Barack Obama Criticism Politics The Opinionsphere

Worrying About Downside Risk

Ezra Klein points out a fundamental aspect of his this White House approaches problems, especially in comparison to George “drain the swamps,” “deficits don’t matter” Bush:

The White House thinks a lot about downside risk. Nationalization might have had the opportunity to be better policy than muddling through, but if it went wrong, everything would blow up. Similarly, there’s a good argument for nominating someone more concerned with employment, but if a bad election and some congressional opposition force them to let go of Bernanke and then the markets freak out and the Republicans hold up the new Federal Reserve nominee which further circumscribes the Federal Reserve’s ability to act and further unsettles the markets, that could be a seriously bad scene.

You can see this in the Afghanistan decision, in the form the health care bill took, in their overall legislative approach, and in their national security policy. They make changes slowly, gradually – very aware of the potential downsides of their actions – while making the case against the status quo.

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Barack Obama Politics The Opinionsphere

Misunderstanding Race and the Under-30 Voters

Reihan Salam:

The fact that America elected an African American president is a tremendous source of pride to these [under-30] voters, I’m guessing.

This seems fundamentally off to me. My impression is that the pride in electing an African American – the sense of pride that America has done so – seems to belong more to the older generation. Those of my generation – the under-30 voters (of which Salam himself was when Obama was elected) – aren’t proud Obama was elected. If anything, we’re relieved. Some were confident he would win; others were afraid our country was too racist – but I’m not sure I know many people who were “proud” that we weren’t so racist as a nation as to block the best man from winning in a time of crisis.

Does anyone agree or disagree with these impressions?

Barack Obama Health care Politics The Opinionsphere

Buck Up, Democrats!

Andrew Sullivan, who was largely responsible for derailing Bill Clinton’s 1994 health care reform, likewise urges Obama and the Democrats to seize the moment:

[Obama should] tell the American people that he understands their anger and frustration (hence the big swipe at the banks last week), but that he refuses to stand by and do nothing. If the American people want nothing, they should support the opposition. If the American people want something, they should back the president they just elected in implementing a health reform plan he campaigned on.

Jonathan Bernstein explains why the “safe” choice of trying to appease your partisan opponents has little effect:

Democrats can be assured that Republicans will attack them, regardless of what they do.  Democrats could eliminate the estate tax permanently, slash the capital gains tax, repeal the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, invade Iran, and pass a Constitutional Amendment outlawing abortion, and Republicans would still attack them — with exactly the same vehemence and vigor that Republicans have now.  That’s politics.  It’s how partisan politics is played.  It is absolutely impossible to avoid attacks from one’s opponents; nothing you do gives them license to attack, because they will attack whatever you do.  Oh, and this isn’t partisan; Democrats are going to attack Republicans, whatever the Republicans do.

Don’t believe me?  Republicans are attacking Democrats for taking away people’s guns, even though the Democrats basically surrendered on that issue fifteen years ago.  They are attacking Democrats for cutting Medicare and for allowing Medicare to grow so fast that it’ll bankrupt the nation — sometimes in the very same speech (I’ve seen it in the same paragraph)…

My advice to Democrats unsure about what to do is this: think about the actual bill, and what its effects would be if it became law.  If in your judgment those effects would be bad for your constituents, then odds are they will dislike it, blame you for it, and you’ll be in trouble.  If those effects would be good for your constituents, then vote for it.  Then figure out how you’re going to sell the thing and yourself, based on that vote.  But don’t back off of it because you think it will open you up to attacks; you’re wide open right now, and you’ll remain wide open regardless of what you do.

Jonathan Cohn writes a letter to the House Democrats who are considering not voting on the Senate bill:

I don’t want to mislead you: You could pass the Senate bill, which you may really not like, and still lose reelection. But passing health care reform would seem, if anything, to improve your odds of political survival. And if it doesn’t–if you’re doomed to lose anyway–enacting health care reform would give you a meaningful accomplishment in your record.

Think of everything you could do while serving in Congress. Would any single act be bigger than this? However imperfect, it will make a huge difference in people’s lives–and, quite likely, the evolution of the American social welfare state. You’ll be sparing financial or physical hardship for thousands of Americans every year, while delivering peace of mind–and safer, higher quality medicine–to literally millions of others. You’ll be saving the American economy and, along the way, helping people to stay healthy.

You can be a part of this moment in history–and, if you play your cards right, stick around in Congress long enough to enjoy it. It just takes some common sense–and maybe a little mettle.

