2009 - %3, September

Does the President Have a Poker Tell?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 11:55 AM EDT

It's well-known that President Obama is a poker player. But is he any good? All signs right now point to "no." In poker, it's crucially important that the other players not know what your hand is. If you have a tic or a habit that tips people off about what you might be holding, you're much more likely to lose. This morning's New York Times suggests that the Obama White House has just that problem:

"It’s so important to get a deal," a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid about strategy. "He will do almost anything it takes to get one."

Telling the New York Times that you are desperate to make a deal on health care is the political equivalent of telling your poker opponent that you have the hammer. The President is giving a prime-time speech on health care to a joint session of Congress next Wednesday. If you're rooting for health care reform, you had better hope Obama's slow-playing a monster hand, and not just on tilt.

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Helping the Prez

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 11:44 AM EDT

In case you have better things to do with your life than trying to keep up with every outburst of political hysteria in the Age of Obama, here's the latest: the president announced yesterday that he would be giving a live speech to schoolkids next Monday, wherein he would extol the virtues of hard work, learning to read and cipher, etc. etc.  Teaching materials related to the speech were provided by the Ed Department.  Conservatives went predictably bonkers, accusing Obama of trying to brainwash our nation's youth, push his socialist agenda into the classroom, and create a cult of personality among impressionable children.

Today he backed off slightly:

In a set of bullet points listed under a heading, "Extension of the Speech," one of the points used to say: "Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals."

However, that bullet point now reads as follows: "Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short‐term and long‐term education goals. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals."

When conservatives started ranting about death panels, Mickey Kaus suggested that if Dems had any sense they never would have inserted the language about advance directives into their bill in the first place.  They should have known it would cause problems.  I disagreed: if it hadn't been death panels, it just would have been something else.  There's no way to sanitize a bill enough to keep it safe from folks like Betsy McCaughey and Sarah Palin.

But I'm on the other side on this one.  What the hell was Obama's brain trust thinking?  The whole idea of the speech may have been misguided in the first place given the realities of modern hyperpartisan politics (be honest: you wouldn't have been thrilled if George Bush had done something like this), but including a bullet point asking kids "what they can do to help the president"?  A five-year-old could have figured out that might cause a little bit of red-state heartburn.

Obviously the president shouldn't spend all his time worrying about what the lunatic fringe thinks.  Still, the world is what it is.  Why give them obvious ammunition?

People Don't Have Any Money

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 10:58 AM EDT

Consumer spending continues to suck:

Most stores reported significant declines — with the worst coming from chains that specialize in teenage clothing and gear.

Over all, the industry posted a 2.9 percent sales decline compared with a year ago, according to Thomson Reuters, making August the 12th consecutive month of negative growth. The August decline comes on top of a 5 percent drop in July.

Despite signs that the economy is stabilizing, consumers remain reluctant to spend. That does not augur for a good holiday shopping season, a crucial time for retailers. As analysts at AT Kearney noted in a recent back-to-school report: “thrift is settling in as a habit for consumers across the board.”

Look: thrift is not "settling in as a habit."  People are spending less because they don't have any money.  Some are unemployed.  Some have had their hours cut.  Some are paying down credit card balances.  Some are desperately trying to make ends meet after their ARMs reset.  Some are paying off home equity loans they thought they'd be able to refinance forever.  Habit has nothing to do with it.

Washingon Monthly's College Guide

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 10:52 AM EDT

Ask not what your college does for you, but what your college does for the country. That's the creed of the Washington Monthly's annual college guide, released this week. This is the newest in a string of college rankings, ranging from the elite US News & World Report to the hilarious GQ, which ranked the country's 25 Douchiest Colleges. But the Washington Monthly's guide stands apart. It explains:

Unlike U.S. News and World Report and similar guides, this one asks not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country. Are they educating low-income students, or just catering to the affluent? Are they improving the quality of their teaching, or ducking accountability for it? Are they trying to become more productive—and if so, why is average tuition rising faster than health care costs? Every year we lavish billions of tax dollars and other public benefits on institutions of higher learning. This guide asks: Are we getting the most for our money?

Of all of the college rankings I've seen, this most closely matches the ethos behind the 2009 "MoJo Mini College Guide," because both place smart, fearless education and public service above endowment size and reputation. US News, for example, describes Kentucky's Berea College, one of the ten schools on MoJo's guide, simply as a "Tier 3" school. But Washington Monthly placed it at #12 on it's list of top liberal arts colleges, perhaps because it offers all students free tuition for four years. For more examples like Berea, check out the the MoJo Mini College Guide, which includes some of the best schools you've never heard of that won't destroy your wallet, the best jobs that don't require a college degree, and some of the more... uh... creative funding options out there.

CIA Withholding 48 Pages of Photos

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 10:22 AM EDT

On Monday, the CIA gave a judge a list of documents it is still withholding in its ongoing Freedom of Information Act battle with the ACLU. The list, known as a Vaughn index, includes descriptions of dozens of documents that the agency is refusing to release in whole or in part. Marcy Wheeler has analyzed the index, and one thing sticks out: the withheld materials include 48 pages of photos, including five pages of photos that are attached to a document that describes the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah and 26 pages of photos that "detail a classified intelligence method."

