Tuesday, November 24, 2009

90+ Accomplishments of the Obama Administration so far

Here is a list compiled by Robert Watson of Lynn University of a few of the Obama administration's accomplishments so far:

1. Ordered all federal agencies to undertake a study and make recommendations for ways to cut spending

2. Ordered a review of all federal operations to identify and cut wasteful spending and practices

3. Instituted enforcement for equal pay for women

4. Beginning the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq

5. Families of fallen soldiers have expenses covered to be on hand when the body arrives at Dover AFB

6. Ended media blackout on war casualties; reporting full information

7. Ended media blackout on covering the return of fallen soldiers to Dover AFB; the media is now permitted to do so pending adherence to respectful rules and approval of fallen soldier's family

8. The White House and federal government are respecting the Freedom of Information Act

9. Instructed all federal agencies to promote openness and transparency as much as possible

10. Limits on lobbyist's access to the White House

11. Limits on White House aides working for lobbyists after their tenure in the administration

12. Ended the previous stop-loss policy that kept soldiers in Iraq/Afghanistan longer than their enlistment date

13. Phasing out the expensive F-22 war plane and other outdated weapons systems, which weren't even used or needed in Iraq/Afghanistan

14. Removed restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research

15. Federal support for stem-cell and new biomedical research

16. New federal funding for science and research labs

17. States are permitted to enact federal fuel efficiency standards above federal standards

18. Increased infrastructure spending (roads, bridges, power plants) after years of neglect

19. Funds for high-speed, broadband Internet access to K-12 schools

20. New funds for school construction

21. The prison at Guantanamo Bay is being phased out

22. US Auto industry rescue plan

23. Housing rescue plan

24. $789 billion economic stimulus plan

25. The public can meet with federal housing insurers to refinance (the new plan can be completed in one day) a mortgage if they are having trouble paying

26. US financial and banking rescue plan

27. The secret detention facilities in Eastern Europe and elsewhere are being closed

28. Ended the previous policy; the US now has a no torture policy and is in compliance with the Geneva Convention standards

29. Better body armor is now being provided to our troops

30. The missile defense program is being cut by $1.4 billion in 2010

31. Restarted the nuclear nonproliferation talks and building back up the nuclear inspection infrastructure/protocols

32. Reengaged in the treaties/agreements to protect the Antarctic

33. Reengaged in the agreements/talks on global warming and greenhouse gas emissions

34. Visited more countries and met with more world leaders than any president in his first six months in office

35. Successful release of US captain held by Somali pirates; authorized the SEALS to do their job

36. US Navy increasing patrols off Somali coast

37. Attractive tax write-offs for those who buy hybrid automobiles

38. Cash for clunkers program offers vouchers to trade in fuel inefficient, polluting old cars for new cars; stimulated auto sales

39. Announced plans to purchase fuel efficient American-made fleet for the federal government

40. Expanded the SCHIP program to cover health care for 4 million more children

41. Signed national service legislation; expanded national youth service program

42. Instituted a new policy on Cuba, allowing Cuban families to return home to visit loved ones

43. Ended the previous policy of not regulating and labeling carbon dioxide emissions

44. Expanding vaccination programs

45. Immediate and efficient response to the floods in North Dakota and other natural disasters

46. Closed offshore tax safe havens

47. Negotiated deal with Swiss banks to permit US government to gain access to records of tax evaders and criminals

48. Ended the previous policy of offering tax benefits to corporations who outsource American jobs; the new policy is to promote in-sourcing to bring jobs back

49. Ended the previous practice of protecting credit card companies; in place of it are new consumer protections from credit card industry's predatory practices

50. Energy producing plants must begin preparing to produce 15% of their energy from renewable sources

51. Lower drug costs for seniors

52. Ended the previous practice of forbidding Medicare from negotiating with drug manufacturers for cheaper drugs; the federal government is now realizing hundreds of millions in savings

53. Increasing pay and benefits for military personnel

54. Improved housing for military personnel

55. Initiating a new policy to promote federal hiring of military spouses

56. Improved conditions at Walter Reed Military Hospital and other military hospitals

57. Increasing student loans

58. Increasing opportunities in AmeriCorps program

59. Sent envoys to Middle East and other parts of the world that had been neglected for years; reengaging in multilateral and bilateral talks and diplomacy

60. Established a new cyber security office

61. Beginning the process of reforming and restructuring the military 20 years after the Cold War to a more modern fighting force; this includes new procurement policies, increasing size of military, new technology and cyber units and operations, etc.

