I started posting on HowieinSeattle in 11/04, following progressive American politics in the spirit of Howard Dean's effort to "Take Our Country Back." I decided to follow my heart and posted on seattleforbarackobama from 2/07 to 11/08.--"Howie Martin is the Abe Linkin' of progressive Seattle."--Michael Hood.
Washington Times columnist Amanda Carpenter suggests that there are no winners in the AIG saga and that President Obama, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have been the biggest losers. Ari Melber of The Nation agrees with Carpenter's assertion that the credibility of Obama has suffered but disagrees with Thomas Freidman's New York Times column and Carpenter when they suggest that the loss of Geithner would be bad news.
Tim Dickinson, in his post "The Audacity of Dope" on 'National Affairs" in The Rolling Stone, quotes from an email he received from Jack Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition:
“Despite the president’s flippant comments today, the grievous harms of marijuana prohibition are no laughing matter. Certainly, the 800,000 people arrested last year on marijuana charges find nothing funny about it, nor do the millions of Americans struggling in this sluggish economy. It would be an enormous economic stimulus if we stopped wasting so much money arresting and locking people up for nonviolent drug offenses and instead brought in new tax revenue from legal sales, just as we did when we ended alcohol prohibition 75 years ago during the Great Depression.”
I'm in the marijuana closet. 42-year-old father of three, youth football coach (actually coordinator for the league), homeowner, wife is treasurer for the Brownies, master's degree, worked for the same company for 15 years. And on Saturday nights, I like to get high down in my basement, after everyone's in bed, and surf the Web or play video games. It is indeed the only law I break. But I can never come out of the closet because I'd lose my job. A lot of people are in that position, I believe - not only functioning members of society but high functioning members, who would be deemed dysfunctional by their employers, maybe by society itself, simply because they enjoy the occasional bong hit.
Only my wife, close friends, other users, and now you know of my regular use. In my work and especially at the level I am at, I would be able to keep my job if I were to "come out" as a homosexual. I can not say the same regarding marijuana!
Several months ago my ex-wife (divorced 7 years ago) decided she wanted to modify our child-custody arrangement. She had no basis whatseover to do this. For seven years, I have exercised joint custody responsibly. (More responsibly than she has, I might add.) I have met all my obligations. I am a solid citizen. I adore my children and they love me back. Her lawyers had a plan, however.
They concocted a phony tale (that I threatened her) in order to get me into Court. I came to court without a lawyer because their story was so outrageous that I knew the charges would be thrown out. When I got to Court, they served me with "new" papers which alleged drug abuse and the need for a drug-court intervention. I was summarily sent for a drug test. I tested negative for the real drugs (meth, coke, opiates, etc) but the test revealed traces of marijuana.
I stepped back into court only minutes later to greet a hostile judge who stripped me of all parental rights. As I write this, I have not seen my children in almost three months. Of course I will win back my children eventually, but this has been a bloodbath for the entire family. I was outed by my ex-wife in her efforts to gain a legal advantage and it has worked.
I also know that she did this to hurt me, but something strange has occurred. I suddenly feel the benefits of being out of the closet. It feels good. It feels right. It feels like me. Funny thing about stigma. Stigma is only real if you think it is. Of course, I haven't smoked pot in several months because I have been faced with a choice between my children and my meds. Since New York lacks a medical marijuana statute, I go without the meds. I sleep a couple of hours at a time, usually on the couch. It is after 4:15 AM as I write this. Insomnia anyone?
Howie P.S.: Laura Flanders hosts a panel composed of Danny Schechter, Robert George and Katrina vanden Heuvel as they critique the media's coverage of Obama's press conference, corporate crime and other issues of the day.
Howie P.S.: This viral video was sent to me by my mother-in-law who is hardly the political junkie. I was struck by its tone of betrayal and disappointment in our government. They are claiming almost six million views, but a writer friend who follows online activity is skeptical. It is rumored that Norman Lear was instrumental in the production. This video seems the reflect the distrust and disgust that Matt Taibbi writes about in "The Great Derangement," a book I am reading just now.
The question of decriminalizing some or all illegal narcotics, to a lesser or greater extent, then regulating and taxing the ensuing trade is a serious matter. There are fair arguments on all sides (because there is range of how far we could go with this, there is arguably more than just one "side") of the debate, but it cannot be dismissed as a pointless, irrelevant, or trivial matter. Yet that's precisely what Barack Obama did at a recent town hall meeting where, based on the reaction, he was surrounded by like-minded apologists for the current structures of power and liberty. Way to break outside the beltway and take it to the people, Mr. President.
Let's run quickly through some of the reasons why it's reasonable to regard the current "war on drugs" as causing more trouble than it solves. Both the violence and corruption associated with illegal drugs are more directly connected to the prohibition of drugs than to the use of drugs. The failure of drug laws to eliminate drug use has encouraged politicians to pass ever more draconian anti-drug laws, thus leading both to unnecessary suffering through harsh sentences for non-violent offenses and a decline in respect for the law when people see police and courts consumed with these cases.
Prohibition also undermines basic constitutional liberties by encouraging police to circumvent laws regulating search and seizures. No-knock warrants combined with paying for tips has led to innumerable raids on the homes of innocent people, including quite a few deaths at the hands of some over-zealous police who no longer seem to care very much about "protecting" and "serving" the public. Prohibition is a nightmare for national security, enriching those who already have a grudge against America and fueling resentment in others who are harmed by American efforts to suppress drug production.
Prohibition damages public health because there is so much resistance to the very idea that any illegal drugs might have any benefits — the prohibition mindset allows for only one response to drugs, no matter who might get harmed in the process. Prohibition is just as bad for the budget, consuming huge amounts of government resources, damaging the productivity of people caught up in the prohibition web, and excluding entire sectors as possible sources of revenue.
These reasons may not be enough to convince someone to support ending prohibition, but they are more than enough to cast doubt on prohibition and deserve stronger arguments in response. To put it another way, they are serious and substantive enough to earn something equally serious and substantive in return.
To be fair, it must be acknowledged that Obama was asked about a policy which is still viewed with suspicion and even fear by so many people in America. The case against prohibition may deserve a serious and substantive response, but that's hard to do when so many people's have been taught to react to drugs in a one-dimensional way: just say no. Opponents of prohibition thus have two hurdles: before they can convince people of their arguments, they must also convince people that any arguments should be considered at all.
