Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Democrats' Secret Weapons

The prevailing wisdom says that Republicans are poised to make a comeback this November, possibly reclaiming Congress. This is based on polls showing Republican candidates favored in many close races, as well as generic polls showing greater enthusiasm among Republican voters, indicating greater turnout for conservative candidates. I'm sure these polls are accurate as far as they go, but they fail to take into account of some Democratic Party advantages in firing up their own voters. One advantage is former President Clinton, whom polls also show may be the most popular politician in America. Clinton is already making heroic efforts on behalf of Democratic candidates, and can be expected to continue through election day. And the other advantage of course is the candidate from 2008 who fired up the crowds like nobody else. The video below, from a rally yesterday in Madison, Wisconsin, shows that he's still got it.

What can the Republicans do to counter these stars?  They can't exactly call up George W. Bush to stir the faithful.  That would only remind people of who got us into this mess.  Or John McCain, who would only remind voters of how out of date and out of touch they are.  Their other leading lights, figures like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee and John Boehner and Newt Gingrich, are viewed as net negatives by the public.  Voters may not feel that things are going well yet in this country, and a sizable minority are outraged by the direction we are heading, but I doubt there is a majority in favor of returning to the Republican program.  That means that if people just take the trouble to show up and vote, the Democrats should hang on this November.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Updated Obama Achievements List

Since I seem to draw a lot of traffic from people searching for a list of the Obama administration's achievements, I feel obligated, for my own benefit and that of my readers, to publish this updated list that seems to be making the rounds, again courtesy of Robert Watson, a history professor at Lynn University.  (Another interesting site I just discovered, that is in the process of compiling a "crowd-sourced" record of the administration's achievements, is called Obama's Achievements Center.)


The Obama Record – updated by Prof. Robert Watson, head of American Studies Program at Lynn University

THE OBAMA RECORD

Like all presidents, Barack Obama has made mistakes. But, as a presidential historian, I have been struck by claims being put forward by Obama’s many critics and the news media that he has accomplished little when, in fact, his presidency is easily one of the most active in history. Moreover, the President has faced venomous incivility and relentless opposition unlike anything in recent memory. As such, with all the misinformation circulating on talk radio, at town hall meetings, and in the blogosphere about the President, here is a fact-checked list of some of President Obama’s initiatives.
Robert P. Watson, Ph.D.
Lynn University
09/11/10 (update to 07/21/09 list)

 ETHICS
Ordered the White House and all federal agencies to respect the Freedom of Information Act and overturned Bush-era limits on accessibility of federal documents (2009)
Instructed all federal agencies to promote openness and transparency as much as possible (2009)
Placed limits on lobbyists’ access to the White House (2009)
Placed limits on White House aides working for lobbyists after their tenure in the administration (2009)
Signed a measure strengthening registration and reporting requirements for lobbyists (2009)
Ordered that lobbyists must be removed from and are no longer permitted to serve on federal and White House advisory panels and boards (2009) * Note: After saying he would not hire lobbyists, a few have been hired in the Administration
Companies and individuals who are delinquent on their taxes or owe back taxes are no longer allowed to bid for federal contracts (2009)
Initiated the “e-Rulemaking Initiative” (in cooperation with Cornell University) to allow for online public “notice and comment” of federal laws and initiatives (2010)
Issued the “Open Gov Directive” ordering all Cabinet departments to promote transparency and citizen participation in their policies (2010)
Signed extensions on banning lobbyists from serving on agency boards (2010)
Developed the “Don Not Pay List” with data on contractors and recipients of federal funds who are deemed to be ineligible because of fraud and abuse (2010)

 GOVERNANCE
The White House website now provides information on all economic stimulus projects and spending, along with an unprecedented amount of information on our government (2009)
Ended the Bush-era practice of circumventing established FDA rules for political reasons (2009)
Ended the Bush-era practice of having White House staff rewrite the findings of scientific and environmental regulations and reports when they disagreed with the results (2009)
Limited the salaries of senior White House aides (salaries cut to $100,000) (2009)
Has urged Congress to adopt “Pay-Go” (whereby each dollar of spending is offset by a dollar in cuts or revenues, which was used in the `90s but abandoned in the `00s) (2010)
Has been holding open meetings with Republican leaders, although they complain of a lack of access and information (2010)
Signed the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act (2010) * Note: To curb wasteful spending
Tasked federal agencies to develop plans for disposing of unneeded real estate and then to eliminate unnecessary or non-economical lands, properties, etc. (2010) 

 NATIONAL SECURITY
Phasing out the expensive F-22 war plane (which wasn’t even used in Iraq/Afghanistan) and other outdated weapons systems (2009)
Announced his intention to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay (2009) * Note: The closure has been delayed due to massive opposition but it remains on the agenda.
Stated his interest in housing terrorists at a new federal “super max” facility in the US (2009) * Note: this has been delayed in the face of massive opposition but it remains on the agenda
Cut the expensive Reagan era missile defense program, saving $1.4 billion in 2010 (2009)
Cancelled plans to station anti-ballistic missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic (2009)
Replacing long-range, expensive missile systems with more efficient smaller systems (2009)
Increased US Navy patrols off the Somali coast in response to pirating (2009)
Established a new cyber security office and appointed a cyber security czar (2009)
Ordered the first nation-wide comprehensive cyber threat assessment (2009)
Signed a one-year extension on some provisions of the controversial PATRIOT Act (2009)
Authorized the use of more unmanned warplanes/drones (Predator, Reaper, etc.) in the War on Terror (2009)
Instituted a new Nuclear Posture Review, revising US nuclear deterrence policy to encourage more nations to join the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (2010) * Note: Components of the policy include: a pledge to stop nuclear testing; a pledge to not build a new generation of nucs; identifying nuclear terrorism, rather than a launch from another nuclear state, as the major threat; a pledge to not use nucs on a non-nuclear state in a conventional conflict; etc.
Executive orders to block payment, transfers, exports, etc… of individuals and organizations support the regimes of North Korea, Iran, Somali pirates, and other foreign threats (2010)
Presidential Memoranda to extend certain provisions of The Trading with Enemies Act which was to expire in September 2010 (2010) * Note: This includes freezing assets and banning trade that benefits the Cuban regime; however further efforts at normalizing travel to Cuba are supported
Signed bill for southwest border security and increased funds and agents on the Mexican border (2010)
Signed the Comprehensive Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act to deal with foreign regimes like Iran and North Korea (2010)

 IRAQ & AFGHANISTAN
Began the phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq (2009); continuing the withdrawal (2010)
Authorized the deployment of 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, which had been pending for months during the Bush Administration (2009)
Changed the US military command in the Afghan conflict (2009)
Tasked the Pentagon to reorganize US policy in Afghanistan; the new policy includes 30,000 additional troops deployed, priority training of Afghan forces, developing agriculture and infrastructure, limiting aerial bombing, etc. (2009)
Ordered the Pentagon to send additional helicopters to assist US Marine units and Special Forces in Afghanistan (2009)
Increased unmanned drone strikes on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Afghanistan (2009)
Ended the Bush-era “stop-loss” policy that kept soldiers in Iraq/Afghanistan longer than their enlistment date (2009)
Visited US soldiers in Afghanistan (2010)