62. Ended previous policy of awarding no-bid defense contracts

63. Ordered a review of hurricane and natural disaster preparedness

64. Established a National Performance Officer charged with saving the federal government money and making federal operations more efficient

65. Students struggling to make college loan payments can have their loans refinanced

66. Improving benefits for veterans

67. Many more press conferences and town halls and much more media access than previous administration

68. Instituted a new focus on mortgage fraud

69. The FDA is now regulating tobacco

70. Ended previous policy of cutting the FDA and circumventing FDA rules

71. Ended previous practice of having White House aides rewrite scientific and environmental rules, regulations, and reports

72. Authorized discussions with North Korea and private mission by Pres. Bill Clinton to secure the release of two Americans held in prisons

73. Authorized discussions with Myanmar and mission by Sen. Jim Web to secure the release of an American held captive

74. Making more loans available to small businesses

75. Established independent commission to make recommendations on slowing the costs of Medicare

76. Appointment of first Latina to the Supreme Court

77. Authorized construction/opening of additional health centers to care for veterans

78. Limited salaries of senior White House aides; cut to $100,000

79. Renewed loan guarantees for Israel

80. Changed the failing/status quo military command in Afghanistan

81. Deployed additional troops to Afghanistan

82. New Afghan War policy that limits aerial bombing and prioritizes aid, development of infrastructure, diplomacy, and good government practices by Afghans

83. Announced the long-term development of a national energy grid with renewable sources and cleaner, efficient energy production

84. Returned money authorized for refurbishment of White House offices and private living quarters

85. Paid for redecoration of White House living quarters out of his own pocket

86. Held first Seder in White House

87. Attempting to reform the nation's healthcare system which is the most expensive in the world yet leaves almost 50 million without health insurance and millions more under insured

88. Has put the ball in play for comprehensive immigration reform

89. Has announced his intention to push for energy reform

90. Has announced his intention to push for education reform

Oh, and he built a swing set for the girls outside the Oval Office!

And this list does not even mention that the Obama administration has put the US financial system, which was still near collapse when Obama took office, on much firmer footing. That the administration put GM and Chrysler through bankruptcy in record time. That the housing market has started to rebound. That the stock market is up about 50% from its low point about a month after Obama took office. That the US is now once again the most admired country in the world. That the President has reached out in a major way to the Muslim world through his speech in Cairo and other efforts. That he achieved a unanimous vote in the UN Security Council for nuclear non-proliferation. And that the President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Do We Need to Complain EVERY day?

As reported in the LA Times this morning, Representative Emanuel Cleaver's modest and seemingly innocuous proposal to declare a national "complaint-free" day the day before Thanksgiving has been greeted by a small storm of protest and ridicule.  Evidently, people are outraged by the suggestion that they should be encouraged to stop whining for even one day a year.  Of course, the negative reaction to this harmless idea merely proves Representative Cleaver's point that there is too much polarization and pointless arguing in our society.  But I'm pretty sure this irony is lost on those who have attacked his suggestion. 

Of course, some of the negative reaction must be chalked up to partisan politics.  Because it was a Democratic Congressman who made this suggestion to give whining a rest for a day, Republicans are probably suspicious of his motives.  In addition, given that they are the opposition, they may believe they are threatened by the idea of encouraging too much good feeling.  Had a Republican Congressman introduced the same resolution during the Bush administration, I have no doubt that many liberals would have denounced it for the same reasons. 

But let's ask ourselves the larger questions.  Why is it so important for us to preserve our right to attack and complain, every single day?  Why is the idea of giving complaining a brief rest so threatening?  Why do we need instinctively to greet every proposal with criticism, rather than to welcome new ideas and discuss them in an open way?  If we really believe in our own principles and ideas, we should not feel so threatened by the ideas of others, that we need to attack them reflexively. At a mediation seminar I attended a couple of years ago, the instructor suggested the technique of responding to every proposal made by the other side with the comment, "That's an option."  Even, or perhaps especially, if the idea is anathema to the other side, the first response by the mediator should still be "That's an option."  That way all proposals can at least be put on the table for debate without undue rancor, permitting an open discussion of the merits and problems with each proposal.  This technique actually works, and can be put in practice for even the most trivial of disputes.  Let's say our family is trying to decide where to go out to dinner.  If one member suggests Chinese food and is immediately greeted with attacks:  "We just had Chinese food last week," "I'm tired of Chinese food," etc., etc., the response to all subsequent suggestions becomes predictably negative.  The one who shot down the Chinese food idea might suggest going out for pizza instead, and will be immediately met with cries of  "I don't feel like pizza;" "you chose the restaurant last time," etc., etc.  If instead each suggestion is greeted with the response, "that's an option," then we can at least get all the ideas on the table in a constructive and non-threatening way before the debate starts.

