Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Imperial Hubris

"Mr. Obama and the Democrats have wasted the once–in–a–lifetime opportunity handed to them in the 2008 election. They did not focus on jobs, jobs, jobs as their primary mission, and they did not call on Americans to join in a bold national effort (which would have required a great deal of shared sacrifice) to solve a wide range of very serious problems."

Bob Herbert
New York Times

At least once in every presidency, it seems that a president is said to have squandered a golden opportunity that had been given to him by the voters or fate or whatever.

More than once, for example, I have heard George W. Bush criticized for failing to use September 11 as a way to unite a divided America in a common cause. In fact, he did precisely the opposite. He exploited it for political gain. He used it to drive wedges between people, between races, between faiths.

I will always believe that Bush was a terrible president, but, in all fairness, he did nothing most other presidents did not do. He just had far worse results than most — perhaps because he utilized far worse tactics than most.

What did he do?

Well, he bought into the myth that the president is infallible. And when a president is seduced by that particular myth, inevitably he makes at least one bad choice — and then spends the rest of his presidency, if not his life, justifying and rationalizing.

I don't know when this idea of infallibility took hold. But most presidents seem to have concluded — even if they entered the presidency as "men of the people" — that they know best. The transformation seems almost biblical. Apparently, all one must do to become infallible is to repeat the presidential oath of office.

Maybe there is something magical about that oath. Or maybe the American people are just natural enablers. That might explain a lot.

I suppose the attitude at its most extreme was summed up best by Richard Nixon, who told David Frost, "[W]hen the president does it, that means that it is not illegal."

I have seen no evidence that any other president crossed some criminal threshold in his actions, but history sure is loaded with bad presidential decisions.

And one of the worst may turn out to be Barack Obama's decision to emphasize health care reform over job creation when his presidency began — even though job losses had been increasing for months prior to his inauguration, and they continued, sometimes at alarming monthly levels, through his first year in office. (I criticized Obama in this blog last Labor Day when he declined to make any speeches about the nation's joblessness crisis — a decision that all too clearly demonstrated how much he cared about the unemployed.)

Despite occasional lip service, this president has done little in defense of the unemployed. He only seemed to discover the problem after his party lost its filibuster–proof majority in the Senate with Scott Brown's upset victory in Massachusetts.

That has been a tragic mistake.

The appearance of bipartisanship — so fervently desired that it was claimed to have been achieved if even a single Republican vote was drawn to the Democrats' side in either the House or the Senate — took greater precedence for Obama.

"Employment is the No. 1 issue for most ordinary Americans," writes Bob Herbert of the New York Times. "Their anxiety on this front only grows as they watch teachers, firefighters and police officers lining up to walk the unemployment plank as state and local governments wrestle with horrendous budget deficits.

"And what do these worried Americans see the Obama administration doing? It's doubling down on the war in Afghanistan, trying somehow to build a nation from scratch in the chaos of a combat zone."

From just about this time last year (when Democrat Al Franken was declared the winner in Minnesota) until this past January (when Brown won the seat that had belonged to Ted Kennedy), the Democrats could have done anything they wanted and the Republicans would have been virtually powerless to stop them. Why didn't they?

Why didn't they?

It's no wonder to me that people feel a disconnect between themselves and their government.

Want to know what really astonishes me? The administration's blase attitude toward unemployment in general has been stunning, but its apparent lack of interest in the joblessness epidemic among the nation's older workers truly is appalling.

Perhaps Obama isn't as smart as I gave him credit for. I mean, the numbers have shown that those who routinely vote in midterm elections are not the liberals or the young or the blacks — the groups that showed up in unprecedented numbers to elect Obama in 2008. Midterm voters tend to be older Americans. And CNN reported a few days ago that older Americans, particularly those 55 and older, who find themselves out of work face an especially daunting task in finding new jobs.

Doesn't common sense suggest that a president whose party holds majorities in both houses of Congress would want to do anything he could to appease older voters in a midterm election year? Including promoting legislation that would reward employers for hiring older Americans?

