Barack Obama Criticism History New York City Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere

Must-Reads of the Week: Diabolical Republicans, Strategic Patience, Weiner, China, New York City, -20 Questions, & Glenn Beck’s Obsession With Woodrow Wilson

1. Diabolical Republicans. Noam Scheiber in The New Republic explains how the “diabolical” plan the Republicans have adopted to achieve their fiscal ends (discussed on this blog here) may backfire:

Ever since George W. Bush massively cut taxes back in 2001, squandering much of the $5.6 trillion, ten-year surplus he inherited from Bill Clinton, liberals have assumed that the fiscal game was rigged. Conservatives had been explicit about their starve-the-beast strategy—the practice of creating large deficits through tax cuts in order to force future spending cuts…

“Depriving the government of revenue, it turns out, wasn’t enough to push politicians into dismantling the welfare state,” Krugman wrote. “So now the de facto strategy is to oppose any responsible action until we are in the midst of a fiscal catastrophe.”

…I suspect…that Republicans believe precipitating a fiscal crisis will force Democrats to roll back entitlement spending (i.e., Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security), which would be both politically unpopular and the realization of the right’s dearest policy fantasy. It’s an altogether brilliant, if diabolical, plan. Except for one minor flaw: There’s a good chance it could vaporize the GOP.

2. Strategic Patience in the Face of Long-Term Problems. David S. Broder, eminence of the press establishment, apostle of bipartisanship at all costs, proponent of convention, seems to have finally come around to Obama with this trenchant observation:

We are beginning to learn that the Obama presidency will be an era of substantial but deferred accomplishments — perhaps always to be accompanied by a sense of continuing crisis. His vaunted “cool” allows him to wait without impatience and to endure without visible despair. It asks the same of his constituents.

The backdrop of the serious long-term issues facing America is precisely what made Obama’s election so important in the first place — as this blog repeatedly argued. David Rothkopf put the matter in a wide-angled perspective:

[T]he reason the health care reform bill is important is not because it was the first major such piece of social legislation in the U.S. in decades, but rather because it represents the first in what will become by necessity an on-going series of efforts to fix deep and serious defects in the American economy. In a decade or two, this legislation is like to be seen by Americans as the beginning of a lengthy, brutal and spasmodic process to cut deficits and restore America’s leadership prospects in the global economy.

3. Answering Sarah Palin. Anthony Weiner meanwhile has arisen as the Democrat’s answer to Sarah Palin and our sensationalized media moment. (Others might argue for Alan Grayson.)

4. Chinese Predictions. Gordon G. Chang, for World Affairs, explains his argument for why the Beijing consensus cannot last and its power will soon begin to wane.

5. New York’s Neighborhoods. Nate Silver, baseball statistician and political polling expert, turned his skills to rating New York’s neighborhoods. Really interesting for locals.

6. Negative 20 Questions. Jason Kottke describes a game that “resembles quantum physics.”

7. Glenn Beck’s Woodrow Wilson Obsession. David Frum puzzles on why Glenn Beck focuses so much on Woodrow Wilson as the beginning point of all things progressive and source of evils in the modern world. There are so many more logical choices, more progressive historical figures of greater note who are more closely aligned to contemporary progressivism. And then he answers his own question:

Here’s a president who took the United States into a very controversial war, ending in an unsatisfactory peace. In response to a domestic terrorist threat, culminating in a deadly attack in lower Manhattan, this president adopted draconian domestic security policies. Oh – and his administration concluded with an abrupt plunge into severe recession.

Any parallels come to mind?

What’s taking place on Glenn Beck’s show is a coy conservative self-conversation. Maybe it’s because I’m in China now, but it reminds me of the way Chinese intellectuals in the late 1970s would discuss the first Qin emperor, as a way of debating – and denouncing – Mao Zedong without explicitly mentioning a sensitive subject.

[Image by me.]

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 Domestic issues Health care Politics The Opinionsphere

Health Care Reform is the most significant effort at cost control in a generation, if not ever.

