2010 - %3, January

Quotes of the Day: SOTU Reax

| Thu Jan. 28, 2010 12:23 AM EST

From Jon Chait, who is singlehandedly trying to put all of us other bloggers out of business, on the clunkiness of some of Obama's lines tonight:

When he declared, “health care experts who know our system best consider this approach a vast improvement over the status quo,” I wondered if his budget freeze had already claimed the entire White House speechwriting staff.

I would have tweeted this instead of blogging it, but it was longer than 140 characters. And this from Democracy in America:

This is a much looser SOTU than I got used to under George Bush--much more house of commons--applause is shorter, but more frequent, jeers are obvious, Mr Obama is anticipating it and working off Republican hostility like a stage comic with hecklers.

This is true, and it's something I didn't really mention in my liveblogging of the speech. Obama was dead serious most of the time, but he also seemed loose and engaging, at times even sparring good-naturedly with the Republican side of the aisle. My guess is that this is a combination that works pretty well. At the very least, he didn't seem freighted down with the burdens of office, and that's an accomplishment all on its own given the events of the past couple of weeks.

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SOTU Liveblogging

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 9:01 PM EST

The chatter on CNN is all about Obama tweaking the State of the Union address right up until the last second. This makes me nervous. He really ought to have a firmer idea of what he wants to say by now. But I suppose it really doesn't mean anything. For me, it's all about healthcare. The whole speech rises or falls on that one issue. So on with the show.

Wrapup - I'm not really much of a SOTU connoisseur, and I was focused almost completely on healthcare in this one. On that front, I'd give Obama a B-. Starting off the speech with jobs and the economy made sense, but at the very least I was hoping that the healthcare section would stand out a bit from the rest. But I don't think it did. Obama never really explained what the current bills do except in the very broadest sense, and even at that he only hit a couple of points. I'm just not sure that was enough. He also declined to say what he wanted Congress to do next. I didn't want some big wonky explanation of reconciliation and so forth, but I really wished he'd at least said something about the fact that we have a bill in place right now and then urged the House to pass that bill and the Senate to agree to changes.

Maybe that just wasn't in the cards in a speech like this. But I was still hoping for more. I wanted to hear him act like the leader of his party on healthcare, and I'm not sure he did.

As for the rest of the speech, it was generally good, but not spectacular. There was a good balance between blaming Republicans for past problems and holding out an olive branch to work together in the future, but I doubt that it will have much effect. It might have played well at home, though. I was also a little surprised that it was so focused on domestic issues. I expected that, but I didn't expect national security to be practically a toss off.

And finally, one big prop: Obama did clearly call for a repeal of the ban on gays in the military. "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are." Good for him. That's a campaign promise that it's time to keep.

10:20 - And that's a wrap.

10:16 - Obama takes on TV pundits who "reduce serious debates into silly arguments." Nice.

10:15 - And now for the inspirational wrapup.....

10:13 - Firm declaration that he wants to repeal DADT this year. Good.

10:03 - "If the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.  Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership." OK, that's better.

10:01 - "Neither party should obstruct every single bill just because they can." Good line, but do listeners at home all know what he's talking about? Ditto for overuse of holds on appointments.

9:59 - Yeah, yeah, earmarks. I guess earkmark bashing polls well, but I'm pretty tired of it.

9:57 - Takes on Citizens United decision by warning about possible influence of foreign corporation. Probably a pretty effective approach.

9:55 - Spending freeze won't take effect until next year. "That's how budgeting works." Got laughs, but it wasn't supposed to be a laugh line.

9:49 - That's it for healthcare. Seemed a little bloodless to me. Didn't really explain his plan very well, and never stood up for anything more specific than "Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people." I was hoping for more, but maybe I expect too much.

9:47 - After a year of healthcare horsetrading, Americans wondering "what's in it for me?" It would be great to answer this, but he doesn't, really.

9:44 - Finally, healthcare reform 40 minutes in. But it gets a big round of applause from Dems.

9:42 - "No one should go broke because they chose to go to college." I get it, but that's really a strange thing to say.

9:36 - Interesting that Obama keeps giving the House lots of props and urging the Senate to follow suit. Good strategy to show solidarity with House members who feel unappreciated?

9:35 - Nukes get a big round of applause. Ditto for offshore drilling. Something for everyone!

9:34 - Wants "real reform" of financial sector. But what is real reform? He doesn't say.

9:33 - "I do not accept second place for the United States of America." Kind of empty, but it probably works. I approve.

