Sunday, September 30, 2012

Talking Smack

For those of you who - like me - were not born with the competitive gene, here's a little reminder of the lengths President Obama goes to challenge himself on the basketball court.
A dozen players were warming up. I recognized Arne Duncan, the former captain of the Harvard basketball team and current secretary of education. Apart from him and a couple of disturbingly large and athletic guys in their 40s, everyone appeared to be roughly 28 years old, roughly six and a half feet tall, and the possessor of a 30-inch vertical leap. It was not a normal pickup basketball game; it was a group of serious basketball players who come together three or four times each week. Obama joins when he can. “How many of you played in college?” I asked the only player even close to my height. “All of us,” he replied cheerfully and said he’d played point guard at Florida State. “Most everyone played pro too—except for the president.” Not in the N.B.A., he added, but in Europe and Asia...

Obama was 20 or more years older than most of them, and probably not as physically gifted, though it was hard to say because of the age differences. No one held back, no one deferred. Guys on his team dribbled past him and ignored the fact he was wide open. When he drives through the streets, crowds part, but when he drives to the basket large, hostile men slide over to cut him off. It’s revealing that he would seek out a game like this but even more that others would give it to him: no one watching would have been able to guess which guy was president. As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.

“No one seems to be taking it easy on him,” I said.

“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back,” he explained.
With that kind of mentality, you think its going to shake up the President that a Romney spokesman talked a little smack about the debates on the Sunday shows this morning? Or that they leaked the idea that they're developing zingers to try to throw him off his game?


One of the most entertaining aspects of being an Obama observer is watching people mistake his calm cool demeanor for weakness or cowardice. They usually never know what hit them ;-)

Obama's Audacity (updated)

Today Ezra Klein attempts to address the question of why Obama abandoned audacity in the 2012 campaign. He suggests that it was a political calculation about the American people not being in the mood to trust big ideas.
The American people, their research shows, are tired of audacity and skeptical of big ideas. They’re willing to believe Obama has done about the best job he could have been expected to do given the collapse of the global economy and the intransigence of the Republicans. But if they’re going to believe that, they’re also not willing to believe that he’s got all the answers now, or that his next big idea is the one that will really turn all this around. If they’re going to lower their expectations, he needs to be more realistic in his promises.
Of course, there's probably some truth in all of that. And it shouldn't surprise us that the headliner of The Wonk Blog would be focused almost entirely on the policy details of what President Obama is talking about.

But if you listen to ALL that the President is saying, you'll notice that he's also talking about citizenship, and engaging in the conversation, and what it really means to be patriotic. If we go back to what I recently wrote about his Nobel Peace Prize speech, we hear him talking about expanding our moral imagination. Think for a minute about how these words apply not only to how we view our role in the world, but how they might also inform our domestic affairs.
Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more -- and that's the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there's something irreducible that we all share.
Given our current cultural and political milieu, THAT'S audacious!

UPDATE: Here's how p m carpenter put it.
And that's an Obama-worthy challenge of FDR-like audacity for a second term: to reinspire Americans to see beyond the kind of atomistic selfishness the right has glorified and to instead commit to a unified, national purpose.

State of the Race: Romney's floor = Republican ceiling

Regular readers here know that I don't pay much attention to the national polls but have been slightly obsessed (yes, that's a bit like being slightly pregnant) with the state polls and the electoral map. One of the things I've been saying all along is that this race has been strikingly stable. It turns out that nowhere is that more true than Mitt Romney's performance.

Romney began this race with a pretty solid 191 electoral votes. That includes all of the states John McCain won in 2008 plus Indiana. Anyone who's been watching these projections from polling aggregates knows that, with the exception of occasionally adding North Carolina to bring him up to 205 electoral votes, Romney has NEVER LED in any other swing state. The only changes we've seen in them is to go from toss-up to Obama.

Today, it you take a look at any of the projections - from HuffPo to TPM to Real Clear Politics, you'll see Romney is still at 191 electoral votes. In other words, the only real "swing state" (if we're talking swinging between Romney and Obama) is North Carolina. And even that one is trending towards Obama at this point.

After this election is over, narratives about its course will certainly be written. Based on what I'm seeing now, they will likely try to tell the story of a race that was tied until the conventions and Romney's remarks about 47% of Americans. That won't be true. While it may have looked like a close race in national polls at one time, Romney hasn't been able to put a single state in play on the electoral map to rise above his 191-205 base. As a matter of fact, all he's been able to do is lose his small lead in North Carolina. In other words, what started off as his floor actually looks to be his ceiling.

The reason this is important is that, when you combine it with the reality that this is not simply a failure of the candidate, but a rejection of the Republican Party as it has positioned itself today, we can see that they are currently the party of 191 electoral votes - and loosing ground by the minute based on demographics.

Lately BooMan has been covering this story better than just about anyone on the internet. But I have to disagree with how he characterized it today. This election is not some grand scheme for one last shot at the ring that will likely be followed by a more temperate platform in the future. That assumes way more strategy on the part of Republicans than I think they are capable of today.

Nope, this is the beast the Republicans unleashed on us all when their policies failed and they decided to give the megaphone to their extremist base. That beast is not grounded in strategy - but in fear and anger. They will not go quietly into the night of defeat only to emerge ready for compromise. It is true that their end is certain. But the dying beast is sure to continue to lash out at every target on its way down. I say that not because I doubt their demise, but because it is always best to be prepared.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Photo of the Day: " that you?"

J.K. Rowling on Patriotism

Billionaire J.K. Rowling is without a doubt the richest person in the United Kingdom. As the sole author of the mega-hit Harry Potter series, some Republicans in this country would suggest that "she built wrote that" all on her own and should therefore be left to enjoy all the fruits of her labor with no thought to her responsibility to anyone else.

I have no doubt that Ms. Rowling lives a very comfortable lifestyle and is never likely to have to forego any material thing she happens to need or desire. But apparently some people think that's not enough and have wondered why she doesn't give up her British citizenship in favor of some more suitable tax haven. She recently had a few words for Republicans folks who think that way.
I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. 

When conversation becomes a threat

We are witnessing a fascinating psychological phenomenon these days from those on the right of the political spectrum. As polling suggests that Mitt Romney is going to loose the election (perhaps badly), conservatives are experiencing the cognitive dissonance of the world not behaving as they've come to believe it would/should.

What it comes down to is that their anger/fear of President Obama is so extreme that they couldn't countenance that the rest of the country might not feel the same way. The reality of the polls is challenging their assumptions. And so what do they do? Dismiss the polls. Contrary to what we might think, that behavior is not all that uncommon amongst human beings...we tend to dismiss information that conflicts with how we've come to see the world. Its just that conservatives (and a few liberals I might add) have been able to take this kind of thing to a whole new level.

