Saturday, February 28, 2009

Obama's Defining Time

This week Barack Obama became who he is going to be for the next four years. Amid a flurry of crucial decisions on the economy and foreign policy, his presidency is showing what may be its ultimate shape--out of necessity daring on domestic issues, more conventional and cautious on foreign policy.

Liberals who criticized his response to the financial crisis as too careful, like Paul Krugman, were finally impressed: "If he can get anything like the plan he announced on Thursday through Congress, he will set America on a fundamentally new course...(F)ears that Mr. Obama would sacrifice progressive priorities in his budget plans, and satisfy himself with fiddling around the edges of the tax system, have now been banished."

Conservatives also noted a difference. "A mysterious thing happened in that speech Tuesday night," Peggy Noonan writes. "By the end of it Barack Obama had become president," pointing to a moment "about four-fifths of the way through the speech. He was looking from the prompters to the congressmen and senators, and suddenly he was engaging on what seemed a deeper level. His voice took on inflection. He wasn't detached, as if he was wondering how he was doing. He seemed equal to the moment and then, in some new way, in command of it."

There is also a new edge to his determination to confront "the special interests and lobbyists...gearing up for a fight," and the days of wooing Republicans rather than defeating them in Congress, at least on domestic issues, seem to be winding down.

But foreign policy is something else. The pace of withdrawal from Iraq is slow enough to satisfy John McCain, and the decision to send more troops into Afghanistan while announcing a "soup to nuts" rethinking of our mission there has a cart-before-the-horse Bushlike feel to it. Shouldn’t the strategy precede the deployment?

Special envoy Richard Holbrooke is barely back from a whirlwind visit to the region, and the nature of Pakistan's role in fighting the Taliban is still unclear. For Obama, who puts so much emphasis on diplomacy, the military commitment seems premature.

As an incoming President with more on his plate than any in half a century, Barack Obama is shaping up fast and well enough to maintain good poll ratings from a jittery public, but the road looks long and uphill for the months ahead.

Fighting Words From the White House

The President's Saturday morning address is far from sweetness and light today, featuring a challenge to health insurers, banks, oil companies and their lobbyists, among others, to put up or shut up.

" I realize," he says, "that passing this budget won’t be easy. Because it represents real and dramatic change, it also represents a threat to the status quo in Washington.

"I know that the insurance industry won’t like the idea that they’ll have to bid competitively to continue offering Medicare coverage, but that’s how we’ll help preserve and protect Medicare and lower health care costs for American families. I know that banks and big student lenders won’t like the idea that we’re ending their huge taxpayer subsidies, but that’s how we’ll save taxpayers nearly $50 billion and make college more affordable. I know that oil and gas companies won’t like us ending nearly $30 billion in tax breaks, but that’s how we’ll help fund a renewable energy economy that will create new jobs and new industries.

"I know these steps won’t sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they’re gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this:

"So am I."

As should we all be.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Obama in Democratic Crossfire

Not everything is Change in the new Washington. When Attorney General Eric Holder had the temerity to mention gun control the other day, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid shot him down with a hair-trigger NRA response.

To Holder's suggestion of reinstating the 1994 ban on assault weapons, Pelosi harrumphed, "I think we need to enforce the laws we have right now" as Reid's spokesman hastened to reaffirm the Majority Leader's votes against the original ban and the effort to reinstate it on expiration in 2004.

During the campaign, Obama took heavy flak for his remark that during hard times some people "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them" and it cost him the Pennsylvania primary.

In Congress, there are still long memories of the National Rifle Association's ability to mobilize opposition to any member who votes against the God-given American right to hunt squirrels with automatic weapons and, in the absence of any recent Virginia Tech massacre, our lawmakers will take on Wall Street, Detroit, health care lobbyists but not the self-appointed protectors of the Second Amendment.

Middle East Flypaper

The decision to keep up to 50,000 American troops in Iraq after August of next year underscores the need for extreme caution in escalating our involvement in Afghanistan and any future commitment of forces in the region.

Those originally drawn to support Barack Obama's presidential campaign by his determination to get out of Iraq will have to be persuaded that continuing US presence of such magnitude is justified. Calling it a "transition force" will not mask the fact of an indefinite occupation.

Congressional Democrats are reacting with disappointment, but stronger emotion will have to pressure the Obama Administration to provide its vaunted transparency on this issue.

American voters rejected John McCain's vision of the Iraq war last November, but the Obama timetable for withdrawal is now earning his approval as "thoughtful and well prepared." How did we get from there to here?

Colin Powell's Pottery Barn rule about Iraq ("You break it, you own it") is morphing into a flypaper rule: "You go there and you're stuck indefinitely."

The President we chose to end what he called "a dumb war" owes us an explanation for why he is authorizing what looks like a not-so-smart extension of it into a distant future.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Jumping on Jindal

Among other Change that Barack Obama advocates is a return to civility in American politics, but this week the media and the politicians who feed it failed to get the memo in piling on Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal for his rebuttal to the President's Congressional speech.

Ineffectual and lame (my word) as it was, the outpouring of invective over Jindal's effort has prompted both the New York Times and Washington Post today to treat it as an event in itself.

"Governor Jindal, Rising G.O.P. Star, Plummets After Speech" is the Times headline as Howard Kurtz in the Post asks, "How Bad Was Jindal?"

Nobody, except the Republican National Committee, asked the governor to expose himself by following the most gifted orator of our time, but there is a troubling undertone to the personal nature of the barrage of criticism and ridicule.

Chris Matthews, caught by an open mic muttering "Oh God" as Jindal appeared, is now covering his aspirating with the claim that his reaction was to the scene in the Governor's mansion, not over a dark-skinned young man looking like a deer caught in the headlights.

The Jindal-bashing has been bipartisan. "Conservative commentators," the Times notes, "were among the harshest critics, calling Mr. Jindal’s delivery animatronic, his prose 'cheesy' and his message--that federal spending is not the answer to the nation’s economic problems--uninspired."

Be that as it may, the Palinization of Bobby Jindal is both premature and unhealthy for the body politic. Wrong as he may be, Jindal is no airhead. On "Meet the Press" recently, the former Rhodes scholar came off as a serious man and, in the climate that Barack Obama is trying to recreate in American political discourse, dumping on him does not advance the cause.

Radical Surgery for Health Care

Republicans who went ballistic over the stimulus bill had better check their blood pressures for the Big One--the taxing and spending the Administration wants in order to revolutionize American health care.

"President Obama," the Washington Post reports, "intends to release a budget tomorrow that creates a 10-year, $634 billion 'reserve fund' to partially pay for a vast expansion of the U.S. health care system, an overhaul that many experts project will cost as much as $1 trillion over the next decade."

The New York Times adds: "President Obama will propose further tax increases on the affluent to help pay for his promise to make health care more accessible and affordable...That plan, coming after recent years in which more wealth became concentrated at the top of the income scale, introduces a politically volatile new edge to the emerging Congressional debate over the new president’s top domestic priorities."

The surprise here is that, with his reputation for pragmatism and prudence, the President seems to have decided to go for broke on health care reform now instead of, as Congressional Democrats have suggested, moving "incrementally" during the economic crisis.

The mother of all legislative battles will have Republicans screaming "socialized medicine" over a proposed cap on itemized tax deductions for couples earning more than $250,000 a year to raise a $634 billion “reserve fund” for broadening health care coverage, along with ending billions of dollars in Bush-era subsidies to insurance companies under the Medicare Advantage program.

Drug company lobbyists will go berserk over a proposal to increase the rebate for medications sold to Medicaid patients from 15 percent to 21 percent, and hospitals will hate a new flat-fee plan to keep them from profiting on readmission of Medicare patients within 30 days of discharge, as they now do.

In any case, the "Harry and Louise" commercials that killed the Clintons' reform efforts in 1993 won't work in a time when Americans are worried about much more than having the government involved in doctor-patient relationships.

