Sunday, January 31, 2010

Obama reveals his post-presidential plans!

After he leaves the White House, he will be doing play-by-play for college basketball.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

High Speed Rail Ready to Take Off

Personally, I can't wait to take this trip!

($2.25 billion awarded to California for high speed rail)

(Check out California High Speed Rail Blog)

Friday, January 29, 2010

The President Attempts to Tame the GOP.

Here is the President giving Congressional Republicans what I would call the full University of Chicago treatment. For those not familiar with the traditions of that institution, you should understand that the University of Chicago prides itself on tolerating a wide range of intellectual viewpoints. It is a place that not only values freedom of thought and expression, but one that actually encourages students and faculty to listen carefully to opposing points of view, and to debate them in a civil tone. I attended law school at the University of Chicago, and Barack Obama later taught there part time for quite a few years. It was a bastion of conservative thought when I was there, but still included students and faculty with a wide range of views. I never met as many smart Republicans as I did when I was in law school. Probably the most valuable thing I learned at the U of C was that it is possible to have a civil and respectful conversation with people with whom you strongly disagree. Anyplace that encourages those kinds of conversations should be treasured. Watching this video, I wondered whether the President is trying to bring that atmosphere to the United States Congress.

It is important to understand that holding this kind of dialogue doesn't require that you pull any punches, or that you concede anything to your adversaries, other than what you have to concede if you want to be intellectually honest. People sometimes make the mistake of thinking that the president's idea of bi-partisanship requires that he give up his principles, or roll over for his opponents. As can be seen in this video, however, that is not at all what the president is doing. He is forceful and hard-hitting, and makes as strong a case as he can for his positions. The only thing he asks is that the tone of the debate be respectful: that participants listen to the other side, find areas of agreement where they can, refrain from ad hominem attacks, and try not to misrepresent each other's positions. In other words, let's have an honest and fair debate.

Is it possible that such an approach could succeed in making a few Republican members of Congress think twice about the strategy of blanket opposition to everything the administration proposes? The President makes a good case that not only is such opposition difficult to defend on the merits, it may not even be good politics, because it backs the Republicans into a corner where they cannot even support positions that they know are useful and necessary. But more importantly, Obama makes a good effort at demonstrating that facts and logic may be more powerful tools in exposing your political adversaries than hyperbole and counter-denunciation. Let's hope this effort helps tone down the negativity, and ushers in some civility to political debates.

Things are Looking Up.

It is hard to see how anybody could spin this economic data as anything but good news.  According to the latest figures, the GDP grew at a rate the last quarter that is much higher than anyone predicted.  So while the right keeps raising alarmist cries about how the new administration hates capitalism and is hell-bent on wrecking the economy; and the left is belly-aching about how the administration is still pandering to the fat cats on Wall Street; and while the average person is still wondering where their bail-out is, meanwhile the economy is just ripping along at a pace that has to help practically everyone. 

Does anyone want to give the administration credit for steering a steady course that is leading to solid improvements? Of course there are still problems left to solve. We still have high unemployment. We still need new regulations to prevent another potential financial meltdown. We will need to bring the deficit under control. But in the meantime, we ought to be encouraged by economic growth that makes other improvements possible.

(New York Times chart)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The President Attempts to Tame the Senate.

The United States Senate has a long and inglorious history as the graveyard of reform.  Its members are the only elected body in the United States chosen in a deliberately unrepresentative way, with two Senators per state, regardless of population.  The Senate has long served as the clubhouse for a bunch of large egos, most of its members believing that they should be president themselves.  And its rules permit these childish and egotistical windbags a huge amount of latitude to grandstand and delay.  President Obama, having spent a little time in the Senate, knows of its penchant for inaction as well as anyone. 

At times, the President's State of the Union message tonight sounded like a lecture aimed squarely at the U.S. Senate.  Three times he went out of his way to thank the House of Representatives for passing important legislation--a jobs bill, financial reform, and an energy bill--and then implored the Senate to do the same.  (I noticed Nancy Pelosi smile each time.)   Near the end of the speech the President issued an even harsher rebuke to his former colleagues:

To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.

Shaming the Senate into action may work, but only if the people get behind the President's program, and place the blame for inaction where it belongs.  Senate Democrats have already surprised a lot of people by getting 60 unanimous votes for health care reform.  After the election in Massachusetts, and the probability of a much smaller Democratic majority after this year's elections, the President knows that he needs to crack the Republican facade of negativism in order to keep the reform agenda on track.  By attempting to reassure independent voters that he is responsive to their concerns, and by placing the responsibility for continued progress on Congress, President Obama's State of the Union message seemed to be designed to scare the foot-dragging, self-important Senators from both parties, into constructive action.