No one described this phenomenon better than Julian Sanchez a couple of years ago. He even gave it a name - epistemic closure. The definition of epistemic is: "of or relating to knowledge or to the degree of its validation." And so here's how Sanchez talks about the right's tendency these days to close themselves off from knowledge:
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile... Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal. It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter. If disagreement is not in itself evidence of malign intent or moral degeneracy, people start feeling an obligation to engage it sincerely—maybe even when it comes from the New York Times. And there is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation. A more intellectually secure conservatism would welcome this, because it wouldn’t need to define itself primarily in terms of its rejection of an alien enemy.
(Emphasis mine)

Note that he refers to the conservative media ecosystem as fragile. This is inherently true of any set of ideas that has to wall itself off from criticism.  If your ideas cannot tolerate engagement, they are inherently fragile. And that is precisely why conversation becomes a threat.

I don't for one minute think that when Sanchez is referring to conversation, he means the kind of ideological battle we often see in the comment threads of blogs. Very often that is an attempt to dismiss conversation rather than engage in it.

Thinking about that takes me back to something Michael Lewis said about how President Obama constructs meetings when he has to make the tough calls.
He likes to make decisions by having his mind occupying the various positions. He likes to imagine holding the view.
That's what someone does when they want to enter a real conversation not beholden to ideology or dogmatism - but to decide on the very best course of action (pragmatic problem-solving at its best).

It also reminds me of an article I wrote about two years ago by James Kloppenberg.
Throughout his career, Obama has refused to demonize his opponents. Instead, he has sought them out and listened to them. He has tried to understand how they think and why they see the world as they do. His mother encouraged this sense of empathy, and it’s a lesson Obama learned well. Since January 2009, Obama has watched his efforts at reconciliation, experimentation, and -consensus--building bounce off the hard surfaces of political self-interest and entrenched partisanship, but there is no reason to think he will abandon that strategy now. He knows that disagreement is a vital part of the American fabric, and that our differences are neither shallow nor trivial.

Although Obama’s reform agenda echoes aspects of those advanced by many Democrats over the last century, he has admitted—and this is the decisive point in understanding his outlook—that his opponents hold principles rooted as deeply in American history as his own. “I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him,” he wrote in Audacity. “That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.” Obama rejects dogma, embraces uncertainty, and dismisses the fables that often pass for history among partisans on both sides who need heroes and villains, and who resist more-nuanced understandings of the past and the present...

After almost two years as president, Obama has failed to satisfy the left for the same reason that he has antagonized the right. He does not share their self-righteous certainty.
That's what it means to have an actual conversation.

From all this we can see why that kind of engagement is something Republicans fear the most and President Obama thinks is our greatest tool. He has confidence in our ability to sort things out, whereas all they have is fear and fragility. He is inviting us to share that confidence and engage the conversation.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Pandering to the purists

Daniel McCarthy has written a very provocative article at The American Conservative titled Is the GOP Still a National Party? He starts off by telling some hard GOP truth.
Republicans have failed to win a plurality of voters (or a majority of the two-party vote) in four of the last five presidential elections. The single win was 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected by the lowest margin of any successful incumbent since 1828.
To explain this phenomenon, he says something that - at first - seems counterintuitive. And yet it makes perfect sense.
The GOP base is better organized and more engaged locally than Democrats are. But this actually undercuts the party at the national level. So well organized are the GOP’s ideological constituencies that they prevail in legislative primaries and push the party’s overall identity to the right...These ideological groups also have a great deal of muscle at the presidential primary or caucus level, but even beyond that, their success at the legislative level means that a presidential contender’s loyalty to the GOP brand — proof that he’s not a RINO — has to be demonstrated by professions of fealty to what is an essentially regional identity, not a national one.
In other words, the Republican Party is pandering to their purists. And that means that they're on a pathway to being a Party that can no longer win national elections.

I would propose that this presents a warning to progressive activists as well. Whenever we push our elected leaders farther left than the majority of the country is willing to go - we'll face the same kind of defeat. As a matter of fact, for those of us old enough to remember,  we know that the Democratic Party was facing the same trajectory not too long ago. The 1972 presidential election was a crushing defeat for the purists on the left.


I would propose that that election, followed a few years later by a similar trouncing in 1984, ensured that the Democratic Party gave up on the idea of base elections and started learning what it takes politically to win a national majority. Overall it means not pandering to your purists.

That does NOT mean giving up your ideals. It simply takes a different strategy to reach them. Our Community Organizer-in-Chief put it this way 7 years ago.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

This one goes out to Mr. Friedersdorf

Conor Friedersdorf should "wake the f--- up!"

NSFW version here.

Obama's record on criminal justice

Once again, reading the crazy wingnut sites has paid off in finding information you're not likely to see elsewhere. This time, it comes from an article in the Daily Caller that labels President Obama as "shamefully soft on drugs and crime."

Apparently the web site got ahold of the opposition research file that Jack Ryan developed when he was running against Obama for the Senate in 2004. You may remember that Ryan dropped out of that race as a result of a sex scandal. Prior to that, he had combed Obama's record in the Illinois Senate for his position on various issues related to crime and drugs.

Given that my professional life is focused on these issues - especially as they relate to young people - I am particularly grateful for this information. I have felt that this is not a topic that President Obama addresses often enough.

So contrary to finding President Obama's record "shameful," I was delighted to hear about it. Here are some highlights:
  • Starting in 1997, the Chicago Tribune reported Obama was critical of a bill aimed at juvenile felons that would have created “a state database, complete with fingerprints,” given victims the right to testify during sentencing, added aggravated battery with a firearm to the list of crimes that would require trial as an adult, given police a full 24 hours to hold suspects without charges and converted youth convicts to adult sentences if they failed to “complete a juvenile sentence satisfactorily.” “What we haven’t addressed in this bill is the preventative side that prevents kids from getting into the system in the first place,” Obama insisted then, in explaining his opposition.
  • By 1999, Obama had joined an effort to examine completely overhauling the state’s criminal code following what Jack Ryan’s researchers called “state lawmakers’ ‘zeal to get tough on crime.’” Obama argued that lawmakers were too often pushing through tough-on-crime legislation, complicating the criminal code. “It’s very hard for elected officials to resist a bill that enhances penalties for drug offenses because nobody’s pro-drug.”
  • On the subject of the death penalty, The Chicago Weekend reported that on September 18, 1999, Obama made his support for a moratorium on executions clear during a town hall meeting at the Alpha Temple Missionary Baptist Church. “I was a main sponsor of a bill that would have put an immediate moratorium on the death penalty,” Obama said then. “We need to put more resources into the Public Defender’s office, so they can do things like DNA testing and take other means to make sure you’ve got the right person before you consider the death penalty.”
  • Jack Ryan’s opposition research also highlights a case that captivated Chicago in November 1999, when several black students were expelled from a Decatur, Ill., high school for fighting. While the school board stood by its decision, Rev. Jesse Jackson led a charge to have the students reinstated. Obama refused to give a position on the case to The State Journal-Register, but he did introduce ”legislation against zero-tolerance policies” in the midst of the controversy.
  • That same month [May 2001], Obama “voted against a bill making it easier to impose death sentences on gang bangers,” says the Ryan research. “People would be eligible for the death penalty if they kill someone to help their gang,” reported The Associated Press. “Under the legislation, gang activity would be one of many possible aggravating factors that trigger a death sentence.” The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Obama’s opposition, in part, was racially motivated. “Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), who voted against the plan, said it would hit black and Hispanic neighborhoods hardest, and that lawmakers should quit creating tougher criminal penalties on the basis of one or two particular incidents,” reported the Sun-Times.
  • In March 2003, Obama reiterated his calls to weaken penalties for drug crimes. He told N’DIGO, an African-American paper, that “federal mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenses has been a mistake, Obama said, at both the state and federal levels.”
Through all this what we see is then-State Senator Obama getting into the weeds of the issues that plague our criminal justice system...inadequate funding of public defenders, the injustice of how the death penalty is applied, treating juveniles like adults, zero tolerance policies in our schools, mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and the lack of focus on prevention.

