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Archive for the ‘Barack Obama’ Category

On Labor, Primaries, and Pressure

Friday, June 11th, 2010

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I wasn’t really planning on writing on this silly spat between the White House and organized labor over the Democratic primary in Arkansas, but there’s a few different angles I want to address. For starters, while I’ll agree that this never should have been said publicly, and if the White House finds out who the source is they probably ought to relieve them of their duties, let’s get one thing straight; the White House official is right.Labor has every right to do what it wants with its money, but it definitely wasted its resources in this race. For one thing, Halter was hardly a progressive lion, and likely wouldn’t vote much differently than Lincoln in the Senate. For another thing, Arkansas just isn’t a state where labor has a lot of clout, making their backing somewhat less valuable than it might have been elsewhere. Indeed, much of Lincoln’s campaign was premised around attacking Halter for being pushed by national labor unions.

On the other hand, there’s the argument that the message was sent anyway; that incumbents better not cross labor less they make your life miserable. Perhaps, but I think the people pushing this line the hardest are looking at the situation through rose-colored glasses. The bottom line is that incumbent re-election rates are very high in the U.S., and they’re downright astronomical for sitting Senators in primaries. And, of course, Blanche Lincoln is now a mark in favor of re-election. So even if we assume that labor or other factions of the party can give an incumbent a headache in the primary, the simple fact remains that the incumbent is overwhelmingly likely to win the primary, and much more likely to get beaten in a general election (especially if they’re in a conservative state) than in a primary. For someone who’s only concerned about getting re-elected, this isn’t really a tough call to make at all.

On the other hand, there’s the notion of the White House’s ability to pressure Senators, which Greenwald raises again in typically dense fashion. Yglesias and Bernstein dispose of the nonsense in good fashion, but I’d simply add that, again, there’s a very simple balance of power here; while troubled incumbents may want White House backing in elections, it’s at least technically possible for them to win without it. On the other hand, the White House can’t get its agenda through Congress without sufficient votes from members. With 40 Repuplicans lined up to oppose his agenda no matter what, Obama had to keep every Democrat on board for healthcare reform. If Blanche Lincoln refused to support the bill, that was it. There was no clever way out of things; it was get Blanche Lincoln to support the effort or give up on comprehensive reform. Period. The leverage between individual Senators at the tipping point of votes and the White House is always going to tilt in favor of the Senators (at least in domestic policy) because they have votes in the Senate, and you have to get votes in the Senate to pass bills. The question is how do you get those votes. Greenwald wants to imagine a world where you get them by beating marginal Senators with sticks until they’re cowed like powerless children into doing what you want them to, but that world quite simply doesn’t exist. Senators just aren’t powerless, and thanks to the filibuster, they’re holding the trump card more often than not. The national party or various factions of the party might be able to make life difficult for them, hell they may even be able to slay the dragon, but that vote in the Senate means that the Senator is going to be able to return the favor and then some as long as they have it.

And losing primary challenges does nothing to alter that balance.

Barack Obama’s Place in Progressive History

Monday, March 22nd, 2010

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Granted I’m a huge O-bot and all, but I really think Jon Chait is significantly understating himself here:

Let me offer a ludicrously premature opinion: Barack Obama has sealed his reputation as a president of great historical import. We don’t know what will follow in his presidency, and it’s quite possible that some future event–a war, a scandal–will define his presidency. But we do know that he has put his imprint on the structure of American government in a way that no Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson has.

It’s of course possible that an unpopular war or scandal or something could diminish Obama’s historical narrative, but it’s worth pointing out that, bad as Vietnam was, it didn’t really diminish LBJ’s legacy so much as it diminished the affinity liberals feel for him today. But Vietnam notwithstanding, Johnson is still the President who helped shepherd the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and the rest of the Great Society’s social welfare programs through Congress, and played a substantial role in breaking the hold Southern racists held on Congress as an institution. So far as 20th century Presidents go, Johnson is easily amongst the top 3 in terms of lasting consequence, along with FDR and Teddy Roosevelt (you could throw Reagan in the mix too, but he left office less than 25 years ago, so you’d expect to see some lasting effects from hs policies, even if they’re mostly forgotten 25 years from now). Given out habit of attributing major legislative victories to Presidents, Barack Obama has just achieved a sweeping reform of the health insurance market that rationalizes the individual market, provides coverage to some 30 million previously uninsured, and provides basic consumer protections to everyone. It is easily the most monumental piece of social policy legislation since 1965, and it guarantees that, no matter what happens, Barack Obama’s Presidency will be a major point in the arc of progressive advancement in the United States.

Obama’s Healthcare Summit

Monday, February 8th, 2010

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by Brien Jackson

I don’t really understand what’s so hard to get about this idea:

President Barack Obama is planning to host a televised meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders on health care reform.

The Feb. 25 meeting is an attempt to reach across the aisle but not a signal that the president plans to start over, as Republicans have demanded, a White House official said.

 “I want to come back [after the Presidents Day congressional recess] and have a large meeting — Republicans and Democrats — to go through, systematically, all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward,” Obama said in an interview with Katie Couric during CBS’s Super Bowl pre-game show Sunday.

The idea strikes me as pretty straight-forward; the White House is hoping to re-create the dynamic from the House GOP retreat. That is, the Republicans will throw out a lot of false, insane, claims, and Obama and healthcare experts will be right there to deftly bat them down. The goal being, to make Obama look good, and House Republicans look ridiculous, just like in Baltimore. And by announcing it so publicly, Obama has put the GOP in a bit of a bind; if they don’t show up, the White House will be further able to paint them as the ‘party of no” and point out that they aren’t offering alternative solutions. Not that any of that matters, of course, at the end of the day, it’s just an attempt to get something on C-Span, and create some political theater that generates some momentum for Democrats on the hill to pass the bill. I really don’t understand why we’re pretending not to get this.

