Monday, July 6, 2015

President Obama's Succession Plan - Updated

As the former executive director of a small non-profit, I can tell you that one of the tasks of any effective leader of an organization - no matter the size or mission - is to engage in succession planning. This would be even more true when a leader is term-limited in their position.

That's why around 2007 I started looking for signs from the Bush/Cheney White House about what they were doing to lay the groundwork for a next Republican president. I have to admit that I was pretty surprised when I didn't see any indication of plans/work on that.

On the other hand, almost as soon as he got re-elected to a second term, President Obama went to work on succession planning.
One senior Obama adviser says the administration “To Do list” after 2012 included thinking “about how you lock in the Obama coalition for Democrats going forward. Because it’s not a 100 percent certainty that they come out for the next Democrat.” Part of the answer, the adviser said, was to pursue aggressive unilateral action on “a set of issues where we have an advantage … and believe are substantively the right thing to do” and dare Republicans to oppose him.
That "to do list" wound up looking like this:

* Executive action on immigration
* Grassroots efforts to raise the minimum wage and enact paid sick/family leave
* New rules on overtime pay
* New EPA rules on new and existing power plants to combat climate change
* Agreements with China, India and Brazil on goals to address climate change, leading up to a global agreement at the UN Conference in December 2015
* Opening diplomatic ties with Cuba
* Working towards an agreement with Iran on it's nuclear weapons program

As I wrote recently, we are likely to see additions to that list as the Obama administration continues to play through to the end of the fourth quarter.

What we've seen from Hillary Clinton's campaign is that she is embracing these efforts and promising to build on them. And the Republicans are taking the dare. They're going all-in to oppose them. And so, between President Obama's initiatives and the Supreme Court's rulings on Obamacare and marriage equality, what we've seen lately is that the whole group of Republican candidates are on the defense, promising to undo whatever is done. Here's how Greg Sargent summed it up:
Is the 2016 GOP presidential nominee really going to campaign for the White House on pledges to…

1) scrap a hard-won international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program
2) withdraw the U.S. from participation in a global climate accord
3) reverse the ongoing restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and
4) repeal a health law that continues to expand health coverage to tens of millions of people, nearly seven years after it was signed

…while…

5) fudging on how, or whether, to overhaul our immigration system and integrate millions of undocumented immigrants already here (before “securing the border”), an issue of enormous importance to the fast-growing Latino voting bloc, and
6) continuing to hold out against same-sex marriage even as it takes hold nationwide?

Recent events suggest this scenario is a genuine possibility.
What will be interesting to observe is whether or not this defensive positioning is maintained over the next year and a half - even as Republicans decide on an actual candidate. Other than fanning the flames of fear about foreign threats and preaching about the benefits of what George Bush, Sr. called "voodoo economics," it's hard to imagine what a pro-active message would look like at this point. We'll see...

One thing we can take away from all of this is that President Obama is setting the stage extremely well for his successor. People have often critiqued his leadership. Those that amuse me the most are the one's who call him "naive" or "lucky." We have to remember that this is the guy who became the first African American president of the United States with the name Barack Hussein Obama by beating the candidate everyone assumed was "inevitable" in a well-crated primary back in 2008. The guy knows what he's doing.

UPDATE: Right on cue comes this from Jeb Bush - supposedly the "serious" candidate in the current field. He suggests that President Obama has given us a "zombie economy" based mostly on the recent drop in the labor force participation rate (LFPR). But if Betsey Stevenson from the Council of Economic Advisors is right and the drop is mostly related to the fact that the survey tracking LFRP was distributed earlier than normal last month, we're likely to see a pretty significant increase next month - negating his entire argument. That's what happens when you base your campaign on phony numbers.

But even more interesting is what Jeb proposes to do about all that. Hold onto your hats...his solution is to repeal and replace Obamacare. Right! Because that is exactly what is NOT giving us a "zombie economy." For example:


Sunday, July 5, 2015

What's Up Next for the Obama Administration?

As we await word on whether or not there will be an agreement with Iran about their nuclear weapons program, we've seen a burst of activity recently from the Obama administration on things like diplomatic relations with Cuba and a new overtime rule for workers. But what's next for a White House that plans to play through to the end of the fourth quarter? Carol Lee writes that they're gearing up for another push on domestic policy.
While President Barack Obama‘s top foreign-policy initiatives - particularly on Cuba, trade and Iran - have dominated the headlines lately, the White House is gearing up for a domestic policy push that’s largely been under the radar...