All this really gives us is more questions. The Obama administration was originally set to release more torture documents on Monday. That didn't happen. Instead, the government submitted the Vaughn declaration. Will just explaining why the documents are being withheld be enough for the court? You can bet the ACLU will call foul on at least some of the CIA's rationales for withholding. This battle is far from over.

POGO: ArmorGroup Whistleblower Forced to Resign

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 10:07 AM EDT

How is ArmorGroup North America responding to the allegations that its Kabul embassy guards were engaging in a range of unbecoming conduct? The firm (and its parent company, Wackenhut) has so far declined to issue any comment. Behind the scenes, however, swift action has been taken, though not against ArmorGroup employees who engaged in or approved of lewd behavior, humiliating hazing rituals, and other practices that put the embassy at risk. Rather, says the Project on Government Oversight, one of the whistleblowers who brought these explosive allegations to the watchdog group's attention has been retaliated against by his employer, an ArmorGroup client:

One of the whistleblowers who helped expose the guard scandal at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has just been forced to resign after his company—whose client is ArmorGroup, North America (AGNA)—came to believe that he had reached out to D.C. for assistance. The company told POGO that the whistleblower’s resignation was voluntary.

However, information obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) strongly suggests he was pressured into resigning to avoid being fired, an action often referred to as constructive dismissal.

POGO is deeply concerned about the action allegedly taken against the whistleblower. He is being forced out at a time when three of the supervisors responsible for allowing the misconduct at Camp Sullivan have been allowed to quietly resign and escape accountability. As per our letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of September 1, 2009, POGO calls on the State Department to take immediate action to protect both the physical and employment security of whistleblowers who have stepped forward with allegations of serious misconduct involving ArmorGroup, North America and others.

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Sen. Curt Schilling (I-Mass.)?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 10:03 AM EDT

Curt Schilling - Photo from Wikimedia CommonsCurt Schilling - Photo from Wikimedia CommonsFormer Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is reportedly considering a run for Ted Kennedy's senate seat.

Schilling does have a reputation as a bit of a blowhard, even among Red Sox fans. Back in 2007, Jeff Pearlman wrote an ESPN column about Gary Sheffield in which he called Schilling a "dangerous moron" who doesn't "read and pay attention to world events" but instead "equate[s] volume with veracity."

Schilling stumped for former president George W. Bush in 2004 and is among Massachusetts' best-known Republicans Correction: actually, he's an Independent—just one that supported George W. Bush. But if there's a brand in the Bay State that can redeem the GOP by association compete with the Democratic brand, it's the Red Sox. Things could get very interesting if Schilling runs. (Actually, they'll be interesting either way—with Senate openings in Massachusetts so few and far between, much of the state's Democratic talent will be battling it out in the primary. That should be fascinating to watch.)

Number of the Day: Feds Need To Hire 270,000

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 9:27 AM EDT

Get those resumés ready! Job-seekers, check out this info from Thursday's Washington Post:

The federal government needs to hire more than 270,000 workers for "mission-critical" jobs over the next three years, a surge prompted in part by the large number of baby-boomer federal workers reaching retirement age, according to the results of a government-wide survey being released Thursday.

The numbers also reflect the Obama administration's intent to take on several enormous challenges, including the repair of the financial sector, fighting two wars, and addressing climate change.

One question, though, is can the federal government find the talent it needs for all these positions. And this job forecast doesn't include any new government-run insurance plan—which may or may not come into being. But it does include 5,500 new hires for intelligence agencies.

By the way, the Animal House in Afghanistan episode illustrates the need for the feds  to reverse the trend of hiring contractors to do the government's work. When there are big challenges at hand, sometimes you do need big government.

Cheney, Wrong? Come On, Really?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 9:01 AM EDT

Does the Democratic Party really need to remind the world that Dick Cheney was wrong on Iraq—especially when he predicted that American invaders would be greeted as liberators and that Saddam Hussein had amassed oodles of WMDs? Apparently, the party's strategists believe Cheney remains a useful target. Today, it's releasing this ad:

Need To Read: September 3, 2009

Thu Sep. 3, 2009 6:19 AM EDT

Today's must-reads think it's panic time on health care:

  • "It’s so important to get a deal," a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid about strategy. "He will do almost anything it takes to get one." (NYT)
  • Obama set to address Congress on health care. (WaPo)
  • Jacob Hacker, public option godfather: dropping public option would be "stupid" and "premature." Jerrold Nadler, liberal Dem congressman: dropping public option could "split" the party. (MoJo)
  • Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) may end up basically writing the health care bill, if there is one. (Ezra Klein/WaPo)
  • Another jobless recovery? The Fed thinks "maybe." (WaPo)
  • Ted Kennedy's soon-to-be-published memoir addresses Chappaquiddick. (WaPo)
  • Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling to run for Kennedy's senate seat? (AP)
  • Arizona's school voucher program is breathtakingly messed up. (Education Sector)
  • Embassy Guards Gone Wild: The NSFW Pictures (MoJo)
  • What libertarians really think about health care reform. (The Economist)

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