9:30 - Bush years were a "lost decade." Ouch.

9:29 - Obama asks Senate to pass jobs bill, but doesn't say they should pass one as big as House bill. He should have.

9:22 - Impromptu joke about lack of Republican applause for tax cuts. Good idea? I say yes! Not sure everyone at home got it, though.

9:19 - Rich Lowry on Twitter: "never mentions that the "we" addressing fincial crisis included bush admin." Well, he just did.

9:15 - Obama says we're all wondering why bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded. He's right. So what's the answer?

9:14 - "Experts across the political spectrum warned...." How convincing is that as a marker of the depth of our recession?

9:08 - Tim Geithner seemed to be getting some extra special presidential love on the walk toward the podium.

9:05 - Waiting for Obama.....

Pre-SOTU Healthcare Roundup

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 8:10 PM EST

As we wait for the State of the Union address to begin, what's the status of healthcare reform this particular micro-instant? Here are a few miscellaneous clues:

Nate Silver counts noses in the House and concludes that all is not lost: "The math is challenging, but not impossible. Although Democrats can expect at least 7 defections among people who voted for the bill originally and possibly as many as 15-20, there are at least a dozen and possibly as many as 15-18 Democrats who could at least potentially be whipped in favor of the bill....Democrats will require both some focus and some luck. Nevertheless, the path to health care is probably still there, obscured as though it might be by the dramatics of the past eight days."

Jon Cohn senses that there's more room for compromise than it seems: "Most of the centrist senators complaining about reconciliation aren't ruling it out altogether: If you read their quotes carefully, you'll see most of them express concern but leave room to embrace reconciliation under certain conditions — if the process is "transparent," if the changes themselves are relatively narrow, and so on. It's exactly the kind of posturing you'd expect in a negotiation. The end is not here. It may not even be that near."

Chris Hayes thinks passing the Senate bill along with a reconciliation deal is hard but doable: "After spending much of yesterday talking to folks on capitol hill, it's clear there is increasingly consensus on a path forward....This does not mean, by any earthly means, this is a done deal....But there's a very doable path forward, and there are almost certainly the votes to get it done. It really is a question of political will and pressure at this point. That may not be very comforting given the lack of leadership demonstrated over the last two weeks, but it's something."

Greg Sargent reports on what kind of leadership Obama is likely to offer tonight: "White House communications director  Dan Pfeiffer told Capitol Hill staffers on a private briefing call that in his speech tonight, Obama will leave no doubt that his commitment to addressing health care is as strong right now as it was in his September speech, a White House official tells me....There had been some talk that Obama might call for a scaled-down approach tonight. Others wondered whether he would give the issue short shrift. But both of those possibilities seem unlikely, given what Pfeiffer is telling Hill staff."

Hmmm.  I hope Obama offers a whole lot more than just a vague affirmation that his commitment to healthcare is as strong as ever. What I'd like to hear from him is a clear and compelling sales job for the Democratic plan and an equally clear sign of support for passing the Senate bill along with some later fixes. We know he's in favor of healthcare reform already. Now we need to know exactly what he's willing to put the full weight of his presidency behind.

Basically, I'm with Andrew Sullivan on this: "I have one simple test: if the health bill dies from neglect and irresolution, Obama is no leader. He is a follower." It's time to lead.

As usual, I'll be liveblogging the SOTU tonight. All the cool bloggers have decamped to Twitter for their real-time response, but I'm going to continue kicking it old school this year in addition to whatever quick tweets I send out. See you in an hour.

R.I.P. Cap-and-Trade

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 7:36 PM EST

Now that Sen Lindsey Graham (R–SC) has given up on passing cap-and-trade through the Senate, it's probably truly dead. Dave Roberts surveys the wreckage:

Graham’s comments seem to point to an alternative that’s been much-discussed recently: a scaled-back cap-and-trade program that would cover only the electricity sector. That would be coupled with some version of the (pitifully weak) American Clean Energy Leadership Act passed by Bingaman’s Energy Committee last year, with additional subsidies for offshore drilling and nuclear power.

Would the resulting bill be worth a damn? Put it this way: it would be possible to craft a good package of climate and energy legislation with a cap-and-trade system covering utilities, ambitious renewable energy mandates, stringent energy efficiency regulations, and a massive round of investments in clean energy.

That’s not what will pass. My prediction is that whatever [Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman] come up with will look more or less like energy policy over the last 20 years: a hodgepodge of subsidies and tax breaks for favored industries. At this point there seems little hope left of anything better.

