Tuesday, April 28, 2009

100 days

Even though FDR's first 100 days are legendary, and serve as a benchmark for all future presidents who set out to change the direction of the country, an argument can be made that Roosevelt did not actually achieve as much in his first 100 days as Barack Obama has. The reason is that Roosevelt did not have as clear an idea of what he wanted to accomplish, or how to accomplish it, as the Obama team does.

It was interesting to get some historical perspective from Jonathan Alter's book The Defining Moment, which basically argues that Roosevelt was the perfect man at the exact moment he was needed, to restore Americans' confidence, make dramatic changes, and save capitalism. But Alter recognizes that Roosevelt took some steps in his first few months that almost everyone would now agree were counter-productive. Accepting the prevailing economic orthodoxy, he ordered massive cuts in federal spending, at the very time that the government should have been increasing the deficit to stimulate the economy. This probably delayed economic recovery. Roosevelt also set up the NRA, which started regulating business in a way that did not always generate more employment.

On the other hand, Roosevelt immediately started restoring the confidence of the American people, by means of his strong Inaugural Address and his reassuring fireside chats, and by a flurry of executive actions and legislation. Some of these actions, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, the TVA, and the beginnings of securities regulation, unquestionably had lasting value. Roosevelt's most enduring accomplishment, the Social Security Act, did not come for several years, however.

President Obama did not have to face an economic crisis as difficult as we had in 1933, but he has had the challenge of setting a new direction in foreign policy at the same time as he had to deal with a very bad economy. So while keeping the banking system afloat (which was also of course Roosevelt's very first concern on taking office), and enacting a massive stimulus bill, he has also set the nation on a different course in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has already improved relations with both adversaries and allies.

President Obama has also managed to make a sharp break with the Bush administration, get his legislative agenda in motion, and start stabilizing the economy, without quite as much political room to maneuver as Roosevelt had. Things were so bad in 1933 that the American people would have tolerated near-dictatorial powers from the new administration. President Obama has had to work much more within the traditional political framework.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Further Down the Road to Socialism

Has the president finally gone too far? President Obama yesterday took the managers of some of the country's largest credit card companies to task for various practices that the president evidently finds offensive.

Why wasn't there more outcry about this latest interference with business prerogatives from the defenders of free market capitalism? People should be marching in the street to support their precious freedom to be charged 29% interest on outstanding balances! They should be demanding that the government stop interfering with these businesses' right to collect exorbitant late fees, and to change the terms of credit card agreements whenever they choose! Where is the anger about this latest example of government strong-arm tactics? If people don't stand up for their rights now, the next thing you know the government might bring back some quaint and outmoded concepts like usury.

At least Larry Summers understands that this issue is so boring he can snooze through the meeting. (AP photo, from New York Times article)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dealing with Torture

Nobody seems entirely satisfied with the Obama administration's policy on past acts of torture committed by the CIA. The right attacks President Obama for making the torture memos public. The left attacks him for forswearing the prosecution of people who committed torture. In this case, not only are both sides ignoring the political realities that compel Obama's sensible policy, they are also both ignoring legal realities.

The urge to prosecute is of course understandable. The Bush administration's decision to use torture on terrorism suspects may be its most shameful act. It tarnished this country's ideals, and it puts Americans in danger. But people who want to punish the offenders are forgetting some important facts. Torture was approved at the very highest levels of the Bush administration, and those officials were careful to obtain legal cover for all of the interrogation techniques that were practiced by the CIA. That was the whole point of the torture memos, which constituted official opinions by the Office of Legal Counsel that basically re-defined torture, and specifically upheld the legality of the techniques that the CIA employed. These very memos make it almost impossible to prosecute anyone who relied on them, at least under US law. Some interrogators could potentially face legal consequences under international law, but it seems unlikely that they could be successfully prosecuted in the United States unless they went beyond what the Office of Legal Counsel authorized. It also seems unlikely that the lawyers who authored the memos could be prosecuted. Reprehensible as these opinions may be, they probably only constitute bad legal advice, which is generally not a crime. I'm not saying that the authors of these memos should face no consequences, but criminal prosecution seems unlikely to succeed. Therefore, President Obama was giving up almost nothing by saying that individuals who relied on these opinions will not be prosecuted. As much as people may disapprove of torture, they should try to recognize the limits of the government's ability to criminalize the conduct at issue in this case, conduct that was approved at the very top, widely supported by the public, overlooked by Congress, and given official legal sanction by the Justice Department.

