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Talking To The Money

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By now, you’ve heard about it dozens of times.  Mitt Romney is taking heat for remarks he made at a private fundraiser in Boca about the 47 percent of Americans who won’t vote for him because they enjoy taking handouts from the government.  In response to the dustup, the Romney camp has focused on remarks made by Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign about people who “cling to their guns and religion”.  Obama’s discussion with “Joe the Plumber” about “spreading the wealth around” has been cited as another example of Obama’s favoritism of one population segment over another.  Nevertheless, as Brit Hume explained to Greta on Fox News, the Republicans’ focus on those remarks did not work during the 2008 campaign and there is no reason to believe that it will gain any more traction during the current election cycle.

Actually, there is a better example of Obama’s expression of contempt for a bloc of voters during a fundraiser, which is somewhat analogous the situation involving Romney in Boca.  During the mid-term election campaign in September of 2010, Obama managed to alienate a good number of his own supporters during an event at the home of the appropriately-named Rich Richman.  The event demonstrated how politicians – from either party – will speak more candidly and cynically about the “little people” when talking to their fat cat contributors.  Nevertheless, the Republicans will not likely exploit Obama’s remarks at the Rich-man event.  Of course, Obama supporters would be reminded that their candidate is not a significantly different alternative to Romney.  However, by the same token, Romney supporters would be reminded that their candidate does not offer a significantly distinct alternative to Obama.  As a result, the Republicans will never use it.

Let’s jump into the time machine and look back at how I discussed the Richman event on September 20, 2010:

President Obama recently spoke at a $30,000-per-plate fundraising event for the Democratic National Committee at the home of Richard and Ellen Richman.  (Think about that name for a second:  Rich Richman.)  Mr. Richman lives up to his surname and resides in the impressive Conyers Farm development in Greenwich, Connecticut.  Christopher Keating of the Capitolwatch blog at courant.com provided us with the President’s remarks, addressed to the well-heeled attendees:

.   .   .   Democrats, just congenitally, tend to get – to see the glass as half empty.   (Laughter.)  If we get an historic health care bill passed – oh, well, the public option wasn’t there.  If you get the financial reform bill passed –  then, well, I don’t know about this particularly derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that.  And gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace and – (laughter.)  I thought that was going to happen quicker.  (Laughter.) You know who you are.  (Laughter.)

The tactlessness of those remarks was not lost on Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com.  Mr. Greenwald transcended the perspective of an offended liberal to question what could possibly have been going on in the mind of the speaker:

What’s most striking about Obama’s comments is that there is no acceptance whatsoever of responsibility (I’ve failed in some critical areas; we could have/should have done better).  There’s not even any base-motivating vow to fight to fix these particular failures (we’ll keep fighting for a public option/to curb executive power abuses/to reduce lobbyist and corporate control of our political process).  Instead, he wants you to know that if you criticize him — or even question what he’s done (“well, I don’t know about this particular derivatives rule, I’m not sure that I’m satisfied with that”) – it’s your fault:  for being some sort of naive, fringe-leftist idiot who thought he would eliminate the Pentagon and bring about world peace in 18 months, and/or because you simply don’t sufficiently appreciate everything he’s done for you because you’re congenitally dissatisfied.

*    *    *

Sitting at a $30,000 per plate fundraising dinner and mocking liberal critics as irrational ingrates while wealthy Party donors laugh probably does wonders for bruised presidential egos, but it doesn’t seem to be a particularly effective way to motivate those who are so unmotivated.  Then again, Barack Obama isn’t actually up for election in November, so perhaps the former goal is more important to him than the latter.  It certainly seems that way from these comments.

Of course, liberals weren’t the only Obama supporters who felt betrayed by the President’s abandonment of his campaign promises.  In fact, Obama owed his 2008 victory to those independent voters who drank the “Hope and Change” Kool-Aid.

