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Archive for the ‘Obama Administration’ Category

My Take on Rahm

Friday, March 5th, 2010

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I can’t believe I’m saying this, but David Broder actually had a good column yesterday, successfully bringing an insider’s knowledge and veteran’s perspective to put something of a dampening on the round of Rahmapalooza that’s broken out in the past week. The articles in the Post were mostly awful, not really giving you much insight into what’s going on, and with no real way to evaluate the veractiy of its claims. Noam Scheiber’s profile in TNR is much better, although that estimation is certainly clouded by the fact that it basically tracks with what I’ve assumed the intra-administration working dynamic looks like. I think Ezra gets it basically right; other than the day to day management of the White House staff, Rahm’s job is basically to be a politics guys, especially legislative politics. And when arguments arise over policy, Rahm is basically losing to the people who are there to shape policy. I think that’s basically a good thing, although it’s interesting to note that two arguments Rahm lost on, doing financial reform early in 2009 and telling Max Baucus to drop the Gang of Six stalling, are clearly places where you could make a very good case that he really should have been listened to and, assuming the claims are correct, really can give Obama some flak for not taking his advice. On the other hand, without knowing why Obama went the other direction, I guess that’s sort of a hard case to make. Maybe he believed that doing financial reform right really would take more time. In the case of Baucus, I find it very plausible that he, or the Vice-President, realized there was nothing they could really do to force a Senator to do something they didn’t want to do, and so simply not to antagonize the conservadem Finance chair. It’s really hard to say. But what we do get out of this, I think, is an understanding of a couple of points. First, that Rahm does have a pretty good feel for the politics of the administration’s agenda, even if his inclination is to trim the sails more than any of us would like. Secondly, that he is losing internal battles, and that he’s not the shadow President, secretly pulling Obama’s strings and selling the hippies out to corporate America.

Strategies Change Based on Circumstance

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

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I’ve been fairly critical of the certain segment of progressive activists who generally assume that everything good that happens is the result of the “50 State Strategy” Howard Dean came up with as DNC chair, and consequently attribute anything bad that happens to the decision to end it in 2009. Indeed, I’ve been fairly critical of the strategy itself. Dean basically devised it in an overreaction to his crushing defeat in the Iowa caucuses when, after busing in volunteers from outside the state and ignoring precinct captains and prominent local activists, he was trounced by Kerry and Edwards, whose campaigns had courted these local fixtures who could actually deliver votes in the caucuses. Dean’s response was basically to overestimate the effect local effects have on elections, or at least national elections. Congressional general elections are not the Iowa caucuses, after all. And so, Dean took DNC money and paid for state parties to hire additional field staff, which left less money to spend directly to Congressional candidates. But hey, Democrats won big in 2006 and 2008, so it’s not really a big deal now, nor would I necessarily say it was a failure, even though the 2006 elections pretty clearly showed that Dean was overreacting to 2004. But all’s well that ends well.

By contrast, 2010 simply isn’t 2006, or even 2008. Whereas the Democrats were an opposition party in 2008, and especially in 2006, now they control every lever of the legislative process, especially the White House. And the sort of strategy that works for an opposition party simply doesn’t work for a governing party. The criticism that the DNC is too heavily geared towards advocacy for the Obama administration is just stupid; how voters feel about Obama’s Presidency will be (along with employment) the primary factor in how Democrats do in national elections, and to a lesser extent state elections. That’s just the place our national elections have evolved to; we have a parliamentary political system without having a parliamentary governing system. People view the President as the leader of government, assign outsized blame/credit to him for what the government does, and then votes accordingly. If unemployment stays around 10% and Obama’s approval ratings slip to the low-to-mid-40’s, it won’t make a bit of difference how many field organizers the Democratic Party has on payroll. This is something Republicans did a good job of recognizing, and getting their members of Congress on board for, for the most part, and something Democrats really need to figure out. Everyone staking out their own positions and haggling against one another isn’t really effective at managing public opinion, signing on the White House’s agenda and working to get it through Congress quickly would provide a much better political strategy, especially given that the President is much more popular than any Congressional actor, and certainly more popular than Congress as a whole. Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman posturing against the President is one thing, but the Democratic caucus as a whole would do well to look out for the political fortunes of their President, because they’re inextricably wedded to him electorally.