(Senate illustration from Florida Center for Instructional Technology)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Corporate Free Speech

Today the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. FEC, overruling established precedent to declare unconstitutional statutory restrictions on the ability of corporations to pay for political advertisements. Back in the day when free speech cases concerned obscenity or civil rights or anti-war protests, the more liberal members of the Court would take the side of the First Amendment, while the more conservative members generally supported restrictions on speech. So today, when the five most conservative members of the Court are extolling the virtues of free speech as protected by the Fist Amendment, you have to wonder whether this case is really about free speech at all.

One problem with the decision is that the Court seems to have conflated the issue of free speech with the issue of the money that is spent to air political advertising. Granted that you sometimes need money to get your message across, restrictions on the amount of money that corporations can spend to air political advertisements do not seem the same as direct restrictions on speech itself. The campaign finance laws that the Supreme Court struck down today represented an effort to limit the impact of money in determining the outcome of elections (in other words, the amount you can pay to get your message seen, as opposed to the kinds of messages you can create). These laws obviously did not limit all of the unfairnesses of the current system, of course (wealthy individuals, for example, still have a tremendous advantage in using their personal fortunes to run for office), but is the solution to throw out all campaign finance restrictions, so that election contests become complete financial free-for-alls? I'm sure the tv networks will appreciate all those new advertising dollars, but is the elimination of all advertising restrictions really the best way to promote democracy? Can corporations really be trusted to spread messages that are in the people's best interests?

What also gets conflated in this decision are the rights of corporate "persons" and the rights of natural persons. I'm not saying that we should dispose of the legal fiction of corporate personhood entirely. In fact, there are good arguments for treating corporations as persons under the law. It may even be necessary for the law to have adopted that legal fiction in order to hold corporations legally accountable for their actions. But does it necessarily follow that fictional persons should have exactly the same rights as human beings? I heard a talk by an economist named Raj Patel last night. He mentioned a recent documentary, The Corporation, that attempted to answer the question of what kind of person a corporation would be if corporations were actually human beings. Strangely enough, a corporation seems to fit most, if not all of the criteria the medical profession uses to label patients as psychopaths. But you don't have to agree that corporations are evil to wonder whether corporations should have exactly the same rights as actual humans. Should corporations be allowed to get married, for example? I think the Supreme Court would say no.  As Justice Stevens stated:
[C]orporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. . . . [T]hey are not themselves members of "We the People" by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.

So what kind of world can we look forward to if Congress cannot find a way to scale back this decision?  I imagine a world in which the networks are flooded with corporate political advertising to the extent that most people will probably distrust most of it, even more than they already distrust advertising.  Jesse Ventura has suggested that politicians be required to wear their corporate sponsorships on their clothing like NASCAR drivers.  Maybe in the future world of politics, we will become more aware of the corporate money bankrolling various election campaigns, and we will know which of our representatives were brought to us by Exxon or Archer Daniels or Wal-Mart.  Fortunately, other ways have emerged, most prominently on the internet, in which competing voices can be heard even without large amounts of resources behind them.   Youtube levels the playing field to an extent.  In the so-called marketplace of ideas, all sources of information, including the demagogic, the salacious, the corrupt, and the idealistic, get their chance to broadcast.  One hopes that people can be discerning enough to understand what it means when a political message carries corporate sponsorship.

(photo by Kevin Labianco on flickr)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Power of Backlash

While the Republicans are justifiably celebrating Scott Brown's amazing win of the Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy, what will the Democrats be doing?  Doing what Democrats do best, of course.  Fighting among themselves.  Some will blame Coakley's inadequate campaign.  Some will blame the Congressional leadership.  Some will blame the president, either for trying to do too much, or for compromising too much.  Is any of this blaming and hand-wringing constructive?  I doubt it.

The Democrats are suffering right now from a situation they created, but for the most part could not have prevented.   The new administration had to do some very unpopular things to get the country out of recession, such as increase the national debt by a couple of trillion dollars, such as rescue the banking system, such as bailing out General Motors and Chrysler and AIG.  (It doesn't matter that some of these actions were begun under the prior administration, or were attempts to clean up the mess left by the prior administration.  The party in power still has to take the heat for anything bad that takes place during its watch.)  The administration also chose to try, in its first year, to push through a health insurance reform package that is complicated and unsettling to most people. On top of all that, the housing crisis is not over.  The economic recovery seems shaky.  Unemployment is still high, and people are understandably unhappy about that.  Regardless of how the new administration chose to tackle all of these problems, they were bound to provoke a strong counter-reaction.  The same thing happens in nearly every other presidential administration.  And it happens regardless of whether the new administration tries to govern from a left or right wing doctrinaire position, or whether they try to govern from the center.  Reagan escalated the arms race, and was countered by the nuclear freeze movement in reaction.  Clinton raised taxes and allowed gays in the military, and gave rise to Newt Gingrich's Contract with America.  And Barack Obama, regardless of how he had chosen to govern, probably could not have avoided creating the tea party movement.

