Kevin Drum

The Long, Hard Slog of Change

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 11:51 AM EDT

Brendan Nyhan takes a look at support for Barack Obama's healthcare plan following his big speech a couple of weeks ago and comes away unimpressed:

There was a small bounce in support for health care reform after the speech, but part of the effect dissipated. Meanwhile, estimated opposition to reform, which dipped in the wake of the speech, quickly rebounded toward previous levels and is now greater than it was before the speech.

....I'm emphasizing this point because there's a misperception among journalists that the president can easily move public opinion. As we've seen again and again over the years, it's simply not true, but the lack of followup by the press means that the lesson is never learned.

I agree on the narrow question here: a single speech by a president probably has very little impact except in the very short term.   But I'm not sure that's the same thing as saying the presidents don't have much effect on public opinion.  It's obviously harder to measure presidential impact the more broadly you look at it, but my guess is that presidents can have a fair amount of impact if they pick one or two subjects and hit on them early and often.

This was one of my criticisms of Obama from the very beginning: his campaign was very good at inspiring people to vote for "change," but that message was only good enough to win the election.  By November 4th, the only specific change in most people's minds when they entered the voting booth was that they didn't want four more years of George W. Bush.

Now, Job 1 in a campaign is to get elected.  And "change" is one of the two classic messages for any winning campaign.  (The other is "experience counts.")  But there's not much point in getting elected unless you can accomplish something once you're in the Oval Office, and that requires a public that's solidly behind your legislative program.  Unfortunately, that's something Obama never really got, because he didn't want to take the chance of muddying his message and risking the election.  Maybe that was the right decision, but the end result is that he doesn't really have a lot of genuinely fervent public support (the kind of support that generates townhall protests in every state, lights up the congressional swithcboard like a Christmas tree, and makes politicians fear for their reelection) for his specific healthcare agenda.

It could be that there's no way to square this circle.  I don't know.  But I believe two things: (a) public opinion is the key to almost everything and (b) it's hard for a president to move public opinion.  One lesson you can take from that is that presidents are stuck.  The other is that they should treat public opinion the way Eisenhower treated World War II and mount a long, hard campaign to win it from their earliest days on the campaign trail.  I choose door #2.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Semi-Republicans Show Semi-Support for Healthcare

| Tue Oct. 6, 2009 11:10 AM EDT

Several semi-employed Republicans have recently said they support Barack Obama's healthcare reform plan, but today brings news that a couple of employed semi-Republicans do too: Arnold Schwarzenegger (technically an R but pretty much disowned by most of his party) and Michael Bloomberg (currently pretending to be an independent).  There's still not much in the way of support from anyone who's both employed and a red-blooded Republican, but it's a start.

Nationalization Revisited

| Mon Oct. 5, 2009 8:53 PM EDT

In Ryan Lizza's New Yorker profile of Larry Summers, he suggests that Summers and Tim Geithner turned out to be right about bank nationalization.  It wasn't necessary after all, and things are going just fine without it:

The results of the stress tests showed that the banks were not in as dire shape as commonly believed. Most of the nineteen banks were able raise money privately. “It worked,” the Treasury official said. “People had money to put into banks. The nationalization crowd would have had the government putting all that money in.”

Matt Yglesias isn't impressed:

The key thing here is that the arguments as being relayed to Lizza seem not to know that the proposal to apply the Swedish model to the banking sector was a proposal to nationalize insolvent banks and explicitly guarantee the debts of the solvent ones. This is precisely designed to deal with the “nationalization sets off larger panic” worry. The fact that the stress tests showed that many banks were not in such bad shape is also irrelevant. Nobody ever proposed that we nationalize banks that weren’t in trouble. The proposal was to guarantee the obligations of banks that weren’t in trouble, a low-cost move since these are the banks that aren’t in trouble. The Obama administration wound up implicitly doing that anyway, which is precisely why most of the banks were able to raise money privately. The exact same thing would have played out with the exact same banks if the troubled banks had been nationalized.

