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© 2008 – 2013 John T. Burke, Jr.

Looking Beyond Rhetoric

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As a result of the increasing popularity of the Occupy Wall Street movement (which now gets so much coverage, it’s referred to as “OWS”) President Obama has found it necessary to crank up the populist rhetoric.  He must walk a fine line because his injecting too much enthusiasm into any populist-themed discussion of the economic crisis will alienate those deep-pocketed campaign donors from the financial sector.  Don’t forget:  Goldman Sachs was Obama’s leading private source of 2008 campaign contributions, providing more than one million dollars for the cause.

The Occupy Wall Street protest has now placed Obama and his fellow Democrats in a double-bind situation.  Many commentators – while pondering that predicament – have found it necessary to take a good, hard look at the favorable treatment given to Wall Street by the current administration.  A recent essay by Robert Reich approached this subject by noting that Obama is as far from left-wing populism as any Democratic President in modern history:

To the contrary, Obama has been extraordinarily solicitous of Wall Street and big business – making Timothy Geithner Treasury Secretary and de facto ambassador from the Street; seeing to it that Bush’s Fed appointee, Ben Bernanke, got another term; and appointing GE Chair Jeffrey Immelt to head his jobs council.

Most tellingly, it was President Obama’s unwillingness to place conditions on the bailout of Wall Street – not demanding, for example, that the banks reorganize the mortgages of distressed homeowners, and that they accept the resurrection of the Glass-Steagall Act, as conditions for getting hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars – that contributed to the new populist insurrection.

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But the modern Democratic Party is not likely to embrace left-wing populism the way the GOP has embraced – or, more accurately, been forced to embrace – right-wing populism. Just follow the money, and remember history.

Another commentator, who has usually been positive in his analysis of the current administration’s policies – Tom Friedman of The New York Times – couldn’t help but criticize Obama’s performance while lamenting the loss a great American leader, Steve Jobs:

Obama supporters complain that the G.O.P. has tried to block him at every turn.  That is true. But why have they gotten away with it? It’s because Obama never persuaded people that he had a Grand Bargain tied to a vision worth fighting for.

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The paucity of Obama’s audacity is striking.

As I recently pointed out, any discussion of our nation’s economic problems ultimately focuses on President Obama’s failure to seize the opportunity – during the first year of his Presidency – to turn the economy around and reduce unemployment.  Despite the administration’s repeated claims that it has reduced unemployment, Pro Publica offered an honest look of that claim:

Overall, job creation has been relatively meager during the Obama administration, particularly compared to the massive job losses brought on by the recession.  According to the St. Louis Federal Reserve, even if job creation were happening at pre-recession levels, it would take us 11 years to get back to an unemployment rate of 5 percent.

Ron Suskind’s new book, Confidence Men provided a shocking revelation about Obama’s decision allow unemployment to remain above 9 percent by ignoring the advice of Larry Summers (Chair of the National Economic Council) and Christina Romer (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers).  I discussed that issue and the outrage expressed in reaction to Obama’s attitude on September 22.

At The Washington Post, Ezra Klein wrote an engaging piece, which provided us with a close look at how the Obama administration was fighting the economic crisis.  Klein interviewed several people from inside the administration and provided a sympathetic perspective on Obama’s decisions.  Nevertheless, Klein’s ultimate conclusion – although nuanced – didn’t do much for the President:

From the outset, the policies were too small for the recession the administration and economists thought we faced.  They were much too small for the recession we actually faced.  More and better stimulus, more aggressive interventions in the housing market, more aggressive policy from the Fed, and more attention to preventing layoffs and hiring the unemployed could have led to millions more jobs.  At least in theory.

Of course, ideas always sound better than policies.  Policies must be implemented, and they have unintended consequences and unforeseen flaws.  In the best of circumstances, the policymaking process is imperfect.  But January 2009 had the worst of circumstances – a once-in-a-lifetime economic emergency during a presidential transition.

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These sorts of economic crises are, in other words, inherently politically destabilizing, and that makes a sufficient response, at least in a democracy, nearly impossible.

Klein’s apologia simply underscored the necessity for a President to exhibit good leadership qualities.  Despite a “Presidential transition”, the Democratic Party held the majority of seats in both the Senate and the House.  In July of 2009, when it was obvious that the stimulus had been inadequate, Obama was too preoccupied with his healthcare bill to refocus on economic recovery.  As I said back then:

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise – simply for the sake of compromise itself – is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform – should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.  As a result, President Obama will need to re-invent this aspect of his public image before he can even consider presenting a second economic stimulus proposal.