[digg-reddit-me]Once health care reform passes, the White House has signaled it will begin to focus more specifically on the deficit. (Also, on jobs, cap and trade, and financial regulation.)

But as the Obama administration presented it initially: Health care reform is deficit reduction. (Ezra Klein, health care policy wonk, blogger, and columnist for the Washington Post, has been making this case all along, as have many other technocratic types and policy wonks and health care experts.) That’s why Peter Orszag made the phrase, “bend the curve” into a buzzword, referring to the attempt to bring down the rate of growth of health care spending. Here for example is a graph of our projected budget deficit as a percentage of GDP based on current growth rates, lowering those growth rates, and adopting measures to have Britain-like growth rates:

While any bill that might get past Congress at this point won’t live up to the early wet dreams of policy wonks (It won’t even bring us to the level of the blue line in the above graph), it would – to quote Ezra – still “represent the most significant effort at cost control in a generation, if not ever.” (my emphasis.) (He specifically refers to three provisions in the Senate Finance Committee bill: the excise tax on high-cost insurance plans; the newly empowered Medicare Commission; and various delivery-system reforms.) In fact – again according to Ezra – the “health-care reform bills currently under consideration in both the Senate and the House actually cut money from the deficit.” Despite this, the same Republicans (often the exact same individuals) who 6 years ago cast “a vote to add about $400 billion to the deficit in the first 10 years, and trillions more in the decades after that,” with Medicare Part D are now criticizing the current bill which would decrease the deficit as “fiscally irresponsible.”  Ezra:

It’s like watching arsonists calling the fire department reckless.

This constant obstructionism by the Republicans – on both matters of fiscal stimulus and health care – is gradually eating away at the public will to act and is therefore undermining confidence in America’s economy and long-term fiscal situation, and by undermining this confidence, making a disaster more likely. Noam Scheiber of The New Republic describes how the struggle to enact meaningful health care reform is a concern for the largest holders of American debt, the Chinese:

To his surprise, when Orszag arrived at the site of the annual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), the Chinese didn’t dwell on the Wall Street meltdown or the global recession. The bureaucrats at his table mostly wanted to know about health care reform, which Orszag has helped shepherd…”At some point, if you refuse to contain health care costs, you’ll go bankrupt,” says Andy Xie, a prominent Shanghai-based economist, formerly of Morgan Stanley.

The efforts at cost control proposed by the Democrats might fail, as Republicans suggest. But it is irresponsible not to try, and to obstruct any attempts to try. Republicans have begun to demagogue the bills before Congress both for cutting Medicare and for increasing the amount of health care spending. They are not willing to give the Democrats any political cover to take any fiscally responsible measures. This partisan refusal to work towards solving long-term problems has been the key to Republican successes from 1994 to the present. (Not so for the Democrats, many of whom joined George W. Bush in passing his No Child Left Behind act, his tax cuts, and his Medicare Part D bill, but undoubtedly, both sides bear some blame.) This has created a political culture in which Washington has two directives:  “spend money on things I like and don’t raise my taxes.” This isn’t solely a Republican problem. It is more that the Republicans, by remaining stubbornly united, have made these flaws evident. Klein again:

The issue isn’t that some storm will unexpectedly slam into the economy and there will be nothing anybody can do, but that the storm will hit and Congress will choose to do nothing

The biggest danger America faces is not rising health-care costs or global warming or the budget deficit. It’s the political system’s inability to act on these issues, even though the solutions are generally quite clear.

Take a moment and read the articles linked to – especially the three Ezra Klein posts from the past two days. (On the Senate Finance Bill’s cost control measures; On Medicare Part D; and On Our Political System’s Inability to Act.)

Keep in mind that Obama’s proposals are not “radical leftist” but essential and moderate tinkering that incorporates Republican as well as Democratic ideas. The Tea Party-ers may be outraged at the imaginary specters of death panels and government-mandated abortion. But it is the rest of us who should be outraged at the inability of our political system or our politics to address these long-term issues responsibly.