In other words: Vote for the Damn Bill!

Politics Scandal-mongering The Opinionsphere

The Edwards Morality Tale

One of the most interesting stories of the past two years has been the tale of John Edwards. In 2004, several essays by William Saletan (here, here, and here) as well as his forceful speeches, positive tone, and life story convinced me to support Edwards. He was passionate. His message was upbeat, tapping into the hope of the American dream, but he acknowledged how far it had fallen. He campaigned on the theme of the economic restoration of the American dream – the same theme that imbued Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. But it is also a theme that has haunted liberalism since the 1970s – as it has sought to recreate the economic conditions that lead to the stable middle class of the 1950s and 1960s, a kind of reactionary nostalgia. Whether this is the correct view of history or not, it is excellent politics. By 2008, Edwards had doubled down on this – and was running a policy-intensive, netroots focused campaign on economic issues. It was only upon hearing him answer Tim Russert’s questions on Iraq and national security in 2007 that I finally abandoned him as a candidate for 2008.

But in the meantime, he himself was apparently changing – was being corrupted by his success, was becoming greedy for attention and privilege:

[E]veryone who met Edwards was struck by how down-to-earth he seemed. He had fewer airs about him than most other wealthy trial lawyers, let alone most senators.

Many of his friends started noticing a change – the arrival of what one of his aides referred to as “the ego monster” – after he was nearly chosen by Al Gore to be his running mate in 2000: the sudden interest in superficial stuff to which Edwards had been oblivious before, from the labels on his clothes to the size of his entourage. But the real transformation occurred in the 2004 race, and especially during the general election. Edwards reveled in being inside the bubble: the Secret Service, the chartered jet, the press pack, the swarms of factotums catering to his every whim. And the crowds! The ovations! The adoration! He ate it up. In the old days, when his aides asked how a rally had gone, he would roll his eyes and self-mockingly say, “Oh, they love me.” Now we would bound down from the stage beaming and exclaim, without the slightest shred of irony, “They looooove me!”

As this “ego monster” took over his personality, Edwards met Rielle Hunter – who, aside from offering herself sexually, stroked his ego. And so, Edwards apparently fell in love with the idea of himself that Rielle Hunter presented to him. This allowed her past all the numerous safeguards that Edwards had built to keep himself from being embroiled in any Clintonian affairs and added to his apparent descent into hubris.

The Edwards story has advanced a bit – with tawdry detail after tawdry detail leaking out over the last months. From the book proposal by close aide Andrew Young (who initially took responsibility for the affair with Rielle Hunter) claiming that Edwards comforted her by promising that “after his wife died, he would marry her in a rooftop ceremony in New York with an appearance by the Dave Matthews Band” to the revelations in Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin (excerpted for New York magazine) to the most recent acknowledgement that despite his earlier “confession” he was in fact the father of the “love child” with Hunter.

Even with these scandals under the surface, he still was determined to get some prominent post in the government. He was so cocooned, he believed he could get past all these stories and that Obama could appoint him to a top position:

“John will settle for attorney general,” Hindery e-mailed Daschle.

Daschle shook his head. How desperate is this guy?

“Leo, this isn’t good for John,” Daschle replied. “This is ridiculous. It’s going to be ambassador to Zimbabwe next.”

When Obama heard about the suggested quid pro quo, he was incredulous. That’s crazy, he told Axelrod. If I were willing to make a deal like that, I shouldn’t be president.

South Carolina brought an end to the Edwards campaign; after finishing a derisory third in the primary, he dropped out of the race a few days later. Yet for months that spring, as Obama and Clinton engaged in their epic tussle, Edwards continued in his Monty Hall mode, attempting to try to claim some reward from either candidate for his backing.

The trouble with Obama, from Edwards’s point of view, was his refusal to get transactional. When Edwards told Obama that he wanted him to make poverty a centerpiece of his agenda, Obama airily replied, Yeah, yeah, year, I care about all that stuff. Clinton, by contrast, proposed that she and Edwards do a poverty tour together, even suggested that Edwards would have “a role” in her administration. Edwards still had his eye on becoming attorney general, and thought the odds of getting that plum were better with Hillary than with Obama. But after South Carolina, the chances of Clinton claiming the nomination just kept falling – and Edwards didn’t want to back a loser.

So Edwards sat there, perched on the fence, squandering his leverage. Making the situation all the more absurd was the birth in late February of Hunter’s baby, a girl she named Frances Quinn – a development that Edwards somehow convinced himself would not preclude his being nominated and confirmed to run the Department of Justice.