This time, if the health care industry wants to hold onto its bloodsucking profits, they and their Republican allies will have to offer substantive arguments to an all-out Obama offensive for some of the reforms that are long overdue.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

League of the Over-Articulate

The "Axis of Evil" man has found his soul mate. Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's oratorical muse, is now in love with Bobby Jindal, who "has the ability to overwhelm any topic with facts and thoughtful arguments--displaying a mastery of detail that encourages confidence...with the world-changing intensity of a late-night dorm room discussion."

Others saw the Louisiana governor's response to Obama last night differently. Andrew Sullivan called it "tired, exhausted, boilerplate" and even the Fox News folks "panned" it. But Gerson recognizes a fellow wonk when he sees one--a "hall-monitoring, library-inhabiting, science-fair-winning class president" from high-school days.

The problem with such over-articulate nerds as Gerson and Jindal is that their fluency with words is too often disconnected from what everyone else would call reality.

Gerson could give Bush the "smoking gun, mushroom cloud" metaphor when there was absolutely no evidence that Saddam Hussein was anywhere close to having a nuclear weapon, just as Jindal can now prate, "The way to lead is not to raise taxes and put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians."

As Barack Obama is making brains popular again with the American people, it's important not to confuse rhetoric alone without the kind of emotional intelligence needed to connect facts with feelings, understanding with empathy.

As Gerson has been demonstrating in his stint as a Washington Post columnist after Bill Kristol's disastrous year with the New York Times, the bar for brilliance is set low in the Neo-Con world. Next to them (and Sarah Palin), Jindal may indeed be of more imposing intellectual stature than he showed last night.

Obama's Body Language

By my count, Barack Obama kissed at least two dozen women on his way in and out of the House last night, but the affectionate post-speech highlight was a quick back rub from Sen. Barbara Boxer, who had been seen having an ecstatic reaction during the President's words on health care reform.

There were hugs, too, many of them for men, including his polar political opposite, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, for whom Obama expressed friendship during the campaign.

Not to make too much of it, but all this body language reflects an extraordinary ability to connect with people beyond the routine political pressing of the flesh with a wary fixed smile.

During the speech, some reactions from Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden were animated well beyond the usual, but apparently Obama's sensory appeal has its limits. Close-ups of Mitch McConnell and John Boehner showed them looking blank and immobilized, pretty much the way they had been during the weeks of debate on the stimulus bill.

It looks like we have a long way to go before Republicans get all touchy-feely.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Speech: "Yes We Will"

In Barack Obama style, optimism is not cheerleading but understanding the situation, finding the best answers and getting to work on them without delay. Tonight, we saw that approach, expressed with more assertion than we have seen before from the President in charge of saving the American economy.

“While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this,” he said in his address to Congress. “We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.”

If there is a word that means the opposite of "demagogue," Obama defined it tonight by devoting his speech to detailing the difficulties without minimizing them while stressing the steps needed to save jobs, save homes and get the banking system working again.

He told us "we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election. A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn't afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway. And all the while, critical debates and difficult decisions were put off for some other time on some other day."

In his even-handed way, the President emphasized his desire "not to lay blame or look backwards," but added that "it is only by understanding how we arrived at this moment that we'll be able to lift ourselves out of this predicament."

He acknowledged widespread resentment over the bank bailouts but made it clear that "we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment. My job--our job--is to solve the problem" and promised "I will not spend a single penny for the purpose of rewarding a single Wall Street executive, but I will do whatever it takes to help the small business that can't pay its workers or the family that has saved and still can't get a mortgage."

Beyond the immediate crisis, the President laid out long-range answers to energy independence, health care reform and improved education, insisting that they can't be delayed, because "to fully restore America's economic strength is to make the long-term investments that will lead to new jobs, new industries, and a renewed ability to compete with the rest of the world."

It was not called a State of the Union address, but the Congress and the country got a good look at what political leadership should be that was underscored, for comic relief, by a lame Republican rebuttal from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, full of stale platitudes about what government shouldn't do at a moment in American history when only government can stop the bleeding that free enterprise has inflicted on the country.

Jindal-Palin, Obama-Hillary for 2012?

Tonight's spotlight on Bobby Jindal to rebut Obama's speech to Congress shows Republican reverting to the finest traditions of show business, type casting, in the wake of last year's election disaster.

Just as Marilyn Monroe begot Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren and one TV reality show spawned dozens more, the GOP now has an African-American chairman and is pushing forward Jindal and Sarah Palin to duke it out in the 2012 primaries--a plot twist with two demographically appealing young governors of different genders to repeat last year's electoral success of the Democratic senators.

Like all type casting and knockoffs, the problem is a severe drop in quality of the product. Sarah Palin, it is amply clear, is no Hillary Clinton, and the Indian-American Louisiana governor is showing some of Barack Obama's rhetorical style but little of the substance.

Nonetheless, GOP hopes are high. "Gov. Jindal," says the director of the Republican Governors Association, "provides the outside-the-beltway, not D.C., perspective. And he's one of the smartest policy minds in the country. He's not perceived as an overtly political person."

Say what? Spouting conservative platitudes, Jindal is refusing stimulus money for the unemployed on the flimsiest grounds, leading the New York Times to observe in an editorial:

"Governors like Mr. Jindal should be worrying about how to end this recession while helping constituents feed and house their families--not about finding ways to revive tired election-year arguments about big spending versus small government."

It's encouraging to see Republicans trying to get into the 21st century, but they may want to take a closer look at show business' dismal record with sequels, retreads and reruns.

Meaning of the Stock Market Hissy Fit

As the nation's banks face their "stress test" by the Treasury this week, the stock markets are having the equivalent of a heart attack with indexes falling to lows unseen in this century.

What can Barack Obama possibly say tonight that would stop the cratering of values in the entire economy? The major banks, the automakers, the insurance giant AIG have all swallowed billions of taxpayer money and are now begging for more.

It's the President's mission to reassure the country that everything will be all right--eventually. But eventually keeps receding, and there is no sign that politics-as-usual is being put aside to deal with the magnitude of the emergency.

If anything, the stock market may be sending a message that its greatest advocates are still not getting. Those Republicans who are still prattling about free markets are not hearing what the biggest market of all is trying to tell them: This problem is too big for any other entity but government and, the longer it takes for everyone to agree on that, the worse it's going to get.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Stimulus as GOP Hopefuls' Iraq

Republican gubernatorial presidential wannabes are facing a dilemma over the Obama stimulus similar to the one that led Senate Democratic hopefuls into voting for George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq in 2001.

Just as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Edwards et al feared retaliation at the polls in 2004 for being soft on terrorism, we now have Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin and Mark Sanford arguing against government spending in their states during a crashing economy to appease the Republican conservative base for their 2012 primary runs.

On Meet the Press, Gov. Jindal bloviated over his refusal to accept $100 million for unemployment compensation in an estimated $4 billion of aid for Louisiana: “Now is the time, and it’s a great opportunity for Republican governors and other leaders to offer conservative-based solutions to the problems.”

He was followed by Charlie Crist of Florida, whose ambitions reach no higher than the Senate in 2010, saying, “There is a national leader, his name is President Obama...I think we do need to be bipartisan. We need to be, in fact, nonpartisan.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose state is drowning in red ink and is ineligible by birth for running for the White House, is also more philosophical. “Even though it is against your principles or philosophy,” he notes that officeholders should be doing “what the people want you to do rather than getting stuck in your ideology.”

Voting for Iraq left a lot of Democrats scrambling to explain themselves to voters later on. No matter how the stimulus turns out for the economy, some of their Republican counterparts now may have trouble persuading even their base why it was a good idea to open their umbrellas in a financial drought when it was raining federal money.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Honoring Our Dead

HBO's premiere this weekend is more than a movie. "Taking Chance" has all the elements of a feature film--actors, plot and dramatic form--but it is an act of reverence and respect for young men and women who go off to die for their country in distant places.