Support for varying degrees of decriminalization and/or legalization has grown in recent years, but it's still a relative minority position with fierce opposition. That, however, is an argument for Obama to not wholeheartedly endorsing the idea — it's not an argument to dismiss it as a joke. Remember, decriminalization and legalization aren't just about eliminating one isolated restriction on people's liberty. It's not just about allowing people to get high as legally as they get drunk, though that's what so many tend to think about.
The question Barack Obama was asked ties into medical questions, sustainable farming and manufacturing (with hemp), new sources of tax revenues, and more. His dismissive and even flippant response suggests that he's unaware of all this; a serious response, even in the negative, would have indicated that he understands the complexity of the matter and simply arrived at a different conclusion. Something along the lines of "I understand why people argue for this idea and they make some good points, but I just don't agree with their conclusions" would have been a reasonable, respectful response. It would have avoided scaring apologists for the failed war on drugs while signaling to supporters of legalization that they should keep working on their arguments to make a better case. So why didn't he do that?
Sadly, that's a question which a lot of progressives have been asking on a lot of issues. Barack Obama has been touted as a progressive president, but it's hard to find examples which support such a label. Indeed, the Congressional Progressive Caucus — the largest ideological group among Congressional Democrats — is the only major faction which Barack Obama has not met with. Obama has managed to find time to meet with conservative and moderate Democrats, all of whom have been working against progressive policies, but not with the more reliable supporters of progressive policies.
Yes, I know it's necessary to reach out to less reliable supporters in order to make a political agenda work, but that doesn't require ignoring or taking for granted your regular supporters.
It's not a progressive value — or even smart politics — to present yourself as a progressive who somehow keeps ignoring other progressives. This, combined with Harry Reid whining that liberal Democrats shouldn't pressure moderate Democrats to stop standing in the way of progressive legislation, leaves the distinct impression that Democratic leaders across the board are consistently looking for ways to ditch progressivism in favor of a more conservative agenda.
Howie P.S.:Scott Morgan sees a silver lining in Obama's response to the issue. Patty Murray is one of Webb’s co-sponsors for a bill that would set up a blue-ribbon commission tasked with an 18-month review of the train wreck our criminal justice system has become. Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper says "Marijuana No Laughing Matter, Mr. President."
Let's start with a premise that I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world's population; we have 25% of the world's known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world's greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice. . . .
The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%. ... a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues. . . .
In many cases these issues involve people’s ability to have proper counsel and other issues, but there are stunning statistics with respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison by the numbers that have been provided by us. . . .
Howie P.S.: Read the whole post with more from Webb here. If Eric Holder can't slap some sense into Obama, maybe our South Side Girl, Michelle, can.
Adding insult to injury, the President’s response yesterday during his live online “Open for Questions” session to a query about marijuana policy in a mocking and mean-spirited tongue parted considerably with his “respect, empower, include” credo that has served him so well to date.
and makes a suggestion
That said, pot legalization activists and organizations that urged the “voting up” of many questions that were essentially the same as that which had already been answered back in December didn’t help the cause for a saner drug policy either. They played a role in this dance, too. In effect, they willingly stepped on the rake that today hit all drug policy reformers on the forehead.
A much smarter question to have rated up would have been something like the now fourth-place one at the Ask the President website:
I believe that one of the most ignored problems in this country is the massive cost, both social and economic, of the maintenance of our massive prison system. Especially during these difficult economic times, this is a cost that our country cannot continue to bear. What are your thoughts on the possibility of prison reform, especially in the area of drug crime?
During the press secretary's daily briefing on Thursday, Robert Gibbs discovered that the press wanted to pick up where the citizen questions left off. Several reporters pressed for answers to citizen questions that the president had only vaguely addressed. It was an unusually lively exchange--one regular correspondent said it was the least controlled briefing this year.
Obama laughed off the popular questions about marijuana during the town hall--blogger Nancy Scola's Mary Jane Rule holds that pot questions always win in open web forums--but several journalists had serious follow-ups.
"When the president said he doesn't think legalizing marijuana would give the economy a boost, was he giving a political answer or an economic answer?," asked one reporter, continuing, "does he have economic numbers to back that up?" First Gibbs tried to joke about a lack of government studies on that front, but the reporter pressed on: "What about medicinal marijuana?" Gibbs referred that angle to the Justice Department.
Then an NBC reporter protested to ask why Obama even mentioned marijuana, stating, erroneously, that "no one asked about it online." Gibbs noted that the question actually was popular, but then he attempted to downplay the support as the product of an "interest group." Some reporters swallowed that unsubstantiated claim, including Friday's Washington Post, but others pushed back, such as the Washington Times' Jon Ward:
You said from the podium a couple minutes ago that interest groups drove up the questions on the web site about marijuana. But the President and Secretary of State have also said in recent days that demand domestically is driving the problems on the border. You seem to be contradicting yourself a little bit and trying to say that the web site issue was an interest group issue...does the White House think that this is a major issue on the minds of the American people? Obviously you think demand is high.
Gibbs pivoted to express the administration's support for Hillary Clinton's analysis of the drug trade, but said it was a "stretch" to ask about marijuana as an economic stimulus. Ward did not let up, however, pressing Gibbs to articulate what the administration would do to "drive down [narcotics] demand."
The conversation continued, as journalists fleshed out and sharpened queries on an otherwise neglected topic, all because a few thousand citizens put it on Thursday's agenda.
Howie P.S.: The way the pot issue is handled here @ (22:30) is a good insight into how the Obama message machine deals with other "touchy" matters, except "laughing off the question" is most particularly in play. Here's the video (46:28) of the entire press briefing:
The chuckle suggests a man of his generation. The dismissiveness toward the question of ending Prohibition as both a good in itself and a form of tax revenue is, however, depressing. His answer was a non-answer. I'm tired of having the Prohibition issue treated as if it's trivial or a joke. It is neither. It is about freedom and it's deadly serious. As for your online audience, Mr president, have you forgotten who got you elected?
In 2001, Portugal became the only EU-member state to decriminalize drugs, a distinction which continues through to the present. Last year, working with the Cato Institute, I went to that country in order to research the effects of the decriminalization law (which applies to all substances, including cocaine and heroin) and to interview both Portuguese and EU drug policy officials and analysts (the central EU drug policy monitoring agency is, by coincidence, based in Lisbon).