Finally, in May, after suffering a blowout loss to Clinton in the West Virginia primary, Obama phoned Edwards and briefly managed to pierce his bubble of delusion. Tomorrow is the last day when your endorsement is going to make a difference, he told Edwards. And what would Edwards get in return? Not much more than a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic convetion.

At 1:15 a.m., Obama sent an e-mail to his staff: Edwards is a go.

I normally like a good scandal which brings a fast-inflating figure down to size (though I really hate the media’s moralizing tone in covering these scandals.) But this story has the feel of a pathetic side figure in a Shakespearean comedy – a decent but not great man undone by his own egotism.

[This tremendous photograph by alexdecarvalho licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Web and Technology

Brief Thoughts for the Week of 2010-01-22

  • The Economist’s Podcast Entitled “The Democrats lose Massachusetts” Is “an insult to people’s intelligence.” #
  • Why Scott Brown’s Election is Good for the Nation and the Democratic Party… #
  • The Scott Brown Effect? DOW down almost 200 points since election of 41st Republican makes it harder for US to tackle fiscal matters. #
  • Can't write anything (as blog's down) but what I'm working on is this: Why Scott Brown's Win Is Good For the Democrats and the Country #
  • Congratulations to Scott Brown on a well-fought race. #MASen #
  • To my MA friends:Today you decide whether you support Limbaugh, Palin & Brown or Obama, Kennedy & Coakley, & to sit out is a vote for Palin. #
  • We found him! #

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Barack Obama Criticism Health care

The Economist’s Podcast Entitled “The Democrats lose Massachusetts” Is “an insult to people’s intelligence.”

The Economist is far and away one of my favorite magazines – providing insightful commentary and analysis from a normally steady perspective on the world as well as America. But the podcast I heard today entitled, “The Democrats lose Massachusetts” featuring a conversation between Adrian Wooldridge and Christopher Lockwood was atrocious – combining terrible analysis with factual inaccuracies – suggesting that the participants hadn’t actually paid any attention to the health care debate they were commenting upon, but instead had gathered clichés from the 1990s to bat around.

The single most frustrating portion of the conversation was this description of what how Obama approached the Republicans during the health care negotiations:

Had Obama not got himself into a position to ram health care through on a straight party line vote using his 60 seats in the senate and saying, “Okay, fine, we’ll do it without any Republican votes.” There might have been the possibility of making a deal but essentially he’s the man who says, “I’m not going to pay attention to you. I’m going to do it my way. Oops, I can’t. Can we come back and do it your way now?” And they say, “Sorry, you had your chance. You could have dealt with us. You could have given us more of what we wanted: proper cost control, and things like tort reform. But they didn’t do that.” And now for them to turn around and say, “Well, okay, sorry, we got that wrong.” They are more likely to say, “It’s too late for that. The midterms are on their way. Why should we get you out of the hole in which you dug yourself?”

This is wrong on so many levels! Most dramatically, Obama bumped his first deadline in order to satiate the demands from Republicans that he slow down. He courted Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Olympia Snowe and any other Republican senator who showed a willingness to support legislation. The administration was willing to re-write the bill to get their support. Max Baucus crafted a bill largely with these Republicans – cutting out the progressives in the Senate from the process. And in all of this, even the more progressive House bill is a slightly beefed up version of what Republicans have been suggesting all along – a bill focused primarily on cost control. But Orrin Hatch stopped negotiating. And then Grassley began to continue to negotiate in private while condemning the bill in public – declaring that he wouldn’t support the bill even if he got everything he wanted in it if the party wasn’t behind him. Even then, Democrats continued to negotiate with him. And finally, Snowe remained on the fence until the Republican leadership chased her back into the fold. It was at this point that Obama finally decided to say, “Okay, fine, we’ll do it without any Republican votes.” After the bill had been amended to satisfy Olympia Snowe – and Chuck Grassley – and Ben Nelson – and Joe Lieberman. But the pressure on the Republicans was too great – so they bolted.

It is also claimed that, Democrats said: “We’re not willing to annoy one of our constituencies – the tort lawyers – for the public good.” Yet the Democrats and Obama explicitly said they were willing to do this if Republicans would only support some form of the bill – and even without their support offered pilot programs to test different methods of government intervention into this area. To attack a component of their base while Republicans offered them no support would be political suicide!