On a more personal note, I’d add that one problem with the SPP worship is that the field organizers it paid for weren’t necessarily that good at what they were doing. Speaking from personal observation, Ohio Republicans ran strategic and tactical circles around their Democratic opponents in 2006. In fact, it wasn’t even close; it was sort of like watching the #1 team in the country play an FCS division school. But Republicans were so unpopular, nationally and at the state level, that it simply didn’t matter how good their campaigns and staff were; people didn’t want them in charge of government anymore. And so even though the Democrats were operationally overwhelmed, they won 4 of 5 state executive offices, got more votes for their House candidates, and even got Sherrod Brown elected to the Senate. All this, of course, because George Bush and Bob Taft were incredibly unpopular.

Leadership from the White House Is Still Not the Problem

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

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I don’t usually disagree with Ezra too much on healthcare reform matters, and he seems to have a pretty good handle on the political machinations involved, so seeing this from him surprises me a bit:

One other point on the public option: This has been a complete and utter failure of White House leadership. They need to give this effort their support, or they need to kill it by publicly stating their opposition. But they can’t simply wait for someone else to make the decision for them, which has been their strategy until now.Review Android Smartphone

On the one hand, I think Atrios is basically right to point out that, in releasing their own plan, the White House has staked out their position on reform, although I think the more relevant question is what the Senate will do here. Basically, I very much doubt that the White House is going to try to stomp out an effort to pass a public option in the Senate if 50 votes are actually there for it. But that’s the tricky part, because it isn’t really clear how many votes are there. It seems safe to assume that Lieberman, Nelson, Lincoln, Pryor, Bayh, Landrieu Carper, and Conrad are definite votes against it. Add in Jay Rockefeller, and assume Lautenberg won’t be able to mke the vote, and all you have left are 49 Democrats, assuming that all of them would vote for the public option, something that’s far from guaranteed. But maybe they could! It’s the uncertainty that makes it difficult to take a firm public stance. There’s also the question of whether the House could find the votes to pass a public option without the Stupak language. What I think the White House has managed to do is to find the easiest path through the minefield. If the votes for a public option via reconcilliation do materialize in the Senate, and the House can pass the same package, it will be much easier for the White House to sign off on it than it would be to backpedal away from public support for the public option, again, in the event that the votes for it can’t be found in Congress.

On the other hand, I really don’t see what good the White House can do either way here. Obama might be able to bring a few Senators on board by lobbying them to support the effort but most of that work would need to be done behind the scenes. Public support from the White House at this juncture would only raise the stakes and amplify the cost of failing to get the votes. Conversely, if liberal activists and lawmakers have their hopes up about a public option revival and don’t view this as a quixotic effort, then explicitly stamping out the effort isn’t going to make them feel any better about its failure so much as it guarantees they’ll be pissed off at the White House, probably for the remainder of Obama’s tenure in office. And if they haven’t gotten their hopes up, there’s no reason not to see if the movement can’t pick up more momentum. 50 votes in the Senate and 218 votes in the House is a higher hurdle than most people realize at this point, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The White House has been reluctant to gamble on too many moves to this point, and I’ve largely supported that, but in this case, I really do think they ought to put the money down to see another card. They won’t lose that much more than they’re already in for if they don’t see the card they need.

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Are Democrats Conspiring to Betray Public Option?