Evaluating the policy strictly from an empirical perspective, decriminalization has been an unquestionable success, leading to improvements in virtually every relevant category and enabling Portugal to manage drug-related problems (and drug usage rates) far better than most Western nations that continue to treat adult drug consumption as a criminal offense.
On April 3, at 12:00 noon, at the Cato Institute in Washington, I'll be presenting the 50-page report I wrote for Cato, entitled Drug Decriminalization in Portugal. Following my presentation, a supporter of drug criminalization laws -- Peter Reuter, a Professor in the University of Maryland's Department of Criminology -- will comment on the report (and I'll be able to comment after that), and then there will be a Q-and-A session with the audience. The event is open to the public and free of charge. Details and registration are here at Cato's site, where the event can also be watched live online (and, possibly, on C-SPAN).
There is clearly a growing recognition around the world and even in the U.S. that, strictly on empirical grounds, criminalization approaches to drug usage and, especially, the "War on Drugs," are abject failures, because they worsen the exact problems they are ostensibly intended to address. "Strictly on empirical grounds" means excluding from the assessment: (a) ideological questions regarding the legitimacy of imprisoning adults for consuming drugs they choose to consume; (b) the evisceration of Constitutional and civil liberties wrought by drug criminalization; and (c) the extraordinary sums of money devoted to the War on Drugs both domestically and internationally.
Particularly in the U.S., there is still widespread support for criminalization approaches and even support for the most extreme and destructive aspects of the "War on Drugs," but, for a variety of reasons, the debate over drug policy has become far more open than ever before. Portugal's success with decriminalization is highly instructive, particularly since the impetus for it was their collective recognition in the 1990s that criminalization was failing to address -- and was almost certainly exacerbating -- their exploding, poverty-driven drug crisis. As a consensus in that country now recognizes, decriminalization is what enabled them to manage drug-related problems far more effectively than ever before, and the nightmare scenarios warned of by decriminalization opponents have, quite plainly, never materialized.
The counter-productive effects of drug criminalization are at least as evident now for the U.S. as they were for pre-decriminalization Portugal.
Beyond one's ideological beliefs regarding the legitimacy of criminalization, drug policy should be determined by objective, empirical assessments of what works and what does not work. It's now been more than seven years since Portugal decriminalized all drugs, and dispassionately examining the effects of that decision provides a unique opportunity to assess questions of drug policy in the most rational and empirical manner possible.
Jeffrey Steinborn, Seattle's leading pot-defense attorney, was sitting at his desk overlooking Elliott Bay in early March when a client in his mid-30s walked into the office. The man had recently been convicted of possessing pot for personal use. "He went up to this place north of Seattle where they have this shelter full of abused puppies they are trying to get rid of," Steinborn says. "They wouldn't give him a puppy. They turned him down for a pot conviction."
Translation: Pot smoking is so wicked, according to current law, that the state even punishes puppies when humans do it.
The real ramifications of pot laws, of course, extend beyond small dogs. In 2007, according to data from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, officers arrested 11,553 people in our state for misdemeanor pot possession (less than 40 grams). Those who get caught face up to 90 days in jail and a permanent criminal record. The court and jail costs amount to $16,008,360 of tax- payer money every year, a March report by the state legislature shows. And that doesn't include the public costs of police time or the private costs of lost jobs and money spent on private attorneys.
"A more dysfunctional allocation of our resources would be difficult to imagine," Steinborn says.
The state legislature just had its chance to fix this ass- backward approach to pot enforcement. It blew it. A bill to reclassify pot offenses, reducing the maximum penalty for misdemeanor pot possession from three months in jail to a $100 fine, died in the legislature in mid-March.
"Marijuana is a red flag to some legislators," explains Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-36), the prime sponsor of the senate version of the bill. Democratic lawmakers representing swing districts fear a backlash from conservative constituents, she says. For example, Senator James Hargrove (D-24) broke from Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee by voting against the measure.
Clearly, our cowardly legislature will never decriminalize pot.
Which leaves option two: Run an initiative.
Other states have run outlandish pot initiatives before and failed. In Alaska, a measure that would have provided financial reparations to formerly incarcerated potheads went down in smoke and smoldered in the snow. In Nevada, the cash-flush Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has twice gambled on an initiative that would tax and regulate pot—but, of course, the house always wins and pot taxing and regulation lost.
But Washington's drug-policy-reform establishment—including the ACLU of Washington, state legislators, city council and county council people, and various organizations and people involved in previous drug-reform efforts—wouldn't run a stupid, unwinnable initiative in Washington. They could form a campaign that would run an initiative to decriminalize adult marijuana possession by popular vote.
Emphasis on popular: Opinion research conducted by the state ACLU in 2006 and 2008 found that Washington State voters overwhelmingly reject the idea that pot smokers should go to jail. When asked to pick between (a) completely legalizing pot, (b) making possession a noncriminal offense (like the bill that died this year), or (c) keeping it illegal, an average of 68 percent of voters said they supported legalization or decriminalization. Ahem—legislators?
More hope: Barack Obama is the president now. Under the Bush administration, former drug czar John Walters campaigned against every drug-reform initiative, including Initiative 75, which deprioritized marijuana enforcement in Seattle in 2003. In contrast, Obama's drug czar, former Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske, didn't oppose I-75. "I think it would be highly unlikely that the Obama administration would make any effort to oppose a decriminalization initiative, because there's not really much of a conflict with federal law," says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the country's leading drug- policy-reform think tank.
In other words, for the first time in nearly a decade, the most powerful lobby opposed to changing pot laws is dead.
"I think that Washington [State] has been on the forefront of a lot of good things," says MPP spokesman Bruce Mirken. "A lot of people are looking to Washington to continue to play that role." But will MPP sink its millions into the Evergreen State the way it has in Nevada? "I think it would be a combination of need for our involvement, a well thought out proposal, and us having the money to do it." He confirms that MPP continues to receive massive annual endowments from former Progressive Insurance head Peter Lewis, who has provided a significant chunk of the organization's funding for years.