And so I find myself strangely grateful to the Daily Caller. This is one area where I have questioned whether or not I support our President in terms of specific policies. All of this shows that he is basically on the same page as those of us fighting to bring some justice back in to our criminal justice system.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

RIP Andy

I'm pooped tonight so I think I'll take a little break from politics.

But I thought I'd honor the passing of Andy Williams. The "crooner" crowd was all just slightly before my time. But a woman would have to be stone cold to not melt at least a little bit to this one. Enjoy :-)

President Obama on expanding our moral imagination

As President Obama spent most of his day yesterday on the world stage at the United Nations and Clinton's Global Initiative, I happened to have run across a video of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith interviewing him just after his Nobel Peace Prize speech.

Will picked up on a line in President Obama's speech about "expanding our moral imagination." I'd like to provide some context for that line. Early on in the speech, Obama had referenced a quote from John F. Kennedy.
Concretely, we must direct our effort to the task that President Kennedy called for long ago. "Let us focus," he said, "on a more practical, more attainable peace, based not on a sudden revolution in human nature but on a gradual evolution in human institutions."
Towards the end, he returns to that quote.
Agreements among nations. Strong institutions. Support for human rights. Investments in development. All these are vital ingredients in bringing about the evolution that President Kennedy spoke about. And yet, I do not believe that we will have the will, the determination, the staying power, to complete this work without something more -- and that's the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there's something irreducible that we all share.
Here's how he expanded on that with Will and Jada. You'll hear some themes that will sound very familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the moral and strategic principles that lay the groundwork for President Obama - empathy for others and a vision for the long-term.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

No commentary required 9/25/12

Here are some stories that caught my eye today.

Along with disabusing ourselves of the idea that Republicans are smart, we really need to get rid of the myth that they're frugal when it comes to managing money.

What you'll learn at that link is that the Romney campaign's payroll was about the same as the Obama campaign's last month - while they employed half the people. That doesn't even take into account the $200,000 bonuses the Romney campaign paid to 9 of his top staff.

And this is the guy who wants us to "trust him" to balance the national budget?

So you think President Obama has an enthusiasm problem among Latinos voters? Think again!

We've all heard it over and over again...white working class folks aren't going to vote for President Obama. Well, it turns out that the national polls on that are just a bit skewed by the results in a certain part of the country.

Gee...what do you think that's all about?


As regular readers here know, I've been keeping my eye on the Cheney vs Norquist battle brewing among Republicans over the defense cuts included in the debt ceiling deal vs maintaining the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Yesterday a "gang of six" (three R's and three D's) sent a letter to Senate leaders suggesting a "balanced approach" to deficit reduction (read: its time to talk about raising taxes to spare some defense cuts). Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina was one of the six.

And right on cue today, Norquist's Club for Growth suggested that Graham might be their number one target to defeat in the 2014 primaries. Sucks to be a Republican these days, don't you think?


Finally, for those of you who know what I do for my "day job," you'll understand why this exchange between Barbara Walters and President Obama got me all verklempt.

For a long time I've wondered what Obama would do once he's finished this POTUS gig. Now we know ;-)

Obama as Transformational President

By now you may have seen that this week Andrew Sullivan has another cover story in Newsweek Magazine. The title this time: President Obama: The Democrat's Ronald Reagan. He says that an Obama win this fall would be "a transformational moment in American politics."

I agree completely. But when I read the article, I didn't hear the argument I would make about why. Sullivan - like any good political junkie - gets down into the weeds of comparing Reagan's policy record to that of a potential two-term Obama. I suspect that's because Sullivan actually found something positive about the way that Reagan was transformative. I don't share that view.

My process for comparing the transformative aspects of each president would be to examine the overall forest of the political narrative rather than the trees of specific policies. On those grounds, what we see is President Obama challenging the very heart and soul of the basic message of the Reagan revolution.

Nothing captures better how President Reagan changed the national dialogue in this country more than his statement that "government isn't the solution, its the problem." Playing on the success of the Southern Strategy, the chaos of the 60's and early 70's, and the criminality of the Nixon administration, the country was ripe for a message of deep cynicism about government. And so that message took hold. As I've said before, even during the two-term presidency of Bill Clinton, we heard that "the era of big government is over" and got legislation like welfare reform and de-regulation.

More than anything else, this is the pattern that President Obama has been working to transform. When the country was on the brink of financial collapse, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is what stopped that from happening. The government successfully bailed out the auto industry. Health care reform is certainly not - as the Republicans like to say - a giant government take-over of that industry. But President Obama successfully made the case that government had a role to play in insurance reforms and ensuring that all Americans have access to health care. Wall Street reform reintroduced the idea that the government plays a role in regulating the finance industry.

Those are some of the specifics. But more broadly, if you've heard the President speak over the last two years, at some point you've likely heard him talk about how government can't solve every problem, but it does have an important role to play.

The crux of the choice in this election comes down to whether or not you agree with the Republicans that we're all on our own, or whether - as President Obama is saying - we have a collective responsibility to one another via our shared democratic government. The arguments about "you didn't build that" and the 47% are all messages that reinforce the old Reagan argument that government is the problem.

President Obama is trying to change the way we see our government. He's making a direct challenge to the notion that government is "big brother" out to control our lives. Instead, he's talking about our collective responsibilities to each other via citizenship.
We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk- takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations...

We, the people — recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which asks only, what's in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.
If he can get that conversation going - he will indeed be a transformational president.

Monday, September 24, 2012

It's Working!

According to Nate Silver's now-cast - if the election were held today - President Obama would have a 95.6% chance of winning.

So whatever you're doing, KEEP IT UP...its working! Remember, we don't just want to win this thing, we want to win it BIG and send those Teapublicans packing.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, September 25th, is National Voter Registration Day. If you or anyone you know is not registered, be sure to get it done. The Obama campaign has given us this great tool - so use it.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Why Mitt Can't Win (other than that he's a dick)

First of all, lets stipulate that Mitt's a dick.

But beyond that, he keeps getting really lousy advice from folks like Bill Kristol.
"If this election is just about the last four years, that's a muddy verdict. Bush was president during the financial meltdown. The Obama team has turned that around pretty well. The Clinton speech at the convention was very important in that way -- how horrible was it four years ago."