 MILITARY & VETERANS
Ordered the Pentagon to cover expenses of families of fallen soldiers if they wish to be on site when the body arrives back in the US (2009)
Ended the Bush-era “blackout” imposed on media coverage of the return of fallen US soldiers (2009) * Note: The media is now permitted to cover the story pending adherence to respectful rules and with the approval of the fallen soldier’s family
Ended the Bush-era “black out” policy on media coverage of war casualties (2009) * Note: Full information is now released for the first time in the War on Terror
Ordered better body armor to be procured for US troops (2009)
Funding new Mine Resistant Ambush Vehicles (2009) * Note: The old Hummers were very vulnerable to roadside explosives and an alarming percentage of our soldiers lost in Iraq were on account of IEDs
Working to increase pay and benefits for military personnel (2009)
Improving housing for military personnel (2009)
Initiating a new policy to promote federal hiring of military spouses (2009)
Ordered that conditions at Walter Reed Military Hospital and other neglected military hospitals be improved (2009)
Beginning the process of reforming and restructuring the military to a post-Cold War, modern fighting force (2009) * Note: Bush announced in 2001 his intention to do this but backed off the reforms after 9/11, which include: new procurement policies; increasing the size of Special Ops units; deploying new technologies; creating new cyber security units; etc.
Ended the Bush-era practice of awarding “no-bid” defense contracts (2009)
Improving benefits for veterans as well as VA staffing, information systems, etc. (2009)
Authorized construction of additional health centers to care for veterans (2009)
Suspended the Bush-era decision to purchase a fleet of Marine One helicopters from foreign suppliers in favor of American made helicopters (2009)
Ordered a review of the existing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military (2010)
New GI Bill for returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan (2009)
Signed bill providing assistance for caregivers of veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan (2010) * Note: The omnibus bill does the following: Training, funding, and counseling for caregivers; promoting pilot childcare programs for women vets under treatment at the VA; independent oversight to prevent abuse; readjustment counseling for National Guard and reservist units; etc.
Eliminated co-payments for veterans who are catastrophically disabled (2010)
Fulfilled campaign promise to have combat troops (90,000) out of Iraq by August 31, 2010 (2010)
Established a new interagency task force to assist veterans owning small businesses (2010) * Note: The efforts include promoting federal contract opportunities, improve access to loans and capital, mentor assistance programs, etc.
Signed The Families of Fallen Heroes Act, which covers the moving costs of immediate family members of those lost in service (military, intelligence, and security personnel) (2010)

 FOREIGN POLICY
Closed the Bush-era “secret detention” facilities in Eastern Europe (2009)
Ended the Bush-era policy allowing “enhanced interrogation” (torture); the US is again in compliance with Geneva Convention standards (2009) * Note: Obama has permitted some controversial interrogation techniques to continue
Restarted international nuclear non-proliferation talks and reestablished international nuclear inspection protocols (2009) * Note: Bush withdrew from non-proliferation talks and dismantled the inspection infrastructure
Reengaged in the treaties/agreements to protect the Antarctic (2009) * Note: These were suspended under Bush
Reengaged in the agreements/talks on global warming and greenhouse gas emissions (2009) * Note: These were suspended under Bush
Visited more countries and met with more world leaders than any president in his first six months in office (2009)
Banned the export of cluster bombs (2009)
Overturned Bush-era plans to increase the US nuclear arsenal (2009)
Authorized the Navy SEALS operation that freed by force the US shipping captain held by Somali pirates (2009)
Restored the US commitment to the UN population fund for family planning; overturned the ban on providing funds internationally for family planning (2009) * Note: The family planning efforts were suspended under Bush
Instituted a new policy on Cuba, allowing Cuban families to return “home” to visit families (2009)
Extended an offer of engagement (free from sanctions and penalties) to Iran through December 31, 2009 (Iran did not accept the offer) (2009)
Sent envoys to the Middle East and other parts of the world, reengaging in multilateral and bilateral talks and diplomacy (2009)
Authorized discussions with North Korea and the private mission by former president, Bill Clinton, to secure the release of two Americans held in prisons (2009)
Authorized discussions with Myanmar and the mission by Senator Jim Web to secure the release of an American held captive (2009)
Renewed loan guarantees for Israel (2009)
Signed the USIFTA trade agreement with/for Israel (2009)
Authorized a $550m advance for Israel (six months prior to the scheduled date) in order to accommodate Israeli’s economic and financial needs (2009)
Continued agreements with Israel for cultural exchanges, immigration, etc. (2009)
Spoke on Arab television, spoke at an Egyptian university, and met with Arab leaders in an effort to change the tone of US-Arab relations (2009)
Ordered the US to finally pay its dues to the United Nations (2009)
Attended the Summit of America’s meeting in Trinidad and Tobago (2010)
Invited the Israeli Prime Minister to Washington; met with him (2010)
Dispatched several envoys and initiated talks with numerous nations (2010)
Signed a nuclear limitation treaty with Russia (2010) * Note: The agreement calls for both countries to reduce their nucs by one-third (1,500) and launch systems by half (800)
Hosted nuclear non-proliferation summit for several nations (2010)
Executive Order to establish support offices in the State Department to assist the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan (2010)
Presidential Memoranda to continue drug interdiction support with Columbia (2010)

 ECONOMY
Increased infrastructure spending (roads, bridges, power plants…) (2009) * Note: Bush was the first president since Herbert Hoover to not make infrastructure a priority
Authorized the US auto industry rescue plan and two GMAC rescue packages (2009)
Authorized the housing rescue plan and new FHA residential housing guarantees (2009)
Authorized a $789 billion economic stimulus plan (2009) * Note: 1/3 in tax cuts for working-class families; 1/3 to states for infrastructure projects; 1/3 to states to prevent the layoff of police officers, teachers, etc. at risk of losing their jobs because of state budget shortfalls
Instituted a new rule allowing the public to meet with federal housing insurers to refinance (in as quickly as one day) a mortgage if they are having trouble paying (2009)
Authorized a continuation of the US financial and banking rescue plans initiated at the end of the Bush administration and authorized TARP funds to buy “toxic assets” from failing financial institutions (2009)
Authorized the “Cash for Clunkers” program that stimulated auto sales and removed old, inefficient, polluting cars from the road (2009)
Convened a “jobs summit” to bring experts together to develop ideas for creating jobs (2009)
Ordered the FDIC to beef up deposit insurance (2009)
Ended the Bush-era policy of protecting credit card companies (2009) * Note: In place of the old policy, new consumer protections were instituted and the industry’s predatory practices were banned
Authorized the federal government to make more loans available to small businesses and ordered lower rates for federal loans to small businesses (2009)
Placed a 35% tariff on Chinese tires and a few other products such as pipes after China was found to be illegally “dumping” exports below cost (2009) * Note: Clinton, Bush I, and Reagan all refused to “get tough” on China’s predatory trade practices; Bush II refused four times during his presidency
In November 2009, Obama extended unemployment benefits for one million workers
and expanded coverage for some existing homeowners who are buying again (2009)
Called on Congress to deliver a “Jobs bill” (2010)
Credit card companies are prohibited from raising rates without advance notification or arbitrarily if customers are paying bills on time (2010)
Signed a bill to extend unemployment benefits set to expire (2010)
Signed historic Wall Street reform bill (2010) * Note: Designed to reregulate and end abusive practices and promote consumer protections
Signed the HIRE Act to stimulate the economic recovery (2010) * Note: The bill includes: tax cuts for small businesses who hire someone unemployed for at least two months; small businesses can write off their investments in equipment this year; etc.
National Export Initiative established to enhance federal support (technical assistance, training, trade missions, etc.) and coordination efforts to help US businesses export products and services (2010)
Initiatives to promote a “Wireless Broadband Revolution” (2010) * Note: Among other things, broadband is finally being considered as necessary infrastructure, with efforts to expand use, access, and spectrum…
Expanded agricultural credit to farmers during current economic crisis (2010)
Signed bill – US Manufacturing Enhancement Act (2010)
Signed bill – Single Family Housing Mortgage Insurance (2010)