As the Hollywood elite dress up to congratulate themselves at the glitzy Oscars tonight, this 90 minutes, based on the experience of a Marine colonel accompanying the coffin of a fallen young man home for burial is a reminder of the power of the medium to move us deeply with simple truths.

"Taking Chance" comes at a time when the President and the Pentagon are deciding whether or not to let cameras record the arrival of coffins from the Middle East. (Dorian De Wind has an excellent review of the arguments on both sides at The Moderate Voice.)

What is so heartbreaking about the film is seeing the love and care lavished on those who lives end before their time in hate and violence. There are no special effects, no swelling music to cue our emotions, no grandiose speeches, just the simple truth of how hard it is for all of us to lose them.

It should be required watching for all politicians.

How to Feel About the Meltdown

Suddenly, prescribed treatments for the ailing economy have turned psychiatric.

*Dr. Bill Clinton calls himself in for consultation and urges Dr. Obama to dole out anti-depressants: “I just want the American people to know that he’s confident that we are going to get out of this and he feels good about the long run.”

The new Physician-in-Chief immediately announces plans to cut the budget deficit in half.

*Professor Frank Rich analyzes national stages of grief and finds no movement past the first: "Obama’s toughest political problem may not be coping with the increasingly marginalized G.O.P. but with an America-in-denial that must hear warning signs repeatedly, for months and sometimes years, before believing the wolf is actually at the door."

*Elsewhere CNBC's clinic for the money-mad produces its version of Paddy Chayevsky's loony "Network" anchorman in Rick Santelli's rant against rewarding bad behavior with bailouts against a backdrop of cheering inmates at a Chicago trading ward.

All this may simply reflect postpartum depression after Washington's giving birth to trillion-dollar bailout babies with no more assurance of future financial security than the Suleman octuplets.

In their dismay, some Americans seem to have stopped listening to politicians and pundits and turned to a more traditional source of guidance, getting financial advice in church.

As it gets crazier out there, Dr. Obama is going to have to find new ways of dispensing hope.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Ted Kennedy's Last Hurrah

He turns 77 tomorrow in a life much longer than those of his brothers Joe, Jack and Bobby, who died young and violently before he had reached the age of 40.

In four decades since then, Ted Kennedy has lived in the shadow of legends yet survived to make his own place in history, the last son of a generation "wired to be optimistic," as he tells a reporter today.

“That’s the way I was born and brought up,” he says. “That’s the way we’re dealing with the challenges we’re facing now.”

He is living his last days struggling against the ravages of a brain tumor but refusing to give up the political fight of his life in the Senate for universal health care. He collapsed at Barack Obama's inaugural lunch, but Ted Kennedy has spent his life coming back from setbacks.

"Since the diagnosis of his brain cancer last May," the New York Times reports, "Mr. Kennedy has been given all manner of tributes and testimonials, lifetime achievement awards, medals of honor and standing ovations. But even as those accolades have provided sweet solace--and even some dark humor--as he endures grueling treatments, Mr. Kennedy...has been intent on racing time rather than looking back on it."

In these days of fear and anxiety, he is a living reminder of how much Americans can endure and overcome. Ted Kennedy said it best himself at the Democratic convention last summer:

"As I look ahead, I am strengthened by family and friendship. So many of you have been with me in the happiest days and the hardest days. Together we have known success and seen setbacks, victory and defeat.

"But we have never lost our belief that we are all called to a better country and a newer world."

Happy Birthday, Senator.

Friday, February 20, 2009

McCain's Love Life, Case Closed

Vicki Iseman and the right to privacy win. The New York Times and careless reporting lose. That's the score on the convoluted settlement today of a libel suit over an article suggesting that the Washington lobbyist was having affair with John McCain.

A year ago, a Times examination of the candidate's history with lobbyists, began:

"Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers.

"A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself--instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him..."

This assertion raised a howl at the time, even leading the Times' Public Editor to conclude that "if you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence, I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed."

In today's settlement of Iseman's suit, the Times publishes a curt editor's note that it "did not intend to conclude that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust."

Far from a retraction, this is supplemented with a piece by Ms. Iseman's lawyers arguing that their client "is not a government or public official, and in our view, not even a public figure. Had this case proceeded to trial, the judicial determination of whether she is entitled to the protections afforded a private citizen would have been the subject of a ferocious, pivotal battle...That judicial contest has now been concluded in this instance, but the issue deserves ongoing scrutiny, certainly in our schools of law and journalism, but also in the arena of public debate.

"Indeed, the essential quality of our public discourse, even the very character of our national culture, will be heavily influenced by why, where, and how we draw this line."

In this case, the Times gets off without a financial penalty or even an outright apology, but the settlement strikes a blow against defining journalistic deviancy down.

Burris Brinksnmanship

A test for political peer pressure is shaping up in Washington around the tenure of Roland Burris in the Senate.

With little legal prospect of expelling him for misleading affidavits to the Illinois Legislature and Supreme Court about pre-appointment discussions of fundraising for ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Obama's replacement is under heavy fire from politicians and editorial writers to step aside.

But so far, he refuses to budge. "I've done nothing wrong, and I have absolutely nothing to hide," Burris said in a Chicago speech this week. "You know the real Roland...Stop the rush to judgment."

But calls for his resignation continue, his spokesman has resigned and the pressure mounts. A Chicago Tribune editorial today goads national and local Democrats: "Do you think it's acceptable for someone to take a Senate seat by lies of commission and of omission? That is, by saying what isn't true—and by declining to say what is?"

All this is complicated by the fact that Burris is the only African-American in the Senate, which moves the debate into what Clarence Thomas called "high-tech lynching" territory during his Supreme Court nomination hearings.

In the same Tribune calling for his resignation, a columnist notes: "Watching the Chicago media pack take chunks out of Roland Burris this week—and after taking a few bites out of the lying weasel myself—I couldn't help but wonder: When it comes to covering corruption, is there a media double standard, one for weak black politicians and another for powerful white guys?"

When Barack Obama vacated his Senate seat to bring Change to American politics, it's safe to say this was not what he had in mind.

Update: Sen. Burris should resign at once for the good of the state of Illinois, Gov. Patrick J. Quinn said today. “This should not be a matter that takes weeks."

A World That Won't Be Coming Back

For generations of Americans today, retirement will never be the same as that of their parents and grandparents.

The President's costly, complicated and inescapably necessary plan to save millions of homes recalls a discussion only a few years ago among recently retired professional people.

Most were financing their later years not so much by savings from substantial earnings or market investments but profits from increasingly larger homes they had bought or built for their growing families over decades and now no longer needed.

The conventional wisdom held that real estate was the only sure investment and for more than half a century after World War II, it was--more than safe, in most cases wildly profitable.

Growing up with a Depression kid's mentality, I refused in the 1960s to go into debt to buy a beachfront vacation home for $30,000 that, by the turn of the new century. was worth more than $3 million. But others did and prospered.

Now, all that appreciation has been sucked out of the economy, with little prospect of returning for decades to come.

Taxpayers will be bailing out overreaching home owners, greedy banks and speculators who milked the cash cow dry for immediate gratification and set off a downward spiral in the entire economy.

In the it-only-hurts-when-I-laugh category, former Sen. Phil Gramm, John McCain's economic adviser, explains to Wall Street Journal readers today that it wasn't the deregulation he sponsored that started the costly mess but the "politicization of the mortgage market."

Gramm, the OpEd piece notes, is now vice chairman of UBS Investment Bank, which this week admitted conspiring to defraud the IRS and agreed to pay $780 million for helping US citizens hide money in Swiss bank accounts. It's safe to say that Gramm won't have any trouble financing his retirement.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Dip in 50-Year-Old Dung

The major newspaper in a city where government is struggling to save the American economy today treats us to a long takeout on rumors about the sexual preferences of Jack Valenti, a minor political figure half a century ago.