Glenn Greenwald devoted some space from his Salon piece to illustrate how President Obama seems to be continuing the agenda of President Bush.  I was reminded of the quote from former Attorney General John Ashcroft in an article written by Jane Mayer for The New Yorker.  When discussing how he expected the Obama Presidency would differ from the Presidency of his former boss, George W. Bush, Ashcroft said:

“How will he be different?  The main difference is going to be that he spells his name ‘O-b-a-m-a,’ not ‘B-u-s-h.’ ”

One important difference that Ashcroft failed to anticipate was that Bush knew better than to disparage his own base.

By the onset of the 2012 Presidential Campaign, many of Obama’s 2008 supporters had become ambivalent about their former hero.  As I pointed out on August 13, once Romney had named Paul “Marathon Man” Ryan as his running mate (rather than Ohio Senator Rob Portman), he provided Democrats with a bogeyman to portray a Romney Presidency as a threat  to middle-class Americans:

As the Democratic Party struggled to resurrect a fraction of the voter enthusiasm seen during the 2008 campaign, Mitt Romney came along and gave the Democrats exactly what they needed:  a bogeyman from the far-right wing of the Republican Party.  The 2012 campaign suddenly changed from a battle against an outsourcing, horse ballet elitist to a battle against a blue-eyed devil who wants to take away Medicare.  The Republican team of  White and Whiter had suddenly solved the problem of Democratic voter apathy.

Nevertheless, some degree of disillusionment experienced by Obama’s supporters continues.  Consider the final paragraph from a September 20 essay by Robert Reich:

And even if Obama is reelected, more hard work begins after Inauguration Day – when we must push him to be tougher on the Republicans than he was in his first term, and do what the nation needs.

In other words, it will be up to the voters  to make sure they aren’t betrayed by Obama as they were during his first term.

The Republican insistence on attempting to portray Obama as a “Socialist” rather than a disingenuous poseur has served no other purpose than to invite an eloquent smackdown from the namesake of the GOP’s Patron Saint.

Romney’s failure to win the Presidential Election will be more the result of ignored opportunities than the result of gaffes.


 

Some Good News For Once

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Since the Great Recession began three years ago, Americans have been receiving a daily dose of the most miserable news imaginable.  Our prevalent nightmare concerns the possibility that gasoline prices could find their way up to $10 per gallon as Muammar Gawdawful takes Libya into a full-scale civil war.

Some people tried to find a thread of hope in the latest non-farm payrolls report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The report was spun in several opposing directions by various commentators.  The single statement from the BLS report which seemed most important to me was the remark in the first sentence that    “. . .  the unemployment rate was little changed at 8.9 percent . . .”.  Nevertheless, David Leonhardt of The New York Times noted his suspicion that “the government is understating actual job growth” while providing his own upbeat read of the report.  On the other hand, at the Zero Hedge website, Tyler Durden made this observation:

Wonder why the unemployment rate is at an artificially low 8.9%?  Three simple words:  Labor Force Participation.  At 64.2%, it was unchanged from last month, and continues to be at a 25 year low.  Should the LFP return to its 25 trendline average of 66.1%, the unemployment rate would be 11.6%.

Indeed, the ugly truth is that as you spend more time pondering the current unemployment situation, you find an increasingly dismal picture.  Economist Mark Thoma came up with a “back of the envelope calculation” of the benchmarks he foresees as the unemployment situation abates:

7% unemployment in July of 2012

6% unemployment in March of 2013

5% unemployment in December of 2013

4% unemployment in September of 2014

If anything, relative to the last two recoveries, this forecast is optimistic.  Even so, it will still take two years to get to 6% unemployment (and if the natural rate is closer to 5.5% at that time, as I expect it will be, it will take another five months to fully close the gap). Things may be looking up, but we have a long way to go and it’s too soon to turn our backs on the unemployed.

Only three more years until we return to pre-crisis levels!  Whoopie!

For those in search of genuinely good news, I went on a quest to come up with some for this piece.  Here’s what I found:

For the truly desperate, the Salon website has introduced a new weekly feature entitled, “The Week In Uppers”.  It is a collection of stories, often including video clips, which will (hopefully) make you smile.  The items are heavy on good deeds – sometimes by celebrities.