 TAXES
Negotiated a deal with Swiss banks to permit the US government to gain access to records of tax evaders and criminals (2009)
Ended the Bush-era policy of offering tax benefits to corporations who outsource American jobs (2009) * Note: The new policy promotes in-sourcing investments to brings jobs back to the US
Signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which provides small tax cuts for 95% of “working families” (2009) * Note: The tax cuts were not as big as was suggested during the 2008 campaign
Convened an advisory board that is looking into simplifying the tax code (2009)
Ordered the closing of offshore tax safe havens (for individual and business tax evaders) (2009)
Reduced taxes for some small businesses to stimulate the economic recovery (2009)
Extended the Home Buyers Credit for first-time home buyers (2009)
Proposed doubling the child tax credit (2010)
Called for the repeal of the capital gains tax for small businesses (2010)
Proposed rolling back the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (2010) * Note: This would be for families earning over $250,000/year and would return their tax rates to the 1990’s level

 BUDGETING
Ordered all federal agencies to undertake a study and make recommendations for ways to cut federal spending (2009)
Ordered a review of all federal operations to identify wasteful spending and practices (2009)
Established a National Performance Officer charged with saving the federal government money and making federal operations more efficient (2009)
Overturned the Bush-era practice of not listing certain federal programs in the federal budget (2009) (2010) * Note: Bush did this (so did Reagan) in an effort to hide programs and make the budget look smaller; such “off budget” items are now included in the annual budget
Full appropriations for war are now included in the budget (2009) (2010) * Note: Bush did not list many of the appropriations for Iraq, Afghanistan, and War on Terror
Funds for emergency appropriations are now included in the budget (2009) (2010)
Proposed a three-year freeze on federal discretionary spending beginning in 2011 (2010)
Is in the process of cutting 120 federal programs identified as either wasteful or unnecessary (2010)
Established a bipartisan commission on fiscal responsibility, staffed by House and Senate members and private citizens, tasked with submitting proposals to balance the budget (2010) * Note: In the face of Republican opposition, the powers of the commission were watered down
Established a bipartisan commission on the future of Social Security, tasked with submitting proposals to preserve and strengthen Social Security (2010) * Note: In the face of Republican opposition, the powers of the commission were watered down
Cut $20 billion from federal budget and has pledged to cut at least this much every year (2010)
Ultimately decided to cancel planned new presidential helicopter fleet and stick with marine One (2010)
Freezing all discretionary spending for next three years, except on national security (2010)
Presidential Memoranda to freeze discretionary awards, bonuses, etc. for federal political appointees (2010)
Beginning to use “Pay-As-You-Go” (Pay-Go) to offset budget expenditures with budget cuts or revenue enhancements (2010)

 HEALTHCARE
Removed Bush era restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research (2009)
Federal support for stem-cell and new biomedical research (2009)
Expanded the SCHIP program to cover health care for 4 million more children (2009)
Established an independent commission to make recommendations on slowing the costs of Medicare (2009)
Reversed some of the Bush-era restrictions that prevented Medicare from negotiating with pharmaceutical firms for cheaper drugs, allowing government to again competitively bid (2009) * Note: Obama had promised to lift all restrictions but, while he did negotiate with drug companies for them to lower their costs the deal only lifted some restrictions
Expanding government vaccination programs (2009)
Issued new disease prevention guidelines and priorities for the CDC (2009)
Authorized the FDA to finally begin regulating tobacco (2009)
Tasked federal labs to prioritize research on and deployment of H1N1 vaccines (2009)
Asked multiple congressional committees to bring forward a healthcare reform bill; held dozens of public hearings and town halls on the issue (2009) (2010)
Established a new council on National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health to be chaired by Surgeon General and charged with promoting healthy lifestyles and integrative healthcare (2010)
When accusations to the contrary arose, an Executive Order was signed to reaffirm that federal funds are not to be used for abortion services (2010)
Historic healthcare reform bill signed – $940 billion over 10 years (2010) * Note: 32 million additional Americans will receive healthcare coverage and costs will be lowered for most Americans, but many of the goals are phased in over four years
Components of the bill:
- Prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to individuals/family members with pre-existing health conditions; a temporary plan is being developed to cover high-risk individuals with pre-existing conditions until the full reforms go into effect in 2014
- Prevents insurance companies from placing lifetime limits on benefits
- Bans “rescission” so insurance companies can’t cancel coverage if individuals keep their policies current or if they become ill
- An individual’s out-of-pocket healthcare expenses are capped
- Closes the “donut hole” (Part D) for Medicare prescription drug coverage (under Bush, Medicare helped pay for drugs up to $2,600 and above $4,550, but individuals had to pay 100% of the costs in between these amounts); now Medicare helps cover costs irrespective of the amount – seniors will now pay only 25% of drug costs up to $4,550 and only 5% of drug costs above that amount
- In 2010, an emergency provision will offer seniors a $250 rebate on the costs incurred within the “donut hole”
- Individuals living at or below the poverty line were eligible for healthcare under Medicaid, but by 2014 individuals/families living slightly above (making up to $14,404/$29,327) the poverty line will also be eligible for benefits
- Individuals/families making less than $43,320/$88,200 per year will qualify for government subsidies to help purchase health insurance
- All individuals must have health insurance or face a government fine; all large (over 50 employees) employers must offer health insurance to employees or pay a fine
- Small businesses can get a tax credit if they offer health care
- There are hardship exemptions if individuals can’t afford health insurance
- Families can keep their children in college on their plans through age 26
- Promotes health insurance “exchanges” so consumers can buy “wholesale”
- Creates consumer assistance offices to help consumers file complaints or appeal decisions from insurance companies; beginning in 2011, insurance companies can no longer make excessive rate hikes without justification and approval, and those doing so may be barred from participating in new health insurance exchanges
Funding sources:
- Large employers (over 50 workers) that don’t offer health benefits will be charged a $2,000/worker fee; if the employer offers coverage but employees instead purchase federally subsidized insurance the fee is $3,000/worker receiving federal subsidies or $750/worker (whichever is lower)
- Annual fees on pharmaceutical companies ($27 billion), health insurance companies ($60 billion), and medical device-makers ($20 billion)
- Annual penalties on individuals who do not have health insurance (up to a maximum of $695/person)
- Increase in the Medicare payroll tax from 1.45% to 2.35% for individuals making $200,000+ and families making $250,000+
- 3.8% tax on unearned income for millionaires
- Insurance companies will be subject to a tax on each high-end insurance plan (so-called “Cadillac” plans) they offer
Miscellaneous:
- Illegal immigrants are not eligible for insurance or subsidies
- By Executive Order, such federal funding can’t be used for abortion
- The federal government will assist states by covering all of the increased expenses of expanding Medicaid coverage (90% of costs after 2020)