But Obama and the Democrats in Congress look backward instead of forward, assigning blame instead of standing up in defense of the jobless. They aren't accomplishing much for the unemployed, are they? A bill that would have extended jobless benefits through November failed. And, while Obama and the Democrats are justifiably proud of their achievement in passing health care reform, the truth in America today is that many must choose between health insurance and their daily expenses. Guess which one wins?
"The Obama administration feels it should get a great deal of credit for its economic stimulus efforts, its health care initiative, its financial reform legislation, its vastly increased aid to education and so forth. And maybe if we were grading papers, there would be a fair number of decent marks to be handed out."

Bob Herbert

"By nearly 2 to 1," Herbert says, "respondents to the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll believed the United States is on the wrong track. ... Mr. Obama is paying dearly for his tin ear on this topic. Fifty–four percent of respondents believed he does not have a clear plan for creating jobs. Only 45 percent approved of his overall handling of the economy, compared with 48 percent who disapproved."

Some of Obama's diehard apologists may think that is an aberration, but the truth is that other polls (NBC News/Wall Street Journal, Ipsos/McClatchy, Associated Press/GfK, ABC News/Washington Post) have reported similar, if not worse (Rasmussen) findings in recent weeks.

Things may well look different to most people three or four years from now, when the health care reforms are going to start to kick in. But right now, as Herbert points out, "Destitution is beckoning for those whose unemployment benefits are running out."

No matter what the Labor Department's figures tell you in a few days, most of America's unemployed could probably tell you they've had a bellyful of change.

But they're running short of hope.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The Dean of the Senate

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson was president.

He famously kept America out of World War I in his first term, but he failed to keep it out of the war after his second term began.

That was the world into which Robert Byrd was born in November 1917 — nearly six months after John F. Kennedy was born. And today, after more than half a century of representing his home state of West Virginia in Washington, he died at the age of 92.

I think it is important to remember that he was a product of a different time. It was a time when social class determined everything. On board the ill–fated Titanic only a few years before Byrd was born, social class played a prominent role in whether people lived or died.

Not much had changed in the America of 1917, where the Constitution said no man could be denied the right to vote on the basis of race, but in many places, the hoops through which blacks had to jump in order to be registered were so imposing that few could succeed. And most women were not allowed to vote in those days, although the Constitution would give them that right within a few years.

There is no doubt that the America in which Byrd died today was far removed from the America into which he was born.

Although Kennedy and Byrd were born in the same year, they were born into vastly different circumstances. Kennedy was born into a wealthy family; Byrd's mother died during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and the children were sent to live with relatives. Byrd was adopted by his aunt and uncle and raised in a coal–mining town.

Like many young people, Byrd was uncertain which career path to follow as he entered his 20s. And he found acceptance with the Ku Klux Klan, which he joined at the age of 24.

Does the fact that Byrd gravitated to the Ku Klux Klan at a time when segregation existed in most parts of the United States and the armed forces that were being called upon to repel the Nazis in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific were still segregated have any meaning? I don't know. Young people often seek acceptance in questionable groups. Many times, they find that a group isn't what they thought it was, and they leave.

On the surface, that is what appears to have happened with Byrd. He belonged to the Klan for a short time, then he "became disinterested, quit paying my dues and dropped my membership in the organization."

But there have been other indications that Byrd was committed to the Klan's message of hate.
"I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side. ... Rather I should die a thousand times and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."

Robert Byrd
Letter to Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo in 1944

It isn't possible — as far as I know — for any mere mortals to peek into another person's head and see what lurks there. Was Robert Byrd, as some have suggested, a racist?

Well, there are different opinions on that. Paul Begala writes, in The Daily Beast, that Byrd's "one–year flirtation" with the KKK in the 1940s left "a stain that marked him for life."

And yet, Begala acknowledged, there was also Byrd's opposition to the Civil Rights Act 20 years later. But Begala also observes the many ways in which Byrd tried to make amends in later years.

It was during his time with the Klan that the idea of a political career took hold. After being told that he had a knack for leadership, Byrd said, "suddenly lights flashed in my mind! Someone important had recognized my abilities! I was only 23 or 24 years old, and the thought of a political career had never really hit me. But strike me that night, it did."

