Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Climate change: "Chaos and arm-twisting gives Nancy Pelosi a major win"

After lawmakers had devoured the last of the Kalua Pig at last Thursday night’s White House Luau, Nancy Pelosi summoned her team back to the Capitol — to ensure the climate change bill wasn’t the next thing roasted on the spit.

Pelosi and her top lieutenants would spend the next four hours whipping, cajoling, begging and browbeating undecided Democrats — and triple-checking their whip lists to decide who was a solid “yes” and who was prevaricating on the cap-and-trade legislation.

Yet no matter how many calls they made — or how many times they checked and rechecked their list — Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) kept coming up between 12 and 20 votes short of the 216 votes needed to win.
“We didn’t have the votes — and we had to have this vote,” said a leadership aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This was the big one for us. [Pelosi] staked her prestige on this one. ... This was her flagship issue, and this was a flagship vote for us.”

The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 passed by only 219-212, after an epic day replete with Republican ambushes, petty betrayals, hastily rearranged flights and disappearing acts.

Yet for all the apparent chaos, the action was commanded by a House speaker maneuvering with the urgency of someone who knew her reputation was on the line.

Despite Republican promises to punish battleground state Democrats for supporting a “cap and tax” plan, Pelosi and her fractious caucus passed their most serious test to date.

And whatever the fallout, aides say that both Pelosi and President Barack Obama now know that their majority can hold together — barely — when placed under withering pressure — which may bode well for the equally arduous trials on health care reform.

At the end of it all, Pelosi, who floated in and out of the House cloakroom all day, impossible to miss in an arctic-white linen pantsuit, gambled big and pulled off one of the most important legislative victories of her career, a win she views as a personal vindication, according to those close to the San Francisco Democrat.

“There’s no question about it,” Clyburn said after the vote. “She went back to her whipping days of old. She is an incredibly good whip. I’m trying to learn from her every day.”

Despite the most coordinated push yet between Democrats on the Hill and the Obama White House, the outcome was not certain until the very end, according to two dozen aides and members of Congress interviewed by POLITICO.

“It was really never a solid [216],” one person said afterward.

Party leaders agreed to bring the bill to the floor during a meeting Monday night, even though some of the members present had reservations about forcing vulnerable Democrats to cast votes on a package that may not go anywhere in the Senate.

In the days leading up the vote, the number of Democratic “yes” votes was locked at 200, according to people familiar with the tally. Every time they’d pick up one vote, another would slip. Democratic leaders needed a cushion to help protect the most vulnerable among them, and they didn’t have it.

As the frustration grew, an aide joked in one meeting that White House staff should give fence-sitters the same colored leis so that the president and his Cabinet secretaries would know who to buttonhole. The desperation was such that others in the room paused for a split second to consider the joke before abandoning it as a logistical impossibility.

During the luau, Clyburn set up shop in the Oval Office with Obama to meet with wavering Democrats, like freshmen Reps. Frank Kratovil Jr. of Maryland and Eric Massa of New York. Members of Clyburn’s whip team patrolled the White House lawn, cornering colleagues and making the case for the bill.

As the week wore on, Pelosi was directing former Vice President Al Gore whom to call, but everyone decided late Wednesday night that the list of undecided members was small enough that he should stay in Nashville, Tenn., to make calls.

On the day of the vote, the bleary-eyed tag team of Pelosi and Clyburn camped out in the cloakroom, just off the House floor, for nearly three hours.

One of Pelosi’s first targets was Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a key fence-sitter who wanted more money generated from the carbon trading to be directed to the research and development of green technology.

Pelosi talked to him again and again, but he wouldn’t budge. Her message to him was the same as it was to others: It wasn’t worth voting against the bill because of what wasn’t in it.

According to witnesses, Pelosi perched herself on the arm of Holt’s chair and went nose to nose with him for a half-hour warning him that his no vote could scuttle the entire climate change effort — and that liberals would have another chance to make their case once the bill came back from the Senate.

Around 2 o’clock, he became a “yes.”

Next up was Austin, Texas, liberal Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who had seemed to be leaning toward the bill during a Thursday night visit with Obama in the Oval Office — but then infuriated the White House midday Friday by declaring the measure too weak on polluters to win his vote.

An exasperated White House staffer told POLITICO it was “stunning that he would ignore the wishes not just of his president but of his constituents and the country.”

Then Pelosi began working Doggett as the two stood in the back of the chamber near the railing, making the same perfect-is-enemy-of-the-good argument she had used against Holt. Doggett ended up voting “yes.”During the vote, Washington Rep. Jay Inslee, one of the taller members of the House, guarded the doors on the floor leading out to the Speaker’s Lobby, warning members not to leave the floor in case anyone needed to switch his or her vote. But that didn’t stop some Democrats, like Colorado Rep. John Salazar, from voting no early and sneaking out to avoid getting pressured by party leaders.

Leadership aides say Texas Rep. Ciro Rodriguez promised Pelosi he’d vote yes, but voted no and sprinted from the chamber. California Rep. Xavier Becerra tried unsuccessfully to flag him on his cell phone — and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) bounded into the ornate Speaker’s Lobby off the floor shouting, “Rodriguez! Rodriguez!” as puzzled reporters looked on.

Pelosi forced members to postpone their trips abroad to stay in town for the vote, aides familiar with the situation said. At one point, she even promised to escort one member out to the airport in her motorcade to catch an early flight — as House Republican Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) stalled the proceedings with an hourlong reading from the 300-page manager’s amendment.

California Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a master of floor procedure who left the House on Friday to take a top job at the State Department, may have made the biggest personal sacrifice by postponing a dinner the night before her wedding to preside over the debate — her last as a member of Congress.

When another Californian, Rep. Joe Baca, declared himself undeclared, Pelosi and her whip team surrounded him — and burst out into applause when he cast one of the decisive “yes” votes, according to an eyewitness.

Members who wanted to be spared of the Pelosi treatment — slinked in and out of the chamber hoping the speaker wouldn’t notice them.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) — another progressive who didn’t think the bill was strong enough — was an especially elusive target, according to leadership aides. Pelosi’s attempts to contact Filner early Friday weren’t successful, staffers say, but she began lobbying him furiously when he showed up for a series of procedural votes leading up to the fateful climate change measure.

After Baca and others had cast their “yeas,” the speaker walked up to Filner and calmly said, “It’s now your time to be on the record, Mr. Filner,” according to a witness.

He voted yes.

Howie P.S.: It seems to me it was about 99% arm-twisting and 1% chaos.

"Baucus office asks for ads to be taken down, will meet with Laborers"

Jonathan Martin:
A day after we reported that the Laborers was going on the air in Montana with recess ads targeting Sen. Max Baucus over taxing health care benefits, the union says the Finance Committee Chairman's office contacted them to discuss the issue — and to ask them to stop the ad from running.

While the spot is on the air now, Laborers spokesman Jacob Hay said they'll take it down tomorrow as plans are made for a meeting on the controversial issue between the union and the senator's office.

A similar ad targeting Sen. Kent Conrad is still on the air in North Dakota, and Hay said they were soon going up with a spot in Iowa aimed at Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Finance Committee's ranking Republican.