 ENERGY & ENVIRONMENT
Removed a ruling that now allows individual states to enact automotive fuel efficiency standards above federal standards (2009)
Offered attractive tax write-offs for those who buy hybrid automobiles (2009)
Overturned Bush-era rule that weakened the Endangered Species Act (2009)
Announced plans to purchase fuel efficient American-made fleet for the federal government (2009)
Ended the Bush-era policy of not regulating and labeling carbon dioxide emissions (2009)
Signed a measure requiring energy producing plants to begin producing 15% of their energy from renewable sources (2009)
Announced that the federal government would reengage in the long-delayed effort to clean up “Superfund” toxic waste sites (2009)
Announced the long-term development of a national energy grid with renewable sources and cleaner, efficient energy production (2009) * Note: Much of Obama’s energy reform was killed by Senate Republicans
Proposed a new refuge for wild mustangs (2009)
Cancelled several Bush-era mountain-top removal and mining permits (2009)
Reengaged in international treaties and agreements to protect the Antarctic (2009)
* Note: Bush had withdrawn from such efforts
Asked Congress for an energy reform and “cap and trade” bill (2009) * Note: The Congress failed to pass such a bill
Developing plan to lease US coastal waters for wind and water-current energy production (2009)
Overturned Bush-era policies that allowed uranium mining near national parks such as the Grand Canyon (2009)
Expanded the Petrified Forest National Park (2009)
Signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act that protects millions of acres of scenic, historic, and recreational lands and trails (2009)
Requiring that government buildings and facilities be retrofitted to save energy costs (2009) * Note: These green retrofits are moving very slowly
Authorized studies in several western states to determine how to support large-scale solar installations (2009)
Attended the Copenhagen talks and, after the talks were stalled, negotiated an international (voluntary) agreement on reducing carbon emissions and raising funds to assist developing nations in offsetting carbon emissions (2009)
Banned importation of pythons in response to a growing population of pythons damaging the Florida Everglades (2009)
Committing the federal government to increasing research and use of renewable, clean energy sources such as wind, biomass, etc. (2009)
Executive orders establishing a federal initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in all federal operations (2009) (2010)
Called for exploring the possibility of additional off-shore oil drilling in the Gulf, Atlantic, and off Alaska (but not in ANWR) (2010)
Agreed to consider increases in nuclear energy production and requested a study on the feasibility of nuclear power plant construction (2010) * Note: Nearly all energy initiatives were defeated by Republican opposition in Congress
Increased investment in clean energy projects (2010)
Executive Order to develop a new strategy for and commitment to ocean and lake resources, and for scientific research on water quality (2010)

 RIGHTS
Instituted enforcements for equal pay for women (Lilly Ledbetter Bill) (2009)
Appointed Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina, to the Supreme Court (2009)
Held the first Seder in White House (2009)
Appointed a diverse Cabinet and diverse White House staff (2009)
Spoke at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization (2009)
Signed the first major piece of federal gay rights legislation that includes acts of violence against gays under the list of federal hate crimes (2009)
Reversed the Bush-era practice of politicizing Justice Department investigations and prosecutions against political opponents (2009)
Pushing for some of the 9/11 perpetrators to be tried in federal court (2009) * Note: The process has moved at a snail’s pace and, in the face of opposition, Obama has remained quiet
Signed an extension of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Bill to provide federal research and support for treating the disease (2009)
Allowed the State Department of offer same-sex benefits for employees (2009)
Proposed that the Pentagon repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy; placed a “freeze” on current efforts to remove alleged homosexuals from the military (2009)
After eight years of neglect, the Justice Department and EEOC are again enforcing employment discrimination laws (2009)
Convened the White House Tribal Nations Conference, inviting representatives from 564 federally-recognized Indian tribes (2009)
Provided increased school projects for Indian lands and increased funds for the Indian Health Service (2009)
Signed an Executive Order mandating that his Cabinet develop plans to work with and consult Indian tribes on issues impacting Indian lands (2009)
Commissioned a study to develop alternatives to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (2010)
Called for federal agencies to look into recognizing gay partnerships in terms of benefits (2010)
Signed an Executive Order for the President’s Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (2010)
Increased funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (2010)
Signed Executive Order to promote the federal government as a “model employer” when it comes to hiring the disabled (2010) * Note: This includes new efforts to increase the recruitment, hiring, and training for the disabled
Programs to assist Spanish speakers with the US Census (2010)
Elena Kagen appointed to Supreme Court (2010)
Tasked all federal agencies to develop new strategies to address HIV/AIDS (2010)
After organizing studies on the topic in 2009, tasked the Pentagon to eliminate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (2010)
Signed Fair Sentencing Act (2010) * Note: The Administration continues to deescalate marijuana interdiction and raids; increased dramatically the amount of cocaine one must possess to be sentenced to jail; eliminated mandatory sentencing for first-time drug abusers and simple possession

 EDUCATION
Authorized construction funds for high-speed, broadband Internet access in K-12 public schools (2009)
Increased funding for school construction (2009)
Increased funding available for student loans (2009)
Expanded the national youth service program (2009)
Streamlined the federal student loan process to save $87 billion over the next 10 years (2009)
Changed the rule to allow students struggling to make college loan payments to refinance their loans (2009)
Beginning discussions with Congress for education reform (2009) * Note: Much of Obama’s education reform has been sidelined by opposition in Congress
Initiated a “Race to the Top” competitive federal grant program for states who develop innovative policies (2009)
Instituted a “judgment review” allowing families with student loans to petition to have their current financial status determine the loan rather than the previous year’s finances (2009)
Launched “Educate to Innovate,” a public/private partnership making $236 million available for science, mathematics, and technology education programs (2009)
Proposed capping the maximum amount students must pay on student loans (as percentage of their income) (2010)
Proposed reducing student loan obligations for individuals going to work in community and public service jobs (2010)
The federal government will offer direct student loans, cutting out the cost of private banks (“middle man”) who increase the costs in order to make a profit (2010)
Increased investment in technologies for schools/education (2010)

