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Tag: "Obama administration"

What Are They, For Lack Of A Better Word, Thinking?

[ 0 ] January 22, 2010 |

I’ve been puzzling over the same questions Rob has — that why both the White House and the Raul Grijalva set among House progressives seem publicly committed to positions that are utterly irrational. And…I’m still not sure, but here are my guesses.

The House liberals suddenly against voting for the only viable health care reform option are the tough case, not least because there are probably a few groups. As Krugman says, there does seem to be a group of House Democrats who are just genuinely acting irrationally, convincing themselves that there’s some kind of underpants gnome theory that will translate the right kind of posturing into a better Senate bill even though the post-special election edition of the World’s Worst Deliberative Body couldn’t even pass something as good as the current bill. There’s not much to say about this except that it’s crazy. In addition to this, there are probably heighten-the-contradictions types: some who just don’t think the bill improves the status quo (pretty clearly erroneously, I think, and the argument is particularly indefensible if you voted for the House bill, which is hardly radically different than the Senate version), along with some who don’t actually think the status quo if preferable to the bill but are deluding themselves about how soon the next opportunity to reform health care will come along. Since the latter group are acting almost as irrationally as the underpants gnomes faction, this isn’t a very satisfying explanation, but I don’t see any others.

As for the White House, I see an intelligible but profoundly misguided logic to their actions. Unless the administration has hired Mark Penn while I wasn’t looking, I don’t think for a minute that Obama or his senior advisers really believe they can get Republican votes in the Senate for a health care reform measure. Rather, I think they consider the reform bill doomed, and are invoking bipartisanship as a way to try to transfer some blame for the likely failure to Republicans. The problem with this, of course, it’s that it can’t work. The White House needs to face up to a simple reality: they own health care. If nothing gets done, it will be blamed on them, not the GOP. The public doesn’t care about the labor pains; it wants to see the baby. It’s not entirely fair — yes, it’s awful that the Republican minority in the Senate has substantial power without responsibility, and yes if the United States had political institutions appropriate for a modern democracy a better bill would have passed months ago. But, you know, ugatz fair. You govern with the institutions you have, and Obama needs to be doing everything he can to get the Senate bill through the House and a reconciliation bill through the Senate, will making it clear that there’s no viable Plan B. It may not work, but if it doesn’t he’s in serious political trouble either way.

In short, there’s no way to assess the situation, I don’t think, without seeing horrible failures of leadership: Obama, Frank, Weiner, any number of others — even if they come around in the end, they’ve acted very irresponsibly at a crucial time, and it may be too late. It’s very hard to have any optimism left.


Time to Fire Up the Ad Hoc Constitutional Generator

[ 0 ] January 11, 2010 |

What’s especially rich about John Kyl holding up presidential appointments over trivial and irrelevant policy matters (in this case, a little stupid moralism about online gambling) is that Kyl was one of the many hacks who used to argue that the “advice and consent” clause of the Constitution solemnly required the Senate to give up or down votes to all presidential nominees. I look forward to Byron York’s next attempt to argue that he is, in fact, being perfectly consistent.

The Constitution permits the Senate to vote (or not vote) on presidential nominees however it deems fit. But as I’ve said before, to the extent that there should be norms of deference to presidential appointments, they make much more sense in terms of executive branch appointments than to life-tenured appointments to an independent branch. While the Constitutional permits them, the norms and rules that permit individual Senators to hold up appointments to the executive branch are entirely indefensible on the merits, like so many Senate rules.

Imperial naivete

[ 0 ] December 2, 2009 |

St. Ignatius of Georgetown bestows his benediction on Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan, but, being a liberal columnist at the liberal Washington Post, he regrets that the announced plan fails to commit the nation explicitly to perpetual war:

Obama thinks that setting deadlines will force the Afghans to get their act togetherat last. That strikes me as the most dubious premise of his strategy. He is telling his adversary that he will start leaving on a date certain, and telling his ally to be ready to take over then, or else. That’s the weak link in an otherwise admirable decision — the idea that we strengthen our hand by announcing in advance that we plan to fold it.

