Obama in Baltimore

Obama is adressing the GOP retreat in Baltimore right now, and it's being televised live. It's remarkable that Republicans agreed to this. The guy at the mike always has an advantage in these kinds of forums, and in any case Obama is better than most at this kind of thing. For the most part, he's running rings around them. I don't know if this will have any long-term effect, but it's good for Obama and, regardless, a good show. Presidents should do this kind of thing more often.

Obama's Blind Spot

Both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama finished their first year in office with the economy in trouble and their approval ratings in tatters. And yet, Obama's troubles seem much worse than Reagan's. Some of this, I think, is just hindsight bias: we all know that Reagan's presidency turned out OK in the end, so it's easy to view his problems as less severe than they were. But Bruce Bartlett argues, convincingly I think, that there's more to it: Reagan had a compelling and consistent narrative of liberal failure that got him through the bad times and set him up to take credit for eventual recovery. Obama doesn't:

I bring up this history because Obama inherited a great many problems from the George W. Bush administration similar to those Reagan inherited from Carter. But rather than draw a clear distinction between his policies and those of the past, as Reagan did, Obama has tended to continue those policies. And in those cases where his policies are sharply different, Obama has tended to downplay those differences.

Foreign policy is clearly the area where Obama had the most to gain by a break with the past. He could have easily argued that the whole Iran-Afghanistan conflict was ill-conceived, based on bad intelligence and a ridiculously Utopian idea that we could impose democracy by military force in countries that had no experience with it or any of the requisite institutions....On the economy, Obama has done a terrible job of explaining how much of the mess he is dealing with was caused by the Bush administration's policies....Obama could also have explained how the Federal Reserve's easy money policy created the housing bubble, the crash of which is at the heart of our current economic problems. Yet he reappointed Republican Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve rather than using the expiration of his term as an opportunity to break from the past and chart a new course by at least appointing a Democrat like San Francisco Fed President Janet Yellen.

....Finally, on health care, Obama never once blamed Bush and his party for ramming through a massive unfunded expansion of Medicare in 2003, which in part necessitated the Medicare cuts that were part of his health reform effort....In short, at every point Obama has failed to break sharply with the Bush administration. Indeed the Cato Institute has taken to calling Obama's administration Bush's third term.

There's a lot to this, though I'd add that Reagan also passed his signature domestic initiatives — big tax cuts and defense spending increases — and rallied his base by firing the air traffic controllers. Obama hasn't done any of that. But Bruce is right when he says that although Obama may be a liberal, "he is fundamentally a moderate — what we in Washington call a 'goo-goo,' a good government person, a pragmatist who deals with problems as they arise without seeing them as part of pattern of failure and without any preconceived idea of what should be done about them based on ideology or political philosophy." That's admirable in its way, but it doesn't get things done in a hyperpartisan political swamp, and it doesn't set up Obama to take credit for things when the economy gets better. Reagan worked hard to make sure that his tax cuts would be viewed as the driving force of recovery — though Paul Volcker's interest rate cuts surely deserve most of the credit — but will Obama credibly be able to say that his stimulus package and bank bailouts were responsible for recovery when it appears this time? I doubt it.

I'm a fan of Obama's, but this has always been his big blind spot. He came to office convinced — sincerely, it seems — that he could change the tone of Washington DC. That was always a fantasy. The way to get things done is to make a case for them, build public support for them, blast your enemies for opposing them, and just generally fight like hell for them. It can be done with a smile, but it has to be done. Obama seems to have a hard time getting that.

How They Do It

Sen. Dick Durbin is upset that Republicans get to cast controversial votes without any real consequence. Steve Benen comments:

Durbin's right; they did. Every reckless, irresponsible, hypocritical, dangerous, and incoherent step Republicans take, they do so "with impunity."

They do so because they're pretty confident that Democrats won't effectively raise a fuss, the media won't care, and the public won't know. And they're right.

But take a step back: how are Democrats supposed to effectively raise a fuss? Republicans can do it easily: they just start bleating, and within a few hours their complaints are splashed across Drudge, repeated on a 24/7 loop on Fox News, the topic of email barrages from conservative interest groups, and the subject du jour of every talk radio show in the country. At that point the rest of the media picks up on the story because "people are talking about it." It's making waves. Which is true: it really is making waves because this kind of attention gets the conservative base genuinely outraged. And if something is getting lots of attention, then that by itself makes it a legitimate story regardless of its intrinsic merit.

But what megaphone do Democrats have? Virtually none. If they start complaining, some blogs will pick it up. Maybe Maddow and Olberman will talk about it. And that's it. There's no noise machine. And so there's nothing to force the rest of the media to bother with it unless they decide the underlying story itself is important.

I don't really want a liberal noise machine in America that's on the same level as the Drudge/Fox/Rush noise machine. It would make life almost unbearable. But without it, Democrats will never be able to compete in the outrage department. As it is, they can complain all they want and the media will mostly yawn. But when Republicans do it, it's a story. It's hard to see that changing anytime soon.

Is Osama bin Laden moving from holy warrior to eco warrior? The leader of al-Qeada is now expressing concern about climate change. Or, at least a desire to blame the United States for climate change. Surely this will only lead to more politicization of an issue that clearly doesn't need to get any more polarized. A. Siegel at Get Energy Smart Now tries to preempt the torrent this is likely to prompt:

That bin Laden is able to, via his distorted lens, gain a glimpse of reality and understand that climate change is a serious issue meriting attention doesn’t suddenly make climate change unreal even though there will be those who seize on this to say things like "bin Laden is against it, therefore I’m for it …"

While bin Laden's foray into climate is a bit unexpected, he's apparently seizing on an opportunity to exploit tensions between the US and other countries nonplussed with the current state of climate affairs (see: Venezuela, Bolivia, Sudan). It also shows how desperate he is for international support, as Spencer Ackerman notes. And while living in a cave might give him some green cred, I'm going to go out on a limb and say annihilating the infidels isn't really good evidence that you care about the future of humankind.