Obama Hits His Stride

Friday, January 29th, 2010

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I didn’t have the time to do a full State of the Union reaction post, though I wanted to but suffice it to say, I think it was one of the most effective speeches Obama has ever given. It wasn’t the most inspirational, nor did it have the most soaring rhetoric, but that’s not really what the situation called for. Obama needed to project confidence and strength, both to the nation and to Congress, and I thought he did that very well. The speech ran a bit long and contained the requisite laundry list of proposals, but interspersed within were digs at Republicans, both procedural and substantive. He dinged them on the filibuster and climate change denialism. He laughed, he poked fun, he was light and jovial throughout. And more importantly, you could visibly feel the spirits of Congressional Democrats lifting. By about the mid-point of the speech they were smiling, laughing, tossing amused glances at uncomfortable Republicans. As I saw someone (Chait maybe?) remark, Pelosi and Reid should have gaveled their chambers into session after the speech and passed the entire agenda right then; it certainly looked like they might have had the votes for it.

But that pales in comparison to what Obama did today. Going to House Republicans at their retreat in Baltimore, Obama fielded questions from the most vehement of his opposition, the House Republican caucus, and he ran circles around them. One thing I don’t think conservatives realize is what talk radio has done to their attachment with reality. You can toss something around the echo chamber, unchallenged, and it starts to sound pretty good. When someone a lot smarter than you is handling the nonsense in real time, to your face, well, that makes you look quite a bit dumber (and it doesn’t help that House Republicans are really dumb to begin with). When you couple this with the address Wednesday night, it’s been a very good couple of days for the White House. They’re clearly back on top of the political world, at least for now.

What does it mean on a substantive level? It’s hard to say, but something has clearly had an impact on Congressional Democrats. Nancy Pelosi is absolutely determined to pass healthcare reform, and even Kent Conrad and Ben Nelson are holding out the possibility of going to reconcilliation to pass a bill.  A lot of Democrats clearly understand that they have to do healthcare reform, for political, policy, and moral reasons, and the momentum seems to be back, at least somewhat. Is that because of the White House? Maybe not, but something has lit a fire under very key players in the caucus to make this happen.

There’s hope yet.

Why the Media is Responsible For Obama’s Flip-Flops

Monday, December 21st, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Ezra had a post this morning examining the fact that the bill likely to pass the Senate looks very much like the plan Obama ran on, with some exceptions, to which Marcy Wheeler responded by noting that the exceptions were fairly important. I think Wheeler is exaggerating the effect a little bit, after all, the bill is very large, and has hundreds of moving parts, so all things considered less than 10 things isn’t that much, but I do think she’s right to point out that they’re fairly important things, and they are largely the things that people are focusing on, some with more merit than others (that the excise tax on high cost insurance plans has drawn any criticism from the left is extremely depressing). Ezra had a fairly nice response, noting that Obama basically came around to the consensus of Democratic opinion on the matter:

Another way of saying this is that president is a follower who leads. Take health-care reform. Marcy Wheeler doesn’t agree with me that the reform bill we’re likely to pass is similar to the reform proposal that Obama campaigned on. She emphasizes the differences between the two, but consider for a second the size of those differences. Obama proposed, at least on the coverage side, a Massachusetts-style structure. So too did John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. The difference was that Obama initially fought the individual mandate.

In the end, he ended up supporting a … Massachusetts-style structure with an individual mandate. In other words, he moved from the Massachusetts-plan with one real variation to the Massachusetts-plan — towards the consensus, not away from it. The move wasn’t to Medicare for All, or a Clintonian managed care within managed competition, or Wyden-Bennett, or some approach that Obama dreamed up in consultation with Peter Orszag and Tom Daschle. It was just the consensus campaign approach with some concessions to the realities of the policy and the demands of Congress. Wheeler may think that’s a lot of movement. I’m surprised by how little of a stamp Obama chose to put on this policy, particularly given the work that past presidents, like Clinton, have put into developing an approach that is uniquely theirs.

I think Ezra’s on to something, and it is good to point out that there are some unique features to healthcare reform relating to the fact that so many center-left and leftist types have been chasing that goose for so long. Barack Obama is a politician who has been on the national scene for all of 5 years, but he’s surrounded by people who have been in Washington thinking about healthcar reform for twenty years, give or take. And some of those people are in Congress (I’m looking at you John Dingell). The Democratic Party’s committment to universal healthcare goes back to before Obama was even born. It is, in other words, a fairly odd situation at the intersection of party and issue, and Obama is in the odd position of being a President who, to a large degree, is simply overshadowed by the achievement itself, but to an even larger degree, he’s walking into a governing situation where a lot of key players in Congress have spent a long time working on this issue, and aren’t necessarily inclined to suddenly cede ground to the White House on putting the bill together, particularly a President who is as new on the scene as Obama. Allowing Congress to take the lead on the bill was probably a smart move, if for no other reason than Congressional Democrats probably weren’t going to allow the situation to play out any differently.

Another way of looking at it is outlined by Matt Yglesias:

I think that most people vastly overrate the President’s ability to influence this kind of thing. But one reason that people overrate it is that presidential candidates encourage unrealistic expectations. Obama didn’t canvass the country saying “I will use my agenda-setting powers to encourage congress to take up comprehensive health reform and then meekly accept whatever the 60th-most-liberal senator is willing to agree to.” Primary candidates competed with one another to offer the most aggressively sound climate change plans instead of acknowledge that this was all wishful thinking and congress would constrain the limits of the possible. Obama in particular encouraged the idea that he could and would deploy his undeniable skills at set-piece speech delivery to cause legislative action.

