Kevin Drum

Friday Newsletter: Obama and the Oil Spill

Can we all back off for a bit and allow Obama to act like an adult?

| Sat Jun. 5, 2010 11:52 AM EDT

This subject of this week's newsletter is the increasingly inane demands for Barack Obama to display more emotion over the BP oil spill. As usual, I wrote it Wednesday night, and by now it seems almost quaint. I think I've seen at least a dozen columns and blog posts saying the same thing since then. The tyranny of lead times doth make hacks of us all sometimes. Starting next week, however, we're going to cut that lead time down and publish these posts early Friday morning, the same time the newsletter is mailed out. That's only a 24-hour lead time, which should help keep these things a wee bit fresher.

In his inauguration speech Barack Obama told America "the time has come to set aside childish things." At least, I thought he was talking to America. But maybe he was really talking to the DC press corps. A few months after that speech, during a press briefing where NBC's Chuck Todd kept badgering him to provide an immediate response to the Iranian election crisis, he finally snapped back, "I know everybody here is on a 24 hour news cycle. I’m not." The message from a president who had already famously rebuked the short attention spans and inane cable chatter that absorbs official Washington could hardly have been clearer: only children demand simple answers and immediate reactions to complex situations. So how about if we act like adults instead?

But if the events of the past few weeks in the Gulf of Mexico are any indication, the press corps still isn't listening. There are plenty of things about the government's response to the gulf oil spill that are worth questioning. Why is the Minerals Management Service still in such sorry shape? Why was BP allowed to misstate the extent of the spill for so long? Are chemical dispersants just making the problem worse? Why is the press still being given the runaround more often than not?

But one thing isn't in question: when it comes to actually capping the broken pipe, BP and the rest of the oil industry are doing everything they can. What's more, they're the ones with all the expertise and President Obama can't change that. Yelling at BP or putting on a mask of faux outrage for the benefit of the cameras won't change that.

But that seems to be what the press wants anyway. At a press briefing, CBS's Chip Reid asked, "Have we really seen rage from the president on this? I think most people would say no." Maureen Dowd insisted that Obama's job is "being a prism in moments of fear and pride, reflecting what Americans feel so they know he gets it." David Gergen counseled Obama to "take command" of the oil spill and Mark Penn demanded that Obama put a bunch of smart people in a room to come up with a solution: "think Manhattan Project meets Independence Day, with fewer aliens and more eggheads." These suggestions range from useless to idiotic. As Clive Crook put it, "Apparently it is a great idea to elect a president who is calm in a crisis, except when there's a crisis. Then what you need is somebody to lead the nation in panic."

But now this is threatening to go beyond just the world of overwrought pundits. On Thursday the New York Times reported that Obama was considering cancelling a long-planned 10-day trip to Asia and Australia. There was no suggestion that this was because Obama could actually stop the spill any faster by being in Washington, just that it might look bad. "This has hijacked his entire legislative agenda," said Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University. Later that day the White House confirmed that the Asia trip was indeed off.

Obama is famous for taking the long view of things. If you do the actual mechanics of governing properly, he believes, the daily media storms will all blow over eventually. Maybe he's right. At the moment, though, betting on the American media to grow up is looking like long odds indeed.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Spelling Bee Madness

No, the words haven't always been as hard as they are today.

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 6:25 PM EDT

The final round of the 83rd annual Scripps National Spelling Bee starts in a couple of hours. You probably think I have nothing to say about this, and you're almost right about that. But not quite. So here's what I think: like so many events these days that were originally designed for children, it's gotten ridiculously out of hand. Do we really need to be airing this thing on live prime time television? No. We don't. We need to stop professionalizing childhood and go back to letting kids be kids.

I know. Not gonna happen. I'm just being crotchety today. So here's the real reason I'm posting about this: a couple of months ago I was noodling around in the ProQuest archives looking for the etymology of Fannie Mae, and one of the hits I got was a New York Times blurb about the winners of the 6th annual spelling bee in 1930. The reason it popped up is because 22nd place that year went to one Fannie Mae Schwab of Memphis, Tennessee, who misspelled "primarily."

Yes: she misspelled "primarily." A word that, today, probably wouldn't show up in the first round of a district competition, let alone in the final round of the nationals. And check out some of the other words that knocked kids out of the 1930 contest: blackguard, conflagration, concede, litigation, breach, saxophone, and license. Are you kidding? I could spell all those words. But if you watch tonight's show, you'll be lucky if you've even heard of most of the words, let alone have a snowball's chance of spelling them correctly.

So there you have it. The next time you hear someone complaining about the decline of educational standards in the United States, just show them this. I don't know how we're doing in producing future Nobel prize winners, but we sure are cranking out way better spellers than we used to. Too bad it's an all but useless skill, eh?