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010

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That’s Greenwald’s theory:

In other words, [Sen. Jay] Rockefeller was willing to be a righteous champion for the public option as long as it had no chance of passing (sadly, we just can’t do it, because although it has 50 votes in favor, it doesn’t have 60).  But now that Democrats are strongly considering the reconciliation process — which will allow passage with only 50 rather than 60 votes and thus enable them to enact a public option — Rockefeller is suddenly “inclined to oppose it” because he doesn’t “think the timing of it is very good” and it’s “too partisan.”  What strange excuses for someone to make with regard to a provision that he claimed, a mere five months ago (when he knew it couldn’t pass), was such a moral and policy imperative that he “would not relent” in ensuring its enactment.  […]

This is why, although I basically agree with filibuster reform advocates, I am extremely skeptical that it would change much, because Democrats would then just concoct ways to lack 50 votes rather than 60 votes — just like they did here.  Ezra Klein, who is generally quite supportive of the White House perspective, reported last week on something rather amazing:  Democratic Senators found themselves in a bind, because they pretended all year to vigorously support the public option but had the 60-vote excuse for not enacting it.  But now that Democrats will likely use the 50-vote reconciliation process, how could they (and the White House) possibly justify not including the public option?  So what did they do?  They pretended in public to “demand” that the public option be included via reconciliation with a letter that many of them signed (and thus placate their base: see, we really are for it!), while conspiring in private with the White House (which expressed “sharp resistance” to the public option) to make sure it wouldn’t really happen. 

There’s a few obvious mistakes Greenwald is making in this post. First of all, he’s overstating what Rockefeller said. As I’ve argued before, when you’re trying to make a point around a politician’s statement, you have to be careful to stick to what they actually said, because politicians carefully select their language. Rockefeller did not say he was completely opposed to using reconcilliation to pass a public option, he said he was “disinclined” to do so. What does that mean? I don’t really know, and neither does Greenwald. It’s certainly a pessimistic non-committal, at best, but it doesn’t give you any indication how committed Rockefeller is to this. Would he actually oppose the public option if there were 49 or 50 votes for it in the Senate? I don’t really think so, given the work his office did in writing the strong public option amendment in the Senate, but it’s possible. 

Secondly, Greenwald is constructing a bit of a strawman when he expresses his skepticism that you could get 50 votes for the public option. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve certainly been skeptical of the notion that there were 50 votes for it in the Senate, as have, among others, Ezra Klein and John Cole. Really, the only people I’ve seen who were certain there were enough votes for it were the progressive activists who spent the fall demanding Democrats use reconcilliation to get the bill done.

Lastly, Greenwald takes one person’s comment and spins a conspiracy involving the entire Democratic caucus. We’re to believe that, because Sen. Rockefeller doesn’t think using reconcilliation to pass the public option is a good idea, the entire recent campaign among a minority of the Democratic caucus is all a big sham. Aside from the obviously faulty reasoning here, I’m wondering to what extent Greenwald actually believes this. Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown have both signed the letter urging a reconcilliation vote on the public option, does Greenwald think these two Senators are just pulling a fast one on progressives? Does he think Bernie Sanders isn’t actually interested in passing the public option? And if he does (or even if he doesn’t), I’d like to see some actual evidence for his premise, not just more conspiracy theories. One political movement that’s consumed with paranoia and conspiracy theory is quite enough for me.

Wilder vs. Kaine

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

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by Brien Jackson

So I gather that the new meme about town is that Obama needs to fire all those rubes from Chicago who are stearing him wrong and “ruining his brand,” and while I think it’s pretty self-evidently stupid (I haven’t seen anyone explaining why Obama either wouldn’t face a major shit-storm for such a drastic staff shake-up, or won’t be hurt by it), it is what it is. But this article by former Virginia governor Doug Wilder in POLITICO makes even less sense in the genre. Wilder, in addition to calling out Rahm Emmanuel, takes aim at former Virginia governor and current DNC chairman Tim Kaine in a truly bizarre fashion:

Though I discussed with Tim what I was doing relative to the vice presidency, he and I never had any discussions as to whether he should be the national party chairman. There are several reasons why I felt then, and do now, that it is not a good fit for Tim, the party or Obama.

 Positioning Democrats as “tax and spend” has been a favorite pastime of Republicans. Another has been “soft on crime.”

Though I discussed with Tim what I was doing relative to the vice presidency, he and I never had any discussions as to whether he should be the national party chairman. There are several reasons why I felt then, and do now, that it is not a good fit for Tim, the party or Obama.