"President Obama & the First Lady Hold LGBT Pride Reception" (video)

President Obama & the First Lady Hold LGBT Pride Reception from White House on Vimeo.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Howard Dean in Seattle: ‘Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform’

Town Hall Seattle:
Friday, July 24, 2009 | 7 – 8:30pm
Location: Great Hall, enter on 8th Avenue

Americans have pondered how to reform healthcare since the days of Harry Truman. But little has changed except that healthcare costs have soared, health-insurance companies have grown, and millions of Americans lack health insurance, or pay for coverage that doesn’t protect them from serious illness. In his new book, Howard Dean’s Prescription for Real Healthcare Reform, the physician (and former Democratic National Committee Chairman, presidential candidate, and six-term governor) argues that all Americans need the option to participate in a public health-insurance program, much like Medicare. The book, co-written with Faiz Shakir and Igor Volsky, also explains President Obama’s healthcare plan; how other countries handle healthcare; which special interests are standing in the way of progress, and why; and how healthcare reform will help American businesses prosper. Presented by the Town Hall Center for Civic Life and the Future of Health Lecture Series, with Elliott Bay Book Company.

Tickets are $5 at www.brownpapertickets.com or 800/838-3006, and at the door beginning at 6:30 pm. Town Hall members receive priority seating.

"Laborers go up with ads targeting Baucus, Conrad on health care" (video)

Jonathan Martin, with video (00:31):
The Laborers -- like much of organized labor -- are deeply opposed to any tax on health benefits. So they're going up with TV and radio ads on in Montana and North Dakota aimed at Sens. Baucus and Conrad.

A spokesman for the Laborers wouldn't detail the buy, but said the TV spots will be on broadcast and cable in the two states starting tomorrow and going through next Thursday.

The radio ads will air through July 4th.
Howie P.S.: Too bad California is such an expensive market. DiFi could use some heat.

Howard Dean on Health Care on Colbert (video)

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
President Obama's Health Care Plan - Howard Dean
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMark Sanford

Colbert Nation, video (04:21):
Howard Dean believes the American government can pay for a public health insurance option because it will generate more jobs.

David Gregory, Twitter and the Netroots (excerpts)

David Neiwert on David Gregory on the Nico Pitney question (with video):
Dana Milbank wasn't the only Beltway Villager all wanked out about President Obama prearranging a question with HuffPo's Nico Pitney yesterday. On Meet the Press, David Gregory pressed David Axelrod about it, suggesting that somehow this sort of thing is anti-democratic.
We're perfectly aware that presidents have for some long time gone into these conferences with a prearranged list of reporters upon whom they are going to call. The result has been an immense trivialization of press conferences, because those "elite" reporters have demonstrated over the years their eagerness to indulge trivial, celebrity-media-driven questions at the expense of serious policy matters. In the process, they've become increasingly manipulable.

This trend reached its apotheosis back when Jeff Gannon was lobbing softball questions to President Bush and White House press secretary Scott McClellan. Not only was Gannon a phony journalist, he was being regularly selected to be among the main questioners at the daily briefings.

David Waldman on Kos on "The End of the Drudge Era?":
You can't have helped but notice the role that Twitter has played in the coverage of the events in Iran. And if you're a daily Twitter user, you probably got your first news of Michael Jackson's death that way.

But those events by themselves don't give us any particular reason to believe Drudge's influence is waning. Before you get to that, you have to take account of the explosion in popularity and acceptance Twitter has enjoyed among influential journalists working in the traditional media -- a story even hardened holdouts and Twitter-haters have doubtless heard by now.

That's the key factor, I think, in what I'm guessing is Twitter's eventually overtaking Drudge and robbing him of his influence. If the eyes of the journalists who drive the traditional media are getting their hottest, most rapidly-breaking news via Twitter, it could represent a sea change in how they view the news. And if that happens, it could change the way you'll view it, too.

Obama, Health Care and the DiFi Factor (excerpts)

"Time for Iron Man"--E.J. Dionne Jr.on Obama
Obama's lobbying helped to save climate change legislation, and he now needs to weigh in more forcefully on health care. He should toughen Baucus's negotiating strategy, and he'll have to mediate among liberals. He doesn't need stone tablets, just an iron will.
Greg Sargent on DiFi--Criticism From Left On Health Care “Doesn’t Move Me One Whit”
Feinstein’s claim that criticism from the left is “not productive” also raises an important question: What does the White House think of the lefty criticism? Do White House advisers agree with Feinstein, and want the liberal groups to muzzle themselves, or are they tacitly happy about it?

"It's Really Dana Milbank Who is a D*ck"

There was a brief period of time, probably in 2004, when I thought Dana Milbank was doing a decent job of showing a sane level of skepticism about the Bush administration's pronouncements and behavior.
He wasn't striking for his wit or his moral outrage. He just stood out as someone who was occasionally willing to call bullshit in a town where that seemed never to happen. His schtick appeared to be irreverence of a kind slightly more substantive than that provided by Lady Dowd. But something changed. If I had to guess, what changed is that Milbank started getting invites to be on the cable news. And that made him somebody. He joined the Big Boys like Howard Fineman and Ron Brownstein. His opinion was supposed to move the national discourse. He became a connoisseur of the cocktail frankfurter. And then...he began to suck.
He lost his outsiderish up-and-coming edge. His condescension stopped reaching up and started hammering down. Instead of telling us that our betters are full of crap, he told us that his lessors were unworthy. And, at some point he reached a stage of inness where he felt comfortable enough to wallow in his sense of accomplishment and to develop a sense of entitlement. He worked hard to get where he is and, dammit, who is some blogger from the Huffington Post to get an invitation to ask the president a question? That blogger is Nico Pitney who has been covering the Iranian elections with indefatigable energy. Milbank's sense of vanity was on full display today when he appeared on Howard Kurtz's Reliable Sources with Nico, and whined about a mere aggregator of news getting called on in a presidential press conference. When the segment was over, Milbank turned to Pitney and told him, "You are such a dick."

It's hard to say exactly why Milbank decided to insult Pitney to his face, but it's a good bet that his feelings were hurt when Nico pointed out that Milbank once asked candidate Obama numerous questions about how he looked in a swimsuit. I think it should go without saying that a journalist's opportunities to ask a presidential contender questions are limited, and Milbank blew one of the few chances he will ever get.
The truth is, only someone whose bowels are bloated with cocktail weenies would ever waste such a golden chance to probe the mind of a presidential candidate by asking about his pectoral muscles.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

"Daily Kos: The Netroots and the House Progressives: Toward More Progressive Policy"

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has had some successes in recent weeks, particularly in holding the line against the Blue Dogs on a trigger-free public option in health care reform (remember that?).
Three weeks ago, they outlined their requirements for a public option in health care reform, and in the ensuing weeks, have reiterated their opposition to any plan that does not include one, along with the black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific American caucuses.

Leaders of four Democratic caucuses representing more than 120 members of Congress said Wednesday that they would vote against any health overhaul legislation that excludes a "robust" government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers.

The leaders of the black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific American and Progressive caucuses said at a news conference that they would consider a government-run plan to be robust if it resembles Medicare, the health entitlement for the elderly. The plan would have to be available to everyone in the country and could not be subject to a "trigger," or some other mechanism that might delay its implementation, the lawmakers said....

"What we’re telling you this time: it’s different," [Lynn Woolsey] said. "Not that we’re going to vote with Republicans. But if reform legislation comes to the floor and doesn’t include a real and robust public option, we will fight it with everything we have."

Now, the CPC in the past has had a hard time coalescing to the point that they could actually leverage their power and their numbers, and they haven't necessarily been organized enough to do that. But the dynamics behind all that have shifted significantly since November. Some of the fundamental structural changes in the Congress could make it possible, finally, for the CPC and allied caucuses to become the deal makers and breakers for more progressive policy.

The first significant change in the dynamics is having a Democrat in the White House, and a Democrat with some very ambitious policy goals: economic recovery, transportation, energy, health care. While the White House might be cautious (witness a severely watered down ACES bill), it is going to be pushing major legislation through in the next session, and won't be threatening vetoes over any aggressively progressive stuff. This ambitious, must-move legislation provides some key opportunities for progressives to have their imprint on that legislation.