I was quite surprised by this next “good news” item:  A report by Rex Nutting of MarketWatch, revealing this welcome fact:

.   .   .  the United States remains the biggest manufacturing economy in the world, producing about 20% of the value of global output in 2010  . . .  (Although fast-growing China will pass the United States soon enough.)

Even though we may soon drop to second place, at least our unemployment rate should be in decline by that point.  Here are some more encouraging factoids from Rex Nutting’s essay:

In 2010, U.S. factories shipped $5.03 trillion worth of goods out the door, up 9% from 2009’s horribly depressed output, according to the Census Bureau.

*   *   *

In 2010 alone, productivity in the manufacturing sector surged 6.7%. Fortunately for workers, it looks as if companies have squeezed as much extra output out of labor as they can right now.  For the first time since 1997, factories actually added jobs during the calendar year in 2010, as they hired 112,000 additional workers.

There will be further job gains as factories ramp up their production to meet rising demand, economists say.

According to the Institute for Supply Management’s monthly survey of corporate purchasing managers, business is booming.  The ISM index rose for a seventh straight month in February to 61.4%, matching the highest reading since 1983.

*   *   *

What is the ISM telling us?  “The manufacturing sector is on fire,” says Stephen Stanley, chief economist for Pierpont Securities.  The new orders index rose to 68%, the highest since 2004, and the employment index rose to 64.5%, the highest since 1973.

Factories are hiring because orders are stacking up faster than they can produce goods.

What’s behind the boom?  In part, it’s domestic demand for capital goods and consumer goods.  Businesses are finally beginning to believe in the recovery, so they’re starting to expand, which means new equipment must be purchased.

Be sure to read the full report if you want to re-ignite those long, lost feelings of optimism.

It’s nice to know that if you look hard enough you can still find some good news (at least for now).


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Where Obama Went Wrong

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September 27, 2010

One could write an 800-page book on this subject.  During the past week, we’ve been bombarded with explanations from across the political spectrum, concerning how President Obama has gone from wildly-popular cult hero to radioactive force on the 2010 campaign trail.  For many Democrats facing re-election bids in November, the presence of Obama at one of their campaign rallies could be reminiscent of the appearance of William Macy’s character from the movie, The Cooler.  Wikipedia’s discussion of the film provided this definition:

In gambling parlance, a “cooler” is an unlucky individual whose presence at the tables results in a streak of bad luck for the other players.

Barack Obama was elected on a wave of emotion, under the banners of  “Hope” and “Change”.  These days, the emotion consensus has turned against Obama as voters feel more hopeless as a result of Obama’s failure to change anything.  His ardent supporters feel as though they have been duped.  Instead of having been tricked into voting for a “secret Muslim”, they feel they have elected a “secret Republican”.  At the Salon.com website, Glenn Greenwald has documented no less than fifteen examples of Obama’s continuation of the policies of George W. Bush, in breach of his own campaign promises.

One key area of well-deserved outrage against President Obama’s performance concerns the economy.  The disappointment about this issue was widely articulated in December of 2009, as I pointed out here.  At that time, Matt Taibbi had written an essay for Rolling Stone entitled, “Obama’s Big Sellout”, which inspired such commentators as Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns to write this and this.  Beyond the justified criticism, polling by Pew Research has revealed that 46% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans incorrectly believe that the TARP bank bailout was signed into law by Barack Obama rather than George W. Bush.  President Obama invited this confusion with his nomination of “Turbo” Tim Geithner to the position of Treasury Secretary.  As President of the Federal Reserve of New York, Geithner oversaw the $13 billion gift Goldman Sachs received by way of Maiden Lane III.

The emotional battleground of the 2010 elections provided some fun for conservative pundit, Peggy Noonan this week as a result of the highly-publicized moment at the CNBC town hall meeting on September 20.  Velma Hart’s question to the President was emblematic of the plight experienced by many 2008 Obama supporters.  Noonan’s article, “The Enraged vs. The Exhausted” characterized the 2010 elections as a battle between those two emotional factions.  The “Velma Moment” exposed Obama’s political vulnerability as an aloof leader, lacking the ability to emotionally connect with his supporters:

The president looked relieved when she stood.  Perhaps he thought she might lob a sympathetic question that would allow him to hit a reply out of the park.  Instead, and in the nicest possible way, Velma Hart lobbed a hand grenade.