On the ground here is the ACLU of Washington. The ACLU has run television infomercials with Rick Steves talking about pot laws, hosted forums on pot, and sponsored studies. Alison Holcomb, the group's drug-policy director, is open to an initiative but maintains hope the legislature could pass a bill in 2010. But public discussion on pot has come to a standstill: The legislature dropped the bill without getting anywhere close to passing it, television stations relegated the ACLU's infomercial to late-night slots, and the current discourse about pot is wallowing in the patchouli-stained ghetto of Hempfest. The issue, if it is to proceed, needs to demand attention in an urgent policy proposal that can't be ignored—an initiative.
The sorts of people and groups who worked on I-75 and Washington's medical-marijuana initiative (elected officials, the King County Bar Association, NORML, MPP) are all in a position to form a campaign later this year and run a winning decriminalization initiative in 2010.
Meanwhile, the resistance to decriminalization is weaker than ever. In 2008, MPP funded an initiative in Massachusetts similar to the bill that failed in our state legislature this year. Senator John Kerry, the governor, the attorney general, and law enforcement from around the state claimed that decriminalizing pot would promote drug use, assist drug dealers, and send the wrong message to children.
The tactic backfired. Polling two weeks before the vote showed the initiative leading by only 19 points, but—after the opposition ramped up its campaign—it passed a 30-point margin.
Washington possesses a stronger defense than Massachusetts against the inevitable fearmongering. In March, University of Washington professors Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert released a study, sponsored by the state ACLU, which found that despite escalating enforcement, pot prices didn't rise, use didn't drop, and availability didn't falter. "So all the things you would presume that strong enforcement would achieve, it does not," says Herbert. "It just costs us money." The findings decimate the arguments traditionally used to stop pot reform.
And when it comes to money, the lousy economy is an asset. Lawmakers and the public are looking for ways to save cash. "Things that were seen as politically impossible are now seen as being needed to be put on the table anyway," says Nadelmann. "It is an ideal time for an initiative, because people question why we are spending taxpayer dollars trying to enforce an unenforceable prohibition."
Lawmakers and public officials in California, Ohio, South Carolina, Missouri, Washington and other states are attempting to crack down on the controversial practice known as payday lending. Payday loans are short term loans or cash advances secured by a post-dated check. The annual interest rate for these loans can be as high as 400 percent – ten times the highest credit card rates. Today, it’s a $40 billion industry with more than 22,000 stores. We speak with journalist Daniel Brook about his Harper’s magazine article, “Usury Country" and with Ginna Green of the Center for Responsible Lending.
Lawmakers and public officials in California, Ohio, South Carolina, Missouri, Washington and other states are attempting to crack down on the controversial practice known as payday lending.
On Wednesday the governor of Kentucky Steve Beshear signed into law a 10-year moratorium on new payday lenders in the state.
Payday loans are short term loans or cash advances secured by a post-dated check. The annual interest rate for these loans can be as high as 400 percent – ten times the highest credit card rates. Consumers who renew their loans often end up paying more in fees than they had originally borrowed. Critics say the system is a form of a predatory lending that traps the poor in a cycle of debt.
In the early 1990s, there were fewer than 200 payday lending stores in the country. Today, it is a $40 billion industry with more than 22,000 stores. There are more payday lending stores than McDonalds and Starbucks combined. As more Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, the demand for payday loans is increasing.
We are joined now by two guests who have been following this issue. Journalist Daniel Brook joins us in Philadelphia. His article “Usury Country: Welcome to the Birthplace of Payday Lending” appears in the new issue of Harpers. He is also the author of the book “The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America.”
We are also joined by Ginna Green of the Center For Responsible Lending. The group is releasing a report today that reveals payday lenders are significantly more concentrated in African-American and Latino neighborhoods in California than in white neighborhoods.
Daniel Brook, journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He is author of “The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America.” His article “Usury Country: Welcome to the Birthplace of Payday Lending” appears in the new issue of Harpers.
Ginna Green, spokesperson for the Center for Responsible Lending.
In attempting to harness public anger over the financial crisis on behalf of his budget, President Obama is confronting the politically uncomfortable fact that the success of his long-term agenda and Wall Street's recovery are intertwined.
That acknowledgment is reflected in the president's shift in tone from his tempestuous town hall appearances in California last week to Tuesday evening's more sober appraisal of who is responsible for the frozen credit markets, insolvent banks and burst real estate bubble.
He condemned Wall Street "Ponzi schemes, even when they're legal, where a relatively few do spectacularly well while the middle class loses ground" during a March 18 town hall event in California's Orange County, which is now closing elementary schools because of falling property tax revenue. Back inside the Beltway, the president said during his prime-time news conference that some of us "can't afford to demonize every investor and entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit."
In the balance as he attempts to walk this line is Obama's long-term agenda, embodied in the budget he was selling on Capitol Hill yesterday and which a House panel passed on a party-line vote late last night. To build public support for his $3.6 trillion package of plans to reform health care, energy and education, Obama is attempting a kind of transference -- persuading Americans that the excesses crystallized by bonuses for the AIG unit at the center of the financial collapse can only be fixed by the systemic overhaul of the economy represented by his budget.
If Obama is successful, it would not only strengthen the case for his budget but also relieve some of the political pressure on Wall Street, which will help determine the success of his first term. But it is not an easy linkage to make, because it means transferring public desire for immediate action -- and even retribution -- to the promise of a longer-term transformation of the country.
"I'm as angry as anybody about those bonuses that went to the very same individuals who brought our financial system to its knees, partly because it's yet another symptom of the culture that brought us to this point," he said Tuesday. "But one of the most important lessons to learn from this crisis is that our economy only works if we recognize that we're all in this together."
Obama's attempt to channel public anger reflects the White House's belief that he is constrained against engaging in too much Wall Street bashing -- or outright punishment -- by his reliance on the financial sector to fulfill Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner's new plan for rescuing the nation's banks. After declaring that his administration would "pursue every legal avenue" to block the AIG bonuses, Obama was by Sunday signaling that he did not approve of legislation sweeping through Congress to slap a 90 percent tax on the payouts.
Adding to that constraint is the fact that Obama's campaign received considerable financial support from Wall Street, and that his advisers include several proteges of Citigroup executive Robert E. Rubin, a former Treasury secretary.
Dean Baker, co-director of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, said Obama would have been better off capitalizing more fully on public ire but was being held back by the Rubin proteges.
"He hurts himself enormously by being seen as associated with the bankers," Baker said. "Purely pragmatically, you have an opportunity here where these Wall Street guys are really hated, they've been a really pernicious presence in the economy for a quarter-century, and the idea of jumping on them when they're down makes a lot of sense. This idea that they're going to help things -- well, they're not our buddies. There's a real fundamental conflict there, and he's hoping he can paper it over."