"He's got to make it a referendum on the choice of the next four years, and explain what Obama would do over the next four years that would be bad for the country, and what he would do that would be good for the country."
You see Bill, idiots like you who want to assume the mantle of "intelligentsia" haven't caught on to what everyday average voters seem to understand pretty clearly. When Romney starts talking about "what he would do," folks immediately recognize it as the very things that got us into this mess in the first place (tax cuts, deregulation, and warmongering).  THEY DON'T WANT ANY MORE OF THAT! Until you knuckleheads start to understand that - fixing Romney's dickishness isn't going to help.

Ongoing steps to end the indefinite war - Afghanistan and Guantanamo (updated)

While most of our attention is focused on the 2012 election and protests in the Middle East, the Obama administration continues to take some relatively unnoticed steps towards ending the "indefinite war."

Let's notice for a minute, shall we?

First of all came the announcement almost two weeks ago that the U.S. has transferred control of the Bagram prison to Afghanistan.
The U.S. military prison known as Bagram, a hated symbol of U.S. interference in Afghan affairs, was officially transferred to Afghan control Monday...

The prison handover is part of a larger transitioning of security responsibilities to Afghan forces — the linchpin of the U.S. plan to pull out its combat troops at the end of 2014.
Then last week the Pentagon announced that the "surge" troops have come home.
Nearly three years after it began, the surge of U.S. troops to Afghanistan is over.

In December 2009, on President Barack Obama's order, an additional 30,000 troops headed to the war-torn country hoping to stabilize it and quash what was then widely viewed as a Taliban resurgence despite just more than eight years of war.

Now, the last several hundred of the extra troops have left Afghanistan, according to a senior U.S. defense official.
The Obama administration has moved forward with both of these developments despite the ongoing violence in parts of Afghanistan. That signals the President's strong commitment to extricate our country from this longest war in our history, despite setbacks.

The final piece of news is not about Afghanistan - but Guantanamo. Before commenting on the news there, it strikes me as important to point out the intractability of so many of the messes Bush/Cheney left on President Obama's desk. That includes 2 wars, an economy in collapse, a debt spiraling out of control, and prisoners being held on an island U.S. military base. When it comes to all of these, not only has President Obama had to try to clean up the mess. He's had to do so with his hands tied by obstructionist fear-mongering Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress. Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the prisoners held at Guantanamo.

So lets take a minute to review the situation. When President Obama assumed office, there were approximately 240 prisoners held at Guantanamo. One of the first things the administration did was to review all of these cases. In January 2010, the task force assigned to do so released a report (pdf). It indicated that over half of the prisoners were eligible for release either to their home or another country. To date, 68 of those prisoners have been released. Of the remaining 167 detainees currently being held, 84 were identified for prosecution or ongoing detention due to their threat level - leaving 83 prisoners who are technically eligible for release. Leftists who continually criticize this administration's decision regarding the former spend almost no time talking about the challenges of dealing with the latter.

Since 2009, it has been the job of Ambassador Daniel Fried to negotiate the release of these detainees from Guantanamo. Some cannot go back to Yemen due to instability in that country. In some cases their home countries won't accept them. And in others, the detainees themselves fear death or torture if they return. Due to the sensitivity of working with other countries to accept them, the administration has kept their identities confidential. The news this week is that the decision to do so has now been reversed - at least for 55 of them where there is no court order requiring confidentiality.
The U.S. Government has for the first time issued a public list of Guantanamo prisoners cleared for release or transfer, but who remain at the island prison because of difficulties finding a country willing to take them or because of concerns about sending them to their home countries.
Its unclear to me what exactly prompted this change. But what seems likely is that diplomatic efforts have run their course. Releasing the names probably ups the ante that advocacy groups can now be engaged to apply pressure to potential home/host countries.

The ACLU issued a statement about this latest development.
Today’s release is a partial victory for transparency, and it should also be a spur to action. These men have now spent three years in prison since our military and intelligence agencies all agreed they should be released...

It is well past time for our government to release and resettle these unfairly imprisoned men.
I say that its all well and good to support this move by the administration. But perhaps its time for organizations like the ACLU to get off the sidelines of simply complaining about what the administration has/hasn't done and start working toward some actual solutions.

UPDATE: As is so often the case with stories like this, its the truly batshit crazy wingers that are the one's noticing more than those on the left who are content to simply complain about the lack of progress endlessly.

And so...the lead story on the Brietbrats blog today is: Obama to release one third of Gitmo inmates. While I guess they missed that the administration is simply releasing their names but has been working on their actual release for three years now, here's an interesting line from their report.
A release or transfer of 55 inmates means Obama is moving out one third of the prisoners at Guantanamo. And while it doesn't represent a shutdown of the facility, it's certainly indicative of a move toward that end.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The work of a pragmatic progressive

I align myself these days with folks who call themselves "pragmatic progressives." At times I'll use the label "Democrat," but if truth be told - that's more of a "not Republican" in todays climate than anything else.

Even as a progressive, I have pulled the lever for a Republican in the past. I think former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson has a lot to teach us about our current political situation. Republican Senator Mark Hatfield is one of this country's politicians that I admired most.

On the other hand, there is hardly a policy issue I'd find myself disagreeing with Senator Bernie Sanders about. Other than our current President, the national politician I have admired the most in my lifetime was Senator Paul Wellstone.

I say all that to put some context around what I mean by the word "pragmatic." It is first of all a refutation of the obstructionist politics of the Republicans these days...the attempt to block legislation that might improve people's lives simply to make a play for political power.

But its also a refutation of being wedded to ideology over what works. I tend to react to ideologues (ie, purists) the same way I react to the dogmatists of my christian fundamentalist past. In my experience, both approaches tend to value an idea (or ideal) over the opportunity to actually make a difference in real people's lives.

The thing I notice about both dogmatists and ideologues is that they tend to isolate themselves from the everyday struggles of human beings. Their world often seems to be insulated from the complexities of human suffering to the point that ideals can be contemplated without application to what is actually happening on the ground. In other words, they live in a bubble of privilege.

One of my favorite examples on the right of how this broke down is Dick Cheney's embrace of marriage equality. That's a perfect example of how the real world of having a lesbian daughter actually broke through dogmatism. When you come fact-to-face with how someone you love suffers as a result of dogmatism, it will sometimes break the hold that purity attempts to maintain.

On the left, this is also what many of us pragmatic progressives suggested was important to keep in mind when trying to pass health care reform. I believe it was Senator Sanders who suggested that the progressive alternative of single payer had a total of 8 votes in the Senate. In other words, it didn't have a prayer of passing. Meanwhile, millions of people were suffering in our current system. Only an ideologue would suggest that we simply allow that to continue while holding true to our preferred ideal.

The challenge for pragmatic progressives is - however - a difficult one. It means having to calibrate what is good enough for today and what we assign to the long-game struggle. You can imagine how a concept like "good enough" is anathema to the dogmatists and ideologues. It reeks of co-optation. I completely understand the concern. Examples of people/groups who abandoned their ideals in that process abound.

So I don't kid myself. There are pitfalls to this position of pragmatism. I believe those are mitigated by an ongoing connection to the very real struggles of everyday life. The minute we remove ourselves from that - either physically or emotionally - we are in danger of being co-opted. That's exactly why President Obama struggles so much with living in the D.C. bubble. It's an admonition that we should pay heed to as well.