Could our politicians learn to do this?  Numerous examples exist of good ideas that have died in Congress because of partisan bickering.  When President Nixon proposed a fairly liberal welfare plan, it was shot down by suspicious Democrats looking to score political points.  President Clinton's fairly moderate health care plan was attacked viciously and made almost no progress in Congress.  President Bush proposed immigration reform and Social Security reform.  Although almost everyone agrees that we need both immigration reform and Social Security reform, all of Bush's proposals were greeted by storms of protest from left and right and needed reform was postponed.  Similarly, President Obama is being attacked from all sides for his health care proposals, his economic reform proposals, and his foreign policy proposals.  As a candidate, Obama ran on the idea of reducing this kind of partisan rancor.  His nature is to bring all interested parties together and try to work out a consensus on every issue.  Unfortunately, our nature instead seems to be to attack and criticize every suggestion, instead of welcoming new ideas as contributions to a valuable debate.

If we cannot even be open to the idea of putting aside the complaining for even one day, it will be difficult to tone down this debate. 

(T-shirt design from nonoodling)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Why We Need to Support the President

As a follow-up to my post below, here is a scary video about the rise of Christian fundamentalist threats to the President veiled in the prophetic language of the Bible.

I agree with Frank Schaffer that the proper response to the sizable proportion of the population that seems to view the President as the Anti-Christ, is to make clear that the majority of the population rejects this view, supports the President, and wishes him well. People who are criticizing the Obama administration from the left also need to think carefully about how they frame these criticisms.  Everyone must be free to express their policy differences, but ad hominem attacks from the left or the right all have the potential of feeding hate. The hate is the thing that we need to defuse. I would echo Mr. Schaffer's call for moderate Christian church leaders to reject calls to violence, and to offer prayers for the President's well-being and safety. I would also like to see even the people who disagree with everything the Obama administration proposes on a policy level make clear that do not wish the President ill on a personal level.

If we do not stand up and make clear that we reject violence and that we support democracy and the rule of law above all else, then we would be betraying this country's most basic principles. We would be encouraging different factions to resort to violence to achieve their divergent aims.  That type of thinking must be confined to a fringe element. It cannot be allowed into the mainstream.  We need to call it what it is, which is treason.


In an interview with Barbara Walters yesterday, Sarah Palin was asked whether she agreed with the Obama administration's position that Israel should curtail Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Her response:

I disagree with the Obama administration on that. I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is, is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don't think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.

I have seen comment about how this position flies in the face of international treaties, as well as the political problems that Palin's position would cause. But what about this idea that "more and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead . . . ." What is she talking about? Here is a clue, showing Max Blumenthal's intrepid reporting, which exposes Christian evangelical support for Israel as being motivated by a belief in End Times theology, a subject that even the organizers of such groups as Christians United for Israel do not want known:

Rapture Ready: The Unauthorized Christians United for Israel Tour from huffpost on Vimeo.

Sarah Palin's church has been actively associated with some of the most radical movements in Christian theology, those believing that the end of days is near, and that the resurgence of the State of Israel represents the fulfillment of prophecy and the imminent battle of Armageddon. It was interesting during last year's campaign that there was so much talk about Obama's Reverend Wright, and relatively little about Sarah Palin's Wasilla Assembly of God, in which she was an active member for many years. When Sarah Palin starts talking about Jews "flocking" to Israel, she may be letting slip that she really believes all this stuff about the imminent end of the world, and that is why she so wishes to encourage the provocative building of Jewish settlements in the ancient land of Israel.

Friday, November 13, 2009

New York is not afraid of terrorists.