The second change is a tactical one, with Raul Grijalva moving into a co-chair position on the caucus. Grijalva is a pretty savvy head-counter and maneuver, and is actively doing something that hasn't really been done by the Caucus much before--he's whipping. He, along with Keith Ellison, whipped on health care reform to find out what bottom line members would accept. The majority of them are single payer advocates, but the majority are realists who know what they're going to have from the Senate to work with. The overwhelming majority of members are behind a robust public option, but more importantly, the whipping effort has managed to achieve a critical mass of them who would be willing to vote against a plan without one.

The final structural change for the House, beyond the sheer majority of Democrats, is the degree to which the Republicans will be obnoxious and be willing to obstruct everything coming down the path. Because the Republican caucus has decided to throw temper tantrums rather than trying to act strategically to change legislation, the entire Republican caucus can be written off when it comes to vote counting. Thus, the 80 votes of the Progressive Caucus--the 120 votes when you throw in the allied caucuses--have to be there to pass anything.

Summarizing, given those structural changes, what do we know about the individual caucuses, and how can we effectively work with them to strengthen their position?

  • Caucuses are not big or powerful enough to move legislation on their own.
  • What they can do is draw bright line criteria to change the content of legislation, e.g. no health plan without a robust public option.
  • In general, it works best for legislation that must move (either regularly scheduled or politically key).
  • The bright line criteria should be clear enough to be able to easily tell whether it has been met.
  • A critical mass of the caucus must be willing to withhold vote.

That last bullet point is obviously the key. Part of it is going to require a, for lack of a better term, cultural shift within the CPC, which has operated on a very small "d" democratic, loose basis. Contrast it with the Blue Dogs, who are highly organized and very protective of one another. For instance, on tough floor votes, where one Blue Dog might be considered vulnerable to arm twisting by the leadership to vote against what the Blue Dogs see as in their best interest, they'll physically surround that member, providing a human buffer zone to keep that member "protected" from leadership. It sounds childish, but it's how it works. That's the mentality the CPC and allied caucuses are going to have to maintain, however, to hold tough lines. The new generation of leadership in the CPC seems to recognize that.

So what does it mean for us, the netroots, and other progressive grassroots organizations. I've been spending a lot of time talking this over with Darcy Burner, former congressional candidate and now director of the American Progressive Caucus Policy Foundation. Darcy, being the systems geek that she is, views it in terms of diagrams, as you see on the right.

As part of the progressive movement, we're in a sort of a feedback loop with the Caucus, working on both the policy formation and policy framing efforts--sort of the stick part of the process, as well as the "amplification" side--more the carrot part where we do our best to shore up their good efforts, provide them the public support, the financial support and, frankly, the ongoing pressure they need to have to become what will essentially be a progressive stop to the Senate.

Don't ever underestimate the pressure part of this, on the House, on the Senate, on the White House. Even Max Baucus came, too late, to recognize the importance of the left position in any debate:

He conceded that it was a mistake to rule out a fully government-run health system, or a "single-payer plan," not because he supports it but because doing so alienated a large, vocal constituency and left Mr. Obama’s proposal of a public health plan to compete with private insurers as the most liberal position.

A solid left flank is absolutely necessary for our Democratic leaders in giving them the room they need to make policy more progressive--the Overton Window, if you will. That means ongoing pressure on even our left to keep shoring them up, to keep giving them the reason to push policy leftward. It means helping them to draw those bright line criteria for what is acceptable progressive policy.

It means helping the Caucus whip, as Jane has been doing on the public option. By the way, FDL Whip Count Tool is invaluable. I recommend you use it, frequently.

The CPC has a major challenge ahead of it. After years of functioning as the opposition, they now have to understand that they have the power to govern, and they have to figure out how to use. Up until now, it has been structurally impossible for them to win any battle, so they were forced into the position of being the opposition, always fighting, and always losing. That's changing for them, to the extent that they have determined the House line on health care reform. Here's Nancy Pelosi:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told the Huffington Post Thursday that a health care overhaul that did not include a public option wouldn't make it through the House because it "wouldn't have the votes."(...)

Asked by HuffPost if she would allow a reform package without a public option out of the House, she responded: "It's not a question of allow. It wouldn't have the votes."

The health care reform fight is the most critical policy fight this Congress will face, not just because of the stakes for the entire country and the economy, but for the progressive movement. If the progressives in the House of Representatives can force this Congress into passing a health care reform bill with a solid, robust public option, the dynamics not just in the House, but in the entire Congress, will be dramatically altered. Harry Reid won't have to worry about whether he can get Ben Nelson or Mary Landrieux on a bill, he'll have to worry about whether he can get Senate legislation past the House progressives.

As it should be.

Health care vote: "Short of the Magic"

Eleanor Clift:
Right now, Democrats don't have the 60 votes needed to enact health-care reform.--It's clear to many Democrats that they'll need Republican support to enact President Obama's health-care reform. With Senators Kennedy and Byrd sidelined by illness, Al Franken not yet seated, and two more Democrats on record publicly opposing the public option that the president supports, the majority currently has about 55 votes—short of the magic 60 needed to avoid a bill-killing filibuster, according to Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
At a Capitol Hill breakfast on Wednesday, Conrad told an overflow crowd of health-care lobbyists and policy wonks that reform isn't optional. Despite the eyepopping cost, it must be done, he said, adding that the most expensive option is to do nothing.

Earnest and bespectacled, Conrad has the air of an accountant, appropriate for someone who spends his time staring at numbers that could take the country into the abyss. He spent the previous evening at a White House meeting with chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, among others. "As a country we are headed off the cliff," he told the breakfast audience, backing up his prediction with charts about the dire state of America's health-care system.

The way the battle lines are shaping up, Republicans and some Democrats are prepared to oppose any bill that has a public option, meaning a government-run, Medicare-like program that would be nonprofit and offer a basic benefit plan. Critics say it's a socialist takeover that would put a government bureaucrat between patient and doctor. But polls show that a surprisingly large majority of Americans want a public option, and that they're less fearful of government bureaucrats than the insurance companies they now have to contend with. How hard Obama will fight for a public option is a mystery. He gives lip service to it, but liberals who say reform will be a sham without it are worried he sees it more as a bargaining chip than the core of reform.

That's where Conrad comes in. So many stakeholders crowded in to hear him this week because of his idea for health insurance co-ops that would be nonprofit and run by members. That could get around the objections to a government-sponsored option. Saying his proposal wasn't "an epiphany," Conrad said co-ops are a way of life in rural America where he's from, and in floating the idea, he found it was the only plan that key Republicans said they could accept. Here's the rub: Democrats need only 51 votes for passage if health insurance is combined in a legislative maneuver with the budget, which can't be filibustered. Do Democrats want to get 80 percent of what they want with 51 votes? Or will they settle for 51 percent of what they want in order to get 80 votes?

For Democrats who voted for change, that's a no-brainer. But Conrad cautions that the legislative maneuver known as "recision" isn't a free ride, that any reform measure would have to reduce the deficit by at least $1 billion over six years, and anything that doesn't have a positive budgetary impact could be stricken from the bill. "We'd be left with Swiss cheese," he warns.

