Posts Tagged ‘Barack Obama’

The Thinker

Spock in charge

In case you haven’t noticed in the last five years, we seem to have a Vulcan in the Oval Office. Spock is in charge.

Obama as Mr. Spock

Obama as Mr. Spock

Oh, I know what some of you are thinking: we have an atheist/Muslim, Kenyan-born unnatural American in the White House instead. All that stuff about Barack Obama being born in Hawaii is faked, and even if it isn’t, Hawaii was barely a state in 1961, so he’s still not a naturally born American, and thus is not qualified to be president! The good news is that if Obama really is Mr. Spock, well, then we do have an imposter for a president, since anyone with knowledge of Star Trek canon knows that Spock is a Vulcan from the planet Vulcan.

Not so fast! There is the minor matter of Spock’s mother Amanda, who happened to be human, which means Spock is a product of a mixed-species marriage. Curiously, Obama is a product of a mixed-race marriage. It’s unclear from Star Trek canon whether Spock’s mother Amanda was born in the United States, and it’s also very unclear whether in the 23rd century world of Star Trek there is a United States. It sort of sounded like in Gene Roddenberry’s imagination we had evolved past nation-states. However, Spock’s mother Amanda was white and spoke English with a flawless American accent. If she had a son on Vulcan and was a member of a 23rd century United States, why, Spock would be no less eligible for the presidency than Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) is for being born in Calgary, Canada to American parents. Hmm.

So I am going with this assumption, because President Obama is so much in mind and temperament like a Vulcan in general, but Spock in particular, that I figure Spock is real. He figured out a way to transport himself back to our time, got a little plastic surgery on his ears and otherwise inserted himself seamlessly into our national consciousness around 2004 when Obama made that famous speech at the Democratic National Convention. I mean, Obama is a dead ringer for Spock anyhow: tall, thin, highly logical and low key. I don’t know where the Barack Obama before that speech is, but I figure he is deep in a holding cell somewhere out of the way, probably in Guantanamo. Maybe he will be released after Spock finishes his term in 2017.

Some rabid Christians believe in the antichrist, and many suggest that Obama is the antichrist. If the opposite of religious is secular, then Obama seems to qualify. It is true that he belonged to a predominantly black church in Chicago, but since assuming the presidency he and church have been strangers at best. He had not joined any of the local churches. His attendance is sporadic at best. Vulcans don’t need no stinkin’ churches. They are entirely logical and that certainly describes our president.

Obama, more than any president I can recall, is a relentlessly pragmatic politician, which means that he is driven by logic, not emotion, just like a Vulcan. It is borne out in so many ways, but most importantly to Americans perhaps in Obamacare. It was an imperfect law at best but the main thing was that it could get through Congress, although it just barely made it out of Congress. When it arrived it quickly showed imperfections. However, its imperfections were not as important as the fact that Obama and Democrats in Congress had at least moved this political football down the field, an accomplishment that eluded many past presidents and congresses. Obamacare was certainly not the best health care legislation, but it was doable. It was the logical choice as opposed to doing what so many others had done: nothing.

I find Obama/Spock’s pragmatism welcome. I see it not just in the Affordable Care Act, but in lots of other actions Obama/Spock has taken. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were good examples. Mr. Spock would look at these wars and say, “There is no way to win these wars. We need to get out quietly, set up some fig leaf governments that suggest that we care about the inevitable mess we’ll leave behind, but basically just go. We can’t afford them anymore.” And so we did. For the most part, even the Republicans who started these wars aren’t complaining. They have moved on to other issues that excite their base, like cutting spending in general.

The Hindus recognize the god Vishnu, whose job is basically to destroy things. This is because life is about change. If it didn’t change, it wouldn’t be life. Curiously, Republicans who claim to not want things to change seem to be channeling Vishnu, eager to destroy pretty much all the social legislation of the 20th century. Obama/Spock seems to be trying to cope with change, to build on what has worked in the past to make for a better tomorrow, making him in some ways conservative. The Affordable Care Act demonstrates this principle at work: build a health care system on top of our existing private health insurance market to minimize the shock of change. It’s highly logical in the context of where we are today, which is why Obama/Spock supported it.

Obama himself has repeatedly spoken about his intent on playing a “long game”. He tries to ignore the ups and downs of the moment and keep his eye on the far end of the field where the goal line is. Whatever it takes to move that ball down the field is fine with him. As quarterback though Obama prefers to rush instead of pass. He may start out with a pass, as he did with the Affordable Care Act, but once it proved politically impossible to get a single payer system through Congress he found it less risky to rush instead. He got his first down, which was the Affordable Care Act. Some other quarterback will get to the goal line: a single payer system. Obamacare makes this conversation possible in the future. Without it, it could not happen at all.

Obama is obviously not a perfect president, so the Spock analogy is imperfect as well. But I find his relentless pragmatism quite refreshing. At times it gets him in trouble, such as in national security matters with electronic eavesdropping and the use of drones to kill terrorists. Spock though would fearlessly make these choices. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one,” he has said in various TV shows and movies. Disconnects like these can happen when you elect left-brain presidents. What is logical is not always what makes the most political sense, and it can come back and bite you from time to time. Overall though, I prefer a left-brain president to a right-brain one.

We face terrible problems from overpopulation to climate change. No Messiah is going to come down from the skies to solve these for us. We made this mess, and only we can clean it up. We need clear thinkers and people of practical action to pull it off, if we can pull it off at all. The odds are very long.

So I for one am glad that Spock is in charge.

 
The Thinker

Republicans can’t kill Obamacare

One of the ironies of the Affordable Care Act is that Republicans were the ones to derisively name it “Obamacare”. So when it works, as it is going to, President Obama is going to get all the credit. This will make the Republicans look particularly stupid, not that they need a whole lot of help looking stupid lately. It might kill them as a party.

Perhaps it is the fear that it actually will work which is having them go into overdrive with desperate, last minute attempts to make it fail by convincing people not to enroll. They are doing so by refusing to set up state health exchanges but more recently by placing burdensome state regulations on Obamacare “navigators” (people paid to promote the insurance with uninsured communities) that effectively keep them from “navigating”. These tactics likely won’t work and worse are unconstitutional because of the supremacy clause to the U.S. constitution, not to mention the right of free association. Their hope is that by throwing sand into its engines before the courts tell the states their laws are invalid that it will cause the program overall to fail.