Byrd's talent for leadership may have reached its zenith only a few years ago. Many people voted for Barack Obama believing he would bring the war in Iraq to a speedy conclusion, but, if Byrd had had his way, America never would have invaded in the first place. He went on record voting against the war and lawmakers' authorization of George W. Bush to pursue what Byrd called "reckless and arrogant" policies.

He said Congress was giving Bush a "blank check," and he was right. But the check didn't remain blank for long. In their haste to give the president the authority to invade Iraq (which he quickly exercised), lawmakers from both parties stuck Americans with a running tab that now exceeds $1 trillion.

In many ways, Byrd was a visionary leader, realizing early on, as Newsweek's Eleanor Clift recalls, the power of television and playing a significant role in permitting C–Span to televise Senate proceedings.

I always thought that much of the resistance Byrd may have encountered was easily explained. The Senate may well be the most exclusive club around, but not all its members are gifted speakers and there were many then, as there are now, who preferred to keep their remarks between themselves. That wasn't a concern for Byrd. He "was one of the Senate's great orators," Clift writes. And, indeed, he was.

I found it intriguing when former President Carter said today that Byrd "was my closest and most valuable adviser while I served as president. I respected him and attempted in every way to remain in his good graces."

Of course, that is the kind of thing one is expected to say on the occasion of someone else's death, and I have long been an admirer of President Carter, but it occurred to me that, if he really did hold Byrd in such high regard when he was in the White House, his attitude almost certainly must have changed by the time he sought renomination for the presidency in 1980.

As Clift points out, Byrd supported Ted Kennedy's bid to unseat Carter, and that must have been a sore spot for Carter, who was snubbed by his rival on the podium at the party convention that summer. "Byrd thought Carter didn't show proper respect for the Congress, treating it like the Georgia legislature," she writes. "Every chance he could, Byrd stuck it to Carter and pushed Kennedy as the candidate of the Senate Democrats."

After 30 years, I guess Carter got over the bad experience. He had complimentary things to say about Kennedy, too, when he died last summer. Time heals all wounds.

I'm inclined to wonder, though, if Robert Byrd, a product of his times, was always at heart that pragmatic politician whose skills were first noticed by an associate in the Ku Klux Klan and whose use for anyone depended upon what that person could do for him, whether it was to give him a vote or help him rehabilitate his image.

And, in that sense, he remained open to shifts in popular thinking. Whether he agreed with the shifts may not have mattered. The only question he may have asked on many issues was, "Which way is the wind blowing?"

"In many ways, Byrd had more in common with the culturally conservative Carter than he did with the liberal lion," Clift writes, "but he joined forces with Kennedy on more government spending for social programs, and Kennedy in turn brought him along on civil–rights legislation, helping him to bury his long ago past as a member of the Ku Klux Klan."

When I review the totality of Byrd's remarkable career, I can only conclude that he was a man of contradictions, not so different from most. He made his mistakes and tried to make up for them. Not so different from most guys.

Except for his gift for oratory.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Black Rain's Gonna Fall

"And what'll you do now, my blue–eyed son?
And what'll you do now, my darling young one?
I'm a–goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a–fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
And the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it,
And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it,
And I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin',
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a–gonna fall."

Bob Dylan
(Emphasis added)

When you look at the video of the oil that is pouring into the Gulf of Mexico from the sea floor, it is rolling, boiling, raging, furious, like the nuclear clouds that swirled above two Japanese cities 65 years ago this summer.

But when it reaches the surface and, then, the coastline, the oil is in globs — the embodiment of Dylan's "pellets of poison ... flooding [the] waters" nearly 50 years after he penned that phrase.

As I understand it, Dylan wrote the song during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and its symbolism was intended for the Cold War age and a nearly unimaginable nuclear war. But it has been two decades since communism's collapse left the Soviet Union in tatters. The nuclear threat still lives. The Soviet Union does not.

Yes, nuclear disaster will always be a possibility as long as any nuclear weapons exist. But even when the Soviet Union and the United States had their missiles aimed at each other, a more insidious threat was growing like a cancer.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union — and, even, to a degree, in the years before — oil emerged as a threat in so many ways.