 Positioning Democrats as “tax and spend” has been a favorite pastime of Republicans. Another has been “soft on crime.”

Well look, I read a lot of Republican/conservative blogs, and get spam mail from a few right-wing blast email outfits and this is the first I’ve heard of this. So with plenty of time to train their sights on Kaine, Republicans haven’t. Which makes perfect sense, given that I can’t think of any election, ever, in which one of the party’s committee chairman became an issue. Not even the much more visible Howard Dean.

Wilder also pulls out the tired trope of the New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts election results, and the requisite ignoring of special elections in NY-20 and NY-23, and declares that the problem with Obama’s inner circle is that they lack sufficient executive branch experience, even though Rahm spent quite a bit of time in the Clinton White House. All of which creates a pattern in which the much more interesting question is; who pissed in Wilder’s corn flakes?

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.


Monday, December 14th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Matt Taibbi’s latest polemic in Rolling Stone has been the topic of the weekend, and since I’ve weighed in on it in comment sections elsewhere, I might as well add it to my own neglected blog. Kevin Drum, Digby, Matt Yglesias, Tim Fernholz, Ezra Klein, and Brad Delong have, in my opinion, the best responses, and you should read all of them. I’m not at all a fan of this article, and more generally I’m not a fan of Taibbi’s, but I suspect that’s as much because I’m not a fan of polemics in general more than anything else. I do, however, think this article does a good job exposing the genre’s weaknesses.

First of all, yes, there are factual errors, and no, they’re not really that important. Confusing various James Rubins and so on is embarrassing, but it’s not a mortal sin. I will give Taibbi that. The bigger problems come in the somewhat vague interpretation of “facts” and the interpretation thereof. For example, did Michael Froman have a large role in the transition process? Yes. Does that mean he “hired” Tim Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury? Of course not. Presidents-elect don’t outsource selections for top tier cabinet positions. It’s ridiculous. But it’s not technically wrong since it’s not technically a fact, it’s just a transparently absurd interpretation of events. And of course there’s the rather central notion that the corruption is represented by various officials’ connections to Robert Rubin, which is likewise completely ridiculous. Robert Rubin spent 2 years as the chairman of the National Economic Council under President Clinton and another 4 years as Treasury Secretary, meaning that you could pretty much connect anyone who worked on economic policy during the Clinton administration to Rubin. Does anyone expect that the Obama administration wouldn’t or shouldn’t have people who worked in the last Democratic administration in it? That facing a tough economic situation the administration should only be staffed with people who have never been around the job before? That seems, well, ridiculous doesn’t it?

More damning, I think, is the way Taibbi chooses to characterize the people he casts as the good guys, for lack of a better term. The stalwarts of the campaign who have supposedly been vanquished now that Obama no longer needs them to fool the lefties, namely Austan Goolsbee and Karen Kornbluh. Here’s how he introduced them:

In order to grasp the full horror of what took place, however, one needs to go back a few weeks before the actual bailout — to November 5th, 2008, the day after Obama’s election.That was the day the jubilant Obama campaign announced its transition team. Though many of the names were familiar — former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett — the list was most notable for who was not on it, especially on the economic side. Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who had served as one of Obama’s chief advisers during the campaign, didn’t make the cut. Neither did Karen Kornbluh, who had served as Obama’s policy director and was instrumental in crafting the Democratic Party’s platform. Both had emphasized populist themes during the campaign: Kornbluh was known for pushing Democrats to focus on the plight of the poor and middle class, while Goolsbee was an aggressive critic of Wall Street, declaring that AIG executives should receive “a Nobel Prize — for evil.”