I’ve made the point for some time that the way we act as though Congress simply doesn’t exist, with pretty much every candidate declaring that, “when I’m President, we’re going to get…” obscuring the broader point that these things have to go through Congress, clear the filibuster in the Senate, and so on. And while Matt frames this as the fault of candidates, I don’t really think it is, and all else being equal I think legitimate candidate, anyway, would very much like a campaign that was more reflective of the systemic reality. Rather, I think the problem is pretty much exactly what you see playing out right now; voters want a Presiddent to “lead,” and acknowledging the primacy of Congress doesn’t seem much like leading, especially since most Americans generally don’t much like Congress. So as long as a certain number seemingly legitimate candidates are willing to play along, everyone else is basically forced into the game as well. I mean, imagine the reaction John McCain would have gotten if instead of putting out policy white papers or trying to discuss healthcare or climate matters with Barack Obama he just acknowledged that it was highly unlikely he would be able to pass anything with a Democratic Congress. And that, I think, is te fault of a political media who, largely ignorant of the way American government works, plays along with the charade instead of putting on the brakes and trying to inform their viewers, because arguments between Presidential candidates that are presented as being crucial make for better television I guess.

Making Headway Against AQ? A Suspiciously Timely Article From The Washington Post

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

An article about efforts against Al Qaeda in AfPak that makes my spider-sense tingle, from the WaPo:

U.S. and international intelligence officials say that improved recruitment of spies inside the al-Qaeda network, along with increased use of targeted airstrikes and enhanced assistance from cooperative governments, has significantly reduced the terrorist organization’s effectiveness.

A U.S. counterterrorism official said that the combined advances have led to the deaths of more than a dozen senior figures in al-Qaeda and allied groups in Pakistan and elsewhere over the past year, most of them in 2009. Officials described Osama bin Laden and his main lieutenants as isolated and unable to coordinate high-profile attacks.
A convenient time for an article to come out extolling the success we are having against Al Qaeda, no? Here’s my problem with just these two paragraphs: First off,  this sounds exactly like what the Bush White House said for years about their campaign against AQ, right up until the point that it was revealed that bin Laden et al. had reconstituted their organization and were back on the grind and better than ever. The last sentence is literally word for word what the Bush administration used to say: UBL and his lieutenants are isolated and cannot coordinate attacks.

Second, the “enhanced assistance from cooperative governments” is rather obviously an allusion to Pakistan, and the reason it is phrased so obliquely is that if they came out and said Pakistan was doing a better job, they would be laughed at. The Pakistani government is coming apart at the seams. They are unable to affect anything in the Federally Administered Tribal Regions where AQ Central is hanging out; even when Musharraf, who at least made a half-assed effort to try to help, sent troops in to FATA and the North-West Frontier, they were beaten by the ragtag tribal militias. And on top of it all, the new head of the military (the real power in Pakistan) is an Islamist and former chief of the ISI-D who is explicitly pro-Taliban.

Third, the body count also harkens back to the days of yore, when Bush would give speeches talking about the number of high- and medium-value AQ targets that had been killed. He stopped giving those for a reason: Al Qaeda now has a pool of trained, combat-tested veterans to move up into managerial positions when one of the top dogs are killed. The phrase “and allied groups” gives me pause too, because this could mean that they’re killing Taliban chiefs, who are significantly easier to get because they actually come into Afghanistan to get killed, and not members of the Al Qaeda shura (ruling council).

A good analogy would be the prosecution of the American Mafia. After every high-profile case that ended in convictions (Lucky Luciano, Murder Incorporated, the Pizza Connection, the Five Families RICO case), US attorneys would crow about how they had killed the mob, or reduced them to unorganized street gangs. And of course, two years after one of these big convictions, the Five Families or the Chicago Outfit had quietly moved their veteran soldiers up into the executive positions and continued on as per usual. And this went on for seventy years, before any real headway was made against Cosa Nostra.

More from the article:

The most important new weapon in the Western arsenal is said to be the recruitment of spies inside al-Qaeda and affiliated organizations, a long-sought objective. “Human sources have begun to produce results,” Richard Barrett, head of the United Nations’ al-Qaeda and Taliban monitoring group, said Tuesday. Barrett is the former chief of Britain’s overseas counterterrorism operations.

Current and former senior U.S. officials, who spoke about intelligence matters on the condition of anonymity, confirmed what one former CIA official called “our penetration of al-Qaeda.” A senior administration official said that success had come “because of, first of all, very good intelligence capabilities . . . to locate and identify individuals who are part of the al-Qaeda organization.”

Director of National Intelligence Dennis C. Blair referred obliquely in an interview with reporters earlier this month to the use of spies, saying that “the primary way” that U.S. intelligence determines which terrorist organizations pose direct threats is “to penetrate them and learn whether they’re talking about making attacks against the United States.”

Now this is the part where I fervently hope that this revelation is psychological warfare against the Taliban and AQ to paralyze them with paranoia over moles in their organizations. It is a very effective tactic, see: James  Jesus Angleton. Given the incredible difficulty of inserting an intelligence officer into AQ, or even getting one of their members to flip and become a double agent, revealing that information for political reasons would border on the criminal.

Recent claims of significant success against al-Qaeda have become part of White House deliberations about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, centering on a request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander there, for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign that will require more U.S. troops. Discussions began in earnest Tuesday as senior national security and military officials met with President Obama.

Those within the administration who have suggested limiting large-scale U.S. ground combat in Afghanistan, including Vice President Biden, have pointed to an improved counterterrorism effort as evidence that Obama’s principal objective — destroying al-Qaeda — can be achieved without an expanded troop presence.

And in the first paragraph we have the reason that the White House leaked this story to WaPo. McChrystal’s public demand for tens of thousands of extra troops, which really are necessary if we are going to nation-build the way the Hillary-Holbrooke axis wants to, has put Obama in an awkward position, because the Congress doesn’t particularly want to do that.  The bright side is, they do seem to be rethinking their strategy of just throwing more soldiers into the meatgrinder. Cyncial as I am, I don’t want to think that this is just a stall to twist arms on Capitol Hill.