Weak leadership is hardly a justifiable excuse for an inadequate, half-done, economic stimulus program.  Beyond that, President Obama’s sell-out to Wall Street by way of a sham financial “reform” bill has drawn widespread criticism.  In his March 29 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Neil Barofsky, the retiring Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP) criticized the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”:

Finally, the country was assured that regulatory reform would address the threat to our financial system posed by large banks that have become effectively guaranteed by the government no matter how reckless their behavior.  This promise also appears likely to go unfulfilled.  The biggest banks are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis and control a larger part of our economy than ever.  They reasonably assume that the government will rescue them again, if necessary.

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Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

Running as an incumbent President presents a unique challenge to Mr. Obama.  He must now reconcile his populist rhetoric with his record as President.  The contrast is too sharp to ignore.


 

Time For Some Serious Pushback

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The American people are finally getting angry.  I thought it would never happen.  In case you haven’t heard about it yet, the most popular topic on Twitter right now is:  #FuckYouWashington.  (For those who don’t like typing dirty words on their computer – there is the alternative #FYW.)  If you’re looking for some refreshing reading, which will reinforce your confidence in the people of this great country (especially after excessive exposure to the depressing, “debt ceiling” debate) be sure to check in on it.

Meanwhile, our fake, “two-party system” is facing a fresh challenge.  The Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party is being threatened by an Internet-based organization called, Americans Elect.  Here’s how the group describes itself:

Americans Elect is the first-ever open nominating process.  We’re using the Internet to give every single voter – Democrat, Republican or independent – the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012.  The people will choose the issues. The people will choose the candidates.  And in a secure, online convention next June, the people will make history by putting their choice on the ballot in every state.

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We have no ties to any political group – left, right, or center.  We don’t promote any issues, ideology or candidates.  None of our funding comes from special interests or lobbyists.  Our only goal is to put a directly-nominated ticket on the ballot in 2012.

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The goal of Americans Elect is to nominate a presidential ticket that answers to the people – not the political system.  Like millions of American voters, we simply want leadership that will work together to tackle the challenges facing our country.  And we believe a direct nominating process will prove that America is ready for a competitive, nonpartisan ticket.

Just when the Obama Administration was getting comfy with the idea that it could take the voters for granted  …  along came this new threat in the form of Americans Elect.  The timing couldn’t have been more appropriate.  A recent CNN poll revealed that Obama’s support among liberals has dropped to “the lowest point in his presidency”.  The man whom I characterized as the “Disappointer-In-Chief” during his third month in office, is now being referred to by The Nation as the “Compromiser-in-Chief”.  Ari Melber’s essay in The Nation provides a great summary of the criticism directed against Obama from the Left.  One example came from economist Paul Krugman, who described Obama as “President Pushover”.

In order to resist any new challenges to the status quo, the Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party is taking advantage of the proposed “debt ceiling” legislation to cement its absolute control over the United States government.  Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post provided us with the revelation of a bipartisan effort to create an authoritarian governing body, designed to circumvent Constitutionally-prescribed legislative procedures:

This “Super Congress,” composed of members of both chambers and both parties, isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, but would be granted extraordinary new powers.  Under a plan put forth by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his counterpart Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), legislation to lift the debt ceiling would be accompanied by the creation of a 12-member panel made up of 12 lawmakers — six from each chamber and six from each party.

Legislation approved by the Super Congress — which some on Capitol Hill are calling the “super committee” — would then be fast-tracked through both chambers, where it couldn’t be amended by simple, regular lawmakers, who’d have the ability only to cast an up or down vote.  With the weight of both leaderships behind it, a product originated by the Super Congress would have a strong chance of moving through the little Congress and quickly becoming law.  A Super Congress would be less accountable than the system that exists today, and would find it easier to strip the public of popular benefits.  Negotiators are currently considering cutting the mortgage deduction and tax credits for retirement savings, for instance, extremely popular policies that would be difficult to slice up using the traditional legislative process.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has made a Super Congress a central part of his last-minute proposal, multiple news reports and people familiar with his plan say.