Here is part of Congressman Jerry Nadler's statement on the Justice Department's decision finally to try some of the alleged 9/11 plotters in New York courts:
New York is not afraid of terrorists, we want to confront them, we want to bring them to justice, and we want to hold them accountable for their despicable actions.
For too long we have treated the Guantanamo detainees as though they are so dangerous they cannot be allowed on the US mainland.  As may be recalled, this was originally done only because the Bush Justice Department mistakenly believed that they would have fewer rights if they were not imprisoned on US soil.  Meanwhile many of the Guantanamo prisoners were quietly released by the Bush adminstration because they were found to pose no substantial threat.  And we may have difficulty trying many who remain because they were tortured by the prior administration.  But the lengthy imprisonment of these detainees has given rise to a common view that the remaining detainees as so dangerous that they must be kept out of the United States forever. 

We are already starting to hear the voices of fear and distrust, questioning the Obama administration's decision to treat these characters as ordinary criminals.  They would rather have the American people believe that these detainees are super-powerful evil masterminds capable of causing mass destruction as soon as they set foot on US soil.  These critics seem to need an all-powerful enemy to justify a continued war-like and vigilant state.  They take offense at the suggestion that suicide bombers are weak, pathetic cowards.  The best way to counter this kind of fear-mongering is for people to understand that even if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his associates are found to have plotted the worst villainy ever committed against America, they are still merely ordinary human beings who can be held in ordinary prisons and tried in ordinary courts.  It is time to diminish them, not to increase their stature.  They should be taken where they belong, to the federal courts of  New York City.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Too much information?

Disclosures that Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood killings, may have had contact with a militant cleric in Yemen, and that he had posted inflammatory material on the Internet, have led many to wonder whether more could have been done to prevent such an incident.  (see LA Times story)  Once again, as with, for example, the Virginia Tech shooter, the problem seems to be that the appropriate authorities actually had information in their possession that could have been used to intervene, but did not feel they had enough information, or did not feel intervention was warranted.  Think also of the huge amount of information the CIA had about Lee Harvey Oswald prior to the Kennedy assassination, or the clues we had about the 9/11 hijackers who were enrolled in flight training classes here in the United States.

I do not want to jump to conclusions about this investigation, since we still have a lot to learn.  I also do not like to engage in too much second-guessing in these situations, since for every Fort Hood shooter, there must be thousands of innocent people buying guns, or writing inflammatory posts on the web; and 99% of these people do not pose a threat to anyone.  I do wonder sometimes, though, whether we do enough to engage with all the people with whom we are in contact, and to make them feel engaged, so that some of these kinds of incidents might not occur as often.  I also wonder if we are wasting our time collecting so much information about every possible threat in the world, when we don't seem to have the sense or ability to use that information very well.  There was an article in the New York Review this month about the yottabytes (that's 10 to the 24th power, the biggest number that has a name) of data that the NSA is collecting and storing in gigantic archives that cost billions of dollars and must be built in remote locations otherwise they would exceed the capacity of the power plants that more populated areas rely upon for their electricity.  We keep collecting more and more information, but we have a poor track record in making intelligent decisions about how to use it.  What we need to figure out is how to make smarter decisions about how to use the information that is already right in front of our faces.

(Photo of NSA headquarters from NSA website.  Click on the photo and you'll be downloading a lot of bytes of useless photo information yourself.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ronald Reagan and the Berlin Wall

There was an interesting op-ed piece by James Mann in the LA Times on Friday arguing that President Reagan's behind-the-scenes courting of President Gorbachev was much more important in causing the Berlin Wall to fall, than was Reagan's famous speech in June of 1987, in which Reagan called out, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"  Prior to that speech, Reagan had already shifted his emphasis from his "evil empire" rhetoric toward building a constructive relationship with a by-now trusted reformer in the Soviet Union.  And it was Gorbachev's parallel trust in building a different relationship with the United States, Mann argues, that led Gorbachev to decide not to intervene when the East German authorities asked what they should do about the crowds of people streaming across the wall twenty years ago. 

The purpose of the speech, according to Mann, was not so much to intimidate the Soviet Union or the East German government, as it was to satisfy Reagan's supporters in the United States.  And even now, conservatives love to talk about how Reagan's arms build-up and tough talk against the evil empire caused the United States to win the Cold War, but they downplay the quiet diplomacy that was going on behind the scenes.  They sometimes forget that President Reagan often took such a pro-Gorbachev line while he was president that he alarmed hard-liners both inside and outside his administration at the time.  In fact, talking tough while making quiet compromises behind the scenes was entirely characteristic of Reagan, who also made pragmatic compromises on domestic policy, while engaging in tough anti-government rhetoric to placate his supporters.