After playing nice for months, insurance companies, health-care providers, and pharmaceuticals are suiting up for battle. Dr. Steven Pribut, a Washington podiatrist, was on the elliptical at the gym when he heard former Republican speaker Newt Gingrich on one of the cable networks denounce a public option in his typically apocalyptic fashion. Nobody challenged him, so Pribut says he poked around on the Internet to learn more about Gingrich's expertise on the topic. He discovered that Gingrich was the founder of a health-reform organization that has as its members more than 20 large corporations, including GlaxoSmithKline and UnitedHealthcare. Pribut was moved to post an item on ++his blog++ suggesting that those making pronouncements should disclose their conflicts. (In the spirit of disclosure, I should say here that I get orthotics from Dr. Pribut.)

Pribut supports a public option as a way to set a minimal standard and put pressure on the insurance industry to conform to that standard without deception. Right now, competition too often means looking for ways to exclude people. Pribut calls insurers "holding companies—they hold patients' money and withhold payments they should be making." But he's not calling for their elimination; he thinks there's much they can do to make their services more attractive and add value for many people.
At the White House, policymakers envision a public option that would coexist with private insurers in the same way that UPS and FedEx compete with the post office, or the way that 401(k)s supplement Social Security. There would still be a vibrant private marketplace. White House support for a public option is strong. It's the political will that's uncertain.
Howie P.S.: I like that UPS/FedEx--post office analogy. This article in the WaPo refers to "Sniping Among Liberals" that "May Jeopardize Votes Needed to Pass Bill." I didn't know Ben Nelson was a liberal. I also like Clift's questions
Do Democrats want to get 80 percent of what they want with 51 votes? Or will they settle for 51 percent of what they want in order to get 80 votes?

"What's Up with Maria Cantwell?"

Eli Sanders:
Seattle congressman Jim McDermott supports it. Washington senator Patty Murray wants it. So does President Barack Obama. So does the often conservative Seattle Times editorial page. So do 72 percent of Americans, according to a recent poll. So what's going on with Washington's junior senator, Maria Cantwell? Why doesn't she want Congress to include a public option—a new government-run health-care plan that will be available to everyone and will compete with private insurance companies to bring down costs—in its health-care-reform package?
"I don't think that's something we can get through the United States Senate," Cantwell told KUOW on June 22. It's an odd bit of circular logic: Because Cantwell can't yet count enough votes to pass the public option, she won't add her vote in favor of the public option—which, of course, makes it even harder to find enough votes to pass the public option.

What option does Cantwell prefer? She told KUOW's Steve Scher that she currently prefers the government-backed health-care-cooperative idea that's been floated in the Senate. The idea behind the co-op proposal—still somewhat nascent—is to create a whole bunch of small, federally chartered nonprofit health-care providers all over the country. (The idea was hatched to appeal to Republicans and Democrats from conservative states—which, by the way, Cantwell is not.) It wouldn't be a national plan administered from D.C., which would make it hard for conservatives to tag it as "socialized medicine," and it would embody certain ideas that conservatives like—local control, for example. But because of this, the cooperatives would lack the national economic mass and bargaining power to effectively compete with large private insurance companies. That's the whole point of the public plan: to create a national, nonprofit health-care provider that can effectively compete with private insurance companies and, as a result, lower costs for everyone.

As President Obama—who Cantwell endorsed—put it during a June 23 press conference: "The public plan, I think, is an important tool to discipline the insurance companies."

This isn't the first time that Cantwell has positioned herself on the wrong side of Obama and public opinion—remember her painfully cautious evolution on the Iraq war? Still, what is she thinking? She isn't facing reelection until 2012. Why isn't she using her position on the Senate Finance Committee, one of the groups drafting the health-care-reform bills, to push for a plan that the American people, the president, and her colleagues from Washington all want?

"I'm really frustrated by her inability to listen to her constituents," said Jody Hall, owner of Cupcake Royale and Verite Coffee, and a member of the Washington Small Business for Secure Health Care Coalition. "I don't know if Big Insurance has her in its pocket or what, but it seems like she's watering down what could be a really good transformation in health care." A person active in the local health-policy-reform community added that compared to Murray, Cantwell doesn't seem to care. "Senator Murray has been very responsive," he said. "She's done multiple public events and expressed her support of a public health-insurance plan. Consumers and small businesses have tried to meet with Senator Cantwell on this issue without as much success."
Ciaran Clayton, Cantwell's spokesperson, said Cantwell has been meeting with, and listening to, public-option advocates. But Clayton couldn't explain exactly how Cantwell came to support co-ops, rather than the public option, other than to say: "Everything is on the table, including the public option and co-ops." Which is not what her boss said on KUOW.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Ian Faerstein (Blogometer):
Where did you grow up?
I mostly grew up Seattle, but I was born in Chapel Hill. I also lived in NYC for three or four years, and went to high school in Philly.
Where do you live now?
Las Vegas, baby! I could be neighbors with John Ensign's ex!

If you have an occupation other than blogging, what is it?
My primary focus right now is creating videos and writing posts for Daily Kos, but I've written a political thriller that I need to get around to shopping to agents, and am at work on another book (actually, two). Before writing and blogging full-time, I was communications director for Sen. [Maria] Cantwell, and before that I worked for her at RealNetworks as director of internet marketing for the consumer division, of which she was SVP.

What's on your iPod right now?
I don't use an iPod -- I feel like a schmuck when I walk around with speakers in my ear. But I do use Rhapsody and Windows Media Center. As long as it isn't too saccharine or schmaltzy, there's a good chance I'll like it. Some stuff I've listened to recently...Pink Floyd, Tom Petty, Radiohead, Tribe Called Quest, Louis Prima, Moby, Liz Phair (only "Exile in Guyville" though). Plus, whatever my girlfriend happens to be playing.

What book do you think every person should read?
I don't buy into the notion that any single book should be required reading. I'm not going Galt, and there's no Fountainhead mania happening here, so I'll punt on that question. However, anyone who is serious about poker would benefit from The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky. And I've never read an Elmore Leonard book and regretted it.

You've already written one novel; is there another one in the works?
Yep. :) But before I talk about it, I need to get around to selling my first!

Please finish this sentence: "When I'm not blogging, you'll probably find me..."
Hanging out with my girlfriend and her dogs and cats.

What has been your favorite blog post, or your favorite story to write about?
Well, most of my posts and stories center around the utter dysfunction and nearly-universal dishonesty of the conservative movement, from Republican politicians to 'intellectuals' on the right to Fox. As with books, I don't really have a favorite post, but I did get a kick out of a recent video I did showing Karl Rove, Sean Hannity, and Fox News lying through their teeth to make an attack on ABC and President Obama.

Which blogger(s) do you consider indispensable, if any?
You'll notice a theme here -- I think it's hard to argue any one blogger is indispensable. The thing that makes the blogosphere effective, I think, is that it's not a one way street. So I'd say that the indispensable thing about the blogosphere is that it's open to all.

I bet you're going to ask me who my favorite politician is. I'll probably answer "President Obama," which hopefully illustrates that I have a pretty high bar to have a "favorite."

Who's your favorite non-liberal blogger?
Ha. I was wrong. Here's one where I actually do have a favorite. Andrew Sullivan and Paul Phillips, who barely blogs anymore.

Who's your favorite active politician? Least favorite?
No question, President Obama -- if for no other reason than that he's president during America's most challenging era of my lifetime. It's not that I think he's perfect, but he's brought us closer to accomplishing major progressive goals than any other politician since I've been born.

My least favorite pols are Democrats who fall into the old trap of fearing Republican retaliation. It's hard to dislike Republican politicians given how effective they have been at destroying the conservative movement.

What would you realistically like to see Democrats accomplish in 2009?
Obviously, I want to see things like getting the economy back on track, restoring America's moral authority, finally rolling back discrimination against gays, and health care reform.