“I’m a mother. I’m a wife.  I’m an American veteran, and I’m one of your middle-class Americans.  And quite frankly I’m exhausted.  I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are.”  She said, “The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family.”  She said, “My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives.  But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed.”

What a testimony.  And this is the president’s base.  He got that look public figures adopt when they know they just took one right in the chops on national TV and cannot show their dismay.  He could have responded with an engagement and conviction equal to the moment.  But this was our president  — calm, detached, even-keeled to the point of insensate.  He offered a recital of his administration’s achievements: tuition assistance, health care.  It seemed so off point.  Like his first two years.

Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast provided the best analysis of how the “Velma Moment” illustrated Obama’s lack of empathy.  Where Bill Clinton is The Sorcerer, Barack Obama is The Apprentice:

Does Barack Obama suffer from an “empathy deficit?” Ironically, it was Obama who used the phrase in a 2008 speech when he diagnosed the United States as suffering from the disorder.  In a plea for unity, candidate Obama said lack of empathy was “the essential deficit that exists in this country.”  He defined it as “an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

*   *   *

And at a 2008 rally in Westerville, Ohio, Obama said, “One of the values that I think men in particular have to pass on is the value of empathy.  Not sympathy, empathy.  And what that means is standing in somebody else’s shoes, being able to look through their eyes.  You know, sometimes we get so caught up in ‘us’ that it’s hard to see that there are other people and that your behavior has an impact on them.”

Yes, President Obama, sometimes that does happen.  Take a look in the mirror.  Nothing brought this problem into relief like the two Obama supporters who confronted the president at a recent town hall meeting expressing total despair over their economic situation and hopelessness about the future.  Rather than expressing empathy, Obama seemed annoyed and proceeded with one of his unhelpful lectures.

*   *   *

One former Emoter-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, told Politico last week, “[Obama’s] being criticized for being too disengaged, for not caring.  So he needs to turn into it.  I may be one of the few people that think it’s not bad that that lady said she was getting tired of defending him.  He needs to hear it.  You need to hear. Embrace people’s anger, including their disappointment at you.  And just ask ‘em to not let the anger cloud their judgment.  Let it concentrate their judgment.  And then make your case.”

Then the kicker:  “[Obama has] got to realize that, in the end, it’s not about him. It’s about the American people, and they’re hurting.”

The American people are hurting because their President sold them out immediately after he was elected.  When faced with the choice of bailing out the zombie banks or putting those banks through temporary receivership (the “Swedish approach” – wherein the bank shareholders and bondholders would take financial “haircuts”) Obama chose to bail out the banks at taxpayer expense.  So here we are  . . .  in a Japanese-style “lost decade”.  In case you don’t remember the debate from early 2009 – peruse this February 10, 2009 posting from the Calculated Risk website.  After reading that, try not to cry after looking at this recent piece by Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture entitled, “We Should Have Gone Swedish  . . .” :

The result of the Swedish method?  They spent 4% of GDP ($18.3 billion in today’s dollars), to rescue their banks.  That is far less than the $trillions we have spent — somewhere between 15-20% of GDP.

Final cost to the Swedes?  Less than 2% of G.D.P.  (Some officials believe it was closer to zero, depending on how certain rates of return are calculated).

In the US, the final tally is years away from being calculated — and its likely to be many times what Sweden paid in GDP % terms.

It has become apparent that the story of  “Where Obama Went Wrong” began during the first month of his Presidency.  Whoever undertakes the task of writing that book will be busy for a long time.




A Question Of Timing

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May 11, 2009

Josh Kraushaar has reported for Politico that on Tuesday, May 12, Florida Governor Charlie Crist will announce his intention to run as the Republican candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez.  Kraushaar explained that Crist would become the Republican Party’s “most high-profile recruit of the 2010 election cycle”.  He went on to point out:

Crist’s decision puts Republicans in strong position to hold onto the seat held by retiring Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.).  Crist holds high approval ratings among both Republicans and Democrats, according to statewide polling, and has forged a moderate governing style that has won him widespread support.