The Washington Post headline reveals "Valenti's Sexuality Was Topic For FBI: Under Pressure, LBJ Let Hoover's Agents Investigate Top Aide" and is based on "Previously confidential FBI files."

Why so much in such fulsome detail? The Post sayeth not, offering no relevance or connection to current events while reporting on dirt amassed by J. Edgar Hoover's minions about Lyndon Johnson's aide who went on to become the chief flack for the movie industry as president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Hoover, who obsessively documented the sexual doings of political figures, no doubt had dossiers on thousands of them, using the excuse of "national security" to compile material that would blackmail presidents of both parties into keeping him in office.

Today's "news" is a sour reminder of those bad old days and brings back memories of the good-natured but politically unimportant Valenti, who died two years ago.

I knew him in passing as affable man of self-deprecating charm. At a social gathering, while selecting the movie star to play oneself in a biopic, the vertically challenged, far-from-handsome Valenti sighed, "I guess they'd have to get Mickey Rooney to play me."

Media critics may want the Washington Post to explain the news value of rooting around in old FBI files to report rumors about a man like that on a subject nobody considers scandalous in a time when government has serious work to do.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Next Week: Health Care

In its first month, the Obama Administration has been on a Crisis-of-the-Week schedule--economic stimulus last week, mortgage bailouts now and apparently health care next week as the President prepares to name Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas to be Secretary of Health and Human Services and to highlight health care in his prime-time speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night,

After the Daschle fiasco, the President is turning to a staunch supporter who served eight years as her state’s insurance commissioner before becoming governor six years ago in a very red state and whose bipartisan credentials include Republicans as her running mates in winning two elections.

The vetting process, it's safe to say, will be intense but, at the rate that crises are coming at him, Barack Obama is easily on track to become the most activist new president in US history since FDR.

Somewhere in the crowded schedule will be saving Detroit, but that may not rate a full week.

Stimulus Timeline

The new web site is up and running and, as we hold our breaths to find out how well the stimulus works, provides clues to what and when we will be learning about it.

On March 3rd, Federal agencies are scheduled to begin reporting use of funds and, on May 3rd, making Performance Plans available and detailing their allocations to entitlement programs, followed on May 20th by reporting competitive grants and contracts.

On July 15th, recipients are scheduled to start explaining how they are using the funds.

Beyond that, the site promises to reveal where the money is going, "to which states, to which congressional districts, even to which Federal contractors. As soon as we are able to, we'll display that information visually in maps, charts, and graphics."

Whether or not the program succeeds is an open question, but at least taxpayers won't be kept in the dark about how it is being implemented.

Senate Follies of 2009

The nation's newest senators or near-senators are making news: Everybody is telling Roland Burris to leave, Kirsten Gilibrand has moved the guns she keeps under her bed and Al Franken is rehearsing his role back in Minnesota while the recount court fight goes on.

*After what is described as the fifth version of his contacts with associates of Rod Blagojevich and first admission of trying to raise money for the former governor, editorial calls for Burris to resign his seat are coming from the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post and elsewhere. (He may soon have an asterisk to add to the newest title chiseled into granite in the Chicago cemetery that lists his firsts as a "Trail Blazer.")

*New York's new Senator Gilibrand, appointed to replace Hillary Clinton, told a reporter about two guns under her bed last week and, after a publicity firestorm, has decided to relocate them.

"Given that the location of the guns has been disclosed," her spokesman explains, "they have been moved for security reasons."

*Al Franken, with a 225-vote recount lead over Norm Coleman, has met with Minnesota mayors to discuss the national economic crisis and "learn what Minnesota's cities need most from Washington." At the rate the November results are being adjudicated, Franken may still be rehearsing for the part during the Senate's Easter break.

Nobody said 2009 would be dull.

A Case Against Home Owning

As the Obama Administration unveils its $75 billion plan today to prevent foreclosures, an urban theorist argues that a nation of renters would be better for America's future.

In the Atlantic, Richard Florida takes on the sanctity of home ownership by calling decades of housing growth in the Sun Belt and elsewhere a Ponzi scheme:

"To an uncommon degree, the economic boom in these cities was propelled by housing appreciation: as prices rose, more people moved in, seeking inexpensive lifestyles and the opportunity to get in on the real-estate market where it was rising, but still affordable. Local homeowners pumped more and more capital out of their houses as well, taking out home-equity loans and injecting money into the local economy in the form of home improvements and demand for retail goods and low-level services.

"Cities grew, tax coffers filled, spending continued, more people arrived. Yet the boom itself neither followed nor resulted in the development of sustainable, scalable, highly productive industries or services. It was fueled and funded by housing, and housing was its primary product. Whole cities and metro regions became giant Ponzi schemes."

Now that the housing bubble has burst, Florida advocates "removal of homeownership from its long-privileged place at the center of the U.S. economy. Substantial incentives for homeownership (from tax breaks to artificially low mortgage-interest rates) distort demand, encouraging people to buy bigger houses than they otherwise would. That means less spending on medical technology, or software, or alternative energy—the sectors and products that could drive U.S. growth and exports in the coming years...

"If anything, our government policies should encourage renting, not buying. Homeownership occupies a central place in the American Dream primarily because decades of policy have put it there. A recent study...shows that...homeowners are no happier than renters, nor do they report lower levels of stress or higher levels of self-esteem."

As provocative as this argument may be, it will meet heavy resistance. In yesterday's Times, David Brooks mocks urban planners who dream Americans "will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living."

He cites a Pew study: "City dwellers are least happy with where they live" and most Americans still long for "places where you can imagine yourself with a stuffed garage--filled with skis, kayaks, soccer equipment, hiking boots and boating equipment. These are places you can imagine yourself leading an active outdoor lifestyle."

Right or wrong, Americans will be worshipping at the shrine of home ownership until this economic crisis eases, and the government will keep pumping billions of bailout money into keeping them there.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bristol Palin Channels Lance Loud

In an eerie echo of a classic reality show of the 1970s, Sarah Palin's daughter Bristol is going public on Fox News to tell teenagers that pregnancy is "not glamorous."

In the groundbreaking PBS series, "An American Family," young Lance Loud came out of the closet as his mother told his father on camera that she wanted a divorce. The Palins started down their road to erasing the line between public and private by announcing Bristol's condition when the governor was chosen as the Republican VP candidate and by including the father-to-be in family photos at the convention.

Now the 18-year-old mother is telling Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, "It's just, like, I'm not living for myself anymore. It's, like, for another person, so it's different. And just you're up all night. And it's not glamorous at all. Like, your whole priorities change after having a baby."

The interview was her own idea, Bristol Palin says, and she told her parent about it the day before the taping. She wanted to tell her story to help others her age: "I'd love to [be] an advocate to prevent teen pregnancy because it's not, like, a situation that you would want to strive for, I guess."

Gov. Palin makes a cameo appearance at the end of the interview. "Not the most ideal situation, certainly you make the most of it," she observes, noting that her daughter is a "strong and bold woman, and she is an amazing mom. And this little baby is very lucky to have her as a mama. He's going to be just fine."

Politics aside, the Palin family is adding a new dimension to the era of the TV reality show and making it difficult for even hardened cynics not to sympathize with the outspoken young mother and wish her more privacy for the future.

Obama as Confidence Man

When he signs the Recovery and Reinvestment Act today, the President will be asking Americans to take a leap of faith into a future that is darkening rapidly.

Today's bad news is that California is going broke, Kansas is following suit and even Donald Trump's casino empire is filing for bankruptcy. Yet Barack Obama will try to reassure us that the biggest financial gamble in American history is our best choice for saving the economy.

His inspirational skills are facing the supreme test. Before taking office, he told us "the very fact that this crisis is largely of our own making means that it is not beyond our ability to solve. Our problems are rooted in past mistakes, not our capacity for future greatness. It will take time, perhaps many years, but we can rebuild that lost trust and confidence."