Health care Politics

Zeke Emanuel on the Health Insurance Exchange

Noam Scheiber profiles the man he calls the nicest Emanuel brother, the eldest,  Zeke. Zeke is one of the nation’s leading bioethicists and works – along with Cass Sunstein and Peter Orszag in the Office of Management and Budget. Even with all the intellectual firepower in that normally staid department, Zeke stands out – and as someone who has been working for health care reform his entire life, he is one of those taking the lead on this issue. His focus – unlike most progressives – is not on the public option, but on the Health Insurance Exchange:

[N]ot surprisingly, Emanuel digs deepest into his healthy reserve of enthusiasm for the parts of the plan that dovetail with his own ideas. At the top of this list is a so-called insurance exchange – a regulated market in which people who lack coverage through their employer (and maybe people who work at small companies, though that’s still being negotiated) could choose from a variety of private plans, which would offer at least a minimum level of benefits and could not discriminate by health status. “He’s a key thinker on the exchange. How it operates. How it interacts with insurance market reform,” says the administration official.

On the one hand, the exchange is absolutely central to the Obama plan–it’s how the uninsured get covered. So it’s worth having Emanuel’s considerable brainpower on the problem. On the other hand, one can imagine a future in which the employer-based system gradually withers away, leaving everyone to purchase insurance on the exchange. Though Emanuel scrupulously avoids such discussions, it’s hard to believe the thought has never occurred to him.

I’d like to hear more about his thinking on “How [the exchange] operates. How it interacts with insurance market reform.”

Barack Obama Criticism Foreign Policy National Security The War on Terrorism

Military Envy

[digg-reddit-me]Under the Obama administration, the nonmilitary parts of America’s national security team have begun to increasingly imitate the Pentagon’s bureaucratic strategies and organization.

David Kilcullen, an Australian military officer embedded at various times in the State Department and in the Department of Defense during the Bush administration, one of the architects of the Surge, and a consultant to the Obama administration spoke at the Carneige Council about a number of problems with America’s approach to terrorism and its power – including what he saw as a serious mismatch between the “military and nonmilitary elements of national power.” He explained:

There’s 1.68 million people in the U.S. armed services, 2.1 million if you count all the civilians in the Department of Defense. I served in the State Department but this isn’t a State/Defense thing because I also served in the Defense Department, but between State and AID combined there are about 8,000 diplomats/foreign service officers in the U.S. So that’s 360 to 1 in terms of budget and 210 to 1 in terms of military guys to diplomats.

Contrast that to most other countries in the world, which have a ratio between 8 and 10 to 1. So we are dramatically out of proportion. We have this huge, well developed, highly expensive, well-coordinated military arm of national power and this tiny, shriveled, little puny diplomatic arm of national power. Not surprisingly we tend to see most problems as military problems and we tend to approach them with military solutions, because that’s the asset set that we have available.

By comparison there are five times as many accountants in the Department of Defense as there are diplomats in the U.S. diplomatic service. There’s as many lawyers in the Department of Defense as there are in the diplomatic service. There are actually more people playing as musicians in defense bands than there are diplomats. [Here the crowd titters.] So there’s a pretty substantial mismatch.

And of course that leads us to militarize our foreign policy.

He’s obviously right about this. But the military is not just seen to be bigger and better funded, but to be more effective than these other elements of national power. Its interesting to note that in the opening months of the Obama administration, the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Treasury have all sought to adopt elements of the Pentagon’s framework and seem to be using the Pentagon itself as a model.

Most recently, Noam Scheiber reported that the Treasury Department wanted to “put Treasury on a Pentagon-style footing.” He explained that in this new world of sudden financial movements, the Treasury needed to have greater capabilities to react to threats, as the military does:

Inevitably, it’s Treasury that must lead in this terrifying new order. Which is why its limitations have become so glaring. “The Pentagon is geared up to fight two wars at once, that’s the mission. The White House is a crisis management operation, it runs twenty-four hours a day,” says one Treasury official. “We want that capability.” And so, once the dust settles, Geithner is determined to put Treasury on a Pentagon-style footing. “One of things I hope to be able to do is leave a stronger institutional architecture in domestic finance with more depth in the career staff, more weight, more full-scale expertise in markets, regulatory policy, economics, the legal financial area,” he told me. When that day comes, you probably still won’t see much of Lee Sachs. But you can bet he’ll be manning the situation room. [my emphasis]

At the very start of this administration, Obama’s National Security Advisor, retired General Jim Jones pushed for the State Department and National Security Council to “reorganize their regional bureaus to conform with the military model,” according to Foreign Policy‘s Laura Rozen. So far, he has been unsuccessful.