I don’t want to give the impression that I believe McChrystal (and Clinton and Holbrooke) are right.  Nation-building will never work in a place like A-stan; I wrote an article about it a few months ago. Joe Biden has the right strategy, though he has so far lost the internecine battles: A smaller number of American troops, mostly composed of Special Operations and Special Forces operators with close air support, in a strictly counterterrorism role. So, despite the fact that this article is disingenuous, if it helps stop a counterproductive and downright disastrous troop escalation, I’m willing to take that.

“Caught With Their Hand In The Cookie Jar,” Or Why The World Is Pretending To Be Surprised About Iran’s Nuclear Program

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

From the article  “Obama’s Iran Trap” in Foreign Policy:

The conventional wisdom on last week’s astonishing revelations about Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment site, tucked in a mountainside near the holy city of Qom, holds that Barack Obama has just pulled off a diplomatic coup, raising the pressure on Tehran going into a critical Oct. 1 big-powers meeting and finally getting the Russians to agree to U.N. sanctions with real bite.

First off, you should treat any paragraph that begins with “the conventional wisdom” with deep skepticism, because what it really means is “what the chattering class thinks” and that’s never a good barometer of reality.  Secondly, how in the world is the fact that Iran has multiple sites for its nuclear program an astonishing revelation? Even cable news has been talking about this for four years, how airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear installations would involve hundreds of sorties on dozens of targets. Is the fact that President Ahmadinejad disclosed the existence of just one of the numerous sites that even the public knows exists, let alone the CIA or Mossad, really all that jaw-dropping?

Don’t be so sure. Obama may not have had much choice given that Iran had just notified the International Atomic Energy Agency of its new nuke plant, but the U.S. president is the one with a problem now. By revealing this information, he has painted himself into a corner and made an Israeli strike more likely.

Obama has not painted himself into any sort of corner with this declaration. Here’s why. This “astonishing” announcement is just yet another in a series of posturing United Nations pressers that have been going on since former president Bush threw down the gauntlet concerning the Iranian nuclear program years ago, and almost all of it has been for naught.

And the chance of an Israeli strike on Iran  against the wishes of  Washington is virtually nil. A little known story is that at the end of the Bush Administration, then-Prime Minister Olmert had decided that Israel would take out the nuclear facilites at Natanz and other sites with, of all things, nuclear bunker-busters, to reach the facilities deep underground. Apparently oblivious to the irony, the Israelis approached the Bush White House with a request for the latest in air-dropped tactical nukes, and Olmert was told in no uncertain terms by Bob Gates and Condi Rice that the United States would not support it. The strikes, which were far enough along that pilots were already flying practice sorties, were quietly  scrapped.

Besides that, an Israeli attack into Iran would require traversing Iraqi airspace. Under the new Status of Forces agreement, Iraqi airspace actually belongs to the Iraqis again, and their Shi’ite-dominated government is very buddy-buddy with the mullahs.

For one thing, it’s not clear that “the Russians” have really agreed to sanctions. Yes, President Dmitry Medvedev emerged from his meeting with Obama last week to suggest he was on board. And we know that U.S. national security advisor James L. Jones pulled aside Sergei Prikhodko, his Russian counterpart, to tell him the news about the second Iranian plant. (Officially Medvedev’s advisor, Prikhodko is really Putin’s top foreign-policy boss, and chances are he accompanied Medvedev to New York to be the prime minister’s ears and eyes on the ground.)

What we don’t know is what Putin thinks. But as demonstrated last year when the prime minister abruptly left the Olympics to supervise the war with Georgia, he’s still very much in charge. (Right on schedule, a Russian foreign ministry source reportedly said today that everyone should “calm down” over Iran’s latest missile test and “not give way to emotions.”) And then there’s China, which came out with a typically milquetoast statement after Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made their dramatic announcement Thursday morning at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Everyone knows that serious sanctions mean fuel, as Iran, for all its oil, still has to import a great deal of refined petroleum (just how much is disputed) to make its economy run. But the Chinese get 15 percent of their oil from Iran. Needless to say, getting meaningful sanctions through the U.N. Security Council is far from assured.

It really doesn’t matter whether or not sanctions are actually pushed through the Security Council, Iran has been under sanctions for well over a decade and doesn’t seem too distraught about it. The only sanctions that would truly hurt them would be oil sanctions, but there is no way in hell China or especially Britain would ever go for that. The faux-dramatic press conference is just the usual dog-and-pony show while the real action takes place in the smoky back room.

The real dope is that whether or not the Russians will support tougher economic sanctions against Iran, they are in a position to make Iran’s life difficult in much more meaningful ways. They are their main arms supplier and have been supplying them with nuclear tech and know-how. The deal that was struck to scrap the anti-ballistic missile system in Eastern Europe seems to have been a straight-up horse trade with Medvedev (well, Putin really, as the article points out): Russia gets breathing room in the Near Abroad, and America gets transit rights involving Afghanistan and a stronger public stance from Moscow on an Iranian nuclear breakout. How much pressure Medvedev is willing to apply outside the auspices of the UN is the real question.

. . . .[T]he Iran issue is going to become a major headache for Obama. It’s going to strengthen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s argument that Iran’s nuclear program, not West Bank settlements or the plight of the Palestinians, is the real crisis in the Middle East. It’s going to put wind in the sails of neoconservatives and Republicans in Washington, who are all too eager to paint the U.S. president as weak and ineffectual when Tehran doesn’t buckle. What is Barack going to do then? Bomb Iran himself and wreck his Middle East hopes? Let Iran go nuclear and turn the nonproliferation regime into a sick joke? Give sanctions “time to work” — and consign a generation of Iranians to radicalism, growing ethnic strife, and crushing poverty?