President Obama has talked about President Reagan's effectiveness in making change.  Obama also displays an ability to use soaring rhetoric to try to keep his supporters happy, while making the compromises necessary to govern.  Getting health care reform through the Congress requires just that kind of balancing act.  Similarly, in dealing with a continuing economic crisis, President Obama needs to placate Americans' anger at Wall Street bailouts, while at the same time reassuring Wall Street that this country's financial system will remain profitable, so that the economy will grow its way out of this recession. The job requires the same kind of finesse that Reagan displayed twenty years ago. 

(photo from Europske Mesto)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

By the People

I was a little disappointed with the documentary "By the People" which premiered on HBO last night. Although the film did manage to capture some of the behind the scenes flavor of the Obama campaign, it did not show much going on behind the scenes that those of us who followed the campaign closely were not already aware of. Anyone who listened to David Plouffe's numerous videos last year already got an inside view of the campaign's strategies while the campaign was going on. There really wasn't much that was hidden from public view. Another problem with the film, and this is not the filmmakers' fault, was that as characters in a drama, David Plouffe and David Axelrod come across as so low key that they almost drain away the campaign's inherent excitement every time they appear on screen. These are brilliant guys, of course, but they don't exactly light up the room when they walk in. The documentary "The War Room," about the 1992 Clinton campaign, did a better job keeping the excitement going, mainly because the characters of James Carville and George Stephanopolous are a lot more dynamic to watch. Barack Obama, as a behind the scenes character, also comes across as somewhat cool and aloof, and of course more tired than he appears in public. The biggest revelation came from the speech just before election day in which he announced his grandmother's death, where we can now see that a big tear was streaming down his cheek. But in general the candidate's calm manner makes it harder to understand what it was about his campaign that inspired so many people. To do that, the film probably would have needed to include longer excerpts from Obama's speeches, and would also have had to convey a better sense of how refreshing and new his message of hope and inclusiveness sounded, and how strongly it contrasted with the more old-fashioned styles of the Clinton and McCain campaigns.

The main value of the film was its focus on some of the middle-level campaign workers. These are of course the unsung heroes of the campaign, and their commitment and passion shone through. They are the living proof of the Obama campaign's power.

(photo from US News)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Fox makes it up as they go along.

From TPM, a fairly hilarious compilation proving that sometimes the news is just wishful thinking on the reporters' part:

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Radicalizing the GOP

The surprising news this weekend that moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava not only dropped out of the Congressional race in upstate New York but endorsed her Democratic rival Bill Owens instead of her conservative challenger Douglas Hoffman, is but the latest manifestation of the Republican Party's radicalization.   As I noted in an earlier post, these days the Republican Party seems more interested in maintaining ideological purity on core issues dear to the hearts of its base supporters, than in expanding its reach to moderate voters.  Some Democratic strategists such as David Plouffe seem sanguine about this phenomenon, as it may further marginalize the Republican Party, and help elect more Democrats, but I'm not sure it is healthy for the Republican Party, or for our democracy in general, for Republicans to continue to serve such a narrow constituency.

I just finished reading Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal, a truly scary look at the backgrounds and interconnections of the right wing evangelicals who now make up the core of the Republican Party's supporters.  Blumenthal makes these people sound like members of a sado-masochistic cult, rooted in violence against children, obsessed with pornography, vigilant against their own repressed homosexuality, and believing in imminent Armegeddon.  The hysteria we see being launched against the Democrats' agenda can be explained in part by these fearful beliefs.  Republican Party leaders seem hesitant to renounce the base's most fevered rantings (for example, the widespread belief among the Republican base that Barack Obama is not qualified to be president).  Anyone who does not follow the right wing or evangelical party line on abortion, gay rights, or anti-government ideology risks becoming the next Dede Scozzafava, targeted by zealots within her own party. 

For the two party system to work, the Democrats need a healthy and a reasonable Republican Party that can contribute to the debate.   I'm not saying that the entire Republican Party should be composed of Arlen Specters and Olympia Snowes.  What I am saying is that it would probably be better for both the Democrats and the Republicans if the Republican Party were more accepting of its Olympia Snowes and Dede Scozzafavas, instead of viewing them as traitors.  The more that such voices are shut out of the Republican Party, the more the Party is taken over by a core cadre of fear-mongers and hate-mongers.  The danger is that Democrats will never take such an opposition seriously, and the opposition, being shut out of the debate, will only become more extreme and more violent.