 DISASTER RESPONSE
Ordered a review of hurricane and natural disaster preparedness (2009)
FEMA once again reports directly to the president (2009) * Note: Bush removed FEMA (prior to the Hurricane Katrina disaster) from this status
Demonstrated an immediate and efficient response to the floods in North Dakota and other natural disasters (2009)
Ordered that funds be released and red tape be streamlined for the ongoing Hurricane Katrina recovery effort in the Gulf Coast (2009)
Timely and massive relief effort in response to the January 2010 earthquake and ensuing humanitarian crisis (2010)
Components of the response:
- The FBI’s National Center for Disaster Fraud was tasked to look into possible fraud with organizations soliciting funds for relief
- Announced the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund
- Established an emergency Haiti Task Force in the State Department
- Established a website with information, resources, and a posting of a “person finder” online to help families and friends to locate loved ones
- Joint aid and relief planning with the U.K.
- Sponsored a resolution in the UN Security Council for additional security and police forces in Haiti
- Dispatched the US Navy floating hospital (USNS Comfort) and, within 5 days, 9 naval and relief ships, 5 Coast Guard cutters, 8 Coast Guard aircraft, and 12,000 US military personnel
- Initial dispatch of several ships and cargo planes full of humanitarian aid and supplies, 6 search/rescue teams (500 personnel), and 265 Department of Health & Human Services personnel for emergency medical and aid support
- Established a mobile US air traffic control center at the destroyed airport in Port-au-Prince
After the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a freeze was placed on new deep water projects (2010)
Executive Order to establish new security measures to minimize accidental release of bio and chemical agents; new strategies for public health and bioterrorism response (2010)
Established a national commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon spill to examine facts and report a plan of action; new efforts to prevent offshore spills (2010)
After a slow start in responding to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the White House is promoting a long-term plan to reconstruct the damaged Gulf and negotiated with BP the establishment of a multi-billion dollar trust fund for victims of the spill (2010)
Extended national flood insurance program for those in need during current economic crisis (2010)

 OTHER INITIATIVES
New federal funding for science and research labs (2009)
Signed national service legislation; expanded national youth service program (2009)
Increasing opportunities in AmeriCorps program (2009)
Instituted a new focus on mortgage fraud (2009)
Ordered the DEA to stop raids on medical marijuana usage (2009)
Ordered a review of existing “mandatory minimum” prison sentencing (2009)
Signed an order to limit airport tarmac delays and the time passengers had to sit in the plane/on the tarmac during delays (2009)
Restored the EPA to “Cabinet level” status (2009) * Note: Bush removed the EPA from this status
Beginning discussions with Congress for comprehensive immigration reform (2010)
* Note: Much of Obama’s immigration reform had been stalled by opposition in Congress
Commissioned expert panels and reports from NASA; announced a new direction for human space flight that involves funding a new heavy lift-launcher and jettisoning the Ares 1 program; boosting NASA’s budget by $1 billion in 2011 (2010)
Ordered a ban on text-messaging for all commercial truck and bus drivers (2010)
Signed bill – FAA Air Transportaiton Modernizatin and Safety Improvement Act (2010)

 P.S. IN CASE YOU WERE WONDERING…
The Obamas paid for the renovations of the private living quarters in the White House with their own money rather than using the funds provided to all new first families (2009)
The Obamas reused many Christmas ornaments from previous White House trees rather than buy new ones (2009)
The Obamas used LED energy-saving lights on White House Christmas tree (2009)
Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; donated the award money for the prize to several charities (2009)
Planted a garden for the White House’s vegetables and flowers (2009)
Installed a swing set/playground for the Obama daughters and children of White House employees (2009)
Held over 150 public town halls, press conferences, interviews, etc. in first year in office (2009) * Note: Official numbers are not available on such things, but this seems to be a new record high
Less than 30 days of vacation in first year in office (2009) * Note: Official numbers are not readily available on such things, but this seems to be a new record low

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Best Obama Blogs

In honor of the approaching second anniversary of this blog (closer to the third anniversary if you count the posts I did during the campaign on barackobama.com), I want to give a shout out to my fellow Obama bloggers, especially those who have been at it longer than I have, or who post more regularly than I do.  My idea was to do political commentary entirely supportive of the new administration, rather than traditional political criticism, in which the critic generally claims to know better than the people making the decisions.  As time went on, and the latter kind of criticism mounted from all sides, it seems the president needs friends and supporters more than ever, and that is why I'm still doing it.   Another thing that keeps me going is knowing a few others had similar ideas, and are also still plugging away.  Here's hoping that none of us get too discouraged, and that we keep at it until the next presidential campaign at least.  Here's also hoping that putting up this post will drive more people doing a Google search for "Best Obama Blogs" to find and read all of us.  Anyway, all of these Obama blogs and more are listed on the right hand column under the heading "Oblogas."  I don't really know any of these people, unless you count those who have become facebook friends, but consider them all to be kindred spirits.  Here is some more information:

Positively Barack has been going strong since almost the beginning of the Obama presidential campaign.  I like the title which reflects Obama's positive spirit.  It's a good source for information on all of the administration's activities.  The recently-revamped site also looks very professional, which is not surprising since Terry is a web designer.

Blacks4Barack is a lively and vital spot run by Greg Jones, that has been around for about three years.  Greg is a strong advocate for progressive causes, who also consistently urges support for the administration.   Lots of exclamation points on this site!  And polka dots!

This Week with Barack Obama has been faithfully reporting on the campaign's and now the president's activities since the middle of 2007.  The author has gotten a little more negative lately, reflecting some disappointment that projects like health insurance reform and economic recovery did not reach as far as a lot of progressives would have preferred.  That kind of criticism is combined with diligent reporting of the president's speeches and activities.  Linda also posts under the name icebergslim on Daily Kos.

Barack Oblogger has also been out for more than three years, calling herself "just a humble blogger burning the midnight oil in the hopes of getting our country back on track."  Lonnee is practically a neighbor of mine, but I don't believe we have ever met in person.

A blog that really has an interesting focus is Obama Foodarama which has a surprising amount of information about the President and the First Lady's food and health initiatives, garden, menus, and lots of other stuff related to food.  It has been publishing since the 2008 election.

Republicans for Obama is a cool website that gives one hope that such creatures actually do exist.  Sane moderate voices that support the president.

Hope and Change is an eccentric Obama apologist blog run by a cantankerous crank who still believes in the dying vision of a post-partisan America, yet continually undercuts that message with his own partisan biases.  Often drifts into irrelevancies and absurdities.  

The Obama Photo & Video Diary started less than a year ago, but has already become an indispensable site for me when I need to search for, guess what, photos, such as the cute picture above.  The commentary is getting good also.