Good luck with that Republicans, because it won’t work. Granted, there may be some fits and starts to get the Affordable Care Act fully in gear. Whether or not navigators promote the law or not, it’s a straightforward matter for anyone who wants to get health insurance to acquire it: just get on line and sign up! On the national or state health exchange they can sign up for health insurance regardless of preconditions. If they don’t make a lot of money the government will subsidize some portion of their premiums.

The only ones to truly get screwed by Obamacare will be the working poor in red states, at least those red states like Texas which won’t accept Medicaid subsidies to expand the insurance pool. This is only possible, of course, due to the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year that gave states the right to opt out of this part of the law. Now that decision definitely threw some sand into the Obamacare engine, but it was not fatal. It just meant that the poor, as usual, would continue to get screwed over in many red states. That will change with time.

So many ironies! It turns out that red states are essentially screwing themselves. By turning away free money to pay the medical expenses of their poorest citizens, these people will simply clog emergency rooms for costly “free” health care. This unofficial tax will be added to the price of health care services for the insured of these states, making their premiums proportionately higher than in states where Obamacare goes into full effect. This, in effect, makes blue states more desirable places to live because there is less health care cost shifting going on: health care expenses become more predictable. “Live free or die,” is the state motto of New Hampshire and by inference much of red America. But of course “freedom is not free”, as states like Texas will discover to their sorrow. The only interesting part of this exercise is how long they will hold out before they realize the futility of their own pigheaded stubbornness. There will be a whole lot of money that could have been used to build bridges and fund schools that will be needlessly squirreled away into higher health care costs instead.

This is because the whole point of insurance is to spread the risks, and thus the costs, lowering costs for everyone and thereby providing services that would otherwise be unaffordable. I don’t expect my house to burn down this year, so in the eyes of red America I am probably wasting money sending $600 a year or so to USAA. Essentially I am giving my money to someone else who will use it to rebuild their house when they have a fire. Of course should I have a fire, I’m out $600 in premiums and likely some costly but not catastrophic deductibles. But I am not left to rebuild my house with money from my savings account or using some loan that is based on my creditworthiness. $600 seems amazingly cheap for this investment of $500,000 or so. Essentially I pay .12 cents per dollar of the house’s value so I don’t have to pay to rebuild it in the event of catastrophe.

The same idea works with health care costs, of course. Only a very stupid wage earner when they measure their potential financial shock without health insurance will pass it up if they can possibly afford it. And with subsidies, they will be able to afford it, well, unless they make so little they count as working poor. If the states won’t take the federal money to insure these people then these low-wage workers will get screwed if they develop a costly condition. Many of them will die prematurely, but most will linger in pain and in poverty while racking up huge hospital bills that they cannot pay, but whose costs will simply be passed on to those who can: the insured.

Anyone who can possibly afford insurance is going to want to get it, and if they think they cannot they will find the cost of dodging it will increase every year with fines collected on their federal income taxes. At some point they will say, “If I am going to spend this much money not to be insured, maybe I should just be insured.” For now, these red states are hoping that ignorance will kill Obamacare. Keep the cheap to insure out of the market and it raises premium costs for the rest. In short they are betting on ignorance, hence their obsession with keeping “navigators” from navigating. It may work for a short while, but not forever, and if it works it will be locally, not nationally. Eventually some peer is going to tell them that they are insured now and it only costs X dollars and they are being subsidized with Y dollars of free money. It’s like a 401K employer match. Free money will get their attention, so let’s hope those navigating the navigators tell them to pitch it like this.

Despite attempts by some states to “overturn” Obamacare, it cannot be overturned by a state’s fiat. It is a done deal, a law largely upheld by the Supreme Court. It can only be repealed through an act of Congress signed into law by the president, or by a Congress that overrides the president’s veto.

It’s just like that scene from the movie Lincoln when, after the passage of the 13th amendment Lincoln meets with the vice president of the Confederacy who is making peace overtures. “Slavery,” President Lincoln informs him, “is done. Finished.” Check and mate! The Affordable Care Act is finished too. It can’t be overturned because it wasn’t overturned. Certain red states will screw themselves for a while as they try to make it not work in their states, but it won’t work nationally. Obamacare is done. It is potentially possible to repeal it, but it won’t happen without a Republican House, Senate and White House, and only if there are sixty or more Republican senators. In reality, at this point it can only be amended, and by amending it, it will only be strengthened, not weakened.

Obama may screw up his legacy by sending missiles into Syria to avenge the use of chemical weapons by its government. But he won’t screw it up through Obamacare. Ten years from now most people even in red states will be scratching their heads wondering why they opposed it in the first place. They probably won’t like paying their health insurance premiums and copays too much. I don’t like paying mine either. But I do like knowing one costly illness won’t wipe me out financially. So will millions of Americans simply trying to reach old age in a state resembling solvency.

Perhaps the most ironic part of Obamacare is that Obama will get credit for something he largely did not contribute to. He basically said he was for the idea of national health insurance but left the details to Congress. The Affordable Care Act was what emerged. Republicans named it “Obamacare” to tar it to President Obama, who they obviously loathe, and the frame stuck. Even the president now calls it Obamacare. It will be seen as the major accomplishment of his term of office. At least President Franklin D. Roosevelt truly instigated the New Deal. Obama, the man Republicans love to hate, will be gratefully remembered for Obamacare in the generations to come. He will wear laurels placed on his head by Republicans, who thought they were putting on a crown of thorns.

The real credit for the legislation though should go to the Democrats who controlled Congress at the time. Senator Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi should be wearing those laurels, but also the sixty Democratic senators who, as a block, held themselves accountable when push came to shove and overcame cloture in the Senate. It was an improbable act of great bravery. Sadly, their contributions and these moments will be largely footnotes.

 
The Thinker

Obama is losing his Democratic moorings

Like many liberals, I am going through a painful disillusionment phase with Barack Obama. I am disheartened and saddened by his approach to governing since his reelection. I fear he is setting Democrats up for failure in 2014.