Well that’s great and all, but it isn’t anywhere near the full story. Goolsbee has never been a populist hero before Taibbi’s article painted him that way, at least that I’m aware of, and prior to this he was best known as being the guy who assured the Canadian government that candidate Obama’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric in Ohio shouldn’t be taken seriously. His description of Kornbluh isn’t inaccurate in its own right, but as Ezra points out, Taibbi conveniently neglects to mention that Kornbluh served in the Treasury Department under Clinton as deputy chief of staff to…Robert Rubin! Indeed as Ezra points out, it’s easy to imagine that had Kornbluh gotten a more prominent role in the administration, she’d be on Taibbi’s list of nefarious Rubinites. Unfair conjecture you say? Well, look at the treatment Taibbi gives Jason Furman:

Just below Summers is Jason Furman, who worked for Rubin in the Clinton White House and was one of the first directors of Rubin’s Hamilton Project. The appointment of Furman — a persistent advocate of free-trade agreements like NAFTA and the author of droolingly pro-globalization reports with titles like “Walmart: A Progressive Success Story” — provided one of the first clues that Obama had only been posturing when he promised crowds of struggling Midwesterners during the campaign that he would renegotiate NAFTA, which facilitated the flight of blue-collar jobs to other countries. “NAFTA’s shortcomings were evident when signed, and we must now amend the agreement to fix them,” Obama declared. A few months after hiring Furman to help shape its economic policy, however, the White House quietly quashed any talk of renegotiating the trade deal.

Now we could quibble with this all day if we really wanted to, but I’ll skip all that for the purpose of noting that whether you like Furman or not, he was a top economic adviser to the Obama campaign in 2008. So the larger takeaway here is that whether or not you agree with Taibbi on how bad the financial industry is, what he’s unquestionably doing is grossly misstating the nature of the Obama campaign. Which is what makes Drum’s defense of the article rather bizarre:

But look: this is all just nitpicky bullshit.  Taibbi’s piece is basically about how the finance industry owns Congress and the Obama administration, and that’s basically true.  In fact, I have a piece coming out in a week or so in the print magazine that makes pretty much the same point.  My approach is different, and my language is all PG-rated, but my conclusions are pretty much the same.  The finance industry, through both standard lobbying and what Simon Johnson calls “intellectual capture,” has, over the decades since Reagan was elected, convinced nearly everyone that what’s good for Wall Street is good for America, and that what’s bad for Wall Street would be catastrophic for America.  Everything else follows from that.

Well look, that’s all great, but that isn’t really the point of  Taibbi’s article. Hell, that would be a pretty boring polemic. After all, who needs Matt Taibbi to tell them that the banks own Washington, especially Congress? We all know that! What people need Matt Taibbi to do is spin entertaining stories of personal malfeasance. And Taibbi delivers in spades, but he isn’t writing about “intellectual capture,” his narrative is that Obama “sold out.” That’s a very specific charge that’s very different than simply claiming the Obama administration has too much affinity for the banking industry. It’s also entirely untrue, as evidenced by the fact that Taibbi had to a) reinvent Austan Goolsbee as a raging populist, b) ignore Karen Kornbluh’s rather direct ties to the dreaded Robert Rubin and, c) ignore Jason Furman’s role in the Obama campaign.

Now maybe this doesn’t bother you, but it should. For one thing, if it’s wrong for Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity etc. to feed their audience bullshit and conspiracy theories to validate their emotion based beliefs about politics and policy, then it should be wrong when someone “on the left” does it too. More importantly, painting an inaccurate picture of Obama the candidate’s views on economics and finance doesn’t really help anyone who’s actually interested in the problems with intellectual capture or Washington’s closeness to Wall Street. If anything, examining how much candidate Obama was in line with mainstream Washington/Wall Street during the campaign and why no one cared about it at the time would be a much more helpful piece of journalism. But it wouldn’t have been very entertaining, definitely wouldn’t have been as controversial as this piece has been (links baby links!), and wouldn’t have stoked the victim role a large segment of the netroots needs to survive. So that’s not the piece Taibbi delivers. Which is really a shame because the problem of Wall Street capture of Congress is a problem that really could use a good tongue lashing from a writer as talented as Taibbi.

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.

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.

The Speech

Wednesday, September 9th, 2009

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Derek Jeter is chasing history, and there was other work to do too, so I haven’t watched the speech yet. I may have a post about it later, but I doubt it. I probably won’t have anything to add, and it probably won’t be worth remarking on anyway.