His decision to run came as little surprise to political observers, with the governor and his allies hinting of his interest in running for Congress over the last several months.

The timing of Crist’s announcement is rather interesting, in light of the fact that he is prominently featured in Kirby Dick’s new documentary film, Outrage, which opened on Friday.  Andrew O’Hehir interviewed Kirby Dick for Salon.com.  This is what the filmmaker had to say about his new movie:

My film is not about outing closeted politicians.  It’s about reporting on the hypocrisy of closeted politicians who vote anti-gay.  That’s the bright line that I draw.  In many cases, these politicians would normally vote pro-gay.  But because of the rumors swirling around them, they run in the opposite direction.  Their votes not merely harm millions of gays and lesbians across the country, but they’re also voting against their own beliefs, solely to protect the closet.  That’s contorting the American political process.

Rumors about Governor Crist’s lifestyle have circulated here in Florida for many years.  Many of my conservative Republican friends have always believed those rumors, although the issue never stopped them from voting for Crist.  Once he became identified as a potential running mate for John McCain in the 2008 election, Governor Crist got married.  The timing of that event made many people suspicious.  With Crist’s imminent announcement of his intention to run for the Senate, the question of timing has come up again.  Will he distract attention away from the questions raised by the film, Outrage . . .   or will the timing of his announcement enhance the magnitude of those concerns?

Bob Norman is the writer for the Broward and Palm Beach County edition of the New Times who was interviewed by Kirby Dick for the movie.  The filmmaker retraced some of the reporting done by Norman about Charlie Crist back in 2006.  Norman’s reports were based on information provided by two campaign staffers for the infamous Katherine Harris:  Jason Wetherington and Bruce Jordan.  In his recent New Times article about the film, Mr. Norman was careful to point out that the claims concerning Governor Crist’s preferences remain open to question:

I’ll never shy away from that reporting.  There is no question that both Wetherington and Jordan boasted of having affairs with Crist and there is no question that both men had met the man.  One woman, Dee Dee Hall, even gave a sworn statement detailing Jordan’s claims about his relationship with Crist.

But the fact remains that it’s possible both men were lying.  It may not seem likely, but it’s possible.

*    *    *

As well-known outer Michelangelo Signorile put it, there is no “smoking dick” here.  But it’s compelling stuff that’s worth reporting.

Jason Bellini provided a video report on the release of Outrage for The Daily Beast, which included an interview with Kirby Dick.  Bellini also provided an analysis of the mainstream media’s reaction to the film’s focus on Governor Crist.  For the most part, the mainstream outlets wrote off the claims as unsubstantiated rumors.

Aaron Blake reported for The Hill, that Charlie Crist’s Senate campaign could threaten the Republican Party’s control in Florida because a “domino effect” would result if he were to vacate the Governor’s office.  The GOP managed to consolidate its power here in the 2008 election, despite the fact that Barack Obama won this state.  Blake provided this perspective from a Republican insider:

“It’s going to be a complete shakeup from top to bottom of the Florida political landscape,” said GOP fundraiser Ana Navarro. “The political season could be more active than our hurricane season.”

If allegations of hypocrisy and concealment of a secret gay lifestyle get serious attention in Charlie Crist’s 2010 Senate campaign, Ms. Navarro’s analogy might be very appropriate.

Food For Thought

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March 9, 2009

Every so often, conservative columnist (and baseball fan) George Will hits one out of the park.  He did so again in Sunday’s Washington Post.  While other conservative columnists busied themselves by blaming Barack Obama for our current recession (after all, he’s been in office for 48 whole days!) Mr. Will found something more important to discuss.  In an article called “Where the Obesity Grows“, Mr. Will addressed America’s diet problem.  The undercurrent of Will’s article focused on the fact that our new Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, is the former Governor of Iowa (a state which obtains a large amount of revenue from corn production).  Nevertheless, it is doubtful that Vilsack will embark on some sort of “corn agenda”, especially since Iowa produces a number of other crops, including the increasingly-popular soybean.  Besides, Nebraska is widely accepted as America’s greatest corn-producing state.