But my top priority is energy policy -- economic expansion depends on cheap energy, our future health depends on clean energy. Without developing alternate sources of energy, I don't see how the U.S. -- much less the world -- will be able to sustain (and improve) our quality of life.

Moreover, these new sources of energy could be huge jobs creators for some of the people who've struggled to keep up in the economy. Finally, even if you don't think the proximate cause of the Iraq War was oil, only a complete idiot would argue that our dependence on oil hasn't had a profoundly negative impact on our foreign policy and foreign misadventures.

If you could give President Obama advice, what would it be?
As long as you're proposing well-considered policies, the more stuff you try to get done, the better. The GOP is bewildered right now. The more you throw at them, the more confused they'll get -- and the more idiotic mistakes they'll make.

What keeps you up at night?
That we won't get energy policy right. That, and Lulu (one of the two dogs in my household).

Please feel free to ask and answer your own question.

Q: What advice do you have for conservatives? And do you even know any?

A: Yes, some of my closest friends are conservatives. (And at least one of them reads, and frequently enjoys, Daily Kos.)

I think conservatives need to recognize that Colin Powell is right -- we're now in an era where most Americans want government to help correct the mistakes made by letting the private sector run amok. Conservatives need to decide if they want to sit out the next decade or so (assuming that it takes at least that long to fix the screwups of the [George W.] Bush era) by taking the Glenn Beck approach to politics, or they need to offer a credible alternative to Democratic policies. Most likely, they're going to keep down their hard-right ideological path, and they ought to remember that Barry Goldwater didn't even get 40% of the vote in 1964. Today, Goldwater might not break 30%.

Most of all, conservatives should stop relying on Foxaganda, and start trying to be accurate. They should be more self-critical and more interested in figuring out where they went wrong. Everybody makes mistakes, but if you can't recognize those mistakes and use them as lessons for the future, you'll never actually make yourself better.

And as much as I'm on the progressive side of the debate, I really do wish conservatives were a more constructive political. As long as they continue to deny reality, however, they will continue to produce fools like Michelle Bachmann who are truly a cancer on the nation's discourse.

Matt Taibbi on Goldman Sachs: "Behind the great American bubble machine" (video)

MSNBC-video (05:03).

Howie P.S.: Morning Joe is always better without its namesake. Taibbi is interviewed about his piece about Goldman Sachs in the current issue of the Rolling Stone. Somehow, the conversation turned briefly to Michael Jackson.

Obama: "Opening the Door to a Clean Energy Economy" (video)

whitehouse, video (04:37):
The President praises historic energy legislation passed by the House of Representatives. The legislation will help America create green jobs, ensure clean air for our children, move towards energy independence and combat climate change. July 27, 2009.
Howie P.S.: Andrew at the NPI Advocate gives a Northwest perspective on the bill. SusanG comments on the re-framing of the legislation as a "jobs bill" on the front page of Kos. First Read predicts a bumpy ride in Senate.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Rahmbo gets his due (video)

whitehouse: Obama dunks Emmanuel:.
President Obama at the annual White House Congressional picnic invited guests to dunk Robert Gibbs, Rahm Emanuel and Peter Orszag. The President also joined in the fun. June 25, 2009.

Colbert Mocks ABC Obama Health Care Town Meeting (video)

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Commonsense Health Care Reform Infomercial
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMark Sanford
Comedy Central, video (06:28).

"City challengers gain ground on incumbents"

Joel Connelly:
The mayoral campaign of T-Mobile Vice President Joe Mallahan has caught an early summer breeze, picking up so much momentum that a competing outsider, Sierra Clubber Mike McGinn, is trying to torpedo him.
Mallahan has twice made mincemeat of incumbent Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, besting him by a wide margin when 46th District Democrats voted on an endorsement, and capturing a clear majority when King County Democrats convened on Tuesday night.

While falling short of the two-thirds vote needed for formal support, Mallahan has gained much more this week by way of backhanded compliments. The political neophyte is a target for copycats and brickbats.

The first was a hasty statement by Nickels coming out for repeal of the head tax that Nickels' street-repair package slapped on "the act or privilege of engaging in business activities within the city."

Mallahan has hammered at the head tax, enacted in 2006, as a wet blanket over business, and described the gold-plated rebuild of Mercer Street as an extravagance the city cannot afford.

The encore came Wednesday: The negative, somewhat nasty McGinn campaign embarked on class warfare, with a copycat of Sen. John Edwards' "two Americas" themes from the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns.

"There are two Seattles. One for the business elites and politicians they support and one where the rest of us live," McGinn declared. "Nickels and Mallahan picked which Seattle they prefer. When the business elites says (sic) get rid of a business tax, Nickels and Mallahan listen."

The blast shows signs of desperation. The other guy is catching on. What else would explain McGinn's screechy tone, and his bad grammar?

Summer used to be our season to set aside politics and concentrate on enjoying a gorgeous corner of the country. With a late August primary, however, it's being forced on us. An early reading of tea leaves:

Spring training star: The guy's first name sounds like a dangerous sea creature lurking in the Great Barrier Reef. But Dorsol Plants is making heads perk up at bleary candidate forums.

He's in his mid-20s, an Iraq combat veteran who works in a homeless shelter. He surfaced leading opposition to a proposed jail in the Highland neighborhood.

"I have rarely seen a guy catch on to organizing so fast," said Ivan Weiss, union man and former chairman of the 34th District Democrats.

Plants is seeking the Seattle City Council seat being vacated by Jan Drago. It was supposed to be a race between the well-funded Sally Bagshaw, a recently retired prosecutor, and liberal former Church Council of Greater Seattle activist David Bloom.

Candidly, an alternative to establishment endorsements and tedious far-left Church Council political orthodoxy is most welcome. Plants is raising very little money, but he is blossoming on the campaign trail.

A slow start: Jordan Royer entered the contest for the other Council vacancy as one Greg Nickels aide who is privately good-mouthed. He served as troubleshooter on such projects as rescuing Freeway Park, showing tenacity and resourcefulness.

But Royer has not yet projected clear themes of what he would do if he wins. He is the son of ex-Mayor Charley Royer, whose verbal skills buried four City Council members in his first election.

David Miller, a Wedgwood community activist, has moved up. Miller has done well in the Democratic endorsement game and is boosted by the town's most prominent Green, Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes.

Perplexing guys: Two Sierra Club activists, McGinn in the mayor's race and Mike O'Brien seeking a council seat, have created a not-always-favorable impression. Every seattlepi.com blog on Mallahan has brought anonymous McGinn soundoffs, running down Mallahan's record of civic activism.

O'Brien recently sat down with editors of the Web site Crosscut. Afterward, one participant reflected: "I felt that if I were to call this guy and complain about a pothole in front of my house, I would get a lecture on evils of the automobile."

Cats in a bag: Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips, two King County councilmen, are running for county executive, and competing for the same urban liberal base. Eastside Democratic legislators Fred Jarrett and Ross Hunter have dared to suggest pruning the county bureaucracy, so forget Democratic district endorsements.

A KING/5 poll suggests that Constantine is moving ahead, although far behind Republican donor and former KIRO/7 anchor Susan Hutchison.

Phillips is palpably anxious on the stump. He talks too fast and goes over time limits. Would-be donors feel pursued: One local lawyer received five calls, three from Phillips family members, hawking the campaign kickoff.

Curiously, the mellow Fred Jarrett, a Boeing manager and former Mercer Island mayor, gets widespread praise even from supporters of his opponents.

"I like him: He's a manager, not a politician," state Rep. Maralyn Chase said as King County Democrats were voting on a dual Constantine-Phillips endorsement.