It is only common sense to conclude that there must be at least some truth to the claims that the poisonous gases being belched into the air have affected the global climate. It may not be quite as dire as some alarmists have suggested, but that doesn't make the conclusion less valid, just less vivid.

So the air that we all breathe must be affected — to a certain degree. And so, too, it could be argued, is the rest of the natural world because, once the oxygen (and/or the water) has been altered, even if it is in minor ways, the entire ecosystem is affected and must adjust.

In such adjustments is the reality of evolution. I am not a scientist, but I presume that life on this planet has always been at the mercy of one thing or another — asteroids, earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, etc.. The species that couldn't "roll with the changes" (as a song from my teen years urged) disappeared. That was what happened to the dinosaurs and most of the species that have lived on this planet.

But not man. Not yet.

There was a time when oil propelled civilization forward into an industrial age that meant better lives for everyone, but it seemed to reach a point of diminishing returns some time ago. We've known all along that oil was a nonrenewable energy source. The fact that there was a limited supply of oil should have inspired man from the beginning to develop other sources of energy to accomplish the many tasks oil increasingly was expected to achieve.

Maybe, in the beginning, there were those who could anticipate a time when the world would run out of oil. But they lacked the technology to seek its successor. Now that we have the technology, we are at the mercy of those who control the funds.

There was a time when it seems wars were fought for many reasons. In the last couple of decades, it seems all our wars are fought over the land beneath which a fortune in oil can be found. There may be side issues — religious, cultural, what have you — but when you get right down to it, oil (or, rather, the possession of it) is at the heart of armed conflict in the 21st century.

There are many reasons why the United States would be wise to free itself of its addiction to oil.

I say that in large part because the oil spewing into the Gulf is one of those events by which Americans judge the effectiveness of their leaders. Obama has made several trips to the Gulf region. He has addressed the nation about it (during which he spent much of his time talking about the need for alternative energy sources).

What else can he do? wonder his supporters, who no doubt wish the spill would go away. Many of them seem to comprehend the threat this catastrophe poses to the president and his legislative agenda. But they seem powerless — not unlike Obama himself — to do anything about it.

And so the image of an irresolute president is born. I have my own issues with that, not the least of which is that it isn't true. But perception is reality.

It reminds me of a great line from the 1981 film "Absence of Malice," in which a reporter (Sally Field) has a relationship with a liquor distributor (Paul Newman). Field implicates Newman in the disappearance of a local labor leader in an article she writes. When their relationship is exposed, Field's newspaper has to write an article about it, and one of the reporters is dispatched to interview Field.

Field is asked to describe the relationship. "Just say we were involved," she says haltingly. "That's true, isn't it?" the reporter asks. "No," Field replies, "but it's accurate."

(As someone who has worked for newspapers, that would be my verdict on how well the film portrayed the men and women who work for daily newspapers and the journalism profession itself — it wasn't true, but it was accurate.)

I guess that is how I feel about Obama's handling of the oil spill. It isn't his fault. And I'm sorry there are other pre–existing problems that are demanding their fair share of attention, like high unemployment and two wars, and potential problems, like predictions of an unusually active hurricane season, that may yet develop. But that is the way the presidency is. The American people judge a president's effectiveness by how he performs when he has to juggle chainsaws, not nerfballs.

To this point, Obama probably has been as effective as he can be. His problem, I think, is that expectations were unrealistic, although hardly surprising considering how he was presented to the voters. So, in that context, if someone said to me, "Is it true that Obama has been ineffective?" I would have to reply, "No, but it's accurate."

I read, in the Wall Street Journal, that a poll it conducted with NBC News indicates that "grave and growing concerns about the Gulf oil spill" have left Americans "more pessimistic about the state of the country and less confident in President Barack Obama's leadership than at any point since Mr. Obama entered the White House."

OK, the Wall Street Journal has never been one of Obama's fans.

And it quotes a Republican pollster who reminds everyone that voter attitudes are typically set by June of any election year.

But that is merely conventional wisdom. Considering the source, it may seem partisan, but that is primarily because it doesn't favor the majority party. It seldom does. Ordinarily, it takes something very dramatic — usually an international crisis — to reverse such a trend.