If there is one thing that unites Democrats it is a passion for the needs of the middle class and the poor. Since his reelection Barack Obama is showing signs that he is putting some nebulous legacy and quest to “get things done no matter what the odds” ahead of the best interests of the American people.

The most painful aspect has been Obama’s repeated declarations, most explicitly in his FY2014 budget, that he is prepared to scale back social security cost of living adjustments and increase Medicare payments in order to balance the budget. He says this will only happen if Republicans agree as part of a grand bargain to also raise taxes elsewhere.

Obama is way too smart a politician to not realize that social security is not contributing to the deficit. Indeed in most years it diminishes the deficit by putting its surpluses into the treasury. This proposed means of diminishing social security benefits is through a mechanism called “chained CPI” (consumer price index). Basically it would reduce inflation protections built into social security, on the assumption that people will reduce spending patterns when prices rise, for example going with ground beef instead of steaks. However, the elderly spend a disproportionate amount of their income on health care expenses, which has proven resistant to the “ground beef for steak” approach. Regardless, this would still amount to a cut in income generally compared with inflation for people who can least afford to take the hit. This means they will endure a reduction of standard of living, which is already pretty poor for many social security beneficiaries without pensions or high valued 401Ks. Worse, it would do nothing to control the deficit. Obama appears to be willing to balance the budget on the backs of those least able to afford it, and who contributed to their social security over the years based on certain assumptions which may well go by the wayside. It’s unfair and it is back stabbing.

As for Medicare, the president is proposing means testing, essentially requiring those at somewhat higher income levels to contribute more in the way of deductibles and copays when we use Medicare. There is no question that Medicare is a growing entitlement and there is enormous waste in the system. I am all for removing the waste in the system, which can be done by moving it from a fee-for-service model to an outcome-based payment model. As a driver of medical inflation, Medicare is a laggard not a leader, with significantly lower costs and inflation per enrollee than private health insurance. As for means testing, it is unfair because those who earn more have contributed more of their income over the years toward Medicare, effectively subsidizing the care for those at lower income levels. The tax is 1.45% of your income. Someone making $20,000 pays $290 a year in Medicare taxes. Someone at my income level pays closer to $1900 a year in Medicare taxes. The result of this proposed change would be to charge people like me more for the same benefits when we claim them after having already paid more by contributing more to the system during our working lives. It’s sort of like paying an income tax twice. It is fundamentally unfair.

To add insult to injury, yesterday the president signed into law changes to the STOCK act that essentially undid the work of the last Congress to provide better visibility into stocks owned by members of Congress and the Administration. This was a no-brainer for a supposedly progressive president: veto it.

Meanwhile, the former organization Obama for American has morphed into Organizing for Action, and the organization has been petitioning people like me to contribute to it, supposedly to help promote progressive causes. What is progressive about cutting social security benefits for people in a solvent system? Why would I contribute to an organization that works for a president who wants to do the exact opposite of what Vice President Joe Biden promised in the last campaign: not to cut social security benefits, not even by one dime? How do I get excited about sending them money when they want people to contribute more toward Medicare instead of removing the waste in the system?

The worst part is this could easily set up a repeat of the disastrous 2010 election, which brought in Tea Party members that have largely obstructed work from getting done. What drives people to the polls is motivation. Seniors, already disinclined to vote for Democrats, will be even gladder to vote for Republicans who promise not to cut their social security benefits, as even Paul Ryan has pledged. How do you excite the Democratic base to turn out when they are being asked to enthusiastically endorse an agenda that further stiffs it to the working class and seems more a product of Republican thinking than Democratic thinking?

To say the least all of this is disappointing, which amounts to leaving us Democrats dispirited, which gives us little incentive to vote or to get further engaged in politics, which is supposedly the whole purpose of Organizing for Action. But OFA is really about promoting the president’s agenda, not the people’s agenda. They no longer align.

I will support and vote for true Democrats who will fight for the working class, who will fight to ensure that everyone pays their fair share, including corporations that pay increasing fewer taxes every year. Once these under taxed groups have paid their taxes, then I will consider tax increases on the working class. I will not vote for Republican-lite candidates.

I hope Obama wakes up because he is making a fatal mistake not just to his legacy, but to his agenda and to the needs of Americans. The compromise he is chasing simply will not happen with the current Congress, which is good, because Republicans in Congress will put lower spending ahead of deficit reduction, as they have shown time and again. However, there is no reason to move our goalpost first when they won’t move their post at all. The mere act of moving proves not statesmanship but cowardice because it will show conciliation without affect. It also drains energy from progressives and makes us feel all our energy was for naught.

Democrats would be wise to estrange themselves from Obama and OFA. I know I am until he asks for contrition and puts the American people ahead of the concerns of the rich.

 
The Thinker

Assessing Obama

I got an invitation from President Obama to the inauguration! Okay, it wasn’t from him personally, just from someone on his staff. Scratch that, it was not even from someone on his staff. Instead, I got an automated email invitation because I donated to his campaign. I was given the opportunity to compete for a chance to stand in the bleachers during today’s Inaugural Parade. I declined the opportunity, which even if I won it would have cost me $25. It seems like everything is for sale in this country, including the privilege of watching the President and First Lady maybe wave at you from Pennsylvania Avenue. I used the holiday instead to remove wallpaper from our downstairs bedroom.

However, I did listen to his inaugural address. This one was better than the last one, at least, which was an amazingly mediocre speech from a usually eloquent writer. Like most Americans, I did not know exactly what I would get when I voted for Barack Obama the first time. With the benefit of hindsight I can now assess his first four years. Did he live up to my expectations? Back in 2007 when I decided to support for him I said:

What makes Obama different in my mind is that of all the candidates he is the one who behaves the most like a genuine leader. In these perilous times, we need a leader that can pull us in their wake. He or she must do this while also moving us in a positive direction that moves us back into the international mainstream, addresses the root causes of terrorism, and moves us toward taking real action on global warming. We need someone with sound judgment who also truly grasps the nuances of the bigger picture. In short, we desperately need a president with real intellect and mojo. I have some concerns that Obama’s mojo may be more for show than real, but overall I feel comfortable that it is real.