And then of course, there was the inexplicable statement that, “To say you need to have pilot programs and study it is just really an insult to people’s intelligence.” This is an incredible comment coming from an organization that supports limited government. Pilot programs are exactly the modest approach that the Economist should be supporting – as they can help determine what works and what doesn’t with the minimum disruption to the market. Would they rather Obama offer bold ideas and implement them nationally, with fingers crossed hoping that the unanticipated consequences don’t do more harm than good? The type of tinkering that pilot programs are indicative of are exactly what a capitalist, free market approach should support – especially as they later deride the Obama administration as consisting of, “pointy-headed intellectuals with their big social engineering plans.” Eliminating or curbing the rights of patients to sue regarding their medical care is right wing social engineering – which the Economist apparently has no problem with because of who it will benefit.

So, in conclusion, Woolridge and Lockwood of the Economist maintain that Obama’s health care plan was too big and ambitious and so should be scrapped and that it wasn’t big enough to do what they wanted; that they are mystified how Obama took so long to pass health care reform as he rode roughshod over the Republicans. The first is contradictory – and the second betrays that they weren’t paying attention to health care until recently. Which perhaps explains why they come to the conclusion that the Democratic response to the election of a “conservative Republican” (actually a moderate Republican who is pro-choice and supported the Massachusetts model of health care that Obama’s plan is similar to) is that: “They have to overinterpret this result!” and abandon reform.

[Image by Arenamontanus licensed under Creative Commons.]

Barack Obama Politics The Opinionsphere

Governing Ambition Versus Political Theater

[digg-reddit-me]Noam Scheiber asks what I consider to be a rather annoying question in The New Republic – having written this piece in anticipation of Scott Brown’s win:

After a year of barely restrained governing ambition, has the political system suddenly forced the president into a posture of symbolically resonant tinkering? Has Obamaism descended into–gasp!–Clintonism?

This question annoys me with its two presumptions (and the fact that I normally like Scheiber makes it worse.)

First, it seems a bit off to describe Obama’s first year as being “barely restrained governing ambition.” This use of the phrase doesn’t quite make sense. It seems that “governing ambition” is supposed to be something bad – something excessive – as ambition so often is. The qualifying clause “barely restrained” seems to suggest Scheiber is using it this way. But the phrase “governing ambition” doesn’t mean what Scheiber seems to think. He uses it to mean “overly ambitious political goals” when the phrase actually means the “ambition to govern (or wield power)” or an “ambition that governs (controls) a person or thing.” This is actually a telling slip – as the main flaw in Scheiber’s argument is to confuse politics with policy. Obama certainly does have the “ambition to govern,” to wield the power of his office to tackle the problems facing the nation. One would expect every politician in Washington not in it purely for selfish reasons would have such an ambition. But this shouldn’t be confused with his political ambitiousness – and the question of whether he is tackling too much. The moment seems to call on many issues to be addressed – and Obama, in choosing to address them, may be taking on too much. In this way, he may suffer from the political hubris of thinking he can actually govern in a system that seems designed to thwart anyone who would take on any interest groups – but this is a far more complex picture than Scheiber’s short-handed way of calling on his readers to accept the right wing talking point that Obama is barely able to hold back as he grasps for more and more power.

Second, Scheiber suggests the alternative to Obama’s approach is “symbolically resonant tinkering.” What a depressing prospect that is! Certainly, it does provide a counterpoint to the “governing ambition” as it is more commonly used. If one is no longer able to govern and deal with the problems at hand, then one can only engage in symbolic gestures that do little. If Obama is no longer able to govern, but must instead engage in the same political theater that Republicans have been engaged in since his election, then the country loses as we put off needed reforms even longer.

What drags Scheiber off the rails is his focus on politics rather than policy. Obama’s policies involve moderate tinkering with the status quo; his political challenge though is audacious – to govern and address the fiscal crisis, our dysfunctional health care system, inequality, tax reform, immigration, energy policy, pollution – rather than engage in political theater. His agenda is audacious because the problem facing us are significant – and because inaction and petty sniping have come to define the Freak Show that is our politics.

Barack Obama Criticism Health care Politics The Opinionsphere

Draw Your Own Conclusions

Matthew Continetti:

Scott Brown’s victory exposes NY-23 as a fluke. The trend is clear. Independents have moved sharply right over the course of President Obama’s first year in office, even in Massachusetts.

Matt Bai:

The most prevalent ideology of the era seems to be not liberalism nor conservatism so much as anti-incumbency, a reflexive distrust of whoever has power and a constant rallying cry for systemic reform.

Mike Allen:

By these lights, impatience with the status quo — rather than any rightward turn in the mood of the electorate — is what would fuel a Brown victory.