And that could happen this year. Based on what the WSJ is reporting, Obama the pragmatist needs to hope that something dramatic does happen.

Because "[i]t would take an enormous and seismic event to change the drift of these powerful forces before November," the GOP pollster told the WSJ.

This isn't foolproof — far too many things can happen between now and November — but Obama had better hope that the oil spill gets resolved soon, and he'd better be prepared for anything else that might come along.

The things that eventually bring down presidencies — like "third–rate" burglaries, hostage situations and broken tax increase pledges — seldom seem big enough at first glance.

But they loom large in the rearview mirror.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An Early Glance at the Senate Races

We're well into the nominating season for the 2010 midterm elections.

Some people have suggested that 2010 will be an anti–incumbent year, although there hasn't really been much evidence of this in the primaries — as cable TV's Rachel Maddow pointed out recently.

But political parties rarely reject incumbents. Instead, if an incumbent is going to be denied another term, it is likely to happen in the general election.

My argument — which, I must admit, was somewhat discredited by the results in Arkansas this month, although I'm sticking with it for now — has been that the parties, of late, have been pulled to greater extremes and nominate candidates who represent those views. Rarely, it seems, does a party nominate a self–proclaimed centrist for anything other than the presidency (and the "centrist" presidential candidates often turn out to be a lot less centrist than advertised).

Since there are no presidential nominations to be won this year, states will be holding their primaries through the summer months, even into the autumn, and we won't know until perhaps mid– to late September the identities of all the candidates who have been chosen by their parties to run for governor, senator, congressman. Voters in three states — the Carolinas and Utah — are going to the polls today.

My guess — keep in mind that we are barely past the first official day of summer, more than four months from Election Day — is that most of the nominees are going to reflect the views and values of the national party leadership. There will be some exceptions, but not many.

And, even though more Americans identify themselves as independents than Democrats or Republicans, most will have to choose between the candidates who were nominated by the two parties.

If the nation's independents truly are centrists, the elections may be decided by something as simple as which way the political wind is blowing.

And the prevailing wind seems to be blowing from the right.

Gallup reports that Republicans are very enthusiastic about voting in the midterm elections. Their level of enthusiasm smashes the numbers shown by either party since Gallup first asked respondents about their enthusiasm in 1994.

If Gallup's numbers imply anything, it is that enthusiasm usually translates to turnout because the party that has more enthusiastic members usually does better. And when one party has the edge in enthusiasm, it becomes a numbers game. If certain groups show up in greater numbers than other groups, their agenda, whatever it may be, is likely to prevail. And a party's agenda typically is embodied in its nominees.

If the majorities in either chamber are diminished, Barack Obama and the Democrats will have more difficulty enacting their initiatives than they have had in the first 1½ years of the Obama presidency — when the numbers in both chambers have been so favorable to the Democrats that it is hard to understand why anything in their 2008 platform has not been voted into law.

It is good news that jobs are being added to the economy, but the pace is too slow for many Americans who have already been asked to be patient long enough. Right now, it is barely keeping pace with the growth of the working–age population. Admittedly, that's better than the constantly–losing–enormous–amounts–of–ground cycle that we were in, but we aren't reclaiming those jobs we lost or creating jobs to replace them nearly as rapidly as we lost them.

Think about it. Millions of Americans have been left jobless since the recession began in December 2007, and we are often reminded that the number of long–term unemployed (six months or more) is higher than it has ever been.

I think it is safe to assume that many of the long–term unemployed have been out of work since before Obama was elected president. For them, the prospect of a "lost decade" is not theoretical. It is frighteningly real.

And it's the kind of reality that influences a working man's vote. A working man who isn't working has time on his hands to think about his predicament. Democrats tell him, "It was Bush's fault that you lost your job," and he may agree with them.

But that man who is unemployed and may have a family to feed and clothe may then reply, "But I voted for your guy to fix things. And things aren't fixed."

The fact is that the Democrats can continue to control the agenda in the House, even if their majority is reduced. But Senate Democrats will be in serious trouble if they don't have the votes to break a Republican filibuster.