Critics from the right are demonstrating an unsupportable keejerk reaction as well. The Obama administration had no choice but to renounce torture. Remember that even the Bush administration claimed that it did not engage in torture. No country can admit to engaging in torture without destroying the foundations of international law. The Bush administration had also already repudiated the torture memos before the Obama administration even took office, recognizing that they could not be supported as a matter of constitutional interpretation, statutory interpretation, or interpretation of international law. So the only issue on which the Obama administration can be questioned from the right is its decision to make the memos public. The substance of these memos was already widely known however, and the release of the text of the memos did nothing more than reveal details of information that was already public. Conservative critics ought to recognize, even if they don't agree with it, the political necessity of making a public statement of a new direction. That seems to be the least the Obama administration could have done. Bush supporters ought to be grateful that the new administration is putting the emphasis on moving forward over an undue preoccupation with the past, and that President Obama took the trouble to visit Langley to stand publicly with CIA employees and bolster their morale.

Shouldn't critics from both the left and right make some effort to appreciate the constraints that their counterparts place on the administration? Shouldn't people educate themselves about legal realities before they second guess legal decisions? And instead of carping about every decision that does not go as far as critics on both sides want, should we not admire the finesse of the administration's skillful navigation of these difficult waters?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


It is easy to make fun of the tea party protests that took place today. They could represent the first time in history that such protests took place in response to the federal government actually REDUCING taxes for almost all Americans. But I think people should still take this movement, and related movements such as the drive to assert the tenth amendment as a means of invalidating federal legislation, seriously. Although they don't make much sense as a tax protest, they do express a genuine fear of an expanding federal government. It seems undeniable that this recession, and the resurgence of the Democratic Party, are providing an opportunity for an increased role for the federal government in regulating business, and in supporting people's basic needs, just as happened in response to the Great Depression. Although the majority of the public seem fully on board with this trend, and therefore this backlash movement must be seen as anti-democratic, we should recognize that many people sincerely feel threatened by the prospect of an expanding federal government. Mixed in with this movement is some genuine populist outrage, which is also shared by many on the left, that the government seems once again to be helping the rich get richer, and leaving ordinary people out in the cold. (I don't agree by the way, that Wall Street bailouts will have the effect of increasing inequality, but that could be the subject of another post. The point here is that a fair number of people are mad as hell and don't want to take it any more. Whether or not their feelings are misguided is beyond my control.)

Every time the government starts to move in a different direction, it provokes a reaction in the other direction. This is a natural and expected part of the political process, and it is probably useless to become unduly outraged at the forces (Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, etc.) that are fomenting it. When Reagan came into office promoting a new arms race with the Soviet Union, his threatening stance provoked the grass-roots nuclear freeze movement in response. Reagan was pretty good at co-opting and compromising with such opponents, however, and that kept his movement as the dominant force in American politics for almost 30 years.

If Barack Obama's new politics is to obtain similar longevity, it must be equally deft in dealing with the forces of counter-revolution. I think it is important to include all of these viewpoints in the political process, and respond in some manner to their concerns, otherwise this movement could turn even uglier and more divisive.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hope in Minnesota

The three judge court in Minnesota decisively rejected Norm Coleman's challenge to the election recount that found Al Franken the winner of the Senatorial election. It's ironic in many ways that Coleman's last hope of overturning the result is based on Bush v. Gore, the infamous 2000 Supreme Court decision that put George Bush in the White House. Even the justices of the Supreme Court will not defend the legal reasoning of that decision, and specifically stated in the opinion that it should not be read to apply beyond the facts of that particular situation. That case was itself filled with irony because it was based on a broad reading of the equal protection clause, that part of the 14th Amendment that liberals traditionally read expansively to overturn laws that infringe civil rights. In Bush v. Gore, it was the supposed strict constructionists who held that people's right to have their votes counted in the same manner and according to the same rules everywhere was being infringed by the Florida Supreme Court's order allowing the recount to continue. They would have been better off simply stating that they were just impatient with the Florida judicial process and wanted all these state court proceedings to come to an end.