But Obama's preference for talking about "the system and culture" that produced the bonuses instead of chastising executives more directly also reflects his tendency to analyze problems in the abstract instead of personalizing them. Throughout the campaign, he cast the country's ills as part of an overall imbalance, an off-kilter economy and a broken political culture. There was populism in his pitch -- he had started out as a community organizer, after all -- but it was not the sort given to rousing diatribes.
To the extent that Obama has moralized about the financial crisis, his pique has mostly been addressed at broad trends and policy questions instead of named targets. His budget proposal was introduced with a stern tone that implied that his plan, with its tax increases for the wealthy, was the real answer to Wall Street excess. "We arrived at this point as a result of an era of profound irresponsibility," he stated in introducing the plan. Pitching the budget at the White House last week, he cast this decade's prosperity as a "bubble economy" based on "reckless speculation" and Wall Street "shenanigans."
A similar moralizing tone was evident in his defense of his budget Tuesday night. Even as he urged against demonizing the business class, Obama made clear that he thinks affluent Americans have not been doing their fair share as he defended his plan to shrink tax deductions for wealthy taxpayers' charitable contributions and mortgage interest payments.
"If it's really a charitable contribution, I'm assuming that [smaller tax savings] shouldn't be a determining factor as to whether you're giving that $100 to the homeless shelter down the street," he said. "I think it is a realistic way for us to raise some revenue from people who benefited enormously over the last several years. It's not going to cripple them; they'll still be well-to-do. And ultimately, if we're going to tackle the serious problems that we've got, then in some cases those who are more fortunate are going to have to pay a little bit more."
Michael Maslansky, a Republican-leaning pollster, questioned whether Obama could succeed in channeling public anger toward his longer-term goals after having initially helped stir the anger with his vow to retrieve the AIG bonuses. It would have been truer to Obama's approach if he had right away put the episode in the context of his overall agenda, Maslansky said.
"It was a strategic mistake," Maslansky said. "He's supposed to lead, to skate to where the puck is going to be. Going after the bonuses was looking backwards. He should have said right away, 'These bonuses are the last gasp of a dying culture.' He would've been much better off if this AIG thing hadn't become such a big issue. . . . Now the White House says, 'Wow, they really are angry, they have the pitchforks out, and they're trying to kill the people I need [to fix Wall Street].' And the American people are watching and asking, 'Is he a populist, or is he a cool, collected leader?' "
Just how fine that line is was clear as Obama spoke last week in a sweltering convention hall at the fairground in Costa Mesa, Calif. He pushed up his sleeves and loosened his tie before letting rip.
"You're out there earning a living, and we've got to reward people who are working hard, not the bubble-and-burst economy we've experienced in recent years," he said to raucous applause. Then came the link to his budget: "That's only going to happen if we pull together and focus on the big things, focus on the long term. We've got to get past this petty bickering, the constant trivialization of politics, and focus on getting the job done."
Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin said the approach Obama has settled on is the best available: sharing the public's ire, but not inflaming it further, which would not be his style, and instead directing it to his plans.
"It wouldn't be convincing if he came on as a real populist and also probably not necessary," Kazin said. "What he's got to do is depend on his strengths in sort of calmly explaining things to people and telling them, 'I've got this.' "
Howie P.S.: I am hoping Geithner's plan for regulating the banking and insurance gamblers has some teeth.
Howie P.S.: Todd has been getting hammered all day about his question at the press conference about "shared sacrifice." Obama chose to turn the question towards "Main Street" even though I think Todd was talking about "Wall Street":
Some of your programs have actually cushioned the blow for those that were irresponsible...
Granted, Todd wasn't perfectly clear about the group he was targeting, but I don't see how you can conclude that it wasn't the gamblers in banking and insurance.
Outrage is back — and long overdue. Now, what to do with it? First, tune out the self-interested lectures from all those guilty elites who tell taxpayers to “stay calm” while the greedy gorge on our money. Thieves don’t usually make good therapists.
Then, let’s channel this backlash into more than crisis-driven policymaking. The American International Group bonus uproar can drive structural change — from strengthening genuine shareholder authority to forcing transparency on the legislative process — to stop politicians from voting in public and reversing themselves in secret. (Some of these ideas are finally in motion.)
Even as Congress finds its taste for accountability and reform, however, there is another key task for policymakers — and the media.
Let’s recognize some of the people who got these issues right from the beginning. Many were ignored — or worse, vilified. They deserve our attention and respect. We might even learn something from them.
The truth tellers
One group of public servants spotted the derivatives problem way back in 1994. The staff of the Government Accountability Office spent two years on a meticulous report concluding that without better regulation, derivative trading could trigger “liquidity problems” for the “financial system as a whole.”
The systemic risk was too large for markets to mitigate, the report explained, so “in cases of severe financial stress,” the nation would be stuck with a “financial bailout paid for by taxpayers.” Got that?
Before the report was even released, however, a corporate attack campaign blasted the GAO and its recommendations. Then leading reporters “largely parroted industry” complaints when covering the issue, as Columbia Journalism Review’s Elinore Longobardi details in a new 12-page analysis.
The old quotes might turn your stomach. Derivative losses would not require a bailout, declared then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. A Washington Post editorial falsely claimed that the GAO report was not only “reassuring,” but it also supported the existing derivative system. “If this were the obvious reading of the report,” Longobardi dryly notes, “the derivatives industry would hardly have been so up in arms about it.”
The media and political establishment should have given more weight to the disinterested conclusions from the GAO’s exhaustive, nonpartisan study — not the reflexive, self-interested attacks from its regulatory targets.
The good cop
Eliot Spitzer drew the wrath of Wall Street for his crusade against financial fraud, cronyism and greed.
As New York’s attorney general, he was the first to take on AIG, using the state’s Martin Act to step up where President George W. Bush’s Securities and Exchange Commission had buckled. Spitzer forced out AIG’s CEO and drew attention to the company’s fraudulent accounting.
“AIG is at the center of the web,” Spitzer told CNN this past weekend, advocating a tougher stance on the company’s sweetheart deals for Goldman Sachs.