So, barring the kind of political tidal wave that swept in Republican majorities in both houses of Congress in 1994, this year's Senate races hold the keys to federal legislative power in the next two years.

Midterms typically go against the party in power — especially if the party in power seems to be controlled by events and not in control of events. How Democrats are perceived in November may well depend on how (and if) the oil spill in the Gulf is resolved or how many more jobs have been added to the economy (and whether enough have been added to bring unemployment down significantly) — or events yet to come.

Things may be better or worse — or unchanged — by the time the voters go to the polls this fall. Many had already come of age or were coming of age when Ronald Reagan summarized the perpetual question facing Americans — are you better off than you were four years ago? For far too many, the answer to that question seems likely to be a resounding "No!" (Interestingly, Bob Herbert of the New York Times warns today that "the greatness of the United States ... is steadily slipping away.")

With that in mind, here are the Senate seats I think Democrats are most likely to lose in November. A lot can happen in 4½ months, but if nothing of any positive significance occurs — like a dramatic decline in the unemployment rate — these are the seats Democrats need to worry about.
  • Arkansas: Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln won the battle with Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, but I think she will lose the war.

    Different polls report different results, of course, but Arkansas has been trending more to the right in recent years, and I'm inclined to believe the GOP will take Lincoln's seat in November. The only poll I've seen so far since the June 8 runoff showed Lincoln's opponent, Rep. John Boozman, leading by nearly two to one. His margin was smaller in a couple of polls I saw before the runoff — one co–sponsored by liberal–leaning Daily Kos, the other commissioned by Arkansas News Bureau — but Boozman seems likely to win Arkansas in what is shaping up to be a Republican year.

  • Colorado: When Barack Obama picked Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar to be his secretary of the Interior, Colorado's governor picked Michael Bennet to complete Salazar's term, which is about to conclude. According to a Denver Post survey, Bennet and Republican Ken Buck are likely to win their parties' nominations and face each other in the fall.

    If that comes to pass, the same survey (which concluded last week) suggests Buck has a slight advantage that almost falls within the margin of error.

    Elections often seem to be close in Colorado. I'm guessing this one will be, too.

  • Delaware: The seat that was once held by Vice President Joe Biden was expected to remain in the family, but Biden's son decided not to enter the race.

    I haven't seen any polls lately, but I've heard and read commentaries that suggested that Republicans are favored to win the seat.

  • Illinois: Does it seem strange that Obama's old Senate seat is in jeopardy? Perhaps. But the corrupt governor, who was responsible for appointing Obama's replacement, did the new president no favors by virtually auctioning the seat to the highest bidder. And then Obama's replacement made the situation worse with his own ethical issues.

    The good news for Democrats is that the replacement won't be on the ballot. That's also the bad news. Because, although the seat is currently held by the Democrats, it is an open seat — and that, I'm guessing, will work in the favor of the Republicans.

  • Indiana: It was my opinion, when I watched the election returns in November 2008, that Indiana's support for Obama was an aberration. Indiana has a long Republican history, and it makes sense that Republican Dan Coats enjoys a solid lead over Democrat Brad Ellsworth — Rasmussen says he's up by 14 points — in the campaign for the seat being vacated by Democrat Evan Bayh.

  • Nevada: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in trouble, and everyone seems to know it.

    His opponent, a Christian conservative and a darling of the Tea Partiers, Sharron Angle, leads him by 11 points, says Rasmussen in a survey that was published a couple of weeks ago.

  • Pennsylvania: Here is a rare example of an incumbent being voted out by his party. But that isn't the whole story. Arlen Specter had been a member of the Republican Party most of his adult life. But he switched parties last year and ran for the Democratic nomination this year. He wasn't the first party switcher to run into problems with his new party. He wasn't even the first this year. Alabama Rep. Parker Griffith suffered the same fate when he left the Democrats to join the Republicans.

    Anyway, Joe Sestak, the guy who beat Specter in the Democratic primary, is even with Republican Pat Toomey, according to Public Policy Polling. Rasmussen says Toomey has a seven–point lead. Daily Kos' findings are nearly a month old, but they showed Sestak with a narrow lead.