Of course one would have to be an idiot to imagine that Obama’s announced strategy of employing a Surge(tm) with a “date certain” for withdrawal is what it pretends to be. The plan as presented is obviously for public consumption: the real plan will have to be either:

(1) To abandon Afghanistan, as the Bush administration eventually abandoned Iraq, but only, as in Iraq, after a face-saving military triumph over the current wave of civil insurgency, aka the declare victory and leave option; or

(2) Perpetual occupation.

The most Orwellian moment last night was Obama’s proclamation that, unlike previous empires, “we do not seek to occupy other nations.”

We will not claim another nation’s resources or target other peoples because their faith or ethnicity is different from ours. What we have fought for – and what we continue to fight for – is a better future for our children and grandchildren, and we believe that their lives will be better if other peoples’ children and grandchildren can live in freedom and access opportunity.

As a country, we are not as young – and perhaps not as innocent – as we were when Roosevelt was President. Yet we are still heirs to a noble struggle for freedom. Now we must summon all of our might and moral suasion to meet the challenges of a new age.

Stirring sentiments indeed. He might want to repeat them in Oslo next week, when he picks up his Nobel Peace Prize. It certainly beats “We should invade other countries when it gets good results.”

Obama’s war

[ 0 ] November 24, 2009 |

An unfortunate aspect of the nature of politics is that principled opposition to disastrous and/or immoral policies tends to either disappear or at least lose much of its intensity when such policies are adopted by politicians one supports.

Certainly over the last year we’ve seen this among what passes for the political left in this country, in regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s true that Obama inherited these wars. He was elected to end them.

Yet today it’s being reported that, after nearly doubling the US military presence in Afghanistan earlier this year, he has decided to increase that number by 50%, at a direct cost of one million dollars per soldier. The indirect costs are incalcuable.

The administration’s plan contains “off-ramps,” points starting next June at which Obama could decide to continue the flow of troops, halt the deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or “begin looking very quickly at exiting” the country, depending on political and military progress, one defense official said.

“We have to start showing progress within six months on the political side or military side or that’s it,” the U.S. defense official said.

In short, the next six months will be crucial.

If you haven’t yet seen this recent Frontline program on the current situation in that country it’s worth your time.

Of Bargaining And Leverage

[ 1 ] September 11, 2009 |

To follow up a bit on Rob, I would have to say that I’m if anything a little more in sympathy with Matt’s point. At the very least, if one thinks that Obama could get a good bill out of the Senate if he wanted one, I need to hear specifics about how, exactly, he can make this happen. While I agree with a lot of Armando’s recent health care arguments, I think that here he’s skating a little too easily over the fact that in order that for threats to gain leverage in bargaining they have to be credible. American political institutions don’t provide a symmetrical bargaining ground; supporters of the status quo and powerful interests have the playing field titlted strongly in their favor, particularly in the malapportioned and countermajoritarian-on-many-levels Senate. So, for example, Matt Taibbi’s argument that starting with single payer would have constituted the Democrats “start[ing] from a very strong bargaining position” is silly, because everyone knows that single payer had no chance of passing. In Matt’s comments, Petey does actually make a good case that Obama has considerable leverage over House Blue Dogs — owing to the fact that a health care bill failing to pass is going to mean a wave of Republicans taking over marginal House seats in 2010 — but as of now getting a decent bill out of the House hasn’t been the problem. Over the Senate, though, Obama’s sources of leverage are much less obvious unless you think a threat to defeat the whole process (which would obviously hurt Obama much more than marginal conservative Senators) would be credible.

I’d also be curious for those who think that the President is effectively in charge of domestic policy to explain the abject failure of Bush’s Social Security privatization scheme. Surely, this wasn’t because Bush lacked the willingness to engage in the requisite nut/ovary cutting, to shift rhetoric to the right, or to accept minimum-winning-coalition votes.