Independents and “Third-Party” members of Congress would be excluded from this “Super Congress”, thus subverting any attempts by the “little people” to steal control of the government away from the Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party.  Concern about the upstart Americans Elect organization could have been the motivating factor which inspired the “Super Congress” plan.  Tom Friedman’s recent New York Times commentary must have set off a “treason alert” for the Congressional kleptocrats, who read this:

Write it down:  Americans Elect.  What Amazon.com did to books, what the blogosphere did to newspapers, what the iPod did to music, what drugstore.com did to pharmacies, Americans Elect plans to do to the two-party duopoly that has dominated American political life – remove the barriers to real competition, flatten the incumbents and let the people in.  Watch out.

The Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party is already watching out.  That’s why they are moving to create a new, imperial “Super Congress”.  Be sure to express your opposition to this power grab by logging-on to Twitter and sharing your feelings at #FuckYouWashington.


Party Out Of Bounds

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October 4, 2010

It’s refreshing to witness the expansion in the number of people looking forward to the demise of our two-party political system.  Tom Friedman of The New York Times recently gushed with enthusiasm about the idea of  “a serious third party”, capable of rising to the challenge of enacting important, urgently-needed legislation without offending the far left, the far right or “coal state Democrats”.  Friedman is only half-right.  We need a third, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth party, as well.  Placing all of one’s hope in THE Third Party is a formula for more disappointment.

I frequently complain that we no longer have two distinct political parties running America.  We are currently stuck under the regime of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party.  The widely-expressed disappointment resulting from President Obama’s failure to keep his campaign promises was discussed in my previous four postings.

Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote a great article about her year of traveling 6,609 miles to interview 432 people identifying themselves as Democrats.  Here’s what she learned:

In coffee shops, on streetcorners and farms, at factories, the narrative was always the same:  How could such great promise have let the country down so much, so quickly?

Ms. Zito reached the conclusion that the man elected President by these voters was really no improvement from the 2004 candidate, John Kerry:

Obama is no less out of touch than the Kerry whom America watched windsurf  before the 2004 election — the same man who said last week that one reason Democrats will lose this year is that “we have an electorate that doesn’t always pay that much attention to what’s going on, so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth or what’s happening.”

Here’s where Kerry and Obama are both wrong:  The electorate that was influenced by a simple slogan – “Yes, we can” — in 2008 actually is very well-informed.

This time, that electorate isn’t voting for a dream, but for its pocketbook.

Throughout the current election cycle, the Democratic establishment has avoided the sort of challenge experienced by the Republican establishment in the form of the Tea Party movement.  That will change after November 2, at which point disgruntled Democrats will feel more comfortable jumping ship.  It took consecutive humiliations at the polls in 2006 and 2008 before the Tea Partiers were motivated to break ranks with the Republican powers that be and undertake campaigns to challenge Republican incumbents.  Their efforts paid off so well, many Tea Partiers have become enthused about having a distinct party from the Republican organization.  After the 2010 elections are concluded, we can expect to see splinter groups breaking away from the Democratic Party.

Back on April 22, Mark Willen, Senior Political Editor of The Kiplinger Letter, wrote an interesting piece, lamenting the disadvantage experienced by moderate candidates because the political primary process facilitates victory for the choices of extremist voters as a result of the enthusiasm gap.  (Extremists are more motivated to vote in primaries than moderate voters, who don’t consider themselves crusaders for a particular agenda.)  Willen sees the two parties being pushed to ideological extremes, despite the fact that most Americans consider themselves to be in the center of the political spectrum.  Another important point from that piece concerns the fact that info-tainment programs presenting extremist views get better ratings than programs featuring commentary that really is “fair and balanced”.  As a result, cable television audiences are regularly exposed to a bombardment of caustic rhetoric.

The 2012 elections could bring us a significant increase in the number of  “independent” candidates, as well as nominees from new political parties.  A change of that nature could close future mid-term enthusiasm gaps, occurring in the November elections (such as the one expected for this year).  The prospects for a larger, more diverse group of political parties are looking better with each passing day.