One thing I will say though, is that the Obama administration timed it perfectly. Plenty of people have noted that Bill Clinton did something similar, giving a September 1993 address on healthcare reform to Congress, which was exceptionally done, very well received…and completley useless. The reason for that, simply, was timing in the process. Clinton gave his speech as a sort of kickoff to the entire reform effort, which as we all know now was a massive mistake. Whatever room was opened by the successful speech closed sometime in the two full months that passed before the administration even submitted a bill to Congress, and was even further gone by the time Congress was even close to finished haggling over reform. By contrast, Obama is essentially kicking off the final stages of the process. Finance is set to kick out a bill, which will be reconciled with the HELP version and considered by the full Senate. We may have to take that to reconcilliation, withing two months we’ll probably have some sort of final bill out of Congress. The adminisration has taken some heat from all sides on how they’ve hanled the politics of this, but I think they deserve some credit for how they’ve conserved the ability of the President to step in and apply pressure, at the right time, to the debate.

Healthcare Reform and the Cableized Blogosphere

Monday, September 7th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

Dear God, is August over yet? Sign me up with everything Booman says. Listen to him. Please. This nonsense is just too much.

I really, really, don’t understand Netroots bloggers at this point. The healthcare posturing has had them turning every which way pretty much everyday, based on who was saying what at which point. Now we’ve got them chastising Obama, who’s on record supporting a public option, “selling out” over the public option because some “anonymous aides” said they’d be ok if they got a bill which didn’t include one. And apparently the President can now pass bills without a majority of Senators signing on. Who knew?

Ultimately though, I think what you’re seeing here is the cableization (yeah, I think I just made that up) of the blogosphere, where the need for new angles and new content on a pretty much constant basis necessitates these sort of freak outs everytime there’s a new statement or a new act to the ongoing theater of passing a major reform bill. I don’t know about you, but where I come from people in politics don’t always mean what they say. And sometimes they say stuff that doesn’t really mean anything. And I think there’s been an awful lot of that over the summer on healthcare reform, as relevant players have sort of been riding out the legislative process, which still moves at a much slower pace than the sturn un drag of the cable/blog world. So at this point, the blogosphere probably isn’t a much better source of analysis of this sort of stuff than cable. With the eception of Ezra Klein. Read him. Ignore pretty much everything else.

As for healthcare reform itself, I think we’re pretty much where we were always going to be. Reconcilliation isn’t available until October 15th, so Finance is dragging its feet a bit, but other than that, everyone else is more or less ready to go. HELP has reported out a bill, the House could move on something whenever they wanted to, and we’re basically playing out what can get through the Senate. The Senate will move whatever they can easily to get the bill to conference, where the real fight will be. That’s when the White House will start leveraging its position, when the real lobbying will kick in, when the Senate will demand concessions (because that’s what the Senate does), etc. And, ultimately, we’re going to pass the best bill that can get through the Senate. Does that include a public option? I really don’t know. It’s easy enough to blame Obama for this or faulty messaging for that or whatever, but at the end of the day I really don’t know that there are 50 votes there for the public option in the Senate. Nelson, Landrieu, Carper, and Lieberman can all reasonably said to be publicly opposed to it, with leaves you with 55 potential votes (56 if Massachusetts appoints a temporary replacement for Kennedy), and that’s a group that includes Blance Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Evan Bayh, Kent Conrad, Byron Dorgan, Max Baucus, and Jon Tester. That’s certainly not the sort of math that indicates a clear majority of support in the chamber. Will the progressive caucus block a bill in the House without a public option? I don’t think so, at least not if it’s clear that the bill we get is obviously the most politically viable reform on the table, for a couple of reasons. First of all, most of the caucus members are experienced legislatures who aren’t likely to walk away fro progress they think is honestly and truly the most that can be accomplished at the moment. There’s a lot of rhetoric about not compromising on the public option because it is, itself, a “compromise from single payer,” but that just strikes me as dumb. The only reason single-payer is off the table is because it’s pretty clear it’s just not politically viable at the moment. And while I think you certainly want to start negotiations from a maximalist standpoint, I also think that still needs to be a point that is within the realm of the realistic. Johnny Damon might be having a great year and the Yankees may really want to bring him back next season, but if he walks in asking for a $25 million salary next year I think the Yankees are more likely to just walk away from the table right then than they are to significantly increase what they’re willing to pay him. This is also why opposition parties don’t usually begin their opposition to popular proposals by just announcing off the bat that they won’t support anything, because then you’ll get marginalized. It’s one thing if you have popular opinion on your side (see Nancy Pelosi and Social Security privatization), but it’s another if most people agree something has to be done.