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself has sought to adapt at least one Pentagon practice to her new fiefdom – as she announced with great fanfare several weeks ago:

To deliver concrete results, we have to maximize our effectiveness. That’s why I’m excited to be here today to discuss a new enterprise, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which I announced at the State Department on Friday.

We are adopting this idea from the Pentagon. The Pentagon has successfully used this quadrennial review process to improve effectiveness and to establish a long-term vision. And I know from my time – about six years on the Senate Armed Services Committee – that the defense review helped convey the Department’s mission to all stakeholders, from members of Congress, to the members of the armed forces and their civilian colleagues, and to the rest of government, as well as to the American public. [my emphasis]

There has been a great deal of commentary in the past decade about the “creeping militarization” of America’s foreign policy. These changes seem more akin to powerful players in the Obama administration adopting the best practices of the Pentagon and adapting them across the government. In general, this is a good thing – but like the focus on technocratic, independent institutions solving intractable problems, this could also become problematic over time.

[Image by]

Barack Obama Financial Crisis Politics

Interpeting Obama’s Stimulus Strategy

Noam Scheiber at The Plank:

Barack Obama is nothing if not a master rope-a-doper. For months last year, anxious liberals pleaded with him to respond to John McCain’s lacerating attacks. And, for months, Obama soared above the fray. Then, in early September, the McCain campaign squeezed out two ludicrously dishonest ads—accusing Obama of force-feeding sex education to kindergarteners and of calling Sarah Palin a pig. The press screamed bloody murder—Joe Klein labeled the former “one of the sleaziest ads I’ve ever seen;” Joy Behar of “The View” personally told McCain they were “lies.” At which point Obama saw an opportunity. With the media having pronounced McCain the aggressor and him the victim, Obama began to whale away—on healthcare, on McCain’s age, even Charles Keating—with virtual impunity.

My sense is that we’re seeing something similar play out with the stimulus.

Andrew Sullivan quotes one of his readers:

What many do not understand is that the government is playing for time, not some brilliant economic miracle. We do not have the money or political leverage to solve this problem from the top down by divine fiat. We have to buy time — literally — for the ten-thousand smaller acts of restoration and renewal to take place. All this flow of money, this vast seemingly indiscriminate transfusion of economic blood, has one purpose: to keep the patient’s heart pumping until the systemic crisis is past — another 6-12-18 months. It is messy, sloppy, gross heroic medicine.

Andrew Sullivan has his own just slightly less optimistic interpretation.

Yglesias points out some of what Obama is dealing with as Representative Steve Austria explains his opposition to Obama’s stimulus in historical terms:

“When (President Franklin) Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression,” Austria said. “He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That’s just history.”

“That’s just history.” The article Yglesias cites points out the slight problem with this “history”:

Most historians date the beginning of the Great Depression at or shortly after the stock-market crash of 1929; Roosevelt took office in 1933.

Election 2008 Obama Politics

A Hillary or A Gore

Noam Scheiber over at The Stump saying exactly what I’ve been saying for the past two days:

You can let the suspense build and build if you’ve got a Hillary or a Gore socked away somewhere. Possibly a Biden or a Webb (or some unorthodox pick like a general or a Republican). But you’d better not come with Jack Reed or Evan Bayh after toying with people for over a week.

Drudge reported in big headlines that Bayh was the nomine based on these bumper stickers. But now, he seems to have bought the Obama camps pushback on this and is reporting that Bayh has been informed he’s not the nominee. Once again, Drudge is focusing on Biden and the fact that no one knows for sure who the nominee is.