The Stupid War Against The Stimulus

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February 23, 2009

We keep hearing rants against President Obama’s economic stimulus bill.  The final version of the bill was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate on February 13.  On February 17, it was signed into law by our new President.  It is now called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Nevertheless, there are people out there (nearly all of them Republicans) fuming about the stimulus bill, despite the fact that the debate is now over.  The bill has already gone into effect.  So what’s the point?  Many commentators feel that currently, there is fierce competition to stand out as the new leader of the Republican Party.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal apparently believes he can advance his career by complaining about the stimulus and refusing to accept money allocated under the stimulus bill to expand eligibility for unemployment compensation because it would increase taxes on employers.  As Robert Pear and J. David Goodman reported for The New York Times, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said that he, too, would reject the money for expanding unemployment insurance:

“There is some we will not take in Mississippi,” Governor Barbour told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.  “We want more jobs.  You don’t get more jobs by putting an extra tax on creating jobs.”

The article noted that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (also a Republican) would be happy to take any money from the stimulus bill that had been rejected by any other governor.

The hostility against the stimulus just doesn’t make sense.  A few Republicans may think they might look like heroes to the traditional Republican “base” right now, but as the stimulus plan begins to bear fruit, they are going to look like fools.

Tom Friedman discussed one intriguing conversation he had with a true American capitalist (the sort of voter Republicans always have taken for granted) in the February 21 New York Times:

The wind and solar industries in America “were dead in the fourth quarter,” said John Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource Energy, which builds and operates cutting-edge solar-thermal plants in the Mojave Desert.  Almost five gigawatts of new solar-thermal projects — the equivalent of five big nuclear plants — at various stages of permitting were being held up because of a lack of financing.

“All of these projects will now go ahead,” said Woolard.  “You are talking about thousands of jobs  …  We really got something right in this legislation.”

These jobs will be in engineering, constructing and operating huge solar systems and wind farms and manufacturing new photovoltaics.  Together they will drive innovation in all these areas — and move wind and solar technology down the cost-volume learning curve so they can compete against fossil fuels and become export industries at the “ChinIndia price,” that is the price at which they can scale in China and India.

Mr. Wollard “gets it” but the usual Republican spokesmen don’t.  As Jonathan Alter points out in the March 2 edition of Newsweek:

Columnist Charles Krauthammer called the $787 billion stimulus package “a legislative abomination,” and Karl Rove wrote that “the more Americans learn about the bill, the less they like it.”

Polls say otherwise.  The public likes the signs of action, respects that the new president is willing to admit error and appreciates his constant reminders that there are no easy cures to what ails us.

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The GOP did a good job trivializing the stimulus, but Obama may have the last laugh.  The package is so big, and stretches across so many states, that it provides him at least four years of photo ops as Daddy O on tour, bringing home the jobs right in your local media market.  It was hardly a coincidence that video of bridge repair in Missouri began airing only moments after the president signed the bill.

As Walter Alarkon explained in his February 21 posting on The Hill website, there is a split among Republican governors as to whether the party’s next leader will be a centrist or a traditional conservative.  As his piece demonstrated, there are some Republicans who “get it”:

One possible White House hopeful, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), wouldn’t criticize the stimulus despite his red state bona fides.  He said that the federal money would fund infrastructure projects that could help the Beehive State’s economy.

“You have to have a party that is results oriented, that actually develops solutions to some of our nagging problems of today,” he said.

He said that Republicans who turn to “gratuitous rhetoric” will continue to lose.

Another Republican who “gets it” is Florida Governor Charlie Crist.  During his February 22 appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press, David Gregory asked Governor Crist whether he thought it was a mistake for the Republican Party to define itself by opposition to the stimulus.  Governor Crist gave this response:

Well, it may be.  All I know is I have to do what I think is in the best interest of the people of Florida.  And from my perspective, it’s to try and help them.  Help them every single day in every way that I can in education, in infrastructure, in health care; do the kinds of things that keep us from having to raise taxes.  You know, another part that people don’t talk about in the stimulus bill is that it cuts taxes.  About a third of it cuts taxes.   . . .   At the same time, because of the stimulus we’ll be able to pay our teachers more next year than we were this past year.  So I think it works, it works well, it helps people, it does what’s right.

How does one argue with that?  The current moot debate over the stimulus bill simply underscores one of the reasons why the Republicans suffered such huge losses in 2006 and 2008.  They need to abandon the failed strategy of focusing on the preferences of their so-called “base” and start representing the rest of America.  If they don’t learn this lesson, they will never win a majority in the Senate or the House and they will have to abandon their dreams of another Republican President.