Pact Facts: The Gloucester 'pregnancy pact' wasn't fact, but Lifetime has a movie about it anyway.

Still a Majority: Sen. Kent Conrad says Congress isn't meant to have a 60-seat requirement.

Pro-Nukes: Sen. Lindsey Graham says Obama is bullish on nuclear.

Seeing Brown: Enviros say Arkansas Democrat Sen. Blanche Lincoln is one of Congress' dirtiest.

Tips from Kerry: John Kerry thinks climate activists can take a page from Tea Partiers' playbook.

DOA?: Now that Brown's elected, can healthcare reform be resuscitated

No Way: It may be illegal to alter healthcare bill's abortion clause, says Harry Reid's rep.

Coal Speaks: New bipartisan pro-coal group comes to Congress.

Passing Blame: Why are Democrats blamed for healthcare failure instead of Republicans?

Sneak Attack: The PR firm behind Swift Boaters may have climate in its cross-hairs.

State of Affairs: How's healthcare looking pre-State of the Union address?

Capped: Cap and trade may be truly dead now that Sen. Lindsey Graham has abandoned it.

Big Moment: Some point out that if healthcare is passed, it'll be huge historically.

Low on Totem Pole: Obama's SOTU speech gets to healthcare around the 10th paragraph.

Good News?: Some cautiously good news on prospect of passing healthcare bill.

 

 

Need to Read: January 29, 2010

 The must-read stories from around the web and in today's papers:

we're still at war 012810

Army Staff Sgt. Chad Melanson, Provincial Reconstruction Team-Kunar security forces member from the Nevada National Guard's 1st Squadron, 221st Calvary Regiment currently assigned to Camp Wright in Asadabad, Afghanistan, speaks with other members of the security team prior to a night patrol of the camp's perimeter on Jan. 24. Photo by US Army.

OK, let's take one more crack at figuring out the likely fate of healthcare reform.  According to the Washington Post, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are still at loggerheads and "congressional Democrats remained in disarray Thursday about how to move forward, with at least some pointing at the White House as the cause of the legislative standstill gripping Capitol Hill." OK then. So what's the direction from the White House? Here's the New York Times:

With Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul stalled on Capitol Hill, Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said in an interview that Democrats would try to act first on job creation, reducing the deficit and imposing tighter regulation on banks before returning to the health measure, the president’s top priority from last year.

....Mr. Emanuel, the chief of staff, said he hoped Congressional Democrats would take up the jobs bill next week. Then, in his view, Congress would move to the president’s plan to impose a fee on banks to help offset losses to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the fund used to bail out banks and automakers.

Lawmakers would next deal with a financial regulatory overhaul, and then pick up where they left off on health care. “All these things start and lead to one place: J-O-B-S,” Mr. Emanuel said.

Given the normal pace of congressional action — including the usual Republican obstruction — this would mean no action on healthcare for at least a month or two. Maybe more like three or four. Or maybe never.

New pronouncements seem to come almost hourly on this stuff, so I'll wait for a few other folks to chime in before coming to any conclusions. But if healthcare is now domestic priority #4, it might as well be domestic priority #100. It might not quite be dead, but no matter what Obama said in his State of the Union address, the grim reaper is starting to hover uncomfortably close by.

David Corn appeared on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss Sarah Palin's recent scuffles with the Tea Party movement.

 

I got distracted by a couple of other books last week, but yesterday I picked up A Splendid Exchange again and ran into a fascinating description of 17th century Dutch financial innovation that should sound eerily familiar to most of my readers. Working for the Dutch East India Company during the spice trading era, it turns out, was so hideously dangerous that they had a desperate and continuous need for raw recruits to man their ships:

This grisly recruitment effort was run by a specialized corps, composed mostly of women, the zielverkoopers (literally, "soul sellers"). Their marks were the young foreign men, mainly from Germany, who swarmed into Dutch cities seeking their fortune. In return for a cut of their signing advance and future pay from the Company, the women advertised room, board, and the sort of entertainments usually sought by unattached young men, during the weeks and months until they sailed for Asia.

....Holland being Holland, this Faustian transaction yielded a financial instrument, in this case the transportbrief — a marketable security entitling the zielverkooper to a cut of the recruit's wages, paid by the Company as they were earned. Other investors then bought these securities at a discount that reflected the high death rate of VOC1 personnel and assembled them into profitable, diversified pools of human capital. These magnates were called, naturally enough, zielkoopersbuyers of souls. When, in the eighteenth century, the mortality among VOC's soldiers and sailors soared because of lax Company procedures, many zielkoopers went bankrupt.

I imagine there were people in 17th century Amsterdam who objected to this practice. I also imagine there were 17th century equivalents of Angelo Mozilo making millions from it, 17th century equivalents of Alan Greenspan explaining how it made capital allocation more efficient, 17th century equivalents of CNBC shilling for it, 17th century equivalents of the Gaussian copula to convince everyone that pooling these securities made them safe, and 17th century equivalents of Phil Gramm to make sure nobody stopped it. The names may change, but the product remains the same.

1That is, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, the Dutch phrase for United East Indian Company.