The campaign experts can spend their time analyzing Martha Coakley's mistakes, and whether different strategies or messages by the Democrats might have had more success.  I think it would be more in keeping with Ted Kennedy's legacy, if the Democrats would instead pick themselves up, keep working for what they believe in, and move on.

I should also recognize that Scott Brown was surely right when he said the seat he ran for was the people's seat, not Ted Kennedy's seat.  We should still celebrate democracy even when it doesn't always produce the results that some of us might like. 

(photo by Nicola Burnell of Coakley signs stolen and burned by Brown supporters in Hyannis, from Cape Codders for Martha Coakley blog)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Help for Haiti

I had some experience years ago helping Haitian refugees in New York obtain political asylum in the United States. Although the dictatorship that caused those problems has since fallen, the country still suffers from corrupt government, massive deforestation, terrible poverty, and neglect. On top of all that, they are hit with the worst earthquake in the area in perhaps hundreds of years. Here is a chance for the United States to provide needed massive assistance to some very unlucky and unfortunate people.

1/14/10: After hearing what Rush Limbaugh said about Haiti, I take back every nice thing I said about him in my post below. As for Pat Robertson, I think he is the last man that God would confide in if He wanted to punish any group of people. Sadly, there is still a segment of public opinion that just seems to hate Haiti and the Haitian people. This hatred and fear of Haiti goes back to the time of the Haitian revolution in 1801, when black slaves overthrew their French masters, striking fear into the hearts of plantation owners in the United States, whose worst nightmare was that a similar slave rebellion might take place in this country. People like Limbaugh and Robertson obviously have the mentality of those pre-Civil War plantation owners.  Yet even such plantation owner-types should be expected to show some compassion for the people of Haiti after a natural disaster.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Rules of Terrorball

It takes Jon Stewart and John Oliver to explain why the Democrats seem to score much lower than Republicans when it comes to stopping terrorist attacks. 

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Of course, to be fair, Stewart and Oliver note that Democrats always score higher on racial issues because they are "good at black people."

Obama scores 96.7% with Congress.

According to a Congressional Quarterly study, reported on NPR and elsewhere, President Obama in his first year in office scored 96.7% in passage of legislation he called on Congress to enact. That is the highest of any modern president. Lyndon Johnson, the previous legislative champion, only scored 93% according to the criteria used in this study.

I'm sure the usual naysayers, left and right, will deride this achievement, and perhaps all it means is that Obama has been too cautious, or has compromised too much. Or perhaps it means that his team has an uncanny feel for Congress, and the sense to choose to fight battles they know they can win.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Ethics Report Card

It looks like President Obama earned a solid 3.5 average on lobbying, ethics and transparency reforms enacted during his first year in office. In this report by Common Cause, Democracy 21,the League of Women Voters and U.S. PIRG, the groups gave the administration an "A" in "revolving door" and open government reforms, and a "B" in certain other lobbying reforms.

These are changes probably little noticed by the public, but were an important part of what Obama talked about during the campaign. They prevent any departing administration official from lobbying the Executive Branch during the entirety of the President's term in office. They restrict the Executive Branch from hiring former lobbyists. They also contain restrictions on gifts, and require disclosure of lobbying for stimulus funds.

The report states:
The cumulative effect of the Administration's actions has been to adopt the strongest and most comprehensive lobbying, ethics and transparency rules and policies ever established by an Administration to govern its own activities.

Harry Reid and History

I actually enjoy listening to Rush Limbaugh sometimes. He says a lot of stupid things, and not much that I agree with, but he is still the best at what he does, just a master of radio who could teach a lot of people a lot about how to use the medium. And he can be really entertaining to listen to. Anyway, I tuned him in on the way to work to hear his comments on the whole Harry Reid episode (the revelation that Reid said during the campaign that Obama was light-skinned and did not have a Negro dialect). I figure, why begrudge Rush the chance to go to town with material like this.