    I anticipate a close race.
Well, the Democrats currently hold 59 seats in the Senate so they could lose all seven of those seats and still maintain a majority. But such a majority would have much more in common with the majority Democrats enjoyed following the 2006 midterms, not the "filibuster–proof" majority they had when Al Franken was declared the winner in Minnesota at the end of June last year — and then lost when Republicans won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in January's special election.

As I say, events in the next four months will influence things in ways we can't imagine right now, but, assuming nothing changes dramatically, Republicans will need to win three additional seats to seize control of the chamber. Is that possible?

On the surface, I would say no. A couple of seats that are currently held by women — Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington — could be in jeopardy. Recent polls suggest that both Boxer and Murray have seen early leads shrink in recent weeks.

And Republicans are not free of anxiety seats, either. Take, for example, the Ohio Senate seat currently held by George Voinovich, who is retiring. A couple of weeks ago, Rasmussen reported a tie between Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Lee Fisher. If Republicans lose that seat, it means one more seat will be needed to accomplish a takeover.

Presumably, the same thing could be said of Florida's race for a Republican–held Senate seat. At one time, Gov. Charlie Crist was a candidate for the Republican nomination. But, apparently convinced he could not win, Crist withdrew and decided to run as an independent. Now, Rasmussen reports that Crist is locked in a tight race with his former GOP rival, Marco Rubio.

In Florida, the Democrat appears to be far behind. And, given his background, I would expect Crist to vote far more often with the Republicans than the Democrats if he should win the election. So, while it is possible the Republican Party will lose technical control of the seat, it is unlikely that the Republican philosophy will lose control of it.

But, even if the Republicans hold on to Voinovich's seat in Ohio, and Boxer and Murray are upset in California and Washington, that would mean a 50–50 split. Joe Biden would get the deciding vote, which would give the Democrats the same kind of control over the Senate that the Republicans had in the first few months of George W. Bush's presidency.

Republicans would still need one more seat, but where would they get it? Wisconsin, perhaps. Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold appears to face a stiffer challenge from Ron Johnson than Bob Westlake, but Feingold won't know the identity of his opponent until the primary is held in September. Feingold is accustomed to tight races. He is seeking his fourth term; in his previous three victories, his share of the vote was 53% (in 1992), 51% (in 1998) and 55% (in 2004).

Other than the Wisconsin seat, I can't really think of any Democrat–held seats that would make viable targets for Republicans, but that, I suppose, can change, depending on whether the voters think they are better off now than they were a few years ago.

Still, there is that Gallup survey that shows enthusiasm at an astonishingly high level for Republicans this year. Maybe that will affect the outcome in Wisconsin — or in Connecticut, where Chris Dodd's seat is up for grabs.

But even a tidal wave of voter discontent seems unlikely to dislodge any other Democratic senators in 2010 — at the present time.

We'll see how things look at the end of the summer, when we probably will have some answers to some questions, such as ...
  • Has the leak been plugged in the Gulf?

  • If it has, how is the cleanup progressing?

  • Is the economy still adding jobs ... or has it been stumbling?

  • Is the American military presence in Iraq really winding down?

  • And what about the military mission in Afghanistan?
At National Review, Jim Geraghty wonders if Democrats can re–create the magic that led to Obama's victory two years ago.

It's still a little early to reach a conclusion on that, and there is plenty of time for both parties to influence the answer, but, right now, I would have to say that answer will be the same as it was to Reagan's question 30 years ago.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Two Speeches

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, 'This was their finest hour.' "

Sir Winston Churchill

As Barack Obama looks for the right leadership style for guiding the nation through the simultaneous crises in the Gulf and the economy, there may be lessons to be learned from reflecting on two speeches that were delivered on this day in London 70 years ago.

On June 18, 1940, it has been said, Charles de Gaulle became the true leader of the French Resistance. France had fallen to Nazi Germany, and de Gaulle had fled to Great Britain a few days before.

But de Gaulle tried to rally his people from afar.

"[H]as the last word been said?" de Gaulle asked. "Must hope disappear? Is defeat final? No!"

I have heard de Gaulle's speech called one of the most important in French history. I'm not an authority on French history so I can't say whether that is so, but it almost certainly was the most important speech given by a French leader in the 20th century.