In coming weeks, the White House is expected to roll out more executive orders, perhaps on gun safety. And top White House officials are hoping to capitalize on their successful collaboration with congressional Republicans on trade to advance a business tax overhaul and transportation initiatives targeted at shoring up the country’s infrastructure.

Changes to the criminal justice system are also at the top of the president’s domestic wish list.
To the extent that any of these require Congressional action, I doubt the odds of movement from Republicans have improved much. But on criminal justice reform, Peter Baker suggests that we are about to see another round of commutations as a result of the President's clemency initiative.
Sometime in the next few weeks, aides expect President Obama to issue orders freeing dozens of federal prisoners locked up on nonviolent drug offenses. With the stroke of his pen, he will probably commute more sentences at one time than any president has in nearly half a century.
Baker goes on to suggest that the anticipated announcement might mean that the President's total of 43 commutations to date will double to over 80. But it's important to keep in mind that this is an ongoing process. Due to the administration's work on this initiative, there are now over 7,000 petitions pending. According to Gregory Korte, the office that reviews these petitions in the Department of Justice has set a deadline of January 2016 for petitions to be filed that will be reviewed by this administration.

Based on that information and what we've seen so far from this initiative, we can expect to see that the kind of announcement Baker is forecasting will happen every few months between now and the end of President Obama's second term.

Baker summarizes the record of modern presidential use of commutation:
Modern presidents have been far less likely to commute sentences. Lyndon B. Johnson commuted the sentences of 80 convicted criminals in the 1966 fiscal year, and no president since then has matched that in his entire administration, much less in a single year. Ronald Reagan commuted only 13 sentences in eight years in office, while George W. Bush commuted just 11 in the same amount of time. The elder Mr. Bush commuted three sentences in his four years.
There is no doubt that by January 2017, President Obama will have surpassed any modern president on the number of commutations granted. In the scheme of things, it will be his small contribution to reducing the number of people who are currently incarcerated in this country. But it makes a bold statement nonetheless. It also marks a huge change in what the President identified as the problem with this process.
The president complained that the pardon attorney's office favored petitions from wealthy and connected people, who had good lawyers and knew how to game the system. The typical felon recommended for clemency by the pardon attorney was a hunter who wanted a pardon so that he could apply for a hunting license.
That is clearly no longer the case. And so this represents yet another example of how President Obama has used the power of the executive branch to make real change.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Iowa Catholics Want to Talk About Climate Change

As 2016 candidates criss-cross Iowa these days, Catholics are being encouraged to talk to them about climate change. This week Bishop Richard Pates posted an op-ed in the Des Moines Register.
The pope repeatedly calls for dialogue about how we can come together to act on climate change. He says that "reducing greenhouse gases requires honesty, courage and responsibility" (169). Pope Francis is challenging us all to have an open and honest conversation about the problem and available solutions. As presidential candidates make their way across our great state during the political caucus season, we want them to be part of the conversation, too.

An honest conversation requires acknowledging that there is abundant evidence of increasingly extreme weather and climate change...

An honest conversation acknowledges that humans are causing much of the recent climate change. NASA outlines how 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the climate change over the past century is likely the result of human activity. The dialogue we need is not about whether to act on climate change, but how to act...

With presidential candidates already visiting us regularly, I encourage Catholics across our state, and all people of good will, to talk to them and ask not if, but how, they plan to work toward solutions to climate change.
Wow! That is going to make for some difficult conversations with the Republican candidates. So far their responses have been to either (1) deny climate change, (2) deny that humans are causing climate change, and/or (3) say the Pope should not weigh in on this matter. Bishop Pates isn't about to let any of that fly. As he made abundantly clear, the "whether" question is not applicable. The only remaining issue is if they can articulate a plan for "how" to work toward solutions. Based on what we've heard so far, ALL of the Republican candidates will fail that test.