So in addition to the irony of using a liberal reading of constitutional rights to reach a conservative result, there is the additional irony that it is now the Coleman forces who are dragging out the state court challenges to the recount process, whereas in 2000 the Republicans were screaming that the system could not stand a 30 day delay in figuring out who won the 2000 presidential election.

Coleman still has the option of appealing to the Minnesota Supreme Court, and then starting a federal court challenge, but the only reason for him to do that would be to delay the seating of an additional Democratic vote in the Senate. The Minnesota Supreme Court is highly unlikely to reverse, and the federal courts would be inviting an avalanche of voting rights cases if they were foolish enough to expand the scope of Bush v. Gore. Cooler heads should advise Coleman that the pursuit of this short term advantage in the Senate is unlikely to help Republicans in the long run. The next time there is a close, contested election, it could be a Democrat that will be citing the Coleman example as an excuse for dragging out an election challenge.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hope in Cuba

A recent poll found that nearly three quarters of the American public supports relaxing restrictions on Cuba. So it should come as no surprise that the Obama administration announced today that it was rolling back some of the latest travel and remittance restrictions put in place by the Bush administration. What is surprising is that it took so long to start moving toward a more sensible policy toward Cuba. This is evidence of the waning power of a small but vocal minority, primarily Cuban-American exiles in Miami. Even that group does not feel as strongly about maintaining our grudge against Cuba as they have in years past. President Obama seems completely unsympathetic to the feelings of such special interest groups when they deprive the vast majority of a rational policy, and secure enough in his popularity that he need not worry about offending those who support maintaining tough restrictions on Cuba until both the Castro brothers are dead.

Not to mention the possibilities of planning an exciting vacation in Havana, or picking up some legal Cuban cigars! (photo from BigTravelWeb)

Hope in Somalia

The ability of Navy sharpshooters to take out three pirates on a bobbing lifeboat, while sparing the life of their hostage, could be seen as further evidence of Barack Obama's charmed life. The president has avoided what could have turned into a tragedy or at least an embarrassing stand-off, and turned it into a triumph, while demonstrating that he has the resolve to use military force when necessary.

The pirates' threats of further violence against the United States will probably help the new administration politically. Pirates can cause a lot of shipping losses, and even some lives, but they cannot seriously expect to win a war with the United States Navy. Taking on pirates may do for Obama something like what invading Grenada did for Ronald Reagan. It makes him look tough without much risk. Meanwhile these pirate attacks have drawn attention to a political problem in Somalia, that the new administration can play a constructive role in resolving. They have also encouraged the world's navies to provide better protection to shipping lanes.

Friday, April 10, 2009

White House Seder

The first presidential-hosted seder in US history! (photo from whitehouse.gov) I couldn't help noticing they were using the same Maxwell House Haggadahs we used in our house.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Hope in Iraq

Looking at the coverage of President Obama's surprise visit to the troops in Iraq sent me on a search for similar pictures of President Bush. The contrast is striking. It could be that the troops are just happy to see the guy who wants to send them home, but I don't think that explains the reaction. After all, many of these soldiers are going to be sent to Afghanistan instead, which could be an even more dangerous assignment. It seems more likely that President Obama just inspires an outpouring of emotion wherever he travels. President Bush, on the other hand, usually got a much more restrained reception.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Hope in Eastern Europe

President Obama seems to be reaching out to two different audiences in the final part of his European trip, in which he made stops in the Czech Republic and Turkey. He is trying to build bridges to parts of the world that may have felt neglected by prior administrations. In Turkey, he made a point of telling the Moslem world that the United States is not at war with Islam. In Prague, he spoke of the hope of eliminating nuclear weapons.

Instead of the single-minded focus on adversaries such as Al Qaeda, Iran or North Korea, Obama is reaching out to countries that might be considered the undecided voters of the world, countries which have sometimes shown hostility to the United States, but which also have interests that are often aligned with ours. These are the kinds of places where there is an opportunity to promote good will toward the United States, and where increased good will could be tremendously helpful in the future.