I’m not sure how much of a headache it’s really going to be, considering that no one in any position to affect American foreign policy should give a tinker’s damn what the American neoconservatives or the Likudniks (the Israeli neocons), especially Netanyahu, after seven years of watching that failed ideology drive our country’s national security and international clout off a cliff. Of course, there is a valid point to the observation, because our Very Serious journalists in the op-ed pages and cable news will hang on the prognostications of Bill Kristol et al. as if they have any credibility left after being spectacularly wrong about everything since 2002.

The one thing I wholeheartedly agree with is that Obama does not really have any good options concerning Iran, at least not if people expect the endgame to be Iran giving up their nuclear program. Like chess, where there are scores of possible opening moves but only a few that won’t result in your quick defeat, the president doesn’t have many diplomatic options to choose from. The absolute best-case scenario is that Iran only wants to attain a status like Germany and Japan, with no actual atomic built but the capability to put one together in a couple weeks if necessary. The more likely scenario, given that an Iranian nuclear breakout is virtually assured unless someone goes to war over it, is that America will have to switch its priorities from nonproliferation to counterproliferation, keeping Iran from selling its knowledge to even nuttier and more unstable Third World countries.

Much Love For The Steel City: The G-20 And The Rust Belt Renaissance

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

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By Tommy Brown

As the apparatchiks of the globalized economy departed my fair hometown this past Saturday, I am happy to report that Pittsburgh came out looking very well in pretty much all aspects. Our image as Steeltown USA (“hell with the lid off”) and/or a dying Rust Belt town crippled by the loss of the industry that defined us for generations has been put to bed, hopefully for good.

The most powerful men on the planet and their international entourages pleasantly surprised to find a formerly depressed city that had shed its industrial roots and reinvented itself for the information/service economy of the new century.  Maybe even a model for the dozens of other Rust Belt cities between the Mon Valley and Chicago dying a slow and painful economic death.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s some articles from the national and international media:

From Forbes:

. . . President Barack Obama sees in Pittsburgh a way forward for the American city in the 21st century. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, “It’s an area that has seen its share of economic woes in the past but because of foresight and investment is now renewed–giving birth to … industries that are creating the jobs of the future. And I think [Obama] believes it would be a good place to highlight some of that.”

Pittsburgh boasts world-class culture and president-approved industries crucial to the growth of the nation (education, health care, technology, energy), but it will never be New York. Pittsburgh is also a conglomeration of neighborhoods, where mom-and-pop stores are still a staple and people greet their neighbors in the supermarket, but it’s no small town. In the city’s historic South Side, mega-chains like Urban Outfitters coexist with tiny consignment boutiques that have persisted for over a decade, and a Cheesecake Factory is just a stone’s throw from a row of old biker bars.

Pittsburgh is, in other words, a big city with a small-city mindset. Or maybe it’s a small city with big-city ideas. Either way, it is negotiating–sometimes precariously, sometimes with aplomb–a balance between these two spheres. As city councilman Bill Peduto says, “It is figuring out how to become global while staying local.” Which is perhaps the greatest challenge in this age of rapid globalization and economic turmoil.

From WaPo’s “Pittsburgh Shows How the Rust Belt Can Be Polished Up”:

Pittsburgh has shaken off its smoky image, transformed by an industrial collapse that drove out half of the city’s population in the early 1980s. As the Group of 20 gathers Thursday, members are more likely to ask what Pittsburgh can teach them than why they had to come here.The city’s unemployment rate is well below the national average. Wages and housing prices are stable or up. Nearby Cleveland has experienced rampant foreclosures, but here they are relatively uncommon.

The city’s main industries — health care and education — are thriving. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, an $8 billion health-care company, employs 50,000 people in western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh’s health services business has almost tripled in size since 1979, creating more than 100,000 jobs.

It is quite a turnaround for a city that lost 120,000 jobs between 1981 and 1984, after its steel industry collapsed. Thousands of young residents fled the city to find work, and unemployment reached 17 percent among those who remained. Much as with Detroit today, many wondered whether Pittsburgh could continue to exist.

“But here we are, still a major center and doing well,” said Christopher Briem, an urban studies expert at the University of Pittsburgh. “The lesson is that there’s life after your defining industry dies.”

From the BBC, with the can’t-resist-the-stupid-pun headline “Pittsburgh Steeled to be Host City”:

Another [thought by the White House] was ensuring that the Pittsburgh story told a positive story about Obama’s America.

Later in the article. . .

And the symbolism?

Well, the population of Pittsburgh seems remarkably on-message. Local politicians, business leaders and folks in cafes and bars will all tell you the same story.

Pittsburgh – the grimy old steel town that was a powerhouse of American heavy industry and made its money under choking clouds of smoke from its mills and mines – is no more.

Locals have been making their feelings clear about declining industries

In its place is a clean, green example of regeneration. A city where pleasure cruisers carry tourists between the wooded banks of its three rivers and where people make a living in services such as health and education or in hi-tech business.

No-one puts it better than Frank Coonelly, president of the city’s baseball team the Pittsburgh Pirates: “It’s a remarkable transformation, not just of the economy but of the city itself from an industrial steel town to a city that now really is driven by hi-tech and service sectors.

“People who think of Pittsburgh as a smoky steel town, when they come in here this week they’ll see quite a different thing.”

It feels like the perfect message for the Obama administration to send out from a city which is about become the backdrop for 1,000 TV reporters from around the world.

And a piece from Voice of America on our new wave of immigration in a city that has always been defined by an ethnic makeup of Irish, Italian, “hunky” (those of Eastern European descent) and black:

European immigrants flocked to western Pennsylvania at the dawn of the industrial age to work in the steel mills and factories of Pittsburgh, which was the world-famous “Steel City” well into the 20th century. Over the past 50 years, however, heavy industry has been leaving Pittsburgh, along with tens of thousands of jobs. But over time Pittsburgh essentially “reinvented” itself, and the city is now best known for high-technology enterprises, medical specialties, banks and universities. That transformation has prompted a new wave of immigrants, this time including many from south Asia. Families originally from India now are one of Pittsburgh’s largest ethnic communities, and they are thriving.