Our Journey is Not Complete

Earlier this week I wrote about how President Obama talked about patriotism in his speech at the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma. But on this anniversary of the day we declared our independence, I am also reminded that he talked about how our current challenges are grounded in the aspirational ideals of that document during his 2013 inaugural address.
Each time we gather to inaugurate a President we bear witness to the enduring strength of our Constitution. We affirm the promise of our democracy. We recall that what binds this nation together is not the colors of our skin or the tenets of our faith or the origins of our names. What makes us exceptional, what makes us American, is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth…

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths, that all of us are created equal, is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia, to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.

That is our generation’s task: to make these words, these rights, these values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American…

For now decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall…

You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Role of Peggy Noonan's Pearl-Clutching


I have to admit, no one on the right intrigues me more than Peggy Noonan. It might be because she is the most prominent female conservative pundit. But it also has to do with her unique skill at pearl-clutching. She is absolutely the queen of that venue.

Exhibit A would be her recent column in the WSJ about the Supreme Court's decision on marriage equality. Peggy's big concern is that it wasn't a unanimous decision.
Unanimous decisions tend to quell dissent; they confer an air of inarguable legitimacy, even inevitability. Whatever your own views, you as a citizen must acknowledge that nine lawyers, presumably skilled interpreters of the Constitution who hold different judicial and political philosophies, were able to agree on the charged issue at hand. Unanimous decisions rob opponents of arguments.

Landmark decisions based on narrow splits reflect a continuing breach.
With that, Noonan never has to specifically say that she disagrees with marriage equality - or that the Court was wrong. She simply clutches her pearls and worries about the "continuing breach" created by those who disagree with the likes of Scalia and Thomas.

Of course Noonan hasn't reserved her pearl-clutching for Supreme Court decisions. She regularly employs it in defense of Congressional Republicans as well. The problem, you see, is never the fact that Republicans are embracing extremist positions and - even more importantly - a strategy of total obstruction. You can always count on Noonan coming up behind them to worry about how sad it is for the country that Democrats won't play ball with them.

So whenever I see Peggy clutching her pearls, I know that her job is to attempt to give the obstructionists legitimacy. Never mind that the folks she is defending can hardly utter the word "compromise." It's just such a damn shame we're so divided (because of those mean liberals). Oh, my!!!

Bernie, Hillary...and Joe

The story in the Democratic primary this week has all been about Bernie-mania. Sanders drew a huge crowd in Denver and gained ground on Clinton in a poll in Iowa. On the former, Jonathan Topaz points out that it's a good strategy for an insurgent.
He’s running to win a movement as much as an election, and there’s no clearer sign of it than the liberal strongholds he’s visiting — Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis; Denver; Portland, Maine.

“The news of large crowds manages to make its way to people, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire,” said senior Sanders adviser Tad Devine. “It’s demonstrating that the message Bernie is delivering is connecting with a large audience.”

The idea is to barnstorm the nation’s most progressive cities in the hopes of attracting field organizers, small-dollar donors and, most importantly, the kind of media attention that insurgent candidates are typically starved for.
I decided to look a little deeper into the polling and found something interesting that I haven't seen anyone comment about. In the Quinnipiac poll of Iowa caucus-goers, 52% support Hillary Clinton and 33% support Bernie Sanders. But it's interesting to note who comes in third...Joe Biden with 7%.

There was some buzz last week about the possibility of VP Biden getting into the race. But I think it's important to note that it came from an article in the conservative Washington Times. An article in Politico yesterday showed how most of that came from people who have had no contact with Biden or his inner circle.

I personally doubt the Vice President will get into this race. But in some ways, that's beside the point right now. Even with no announcement or campaign operation, Joe Biden is coming in third in Iowa. In the Quinnipiac poll, he draws on the same group of supporters that Clinton does. A breakdown by ideology shows that Sanders actually beats Clinton (47/43) with those who identify as "very liberal." But among "moderate/conservative" Democrats, Clinton wins big (60/17) with an additional 11% preferring Biden.

We see much the same thing (only more so) in national polls. The Huffington Post aggregator shows the race this way:

Clinton - 58%
Sanders - 15%
Biden - 12%

And at Real Clear Politics, Biden actually comes in second.

Clinton - 63%
Biden - 13.5%
Sanders - 12.7%

A comparison of two individual polls shows what might happen in Biden doesn't run. The latest CNN poll includes Biden and shows this result:

Clinton - 58%
Biden - 17%
Sanders - 15%

But NBC/WSJ's latest did not.