Spitzer resigned from the New York governorship a year ago after a prostitution scandal. Yet in a galling demonstration of Washington’s tangled priorities, leaders in both parties still refuse to tap Spitzer’s expertise for policymaking and enforcement in the current crisis, while the administration has tapped plenty of people tied to AIG, Citigroup, Lehman and Goldman.
Finally, in a lopsided battle that Washington would rather forget — “looking backward” can be dicey — consider the massive bank deregulation bill that passed in 1999.
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) led the lonely opposition of eight senators. He argued that deregulation would spur bank consolidation, increase moral hazard and facilitate risky derivatives trading.
“What does it mean if we have all this concentration?” Dorgan asked in his 1999 floor speech opposing bank deregulation. “The bigger they are, the less likely this government can allow them to fail,” he said, cautioning that the list of banks considered “too big to fail” had already jumped from 11 to 21.
His other big concern was derivatives: “Federally insured banks in this country are trading in derivatives out of their own proprietary accounts. You could just as well put a roulette wheel in the bank lobby.”
Dorgan not only fought deregulation, he also tried to protect regular investors. He introduced an amendment to ban banks from using proprietary accounts for derivative speculation and a plan to regulate hedge funds under the Investment Company Act of 1940.
The Senate crushed both amendments with a voice vote, exempting senators from taking public stances on those sensible precautions.
Noting that those who “cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Dorgan closed his speech with a warning eerie in its prescience. For once, the reformer gets the last word:
“With respect to the regulation of risky hedge funds and derivatives in this country — $33 trillion, a substantial amount of it held by the 25 largest banks in this country ... — we must do something to address those issues. That kind of risk overhanging the financial institutions of this country one day, with a thud, will wake everyone up and lead them to ask the question: Why didn’t we understand that we had to do something about that? How on earth could we have thought that would continue to exist without a massive problem for the American people and for its financial system?”
In a new article in Rolling Stone Magazine, journalist Matt Tabbi takes an in-depth look at the story behind AIG. “The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d’état,” writes Taibbi. “They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.”
The Obama administration and the Federal Reserve urged Congress yesterday to give the federal government unprecedented new powers to seize control of troubled financial firms beyond banks deemed too big to fail.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke proposed the idea in testimony before the House Financial Service Committee yesterday. Both men pointed to the troubled insurance giant American International Group–or AIG–as a prime example.
The New York Times reports if Congress approves such a measure, it would represent one of the biggest permanent expansions of federal regulatory power in decades.
Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke argued in his testimony that if the government had allowed AIG to fail it would have jeopardized the entire financial system.
As Bernanke and Geithner made their pitch for new powers for the federal government, many House committee members grilled them over AIG’s decision to pay out over $165 million dollars in bonuses to executives after receiving a $170 billion taxpayer bailout. Geithner, who has come under fire for not doing enough to block the bonuses, said he shared their anger.
Many view the massive losses at AIG as the result of corporate greed combined with lax government oversight and regulation. But in a new article in Rolling Stone magazine that takes an in-depth look at the AIG story, journalist Matt Taibbi writes the financial crisis and the bailout that followed “cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.” Taibbi goes on to write, “The mistake most people make in looking at the financial crisis is thinking of it in terms of money, a habit that might lead you to look at the unfolding mess as a huge bonus-killing downer for the Wall Street class. But if you look at it in purely Machiavellian terms, what you see is a colossal power grab that threatens to turn the federal government into a kind of giant Enron — a huge, impenetrable black box filled with self-dealing insiders whose scheme is the securing of individual profits at the expense of an ocean of unwitting involuntary shareholders, previously known as taxpayers.”
Matt Taibbi, contributing editor for Rolling Stone Magazine. His latest article is called is “The Big Takeover.” He is author of a number of books, his most recent is ’The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion."
Howie P.S. Amy Goodman interviews Taibbi who gives us one more opportunity to understand the shit storm we are going through.
Howie P.S.: Chuck Todd, MSNBC, video (01:04), asked one of the first questions, which was about "shared sacrifice" in his spending and financial plans. Obama claimed that his proposals do spread the pain, though some may disagree with him on the equity of the distribution. Bob Scheer is still unhappy with Obama's economic policy team: "Obama’s Toxic Advisers." Howard Dean warns against putting off health care reform because of the pressing challenge of the economic downturn. Obama agreed with this argument in his answer to a question from Ed Henry. Taegan Goddard points out that Obama has already held two prime time pressers, while Clinton and Bush43 each held only four during their entire terms. Goddard thinks Obama and the press corps "did their jobs well" and identified Obama's weakest moment:
Obama was weakest when questioned about deficits in the later years of his budget projections. He was defensive and his answers were not as clear. More important, he showed his opponents in Congress where they might successfully attack his budget proposal.
Howie P.S.:The "Morning Joe" gang talks with Todd about Obama's need for Congressional approval while other conflicts with The Hill complicate the relationship. Last night Rachel Maddow did a feature, video (05:27), with Chuck Todd on the possibility that some questions at the presser will come from "the people."
The anti-Geithner partisans on the right as well as the left got a deserved smackdown from the President on 60 Minutes Sunday night. (Transcript here, key excerpt later in this essay.)
The right wing chorus of “I hope he fails” explains its own transparent goal in calling for the ritual presentation of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s head on a stick. In a sentence: The chain reaction of events caused by a sudden vacancy at Treasury would delay any possible economic recovery until after the 2010 elections. I’ll walk us all through their favored scenario in a moment.
The Obama administration, after months of criticizing Wall Street, has been scrambling to woo top bankers and financiers to back its latest bailout plan. [President Barack Obama speaks about investments in clean energy and new technology included in the budget on Monday in Washington.] Associated Press
President Barack Obama speaks about investments in clean energy and new technology included in the budget on Monday in Washington.
In recent days, in spite of public furor over huge bonuses paid at American International Group Inc., the administration has concluded that it needs the private sector to play a central role in fixing the economy. So over the weekend, the White House worked to tone down its Wall Street bashing and to win support from top bankers for the bailout plan announced Monday, which will rely on public-private investments to soak up toxic assets.
It is rough out there, but President Obama appears to take it in stride. He is juggling crises, promoting a huge new budget and, to his credit, regularly making his case to the people.