Your Humble Author has to admit a certain amount of hometown pride in seeing a city that when I was a child and teenager was written off as another Gary, Indiana or Baltimore in the making become the example for other ailing metropolises to adapt to the 21st century.

He’s Not God

Monday, June 29th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I don’t know if it’s the central role the President plays in our contemporary political narratives, or a general desire to find one person to blame (for which The President is obviously a better stand-in than The Congress), but the tendency to blame Barack Obama for what are essentially Congressional, or structural, failings seems somewhat bizarre to me, if somewhat understanable, particularly coming from people who presumably spend enough time observing politics to understand the systemic problems. This post from Whiskey Fire seems representative of the genre:

The economy is in shambles and people realize that we need safety net services like extended unemployment and maybe a government health insurance option. The time is ripe to strike while the iron is hot and Obama is shrugging his shoulders and saying ” I don’t know what do you guys think we should do?” Spineless, like a jellyfish. They call themselves Centrists, but to me they are conservative reactionaries, including Obama. He seems to be waffling on all the important issues that he received my vote and that of many other liberals to address.

On health care he is providing little leadership and seems to be waiting for the lowest common denominator, in this case both parties, to decide what it will allow so that it looks like something is changing while allowing the insurance company fuckers to continue raping us all wholesale. He has made no movement on repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and has completely left the gay community to hang out in the wind on the issue of marriage. Guantanamo is humming along with no real trials in site for the people detained there. Lest we forget, that 16 month withdrawal timetable in Iraq seems to have evaporated.

Now, I can empathize with the frustration, but putting all of this squarely on Obama is somewhere between unfair and childish. To take the points individually:

1. On the question of a timeline for withdrawing from Iraq, we do have a timeline in place, as part of the Status of Forces Agreement Agreement with the Iraqi government. It’s not exactly the plan Obama proposed, but it’s close enough that the costs of a new government unilaterally abrogating agreements with other countries would have outweighed the benefit of going with the plan Obama was proposing during the campaign. And really, this is one of those times where political observers should take pains to note that sometimes events change plans. When Obama was a candidate proposing a 16 month timetable for withdrawal, SOFA was not in place. By the time he was inaugurated, it had been agreed to by both the US and Iraqi government. So this isn’t so much an example of a politician saying one thing and doing another, so much as it’s an example of changing plans based on a new circumstance. And people who rightly mocked Bush for his “stay the course” attitude and complained about the hubris of unilateralism run amok during the last 8 years shouldn’t be complaining that the new President won’t rigidly adhere to a peviously outlined plan made under a different set of facts, nor unilaterally abrogate an agreement with another government.

2. As far as Gitmo goes, I don’t really see how you can make this kind of a complaint without so much as noting in passing that Obama asked Congress for the money to facilitate closing the place, but Congress rejected it. Regardless of the other issues surrounding Obama’s performance here, Congress certainly isn’t without substantial blame.

3. I haven’t written much about Obama and gay rights, mostly because I don’t care to challenge what seems to be a pretty comprehensive truism at this point, and because my argument against it isn’t really that riveting. Bsically, I just don’t see what Obama can actually do. The progressive line on gay rights strikes me as very similar to the neocon line on Iran; if only Obama would say X, everything would be awesome. The notion that Obama can unilaterally end DADT is just false. The UCMJ is law, and as such it requires an act of Congress to change it. Obama could take a tougher line on it, but he’s just not likely to walk into that minefield while healthcare reform is working its way through Congress. And he could theoretically issue a stop-loss order to prevent the discharging of indiduals found guilty under it, but that would leave the policy in place, officially, and probably destroy any will on the Hill to repeal it altogether, which doesn’t strike me as being desireable from a social justice standpoint. On the question of gay marriage, the President has even less authority. Obviously he can’t order the states to recognie same-sex marriage, and it’s not even clear to me that Congress would have the authority to pass such a bill. Unsatisfying as it may be, the only real way the federal government can move anything forward on gay marriage is through the courts, which Obama has no control over, short of appointing judges, and through a Constitutional amendment, which the President has nothing to do with, and which is also highly unlikely to be successful. So while I can appreciate that the lack of progress on gay rights is frustrating, I really don’t see what the President, any President, could realistically do to change that fact given the present circumstances.

4. Finally, on healthcare, this is just a common refrain at this point; the bill has to go through Congress, and there’s nothing the executive can do to affect that. He can threaten to veto an ultimate bill, but that’s not going to work, because it just won’t be believeable, if for no other reason than that the White House needs a bill much more than Congress does. But this would be the case even if Obama were taking a more overtly active role in public; this would still be Congress’s baby, and the President would lack any real ability to substantively affect the sausage making.

On the one hand, I’m sure this all sounds like nit-picking, unjustified Obama defense. But I don’t really think that’s the issue. If you’re looking to “pressure” people i politics, it’s very important you pressure the right people. That goes for laying blame as well. If progressives are routinely blaming failings of Congress, or of the underlying system, on the White House, that just leaves you aiming at a target who can’t really respond to your criticism, because they’re not the problem, and it also deflects attention from the real problem spot, as well as giving Congress more cover to continue what they’re doing, because they’re not catching the heat for it.