I'm on the fence about this.  I was initially a proponent of nationalizing weak banks (Citigroup being the most likely target), even though I always recognized that there were downsides, and I'm not sure I've changed my mind.  After all, the argument was never that the banking system would collapse unless we nationalized, the argument was that (a) nationalization was the best deal for taxpayers and (b) it would get weak banks back into good shape faster than just waiting for them to earn their way back to solvency.  Considering that we pumped $45 billion into Citigroup and provided them with $300 billion in asset guarantees as an alternative to nationalization, I'm still not sure that argument wasn't correct.

It's probably true that nationalization wasn't absolutely necessary, and that we'll muddle through without it.  But the fact that we're muddling through doesn't mean we live in the best of all possible worlds.  It just means we're muddling through.

That said, so far the Geithner/Summers gamble has paid off.  If we don't hit any more big bumps in the road, it will probably continue to.

Quote of the Day

| Mon Oct. 5, 2009 6:46 PM EDT

From Gail Wilensky, a conservative healthcare economist:

It's very frustrating to see somebody who makes outrageous statements that bear no relationship to reality receive so much attention.

She's talking about serial healthcare fantasist Betsy "Death Panel" McCaughey.  The quote is from Michelle Cottle's profile of McCaughey in the current New Republic.  Worth a read.

Genealogy Strikes Back

| Mon Oct. 5, 2009 12:36 PM EDT

I'm still catching up with news from the weekend.  Turns out that Iranian president Mahmoud "The Holocaust is a myth" Ahmadinejad is, um, Jewish:

A photograph of the Iranian president holding up his identity card during elections in March 2008 clearly shows his family has Jewish roots.

A close-up of the document reveals he was previously known as Sabourjian — a Jewish name meaning cloth weaver....The Sabourjians traditionally hail from Aradan, Mr Ahmadinejad's birthplace, and the name derives from "weaver of the Sabour", the name for the Jewish Tallit shawl in Persia. The name is even on the list of reserved names for Iranian Jews compiled by Iran's Ministry of the Interior.

....The Iranian leader has not denied his name was changed when his family moved to Tehran in the 1950s. But he has never revealed what it was change from or directly addressed the reason for the switch.

I will shortly be announcing that I am descended from Republicans.  More on that story later.

UPDATE: Then again, maybe not.

E. coli Conservatism

| Mon Oct. 5, 2009 11:27 AM EDT

Over the weekend the New York Times ran a long story about E. coli poisoning in the hamburger industry.  I could swear I've read nearly this exact same story three or four times before and it never seems to prompt any actual changes in the meatgrinding industry, but maybe this time we'll get lucky.  For Saturday's story, the Times tracked down the infected hamburger that paralyzed Stephanie Smith two years ago, and what they discovered was that meat grinders don't test the various ingredients that go into making hamburger.  They only test the final product:

When it came to E. coli O157:H7, Cargill did not screen the ingredients and only tested once the grinding was done. The potential pitfall of this practice surfaced just weeks before Ms. Smith’s patty was made. A company spot check in May 2007 found E. coli in finished hamburger, which Cargill disclosed to investigators in the wake of the October outbreak. But Cargill told them it could not determine which supplier had shipped the tainted meat since the ingredients had already been mixed together.

“Our finished ground products typically contain raw materials from numerous suppliers,” Dr. Angela Siemens, the technical services vice president for Cargill’s meat division, wrote to the U.S.D.A. “Consequently, it is not possible to implicate a specific supplier without first observing a pattern of potential contamination.”

Did Cargill do this to save money?  Only partly.  Primarily it's because if they test, they might actually find something:

The retail giant Costco is one of the few big producers that tests trimmings for E. coli before grinding....Costco said it had found E. coli in foreign and domestic beef trimmings and pressured suppliers to fix the problem. But even Costco, with its huge buying power, said it had met resistance from some big slaughterhouses. “Tyson will not supply us,” Mr. Wilson said. “They don’t want us to test.