It’s already hard to remember what a mess was dropped on Obama’s doorstep when he assumed the presidency. One of the most unusual things about today’s inauguration was how ordinary it seemed. The economy is still not great, but it feels like we are fully out of the woods. 7.8 percent unemployment sucks, particularly if you are unemployed, but it beats the high of ten percent we reached in 2009. Obama’s first four years were mostly about keeping the lights on. Unemployment sucked, but it sucked less because long-term unemployment insurance and food stamps kept the unemployed from starving. The stock market has more than fully recovered. In fact, Obama has been one of the best presidents ever for Wall Street. It’s a mystery why Wall Street would not support him this time. He saved their undeserving hides. In March 2009, our net worth had dropped to $687K, most of it from declines in the stock and housing market. Today it is $1.07M. Granted, we have been stashing away more money and paying down debts, but most of this is due to recovery on Wall Street. This would not have happened on its own. It took a lot of leadership, principally from Obama, to turn the economy around. It’s actually progress that we are arguing about deficits instead of the sinking economy. In addition, Obama and a Democratic controlled congress successfully rescued the auto industry, stabilized the housing market and helped lead a resurgence of manufacturing in the United States. Employment may be slowly recovering, but so far there is a net surplus of jobs created during his first four years. During his first term, he created more net jobs that George W. Bush did in eight years. His most important economic achievement was avoiding another depression. It was not a given at all four years ago. Overall on the economy, I give the president a B+.

We need Democratic presidents simply to keep us out of unnecessary wars. Obama exceeded my expectations. He found and killed Osama bin Laden. We are out of Iraq and will be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. From his inauguration address today, it sure sounds like he will not get us involved in a war with Iraq or Syria. The United States is now generally respected around the world again. The only thing about his foreign policy that really disturbs me is his failure to close Guantanamo. I am disappointed that he has continued Bush policies regarding electronic eavesdropping. I expected he would be more of a civil libertarian. Yet overall, Obama definitely gets an A here.

Like most liberals, the Affordable Care Act disappointed me. Had Obama chosen to be more engaged in shaping it, it would have been a much better piece of legislation. Even so, getting it into law was a huge accomplishment in itself, since it had not been done before in the United States. Understandably, Obama had plenty else on his plate to deal with at the same time, including the economy. Perhaps it is just the lackluster economy, but health care costs are easing for the first time in many years. It may be a result of the ACA. A solid B here.

I am most disappointed in his lack of leadership on climate change. He did direct funds toward clean energy solutions, and the EPA has issues new rules limiting particulate matter. His most important accomplishment was probably increasing vehicle fuel efficiency standards. This doesn’t solve the problem of climate change, but it dramatically reduces need for oil and will do much to reduce smog and ozone, at least compared to not having the rules. Given Republican domination in the House, it’s not surprising why he saw it as a lost cause. Still, I feel much more could be done here. I give him a D here.

I expected a more progressive president than I actually got. President Obama turned out to be a ruthlessly pragmatic president, which at times was something of a weakness. Still, his strategy has been consistently long term, with short-term milestones if possible that make progress toward a long-term accomplishment. Obama was given a chessboard with the queen captured and only a rook, knight, bishop and some pawns. He has won the queen back. Winning the game though looks like it will be a problem for a future president to accomplish. Obama’s major accomplishment will likely be that he kept moving the ball down the field.

Overall, I am glad that I voted for him. I’ll take a man of practical action in the White House any day over a rabid ideologue of any type.

 
The Thinker

Election 2012 postmortem

Ouch! It must hurt to be a Republican after the walloping they got from voters last night.

What hurt them the most of course was President Obama’s reelection, called by CNN (which I was watching) at 11:18 PM Eastern Time. I was not really worried that Obama would lose, despite the tightness in the popular vote, because of polling in swing states. Still, Republicans must have really felt the sting from losing the White House. As a result, the Supreme Court is saved from new conservative justices, at least for the next four years. The Affordable Care Act will not be overturned. We won’t get entangled in any wars of hubris. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will not be gutted, and it’s hard to see how tax increases can be avoided on the wealthiest Americans.

Obama’s reelection was especially improbable given the poor state of the economy. He joins a small list of presidents to win reelection under these circumstances, the last one being Franklin D. Roosevelt. What is even more remarkable is that Obama did this while being additionally handicapped by being black. Not a handicap you think? Disturbing new research shows just how prejudiced Americans remain. Had Obama been born white he likely could have added five points to his electoral win. Yet he still won with a clear majority of the votes cast.

Overall, voters assessed the Republicans’ candidates and rejected them. Most Republicans simply can’t figure out how their message failed to resonate. Even Mitt Romney revealed that didn’t get it with his much reviled remark that 47% of the public would not vote for him because they were dependent on the federal government. Republicans lost badly because they are seen as elitist, out of touch with the real world, obstructive, obnoxious racists and misogynists. This was obvious, if not from their rhetoric and their “Put the White back in the White House” signs, then from the candidates they nominated. The crazier they were, the greater they lost.

The Senate was supposed to turn Republican this year. Retiring Democratic senators outnumbered retiring Republicans two to one. Two ultra pro-life candidates went down in flames. Todd Akin lost by 15-points to incumbent Clair McCaskill in Missouri, a state that Romney ended up winning. A couple of hundred miles to the east in Indiana, Richard Mourdock lost an easy seat in a bright red state to moderate Democrat Joe Donnelly. The only bright spot for Republicans was narrowly winning a seat in Nevada, won only by a point, and only because of ethical problems with the Democratic nominee.

Otherwise, the horror! An open lesbian, Tammy Baldwin won against former governor Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin. Democrat Heidi Heitcamp narrowly won against Rick Berg in dark red state of North Dakota. John Tester hung on to his Montana seat. In my state of Virginia, Democrat Tim Kaine won by nearly five points against former senator and governor George Allen. Scott Brown was tossed out of Massachusetts by progressive Elizabeth Warren. Many of these seats were salvageable had Republicans nominated someone relatively mainstream. But in most cases they went for candidates with “principle” (i.e. extreme positions) instead. They picked candidates they wanted to see in office, not candidates that could win in a pluralistic election. These losses were stupid and preventable, and fed the narrative that Republicans are deeply out of touch with the rest of America. Overall Democrats picked up two senate seats, an amazing accomplishment. In addition, there will be twenty female senators in the next congress, a new high.

