hunter. “It was like watching a traffic pileup occur in slow motion — it was repelling but also transfixing,” he writes.

I can see the tabloid headline now: Edwards Makes Preggo Porn With New Baby Mama While Wife Dying of Incurable Cancer.

It used to be said that only 2 things could entirely destroy a political career: being found with a live boy or a dead woman. Edwards has apparently added a 3rd category.

[Image by alexdecarvalho licensed under Creative Commons.]

Obama versus Left-Wing and Right-Wing Populism

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

John P. Judis:

Working-class populism in America has always taken two forms: The first–let’s call it left-wing populism–has typically been directed at speculators who make money from people who work in factories and offices and who don’t seem to contribute to the actual wealth of society. The second form–let’s call it right-wing populism–has targeted immigrants, black sharecroppers, the unemployed, and other out groups who are seen as trying to deprive those who work of their rightful earnings. These two strains often appear together, as they did in the original American populist movement. And these sentiments are most concentrated among the embattled classes–those that see themselves threatened from above and below.

Obama has provoked both left-wing and right-wing populism.