And I don't want to leave out:
Blog about Obama
Obama Blog
44 Diaries
About Michelle Obama
Your Obama Update
Obama News
Michelle O. Style
Barack Obama Evolution


All these sites are worth following, as are others listed on the Oblagas column on the right side of this page, which I try to keep up to date. I hope all the links work.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Judicial Activism and the Filibuster

When  Judge Virginia Phillips in Riverside, California ruled a couple of weeks ago that the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy is unconstitutional, the court naturally opened itself to attack from conservatives its judicial activism.  Here, for example, is what Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council had to say about the decision:
"It is hard to believe that a District Court level judge in California knows more about what impacts military readiness than the service chiefs who are all on the record saying the law on homosexuality in the military should not be changed. Once again, homosexual activists have found a judicial activist who will aid in the advancement of their agenda. This is a decision for Congress that should be based upon the input of the men and women who serve and those who lead them."
(It's funny that you don't hear conservatives complaining about activist judges when they overturn duly-enacted ordinances restricting gun rights, or when they favor the constitutional rights of corporations to buy unlimited amounts of political advertising, but that's another issue.)  What I want to talk about here is the validity of the criticism of judges who substitute their views of Constitutional rights for the democratically-elected legislature's judgments of what the people want.  And what I want to say is that that criticism has a substantial amount of  force.  The doctrine of judicial restraint suggests that judges should think very carefully before overturning acts of Congress.  Not only is it presumptuous for a single judge to assume that she necessarily knows the limits of legislative authority better than the legislature, it also undermines fundamental notions of democracy for appointed judges to overturn the people's will.  Note that I'm not saying that judges should never overturn legislation that they think is unconstitutional.  (I'm also not saying that Judge Phillips was wrong in this particular case.)  What I'm saying is that judges should be very careful about declaring any statute unconstitutional. I'm also saying that the argument about undermining democratic institutions is probably the strongest argument that can be made against judicial activism.  It should be recognized as a powerful argument.  It would be better for Congress to decide controversial questions like whether gays can serve openly in the military, because the decisions of Congress are more likely to accepted by the public, and because legislators who make unpopular decisions can be easily removed by the voters.

But, and here comes the very BIG BUT, here is what I would say to the 43 Senators who today prevented a vote on  a defense authorization bill because it included a provision, already passed by the House, that would have eliminated the military's don't ask, don't tell policy legislatively:  Stop complaining about judicial activism.  Stop talking about judges thwarting democracy.  You no longer have the right to complain about activist judges, because you just did something worse than any liberal judge could do, and without any support in the Constitution.  A solid majority of both Houses of Congress was ready to allow gay soldiers to serve openly in the military, and you activist Senators who do not have the votes to command a majority just prevented that from happening by yet another abuse of the Senate rules.  So Tony Perkins, if you want to leave it to Congress to make these decisions, then you ought to support allowing Congress to take a vote on the issue.  It is no wonder that judges have to make the law in this country, when legislators either cannot or will not do so, whether they have acted for political gain, or whether they have taken advantage of a procedural rule to make a principled decision to advance a minority position over the will of the majority.

Either you believe in democracy or you don't.  Either you respect the legislative process enough to allow an up or down vote on an issue, or you let judges decide it.  If you want to exercise the courage of your convictions to take a principled stand regardless of what the majority of the chamber wants, then you'd better start respecting those judges who also take a principled stand regardless of what is politically popular.  What you can't do is complain about judges thwarting democracy, and then thwart democracy yourselves.

(photo of Judge Phillips from the New York Times)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why Voters are Angry: Part III

Excuse me for bringing up Newt Gingrich again--I hate to admit that he is saying anything relevant to our current political situation--but I note that Gingrich is now going around promoting an anti-Islamic movie, and saying that we need a federal statute banning judges from relying upon Shariah law, as if this were one of the most pressing problems facing our nation.  Gingrich is only one of the voices stirring up fear of Islam, which has also been manifested in anti-mosque demonstrations in New York and elsewhere.  Somehow we were able to keep a lid on anti-Muslim hysteria during the Bush presidency, and maybe Bush deserves some credit for that, but unfortunately this form of hate and fear has been creeping out into the mainstream recently.

It almost makes me miss the good old Cold War days when we had an enemy worthy of us, in the form of the international Communist movement, a powerful threat that united the country in opposition.  Today we have no adversary that can threaten us in the same existential way, which may in itself be a reason for public frustration and anger.  Instead of stirring up fears of the Soviet Union's plans to annihilate us, many of the angriest Americans we see marching on Washington now reserve their hatred for gays or immigrants or Muslims or liberals.  They are making enemies of their fellow citizens.  That we now have a president named Barack Hussein Obama obviously serves as a lightning rod for their divisive message.  It has been some time since we could call ourselves--if we ever should or could have--a white, Christian nation.  Many people seem unable to reconcile themselves to that fact.  I get angry too when I hear some of these people talking about taking their country back.  Who do they think they are they taking it back from?  All of the anger, by the way, is not just coming from the right.  Some of the angriest voices you hear these days are from Obama supporters who believe the administration has sold out to corporate and military interests, and conceded too much to conservatives.  Zealous partisans on both the left and the right don't want to give anyone on the other side a seat at the table.  Does that mean we don't really believe in democracy?  Or that most of us continue to view politics, and life, as a struggle in which one party's gains must come at another party's expense?

My biggest disappointment with the Obama era so far is that instead of approaching our national problems with a cooperative spirit, as was promised during the 2008 campaign, we seem more polarized than ever.  I do not blame Obama for this, because the president seems to be one of the few still preaching that we should put aside red and blue, black and white, right and left, us and them, and start thinking about all of us being in the same boat.  I blame us for being unable or unwilling to accept this message.  It is not so easy for us to overcome our instinctual combative drives.   Viewing the world in us vs. them terms may be hard-wired into our DNA.  We seem to need enemies, foreign or domestic.  We think that we cannot win unless somebody else loses.  Maybe we should not have been surprised that after electing a president whose whole platform was built around commonality and unification, people have rebelled against that very vision.

This election season, the media can be counted on to keep us focused on which party is going to win, and which party is going to lose.  Appealing to the voters' competitive instincts is also probably the best way for each parties' candidates to get their supporters fired up.  But it might be more constructive to look at the election as a test of the extent voters will respond to negative messages of hate and fear, as opposed to positive messages of hope and change.  The loudest voices we are hearing now are of course the angry ones.  My hope, however, is that voters will tune out negative campaign ads, and turn away from candidates who appeal to hate and fear, and that quieter voices will prevail in the voting booth.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Why Voters are Angry: Part II

"It's the economy, stupid."  That famous James Carville line from  the Clinton campaign of 1992 encapsulates the importance of pocketbook issues in elections.  It was probably voters' belief that Clinton would focus on improving the economy--in contrast to his rival George Bush the elder, who seemed out of touch with the problems of middle class Americans--that proved decisive in electing Clinton that year.  The ironic part was that by the time of the election in 1992, the economy was already well on the road back to recovery, even though most people weren't feeling much improvement.  In another irony, Clinton's economic program, a key element of which consisted of significantly raising taxes during a weak economy, may not have contributed all that much in the short term toward getting the country out of recession (perhaps because the country was already out of recession by the time Clinton got into office).  Anyway, during the 1992 campaign, voters had the sense that the Bush administration had neglected the economy, and were therefore receptive to Clinton's promises to focus on bread and butter issues.  The moment that I remember most strongly was during a town hall format debate when a woman in the audience asked the candidates how the deficit had affected them personally.  Bush flubbed the question because he didn't understand it--the woman probably meant to ask how the recession was affecting the candidates, not the deficit--and Clinton was able to score with one of his "I feel your pain" responses.