Derrick Jensen said something very powerful about this in his book The Culture of Make Believe. He was talking about the similarity between corporations and hate groups. But I would posit that the same thing applies to dogmatists, ideologues and those who are co-opted away from their ideals.
He said, "They're cousins." I just listened. "Nobody talks about this," he said, "but they're branches from the same tree, different forms of the same cultural imperative..." 
"Which is?" 
"To rob the world of its subjectivity." 
"Wait - " I said. 
"Or to put this another way," he continued, " to turn everyone and everything into objects."
The minute the people/causes for which we advocate become objects, we've lost the battle. The alternative is to stay in touch - subjectively - with the struggle. That means feeling the pain but not getting lost in it to the point of cynicism or exploiting it for sentimental gain. That is the work of a pragmatic progressive.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Photo of the Day: A Wish Come True

Eight-year old Make-A-Wish child Janiya Penny reacts after meeting President Barack Obama as he welcomes her family to the Oval Office, Aug. 8, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

State of the Race: When it's down to North Carolina, we're winning

A few months ago folks were worrying about President Obama loosing Pennsylvania. Now, according to Nate Silver's model, Obama has a 91.6% chance of winning there.

Next we worried about Michigan. Now, Obama's chances are at 95.7%.

After that came Ohio. Now, Obama's chances are at 74.8%.

And then came Wisconsin. Now, Obama's at 82.1%.

Should we worry about Virginia? Nah, Obama's at 70.9%.

But its supposed to be a close election. Surely that means Obama couldn't win Florida too. Yep, he has a 59.4% chance of winning there.

And what about Iowa? 72.2%

Or Colorado? 66.5%

And certainly no one is worrying any more about Nevada (80.3%) or New Mexico (96.5%).

That covers all the swing states except North Carolina - where Romney has maintained a lead all along. Until today. Two polls show President Obama with a slight lead there. The HuffPo model is basically calling it a tie at this point (Silver hasn't done an update yet today).

As Markos pointed out, Obama is doing better in the battleground states today than he was against McCain four years ago at this time.

Last time I wrote about the state of the race I predicted that President Obama would win all the swing states (including North Carolina) and that would put him at 347 electoral votes. Today I'll stand by that prediction.

For months now I've been saying that Romney needed a game-changer to get back in this race. What we've seen since then is that he has a habit of turning opportunities into gaffes. If that keeps up, this thing is only going to get worse for him. So I'm tempted to go with BooMan and start wondering what other red states might be turning into toss-ups before this thing is over.

As we talked about recently, its time to start thinking about not just winning this thing, but winning it big. We're already starting to see the momentum have a positive impact on some Senate races (Silver has a Democratic majority at 77.7% right now) and some are even starting to predict that we'll take back the House.

This is no longer about winning a close election. Its about dealing a serious blow to the Teapublicans!

We should all be preparing ourselves to keep working after the election is over

An awful lot of people have opined about what they think might happen in a second Obama administration. As was the case in 2008, I fear that too many are not listening to the man himself because he's broadcasting what to expect loud and clear.

So let's take a listen and see what he's been saying.

First of all, there was his interview with Michael Scherer.
Scherer: Coming out of 2008, there was talk from you and from some of your staff that you could bring [your campaign's] sort of grassroots movement, the organization, to Washington. And 2009 ended up being very much an inside-Washington mirror. [The year] 2012 is different. But if you’re able to get a second term, have you thought about ways of doing what the sort of promise of 2008 was that was never achieved in terms of bringing larger numbers of people to have a voice in the political process?

Obama: I’ve given that a lot of thought. And I do think that we had the best of intentions in 2009 and 2010. Again, we had to move very quickly, which meant that our biggest concern was how do we get 60 votes right now to get this done.

We won’t be in that same kind of crisis, putting-out-the-fire mentality, in 2013–2014. There are a handful of big issues that we’re going to have to deal with...

But for me to get those accomplished, I do think I’m going to need to bring in the voices of the American people much more systematically, much more regularly.

Finding the right mechanisms to do that is something that we’re going to spend a lot of time thinking about. Obviously, the Internet and the digital age helps. We’ve been able to do that on our campaign. We now need to translate that more to how our government works. But I think the American people are ready for it.

The one thing I feel very strongly about, as I travel around the country, is that as anxious as people feel about the recession we’ve just gone through and the challenges that we’re getting from around the world, Americans are really tough, resilient and decent, and they’ve got good instincts. The more they are actively participating in this process, the better off we’re going to be.
Next was his emphasis on citizenship in his speech at the Democratic convention.
But we also believe in something called citizenship — citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations...

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.
And then he talked with Michael Lewis about how to overcome Republican obstructionism.
It’s not a fear-versus-a-nice-guy approach that is the choice. The question is: How do you shape public opinion and frame an issue so that it’s hard for the opposition to say no.
Finally, here is what he said yesterday at the Univision forum.
I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That’s how I got elected, and that’s how the big accomplishments like health care got done, was because we mobilized the American people to speak out. That’s how we were able to cut taxes for middle-class families.

So something that I’d really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so that they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward.
So don't assume you're going to be able to grab those slippers and relax after we get him re-elected or that the time is coming when we can just just sit back and let President Obama do all the work. The Community Organizer-in-Chief is promising us that we're going to have to stay in this thing. In other words, he's going to work to keep the conversation going - the same thing he talked about way back in 2005.
Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.
Yep, that's the guy I'm voting for and what I expect in return. The promises he keeps will be the ones we help him achieve.

Republicans just aren't as smart as we thought they were

I'm guessing there must have been some kind of ethos in the air while I was growing up in the 60's and 70's that said that the Republicans were the party of smart, thoughtful, disciplined people from the skilled managerial class. On the other hand, Democrats were emotional, passionate, undisciplined working and/or creative class folks.

My oh things have changed.

In the intervening years, Democrats elected Jimmy Carter - who was seen to be too smart/serious - and then Bill Clinton - who was too undisciplined. But now we have the whole enchilada in President Obama and the Republicans have swung to being the party of the emotionally undisciplined.

If you had any doubts about that, read what Steve Benen just wrote about their bumbling attempts to try to define President Obama.
At different times over the last four years, Obama's detractors have said he's a ruthless Chicago thug and a "wuss." He's a bystander who goes golfing too much and an activist president who engages too much. He's sticking to the Bush/Cheney script on national security and he's putting us at risk by abandoning the Bush/Cheney national security agenda. He's cutting cherished entitlement programs like Medicare and he refuses to cut entitlement programs like Medicare. He's too mean to Wall Street and he's too nice to Wall Street.

The Obama campaign tends to stick to specific themes, incorporating new information into the message matrix aides drew up a year ago, reinforcing larger arguments. The Romney campaign tends to act like small children playing soccer, running wildly to wherever they see a bouncing ball, whether it's strategically wise or not.
This is NOT a party that has thought through anything strategically or one that is sticking to any kind of plan. They're captured by a base that is fueled by anger/fear and they're simply throwing out anything/everything in an effort to see if something sticks.