UPDATE: I believe this makes my point for me. Get rid of all the prime time TV nonsense and none of this would have happened.

Friday Cat Blogging - 4 June 2010

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 3:04 PM EDT

Two cats, one bench. On the left, Domino is rolling around and enjoying the sunshine. On the right, Inkblot is being his usual stately and magnificent self. Enjoy!

Is Sarah Palin Already Running in Iowa?

Maybe so, says Marc Ambinder.

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 2:54 PM EDT

Marc Ambinder thinks Sarah Palin plans to run for president in 2012. What makes him think so? The fact that yesterday she endorsed establishment favorite Terry Branstad in the Iowa gubernatorial primary rather than tea party darling Bob Vander Plaats:

[Branstad is] going to be the next governor of Iowa, assuming that there are no stunning surprises next week and Chet Culver, the Democrat, doesn't mount a miraculous election year comeback....If you're thinking about running for president, and I think Palin really is thinking about running for president, you don't get on the wrong side of the guy who will probably be governor during the caucuses by endorsing his opponent, no matter how conservative and Tea Partyish Bob Vander Plaats seems to be.

I don't know if Palin is planning to run or not, but if she is this is a needle she's going to have to thread pretty carefully. Her fans love her, but they love her because she's not part of the establishment. She's an authentic conservative. But then there's real life, and in real life you end up allying yourself with people like John McCain and Terry Branstad for purely pragmatic reasons. And there's the problem. Stay too far on the outside and you lose the ability to raise serious money and put together a serious ground organization. Become too pragmatic and you lose the support of your true believer base. What's a real American rogue to do?

Fighting Fire With Fire

Do liberals ever win in this kind of fight?

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 2:26 PM EDT

Bob Somerby continues to be unhappy about the sensibilities of the contemporary progressive media in general and the contemporary progressive blogosphere in particular:

Indeed, the liberal world is increasingly adopting the core values of the mainstream press corps. We run on silly sexy-time tales, and on invented lies by opponents. This is low-IQ tabloid work, pure and simple — and it’s a culture which will never serve progressive interests. By the way: This is the culture of the mainstream press—the punishing culture with which the mainstream chased down, first Clinton, then Gore.

Will progressive interests ever prosper within such a brain-dead culture? We strongly doubt it.

True? Or not so true? Discuss.
 

The CRA Zombie

Conservatives just can't give up on the myth that the CRA caused the housing bubble.

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 1:43 PM EDT

Edmund Andrews, finally pushed beyond his breaking point by yet another piece of economic hackery, vents today about the common conservative meme that it was really liberal housing policy that was at fault for the financial crisis:

Of all the canards that have been offered about the financial crisis, few are more repellant than the claim that the "real cause" of the mortgage meltdown was blacks and Hispanics.

Oh, excuse me — did I just accuse someone of racism? Sorry. Proponents of the above actually blame the crisis on "government policy" to boost home-ownership among low-income families, who just happened to be disproportionately non-white and immigrant. Specifically, the Community Reinvestment Act "forced" banks to make bad loans to irresponsible borrowers, while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provided the financial torque by purchasing billions worth of subprime paper.

....What makes this smear so repellant is that it blames poor people — mostly minorities — for bringing on the crisis. But what makes it so maddening is that it’s so demonstrably false. We have reams of evidence that banks and mortgage lenders actively targeted blacks, Hispanics and other immigrant groups for reckless loans. The lenders weren’t forced. They were making a fortune.

The evidence is pretty clear on this: CRA had essentially no effect at all on the housing bubble, and Fannie and Freddie can be blamed, at most, for throwing a couple of logs onto a bonfire that Wall Street had touched off long before. Those logs cost them (i.e., you) a helluva lot of money, but they weren't responsible for the financial crisis.

But it's a convenient story for the Sarah Palin wing of the conservative movement, since it deflects blame from the private sector to the public sector, from George Bush to Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and from rich white guys to working class black and brown folks — as the Michael Ramirez cartoon above graphically demonstrates. The only problem is that it's demonstrably not true. Read Andrews's post and follow the links for more.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Mark Kirk Misremembers It Wrong

And he misremembers a helluva lot.

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 12:38 PM EDT

Aside from its entertainment value, I haven't been all that interested in the recent brouhahas surrounding politicos who have made false claims about their military service. Richard Blumenthal actually appears to have misrepresented his record only once or twice over a ten-year period, Jan Brewer's exaggeration about her father was a political misdemeanor at worst, and Mark Kirk.....