Confidence is the key, but it is a word that cuts two ways, meaning trust and also deception, as in "confidence game." From all sides, politicians, economists and unaffiliated naysayers are attacking the stimulus bill as too large or too small, with too much spending or too many tax cuts, too slow or too scattered--too scary in every conceivable way.

We are back to a time when FDR's warning that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" is becoming a main element of our dilemma--consumer fear of spending, banks' fear of lending, politicians' fear of making mistakes.

It may help to recall what the then President-Elect said about the origins of this mess:

"We arrived at this point due to an era of profound irresponsibility that stretched from corporate boardrooms to the halls of power in Washington, DC. For years, too many Wall Street executives made imprudent and dangerous decisions, seeking profits with too little regard for risk, too little regulatory scrutiny, and too little accountability. Banks made loans without concern for whether borrowers could repay them, and some borrowers took advantage of cheap credit to take on debt they couldn’t afford. Politicians spent taxpayer money without wisdom or discipline, and too often focused on scoring political points instead of the problems they were sent here to solve. The result has been a devastating loss of trust and confidence in our economy, our financial markets, and our government."

As he signs the new bill, however imperfect, the politicians and pundits may want to take time out from their yapping and join the American people in giving the President a vote of confidence.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Cliff Notes on the Stimulus

The scramble for free money starts tomorrow with the President's signing of the stimulus bill, but the picture of John Boehner holding up hundreds of pages and wailing, "Spending, spending, spending" lingers on.

The grain of truth in Republican howling over the largest government outlay in history is that few Americans, let alone Washington politicians, are familiar with the details of what is supposed to save the economy.

It will take weeks for the measure to sink into the national consciousness, but the New York Times makes a start today, along with a cheat sheet to bring us in on the main expenditures.

You don't have to memorize them, but there will surely be a test later in the year.

Rivals Redux: Clinton and McCain

The Lincolnesque concept is meeting with iffy success on the 200th anniversary of his birth. Hillary Clinton goes to Asia reaching out for the Obama Administration, while John McCain is on talk shows lashing out against his former rival.

On her first trip as Secretary of State, Clinton is visiting Japan, China, South Korea and Indonesia to discuss trade, prevention of nuclear weapons proliferation and reversing global warming, but the economic meltdown is at the top of her list. Her first stop is Japan, where the economy is sinking even faster than our own.

But the other candidate for Obama's team of rivals is traveling no further than Washington TV studios to blast the stimulus bill the President will sign tomorrow, calling it "generational theft" that is "laying a huge deficit on future generations of Americans.”

Instead of reverting to the pre-2008 McCain who earned bipartisan respect, the GOP standard bearer is aligning himself with party lightweights like House Whip Eric Cantor, who elegantly describes the stimulus as "a stinker."

The contrast between the McCain of yore, who originally opposed Bush tax cuts for the rich, was underscored on Meet the Press yesterday by journalist Ron Brownstein pointing out the Arizonan's support this year of a huge tax cut for the upper brackets: "For John McCain to talk about--who voted for that alternative of a $2.5 trillion tax cut over the next decade--to talk about generational theft, I mean, pot, meet kettle."

The irony here is that McCain, who has experienced his last hurrah as a presidential candidate, is in a position to revert to the centrist admired by independents and Democrats but still seems yoked to the Sarah Palin wing of the party that brought him down in November.

The most obvious generational theft here is how John McCain will be remembered in history.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Global Pols Eye Obama

Along with the economic crisis, a political preoccupation around the world is trying to figure out what to make of the new American president.

Hamid Karzai joins the list today. Asked by CNN's Fareed Zakaria about Obama's statement that the Afghan leader has a "bunker mentality" and "seems detached" from what is happening in his country, Karzai attempts condescension:

"I was surprised to hear that statement. Perhaps it's because the administration has not yet put itself together. Perhaps they have not been given the information yet. And I hope as they settle down, as they learn more, we will see better judgment."

Back in this hemisphere, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, better known for invective, is trying soft soap. “Any day is propitious for talking with President Barack Obama,” he says while trying for another referendum this weekend to keep himself in power forever.

This marks a change from Chavez's assessment last month that Obama has "the same stench" as George W. Bush after the new president expressed concern about Venezuelan support of guerillas in Columbia.

Meanwhile, the noisiest tinpot pol of all, Mamoud Ahmadinejad, also in trouble back home, has been running through the demagogue's handbook, at first claiming Obama's willingness to talk a victory for Iran but is now trying on a statesman's costume.

"Right now, the world is entering the era of dialogue," Ahmadinejad told crowds celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Islamic revolution. "It's quite clear that real change should be fundamental, not just a tactical change, and it is quite clear that the Iranian nation will greet real a fair atmosphere with mutual respect."

According to a New York Times analysis, "Allies as well as regimes at odds with the United States are scoping out the new president, trying to anticipate his opening moves, and then positioning themselves for advantage."

But foreign policy alone won't determine how world leaders react to Obama. His director of national intelligence, Dennis Blair, told the Senate last week that other nations blame America for setting off the worldwide financial crisis, which has led to “increased questioning of U.S. stewardship of the global economy.”

As much as Obama tries to bring Change to the world scene, the success of his efforts to save the domestic economy will play a major part there as well.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Oliver Twist in Our Time

When high school students in Scranton, Pa. study 19th century English literature, they should have their own insight into the Dickensian world of Oliver Twists being exploited by the rich and powerful.

In a bizarre 21st century version, two local judges have pleaded guilty to charges of taking more than $2.6 million in kickbacks to send teenagers to two privately run youth detention centers. One of them arranged the contracts for housing juvenile offenders, while the other sentenced kids there for the slightest infractions to keep the places filled, an estimated 5,000 over five years.

Now the judges are facing prison time of their own as parents and youth advocates wonder how such echoes of Dickens' brutal world could have gone on for so long in modern America.

Admirers of the great novelist will find a life-size bronze statue of him in Philadelphia, but they will have to travel across the state to Scranton to see how persistent the human exploitation he wrote about still is.

Republican Bunker Mentality

As uncertain as the effects of the stimulus may be, one thing is clear: The Republican Party has chosen clichés for its survival--deers in the headlights, heads in the sand and unity in a bunker to hide from the Obama battle with the destructive economic forces they helped unleash.

As they congratulate themselves on near-unanimity in yesterday's vote, the hairline cracks in GOP solidarity are beginning to show.

Arlen Specter, who breached the party line to support the bill, said before the vote that more Republicans would have joined him if it were not for fear of political consequences.

"When I came back to the cloak room after coming to the agreement a week ago today," said Specter, "one of my colleagues said, 'Arlen, I'm proud of you.' My Republican colleague said, 'Arlen, I'm proud of you.' I said, 'Are you going to vote with me?' And he said, 'No, I might have a primary.' And I said, 'Well, you know very well I'm going to have a primary.'"

Even in the Judd Gregg fiasco, it's clear how much peer pressure played a part in his decision to withdraw as Commerce Secretary after abstaining on the original stimulus vote while preparing for the nomination process.

But the Mitch McConnell-John Boehner Fuehrer feat may have a price tag on it for 2010. As they keep their troops in line, the opinion polls show voters rallying, however fearfully, behind Obama's moves to save the economy and more Republican stalwarts facing re-election trouble.

Even Gregg coupled his act of fealty with an announcement that he won't be running again for the New Hampshire seat.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Stimulus Triskadecaphobia

Passing the $789 trillion bill on Friday the 13th, as Congress seems ready to do, may be a risky move in view of all the voodoo fears about it.

The national mood, as reflected on the editorial pages of today's New York Times, is fingers crossed and fasten your seat belts.

"I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach," Paul Krugman writes, "a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice."