There’s much to discuss about the bill, the political fight that will take shape around it, and the best way forward for clean energy advocates in coming years. For now I just wanted to mark what looks to me like the final passing of the dream of an economy-wide price on carbon.

This isn't a huge shock. Cap-and-trade was always going to be even more difficult to pass than healthcare reform, and healthcare is obviously holding on by a thread right now. But it's sad news anyway — and trust me, we're not going to get a lovely and elegant carbon tax in its place. For now, carbon pricing is dead. Another victory for the Fox/Rush/Drudge axis.

Can This Patient Be Saved?

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 7:12 PM EST

Can health care reform be resuscitated? For weeks, it appeared that a stalemate over abortion politics could prevent the Democrats’ historic health care overhaul from becoming law. But according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while there are potential hurdles that could yet sink the effort, abortion’s not the big deal breaker that ought to worry supporters of reform.

The Democrats’ strategy, Pelosi told several columnists on Wednesday afternoon, hinges on getting the House to approve the Senate’s health care bill—while the Senate modifies its version through a procedure called reconciliation in order to address House Democrats' objections to certain provisions of the Senate bill. Pelosi said there is "very little support in the House" for passing the Senate’s measure untouched. But if the Senate makes changes via a a separate reconciliation measure—which would require only a majority and can’t be defeated by a filibuster—then, Pelosi said, she is confident "we can come up with something."

Howard Zinn, R.I.P.

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 7:04 PM EST

Historian Howard Zinn has died at age 87. Zinn was best known for A People's History of the United States, which turned the glossy, textbook version of American history on its head by pointing out that far from being an unbroken chain of political and economic progress, our history was one of conflict along class, racial, and gender lines. Though Zinn's radical, bottom-up approach cast aside the America-first tone of mainstream texts, it was still guided by a deep sense of commitment to what he saw as often-neglected American ideals. As he wrote in 2004, "History, looked at under the surface, in the streets and on the farms, in GI barracks and trailer camps, in factories and offices, tells a different story. Whenever injustices have been remedied, wars halted, women and blacks and Native Americans given their due, it has been because 'unimportant' people spoke up, organized, protested, and brought democracy alive." Still in print after 30 years, A People's History has removed the scales from many an undergrad's eyes, and has won its fair share of famous admirers, from Viggo Mortensen to Matt Damon (who name-dropped it in Good Will Hunting and just opened a stage adapation of it.) For more of Zinn's recent writing and thinking, see this 2005 interview or his commencement address at Spelman College, where he was fired in 1963 for—amazingly—his civil rights activism.

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America Seesaws on Global Warming

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 6:39 PM EST

Public opinion, that dizzying pendulum, is swinging towards disbelief on the issue of global warming. According to a new national survey (pdf), public concern about global warming dropped sharply since late 2008. The researchers from Yale and George Mason universities found:

  • Only 50 percent of Americans now feel "somewhat worried " or "very worried" about global warming, a 13 point decrease from 2008
  • Only 57 percent of Americans think global warming is happening, down 14 points
  • Only 47 percent of Americans think global warming is caused mostly by human activities, down 10 points
  • Only 34 percent of Americans believe most scientists think global warming is happening, down 13 points
  • Some 40 percent of the public now believes scientists strongly disagree over whether global warming is happening or not

Furthermore, the number of Americans who think global warming will never harm people in the US or elsewhere or other species is rising. Principle investigator Anthony Leiserowitz, whose earlier study I wrote about in the Thirteenth Tipping Point, told George Mason University:

"Despite growing scientific evidence that global warming will have serious impacts worldwide, public opinion is moving in the opposite direction. Over the past year the United States has experienced rising unemployment, public frustration with Washington, and a divisive health care debate, largely pushing climate change out of the news. Meanwhile, a set of emails stolen from climate scientists and used by critics to allege scientific misconduct may have contributed to an erosion of public trust in climate science."

The first thing these alarming results tell me is that the public misunderstanding of science is profound. The second, that scientists need to get louder fast, and those with tenure should start shouting now. Third, that we desperately need scientists willing to enter the political fray, to shape rational government and rational policies. We've got too much political science and not enough scientific politics.

Will Obama even mention global warming in his State of the Union address tonight?
 