Awful trend: Withholding information on endorsements has become a game for campaigns. In cases where a dual endorsement or recommendation has been made, candidates' e-mails have often left out the other guy.

A classic example was the Facebook exclusivity of the Phillips and Constantine campaigns after King County Democrats decided to bless them both.

One final word: It's refreshing to see talented newcomers. The Seattle School Board received a welcome transfusion of new talent two years ago.

Mallahan and Plants may well lose in the primary. In that case, anonymous e-mails will arrive -- one sure to bear signs of the bitter loser of a recent Council race -- with the message: "Ha! Ha. Ha. Your candidates didn't do too well."

Well, the past four American presidents have lost an election early in their careers. They learned, and returned.

Besides, given the staleness of local government, what's wrong with people promising to throw open the windows of City Hall and the courthouse?
Howie P.S.: Could "change" finally be on its way to Seattle government?

"Obama and Congress Clash on How to Pay for Health Care"

NY Times:
It has become the trillion-dollar question: can President Obama find that much in spending cuts and tax increases to keep his campaign promise to overhaul the health care system, without adding to already huge deficits? Mr. Obama and the Democrats running Congress are deeply split over the possibilities.
House and Senate leaders do not like his ideas but cannot agree on alternatives. Other proposals that could reduce health care spending would take too long to show savings for purposes of Congress’s budget scorekeeping, and many would require big investments initially, such as for research into cost-effective treatments.

Meanwhile, special interests like insurance companies, employers and even sugar beet and corn growers are on alert to oppose anything that could hurt them.

Adding to the pressure, Republicans are back to attacking Democrats as tax-and-spenders. Yet they have not proposed how to pay for their own, more modest health care proposals. Nor did they offset the cost of creating the Medicare prescription drug benefit six years ago when they controlled Congress and held the White House. Its projected deficits exceed the shortfall for all of Social Security over the next 75 years, according to the program’s 2009 trustees report.

For some time, lawmakers and lobbyists privately assumed Mr. Obama would not hold the fiscal line for a deficit-neutral bill. Instead, he has reinforced it. Legislation “must and will be paid for,” he said in a news conference on Tuesday.

Worries about the economy hardened Mr. Obama’s resolve, administration officials say. “There’s a concern that if Congress were to pass a big health care bill that was heavily deficit-financed, financial markets could react negatively, with higher interest rates that could deepen the recession,” said Robert Greenstein, the executive director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which supports the administration’s goal of a deficit-neutral health care overhaul.

Even so, each idea to cut spending or raise taxes has political pitfalls. A review of the options — and how dug in the opponents are — shows just how hard it will be for Mr. Obama to reshape the health system. Here are snapshots of major proposals:

¶Limit income-tax deductions for high earners. This is Mr. Obama’s main idea for raising revenue, but Congress is not likely to pass it except in a greatly scaled-down form.

He proposed to collect a projected $267 billion over 10 years by making taxpayers in the top income tax brackets, now 33 percent and 35 percent, deduct their mortgage interest, state and local taxes and charitable donations at the 28 percent income tax rate. Democratic leaders immediately objected that that would hurt charities, universities and other entities dependent on tax-deductible donations, as well as taxpayers in high-tax cities and states, including New York City and other places home to Democratic leaders.

Mr. Obama has not given up. He counters that a 28 percent itemized deduction rate for top earners would be the same as under President Ronald Reagan. Just 1.4 percent of households would be affected, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center reported. The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University says charitable giving would decrease 2 percent.

Any compromises would raise less revenue than Mr. Obama proposed. One alternative would exempt charitable contributions from the 28 percent limit. That, however, would provoke governors from high-tax states or Realtors and bankers protective of the mortgage tax break to press for exempting the other categories as well.

Another idea would maintain the 33 percent and 35 percent rates for itemized deductions after the Bush tax cuts for the rich expire in 2011, when the top two income tax rates revert to 36 percent and 39.6 percent. That would leave the current break for deductions unchanged, but prevent it from becoming relatively more generous when income taxes rise for affluent taxpayers.

Even that fallback hit a wall in the Senate Finance Committee. The opposition of Senator Charles E. Grassley, the panel’s senior Republican, carries weight with Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman from Montana, who is determined to produce a bipartisan bill. Both men say any tax increases or cost savings should come from the health sector. Their preference is to make the value of workers’ employer-provided health benefits subject to income taxes.

¶Tax employee health benefits. While House Democrats are opposed, the support of influential senators for taxing some benefits and the huge sums to be raised ensures that this option will be part of the debate. And Mr. Obama does not rule it out, though he opposed such a tax as a presidential candidate and promised that only the top 5 percent of Americans would see an income tax increase under his administration.

The numbers underscore why this is both the most lucrative and the most controversial among the financing options. Taxing all employer-provided health benefits as income would raise more than $2.5 trillion over a decade — more than twice Mr. Obama’s goal. And employer-provided insurance is the largest source of coverage for Americans, benefiting about 160 million employees and their dependents under age 65.

Most economists favor ending the tax break. They argue that it mainly goes to upper-income taxpayers and discourages cost-consciousness among consumers, thus encourages excessive spending on health care. Many Republicans also oppose the tax break, as did some senior Obama advisers, including Peter R. Orszag, the budget director, and the economist Jason Furman, before they joined the administration.

But its supporters include unions, which are a force in the Democratic Party and count tax-free health benefits as a legacy of the labor movement, as well as many businesses eager to attract and retain valued employees with good benefits. The opponents of taxing job-related health benefits cite analyses projecting that several million Americans could lose insurance if the tax break were repealed and some employers dropped coverage.

The senators are not suggesting repealing the tax break. Instead, they want to cap the value of benefits that go untaxed. For example, if the tax-free limit is $13,000, an employee with a policy worth $15,000 would pay income taxes on $2,000.

But the cap proposal does not satisfy opponents who say that it could penalize taxpayers in areas with high medical costs. One potential compromise is to avoid the controversy altogether and instead impose an income-tax surcharge on the wealthiest taxpayers.

¶Spend less on Medicare. Roughly two-thirds of the $948 billion in savings that Mr. Obama has proposed over 10 years would come from a range of reductions in projected Medicare spending. Those would mean lower payments to hospitals and other health care providers as well as insurance companies, inviting opposition from some of the country’s most formidable lobbies.

The biggest savings he proposes, $177 billion, would come from having insurance companies bid for government reimbursements for offering private plans, known as Medicare Advantage, to senior citizens. The administration also has proposed to cut $106 billion in subsidies to hospitals that serve many uninsured patients, arguing that fewer Americans would lack coverage after overhauling health care. And it says $110 billion could be cut by reducing payments to hospitals and doctors generally to reflect productivity gains.

The Senate Finance Committee is working to reduce Medicare and Medicaid payments over time to a range of industries — insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, drug makers, nursing homes, home health care companies and medical device makers — arguing that all of them stand to benefit from overhauling health care, with more paying customers.

¶Increase behavior-changing “sin taxes.” Congressional analyses show that more than $200 billion over 10 years could be collected from new or increased taxes on sugared soft drinks, tobacco products and alcoholic beverages implicated in common health problems like obesity and cancer. Yet while the options are on the lawmakers’ table, Senator Baucus has said they are on “life support.”

The Joint Committee on Taxation calculated that a 3-cent tax on each 12-ounce sugared soda would raise $51.6 billion over a decade. But opposition is not limited to the bottling industry. Major sources of sweeteners include Montana, which has a large sugar beet industry, and Iowa, which produces high-fructose corn syrup — the home states of Senators Baucus and Grassley.