The problem is that when I hear some liberals talk these days about Republicans, they seem to still be clinging to a fear that there is some master plan on the part of the plutocrats in this country that we should fear. Sometimes it borders on the the level of conspiracy theories but mostly it just allows for way too much deference to the idea that Republicans know what they're doing.

Its time we put that old idea about Republicans having the upper hand to rest. Their ideas were shown to be disastrous for the country both at home and abroad during the Bush/Cheney years. Now we see that they're just as ill-equiped to run a national campaign as they showed themselves to be in running the country.

The Democrats are the party of grown-ups these days. We need to own that and show them how its done.  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hope and Change

There are those who would have us believe that four years ago President Obama naively offered us fanciful rhetoric that has now been lost to cynical realities.

I beg to differ.

Those who think that our commitment to hope and change is gone never understood what the words meant from the beginning.

On hope:
...not blind optimism, not wishful thinking but hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward even when the odds are great, even when the road is long... 
I'm hopeful because of you.
On change:
As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government. That's what we believe.

That's what he's been saying all along.

Yes WE can!

The Obama Tapes - Oh My! (updated)

Republicans think they've come up with a way to respond to the devastation that Romney's remarks about the 47% have caused his campaign. They're saying..."wait - we have secret tapes about horrible things Obama said, too!"

The funny thing is that when I watch those videos, my reaction is the opposite of what most Republicans felt when they heard what Romney said. The "Obama tapes" suggest exactly why it is that I support this President.

There are actually two Obama speeches from the past that are making the rounds. The first is the one where he talks about that awful soshulist word - redistribution. In order to get the full import of this segment of what President Obama said in 1998, you have to watch 2 videos.

That's the winger's clip. So they end it as soon as he mentions redistribution. But notice how he talks about the fact that "we're going to have to resuscitate the notion that government action can be effective at all." He also talks about the need to resuscitate the notion that "we're all in this together." Sound familiar?

But then after he uses that one word that the wingers are focusing on, he says this.

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I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot. How do we pool resources at the same time as we decentralize delivery systems in ways that both foster competition, can work in the marketplace, and can foster innovation at the local level and can be tailored to particular communities.
So what he's actually talking about - that the wingers don't want you to hear - is that we need to find a way to give everyone "a shot" with decentralized systems in a marketplace based on competition. That is nothing more nor less than the ongoing struggle this democratic republic has been engaged in since its founding. Its what the whole attempt to "perfect our union" has been about.

But there is another video that has surfaced by the wingers that hasn't been as widely covered as the one above. It is of an interview with Obama (likely about his book Dreams from My Father) back in 1995.

I actually saw a clip of Sean Hannity talking to Michelle Malkin about this where they were having the vapors about this radical belief of Obama's in a small "d" democracy and the power we the people have in working together to shape our future.

What we have here is the truth laid bare. For decades now the Republican Party has been at war with the idea of our collective power as citizens in a democracy as well as the idea that we have any collective responsibility to one another. It has taken many insidious forms...from Reagan's "government is not the answer, its the problem" to Bush II's emphasis on an "ownership society." But now its reached fevered pitch.

Rather than buying into the Democratic DLC-type approach to top-down democracy, President Obama is saying "yes we can" to doing this together. In these videos he's being clear about what he's actually trying to put into practice in both his campaigns and his style of governing. It goes right to the heart of what Republicans have been trying to do to this country for the last 30 years. That's why they are so threatened by him and that's EXACTLY why I support him. More than any specific policy, a collective sense of citizenship and responsibility is what we need if we're going to make any claims to living in a democracy.

UPDATE: Vyan posted a diary about the 3rd video at Daily Kos. If you'd like to see a transcript of some of the most important parts, you can find it there.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How racism hurts white people too

I've been suggesting all along that what Romney said about the 47% on that video tape is not something new for Republicans. And now Ta-Nehisi Coates has nailed that assessment with an article titled We Are All Welfare Queens Now. He starts out with the infamous Lee Atwater quote about the Republican's Southern Strategy.
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" -- that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
He then goes on to explain that, while blacks are the target, whites get hurt in the process too.
More to the point, as tactics aimed at suppressing black citizenship become more abstract, they also have the side-effect of enveloping non-blacks. Atwater's point that the policies of the Southern Strategy hurt blacks more than whites is well taken. But some whites were hurt too. This is different than the explicit racism of slavery and segregation...

You can paint a similar history of the welfare state, which was first secured by assuring racist white Democrats that the pariah of black America would be cut out of it. When such machinations became untenable, the strategy became to claim the welfare state mainly benefited blacks. And as that has become untenable, the strategy has become to target the welfare state itself, with no obvious mention of color. At each interval the ostensible pariah grows, until one in two Americans are members of the pariah class.
When he refers to the fact that black America would be cut out of the safety net as it was first developed, he's talking about the fact that FDR had to appease Southern Democrats in order to get Social Security passed. He did that by inserting rules that had the effect of excluding most black people from eligibility. Those rules were later reformed.

Tim Wise made this point too...suggesting that the lack of support for a strong safety net in this country is rooted in racism.

What we see here is the natural progression from creating disdain for anyone who needs a helping hand because that hand happens to be black - to the utter contempt for all social programs that our children, veterans, and elderly depend on by throwing them all in the rubric of "the welfare state." As Coates title suggests - we're all welfare queens now.

Coates ends his article on an optimistic note about the likely result of this kind of integration.
In all this you can see the insidious and lovely foresight of integration which, at its root, posits an end to whiteness as any kind of organizing political force. I would not say we are there. But when the party of white populism finds itself writing off half the country, we are really close.
As the saying goes...from your lips to god's ears.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

I'm Dreaming

Newman, who is white, is openly supporting President Barack Obama. He says he wants the public to find comedic relief in the song, but to also know he's serious about his thoughts that racism is well and alive in the world - and in the current presidential race. He called racism "the great issue of this country."

"I felt that that sentiment exists in the country," Newman said in an interview Monday. "I don't know how many people you can get to admit it. I think maybe zero."

The class warfare of "makers and takers"

When something is as big of a story as Romney's remarks about the 47%, it becomes almost impossible to add anything that hasn't already been said.

But I want to echo something Steve Benen wrote about it this morning.
Romney accuses Obama of being divisive, especially when it comes to class, but here's a video of Romney castigating nearly half the country based on class. Romney's rhetoric says he wants to bring people together, but the clip shows him saying he considers it his job "not to worry about those people."

And for my money, the most damaging phrase of all is, "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility." Half the country, in Romney's eyes, is made up of slothful and pathetic losers.
When Democrats talk about needing to raise taxes on the wealthy (back to Clinton levels), we're talking about shared responsibility. But Republicans cry "class warfare."

But the real class warfare being waged in this country is the idea of "makers and takers" that is embedded into Republican thinking these days - and expressed by Romney in that video. These folks are so completely removed from the lives of the working poor (who pay 15% in payroll taxes but no income taxes), the elderly who don't have big pensions or retirement funds, or those living in deep poverty, that they feel free to blithely dismiss them as nothing but "takers."