Not that the elections went entirely bad for Republicans. They did manage to retain control of the House of Representatives. Not all house elections are called yet but it appears they lost only a handful of seats. Gerrymandering resulting from the 2010 census certainly helped there. Still, a few of the more egregious Republican representatives went down in flames, including Alan West in Florida. Progressive Alan Grayson won back a seat he lost two years ago in Central Florida, with 62% of the vote. Michele Bachmann came within a percentage point of losing her conservative seat in Minnesota.

There were many contributing factors to yesterday’s election results. Ironically, most of the television advertising unleashed by special interest groups and candidates may have proven unproductive. First, they stimulated interest in the election, since it was impossible to get on TV or radio and not hear political ads. Second, for the most part the ads canceled each other out, so they had no impact. They proved great for media companies bottom lines, but bought candidates of either party or special interests very little. What worked were messages directly from the candidates themselves, and early messages that set narratives.

The ground game was also phenomenal, at least for Democrats. I was receiving two or more phone calls (mostly robocalls) from candidates a day. There were dozens of emails as well, mostly soliciting donations. In my neighborhood the Obama campaign was relentless. They knocked on my door countless times (I don’t open my door for any campaign), left voice mails, left at least one brochure a week on my stoop and sent information through the mail. It was quite overwhelming and frankly more than a bit annoying. I simply could not turn it off, as much as I agreed with the candidates. Perhaps I would have received less attention had I not lived in a swing state.

I saw the effects at my local precinct Tuesday morning: long lines at the elementary school that nearly stretched outside. There were only three electronic machines at our precinct, which contributed to the slowness, so most elected for paper ballots, which were faster. Even subtracting out the crowds the energy level was high; the precinct buzzed. I cannot recall an election where I saw more voters at the polls. Even my daughter came up from her campus in Richmond to cast a vote. The result was clear during the evening, when Fairfax County was slow to report. A lot of precincts had large queues of people waiting in line to vote. For much of the evening, CNN was showing Virginia voting red, but it was clear to me that when Fairfax County’s vote finally came in, it would flip. And we did. Obama won Virginia sometime after midnight.

This was an election to remember, nearly as memorable as the 2008 election. If it demonstrates anything, it demonstrates an electorate whose demographics are changing. White America voted 58% for Mitt Romney, but it comprises a smaller proportion of the electorate. This problem will only grow worse for Republicans. They will have to moderate positions or risk obsolescence as a political party. The Tea Party and extreme social conservatives are doing them in.

 
The Thinker

Hurricane Sandy reminds us why we need government

With the arrival of Hurricane Sandy here on the east coast yesterday, you got a timely reminder of why we need government. Yesterday was a day when you wanted to batten down the hatches and if you lived in certain areas also pray like hell. Unless you own a boat or ship you probably didn’t have to literally batten down any hatches, although I have to wonder if failure to do so lead to the sinking of the HMS Bounty during the storm.

For most of us storm preparation meant cleaning out gutters, removing chairs from our decks, testing the sump pump, stocking up on batteries, toilet paper and bottled water, and finding places for our automobiles away from trees. It worked for us here in Oak Hill, Virginia. Sandy dumped more rain than wind on us. Nearby Washington Dulles International Airport reported 5.4 inches of rain during the event, with peak sustained winds of 39 miles an hour, with gusts to 54 miles an hour. We also had a day of record low pressure, something I attribute to climate change. As hurricanes go this was a bizarre one. No tropical air and foggy windows this time, but cold air fed by a cold front on the other side of the Appalachians, driving rain for more than a day, and blustery winds yesterday afternoon and evening. Our house, windows and floorboards rattled from time to time, but the power and heat stayed on and we never lost Internet.

News reports indicated that millions of others are still without power. Sandy left much of New Jersey and lower Manhattan destroyed and/or underwater. I am monitoring my hometown of Binghamton, which likely has not seen the worst of Sandy yet. The area suffered two devastating floods in 2005 and 2010. This may be yet another one for that suffering area to endure. But its impact will be softened, thanks to local, state and federal emergency managers. Thanks should also be given to President Obama, who declared areas disaster areas before the storm hit, to speed aid and supplies.

The list of people and organizations to thank are immense. There is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which coordinates disaster relief and works intimately with the states to stage disaster relief supplies. There is the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, which effectively tracked the storm and issued the correct warnings. There is the Coast Guard, various governors, state and local emergency responders, power crews, ambulance drivers and cops on the beat.

Some of the best results were things that did not happen. My roof did not blow off or collapse. This did not happen by magic, but was the result of building codes and building inspections. In 1985 when my house was constructed, Fairfax County sent out inspectors to make sure my house was constructed to a code that would allow it to endure major storms like Sandy. In 1999 we replaced our deck and enclosed it. “Big government” building inspectors took a look at the roof of our new deck and told the contractors it was not up to code. They were forced to add additional beams to support the roof.

There is more evidence of big government across the street from my house. There a large dry pond sits awaiting events like Hurricane Sandy. It safely collects backwater then funnels it into the nearby creek in a measured manner, minimizing flood damage. Even in the event that it overfilled the dry pond, the codes required the road to be graded in a certain way to keep the water flowing gently downhill, never leaving a spot on the road for water to accumulate. Before the community was even constructed, an engineering study was ordered to make sure no part of our community was in a flood zone. Had these safeguards not been in place, it is likely that we would have experienced some storm damage last night. Possibly me and some of my neighbors would be dislocated, injured or dead. Big government could not eliminate these risks, but through a planning and an impartial inspection process it minimized these risks. One of the reasons our power never went out is because power lines are underground in our neighborhood, another outcome of big government. Doubtless it would have been cheaper to plant telephone polls instead.

Much of the wheels of government work this way. It’s the things that you don’t see and take for granted that minimize losses and deaths during these natural events. All these services cost money, but they cost less because their costs are borne generally through taxes. The cost per capita for the National Weather Service is a couple of dollars per year.