On Tuesday, Obama is holding the second prime time press conference of his first 100 days, keeping him on par with President Bush's early pace for press conferences. (Bush held pressers in February and March of 2001, though he did not tackle prime time, when far more people watch live, until May.) These events are a rare, valuable opportunity for the public to hear the President questioned directly. The press, for its part, is given the responsibility to set the agenda for important policy questions and the public interest priorities that the President should address. In that spirit, here are just a few questions for the big event:
1. Will The Washington Post ask about sports again?Really. The Post used its question at Obama's first presser to ask how he felt about Alex Rodriguez' steroid use. "The Washington Post asked the only question that did not involve domestic or foreign policy," recounted one website devoted to steroids, "and was widely criticized as being inappropriate given the importance of other issues discussed during the prime-time presidential press conference."
2. Will NBC's Chuck Todd ask a question submitted by a regular citizen? He has been collecting questions, asking his own readers and offering to read top questions from our new project, Ask The President. On Monday, Todd told Rachel Maddow about his interest in citizen questions -- will he actually use one?
3. Will President Obama call on more New Media?President Obama made some waves at his first press conference by calling on The Huffington Post. Will Obama now move beyond brand name, well-funded new media and empower a less famous outlet for citizen journalism? While it did not get much play, Obama's team deserves credit for credentialing some less famous blog sites to attend the first press conference, such as AMERICAblog. But bloggers should be seen and heard.
4. Will reporters quote citizens -- or their questions -- to channel public concerns on the economy? The backlash to AIG bonuses swiftly drew its own media backlash. Columnists urged the public to "stay calm" and Newsweek even rushed out an issue promising a "thinking man's guide" to the "perils" of public anger. "Populist rage... can be cathartic," explains a company press release, yet it "can also lead to bad decisions." If the public's feelings on the economy are important, it would be useful to hear some of them accurately presented to the President. Our citizen portal, for example, already drew over 35,000 votes in its first five days, and includes many Americans writing in their own voice about their concerns on the economy, health care, and how the nation should conquer this crisis.
5. Will any reporters go beyond the (hugely important) economic issues to ask about the recently released memos claiming the President has the power to suspend the Bill of Rights? Obama rightly released a series of disturbing claims to presidential power by the Bush administration, but the public discussion has not advanced much since then. What, if anything, is his administration doing to achieve accountability for these undemocratic memos that operated as secret law in the U.S. for roughly seven years?
If you have more questions, please leave them in the comments. Some White House correspondents might even be watching.
In another example of traditional journalists experimenting with participatory media, Chuck Todd, NBC's White House Correspondent, is gathering questions from citizens in preparation for Tuesday's prime time press conference with President Barack Obama.
Todd is soliciting question ideas from blog commenters, both through Newsvine.com and a plug on MSNBC's First Read, and he will also look over some of the top questions voted by citizens at Ask The President, (which I just launched in a partnership with The Nation, PDF and The Washington Times).
Addressing Newsvine readers, Todd explained:
I'd like question ideas from you for the president next Tuesday night... But I don't necessarily want the question ideas DIRECTLY from you, I want to hear what your neighbors and less politics-obsessed friends and family want asked... I know every reporter claims they are listening to you and I'm not going to promise that I'm going to use a direct question but I do view these prime time press conferences as vehicles for the public...
In response to Ask The President, which enables a more accountable process for transparent voting and question submission by video and text, Todd emailed me asking us to "send ideas" his way. "I'm soliciting question ideas from a wide variety of sources and do want to ask a 'kitchen table' question on Tuesday," he added.
To be crystal clear, neither Todd nor NBC have signed up as formal partners with Ask The President. (Our coalition now spans newspapers, magazines, blogs, non-partisan organizations and large membership groups, but still no television outlets.) And as Todd stressed to his readers, he is not promising to use a citizen question on Tuesday. USA Today also solicited questions for Obama from readers on Monday, though there is no suggestion that the exercise will inform the paper's contact with the White House.
Simply opening up the public discussion of how the media questions the President, however, already helps advance more accountability and transparency in media-government relations. In my new article on The People's Press Conference, I argue that even if the press does not initially rush to use citizen questions, these public discussions can demonstrate "trends, input and ideas to guide journalists on an ongoing basis." And while it is a fine gesture for journalists to casually invite reader questions, as Todd and ABC's Jake Tapper have recently done via blogs and Twitter, we have the platforms to engage much broader, deeper participation:
Some Washington reporters have begun informally soliciting a wider range of questions for their work... David Gregory, host of NBC's Meet the Press, and Jake Tapper, ABC's senior White House correspondent, are experimenting with the micromessage site Twitter to gather input for their interviews with government officials. On March 3 Tapper tapped a bulletin to his Twitter network, in the informal style common on the site, inviting questions for the daily briefings: "didnt get to it today but consider this a standing invite for good q suggestions for gibbs."
These forays are positive, if they reflect a genuine receptivity to deeper citizen input in journalism and government accountability. Yet they offer no reliable metrics for pooling or assessing public priorities. They are not transparent, either, since there is no unified structure displaying how many people drafted questions, or what other citizens think of them, or whether a reporter's selected questions are representative of those submitted. As a largely one-way circuit, such efforts are less likely to foster public debate or spark sustained citizen participation.
I think using open submission and voting platforms -- as President-elect Obama did during the transition, but not since -- is superior:
Few traditional mechanisms, however, capture the public's active interests--empowering people to draft their own ideas, concerns and questions from scratch. Generating and debating new questions is fundamentally different from picking among a scripted menu ... And virtually no traditional media mechanisms couple that original, individual production with transparent, national voting. Doing both can broaden the issues under public discussion while weighting their priority according to public input--a useful service for our body politic.
We don't know if the press or the White House will begin opening up this week, but if the public keeps pressing, it should only be a matter of time.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is preparing to unveil a plan today to purchase as much as $1 trillion in troubled mortgages and other assets from banks. The government is reaching out to hedge funds, private equity firms and sovereign wealth funds to help buy the toxic assets. The Obama administration has described the plan as a public-private partnership, but most of the actual money will be put up by the government. We speak with Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner today is unveiling the Obama administration’s plan to finance the purchase up to $1 trillion dollars in so-called toxic assets from banks and other ailing financial institutions.
The plan relies on private investors–namely hedge funds and private equity firms–to team up with the government to relieve banks of assets tied to loans and mortgage linked-securities. There have been virtually no buyers of these assets thus far because of their uncertain risk. As part of the program, the government plans to offer subsidies, in the form of low-interest loans, to coax private funds to form partnerships with the government to buy troubled assets from banks. This is intended to unclog the balance sheets of banks and allow them to resume normal lending.