On his right, David Brooks has a gloomy future retrospective: "The nation had essentially bet its future on economic models with primitive views of human behavior. The government had tried to change social psychology using the equivalent of leeches and bleeding. Rather than blame themselves, Americans directed their anger toward policy makers and experts who based estimates of human psychology on mathematical equations."

Amid these gloomy overtones of Hobbes, Yeats et al, the editorial writers steer a mildly optimistic middle course:

"The bill is, for the most part, a step in the right direction. But political wrangling, including President Obama’s futile pursuit of bipartisanship, rendered it smaller and less focused than it needed to be...

"The administration’s next shot at advancing its economic aims will be Mr. Obama’s first budget. The new president should stop courting Republicans who have shown no interest in compromise or real economic fixes. The budget resolution is immune from filibustering. If every Republican wants to vote against it, Mr. Obama should leave them to explain that decision to voters who are in danger of losing their jobs or their houses or both."

Sounds hopeful but, just to be on the safe side, shouldn't Congress wait to pass the stimulus until after midnight when the black cats have done their worst and Valentine's Day will bring cuddly thoughts of bipartisan love into the Capitol?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Judd Gregg, Meet JFK

After being nominated for Commerce Secretary, it took the New Hampshire senator a week to decide not to ask what he could do for his country, but what his country could for him.

The answer today was not much, as he withdrew his name for the post he had sought, citing sudden discovery of "a different set of views on many critical items of policy."

His erratic behavior did not amuse the Obama team, which responded by observing that Gregg had “reached out to the president and offered his name for secretary of commerce. He was very clear throughout the interviewing process that despite past disagreements about policies, he would support, embrace, and move forward with the President’s agenda."

For its part, the Administration had acceded to the senator's requirement that the Democratic governor pick a Republican to succeed him in the Senate and had been willing to overlook the fact that Gregg had voted in 1995 to abolish the Commerce Department.

Chalk it up to an Obama overreach for bipartisanship in choosing a second-generation politician from the Granite State, whose behavior in the process reflected its motto, "Live Free or Die," less than Monty Python's Upperclass Twit of the Year.

The Woman Obama Kissed

“There is in the country a great deal of anger about the financial institutions,” Barney Frank told a row of bankers at a House hearing yesterday. Elsewhere in the Capitol, members of Congress were hammering out the stimulus compromise with rancor and recrimination.

But with all the ugly public emotions rising out of the economic crisis, there are signs of something else.

At the President's Fort Myers rally Tuesday, a homeless woman asked for help. His reaction was to kiss her cheek and promise," "We're going to do everything we can to help you."

After Bill Clinton's prattle about feeling our pain and George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism, Obama's instinctive physical reaction recalled what the psychoanalyst-philosopher Erich Fromm in the turbulent 1960s called "The Myth of Care." Amid social discord and rage about Vietnam, the author of "The Art of Loving" and "The Sane Society" kept searching newspapers and TV screens for images of people reaching out, helping and comforting one another.

Obama's small gesture is amplified by days of celebrating the saving of 155 lives on Flight 1549 that went down in Manhattan last month. Last night the pilot told Larry King, "Something about this situation seems to have brought out the best in people the day it happened. It seems to have brought the best in people out since then also."

In our publicity-driven world, the Florida woman is, of course, getting offers of help from countless strangers and Flight 1549 will be sentimentalized in books and movies. But none of that will negate the meaning of those signs of caring and compassion during a dark, angry time.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How Tax Cuts Could Backfire

For a little light on the hot topic of the day, the final shape of the stimulus bill, here is an expert view under the title of "Can Tax Cuts Deepen the Recession?"

A new paper by Gauti Eggertsson of the New York Fed argues that tax cuts will lead to increases in both supply and demand, failing to close the gap between the two.

"Under normal circumstances," notes the Times' Freakonomics blog, "this doesn’t present a problem, because the Fed can lower interest rates to close this output gap. But right now, the Fed has set interest rates as low as they can go, and so different principles apply. Eggertsson’s concern is that a big output gap will lead inflation to fall, leading real interest rates to rise in the middle of the recession.

"These higher real interest rates further dampen economic activity, and with the Fed powerless to offset this, there’s the very real risk of a deflationary spiral. And so a tax-cut-based fiscal stimulus might actually backfire. In fact, Eggertsson reckons there’s a chance that tax cuts could even deepen the recession."

As Republicans keep repeating their mantra of putting money into the taxpayers' pockets, Democratic negotiators might try to slip some rational arguments into the discussion. Eggertsson's theory has no historical data to validate it, but it seems to make sense--if that has any place in the deliberations.

Baby-the-Banks Bailout

Making some amends for her newspaper's hyping yesterday, Maureen Dowd, bless her salty tongue, today pistol-whips Tim Geithner's baby-the-banks bailout plan:

"The problem is that the 'lost faith' that Geithner talked about...cannot be restored as long as the taxpayers who are funding these wayward banks don’t have more control.

"Geithner is not even requiring the banks to lend in return for the $2 trillion his program will try to marshal, mostly by having the Fed print money out of thin air, thereby diluting our money, or borrowing more from China. (When, exactly, can China foreclose on us and start sending us toxic toys again?)

"There’s a weaselly feel to the plan, a sense that tough decisions were postponed even as President Obama warns about our 'perfect storm of financial problems.' The outrage is going only one way, as we pony up trillion after trillion."

This cautious approach is in striking contrast to the Obama Administration's all-in attitude toward the stimulus bill.

“If folks are still unemployed," the President told a Florida rally yesterday, "then you guys won’t employ me next time I come down here...I expect to be judged by results. I’m not going to make any excuses. If stuff hasn’t worked and people don’t feel like I’ve led the country in the right direction, then you’ll have a new president.”

Putting himself on the line this way, why is Obama unwilling to take on the banks more directly, as some of his advisers apparently wanted him to do?

Geithner's cautious, sketchy "plan" even sent Wall Street into a swoon. No one expects government to control the banks forever, but as long as taxpayers pour trillions into their greedy little hands, someone should be making sure they are keeping their sticky fingers clean.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Calling the Republican Bluff

As Congress gets to the down-and-dirty of reconciling the two stimulus bills, there is a strong case for favoring the House's version with more emphasis on aid to strapped states and less lip service to indefensible tax cuts.

Politically the only thing Democrats have to fear in this situation is, yes, fear itself in worrying about the loss of the three Senate moderates to provide cloture for the final bill.

Irrational as the GOP may be in gambling its future on the failure of Obama's efforts to save the economy, it would be suicidal for them to mount a Senate filibuster, an act that would be seen by Americans as harassing firemen trying to save the occupants of a burning building.

As uncertain as voters may be about the stimulus, polls show the President has persuaded a majority that something needs to be done and soon. The lonely trio of Senate Republican moderates, no matter how displeased they may be with the final bill, won't want to take the heat for blocking its passage, even though the right-wing smear machine is gearing up to pressure them to recant.

The Democrats' mission this week is to satisfy, insofar as possible, their House disaffected and get the stimulus passed.

The time for arguing and bluffing is past.

Bank Rescue: Tim Geithner's Times

The Treasury Secretary is announcing his plan to save the banks this morning, but the New York Times has it all before he says a word.

A front-page story reports that "Mr. Geithner, who will announce the broad outlines of the plan on Tuesday, successfully fought against more severe limits on executive pay for companies receiving government aid.

"He resisted those who wanted to dictate how banks would spend their rescue money. And he prevailed over top administration aides who wanted to replace bank executives and wipe out shareholders at institutions receiving aid."

On the editorial page, David Brooks, without bothering to tell us how he knows, offers Geithner's thinking about the process with direct quotes:

"The key, he says, is to create 'massive, sustained and substantial macroeconomic policy' that would pump capital into markets to get them working again. The heart of his program is a series of public-private investment funds...One would acquire toxic assets. One would foster consumer and small-business lending. 'There’s a lot of private capital out there that wants to come in. It just can’t get the financing,' Geithner insists. The new programs would encourage private investors, and then once the markets are unfrozen, would 'get out as quickly as possible.'”