Clinton - 75%
Sanders - 15%

What all of this suggests is that, in order for Bernie-mania to gain traction, his supporters should really be hoping that VP Biden decides to run. It's the only way he has a chance of getting anywhere close to Clinton's numbers.

But the national polls also show one other major problem for Sanders. In reporting their latest, PPP summed it up this way:
Clinton continues to be dominant nationally with every segment of the Democratic electorate- she's over 60% with liberals, moderates, women, men, Hispanics, whites, and voters in every age group and she's polling at 83% with African Americans. The lack of racial diversity in New Hampshire [and Iowa] is one reason Sanders is coming closer to her there given her dominance with black voters nationally.
Sanders will have to dominate in both Iowa and New Hampshire as he heads into primaries like South Carolina - where the Democratic base is much more diverse. Hillary Clinton has made it clear that she is running a campaign to address the issues that are important to what we've come to call the "Obama coalition." Bernie Sander's appeal is still primarily with white voters. He also doesn't do as well with women. In order to be competitive over the long run, he'll have to close those gaps.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Fox Fail

If you click on this link you'll find a video of Condoleezza Rice (piano) and Jenny Oaks Baker (violin) playing a rendition of Amazing Grace. Notice that it was just released today.

And if you click on this link, you'll find a clip from Fox and Friends this morning playing that video and oogling over how wonderful it is. Never once did they mention the role that song played in President Obama's eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney last week. Can you say A-W-K-W-A-R-D?

The whole thing is either the very worst timing in the history of music or an incredibly crude example of "me-tooism."

I report...you decide.

Perfect Timing for the New Overtime Rule

The June jobs report (223,000 jobs added and unemployment rate down to 5.3%) extends the longest period of private sector job growth in our country's history.

But there are two things that are causing concern. First of all, the labor force participation rate (LFPR) dropped 0.3 percentage points to 62.6%. As I've written before, it is important to keep in mind that there are several factors that affect this number:

1. The increasing number of baby boomers who are retiring
2. The increasing number of high school graduates who are going directly to college
3. The number of people who find it difficult to get a job because of a criminal record

I haven't seen anyone attempt to quantify this, but it would also be interesting to find out the number of people who are voluntarily leaving the job market for early retirement (or other reasons) because Obamacare has made that a viable alternative. That might also be a factor.

Finally Betsey Stevenson, a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, points out that the change in LFPR might be credited to something as simple as the fact that the survey tracking it was distributed earlier than normal last month.

Taking all that into consideration, the big focus on the LFPR drop is probably over-heated. Of all the potential explanations, the one that should spur us to action is the need for passage of something like the REDEEM Act, which would allow non-violent offenders to have their criminal records expunged.

The other cause for concern in the jobs report is much more significant - little to no increase in wages. That's why this is the perfect time for President Obama's new overtime rule. In the best case scenario, people who are working overtime but not getting paid for it would get a big pay increase.

Republicans who are criticizing the new rule suggest that it will mean fewer jobs. That is completely counter-intuitive. What many employers are likely to do is hire more employees in order to avoid paying overtime. That means more jobs, not fewer.

But here's where the timing is important. We are now at or near what economists consider "full employment." If the new overtime rule had been implemented during a time of high unemployment, businesses would have likely hired those new employees at lower wages - thereby actually depressing wage growth. That is highly unlikely now.

Due to federal regulations regarding the need for public comment on these kinds of changes, the new overtime rule won't go into affect until next year. When it does, employers will have two choices, (1) give existing employees a raise via overtime pay, or (2) hire more employees. Either way it's a win for workers.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Photo of the Day: #AskPOTUS

We've come a long way from FDR's fireside chats.


Here's @POTUS today doing a twitter Q & A hashtag #AskPOTUS using a bluetooth connected keyboard with his iPad (if you don't understand what that means, ask your granddaughter).