He’s Got This: Healthcare Edition

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Does President Obama need to say more about healthcare reform to help it through Congress? A lot of people are saying so lately, but Ezra doesn’t think so:

In 1994, President Bill Clinton exhausted his political capital guiding the development of the legislation. Barack Obama, by contrast, has saved his to push for its passage. Once Finance and HELP and the House Tri-Committee have laid down their markers, then the White House will, and should, get involved. They’ll have to figure out which edges need to be sanded off for political passage and which priorities are too important to sacrifice on the altar of senatorial ego. But there’s no reason to rush that moment. For now, the White House should have as little to do as possible with the various legislative products. Let the committees absorb the blows of the bad weeks. Let the early coalitions present themselves. Let the Republicans show their strategy in the mark-up sessions. Let the CBO score all the different options. Let the legislature familiarize itself with different revenue options. Wait. Wait and wait and wait. Wait until Congress has pushed this as far upfield as it’s able.

Then open up the White House. Then have Obama on TV. Then have Rahm on the phone with legislators. Then take Olympia Snowe for a ride on Marine One. The White House can exert explosive force on a piece of legislation, but it can only do so effectively for a short period of time. That was the mistake Clinton White House made in 1994. By the time their legislation was near reality, administration officials were so deeply involved that they couldn’t add external momentum.

I mostly agree with Ezra’s take on the question. The White House, in general, is traditionally pretty good for whipping votes and twisting the arms of lingering lawmaker, but it’s usually pretty hard for the White House to directly influence the nuts and bolts of a bill, particulary one as big as a fundamental, decades coming, overhaul of healthcare. This is why the Clinton administration’s approach was a fundamental mistake; for better or worse, the vast majority of institutional power in making domestic policy is concentrated in Congress. Even if Obama had followed Clinton’s lead and sent Congress a full bill, ready to be voted on, it would still be going through the same processes as it is right now. There would still be relevant committee hearings, CBO scorings, and amendments. Things would still be handled on Congress’s schedule, and there really wouldn’t be anything the White House could do to change it. By letting Congress take the lead, you eventually get something people can agree on, and that can get to the President’s desk. What that is, exactly, is important, but it’s an important first step. And it’s one I think people overlook more than they should. We’re going to get some kind of healthcare reform this Congress. It’s too fundamental an issue to the Democratic Party, and too much talk has been put into it to not pass anything on the issue. The question is simply how good the bill is going to be. I think the White House should be doing what they can to make sure the bill that gets to Obama’s desk is a good one, but you’re not going to see those kinds of negotiations play out on CNN.

Obama’s Cairo Speech

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

You can read the full transcript here.

There’s simultaneously a lot to say about the speech, and not a lot to say about it, which I guess is a sign that it was very good diplomacy. The remarks about terrorism were boilerplate and to be expected, the remarks about religious freedom and women’s rights underwhelming. It was interesting to see the President talking about the importance of democracy in Egypt, a country notorious for its less-than-liberal-democratic system, and I doubt many people missed the reference, but, again, it was fairly mild stuff, probably easily shrugged off by the Mubarak government.

The remarks about Israel, namely the settlements, are very important, however. The President of the United States, in a major diplomatic speech the White House has been hyping since before the inauguration, went on record opposing further settlement building in the occupied territory, including so-called natural growth. This comes after both the Vice-President, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Secretary of State, both carrying some individual heft in their own right, took similar positions. This means that it’s not only the administration’s position that settlement growth must hault, but that real capital is being put behind it. This is real pressure on Bibi to halt settlement growth, which puts him in something of a hard place. Most Israelis don’t care much about, or for, the settlements, and would probably not appreciate their government slighting their most important ally over them. But the largest minor partner in Bibi’s coalition cares about their growth very much, and might very well sink Bibi’s tenure if Netanyahu reneges on expanding development. Obama has, in other words, put Netanyahu in something of an impossible spot politically, which suggests that rumors the Obama administration were looking for new Israeli partners might have had something to them.

The Right’s Comedy Deficit

Monday, May 11th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

I didn’t really think Wanda Sykes was all that funny at the WHCA dinner (to be fair, I don’t really think anyone is all that funny at the WHCA dinner. Even Colbert wasn’t all that funny for a good chunk of his routine, and most of the humor in his infamous appearance was the realization that he was actually doing this bit with Bush standing about 10 feet away from him), but the utterly predictable bleating about double standards from conservatives is ridiculous, and says a lot more about them than it does about anyone else.

As far as I can tell, it’s perfectly ok for white people to tell jokes about non-white people. I haven’t noticed any harm done to Jeffrey Ross’s career after this appearance (NSFW):

And I mean, that’s brutal. He calls Shaq a knuckle-dragging gorilla for crying out loud. And everyone is laughing hysterically. Of course, the important factor is context. Jeffrey Ross is a professional comedian, and the venue is a roast. That’s what happens at a roast. Everyone knows that going in, so everyone understands that it’s all in good fun. The same goes for George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, etc.

The problem the right has when they try to “joke” about Barack Obama, or minorities in general, is that they’re not really joking. Jokes have punchlines. There’s no punch line when Rush Limbaugh compares Obama to a terrorist or declares that you have to “bend over and grab your ankles” because he’s black. And so ultimately what this boils down to is more right-wing victimology; they’re mad that they don’t get carte blanche to be hateful and claim that they were “just joking” after the fact, no matter how little sense that makes, and so they claim a double standard exists and that they’re obviously victims of it, even if it makes no sense under even modest scrutiny. I mean really, watch a couple of Lisa Lampanelli routines and tell me that white people can’t make fun of minorities.

But what the Malkinesque right really wants is cover to be more overt racists. Plain and simple.

Wherein I Agree with the Media

Friday, May 8th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Via Kevin Drum:

But executives at the Big Four broadcast networks are seething behind the scenes that President Obama has cost them about $30 million in cumulative ad revenue this year with his three primetime news conference pre-emptions.

Now top network execs quietly are hoping that Fox’s well-publicized rejection of the president’s April 29 presser will serve as precedent for denying future White House requests for prime airtime.

“We will continue to make our decisions on White House requests on a case-by-case basis, but the Fox decision gives us cover to reject a request if we feel that there is no urgent breaking news that is going to be discussed,” said one network exec, who, like all, would not speak for attribution fearing repercussions from the administration.