With all this inside information, it's not surprising that Brooks finds "Geithner’s plan is huge but also disciplined. It’s designed by someone aware of government’s limitations."

If Treasury's attempt to make its new bank rescue plan seem tempered rather than toothless is half as successful in the real world as it already is with the newspaper of record, we can all stop worrying without bothering to listen to what Geithner himself has to say today.

Who knew it was going to be this easy?

Monday, February 09, 2009

Obama's Offhand Ultimatum

In his most polite, professorial manner, the President tonight challenged Congressional Republicans to put up or shut up in helping him save the American economy.

He spent most of his first news conference translating the stimulus bill from the language of Washington into that of Elkhart, Indiana, where he held a town hall earlier in the day, talking over the heads of Congress to the American people. But when asked "what you're going to have to do to get more bipartisanship," Obama had a clear message for the GOP:

“Old habits are hard to break. And we’re coming off of an election and I think people want to sort of test the limits of what they can get.

"(T)here's a lot of jockeying in this town, and a lot of 'who's up and who's down,' and positioning for the next election...(T)his is one of those times where we've got to put that kind of behavior aside, because the American people can't afford it. The people in Elkhart can't afford it. The single mom who's trying to figure out how to keep her house can't afford it.

"And whether we're Democrats or Republicans, surely there's got to be some capacity for us to work together, not agree on everything, but at least set aside small differences to get things break out of some of the ideological rigidity and gridlock that we've been carrying around for too long."

Translation: The President has reached the point where his attempts at give and take have met with almost total Republican refusal to sign on to the stimulus, preferring instead to position themselves for 2010 and claim they resisted expensive efforts to turn the economy around in their campaign to recover control of Congress.

Now that the battle lines are so clearly drawn, the Administration knows that this will be a Democratic program and has to concentrate on placating their own House members in conference by shaping a bill more in line with their version than the compromises made in the Senate to win three GOP votes to reach sixty.

When the final vote comes, the Senate so-called moderates--Specter, Collins and Snowe--will then have to answer the President's quiet ultimatum by serving their party's long-term future or abandoning it to the Rush Limbaugh us-against-them wing.

By staking his mandate on it tonight, the President should have his stimulus bill to sign next week.

Embarrassing Baby Boom

If Preston Sturges were making movies today, he could help us figure out how to react to Nadya Suleman and her octuplets, who made their public debut on the Today Show this morning.

In 1944, Sturges' classic comedy "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek" ended with a young woman giving birth to sextuplets in a satire of American hypocrisy about marriage, morals and motherhood.

At the very least, he might lighten up all the harrumphing that has followed the unmarried Ms. Suleman's in vitro delivery of eight babies to go with her previous six.

Unlike Sturges' clueless heroine Trudy Kockenlocker, today's multiple mother sought the pregnancies. As an only child, she tells Today's Ann Curry, “All I wanted was children. I wanted to be a mom. That's all I ever wanted in my life."

Now medical ethicists are criticizing her fertility doctors, and free-lance moralists are condemning her decision to have 14 children while jobless and living with her parents.

As odd and irresponsible as it may be, Ms. Suleman's act is a personal choice that doesn't require social approval until or unless the children have to be supported by taxpayers, something she vows not to seek and that private promoters will undoubtedly make it unnecessary to pursue.

Meanwhile, it's hard to resist thinking about what Sturges would make of the young man who was the sperm donor in both pregnancies. In today's interview, Ms. Suleman said that the father is "a bit overwhelmed right now," but she is hoping that he will want to get to know his children when he is ready.

Now that may be her most unrealistic expectation of all.

Hearing Voices: GOP Fever Dreams

In this national nightmare, it's hard to tell if all the voices we hear are real or the products of overheated imaginations.

Was that the new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele saying yesterday that the Obama stimulus plan was "laughable" and that the economic mess is only "about 18 months old. The reality of it is, Bush inherited a recession. He got us through that recession”?

Could that have been Ron Paul, back from the media dead, grousing about three Senate Republicans who "caved in and went with the Democrats"?

In a ghostly YouTube video, Paul is his old cranky self about both parties: "It's like they're born-again budget conservatives. Where were we in the past eight years, when we could have done something...So we can't blame the Democrats for the conditions we have. We have to blame both parties and presidents of the last several decades to have generated this huge government."

Paul wants the economy stimulated privately. "We need a lot more spending," he says with his usual grip on reality, "but it has to be done by market forces, by individuals, by businesses making proper decisions."

And off in the distance, another Texas Republican is crowing about terrorist tactics on the stimulus bill. According to the Washington Post, Rep. Pete Sessions "suggested last week that the party is learning from the disruptive tactics of the Taliban, and the GOP these days does have the bravado of an insurgent band that has pulled together after a big defeat to carry off a quick, if not particularly damaging, raid on the powers that be."

It's not unusual for patients in critical condition to be ranting, but the Republicans may want to set up an isolation ward to keep all this sad stuff from being overheard.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Rescue Fantasies

The emotional power of 60 Minutes tonight went deeper than a disaster story with a happy ending--the safe ditching of Flight 1549 in the Hudson River with 155 passengers and crew. In a time of fear and anxiety, it affirmed a powerful collective belief that, against all odds, human beings can save themselves and others from disaster.

The retelling of that story was ironically interrupted by commercials for a CBS reality series, celebrating the more dominant values of our time, competition and self-survival, as a counterpoint to the feat of the pilot and crew (along with the river rescuers) of taking responsibility for the lives of so many strangers.

With 9/11, Katrina and social upheaval, this has not been a good age for the rescue fantasies that coexist in all of us along with the selfish instincts that get so much more attention. But a reunion of the Flight 1549 crew with passengers and their families underscores how far and wide the saving of a life reaches into the world.

The pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, told of a woman who "came up to me and said, 'Thank you for not making me a widow. Thank you for allowing my three-year-old son to have a father.'"

Another passenger showed him a picture of himself with his niece, the child of his brother, a firefighter killed at the World Trade Center on 9/11. "And he told me, he didn't think that his family could take losing a second son."

The meaning of it all was summed up in a letter to the pilot:

"Yesterday I received a voicemail from my 84-year-old father who lives on the 30th floor of a building with river views here in Manhattan. Had you not been so skilled, my father or others like him in their sky-high buildings could have perished along with your passengers...As a Holocaust survivor my father taught me that to save a life is to save a world as you never know what the person you’ve saved nor his or her prodigy will go on to contribute to the peace and healing of the world."

There couldn't be a better time in our national life for hearing that.

Feeling Up in Down Times

It's a crisis of confidence, the experts tell us--the deepening worldwide depression is as much psychological as economic.

So while politicians haggle over tone-deaf solutions, it’s time to call in the psychologists to help families deal with the loss of jobs, homes and the sense of security that Americans have always taken for granted.

Into the breach today is a new blog by my long-time friend Marlin Potash, a psychologist who, after counseling high achievers and their families through the good times, has pithy advice for facing the bad.

The doctor is in. Here.

The Stimulus Absurdity

In the final stages, it's like watching two teams of squabbling sculptors shaping a huge graven image to appease the gods of economic destruction, slicing billions of spending here, sticking back tax cuts there, while chanting the mantras of their competing belief systems.

In the Senate version, which stands to win no more than three Republican votes as opposed to the House bill, which won none: Forty billion of state aid is out and seventy billion to spare thousands of middle-class Americans from paying the alternative minimum tax in 2009 is in--heading a laundry list of cuts for education, sciences, the environment and health care

Why? To make the bill filibuster-proof in the Senate and then hammer the misshapen thing into some final form that will end up on the President's desk to be signed by the middle of the month.

The final product, despite the expensive buying-off of Sens. Specter, Collins and Snowe, will be owned by the Democrats because Republicans sense more political profit down the road by blaming Democrats than signing on to a half-hearted bipartisan effort.