Initial Steps in Building a Feminist Foreign Policy

A few months ago I wrote about our need for a feminist foreign policy. At the time, I quoted this from an article by Jenny Nordberg about Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom.
Wallstrom also cites a growing body of research showing that women’s security is directly related to both national and international security. In the 2012 book “Sex and World Peace” a team of four researchers (Valerie M. Hudson, Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill, Mary Caprioli, and Chad F. Emmett) present data indicating that the more violent a state and its citizens are toward women, the more violent that state is likely to be over all, both internally and in its dealings with outside world. “In fact, the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated,” Hudson wrote in a piece for Foreign Policy.
So you can imagine my interest in a headline like this: Women and Countering Violent Extremism. It is about a forum being sponsored this month by the United States Institute of Peace.
Women worldwide suffer disproportionately from violent extremism and conflict. Women’s key roles in society put them in ideal positions to prevent extremist violence. Yet, 15 years after the United Nations Security Council vowed to reverse the broad exclusion of women from leadership in security and peacebuilding, they remain marginalized. On July 21 at USIP, experts from civil society, the United Nations, academia, and the U.S. government will discuss ways to include women in efforts to counter violent extremism. The debate will directly inform U.S. government officials preparing for major international conferences on these issues this fall.
I had never heard of the United States Institute of Peace. My first thought was that it sounded like what Dennis Kucinich used to say we needed. But it actually began in 1984 on the recommendation of a commission appointed by President Jimmy Carter. The enabling legislation defined is purpose:
To serve the American people and the federal government through the widest possible range of education and training, basic and applied research opportunities, and peace information services on the means to promote international peace and the resolution of conflicts among the nations and peoples of the world without recourse to violence.
What I found even more interesting is that current board members include Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of forums and conferences on this topic. But overall I am encouraged to see the discussion being promoted by people/groups like this.

Can We Agree to Disagree?

Brent Budowsky has written the ultimate version of "disappointed" liberals being alienated by President Obama and how that could spell doom for the Democratic Party in 2016. Ed Kilgore did an excellent job of dismantling that argument with data. But I'd like to take it a step further.

Budowsky bases his argument mainly on the disagreement the President recently had with a lot of Democrats over trade legislation. But he suggests that it went beyond a disagreement.
It was political malpractice for Obama to have spent a month dishing personal and political insults against prominent liberal Democrats, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), organized labor and liberals across America during the trade debate. 
This is a narrative that gathered a lot of momentum a few weeks ago and largely went unchallenged. I think that's because we don't pay enough attention to the difference between political disagreements and personal insults. From what I saw, President Obama disagreed with Sen. Warren about TPP. But I'd challenge the notion that he engaged in personal attacks against her.

The exchange most often used as an example of President Obama attacking Sen. Warren is his interview with Matt Bai. Yes, the President said she was "wrong." But that hardly counts as personal attack. It's pretty much what you'd assume someone thinks when they disagree.

The one thing from that interview that is most commonly cited as a personal insult is when Obama said this:
The truth of the matter is that Elizabeth is, you know, a politician like everybody else. And you know, she’s got a voice that she wants to get out there. And I understand that.
On the face of it, that is simply a true statement...Sen. Warren is a politician. But true statements can be used as a subtle form of personal insult. So after hearing people interpret this one that way, I went back and watched the video again to get the context.

What is completely ironic is that President Obama made that statement in response to Bai saying this about the arguments Warren was making: "It's getting personal, though, isn't it?" The President responded by basically saying, "No, its not personal, Elizabeth is a politician." He was doing the exact opposite of how it's been characterized in making an attempt to take it out of the personal realm. Was it an in-artful attempt? Perhaps. But his intention was to refute the idea that the disagreement between he and Senator Warren was personal.

I actually think that both Senator Warren and President Obama deserve kudos for handling this disagreement respectfully. That's exactly what the President talked about in his last State of the Union speech when he urged us to engage in a "better politics."
A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives...

If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country.
As liberals, we should recognize the difference between disagreements and personal insults. We belong to a party with a variety of views and perspectives. Robust arguments over our differences are something to embrace. To see that as insulting only weakens our position. We should be able to agree to disagree.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Teamwork on the Supreme Court

Now that the current term is over for the Supreme Court, analysts are digging into the record to draw conclusions about what happened. In a fascinating analysis, Adam Liptak writes: Supreme Court Tacks Left, With Push from Disciplined Liberals.
The stunning series of liberal decisions delivered by the Supreme Court this term was the product of discipline on the left side of the court and disarray on the right.