“If the president wants to make it tough for your network, he can,” the exec added.

It’s tempting enough to laugh off the executives, or mock them for their unseriousness, or whatever, but then, $30 million is nothing to sneeze at, especially not these days. On the other hand, I’m largely sympathetic to them on the substance of the matter; these press conferences are generally useless, and the idea that every network needs to run them simultaneously is rather silly. I mean, it’s 2009 people. An overwhelming majority of households have cable or satellite television, and those that don’t have PBS. No one is going to be unable to watch the President’s press conferences if CBS, ABC, and NBC networks aren’t airing them. I suppose there’s something to be said for a basic level of civic requirement that goes along with having access to the public airwaves, but even then, I think we’d be better served to have that energy allocated to original reporting. NBC running an original story on embezzlement at the Department of the Interior or exploring the ways defense industry lobbyists cozy up to policy makers to entrench platform manufacturing has a real marginal value to the public information base. NBC airing a press conference that’s running simultaneously on damn near a dozen other networks has no marginal value whatsoever.

Who knows, it might even diminish these sorts of news-as-political theater pieces altogether.

Obama Needs to Pick a Woman

Monday, May 4th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

In the wake of the announcement that David Souter would be retiring from the Supreme Court, Mark Halperin loudly declared on his Time hosted blog that, regarding Souter’s replacement, “white men need not apply.” Halperin was probably right on the factual content of the headline. His problem, however, was in assuming that this is a bad thing.

Since the ratification of the Constitution, 110 individuals have sat on the Supreme Court. 2 of them were white females, two of them were black males, 106 of them have been white males. Of the current 9 justices, including Souter, 1 is a white female, one is a black male, 7 of them are white males. All of them are Ivy League graduates who sat on an appellate court prior to their nomination to the Supreme Court. And while Latinos now represent the largest minority group in the United States, there has never been a Hispanic justice on the Court. Similarly, there are no openly gay members of the Court, even though the most prominent Constitutional questions the Court will hear over the next decade will likely revolve around gay rights.

This sort of under representation is hardly unique to the Court, women and minorities hardly have proportional representation in Congress or other avenues of elected office either, but it is indisputably distorting of decisions that come out of the court. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that the Court would have ruled in favor of Goodyear in the infamous Ledbetter case if Sandra Day O’Connor had still been on the bench instead of Justice Alito, even though O’Connor, like Justice Kennedy, was generally favorable to business interests in such statutory questions, for the simple reason that, as a woman herself, O’Connor would simply have a better understanding of the reality of discrimination in the work force, and of the difficulty in fighting it. Her identity, in other words, would serve as a crucial part of her general outlook, the same way a white male’s identity plays a role in the way he views the world. Because, perhaps more than anything other than class, our identity fundamentally shapes the nature of our experiences. A woman, or a minority, has simply seen different aspects of our society, and experienced shared events from a different perspective than a white male.

What’s more, at this point in time, a Court that is 88% male is simply unjustifiable. Women make up 51% of the American population, and 48% of its law school graduates. There are hundreds of women on the federal bench, and thousands on state courts across the country.  Dozens of high profile legal scholars and professors are women, and women have served as the dean of prestigious law schools across the country. Considering that 8 justices have been confirmed to the court since Sandra Day O’Connor became the institution’s first female member, the fact that only one of them has been a woman should be a mark of national shame.

Critics would counter that Obama should nominate the “most qualified candiate,” but this largely misrepresents to pool of potentials. Across the realm of prior experience that has marked previous justices; prominent legal scholars, federal jurists, politicians, etc., there are hundreds of potential nominees for a President to select from, and no way to objectively quantify them. Any standard one could think of is fraught with subjectivity and determination of personal preference. Given that fact, there’s no reason some level of identity shouldn’t be taken into consideration, in seeking a court that will have a reasonable level of diversity in regards to experiences.

Sonia Sotomayor would be only the third woman to ever serve on the Court, as well as its first Hispanic justice. And while she graduated from Yale Law School, growing up in the Bronx is hardly a typical starting point for a Supreme Court justice. With that in mind, Sotomayor would make an excellent addition to the Supreme Court; she would challenge groupthink amongst the white male dominated Court (if Sotomayor does replace Souter, 2/3 of the Court would still be made up of white males), and she certainly has the qualifications for the job.

CNBC: Less Obama Bashing is Creepy

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

The New York Post reports that there was some serious pushback from CNBC to alleged directions from NBC and General Electric directions to “tone down” on-air criticism of President Barack Obama:

When GE CEO Jeff Immelt and NBC Universal president Jeff Zucker met recently with CNBC executives and on-air talent, was there really pressure from the higher-ups to be less tough on Obama?

It’s a very serious charge, but the New York Post makes it. Reporting on the meeting today, one source claims that the network’s been urged to tone down the Obama-bashing. 

The first thing that comes to mind is that corporate ownership of media outlets continues to be problematic. General Electric, of course, makes military equipment, and this is a fairly large part of their business. If GE feels that excessive criticism of a current administration may jeopardize their defense contracts and impose a large hardship on the bottom line, that creates a pretty clear conflict of interest.

But, somewhat less insiduously, CNBC’s criticism of the Obama administration really has been pretty over the top. Jim Cramer has accused Obama of being on a campaign of “wealth destruction,” and called him a Marxist. CNBC employs National Review contributor Larry Kudlow. And, of course, there was the infaous Rick Santelli rant. Yesterday, Santelli was claiming to be “pretty proud” of the national tea parties, implying some sense of responsibility for them.

Now, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with any of this, but even allowing that, it’s certainly not the sort of thing a news network that wants to be seen as being an objective, unbiased, source of information would want to allow. It certainly doesn’t seem to rise to the level of “creepy,” when viewed through the prism of what is actually going on at CNBC.

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