The bottom line on the stimulus is that nobody, nobody--Democrats, Republicans, economists of all stripes--actually knows what will and won't work but all agree that doing something is vital.

The absurdity is seeing them wrestling over the details while pretending to know what they're doing.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Obama Goes to Court

After he saves the economy, the new President will face a really tough decision: With March Madness almost here, where will he shoot hoops and with whom?

Barack Obama, the nation's first basketball-playing chief executive, lives in a White House with a tennis court and bowling alley, but he will have to leave the grounds to get a game--either at Fort Myers off Arlington Cemetery three miles away, the Interior Department's basement or the House's Rayburn Building, where he could be mugged by John Boehner's gang.

After all those presidents devoted to golf (pace Ike), it's metaphorically reassuring to have one defined, not by suburban exclusion, but the rough-and-tumble of a city game--threading through tight spaces under pressure, seeing openings and seizing them, making moves while keeping track of where others are, using every second and every inch to score in a contest where bodies and brains are always in motion.

If basketball is of any value in assessing Obama, it is in the teamwork, in what Bill Bradley calls the “ethic of connectedness,” individual effort and collective responsibility.

Before Michelle Robinson agreed to marry him, according to family legend, her brother Craig took her suitor to the gym and checked out his mettle.

Underneath all that Obama charm and grace, there are, as we have begun to see this week, sharp elbows when necessary.

At Camp David, the Commander-in-Chief will find a court used by the Marines and Navy Seabees stationed there. Unlike Congress, they won't be crying foul at the slightest touch.

Update: After the first weekend there, apparently Camp David will do, as the President announced that he had "played a little basketball." No word on whether anyone was keeping score.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Requiem for the Printed Word

The cover of Time this week shows not the Person of the Year but a vanishing artifact--the American newspaper--and reflects, in a larger sense, the coming end of journalism as we know it.

After a lifetime of putting words and images on paper--selling them, if you will--the computer screen and the crashing economy are conspiring to make what I did obsolete. (The timely site "Newspaper Death Watch" should be expanded to "Printed Word Death Watch" as magazines and books go onto life support.)

But the obsolescence is more than technical (nobody wept for the makers of buggy whips)--it involves a basic change in how we all get our sense of the world around us and, in many ways, not for the better.

"During the past few months," Walter Isaacson writes in Time, "the crisis in journalism has reached meltdown proportions. It is now possible to contemplate a time when some major cities will no longer have a newspaper and when magazines and network-news operations will employ no more than a handful of reporters."

As a journalist in the last century and a blogger now, I can testify to what this may mean for the future--self-serving information from political and social institutions beset by vociferous electronic critics with few disinterested reporters to mediate their distortions.

Even worse will be the sure death of investigative journalism to tell the public what it has no other way of knowing it needs to know.

Never mind nostalgia for exposing McCarthyism, Woodward and Bernstein et al, look back only as far as the Iraq war to see how journalists, after initially being gulled by the Bush Administration and goaded by bloggers, went about documenting the deception and uncovering what was being hidden.

It's easy to sneer at shortcomings of the MSM--they are serious and many--but if those primary sources go under and take their trained journalists with them, who will do the legwork for the legions of talking heads on cable TV and bloggers in heat?

As Timothy Egan pointed out on his New York Times blog, "there’s plenty of gossip, political spin and original insight on sites like the Drudge Report or The Huffington Post--even though they are built on the backs of the wire services and other factories of honest fact-gathering. One day soon these Web info-slingers will find that you can’t produce journalism without journalists, and a search engine is no replacement for a curious reporter."

That day is practically here.

Deck Chairs on the Titanic

The shipboard news today is that the new president is tightening his grip on the helm as Republicans reach for the wheel, but only a few dour souls are up on deck scouring the horizon for icebergs.

Obama rallies Congressional Democrats at their retreat: "We're not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that, for the last eight years, doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin. We can't embrace the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face, that ignores critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, or the soaring cost of health care, or failing schools and crumbling bridges and roads and levees.

"I don't care whether you're driving a hybrid or an SUV-- if you're headed for a cliff, you've got to change direction."

In the first-class lounge, Peggy Noonan sees passengers "braced" for impact while she points out that Obama's "serious and consequential policy mistake is that he put his prestige behind not a new way of breaking through but an old way of staying put. This marked a dreadful misreading of the moment. And now he's digging in. His political mistake, which in retrospect we will see as huge, is that he remoralized the Republicans. He let them back in the game."

Scanning the horizon, Paul Krugman points out that "most economic forecasts warn that in the absence of government action we’re headed for a deep, prolonged slump" and agrees that "the president made a big mistake in his initial approach, that his attempts to transcend partisanship ended up empowering politicians who take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh."

Krugman and the Times editorial page call for full steam ahead, Republicans want to stop stoking the boilers and the rest of us keep trying to remember how we got shanghaied onto this luxury cruise in the first place.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Overusing Obama

There is a tipping point somewhere in Barack Obama's media blitz on behalf of the stimulus bill that could damage his presidency beyond the immediate struggle to get legislation on his desk by next week.

The President is staking his hard-won mandate on a complicated, extravagant answer to national fear with an iffy argument: "Let's not make the perfect the enemy of the essential. Let's show people all over our country who are looking for leadership in this difficult time that we are equal to the task."

Welcoming Republican participation and serving them oatmeal cookies, Obama is offering himself in the role of a peacemaking warrior, and opinion polls are beginning to reflect that contradiction with doubts about rolling the dice for almost $1 trillion when no one is sure of what will and won't work in reviving the economy.

Moreover, the new President, as unBushlike as he can be, is nevertheless trying to persuade a public that is still reeling from the White House certitude that took us into Iraq. Change has come to Washington, but skepticism about political leadership is far from dead.

The encouraging news today is that, as the President continues his media offensive, there are bipartisan Senate efforts to examine the bill line by line and pare down and strip away dubious measures.

"So we have a choice to make," the President writes in a Washington Post OpEd. "We can once again let Washington's bad habits stand in the way of progress. Or we can pull together and say that in America, our destiny isn't written for us but by us. We can place good ideas ahead of old ideological battles, and a sense of purpose above the same narrow partisanship. We can act boldly to turn crisis into opportunity and, together, write the next great chapter in our history and meet the test of our time."

The rhetoric is inspiring, but voters will be forgiven for wanting this time to read all the fine print before going into battle. The Obama who campaigned on the issue of Change should expect no less.

The Caroline Kennedy Smear

In the aftermath of the Hillary Clinton replacement soap opera, there is a footnote to the misadventure of JFK's daughter in seeking the seat--the price of getting involved with political pygmies in the desire to continue a family tradition of public service.

The New York Times, which played a part in discrediting Caroline Kennedy as not ready for prime time, has gone back (with one of the same reporters) to untangle the final scenes of her withdrawal and the efforts of a governor's minions to smear her on his behalf.

It is not a pretty picture.

"A review of public comments and interviews with more than a dozen people involved in the process," says the Times, "make clear that Gov. David A. Paterson’s administration released confidential information about Ms. Kennedy and misled reporters about its significance as part of an orchestrated effort to discredit her after she withdrew...

"One of the administration’s central claims to reporters was that Ms. Kennedy had, in the words of a person close to the governor, 'a definite tax issue' and 'a nanny problem' that 'she didn’t want to become public.'

"But that story was inaccurate. The governor and his aides now acknowledge that those issues--a tax lien of a few hundred dollars in 1994, and a lapsed visa for a foreign nanny who worked for Ms. Kennedy during the late 1980s-- had been resolved years earlier and were never considered disqualifying during the vetting process."

In the era of Blagojevich et al, the New York governor's attempt to throw an idealistic Kennedy under his reelection campaign bus may be small potatoes, but it only underscores what may have been Caroline Kennedy's real reason for withdrawing--disgust.