In any event, I think we’re still on track to get a reform bill passed that will greatly expand access to healthcare, and I think there’s a very good chance that it could be universal, which is more than we’ve ever gotten before. Anything that achieves that goal should be perfectly fine with anyone who claims to care about the uninsured. Will it have more than that? It’s hard to say, but I’m fairly confident the Democratic leadership will pass the most robust bill they can. And yes, that will be better than nothing. Anyone who tells you otherwise probably has a perfectly fine insurance policy.

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.

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.

Hunstman to China

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

The big story of today was the announcement that Utah Governor and potential Republican Presiential candidate Jon Hunstman will be our new ambassador to China. This is obviously a pretty big deal, and not the slightest bit expected. I’m hardly the first to note that it speaks very poorly of the Republican Party. Hunstman had been talked about as a potential Presidential candidate, and was apparently trying to stake out the ground as the party’s token sane person. But, apparently, he doesn’t see much of a future in that route, and that says about all that needs to be said. It’s a big coup for Obama though, if for no other reason than it neutralizes a potential non-crazy challenger early, when Obama looks unbeatable.

From a more substantive move, it strikes me as a very good move. Hunstman has diplomatic experience, having been an ambassador to Singapore and a U.S. trade representative, and he speaks Mandarin, which will be appreciated by the Chinese I’m sure. Moreover, there’s just something that strikes me as very smart about appointing someone from the opposition party to represent you in a country generally perceived as being a major rival. It can be perceived as an implicit signal that you’re willing to work with your rivals in a constructive manner.

All in all, a very brilliant move by Obama, and I see little downside to it.

Obama Still Not Engaging Hamas and Hezbollah

Monday, April 27th, 2009

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by Brien Jackson

The New York Times notes Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks in Lebanon:

Hezbollah, which waged a 34-day war against Israel in 2006, has built legitimacy here by providing a network of social services. Britain recently said it would resume contact with the group’s political wing, which has one post in the current Lebanese cabinet.

So far, though, President Obama has stuck with the Bush administration’s refusal to deal with Hezbollah. American officials reject the British distinction between its political and military wings, and they view the group as a proxy for Iranian and Syrian influence in the region.

“We certainly hope the election will be free of intimidation and outside interference, and that the results of the election continue a moderate, positive direction,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Michael Crowley notes that the administration has taken a similar track with Hamas.

This really isn’t a welcome sign, and the United States, and the larger region, would benefit greatly from increased engagement with both groups. Not because Hamas and Hezbollah are not terrorists, of course, but because refusing to engage them is counter-productive, and directly helps both groups. Hamas, in particular, is rather hard to justify; they earned there position within the Palestinian Authority via elections the United States demanded be held. That we subsequently refused to recognize the victors because we didn’t like them undermined what little credibility the US had left as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and continuing to ignore the elected representatives only deepens the impression that the US is too supportive of Israel to be an honest broker, strengthening Hamas’s position in the process. Hezbollah is a bit of a different nugget, but insomuchas their power base comes from the systematic disenfranchisement of the Lebanese Shia population, and refusing to engage with the largest and most important Shia party is seen as a slight to the larger community, this also directly benefits Hezbollah’s local standing.

Which isn’t, of course, to say that you actually have to concede anything to either group, but in so much as you want to improve relations in the subregion, and by extension want to weaken the radical groups, validating the radical’s talking points is obviously not a good way to go about that.

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