We are only beginning to emerge from a much worse recession during this midterm election cycle, and voters are obviously angry that the economy does not seem to be improving very fast or at all.  For many, such as the long term unemployed, things probably seem like they are getting worse.   Meanwhile, the deficit is skyrocketing due to greatly reduced revenues and increased stimulus spending.  Many people must conclude that the government is only making our problems worse.

When adversity hits a family or a business, we take austerity measures.  If somebody loses their job, or the company's sales fall, the family or the business tighten their belts to survive.  Unfortunately, when everybody cuts back, that only contributes to the downward spiral in the economy in general.  And when the government does precisely the opposite of what any rational family or business would do in a downturn--namely go on a spending spree with money it does not have--that probably creates some cognitive dissonance.  How can it make sense for my family to cut spending to deal with a recession, but for the government to increase spending to deal with the same problem?  So my theory is that once again, and with a vengeance, voters are upset about the deficit when the thing that is actually causing them hardship is the recession.  In other words, we know the economy is bad, but there doesn't seem much we can do about that.  We can always blame the government for the deficit, however, because the government is not doing what any sensible business or family would do in bad times.  We didn't worry so much about the deficit when times were good (even though that would probably have been a good time to reduce it), but now we are greatly alarmed.

Of course the party in power is going to get blamed in this situation, whether or not they caused the recession.    And it may be that they can only assuage the voters' concerns if they demonstrate that they feel the voters' pain.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why Voters are Angry: Part I

There is a good piece in the New York Review this week discussing the history of the filibuster.  Looking back at the history of this device shows how wrong it is to think that the filibuster is some kind of time-honored technique going back to the earliest days of the Senate.  The use of the filibuster has exploded in recent years, even when Democrats were in the minority in Congress during the Clinton administration, but even more so now that Republicans are in the minority.  By one measure cited in the article, the percentage of bills subjected to filibuster in the 1960's was about 8 percent.  In this decade it is 70%.  Paradoxically, the 1975 reform reducing the required vote for cloture from two thirds to 60 votes seems to have had the effect of making the filibuster a regular part of the way the Senate now operates, instead of a rare tool reserved for matters of strong principle (which was bad enough even in the old days, when the filibuster was mainly used for blocking civil rights legislation).  What that means is that the Senate now requires a super-majority for any important piece of business, and even for most routine pieces of business.  We should recognize that this is something fairly new in our history.

Alexander Hamilton is quoted in the article (from Federalist No. 22) as follows:
"To give a minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case where more than a majority is requisite to a decision) is…to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser number.” He added that such a provision would “destroy the energy of government,” handing outsized power to “an insignificant, turbulent or corrupt junto."
What an apt description of the way Congress functions today.  Polls show that voters dislike Congress and its leaders in both parties as much as ever, and that, for the most part, they dislike the Republican leadership and its programs more than the Democratic leadership and its programs.  Yet politically, the Republicans stand to gain the most in the short term from this voter discontent, in part because of the way they have maintained unity in Congress and have insisted on 60 votes for virtually anything to pass.  Because the Democrats control Congress by solid majorities, voters tend to blame the Democrats for whatever Congress gets done or can't get done.  Because the Republicans stand together in opposition, and refuse to allow any major piece of legislation to the floor for a simple up or down vote, they are able to argue that Democrats have "rammed through" or "shoved down their throats" bills like the stimulus or health care reform or financial regulation, all three of the major legislative achievements of the Obama presidency so far, even though much stronger versions of all of these bills would have been supported by the majority in Congress.  (The whole idea that anything supported by a three fifths majority has been "rammed through" is patently ridiculous, yet  the minority's embrace of the filibuster allows them to assert this ridiculous argument.)  Without such frequent use of the filibuster, we also probably would have been able to pass energy legislation and immigration reform, get judges and other appointees confirmed, and ratify arms control agreements, and we wouldn't even be talking about extending the Bush tax cuts on the highest-income Americans, something that only a minority of the public supports.

Not only have the Republicans been able to energize their base by falsely portraying themselves as victims of the Democratic steamroller, Democrats have also been dispirited and weakened by the device.  The left tends to blame the Democratic leadership for the concessions that were necessary to get people like Joe Lieberman and Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson, and occasionally Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe on board to pass important bills.  Strangely, they do not blame the unified opposition that has forced the use of super-majorities to pass these bills.  Requiring super-majorities has now become such an accepted practice that we rarely protest when the minority takes advantage of this "legitimate" tool to block or delay legislation supported by the majority. 

Voters cannot be expected to be experts in Senate rules, and even experts seem to have gotten accustomed to the corrupt system we now take for granted.  So voters are not angry about abuse of the rules, and are not crying out for rules reform.  They are angry that Congress seems so polarized, and that its leaders do not work well together.  My guess is that we will not achieve reform of a rule that in Hamilton's words, is destroying the energy of government and allowing a corrupt junto to maintain control of Congress, unless and until both parties perceive that the rule is hurting both parties politically.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Newt Gingrich's World View

Newt Gingrich caused some controversy this weekend by telling an interviewer that Barack Obama may have a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" world view.  I needed some clarification so in my mind I called Newt to ask him about his own world view.

"Hey Newtie," I said, "what did you mean by that exactly?"

"I'm glad you asked," responded Newt. "The liberal media is already all over me for using racist code words, but of course I meant nothing of the kind.  I mean there is no dispute that Obama's father was Kenyan.  So Obama is half-Kenyan, right?  There is no controversy about that.  I didn't say he was actually born in Kenya, though who knows, right?  He just has Kenyan ancestry."

"OK," I responded, "but what exactly do you mean by saying he has a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" world view?"

Gingrich explained, "Being a student of history, as I am, I'm sure you're familiar with the Mau Mau rebellion and the whole tawdry history of the Kenyan fight against the noble British empire.  I think that President Obama shows definite signs of sympathizing with the rebels against the mother country."

"What's wrong with that?  Even the British don't try to defend their system of colonial rule in Kenya any more.  They ran the country like a prison camp.  And now of course the British fully support Kenyan independence.  And hasn't international politics been all about national self-determination and the dismantling of colonial empires at least since World War II?"

"There's the problem," Newt told me.  "That's exactly what's wrong with the world today.  We've dismantled a perfectly good world order that served us well for centuries and put in its place the chaos of many individual nations each seeking their own destiny.  And now we have an American president who actually represents and seems to celebrate the achievements of all these nations who foolishly shook off the benevolent operations of the British empire."

"What are you advocating, Newt?  Do you want to put the empire back together again?"

"I'm not afraid to say it," Newt boldly replied.  "It's time to re-think a lot of harmful notions about personal freedom and religious tolerance and democracy that have taken hold over the solid conservative principles that used to guide us.  We had a Christian nation.  We respected traditional values.  We had servants who knew their place."