In case after case, including blockbusters on same-sex marriage and President Obama’s health care law, the court’s four-member liberal wing, all appointed by Democratic presidents, managed to pick off one or more votes from the court’s five conservative justices, all appointed by Republicans.

They did this in large part through rigorous bloc voting, making the term that concluded Monday the most liberal one since the Warren court in the late 1960s, according to two political-science measurements of court voting data.

“The most interesting thing about this term is the acceleration of a long-term trend of disagreement among the Republican-appointed judges, while the Democratic-appointed judges continue to march in lock step,” said Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago.
For example, this session there were 19 SCOTUS decisions that were decided 5/4. In 10 of those, the four liberals voted together and were joined by one conservative. In contrast, the conservatives only voted together 5 times.

Ian Millhiser suggests that the problem for the conservative justices is that they "represent three - and possibly as many as five - distinct versions of judicial conservatism."

* The Ideologue - Clarence Thomas
* The Partisan - Samuel Alito
* The Reaganite - John Roberts

He points out that Scalia purports to be an "originalist" (like Thomas), but mostly votes as a partisan. And he can't seem to find a way to characterize Kennedy.

Liptak credits the cohesion among the liberal justices to the leadership of Justice Ginsberg. But I'm also interested in how they managed to pretty consistently pick off one of the conservative justices to vote with them. I was reminded of something Adam Winkler wrote about Elena Kagan almost 2 years ago. He described her as a justice in the mold of Earl Warren.
Warren didn’t accomplish these by embarrassing his colleagues or by making sharper arguments on the merits. Warren was a master politician, one who’d sit with the other justices and bring them along slowly and steadily to his side. He sought to understand other justices’ concerns and address them. Unlike most of today’s justices, Warren was willing to work the halls to gain five votes.
He says this about why Kagan was chosen to be the dean of Harvard's Law School:
She was seen as someone who could bring together a faculty known for ideological and personal divisions that institutionally hobbled the law school, especially when it came to hiring. As dean from 2003 to 2009, she calmed faculty tensions, launched an aggressive hiring spree that netted 32 new professors, and earned praise from both left and right.
I remember that some liberals opposed Elena Kagan's nomination. But it strikes me that President Obama would see "bridge-builder" as a necessary role for someone to play on the Supreme Court. It's exactly how people describe his tenure as President of the Harvard Law Review.

If that's the case, here's what we know about the 3 women on the Supreme Court: the senior member is Ruth Bader Ginsberg - the Notorious RBG - tiny woman who throws quite a punch. Then there's my hero - Sonia Sotomayor, the wise Latina with a heart as big as they come. And finally, there's Elena Kagan, the bridge-builder. What a team!

Monday, June 29, 2015

From "Lame Duck" to "Fourth Quarter"

It seems to me that the job of political scientists is to identify patterns in political history as a way to predict the future. One of those patterns that has been pretty generally accepted is that once a presidential campaign begins to replace a second-termer, the White House occupant goes into "lame duck" status. That is certainly what everyone was expecting from President Obama after the huge losses Democrats suffered in the 2014 midterms.

But as we all know by now, the President decided he'd start a new pattern...one that saw his remaining two years as a "fourth quarter" in which he vowed to play to the end. His success in being able to do that hinged on several factors.

1. A scandal-free presidency

During my lifetime, no two-term president has managed to escape the drag of either scandal or terribly flawed policies at the end of their second term. Johnson had Vietnam. Nixon had Watergate. Reagan had Iran/Contra. Clinton had impeachment. Bush had torture, the war in Iraq and the Great Recession.

Recently David Brooks noted that the current administration is the exception to that pattern.
I have my disagreements, say, with President Obama, but President Obama has run an amazingly scandal-free administration, not only he himself, but the people around him. He’s chosen people who have been pretty scandal-free.
That means that not only does the President maintain the good will of most Americans, but he doesn't have to devote an inordinate amount of time to defending himself or attempting to fix policy failures.