Jonathan Chait:

But political analysts are more like drama critics. They follow the ins and outs of the tactical maneuverings of the players, and when the results come in, their job is to explain how the one led to the other. If you suggested to them that they should instead explain the public mood as a predictable consequence of economic conditions, rather than the outcome of one party’s strategic choices, they would look at you like you were crazy. They spend their time following every utterance and gesture of powerful politicians. Naturally, it must be those things that have the decisive effect…

Barack Obama:

Here’s my assessment of not just the vote in Massachusetts, but the mood around the country: the same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office. People are angry and they are frustrated. Not just because of what’s happened in the last year or two years, but what’s happened over the last eight years.

David Leonhardt:

The current versions of health reform are the product of decades of debate between Republicans and Democrats. The bills are more conservative than Bill Clinton’s 1993 proposal. For that matter, they’re more conservative than Richard Nixon’s 1971 plan, which would have had the federal government provide insurance to people who didn’t get it through their job.

Today’s Congressional Republicans have made the strategically reasonable decision to describe President Obama’s health care plan, like almost every other part of his agenda, as radical and left wing. And the message seems to be at least partly working, based on polls and the Massachusetts surprise. But a smart political strategy isn’t the same thing as accurate policy analysis.

Barack Obama Politics The Opinionsphere

Why Scott Brown’s Election is Good for the Nation and the Democratic Party

[digg-reddit-me]I would have written this post on Tuesday night (before seeing what had become the inevitable results) – but I was busy. And I would have written this post on Wednesday, except my blog had some issues once again, and I was left blog-less.

Now, having the advantage of reading the many responses to Scott Brown’s upset victory from around the opinionshere, let me venture mine:

Brown’s election is a good thing for the Democrats politically. (On a policy level, it makes it less likely a health care bill will pass at all, certainly undermines the chances of a better health care bill, and makes every other policy goal harder to achieve in the short term.) But politically, it works for the Democrats on almost every level.

  • Scott Brown will be faced with choice to either split from the Republican Party on significant issues creating discord within the party or losing the seat in 2012.  If Brown moderates his views so, it’s hard to see him maintaining his credibility with the Tea Party right – but it he does, he will represent a person with credibility on the right compromising with Obama rather than the unified front today. After all, this is a guy who supports the idea behind Obama’s health care plan – and voted for the Massachusetts plan which is similar. His grounds for opposing national health care is that Massachusetts residents would be penalized because they already have near universal coverage which he supports.
  • Though the Democrats had a filibuster-proof Senate caucusing with them, there were a handful of members who consistently were willing to hold the Democratic agenda hostage, and the Democrats were only able to muster this filibuster-proof majority on one significant occasion: to pass the health reform bill. Taking this 60th vote away removes the illusion that the Democrats can get what they want done. The Democrats were never organized enough to pull that off. (They only merely have the largest majority in thirty years.)
  • It forces Republicans to take some responsibility as the minority party. The Democrats will still set the agenda – but Republicans and progressives can no longer complain that Democrats just need to get their act together to pass something. If the Republicans continue to vote as a solid bloc against any Democratic proposal in a cynical attempt to win back power through obstructionism, they can block almost everything. But then the focus won’t be on the preening Democrats competing to leverage their individual power to get what they want – but on the Republicans for blocking the passage of legislation and confirmation of nominees.
  • The inchoate anger at the status quo didn’t stop with the election of Barack Obama. Instead, his election radicalized the right wing – those who felt they were “losing their country.” Brown’s election – and the growing anger at the Democrats – doesn’t suggest the country is moving right. Rather, it is a symptom of an anti-incumbent bias. By running as the man who will stop health care reform – and being embraced by the Tea Party crowd – Brown is placing himself, the Republican Party, and the Tea Partiers as defenders of the status quo.
  • Carl Hulse in the New York Times offers an additional reason: “Even Republicans privately acknowledged that the redrawn Congressional landscape could hold benefits for the most vulnerable Democrats in November by easing pressure on them to vote as part of a united 60-member Democratic bloc and sparing them from providing decisive votes on contentious issues.”

Scott Brown and the Republicans will face a choice in the coming months before the midterms: They can either offer to work with the Democrats to actually govern or they can obstruct everything in order to make the Democrats look ineffective and weak. Either way, the 2010 midterms will be a referendum not only on Obama’s agenda but on how the Republicans have handled themselves.

[Image by Rob Weir licensed under Creative Commons.]