Also, the Obama administration this week is expected to announce new proposals for financial regulation, executive pay, accounting standards and other issues ahead of the G20 summit in London on April 2nd.
The new economic proposals come as Congress is to begin debating the administration’s $3.6 trillion dollar budget proposal for next year.
Meanwhile, public outrage over the AIG bonus scandal has further undermined support for Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary. AIG is paying out over $165 million dollars in bonuses after receiving a $170 billion dollar taxpayer bailout. Geithner has been criticized in Congress and elsewhere for not doing more to block the AIG bonuses and his overall response to the financial crisis. In an interview broadcast last night on “60 Minutes,” President Obama expressed strong support for Geithner.
Geithner is scheduled to testify before the House Financial Services Committee on Thursday about overhauling financial regulation.
Paul Krugman is a Nobel prize winning economist, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, and a columnist at the New York Times. His latest book is “The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008.” His column in today"s paper is headlined, “Financial Policy Despair” He joins us on the phone from New Jersey.
The former New York City mayor Ed Koch was renowned for strolling about Manhattan when he was in office, grabbing strangers by the lapel and asking, “How am I doing?” This is not exactly Barack Obama’s style – he shimmers around, with a dry but beguiling smile that seems to say, “Don’t touch me” – but others are doing it for him. In an age of 24-hour news channels, millions of blogs and columnists vying to stay above the bloggerrhoeic tide, there is a real urge to make a clear and instant judgment.
I’m not going to do it, because, two months after a president has taken office in the middle of a global financial and economic crisis, as he grapples with two unending wars and a battered constitution, the whole idea of a definitive judgment is loopy. It’s also likely to be wrong. If you had judged the last Bush administration at this point, you would have said it was much better than expected. If you’d judged Bill Clinton in March 1993, you’d have said he was the most incompetent, clueless, chaotic manager the White House had survived. Now look at history’s judgment.
However, there’s a case for feeling that Obama is floundering. He has yet to solve the banking crisis, his Treasury is horrifyingly understaffed and he somehow allowed a bunch of incompetents and thieves at AIG to walk off with massive bonuses under his nose. His stimulus package was too controlled by the Democrats in Congress and is too spread out into 2010 to have a big impact now, when it’s most needed. He is trying to take on too many things at once – from climate change and healthcare reform to engaging Iran and reforming Pakistan. The aura of his campaign has waned as the poetry of insurgency has segued into the deadly and often ungrammatical prose of government. He seemingly still can’t speak without a teleprompter.
However beguiling the idea of a sudden government takeover of several big banks may seem, that’s not to say that a less draconian and more market-friendly approach will fail. We lived through one presidency that gave us total clarity after a massive crisis (9/11) – when we learnt that muddling through has its upside. We should get more details on the banks soon, and no doubt the debate will intensify again. Maybe the approach of the Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, will be deemed too slow. But again, with macro-economics experts at odds, and the crisis of a yet unknown scale and dynamic, a little less rushing to judgment may be in order.
Geithner is a dreadful front man. He is still apparently too jejune to face the Sunday talk-show circuit. As a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank, he may well have been too cosy with the Wall Street bankers who led us off the cliff, and his inability to convey what on earth he is doing in any reassuring way is a drag. That doesn’t mean he lacks a technical grip on what’s going on, and it’s in the nature of his strategy that the results will not be instant. It is easy to pile on until one recalls what most people felt about his predecessor, Hank Paulson. Being the US Treasury secretary is not an easy job right now.
Was the stimulus package too big? Or too small? Nobody knows. Was it too larded with items not geared towards prodding instant spending? Perhaps. When you listen to the Obamaites explain their thinking, they come off as perfectly reasonable. The complex, service-based US economy is not as easy to goose with public works as it was in the 1930s. Some of the alleged excess was put in for fear that $800 billion (£555 billion) would not be enough. Some waste is inevitable when you’re rushing.
On Iraq, Obama has essentially given the neocons everything they want except an eternal occupation. By back-loading troop withdrawals until 2010, Obama also keeps his hand strong in the poker game with Iran. His swift return of the US to the Geneva conventions, and disavowal of the dictatorial presidency favoured by Bush and his vice-president, Dick Cheney, are also clear signals, even as he waits for internal reviews on the more excruciating questions of detention and rendition.
He is right, I think, to keep climate change and healthcare reform on his first-year agenda because the real-world challenges they pose cannot be deferred for much longer. His biggest error, I think, has been a failure to show how he will cut spending on Medicare, the government-run health insurer, and other benefits, even as his aides insist in private that they understand the problem.
The president himself has kept his bond with a great many of his supporters in the country at large. His approval rating has been gently and predictably deflating since January, but it’s still about 60%, which is five points higher than at his election victory. In the past two weeks the polls have shown a marked upswing among those who believe the economy is getting better. Obama’s recent speech to Congress – his semi-state of the union – was a triumph. His opposition remains divided and incoherent. The markets have stabilised a mite.
The Republicans actually spent last week defending the AIG bonuses – a legitimate intellectual position but not exactly a political winner. Last November the percentage of Americans saying the US was on the right track was about 15%. It’s now 37%. And that’s the number to watch.
It is not as inspiring, of course, as the last weeks of the campaign, but Obama’s inaugural speech should have tipped us off to his eschewal of that kind of uplift from now on. And he has a deep strategic advantage that should not be discounted. He inherited the worst downturn in decades – and timing matters. If he fails to relieve the decline, he will be thrown out and will probably deserve it. Only the gloomiest economic depressives, though, believe things won’t be recovering by 2011. And expectations have sunk so low among many Americans that the return of growth may give Obama the kind of lift that saved Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in their first terms. If the rebound is as marked as the downturn was severe, the feelgood factor could kick in with a vengeance. Think of a president who, on facing the voters for reelection, can point to a recovery from the nadir of 2009, thousands of troops returning from Iraq and universal healthcare. Not too shabby a prospect.
Give him time. Then give him hell. That’s the philosophy most Americans understand – and they’d like this new president to succeed. They also know how deep this hole is and don’t expect it to disappear overnight. They won’t suspend judgment, but I suspect they won’t rush to it either. How’s he doing? As Koch might say: come back in a year and we’ll talk.