The government could raise $61.5 billion with an additional alcoholic beverage tax that would mean about 40 cents more for a fifth of liquor, 48 cents for a six-pack of beer and 49 cents on a bottle of wine. Advocates point out that federal alcohol taxes were last raised in 1991; adjusted for inflation, they are 37 percent lower now. But local wineries and microbreweries now operate in nearly every state, suggesting that major distillers will not be the only opposition.
Each of these taxes is often criticized as regressive, meaning it would disproportionately affect lower-income people. But proponents counter that the poor have the most to gain from universal health coverage.
Howie P.S.: "Agreement Reportedly Near on Health Bill" in today's WaPo seems to describe a different reality, although it focuses on the Senate side of things.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Howard Dean: "I was born in New York City."

Howard Dean:
I was born in New York City. I can remember riding double-decker buses on top for a nickel, and when the Third Avenue subway through Yorkville was an elevated train.
I had my first real job in New York (Wall Street), I worked in my first political campaign in New York, Ed Koch's first (unsuccessful) run for Mayor. I went to Medical School in New York, I have been on the ballot in New York. I met my wife in New York.

I now live in Vermont, and I have been here for 31 years. Twelve of those years I served as Governor, but my more vehement political opponents always called me a New Yorker when they were particularly frustrated with some of my deeds.

When I was a medical student at Albert Einstein I worked in the public hospital system in the Bronx. Seeing a nine year old a with gun shot wounds in the Emergency Room sharpened my sense of social justice. Long lines of people waiting in the ER because they had no where else they could go for medical help formed my core belief that our healthcare system needs real reform, not a re-shuffling of the status quo for political reasons. Going on Ambulance calls in the South Bronx made me respect the efforts of the poor and of immigrants. We would weave in and out of the pillars supporting the El with sirens blaring and climb the dingy dangerous stairs of a tenement house to find families in distress in neat, well-kept (although frayed) apartments.

I learned the code of the streets, being stopped in bad neighborhoods by toughs demanding money, only to have one of them step from the shadows and defend me.

Tom Manton of Queens, who was the leader of the last political machine in America outside Chicago, showed me the secret to his success. He was inclusive of every new group of people who moved into his borough, the melting pot of melting pots in America. It wasn't enough to have (by invitation) African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, and Asian Americans. He had two or three kinds of everything: Orthodox, Hasidic and Reform Jews; Caribbeans, Brazilians and Americans; Dominican, Colombian and Puerto Ricans; Muslims, Catholics, Protestants and Buddhists; Korean, Indian and Chinese Americans. Everyone was heard, but in the end, they pulled together as one team. His example informed my belief that the Democratic Party had to end the hangover of interest group politics left over from the sixties and seventies, and that showing up everywhere and talking to people everywhere is a sign of respect.
Frank Sinatra had it right. It's a heck of a town.

"A First Lady Who Demands Substance"

Lois Romano (WaPo):
Michelle Obama Wants to Be Part of Events That Have Purpose And a Message and That Parallel the President's Agenda. ----For weeks, Michelle Obama had been telling her staff and closest confidantes that she wasn't having the impact she wanted. She is a woman of substance, with a background in law, public policy and management, who found herself relegated to role model in chief. The West Wing of the White House -- the fulcrum of power and policy -- had not fully integrated her into its agenda. She wanted more.

So, earlier this month, she changed her chief of staff, and now she's changing her role.
Her new chief of staff, Susan Sher, 61, is a close friend and former boss who the first lady thinks will be more forceful about getting her and her team on the West Wing's radar screen. The first thing Sher said she told senior adviser David Axelrod, whom she has known for years: When I call, "you need to get back to me right away."

The former chief of staff, Jackie Norris, 37, was "not on the first lady's wavelength," said one source, echoing others, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. "Susan is more of a peer," a senior White House official said. "I think that's probably a better model."

Although Obama's job-approval ratings have soared, the first lady -- a Harvard-educated lawyer -- wasn't satisfied with coasting. She is hiring a full-time speechwriter and has instructed her staff to think "strategically" so that every event has a purpose and a message. She doesn't want to simply go to events and hug struggling military families, she said; she wants to show progress. "Her desire is to step out more and have deliverables," said communications chief Camille Johnston. "It's about things that are coming up that we want to be a part of: child nutrition reauthorization act, prevention and wellness for health-care reform."

In the past couple of weeks, Obama has been more vocal about the specifics of the president's health plan, and she will play a substantive role in promoting it. She will soon announce the creation of an advisory board to help military families. And she will be the face of the administration's United We Serve, a summer-long national service program, which she launched on Monday. Even her social events have a message: She let congressional families know that before the annual White House barbecue today, the 500 guests are expected to show up at Fort McNair to stuff camp backpacks with goodies for the children of military personnel.

Obama has also taken stock of her family life, which she has found to be more constrained than she expected. She has concluded that there's really only one road toward some semblance of a private life for them -- and it leads away from the White House.

Laying Out Her Strategy

On Jan. 14, days before the inauguration, Obama assembled her new staff in a conference room at transition headquarters for a two-hour lunch meeting. In the room was a mix of loyal campaign aides, good friends she had persuaded to leave high-paying corporate jobs, and political professionals who were virtual strangers to her. It was the first time many of the 20 or so aides had met, and the incoming first lady said she expected them to operate "at 120 percent." All eyes were on them, she cautioned, and there was little room for error.

She emphasized that they must work on a parallel track with the president's office to avoid the historical East Wing-West Wing tensions that have plagued most administrations. "Seamless" was the word she used to describe the partnership she expected with her husband's staff.

Last, she exhorted her staff to find a personal balance. For her part, Obama informed them that she would practice what she preached: She did not intend to work more than 2 1/2 days a week. She was also planning to take off the month of August.

Unspoken but well known to some in the room was how unhappy Obama had been with the lack of campaign support she received during the presidential primaries. The president's advisers acknowledge that Michelle Obama was ill-served in the early days of the 2008 campaign, when opponents were able to portray her as unpatriotic, haughty and a caricature of an angry black woman. She was horrified to learn that she had become a liability to the candidate for saying that for the first time in her life, she was proud of her country.

"Obviously, given how fundamentally distorted the public lens was on her, I think we could have done a much better job for her. . . . I don't think there's any question about that," Axelrod concedes. "It took her a while to dig out of that."

It was against this background that the first lady and her staff were determined to create in the White House a culture that was, as Norris put it, "authentic" to the first lady. Since the election, her disciplined (journalists might say controlling) staff has carefully managed her media exposure and methodically laid the groundwork for her issues, a "soft launch," as one aide said. And the first lady's approval ratings flew into the 80s, exceeding her husband's, and higher than any other first lady's at a comparable time.

Norris had been Obama's Iowa state coordinator and had become close to Michelle Obama during the campaign. But Norris said in an interview that she came to agree that she wasn't a good fit for this job -- which requires not only management and policy skills but also inevitably touches on the first lady's personal and family life.

One early miscalculation on Norris's part was that she tried to take on Desiree Rogers, a close friend of the first lady, insisting that the social secretary report to her. The disagreement culminated in what one White House aide described as a "blowup." Valerie Jarrett, aide to the president and a friend of both women, had to step in and smooth over a conflict that many thought should never have been engaged. "We brought in people with strong personalities and passions," Norris said. "Disagreements are inevitable."

Jarrett -- a Chicago friend who is helping develop the first lady's official role -- said Michelle Obama's immense popularity has forced a rethinking of how she fits into the policy calculus. "We spend time thinking that through and where is she going to have the biggest impact," Jarrett said.

Axelrod said that initially "we were throwing her out there in the kinds of events that were probably not press-worthy. . . . There was a push for quantity and not quality."