And so Romney got caught saying out loud what he wanted to keep behind closed doors during this campaign. But I would like to remind folks that this kind of thinking isn't unique to him. During the Republican primary just months ago, it was pretty common to hear Republicans talk about the need to tax this 47% in order to challenge their "taker" mentality and a Tea Party leader even suggested that we return to the idea that only property owners be allowed to vote.
“Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today,” he continued. “But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community.”

“If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.”
So whether its Romney suggesting that almost half the population of these United States are victims with no sense of personal responsibility, or other Republicans who are suggesting they need to pay taxes in order to have a vested interest in this country, or Tea Partiers saying they shouldn't be allowed to vote - this is not only the definition of class warfare - its what undergirds the Republican Party's approach to domestic policies in this country today.

All Romney did in that video is clarify our choices about which side of that class warfare we want to support this November.

Monday, September 17, 2012

No commentary required 9/17/12

OK, so Mitt Romney had a terrible awful not-so-good day...again.

What other stories caught my eye?

Tina Brown and the entire Newsweek organization ought to be ashamed.

Even Erick Erickson at Red State admits Romney is loosing.
Like it or not, spin it or not, put your head in the sand or not, attack me as the messenger or not, the very simple truth is that Mitt Romney has failed to close any deal with the voters and his message is so muddled no voter really knows what they are getting.
You really need to read Markos' rundown on the battle for the Senate. His conclusion:
One thing's for sure—this is nowhere near the disaster map Democrats feared just six months ago. There's a realistic (if outside) possibility that we can actually emerge from this cycle picking up a seat or two. Worst case, we can still lose the Senate, though that looks to be a remote possibility for now.
It happened a little over a week ago, but my hero - David Simon - was on Real Time with Bill Maher. And as usual, he spoke some important truth.

Finally, there ain't nothing wrong with getting a good laugh at the expense of Faux News. Someone named Donovan Slack took this photo today of President Obama speaking at the campaign rally in Cincinnati.

The idiots at Fox Nation saw it and thought they had an opportunity to take a shot at the President.
At a campaign event in Cincinnati this morning, President Obama really got his audience’s enthusiasm flowing. One man apparently drank in a little more of Obama’s greatness than everyone else, and, unable to contain himself any longer, he snuck off to relieve some pent-up pressure, killing some grass in the process...
Trouble is, they wound up taking a shot at the Secret Service instead.
Well, the Secret Service now says the man is an employee and he was not urinating. Agents typically face away from the president and watch for threats that may be headed his way, in this case, from the woods.

“The individual in the light blue shirt in the background of the photo is one of our personnel,” Secret Service spokesman Edwin Donovan said.
Like I said...idiots!

Hope vs Fear

Some pundits are asking why the Romney campaign seems to have turned its back on talking about the economy only to delve with blistering ignorance into attacking President Obama on his foreign policy in the wake of the protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

I can give you a one-word answer to that one...fear.

Fear is the mother's milk of the Republican Party and has been for decades. This time around we were served up huge doses of that suggesting that our current president is somehow "foreign" and doesn't share our values. And then it was on to instill fear about what they say he's doing to the economy and the American way of life. Along the way, we were fed diets of fear about the welfare state (read: black people) and immigrants.

But that wasn't working for them. And then along came these protests and the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi. And you wonder why the Romney campaign pounced on that? Some have suggested that it fit the narrative of their "apology tour" lie. There's probably some truth in that. But deep down it provided them a vehicle to once again reach in to grab our fears and try to exploit them.

Given that the GOP is a dying beast and has nothing left to offer the American public but greed and some crazy idea about world domination, it should come as no surprise that they would jump on their old tried and true message of fear.

President Obama is offering something else. Yes, for too many the idea of hope was a heady thing in 2008. The question is whether we've matured a bit since then. Because he's still talking about hope - the kind that isn't so starry-eyed. The kind that we find when we look inside ourselves and decide to stick with the struggle over the long haul.
Now, the first time I addressed this convention, in 2004, I was a younger man — a Senate candidate from Illinois who spoke about hope, not blind optimism, not wishful thinking but hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward even when the odds are great, even when the road is long.

Eight years later that hope has been tested by the cost of war, by one of the worst economic crises in history and by political gridlock that's left us wondering whether it's still even possible to tackle the challenges of our time...

...while I'm proud of what we've achieved together — I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, "I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go."

But as I stand here tonight, I have never been more hopeful about America. Not because I think I have all the answers. Not because I'm naive about the magnitude of our challenges.

I'm hopeful because of you. 
President Barack Obama, 2012 Democratic Convention

Sunday, September 16, 2012

President Obama on the bully pulpit and dealing with an obstructionist Congress

I want to highlight another item from Michael Lewis' article on Obama's Way and his interview with Terry Gross on NPR.

During the interview, Lewis says that President Obama told him that the bully pulpit is broken. He said that is partly because of our polarized media, but also ties in to this whole Republican strategy of obstruction. The President knew that the minute he proposed something - even if it was originally a Republican idea - they would oppose it. And the louder he fought for it, the more strenuous their objections would be.

My take on that would be that it opens the door to a powerful strategy for Democrats in a campaign. And we've seen the President use that opportunity very well over the last few months in making this a choice election rather than a referendum.

But when you need to actually get something done legislatively - like a stimulus or health care reform - it means that using the bully pulpit to advocate for policies can actually work against you.

But then in the article, President Obama explains it even further.
He admits that he has been guilty, at times, of misreading the public. He badly underestimated, for instance, how little it would cost Republicans politically to oppose ideas they had once advocated, merely because Obama supported them. He thought the other side would pay a bigger price for inflicting damage on the country for the sake of defeating a president. But the idea that he might somehow frighten Congress into doing what he wanted was, to him, clearly absurd. “All of these forces have created an environment in which the incentives for politicians to cooperate don’t function the way they used to,” he said. “L.B.J. operated in an environment in which if he got a couple of committee chairmen to agree he had a deal. Those chairmen didn’t have to worry about a Tea Party challenge. About cable news. That model has progressively shifted for each president. It’s not a fear-versus-a-nice-guy approach that is the choice. The question is: How do you shape public opinion and frame an issue so that it’s hard for the opposition to say no. And these days you don’t do that by saying, ‘I’m going to withhold an earmark,’ or ‘I’m not going to appoint your brother-in-law to the federal bench.’”
So lets break that down a bit, shall we? First of all, President Obama - like VP Biden - was aware of the Republican strategy of obstruction from the beginning of his term. All that mess about him being naive was ridiculous from the get-go. Where he calculated wrong was in thinking that the American people (and the media, I might add) would hold Republicans accountable for that. In other words, he had the audacity to believe that a party that was willing to sacrifice the good of the American people (during the worst recession of our lifetimes) for their own political ends, would eventually pay a price. Imagine that!

But then he gets all up in some arguments we heard for years from disgruntled leftists. You remember...all those folks that thought that if he just acted more like LBJ in his wheeling and dealing he could kick some Republican ass. What he's saying is that the threat of a Tea Party primary challenge and/or getting blasted on Faux News was more of a threat to them than any little goodie he might hold out or withhold to gain their support. All he had was the possibility of enough of us joining him to hold their feet to the fire.