Consider these points discussed in George Will’s article and be sure to remind yourself that these aren’t the rantings of some “lefty”:

A quarter of the 45,000 items in the average supermarket contain processed corn.  Fossil fuels are involved in planting, fertilizing, harvesting, transporting and processing the corn. America’s food industry uses about as much petroleum as America’s automobiles do.

*    *    *

Corn, which covers 125,000 square miles of America — about the size of New Mexico — fattens 100 million beef cattle and at least that many bipeds.  Much of the river of cheap corn becomes an ocean of high-fructose corn syrup, which by 1984 was sweetening Coke and Pepsi.  Disposing of the corn also requires passing it through animals’ stomachs. Corn, together with pharmaceuticals and other chemicals  …   has made it profitable to fatten cattle on feedlots rather than grass, cutting by up to 75 percent the time from birth to slaughter.  Eating corn nourished by petroleum-based fertilizers, a beef cow consumes almost a barrel of oil in its lifetime.

Although Tom Vilsack received some attention in Will’s article, the star character was a man named Michael Pollan.  Pollan is a professor of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine.  Last year, David Laskin of The Seattle Times reviewed Pollan’s latest book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto:

Pollan’s bugbear this time is the so-called science of nutrition. Back in the good old days, people ate plants and animals raised (or foraged) close to (or at) home and prepared accordingly to age-old traditions.  But once nutritionists started isolating the chemical components of what we ate and putting them back to together in “new, improved” and highly processed ways, Americans began growing steadily more obese, more prone to diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and more stressed about our dietary options.  These days our food is cheap, convenient and increasingly plastered with health claims–but it’s making us and everyone else who eats it fat and sick.

More importantly, Mr. Laskin’s review of Michael Pollan’s new book made a point that was (surprisingly) not included in George Will’s article:

As the Senate’s recent rubber-stamping of yet another pork-filled farm bill demonstrates, America still lacks the political will to reform the agricultural practices at the root of our dietary woes.  But to Pollan, that’s no reason why enlightened eaters can’t rise up and start changing the Western diet one meal, one garden, one family farm at time.

On December 17, the more left-leaning Irregular Times website pointed out that the Organic Consumers Association had specifically asked that Vilsack not be appointed as Agriculture Secretary and that within one week, 10,000 people signed a petition opposing that appointment.  The Irregular Times piece gave us this appraisal of the Vilsack appointment:

Significant food reform is not what we can expect from a Secretary Vilsack.  As the Governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack defended the interests of industrial agriculture, and did plenty of favors for giant agricultural corporations like Monsanto.  Iowa agriculture is no longer typified by small family farms, but by gigantic fields of genetically engineered corn and soybeans, interspersed with concentrated feeding lots in which cattle and pigs pumped full of antibiotics stand in their own filth all day long.

Agricultural pollution from Iowa is so bad that it significantly contributes to dead zones all the way down in the Gulf of Mexico.  It contributes to global warming too, with methane oozing out of manure lagoons near livestock factory farms adding significantly to the concentration of greenhouse gases in our planet’s atmosphere.

None of these problems got better when Tom Vilsack was Governor of Iowa.  Vilsack has seemed more interested in promoting big agribusiness as it is than in reforming it.

On that same day, Gabriel Winant of Salon.com asked Michael Pollan for his reaction to the selection of Vilsack.  Pollan replied that Vilsack’s record in Iowa “does not give one much reason to believe he’s going to bring a reformist agenda to the Department of Agriculture.”  Pollan went on to explain:

He was biotech governor of the year.  And he has very close relations to Monsanto.  As with every other pick, the focus is on the Nixon-in-China scenario, the hopeful fantasy, which is that these people will be able to drive reform in their bureaucracies — that’s the story of this Cabinet.  Whether that comes true or not, we’re just going to have to wait and see.

By making Michael Pollan the subject of his article, perhaps George Will’s hidden message was:  Don’t expect too much Change from this administration or you will be sadly disappointed.