"Newt, you know we never had a Christian nation.  Religious tolerance was written into our Constitution.  And be careful when you talk about servants knowing their place. Aren't you supporting our shameful history of slavery and discrimination?"

"Some of those trouble-makers who wrote the Constitution did have some dangerous ideas about religious tolerance, didn't they?   What we really need to do is return to the pre-Constitutional original intent about this country.  America should lead the way back to the re-colonization of the world."

"Hold on a minute there Newt," I responded.  "You're starting to sound like some kind of loyalist to the British Crown.  Don't you even support the American revolution?"

"Isn't it obvious to you by now," Gingrich asked me, "what a mistake that was?  Look where the revolution has led us.  We had a perfect plantation economy in colonial times, but it was doomed once we broke away from the mother country.  And now we're supposed to be ruled by our former slaves?  The world has turned upside down!  We need to get the old empire back in business, and restore the monarchy's rule over America.  Long live the Queen!"

"I'm not so sure that George Washington would approve of what you are saying, Newt."

"That traitor!  That rabble-rouser!  That revolutionary!  That anti-colonialist!"

I hung up while he was still ranting.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Inequality

President Obama stuck to his guns, both in his speech earlier this week in Ohio and in his press conference today, by insisting that the Bush tax cuts on the highest income taxpayers be allowed to expire at the end of the year as scheduled.  Politically this ought to be a no-brainer, since it benefits about 98% of the public.  But Republicans do a good job of scaring people about anything that sounds like a tax increase, even when it is a tax cut for most of us.  Meanwhile, the administration sometimes has an uphill battle trying to make people understand that the opponents of ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers are in fact blocking attempts to extend tax cuts for a vast number of middle class taxpayers.  What gets lost in the debate sometimes is that all we are talking about is rolling back a top marginal tax rate of 35% to what it was in the Clinton years, that is 39%. Republicans have been so successful at making any discussion of taxes a minefield, that it seems we cannot have any kind of rational debate over whether the top marginal tax rate should be 30 or 40 or 50 or some other percent. They want voters to forget that the top marginal rate is already near historic lows, and that as recently as the 1950's and 1960's, top income tax rates were much, much higher, for a long time over 90%, and then for another long time at 70%.


Obscured in all of the rhetoric about expanding government versus personal freedom, which doesn't really seem to be the point when all you are talking about is whether the wealthiest taxpayers should pay 35% or 39% of their top marginal income in taxes, is the real underlying philosophical issue of inequality, a subject that it seems politicians cannot even raise without being branded as socialists or worse. (That implies that Eisenhower must have been quite the socialist for tolerating income tax rates as high as 90%.)  To its credit, Slate has been publishing a series of articles by Timothy Noah about what he calls the Great Divergence, which is defined as the period of time, roughly from the late 1970's to date (which we could also call the Reagan era), in which the share of income of the highest few percent has increased markedly over the share held by everyone else.  By contrast from the 1930's through the 1970's, which has been called the Great Compression, we lived through much more egalitarian times.  There is a lot of debate about the causes of the Great Compression, as well as the Great Divergence, but government policy, and tax policy in particular, must have played some role in creating the more egalitarian society of the 1940's, 1950's and 1960's, as well as in creating the world of luxury boxes, second homes, and private jets for the very wealthy that we live in today.  It stands to reason that if the government takes a larger chunk out of everybody's million dollar bonus, either those bonuses are going to be smaller, or the public will get more benefit from them.  Either way, we might be creating a more cohesive, less resentful society.  Lots of conservatives are nostalgic for the good old days of old-fashioned values derived from the Great Depression that people cherished in war years and post-war years.  Let's not forget that those old-fashioned values included practically confiscatory federal income tax rates on incomes above a certain level.

No one is advocating top income tax rates even approaching 50%.  Therefore, we ought to be able to have a rational debate about appropriate tax rates, without hearing about how the Republic would be destroyed by such policies.  Once the anti-tax crowd concedes that we probably need some kind of income tax, and that some amount of progressivity in rates is appropriate (both of which probably even John Boehner and Mitch McConnell would concede), we ought to be able to discuss whether the highest marginal rate should be 30 or 40 or 50 or even 60 or 70 percent without being accused of taking away people's freedoms.   I'm sure I'm incredibly naive to think that.

And I haven't even mentioned the deficit yet.  Isn't it unconscionable for conservatives to complain about a skyrocketing deficit while advocating what is demonstrably the biggest cause, now and in the future of that deficit, namely the fiscally irresponsible tax cuts on the highest-earning Americans?

So let's talk about fiscal responsibility, but let's also talk about fairness, and what kind of society we want to live in.  And let's put aside the fear-mongering and demagoguery that seems to preclude any rational discussion of tax policy.

(chart from fivethirtyeight.com)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Happy New Year!



With all the false stories still circling around that the President is a Muslim, I think maybe it's time to start spreading the rumor that in fact he is Jewish. After all, he held the first White House Seder, and he seems to pronounce L'shana tova pretty well.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Fall Campaign Kick-Off

The conventional wisdom says that Democrats are in trouble this fall, and maybe that's true.  But the campaign traditionally only kicks off on Labor Day Weekend, and has two full months to go, so it seems a bit early to me to start counting the results.    Here is President Obama yesterday in fine campaign form, reminding the audience in Milwaukee that the sky is blue, fish live in the sea, and that the Democrats were not the ones who drove the economy into a ditch.  They are the ones pulling it out of the ditch.  And if you want to move forward, you shift into "D."  To go backward, choose "R."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Nobody's Perfect.

I was explaining to a friend over vacation my goals of maintaining the positive tone of this blog, and keeping it supportive of the Obama administration. He asked me what I do in situations where I might not agree with a particular presidential decision. My answer was that I never face such a dilemma, though I had some difficulty explaining why not. It's not that I think the president is perfect, or that I agree with every single thing he does. In fact, I think it would be odd to agree with anyone 100% of the time. But I would turn the question around this way: If I agree with someone 90% of the time, why on earth would I feel compelled to attack him for the 10% of the time where I personally might see an issue in a slightly different way? I would rather try to understand or explain or reconcile myself to those few areas of disagreement.

Most professional pundits seem to see their job quite differently. They seem to feel an obligation to criticize everything they do not personally agree with, as if we should judge any public figure's actions by just how often they happen to agree with the personal views of whichever exalted columnist is keeping score. And I would tell such critics--I'm talking to you, Frank Rich--that it's fine if you want to announce every time you personally don't like a presidential speech.  Maybe you think it adds to your credibility by serving as a critic.  (Or maybe you think your job is to review the administration as if they were putting on a Broadway show.)  But if you're going to do that, I would also like to see you admit once in a while that there might have been a few occasions when you were wrong and the administration was right.  Or else explain what makes you so perfect.

I'm not a professional pundit. I'm a trial lawyer. So it comes more naturally to me to adopt someone I admire as if they were a client. That means I see it as my "job" to represent the administration faithfully, and to make the best case for them that I can. I'll leave it to others to take the other side if they want. I don't envy the critics, however, because the case for the other side is pretty weak.



(still from Some Like It Hot)