Um, yeah. Mark Kirk. The Republican Senate candidate from Illinois. That whole "Intelligence Officer of the Year" thing was pretty embarrassing, and he's finally apologized for it, but today Steve Benen rounds up Kirk's entire record:

At this point, it's genuinely difficult to keep track of all of Kirk's claims about his service record that have been proven false. Let's see if I have them all: Kirk (1) falsely claimed he served "in" Operation Iraqi Freedom; (2) falsely claimed to "command the war room in the Pentagon"; (3) falsely claimed to have won the U.S. Navy's Intelligence Officer of the Year award; (4) falsely claimed to have been shot at by the Iraqi Air Defense network; (5) falsely claimed to be a veteran of Desert Storm; and (6) falsely claimed to be the only lawmaker to serve during Operation Iraqi Freedom. There may very well be other instances, but these six are confirmed.

The Chicago Sun-Times version is here. Kirk says that in the future "I need to be humble about my military record." Roger that.

Employment Picture Still Struggling

The economy is recovering, but very, very slowly.

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 12:18 PM EDT

Today's employment news is pretty anemic:

The U.S. Labor Department said in its closely-watched jobs report Friday that nonfarm payrolls rose by 431,000 last month, the largest gain since March 2000. That followed an unrevised 290,000 increase in April....However, the May figure was boosted by the hiring of 411,000 temporary workers for the Census. Only 41,000 private-sector jobs were added.

....Employment in professional and business services rose by 22,000. Manufacturing continued to trend up, rising by 29,000. The industry, which has been leading the economy's recovery, has added 126,000 jobs over the past five months. Construction, a sector of the economy that remains soft, lost 35,000 jobs in May.

The construction sector number comes as no surprise. With the federal government's tax credit for first-time home buyers expiring, the housing market is losing what little steam it had earlier in the year, and that promises to continue. As CBPP's Chad Stone says, "Under these circumstances, policymakers should have no qualms about passing a robust jobs bill — indeed, they would be derelict not to." Preach it, brother.
 

Left and Right in the Blogosphere

Why don't conservative think tanks hire outsiders to blog for them?

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 11:54 AM EDT

It's now conventional wisdom that the political blogosphere has been pretty thoroughly professionalized, but James Joyner points out something I hadn't quite noticed:

These things are no doubt happening, especially on the left. Barbara O’Brien‘s observation that “The evil MSM seems to pick up 50 Erick Ericksons for every one Nate Silver” is just bizarre.1 I can’t think offhand of a truly conservative amateur blogger who has been bought out in the manner of Mickey Kaus, Kevin Drum, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Glenn Greenwald, Steve Benen, Dave Weigel and others who have had hobby blogs bought out by major media sites or ideological think tanks and gone full time. Megan McArdle is the closest I can think of but she was already a professional journalist, writing for the Economist, by the time anyone had heard of her.

So why is this? There are political magazines and political think tanks on the right. Why haven't they hired a bunch of successful hobby bloggers instead of developing their own in-house talent? Why is it that Glenn Reynolds, Erick Erickson, Michelle Malkin, Charles Johnson, and the Powerline folks haven't been hired as bloggers by a magazine or think tank? Is it because conservative magazines didn't want to hire outsiders, or because they made offers and conservative bloggers weren't interested?

1In fairness, I suspect that Barbara was thinking less here about bloggers and more about talking heads and columnists, where conservatives seem to get hired at a pretty good clip.

Cyber Charters and You

Your tax dollars support a growing number of "cyber charter" schools. Are you getting your money's worth?

| Fri Jun. 4, 2010 1:47 AM EDT

The New York Times has a fascinating story today about "cyber charters," a phenomenon I probably should have heard about before but haven't. I'm still not exactly sure what they are, but as near as I can tell it's basically a way of home schooling your kids using online lessons instead of books. The Times piece is about CAVA, a virtual academy that's a subsidiary of K12 Inc., which provides the online curriculum. Unlike ordinary home schools, however, CAVA is certified by the state of California and therefore gets paid as much per student as an ordinary bricks-and-mortar school. So where does all this money go?

“A virtual education is expensive,” said Katrina Abston, the head of schools for CAVA, and a K12 employee. The nine K12 California schools share the cost of a 10,000-square-foot office and storage space in Simi Valley. “There’s back-end support and computers and the type of curriculum we use is expensive,” Ms. Abston said. “They make sure we’re cutting edge.”

Luis Huerta, an associate professor of education at Columbia University, is suspicious:

“Nationally, cyber charters on average receive the equivalent amount of funding as traditional schools,” Professor Huerta said. He added that there was minimal overhead and minimal accountability. If virtual charter school costs are lower, Professor Huerta said, “then where is the money going?”

“It doesn’t add up,” he said.

Well, maybe not. But K12 isn't wildly profitable, so they're spending it on something. More here.