2. Previous work is bearing fruit

Last December President Obama sat down for an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep. In response to questions about some of the bold moves he'd already taken since the 2014 midterms, the President said this:
But at the end of 2014, I could look back and say we are as well-positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically, that American leadership is more needed around the world than ever before — and that is liberating in the sense that a lot of the work that we've done is now beginning to bear fruit. And it gives me an opportunity then to start focusing on some of the other hard challenges that I didn't always have the time or the capacity to get to earlier in my presidency.
The major things he is referring to are that the economy was recovering, healthcare reform was working and ground troops were out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. But in addition to all that, diplomacy had opened the doors in Cuba, brought Iran to the negotiating table over their nuclear program and led to an agreement with China about climate change.

3. Pen and phone strategy

A lot of the assumption about President Obama's pending lame duckness had to do with the intransigence of Congress that was only bolstered by the 2014 midterms. But in January of 2014, the President instructed his Cabinet to bring him ideas he could implement via executive order or through persuasion with business leaders and local/state governments. Thus began his "pen and phone" strategy that led to everything from DAPA to new rules for overtime pay to working with local governments to provide paid sick/family leave.

4. Big events

Political pundits are often guilty of assuming that whatever is happening today will be a permanent narrative. But national/international events have a way of changing the current dynamic. Nowhere has that been more evident than the handwringing over President Obama's assumed irrelevance when House Democrats handed him a "humiliating" defeat on TPA a couple of weeks ago. We all know how that one turned out. Just as the House and Senate re-grouped to pass TPA, the events in Charleston, SC were unfolding and the Supreme Court was preparing to hand down rulings affirming Obamacare and marriage equality. As Michael Cohen wrote, we've recently been witness to Ten Days that Turned America Into a Better Place. From an affirmation of his policies to his Amazing Grace eulogy, President Obama has been front and center on it all.

But big events can help or hurt a presidency. The lesson we should all learn from their recent trajectory is that things can change in a heartbeat. President Obama still has a year and a half to go. There are a few things we know are coming up, like whether or not he is able to work with Iran and P5+1 to reach a deal on nuclear weapons. This December we'll learn whether or not the agreements the Obama administration has crafted with countries like China and India will lead to an international agreement on climate change at the UN Conference in Paris. Both of those would be historic achievements. And then, of course, there are the unknown events that could be on the horizon.

This may very well be the first time in the modern era that a sitting president has as much influence on a presidential campaign as any of the candidates who are running for office. The increasing size of the clown car on the Republican side means that it might be months before any one candidate is able to break through all the noise. That leaves the stage pretty wide open for a Democratic message. And Hillary Clinton has wisely chosen to run with President Obama and his record rather than against it. That means she's looking pretty good right about now.

Whatever happens, this will be one for the history books as lame duckness is tossed aside and President Obama plays through to the end of the fourth quarter.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Photo of the Day: Fearless

I don't know about you, but I've shed a lot of tears over the last 10 days. Some have been tears of grief and some of joy. It's hard to miss that we're going through a great historical moment in this country.

And so I wanted to mark this occasion with a few important words that have been written about it.

Inside Obama's "Amazing Grace" Moment by Joshua DuBois

Obama's Grace by James Fallows

Understanding Obama in the Fourth Quarter by Dan Pfeiffer

The Time Has Come to Recognize President Obama's Game-Changing Liberal Legacy by Gregory
Krieg

Ten Days in June by David Remnick

Barack Obama is officially one of the most consequential presidents in American history by Dylan Matthews

Ten Days That Turned America Into a Better Place by Michael Cohen

The theme, of course, is that we have been led both to and through these last 10 days by a great man...one who has been fearless.

President Obama on Patriotism and Faith

For over seven years now, Republicans have fueled the racism of their base by claiming that our first African American president was neither patriotic nor Christian. On the other hand, a group of what some call "blackademics" have claimed that he wasn't "black enough."

I would like to point out to both groups that President Obama articulated his patriotism at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Selma march and gave voice to his Christian beliefs in his eulogy at one of the original Black churches in this country after its minister was gunned down in an act of racial hatred.

Some have already noted how the President talked about patriotism and love of country at Selma.
What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

That’s why Selma is not some outlier in the American experience. That’s why it’s not a museum or a static monument to behold from a distance. It is instead the manifestation of a creed written into our founding documents: “We the People…in order to form a more perfect union.” “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”...