FEMA is an example of the services that Mitt Romney plans to drastically cut if he is elected president. And yet many of these services are already chronically underfunded and if anything need more funds. Moreover, the cost of funding these arguably essential areas of government are a pittance compared to the cost of entitlements and defense. At least now Romney claims says he won’t cut FEMA. But clearly you cannot balance a budget and not raise taxes if you don’t cut something. If you won’t do much to cut entitlements and keep bloating the Defense Department’s budget, these essential government services must be drastically cut.

You can say, as many conservatives do, it is better to leave it to the states to handle these things. But hurricanes do not respect state boundaries. It makes no sense for each state to have a redundant weather service when it can be done nationally. The whole point of having a United States is to ensure that if some states have to deal with disaster, we can pick up their slack by everyone contributing aid through federal taxes. We need these services because we are all in this together. These services are not nice to have; they are essential. We are bigger than the sum of our parts because we are united and federated.

Also essential is the infrastructure that makes all this possible. We need the National Science Foundation to stimulate research in national areas of interest. We need my agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, to do seismological research, biodiversity estimates and to monitor the nation’s streams and groundwater, so the National Weather Service can make flood and drought forecasts. We need the FDA to make sure our drugs are safe, agricultural inspectors to make sure our food is safe, ICE to handle illegal and legal immigrants, and the FBI to investigate intrastate crimes. Maybe if push came to shove we can do without funding Big Bird or sending probes to Mars. These costs are mere pocket change in the federal budget.

As I have noted before, taxes are the price of civilization. If this is not clear to you, then elect Republicans and watch as our highways and bridges deteriorate, our children become unable to afford college, watch our food become impure, our drugs become adulterated and see legions of poor and starving people living on the streets because no one will house them or feed them. Expect that when some future Hurricane Sandy arrives, the size of the problem will needlessly mushroom simply because we as a society have decided we have stopped caring for anyone but ourselves.

It’s your choice. I understand if your ideology tells you to vote Republican regardless, but the next Hurricane Sandy won’t care about your philosophy and you and your family may be needless victims. God gave us brains. Let’s use them.

 
The Thinker

The last debate

It’s probably a good thing that most Americans are geography impaired. Many Americans cannot tell you what their neighboring states are, let alone pick out Iran or Syria on a globe. Mitt Romney seems to fall into this category as well, since during yesterday’s presidential debate he came up with the preposterous claim that Iran needed to help Syria so it could have access to the world’s oceans. Maybe he confused the landlocked Afghanistan with Iran. In any event, Iran has plenty of access to the world’s oceans as the southern part of Iran presses up against the Persian Gulf, and it depends on access to it to export most of its oil.

Overall, yesterday’s debate with President Obama did not reflect well on Romney’s grasp of foreign policy. Worse, he could not draw clear distinctions between how his policies would vary from Obama’s. He either tacitly or explicitly agreed with most of Obama’s policies, the inescapable implication being that Obama was doing a good job as commander in chief. Moreover, he drew a lot of false conclusions. For example, he criticized the president for turmoil in the Middle East, as if it was his fault. Even the casual observer of the Middle East understands that revolution, particularly in that part of the world, requires turmoil. It’s an area where democracy is virtually unknown and despots are aplenty. His reasoning is also suspect because it suggests that we can actually control the political process underway across the Middle East. All we can really do is attempt to influence policy by reaching out to leaders, the opposition, and by working with other countries to affect jointly desirable outcomes, such as ending Iran’s nuclear program.

We have tried using force to get our way and it didn’t work in Iraq, although we did squander hundreds of billions of dollars before a wiser president than Bush got us out of Iraq. Sadly, I predict the same will be true in Afghanistan as proved true in Iraq. Yes, we will be out by the end of 2014. Even Romney wants that to occur. But Afghan troops will be no more ready to take control of their country than Iraqi troops were. Afghanistan is likely to look a lot like Iraq in 2015, likely with no clear winner but with a heavy and destabilizing Talibani influence but the government retaining control in most major cities. But we’ll be out of there and most importantly al Qaeda will not be coming back. They will wisely stay out of Afghanistan. The Taliban will not let them back in, as they lost power the last time they let them in. The Taliban knows that as long as they make mischief only within their borders that we will leave them alone. That’s the bottom line in Afghanistan that both sides know we will accept, just not state publicly.

President Obama demonstrated a firm grasp of these nuances, and rightly called Romney out on some of his more absurd statements, like his fretting that our navy had fewer ships than at any time since World War One. Aircraft carriers did not even exist then. One aircraft carrier today is the equivalent of dozens if not hundreds of navy ships in the World War One era. It’s actually much more than that since it allows us to project a large concentration of air power at trouble spots across the world.

Both Obama and Romney found plenty of reasons to talk about domestic policy, since most Americans yawn at foreign policy. As usual, the moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS Newswas caught in the middle and had trouble bringing their focus back to foreign policy. By this point in the campaign there was really nothing that either candidate could state that Americans had not heard before. Instead, the casual listener could only go with gut assessments of the candidate. Obama looked the image of the sober commander in chief he has been. Romney looked again like he was trying to imitate Ronald Reagan, not succeeding very well and seemed a bit trigger happy as well.

The sad fact for Republicans was that the debate was a sure loser for them. Americans overwhelmingly approve of Obama’s foreign policy. We are out of Iraq, and are getting out of Afghanistan. We are war weary, so Romney’s saber rattling fell flat. It was not surprising then that Romney was happy to turn the conversation to domestic policy, where he holds better cards. Overall, Americans see no compelling reason to spend lavishly on defense at this time, particularly when we are entering an era of austerity and the obvious foreign threats against us are diminishing. Moreover, it is astonishing to most of us who pay attention to foreign policy that Russia is our biggest national security threat, as Romney recently asserted. The Cold War is long over. Russia retains an impressive nuclear arsenal but does not appear to have any imperialistic desires at the moment. It has its hands full controlling its own population.

In short, Romney got pwned last night. By the end of the debate it seemed that Romney knew it as well.

 
The Thinker

The second debate

As a political junkie, I confess that I watch presidential debates not so much to learn what candidates believe on a variety of issues (which, of course, I already know) but for their pure entertainment value. Arguably, presidential debates are primarily theater. Unlike theater these debates can have real world consequences: the acquisition of power. So they tend to excite me much more than a good movie, in part because they are so rare.