On Trust and Political Action

[ 0 ] September 11, 2009 |

I don’t trust the Obama administration either, but in the end that’s not a very relevant political fact. I guess I think that Chris sort of gives the game away when he says this:

Nonetheless, trust plays a large role in all aspects of political action. The degree to which an individual trusts a party, a policy, an individual politician will heavily influence that individual’s interpretations of the efficacy of and / or willingness to support, that party, policy or individual. As such, for no real other purpose but to provide disclosure on my general orientation to the ongoing health care fight, here is a long list of how much I trust the different players and aspects of the debate. Mainly, it is a long list of why I don’t really trust anyone involved.

What I don’t get is this; if trust plays a large role in all aspects of political action, and if Chris doesn’t trust anyone involved, and if Chris understands himself to be a political activist, then where does that leave us? I guess I’m not really seeing what role “trust” is playing; Chris sort of suggests that people who trust the Obama administration are less critical than those who don’t, but we don’t really get any farther than that. Chris’ lack of trust doesn’t seem to impede his activism on behalf of progressive causes, including direct and indirect support of candidates that he doesn’t trust. Call me excessively analytical, but I’m not seeing how trust is a critical variable.

I have the following expectations of political actors; that they will have policy preferences, that they will pursue those policy preferences, but that they will not pursue them to the extent that their own electoral survival is seriously endangered. Although I believe that politicians will *sometimes* make terrible miscalculations about how their behavior will affect their political prospects, I think that by and large they tend to be pretty good judges of the political landscape. As such, I tend to be a touch skeptical of arguments about how Republicans or Democrats as a whole just don’t understand that policy X will lead to utter electoral disaster. To give an example, I understand the tendency of Republican politicians to shift to the right, endangering their own general elections chances, as a relatively rational response to the threat of primary challenges. This is not to say that egregious miscalculations never happen, but I suspect they happen rather less often than you’d think from a cursory glance at the blogosphere, where you’ll find every conceivable variation of “don’t Democrats understand that X will lead to political disaster in Y!??!?!”

But this, of course, isn’t “trust” in the same sense that Bowers is using the term. The above is simply dependable, regular expectations of behavior; I “trust” that Republicans are going to be obstructionist, but that’s not trust in terms of a mobilizing attitude. However, if a) trust is critical to mobilization and political action, and b) you literally don’t trust any of the relevant political actors, then it’s really difficult for me to understand where you go.

I should also say that I don’t quite agree with Yglesias’ response to Bowers, because I tend to concur with Bowers that the Obama administration could pursue action that drives the debate to the left of the median Congress critter. Arms can be twisted, rhetoric can be crafted, favors can be offered, and so forth to push the envelope of the possible. I appreciate that it’s harder to press conservative Democrats than progressives, but there are still methods capable of winning agreement. These tactics have costs, however, and I don’t “trust” the Obama administration to be willing to pay these costs at the expense of other legislation or of its re-election chances. Where I part with Bowers, I suppose, is that I don’t find my lack of trust very politically relevant.

The News From the Speech

[ 0 ] September 10, 2009 |

I didn’t see it live, but this is a useful summary.

Cass Sunstein, Dangerous Radical

[ 0 ] September 9, 2009 |

Yeah, good luck with that. Although I am never surprised by anything from the winger puke funnel going mainstream…

Obama and Health Care

[ 0 ] August 28, 2009 |

If Obama is proven to have made mistakes when we see what comes out of the World’s Worst Deliberative Body, they will have been about his strategy with respect to Congress: being to willing to cave to Blue Dog objections while receiving nothing in return, not using whatever leverage he can to instill real party discipline. On the other hand, I don’t think changing his rhetorical strategy for selling health care could have made much difference. The McCaugheys and Palins would have put out all kinds of screaming nonsense about absolutely any proposal framed in any way and gotten in taken seriously in a large number of media outlets. Liberals need to figure out how to counteract it, not try to preempt it, because the latter is impossible.

Self-Inflicted Wounds

[ 0 ] August 12, 2009 |

I think this is definitely correct. I didn’t understand why Obama was appointing viable Senate candidates at the time, and it looks even worse in retrospect. (Although the subsequent analysis doesn’t apply in her case, one can also add Sebeius, who would have been at least a credible challenger for the soon-to-be vacant Senate seat in Kansas, and would likely have been more progressive than the typical red state senator to boot had she won.) If I understood the logic, Obama felt it was important to have ex-legislators in the cabinet to facilitate relations with Congress and help advance his agenda. Hence the failed Daschle nomination as well. But, as Matt says, I think that was misguided — what matters is power, and a credible challenger means vastly more than having someone in the cabinet with some experience as a legislator.