This is President Obama articulating what those of us who call ourselves "pragmatic progressives" have been saying all along. If more of those lefties (who were so focused on pressuring Obama) had trained their efforts on pressuring Republicans to move or be shamed in the court of public opinion, we might have helped him bust their stranglehold on gridlock.

Let's not make that mistake again!

"They hate us for our freedoms" (updated)

When Americans were trying to understand 9/11, neocons in the Bush administration tried to convince us that we were under attack by Islamists because "they hate us for our freedoms." Of course it was a ridiculous attempt to gin up the anger and revenge so they could lie us into an unnecessary war.

But I'm hearing that same battle cry from too many people these days in response to current unrest in the countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa. In America we tend to value our freedom of speech over most any other constitutionally endowed right. And its clear that many Muslims in those parts of the world are angry that we allowed a citizen of this country to make a movie that is blasphemy to their religion. So do they really hate us for our freedoms?

This morning I let myself ponder that question. There are clearly some misunderstandings going on here. And rather than simply manipulate those for our own political ends, I think it behooves us to try to understand where they're coming from.

Without having an open dialogue with those who are protesting, its difficult to do that. So I'm going to be reaching a bit. But I thought about my experience of working with families who are recent immigrants/refugees to this country. In these parts, we've experienced waves of that over the last 2 decades. Back in the late 80's and early 90's, they were mostly Southeast Asian (primarily Hmong) and more recently African (primarily Somali).

One of the things that struck me about this issue of "freedom" is that - while most of these immigrants were indeed attracted to freedom in this country - they had very different social, cultural and familial expectations of what that freedom should look like.

What I learned is that they had expectations of incredibly strong familial and communal bonds. Individual needs and desires are often rejected in favor of what is best for the greater good. In addition, they placed great amounts of trust and respect in leaders - be that parents in the home or authorities in the greater community.

As you might imagine, that last one comes up very often when dealing with a teenager that is wanting to express their "freedom" in the way that young people often do in this country. It is the quintessential battle for most first generation immigrant families to this country.

Over the years I've done a lot of thinking about why that is. One of the conclusions I've come to is that perhaps there is a different concept of mental health in different cultures. We tend to think someone is self-actualized when they have a strong internal locus of control, whereas in many other cultures maturity is measured by the amount of fealty someone demonstrates towards their family/community.

It is in that context that I tend to view the anger these protesters are expressing about why the United States would allow the making and distribution of that atrocious film. They see this as a communal issue as much as an individual one.

I recognize that all this is probably an extremely over-simplied (and perhaps even mistaken) view of what undergirds this current conflict. But what I do know is that to assume that a uniquely American way of understanding freedom and to denigrate whole cultures when it comes into conflict with theirs is most likely another expression of white privilege (and it is very white in nature, most communities of color in this country that are not recent immigrants place a stronger value on the communal as well).

As I've attempted to understand these differences in my own work with immigrant families, I find that each culture's view brings something to the table that is useful. As someone who had to break the bonds with unhealthy family traditions, I highly value this uniquely American idea of individualism. And yet when I look at the strong commitment to communal responsibility in other cultures, I see tremendous value in that as well. In other words, I think we all have a lot to learn from each other.

And I also think of the very pragmatic look at this kind of thing expressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates when he reacted to Mitt Romney's clumsy denigration of the Palestinian culture.
When people invoke culture in the Romney manner, what they are really invoking is a scale by which humanity may be ranked from totally dysfunctional to totally awesome. The idea is that culture is a set of irrefutable best practices, when in fact it is more like a toolbox whose efficacy depends upon the job.
P.S. I feel the need to note that in talking about this I'm not suggesting that it explains or excuses the killing of anyone...ever. From what I've seen, most of those that are protesting would agree.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

President Obama's process for making the tough calls

Yesterday when I wrote about Michael Lewis' story titled The Obama Way, I included this quote.
“Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”
Lewis fleshes out the process by which President Obama makes these difficult decisions by describing the meeting that was held about whether or not to join Britain and France in supporting "no-fly" zones over Libya during the uprising there.
In White House jargon this was a meeting of “the principals,” which is to say the big shots. In addition to Biden and Gates, it included Secretary of State Hil­lary Clinton (on the phone from Cairo), chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, White House chief of staff William Daley, head of the National Security Council Tom Doni­lon (who had organized the meeting), and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice (on a video screen from New York). The senior people, at least those in the Situation Room, sat around the table. Their subordinates sat around the perimeter of the room. “Obama structures meetings so that they’re not debates,” says one participant. “They’re mini-speeches. He likes to make decisions by having his mind occupying the various positions. He likes to imagine holding the view.” Says another person at the meeting, “He seems very much to want to hear from people. Even when he’s made up his mind he wants to cherry-pick the best arguments to justify what he wants to do.”
As all "the principals" reported on current intelligence, President Obama relentlessly asked what this would mean for the people of Benghazi. The answer was that tens - if not hundreds - of thousands of people would be killed.

Pentagon representatives presented two options: a no-fly zone or do nothing at all.
The idea was that the people in the meeting would debate the merits of each, but Obama surprised the room by rejecting the premise of the meeting. “He instantly went off the road map,” recalls one eyewitness. “He asked, ‘Would a no-fly zone do anything to stop the scenario we just heard?’” After it became clear that it would not, Obama said, “I want to hear from some of the other folks in the room.”

Obama then proceeded to call on every single person for his views, including the most junior people. “What was a little unusual,” Obama admits, “is that I went to people who were not at the table. Because I am trying to get an argument that is not being made.” The argument he had wanted to hear was the case for a more nuanced intervention—and a detailing of the more subtle costs to American interests of allowing the mass slaughter of Libyan civilians. His desire to hear the case raises the obvious question: Why didn’t he just make it himself? “It’s the Heisenberg principle,” he says. “Me asking the question changes the answer. And it also protects my decision-­making.” But it’s more than that. His desire to hear out junior people is a warm personality trait as much as a cool tactic, of a piece with his desire to play golf with White House cooks rather than with C.E.O.’s and basketball with people who treat him as just another player on the court; to stay home and read a book rather than go to a Washington cocktail party; and to seek out, in any crowd, not the beautiful people but the old people. The man has his stat­us needs, but they are unusual. And he has a tendency, an unthinking first step, to subvert established stat­us structures. After all, he became president.
What it came down to is that the no-fly zone was a non-starter because it wouldn't do anything to stop the Gaddafi forces on the ground headed for Benghazi. The principals supported the "do nothing" option and the junior people thought we shouldn't stand by and watch another genocide.

Obama sided with the junior people and gave the generals two hours to come up with another solution for him to consider. The they history.

The whole thing reminds me of snippets I've heard about similar processes that happened when President Obama was developing his strategy for Afghanistan early in his administration and when he made the decision to go after bin Laden.

I've highlighted some of the things that I think are most significant about his process. But more than anything is the fact that he was relentless in his focus on what would work to save the lives of the people of Benghazi.  That became his "north star" in this situation - even when the objections of many of the principals centered around the idea that it would involve a politically risky move with very little payoff.

That's how this guy rolls when it comes time to make the tough calls.

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