Fellow marchers, so much has changed in 50 years. We have endured war and we’ve fashioned peace. We’ve seen technological wonders that touch every aspect of our lives. We take for granted conveniences that our parents could have scarcely imagined. But what has not changed is the imperative of citizenship; that willingness of a 26-year-old deacon, or a Unitarian minister, or a young mother of five to decide they loved this country so much that they’d risk everything to realize its promise.

That’s what it means to love America. That’s what it means to believe in America. 
Do you see what he did there? He said that those who fought against racism and Jim Crow demonstrated what it means to be patriotic. At one point, he expanded on that and gave a diverse list of other examples. But on that day, he put the Civil Rights Movement at the center of what it means to love one's country.

Of course nothing in our Constitution requires that a president be a Christian. But it just so happens that our current one is. The attempts to paint him as "other" (usually Muslim) are efforts to elicit fear. In his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, President Obama put his Christian faith - and the African American church - at the center of his message about grace.

First of all, he gave an eloquent history about the meaning of church in the African American community.
To the families of the fallen, the nation shares in your grief. Our pain cuts that much deeper because it happened in a church. The church is and always has been the center of African-American life -- a place to call our own in a too often hostile world, a sanctuary from so many hardships.

Over the course of centuries, black churches served as “hush harbors” where slaves could worship in safety; praise houses where their free descendants could gather and shout hallelujah -- rest stops for the weary along the Underground Railroad; bunkers for the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement. They have been, and continue to be, community centers where we organize for jobs and justice; places of scholarship and network; places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart -- and taught that they matter. That’s what happens in church.
And then he grounded his next remarks in what might be the one song that could be called the Anthem of Christianity - Amazing Grace.
This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace. The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals -- the one we all know: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind but now I see...

Removing the flag from this state’s capitol would not be an act of political correctness; it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers. It would simply be an acknowledgment that the cause for which they fought -- the cause of slavery -- was wrong -- the imposition of Jim Crow after the Civil War, the resistance to civil rights for all people was wrong...By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.

But I don't think God wants us to stop there. For too long, we’ve been blind to the way past injustices continue to shape the present. Perhaps we see that now. Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.

Perhaps it causes us to examine what we’re doing to cause some of our children to hate. Perhaps it softens hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system and leads us to make sure that that system is not infected with bias; that we embrace changes in how we train and equip our police so that the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve make us all safer and more secure.

Maybe we now realize the way racial bias can infect us even when we don't realize it, so that we're guarding against not just racial slurs, but we're also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal. So that we search our hearts when we consider laws to make it harder for some of our fellow citizens to vote. By recognizing our common humanity by treating every child as important, regardless of the color of their skin or the station into which they were born, and to do what’s necessary to make opportunity real for every American -- by doing that, we express God’s grace.

For too long, we’ve been blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation. Sporadically, our eyes are open: When eight of our brothers and sisters are cut down in a church basement, 12 in a movie theater, 26 in an elementary school. But I hope we also see the 30 precious lives cut short by gun violence in this country every single day; the countless more whose lives are forever changed -- the survivors crippled, the children traumatized and fearful every day as they walk to school, the husband who will never feel his wife’s warm touch, the entire communities whose grief overflows every time they have to watch what happened to them happen to some other place.

The vast majority of Americans -- the majority of gun owners -- want to do something about this. We see that now. And I'm convinced that by acknowledging the pain and loss of others, even as we respect the traditions and ways of life that make up this beloved country -- by making the moral choice to change, we express God’s grace.

We don’t earn grace. We're all sinners. We don't deserve it. But God gives it to us anyway. And we choose how to receive it. It's our decision how to honor it.
I wanted to quote that lengthy passage because what the President did was outline what might be called "the civil rights issues of our time." As a country, we've been blind to racism. But perhaps, because of God's grace, now we can see.

And so, over the last few months, we've seen President Obama's powerful answers to those who have questioned his patriotism and faith...questions that were designed to invalidate him via racism. He has done so as in a way that is grounded in his own experience as an African American.

All of that makes me think of one of the four critical steps of the Aikido way: "You must enter the very center of the conflict." In other words, rather than avoid the racist implications of those questions and attempt to make white people comfortable with his answers, the President stepped right into the center of the allegations and responded by saying that he is both patriotic and a man of faith BECAUSE he is African American. That is a unique gift that Barack Hussein Obama has given this country.