I did not agree with him that Reid’s comment is worse than Trent Lott saying that we would be better off today if Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. To say that is like saying that it would be better if we still lived in a segregated society. It is a repudiation of the whole Civil Rights movement, so to me Lott’s statement seems much worse. But on the other hand Rush made some fair, and funny, points about Harry Reid’s racism, Joe Biden’s “clean and articulate” remark, Clinton’s comment to Ted Kennedy that Obama would have been serving coffee to them not too long ago, Robert Byrd’s being a member of the KKK and all of that. It is fair game as far as I am concerned to point out that all these guys have some deeply ingrained racist attitudes. They all have a lot to learn, and they all deserve the criticism that has been heaped on them for their stupid remarks. And they all should be smart enough to admit that.

I can also sympathize with Republicans who think that a double standard is applied to how we treat racist white Republicans, and excuse racist white Democrats. But the fact is that it was the Democrats who got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, which then caused practically all the whites in the South to switch to the Republican party, and all the blacks to join the Democratic party, and that is just the way it has been for a generation. Of course I understand that the biggest opponents of Civil Rights were Southern Democrats, but it was Lyndon Johnson who got it done, and who took the credit and suffered the consequences for it. When he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Johnson said that the Democrats had now lost the South for the next generation and he was of course completely right about that. But that is why 80 or 90% of blacks are Democrats. Just as when Lincoln freed the slaves, almost all freed slaves became Republicans. If they hadn't been denied the vote for the next hundred years, maybe more of them would have remained Republicans.

So I think all this will change gradually over time. It would probably be a good thing if more blacks became Republicans, and it would probably also be a good thing if more whites who joined the Republican Party in reaction to civil rights were to return to the Democratic Party. And maybe in another generation we won’t talk about the color of people’s skin any more at all.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Most Accomplished First Year in a Generation

Rachel Maddow, who at times in the past year has sounded disappointed that the president was not pushing the left's agenda hard enough (see my post on this last May), now seems to recognize that the Obama administration had to take some unpopular steps that probably saved the country from the next Great Depression. She also notes that they are close to accomplishing general health insurance reform, a goal that has eluded six or seven past presidents. Here she is on Letterman, crediting Obama with putting together "the most legislatively accomplished first year of any president in a generation."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dawn Johnsen

Dawn Johnsen is a summa cum laude graduate of Yale College, and a law review editor at Yale Law School. She served in the Office of Legal Counsel during the Clinton administration, then became a law professor at Indiana University.

President Obama's nomination of Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel has been held up for nearly a year because of some doubt as to whether a sufficient number of votes can be found to overcome a filibuster. Nearly every Republican Senator has announced opposition to her appointment.

Why?  Presumably because of Johnsen's outspoken criticism of the so-called "torture memos" issued by the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel, which were sought at the highest levels of the White House specifically to provide legal cover for harsh interrogation techniques employed on prisoners captured after 9/11.  Even though the Bush administration's own Justice Department itself eventually repudiated its own memos, Republican Senators still want to defend the indefensible.  It has been reported that the President will re-submit her name to Congress when it re-convenes.  Here's hoping Congress will act quickly to confirm an eminently qualified candidate.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Limits of Bi-Partisanship

The New Republic reports that, according to some Capitol Hill staffers, the Democrats in Congress will almost certainly bypass a formal conference committee process for health insurance reform legislation, opting instead to work out the details of a compromise bill via informal negotiations. They call that "ping pong."

No doubt Republicans, and perhaps some Democrats also, will scream about being left out of the process, and accuse the Obama administration of failing to be true to its promises of bi-partisanship, transparency, and inclusiveness. But the president already bent over backwards to offer Republicans a chance to contribute to the drafting of this legislation. Changes were made to the bill to accommodate the desires of the Charles Grassleys, etc. But instead of joining with conservative Democrats to participate in creating a compromise bill, Republicans instead chose to delay and obstruct. Even Olympia Snowe, who voted the bill out of committee, refused to vote for the final Senate version, for spurious reasons. (She claimed the bill was being rushed, even though she had supported the bill in committee, and even though the Senate debate on this bill was one of the longest in history.)

The Republican leadership has announced that their only goal is to defeat the bill. If Republicans do not want to be part of the solution, they are part of the problem. Since they have given no indication that they would use the conference committee process for any purpose other than more delay and obstruction, there is no reason to utilize that process. The rules do not require it. The promises of bi-partisanship, transparency, and inclusiveness do not require the Democrats to allow the opposition every possible opportunity to stall progress. If the Republicans want to play a constructive role, they should be included. But if all they want to do is play politics and attempt to defeat reform, they should be steam-rollered.