To the extent Americans are paying attention to the European trip, I think President Obama is also demonstrating to Americans that the world is a much more complicated and interesting place than past administrations may have led us to believe. We have certainly moved away from the Cold War black and white world that existed during the days of the Soviet empire. We are also moving away from the terrorists vs. democracies, or "you're either with us or against us" view of the world promoted by the Bush administration. Places like the Czech Republic and Turkey cannot and should not be so easily categorized as friend or foe. Right now we just need to recognize the importance of these countries, and listen to their concerns, without being so quick to label them.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Hope in London

While the media seems focused on such trivialities as whether Michelle Obama went too far in the manner in which she touched the queen, they have not given as much play to the historic agreements made at the G20 summit. Here was a meeting where the President of France was threatening to walk out, where China, Russia, Germany and the United States all were making competing and seemingly irreconcilable demands, ending in a far-reaching agreement that seemed to give all parties a substantial amount of what they were seeking. Yet the New York Times editorial page is complaining that the US did not get everything we wanted in terms of economic stimulus commitments by other countries. Such critics ignore the fact that countries like France and Germany were adamantly opposed to those kinds of stimulus measures, and were never going to agree to them no matter how strongly the US pushed. By sidestepping that issue, and making some compromises on our side, the US negotiators instead got these countries to commit over $1 trillion to the IMF, far more than anyone thought before the meeting was possible. Thus we achieved much of the stimulus result we were seeking, by pushing the discussion in a slightly different direction.

We are so used to the kind of diplomacy where the United States attempts to bully and threaten both its allies and adversaries into agreement with its demands, that we have yet to recognize the value of a new kind of diplomacy that seeks to achieve its ends through consensus and cooperation. It is important to remember that while making threats and refusing to compromise can make us feel righteous and powerful, that approach does not always achieve everything we want. Look, for example, at the difference between the strong coalition that George Bush I achieved in the first Gulf War through a diplomatic approach, compared to the weak coalition that George Bush II assembled through threats and bullying. Compare the agreement that President Obama achieved in London this week with what probably would have happened if the previous administration were still in power. The United States representatives would have been pounding their fists on the table demanding that others follow our approach, but everyone would probably have walked out of the meeting without much in the way of an agreement. President Obama is a master of the art of the possible. As such, he is always going to get criticized for being too accommodating, and for not fighting enough for a stronger approach. But he is going to accomplish more that way than by fighting losing battles.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Is there a difference between car manufacturers and banks?

In exchange for additional financial help for General Motors, the administration demanded and got Rick Wagoner's resignation. It seems reasonable for the government to attach some conditions to making more loans to GM, and asking for Rick Wagoner's head seems like a small price for GM to pay in return for billions in federal help. After all, this is the man who first killed the electric car, and then decided to revive another version of it at enormous additional expense. Yet from the right all you hear is that the government is now interfering unduly with business prerogatives, and we are one step further down the path to socialism. The right's alternative plans would be either to send General Motors to bankruptcy court, or to loan GM whatever it needs with no strings attached. Neither of these appear to be realistic alternatives.

From the left you hear complaints that it is unfair to demand the resignation of the head of GM without also calling for the heads of some of the bankers who are also receiving government help. Maybe this is a fair criticism. I'm not really in a position to judge which bank CEOs should go and which should stay. But I do think there are some differences between banks and car manufacturers. We clearly need more visionary leaders of auto manufacturing companies. Even in the best of times, a car manufacturer must be able to look ahead a few years to anticipate what the market will be demanding. They cannot keep churning out the same product year after year and expect to retain market share.

On the other hand, we expect bankers to be conservative. A lot of banks got in trouble because they expected market conditions to continue as they had in the past. So they lent too much at the peak of the market, and they are not lending enough at the bottom. But that is what we expect from banks, and most bank managers would probably act the same way. Other banks got in trouble because they invested in flashy products that they did not quite understand. In the future, we probably want them to stick to what they know. So other than asking for symbolic change, it is not as clear what purpose would be served by demanding that a lot of heads roll at these banks.