In the first debate I felt cheated and a bit angry because to the extent that President Obama was acting, he was playing the role of Mr. Spock, where he is most comfortable. That left Mitt Romney to own the debate because he seemed to be the only one participating. The vice presidential debate was more theatrical than the first presidential debate, but with Biden’s many childish actions it was overall disappointing.

As theater, last night’s debate did not disappoint and proved to be hugely entertaining, as President Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in an elaborate fistfight, albeit without using real fists. If they were horses, they would have been both chomping at the bits. Unlike the first debate, President Obama largely owned this debate. However, Mitt Romney made a respectable showing. If it were a horserace, he would not have been more than two lengths behind the President at the finish line.

Since innumerable pundits have picked so much about the debate apart I won’t go into many of these already stated points. Romney’s remarks about women and binders went right over me, not because I am a man, but because I knew what he meant to say. On this issue (which was really a question about equal pay for women) what struck me is that Romney really never answered the question, leaving the implication that unequal pay based on sex doesn’t bother him.

I expected Obama to mention Romney’s often stated 47% statement (that 47% of Americans will vote for Obama because they are dependents of the government) at the start of the debate. Yet it would not have come up at all had not Romney raised it himself indirectly in the final question. He said one of the misunderstood things about him is that he is for 100% of Americans. What a stupid thing to say because it let Obama remind Americans of Romney’s 47% remark right at the close of a debate. Romney had a number of missteps like this but Obama’s more agile (and younger) mind kept him virtually gaffe free as well as at the peak of eloquence.

Both candidates were inventing new ways to command an open stage and appear domineering without actually touching each other or moving into each other’s personal space (a mistake Al Gore made in the 2000 debates). Of the two, Obama proved more agile with the assertive body language. He found ways to hunch forward while sitting on his stool as if anxious to lunge forward with a response at the soonest millisecond possible. He even had a way of holding his microphone that looked assertive. Both candidates had all sorts of assertive arm gestures, and fast walking motions that almost looked like prances. Obama is the master of the elevated, superior looking head, but his smile often bordered on smirky. Romney must have studied the last debate videos and had his smirks pointed out to him. In that sense he learned something: smirking is counterproductive and sends the wrong message. Thankfully, I did not have that distraction last night.

It got more entertaining of course when they interrupted one another, or when one candidate pleaded with moderator Candy Crowley for more time, or would not take “shut up” instructions from Ms. Crowley. Mostly though Obama proved a master of framing, often taking “sure to lose” questions like the terrorist assault on our consulate in Libya and turning them into wins instead. When he said he called the incident a terrorist incident the day after it occurred, and he was challenged by Romney, Crowley corrected Romney (she had clearly done her homework), even Romney must have felt the bat to the side of his head.

But what about the debate’s substance? For a debate, it was not bereft of substance but the constant posturing without really addressing the root problems was often maddening on both sides. From Romney, there was more obfuscation on how he could possibly cut taxes and still close the deficit. From Obama, there was no mention at all that increasing taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year (fine by me) won’t begin to seriously cut the deficit. At least Obama was correct to point out that real wealth does not trickle down, but is primarily a consequence of income growth in the middle class. It should not be rocket science that when the majority of people have more money to spend, and actually spend it, that it will cause broad economic growth. Nor should it be rocket science that the rich by themselves cannot save the economy. There is only so much money that rich people can spend to improve their lifestyles, and there simply aren’t enough of them no matter how lavishly they spend their money for it to have real impact on the economic growth of the country.

The debate succeeded in being a contrast in values between Republicans and Democrats. Those still on the political fence at least have these differences to chaw over, assuming they have been politically asleep the last few years. Still, so many real issues were not discussed. There were no questions about the catastrophic consequences of ignoring global warming. There were no questions on the wisdom of the Citizens United ruling, or whether gays should marry, or if we really need to spend $700 billion a year on defense while laying off teachers. Instead it was more about gas prices, “clean” coal, how wonderful the middle class is and the benefits of capitalism, families and apple pie.

The debate made for good theater, but felt much like a glazed donut. It felt great going down. It was not until it was all over that you realized it was only 30 percent substance and 70 percent prancing, and its thrill was quite ephemeral. I enjoyed all the theatrical prancing, but arguably the American people could have used a full diet of substance instead.

 
The Thinker

The vice presidential debate

I don’t know whether to applaud or feel appalled. Maybe it’s okay to do both.

I spent much of this debate with my jaw agape as Vice President Joe Biden did everything to get attention but take off his shoe and bang it on his desk, a la Nikita Khrushchev. Whereas Barack Obama was unfailingly civil and understated in his first presidential debate, Biden went out of his way to be just the opposite with Mitt Romney’s vice presidential choice, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan. Because of Joe, the debate was more carnival than debate. Biden managed to speak more than Ryan and felt few constraints to let Ryan finish sentences. If Obama could have an evil alter ego, Biden emulated it. The result was that he dominated the debate and dominated the clock as well. He was often rude, frequently dismissive, interruptive and sneering, as well as often wide-eyed when Ryan spoke and chortling, always flashing his impressive set of pearly white teeth.

The contrast made Paul Ryan appear entirely reasonable, unless you tried to parse what he was saying, which rarely made a lot of sense. While Biden dominated the debate, I found Ryan far more telegenic. In particular a feature of his I had never noticed before struck me: his hair, particularly a part of his hairline that uncharacteristically falls down the center of his forehead in a point. It was mesmerizing, even more so that Biden’s antics. His pointy forehead hairstyle is bizarrely uncommon and curiously makes him look like Satan himself.

The Devil in Paul Ryan's hair

The Devil in Paul Ryan’s hair

Biden is known to be flamboyant, but clearly he pulled out all the stops during this debate. It’s unclear who “won” the debate although most polls give Biden a narrow win. No one will deny that Biden was not forceful. His tactics, strangely enough, came right out of the Republican playbook. Those of us following the many Republican debates saw it time and again as candidates tried to break out of the pack. Bizarre, rude and loud behavior usually worked, at least for a while, in getting attention. It did not succeed in producing a nominee with these qualities. In the end Republicans chose Mitt Romney, overall a milquetoast candidate. But that’s the point. Biden is the sideshow and he knows it. He is not being elected president; the choice is between Obama and Romney. His job was to shake up the dynamic moving against the president. His tactics may have made you want to put the kids to bed early, but they probably were rather effective.