But he added that the plan had always been to enhance her role around this time, after she had a chance to settle her family. "We are focused now on quality events that are related to her passions," he said. "We don't want to use her as a utility player for political chores."

Sher noted: "The key is you can get schedule-driven as opposed to being strategy-driven. You could spend all your time yes-no, yes-no as opposed to [deciding] what are the things that we really should be working on."

Sher, a lawyer and manager, has already begun stepping up interaction with the West Wing -- particularly with Anita Dunn, the communications director, who had advised Michelle Obama during the campaign. "Anita is paying attention to us over here," Sher said.

Elements of Chicago

In naming Sher, Obama took another step toward re-creating her Chicago life on a world stage. She has surrounded herself with familiar faces, starting with her mother, who lives in the White House and takes Malia and Sasha to school every day in an unmarked SUV. Obama begins her day at 5:30 a.m. with another Chicago transplant, Cornell McClellan, who has been her and her husband's personal trainer for 12 years. The family's meals are largely prepared by Chicagoan Sam Kass, a White House assistant chef, who also oversees the organic garden.

After the move to Washington, Obama sat down with her staff and two calendars: one from the office, one from Sidwell Friends, her daughters' new school. No events would be scheduled that presented a potential conflict with the girls. But she quickly discovered that her days off don't allow her any real freedom. When she wore shorts to walk the dog last week in a sheltered spot on the White House lawn, photos showed up on the Internet within hours.

So now, with school over for the year, Obama has developed a plan that takes her and the girls out of Washington, where she thinks they can have more fun and independence. Sasha and Malia accompanied the first lady to San Francisco on Monday, and next month, they will join their parents on an official presidential trip to Russia, Italy and Ghana. The family is expected to spend more time at Camp David, where they can entertain close friends in privacy.

At work, Obama runs her office like a business in which she is chief executive. She doesn't want to micromanage, she has made clear; she wants to delegate. Up and down the hall are professional women with whom she has a longtime connection and whom she trusts to execute her vision. Rogers, another friend from Chicago, has an office just a few feet away. Also nearby is Jocelyn Frye, whom Obama met at Harvard Law School and who is the first lady's policy director. A family law advocate and expert on equal opportunity employment law, Frye is also a link to the D.C. community. She grew up in Washington and still lives a few blocks from her parents' house in the Michigan Park area of Northeast. She has pointed the first lady to homeless shelters, soup kitchens and schools.

Sher, who worked with Michelle Obama in the Chicago mayor's office and later hired her at the University of Chicago Medical Center, was a reluctant recruit, leaving her husband behind in Chicago.

Sher, Rogers and Jarrett are so close that they have rented apartments in the same Georgetown building, near the waterfront, with Jarrett and Sher directly across the hall from each other. "We'll even do errands together on the weekend," Sher said. The first lady attended a small birthday celebration for Rogers last week and has had "girls' nights" with the women.

They all know that Obama wants to continue to offer opportunities to people like herself. She grew up in working-class South Chicago, in the shadow of one of the most elite private colleges in the country, the University of Chicago. Yet Obama recalls vividly that when she was a high school student hoping to rise above her circumstances, the university seemed far beyond her reach. She was determined this would not happen at the White House on her watch.

"No one there had ever reached out to say, 'Hey, maybe there's a place for you here,' " Johnston said. Obama has either visited or invited to the White House students from 30 Washington schools, and she was instrumental in developing the first White House summer internship program specifically for D.C. high school students. She brought high school girls to the White House to rub elbows with such female icons as singer Alicia Keys and astronaut Mae Jemison. Some of the girls were so nervous, they were sobbing before they went inside. "Michelle hugged each and every girl before they left," Jarrett said. "We talked about that night a lot, and she was really quite struck by her ability to really leave a lasting, positive impression as a role model."

Social as Political

Though Obama doesn't have much freedom outside the White House, she has already shaken up the status quo in her new home, including turning the White House fountains green on St. Patrick's Day and holding the first Seder hosted by a president. She also intentionally served a formal dinner to the nation's governors on mismatched china -- 28 years after Nancy Reagan famously complained because nothing matched and proceeded to spend $200,000 on a new set of Lenox.

One of the first people let in on Obama's vision was the woman charged with executing the cultural and social message for the White House: Rogers, 50, the first African American social secretary. The stuffy world of protocol has never seen the likes of Rogers, a glamorous Harvard MBA and former corporate executive, who unabashedly posed in $100,000 earrings for a magazine photo shoot -- much to the amusement of her boosters in the East Wing, and the anxiety of the president's advisers. Axelrod, a longtime friend, let it be known that he was agitated by the WSJ magazine profile in which she wore the earrings and talked about the "Obama brand."

Obama tasked Rogers with ensuring that every social event has a populist component, as she did last week when Duke Ellington High School students attended workshops with jazz greats. Rogers said that the Obamas want to convey that coming to the White House is "just a home visit." That's why, she said, the first lady hugs so many people who walk through the doors. "You try to take the fear out of just the mere awe of walking through the gates."

The Obamas are in no rush to schedule a state dinner for a foreign head of state, Rogers said. At the president's request, the first lady is planning a series of intimate "salon dinners." Rogers said she had provided the Obamas with a list of about 1,000 arts, business and science names and several suggested guest lists. "The opportunity to have 10 people that you're interested in and hear what they have to say about something," she said. "How fabulous!"

Every morning, Rogers and Sher attend White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's 8:15 staff meeting. Johnston, a newcomer to Obama's circle but a White House veteran, and Katie McCormick Lelyveld, the first lady's press secretary, sit in on White House press secretary Robert Gibbs's daily message meeting. As part of the president's domestic policy team, Frye meets with its staff weekly. Senior aides David Medina and Trooper Sanders work on national service and international issues, and Norris remains close to the office in her new job at the Corporation for National and Community Service.
They're all focused on raising the stakes. "It isn't just about hugging," Sher said. "Whatever she talks about will bring press and interest, but it's important that she's not just talking [but] actually moving forward on those issues."

First Read: "In Obama we trust?" (on health care)

MSNBC-First Read (Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg):
Maybe now we understand why the RNC was so fired up about last night’s town hall. President Obama, while peppered with tough questions about the issue, got an hour on national TV to make the case that he can be trusted to reform the health-care system. Remember, it's not about winning the debate on whether his way is RIGHT; it's about securing the TRUST of skeptical Americans that he'll take their concerns and go about this with care. And on that score, this is where we probably get why so many of the president's opponents were upset. This format was in the president's wheelhouse. Whether you agree with him or not, it's obvious he has a deep grasp of the issue, and no doubt he only helped his cause. Of course, we don't yet know how many folks watched. But the perception that he got into the details most likely is only a help to him, even if those details become unpopular. By the way, it doesn't appear the president committed any news, though some noted that he continued to leave open the door for supporting a tax on some health-care benefits. Also health care remains in today’s news as liberals and progressives rally for reform on Capitol Hill at 11:30 am ET.

Can "The Closer" help sell health care reform? (video)

MSNBC-Hardball, video (07:56).

Howie P.S.: Richard Wolffe and David Corn join Tweety to evaluate Michelle Obama's potential impact on the health care battle before veering off onto the Sanford circus and the GOP soap opera.

"What can Obama learn from FDR?" (video)

MSNBC, video (03:54).

Howie P.S.: Richard Stengel of TIME magazine describes their "history issue" this week that looks at Obama through the "template" of FDR. You have to endure some Morning Joe vanity and self-promotion and overlook the announcement that TIME is "honoring" Joe at a dinner tonight to celebrate the publication of his new book. That's asking alot, I know.