A Moralistic Pregnancy Pact

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 6:20 PM EST

I love a good morality play, and I’m always excited to see what new punishments Lifetime has dreamed up for the unchaste, the immodest, and the otherwise astray in its made-for-TV movies. So when I sat down to watch The Pregnancy Pact (just the latest in a rash of paranoid programming that includes The Secret Life of the American Teenager and Mom at Sixteenpregnancy suit manufacturers must be doing a very brisk trade lately) I expected high moral camp: fire and brimstone on the Eastern Seaboard, pregnant adolescents raked over the coals and tried as witches, mentholated cigarettes and juicy Judeo-Christian retribution. 

I must have forgotten that made-for-TV movies on Lifetime tend to be blandly judgmental rolls in the hay masquerading as objective two-hour Public Service Announcements. The whole affair turned out to be a boring festival of flim-flam that uses media reports of an alleged 2008 teen pregnancy pact in Gloucester, Massachusetts for its own drab, moralistic puppet show.

The horror begins immediately with a series of shots featuring high school kids canoodling around campus, their make-out sessions clearly indicative of a raging teenage sex epidemic. Before long, we’re introduced to our protagonista, a 15 year-old naïf named Sara (Madisen Beaty) who’s friends with a group of girls from the wrong side of the abstinence tracks. Sara soon finds herself drawn into a pro-abstinence league’s worst nightmare when she comes to believe—thanks in part to a generous serving of pregnant peer pressure—that getting knocked up by her slightly older boyfriend will keep him from moving away after he graduates. 

Coke's New, Semi-Green Bottles

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 5:55 PM EST

Last May, Coke announced that it would be making new plastic bottles composed of 30% sugarcane-based materials. Just this week, the new PlantBottle™ finally reached US shelves. But just because Coca-Cola is using Brazilian sugarcane to make part of its bottles, does that mean they're green?

Using sugarcane does reduce the amount of petroleum put into each 20 oz. bottle, and cuts down on carbon emissions by about 15%, according to a study funded by the company (it's still awaiting third-party analysis). But, it's still plastic. Plastic makes up 11% of all municipal waste, and takes hundreds of years to biodegrade in landfills: only 7% of it makes it to a recycling facility. If Coke really wanted to be green, they could cut out plastic all together and only use aluminum cans. Cans are recycled more often (55%) than plastic bottles and can be melted down and converted into new products infinitely, whereas plastic generally only gets one or two more go-arounds, turned into lawn edging or fleece jackets, before it degrades beyond further usability.

But what about the sugarcane? Does it really have to get flown all the way from Brazil? And does it have to come from sugarcane used to make ethanol, rather than the sugarcane already being used to make the sugar and molasses that go into Coke? Without knowing more about Coke's exact manufacturing and bottling process it's hard to tell how much the sugarcane's origins contribute to the final product's carbon emissions. At least the PlantBottle™ is a (small) step in the right direction. It would be great if Coke could make fully biodegradable, low-emission bottles like these Japanese sake bottles made of squid. Until then, I'll take a look at the PlantBottle™, but I'll buy a can.

 

 

"The fine arts of deception...."

| Wed Jan. 27, 2010 5:30 PM EST

Three years ago former CIA operative John Kiriakou famously told ABC News that al-Qaeda insider Abu Zubaydah cracked after a single 35-second waterboarding session. "From that day on, he answered every question," Kiriakou said.

We've known for quite a while that this wasn't true. Kiriakou wasn't there, Zubaydah was a prisoner of uncertain mental stability, and he was waterboarded at least 83 times. Today, though, Kiriakou fesses up officially. FP has the story:

Now comes John Kiriakou, again, with a wholly different story. On the next-to-last page of a new memoir, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA's War on Terror (written with Michael Ruby), Kiriakou now rather off handedly admits that he basically made it all up.

"What I told Brian Ross in late 2007 was wrong on a couple counts," he writes. "I suggested that Abu Zubaydah had lasted only thirty or thirty-five seconds during his waterboarding before he begged his interrogators to stop; after that, I said he opened up and gave the agency actionable intelligence."

But never mind, he says now. "I wasn't there when the interrogation took place; instead, I relied on what I'd heard and read inside the agency at the time."

In a word, it was hearsay, water-cooler talk. "Now we know," Kiriakou goes on, "that Zubaydah was waterboarded eighty-three times in a single month, raising questions about how much useful information he actually supplied."

Indeed. But after his one-paragraph confession, Kiriakou adds that he didn't have any first hand knowledge of anything relating to CIA torture routines, and still doesn't. And he claims that the disinformation he helped spread was a CIA dirty trick: "In retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in how the CIA uses the fine arts of deception even among its own."

Just thought I'd post this for the record. Via Michael Scherer.