[ 0 ] July 7, 2009 |

The Obama administration’s ongoing inaction with respect to the unpopular, unjust, and contrary to national security DADT policy is indeed a disgrace:

In all of this, nothing is more infuriating than Obama’s refusal to act on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It is true that the issue affects a relatively small number of gays and lesbians. But discrimination in our armed forces carries a potent symbolism: It tells an entire class of people that the country is not interested in their service. And it would be an easy problem to fix. As Nathaniel Frank argued at tnr Online last month, Obama may need Congress’s approval to officially repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but he has the legal authority to tell the Pentagon to stop enforcing the policy via executive order. He could do it tomorrow. As for the political risks: Obama should look at some polls. Unlike same-sex marriage, the question of whether gays should serve openly in the military is no longer a particularly controversial issue. According to Gallup, 69 percent of Americans believe gays should be able to serve openly. To put that number in perspective, it is 25 points higher than the percentage of Americans who endorse Obama’s handling of health care, 19 points higher than the percentage who currently support the war in Afghanistan, and 18 points higher than the percentage who approve of the administration’s economic policies. Obama is not afraid to push health care reform, send more troops to Afghanistan, or stand by his stimulus program–nor should he be. But why, when it comes to the far less controversial cause of gays serving in the military, is he apparently willing to punt?

As I said at the time, I could live with the bad symbolism of having Rick Warren at the inauguration…if it were accompanied by good policy on gays and lesbian rights, with the low-hanging fruit of working to repeal DADT the minimum acceptable baseline. But since it hasn’t been, Obama deserves all the criticism he received for it and more.

Clinton: Be Bold On Health Care

[ 0 ] June 15, 2009 |

I was fortunate enough to be part of a group of journalists and bloggers invited to meet with President Clinton at his offices in Harlem this afternoon. The main subject was the Clinton Foundation, but as one would expect the conversation ended up being quite wide-ranging. There was lots of interesting stuff, but perhaps best was Clinton’s argument for being very bold on health care. Clinton identified four major ways in which the current context differs from the one he faced in 1993:

  • A different psychological and political landscape. Because, as Clinton noted, Democrats in Congress had stopped Reagan’s strongest anti-government from being enacted, stated Republican retained a popularity that, after 8 years of Bush (much of it under unified government) they no longer do. Knee-jerk anti-government opposition won’t be nearly as effective. And, of course, Obama has larger and more liberal majorities to work with.
  • Obama doesn’t have the same budget restraints. Clinton, having barely gotten a minor tax increase through Congress, wasn’t in the position to raise taxes. Obama will have more options, along with a political context much more receptive to spending increases (although of course this window will close shortly, making quick action on health care essential.)
  • Obama doesn’t have to deal with a Republican Senate leader running for President. The famous letter from Bill Kristol to Dole played a significant role in killing Clinton’s proposed reforms, although Dole might have been willing to cut a deal in different circumstances.
  • Health Care has gotten even worse. Since the GOP killed reform, American health care has continued to get more expensive while failing to even come close to universal coverage and failing to produce outcomes any better than countries that provide care to more people for less money.

I might quibble with #3 — while of course this precise factor shouldn’t be an issue, it looks like most Republicans in Congress plan on being just as obstructionist. The other 3 points are certainly valid, and for this reason Obama needs to be aggressive rather than living in fear of the failure of reform that happened under Clinton.

From a strategic perspective, Clinton said that it was smart for Obama to try to get 60 votes rather than using reconciliation, to preserve his relationship with Congress for other issues. However, that doesn’t mean “giving away the store”; if the only way to get a good bill — i.e. universal coverage combined with policies that will contain spending — is a 50%+1 vote, then that’s what Obama should do. I think that this is right (and if Obama attempts to get a more bipartisan bill, this would also contain the political damage if he needs to do it with a simple majority.)

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