Biden actually did something very unusual for a Democrat: he talked backed emotionally more than logically. This approach makes most Democrats uncomfortable. It certainly made me uncomfortable. But generally it works as a strategy. Biden was championing the strategies that made Democrats such as Molly Ivins and Ann Richards so effective, and which I argued in May that Democrats needed to adopt if they want to win elections. Most partisan Democrats were ecstatic with Biden’s performance. Finally here was a man unafraid to say to Republicans exactly why Republicans were so full of shit, and to do so in unambiguously emotional ways.

That’s how you break through the noise and change expectations, and breaking through the noise right now is essential. So in this sense Biden’s performance reflected genius. Take, for example, the so-called Romney-Ryan plan to balance the budget. There is no plan. They won’t articulate one that we can actually study. It’s just more of the same: cutting tax rates, assuming it will lead to huge economic growth, closing unspecified “loopholes”, pumping up the Defense Department’s already bloated budget, cutting the size and scope of the rest of government somehow without impacting Social Security and Medicare for anyone currently over 55, and somehow it will all magically work. It didn’t work in the 1980s under Reagan or in the 2000s under George W. Bush, but this is what they are promoting with almost no details about how it will work. It’s an entirely faith-based economic plan, based on a faith that has repeatedly proven misplaced.

Such an approach to governing should be dismissed; consequently Biden’s behavior certainly was merited based on Romney and Ryan’s faith-based economic plan. Romney recently castigated Obama for substituting hope for a strategy. Yet he is hoping that the magic of supply side economics will substitute for a real strategy and plan to reduce unemployment and grow the economy. No one running for president should be peddling this kind of crap and expect to be taken seriously.

Let’s see a Romney-Ryan detailed economic plan instead of a hope-filled campaign web page. Let economists weigh in on it. They won’t give us one. Until they do, they deserve all the contempt and scorn that Democrats can deliver. Joe Biden did voters a favor by making it clear that they are full of crap. The message was heard loud and clear because his body language told people unambiguously Republicans were full of crap. Message received. Perhaps it will motivate some voters still on the fence to take a look. If so they will realize that if any party is substituting hope for a strategy, it is the Republican Party. And any party that does this deserves the contempt that Biden unleashed on Thursday night.

 
The Thinker

The first debate

It’s not October in a presidential election year without a number of presidential debates. Therein we largely–already-decided-voters get to watch the candidates jostle and parry with each other on national TV. The talking heads go into overdrive. Who won? Who lost? Why? What does it mean? What it mostly means is not a whole lot. Presidential debates rarely change the outcome of the election and these series of debates probably will not either.

On points most analysts give Romney a solid win, and I have to say the analysts are probably right for whatever it is worth. President Obama was in full Mr. Spock mode acting eminently logical and civil and when necessary flashing his proprietary toothy grin. The surprise was that, at least for ninety minutes, Mitt Romney emerged from his green eyeshades mode and resembled something animated and human. Moreover, his arguments sort of made sense, as long as you were ignorant of how he constantly contradicted his positions during the rest of the campaign. This matters little to most of the debate viewers, who could care less about previous statements and campaign minutia, and most of who were tuning into Mitt Romney for the first time.

I watched the debate on cnn.com where the screen was split between Obama and Romney, allowing us to watch the reaction of one candidate while the other blathered. Obama took a lot of hits for seeming disinterested. He was not quite the eloquent debater we saw four years ago when he was debating Hillary Clinton. Obama looked mostly tired and like he wished to be elsewhere. No doubt spending the evening romancing his wife of exactly twenty years was far more appealing than trying to focus on Mitt and his frequently meandering arguments. Obama would have been wise to simply say that Mitt was having many “Etch-a-sketch” moments. Unexplainably, Obama mostly let these many moments pass.

Like his infamous dog Seamus forced to endure much of a family vacation in a pet carrier strapped to the roof of the family sedan, Mitt really looked like he was a dog straining at the leash. He wore a half smirk, half phony smile and the longer it went on the more I was looking for things to throw at my monitor. Toward the end it became nearly unendurable. I shudder to think of him as president. How can we be expected to endure that “I am more superior than you” smirk for at least four years? And yet the press gave him a pass, and concentrated on Obama’s dispassionate and civil performance, which at least is standard behavior from him. Mitt looked the epitome of someone of high school age desperately wanting to be class president, not president of the United States. Gosh, he wanted to be popular! He wanted to sell himself, like a box of detergent.

Moreover, he looked and sounded like a bad imitation of Ronald Reagan. From the slicked back hair to the thick eyebrows, you could almost mistake him for Reagan, except he had none of his gravitas or his sincerity. He also looked Reagan-old. He looked more like the Ta-la-la-la guy than a human being, with a smile that seemed due to a surgical wire under his cheeks and wrinkles around the eyes that looked Botoxed. I found him to be more Martian than human, but at least he was animated. Obama looked like he was on sedatives.

For all the hoopla, there was little of substance exchanged, which was probably by design. Maybe it’s good that Romney’s spouse Ann is into horse dressage. Romney looked like he was competing in a human dressage contest. The debate for Romney was more about pomp and circumstance, gestures and body posture, tone of voice and arm pumping and reused zingers (“you are not entitled to your own facts”) than it was about substance. In that sense, regardless of who won the debate on technical points, the American people lost, since so little policy was actually discussed.

So Obama loses points for being cerebral and disengaged. He is smart enough though not to make the same mistake twice, and will learn how to exploit Romney’s weaknesses in subsequent debates. While Romney “won” the debate, what people are remembering is not so much his quirky animation, but some of his surreal comments. Two nights later what is really making the rounds is not Romney’s animation, but his remarks about firing Big Bird. Fire Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Count von Count, Elmo and all the other Sesame Street characters, not to mention PBS and NPR? This has garnered a huge amount of attention on line, and it’s not good attention. It says more about the real Mitt Romney than any eloquence he managed during the debate. I expect that by the next debate he will be walking those statements back. Actually, I expect before the weekend is over he will have walked the statements back.

I hope the next debate will at least have some substance in it.

 

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