....The food safety officer at American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, said it stopped testing trimmings a decade ago because of resistance from slaughterhouses. “They would not sell to us,” said Timothy P. Biela, the officer. “If I test and it’s positive, I put them in a regulatory situation. One, I have to tell the government, and two, the government will trace it back to them. So we don’t do that.”

The USDA has since issued guidelines "urging" grinders to test ingredients, but that's it.  They don't require it.  Surely a Democratic administration and a Democratic Congress, not ideologically opposed to safety regulations, can do better than that?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Friday Cat Blogging - 2 October 2009

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 3:15 PM EDT

You know how football games now have cameras suspended directly above the field of play so you can get an aerial view of the action?  That's what you're getting today in cat coverage.  On the left, Inkblot is staring upward at the camera suspended high in the sky above him.  On the right, the camera descends to field level for a rare shot of Inkblot and Domino together.  As you can guess, this display of brotherly love lasted about five seconds.

Still thirsting for more catblogging?  Sign up for our weekly newsletters!  The Friday newsletter is based around this blog and contains both an extra bonus post and a guest cat photo sent in by one of our readers.  Today's newsletter has already gone out, but it's not too late to sign up for next week's issue.  Just click here.

Cheering Against America

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 3:03 PM EDT

I don't really care much about the Olympics, and the fact that Obama's brief trip to Copenhagen got saturation coverage in the press this week struck me mostly as yet another testament to the modern media's fundamental unseriousness.  The triumph of gossip over substance continues its inexorable march.

That said, I hopped back over to The Corner a few minutes ago, and the Olympics are by far the biggest topic of conversation there this morning.  But The Corner is a gossipy place, so that's not such a big deal.  What is stunning, though, is just how openly thrilled they are that America lost its bid.  All because a president they don't like decided to make a direct pitch for his adopted hometown.  Ditto for the Weekly Standard, apparently.  It sure doesn't take much to turn these guys against their country, does it?

UPDATE: Much, much more here and here.  I honestly had no idea things had gotten this deranged.  Jesus.

Out of Work

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 1:32 PM EDT

There are lots of different measures of unemployment.  One of the best and most consistent is the civilian employment-population ratio, which shows the percentage of the workforce currently employed.  The series below, from the St. Louis Fed, shows this measure for the past 60 years and it highlights just how bad our current recession is.  Here's the drop in the ratio in past recessions, measured in percentage points from peak to trough:

• 1948 — 2.2%
• 1953 — 3.1%
• 1958 — 2.5%
• 1960 — 1.4%
• 1969 — 1.9%
• 1974 — 2.4%
• 1979 — 3.0%
• 1990 — 2.0%
• 2000 — 2.7%

The worst recession of the past half century, the 1980-82 double dip, produced a drop of only 3.0 percentage points.  I don't think anybody has ever used the modifier "only" to describe that recession before, but it fits now: the current recession has produced a drop of 4.6 percentage points so far.  That's double the postwar average.  The drop from the previous peak in 2000 is 5.9 percentage points.  So far.  The job scene is simply devastating right now.  More from Andrew Samwick here and Brad DeLong here.

R.I.P. Chicago Olympics

| Fri Oct. 2, 2009 12:26 PM EDT

In a stunning upset, Chicago was the very first city eliminated this morning from voting to host the 2016 Olympics.  Reaction from The Corner:

Ponnuru: Chicago is out of contention....But I'm sure that Obama will be a lot more persuasive with the Iranians.

Miller: Wow, what an embarrassment for Obama. If he can't work his personal magic with the Olympians, why does he expect it to work with the Iranians?

Lowry: We Can Take Some Comfort....in this distressing hour that the Iranians, Russians, Chinese et al. are push-overs compared to the International Olympic Committee. Right?

You know times are tough when the NR gang all have to use the same gag writer to produce their lame jokes.  Of course, the real loser in all this is Oprah, but I notice that none of these guys has the guts to take her on.  Probably wise thinking.