It is often credited with being the start of the French Resistance, but the truth is that few people heard the speech as broadcast by the BBC. De Gaulle had a much larger audience when he delivered a similar speech four days later — prompting some to conclude that June 22, 1940, actually was the day the Resistance was born.

Be that as it may, the sentiments expressed by de Gaulle on June 18 almost surely influenced what followed.

"Whatever happens," de Gaulle said, "the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished."

For de Gaulle, the goal was to inspire his countrymen to stand up to their conquerors. The goal was similar — and yet different — for his British colleague. His task was to prevent the conquest of Britain — for, if he did not, the fate of the free world surely would be imperiled.

Britain's prime minister, Sir Winston Churchill, had been in office only a month, but he knew that, with the fall of France, Germany would feel free to focus its full attention on that island nation. Britain was the sole obstacle to the fulfillment of the Germans' goal of dominating Europe, and Churchill knew that the future depended upon how the British fared against the Nazis.

Despite his brief tenure, the prime minister had made two earlier attempts to prepare the British for what was to come. About a month earlier, he delivered his "blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech, in effect pledging everything Britain possessed to the goal of turning back the Nazis. About three weeks later, he gave his "we shall fight on the beaches" speech, encouraging the Britons to fight on — alone, if necessary, and it certainly appeared, at that time, that the British would have to fight the Germans by themselves.

Then, just before Churchill's "finest hour" speech before Parliament's House of Commons, France unsuccessfully sought an armistice with Germany.

In previous years, the British policy had been to seek to appease an increasingly aggressive Nazi regime. Long before June 1940, the British seemed to realize that Neville Chamberlain's attempts to avoid another world war had failed, and they turned to Churchill for leadership.

It is indeed fortunate for Western civilization that they did.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Message: I Care

"You cannot be president of the United States if you don't have faith. Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff. You can't be. And we are blessed. So don't feel sorry for — don't cry for me, Argentina. Message: I care."

George H.W. Bush
41st president

Do you remember when the first President Bush was facing an unexpected challenge within his own party while the Democrats were uniting behind a charismatic Southern governor and a Texas billionaire was urging disgruntled Americans to sign petitions that would get his independent candidacy on the ballot in every state?

It was 1992, and Bush was speaking to some insurance employees in New Hampshire at the time. He had been criticized for seeming detached from the American people, and his advisers, who had been struggling to find a strategy to counter that perception, inserted a cue card in his remarks that said, "Message: I care."

It was intended as a prompt for Bush to ad lib something, tell a story, connect with people and assure them that, yes, he really did care about them and their problems.

But he read the cue card word for word, which only reinforced the public's perception of a detached, elitist president. He lived down to the public's expectation of him.

Now, it isn't my intention to suggest that Barack Obama is as clueless as Bush certainly seemed to be on that occasion. But I still got the feeling as I watched Obama's speech last night that this was his "Message: I care" moment.

Because it seems to me that the lesson of the original "Message: I care" moment — and all the subsequent "Message: I care" moments — is that there are times when a president absolutely must give the public what it needs — even if it isn't what he wants to do. And, yet, he proceeds to give them the opposite of what they need — perhaps because he knows no other way.

In 1992, the public needed a president who clearly cared, but all Bush's gaffe did was confirm for the voters that he really was as out of touch as he appeared to be. He reconfirmed that impression later that year when, during one of his debates with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, the camera caught him looking at his watch while Clinton was answering a question.

And it was over for the elder Bush. Game, set, match.

In many ways, Obama's speech last night was a "Message: I care" moment.

It's been nearly two months since oil started gushing into the Gulf. Over and over, in the last several days, I have heard people speak in anticipation of Obama's speech. We know what happened, and we know who is to blame, people said. We don't need to be told what happened. We see it every night on our TVs. Tell us what the plan is to stop the flow of oil and clean up the oil that's out there.

But Obama insisted on recapping what had happened, anyway.

To his credit, he did spend some time talking about the plan of action. But, as Andrew Malcolm observed in the Los Angeles Times, "that early portion of the address was robotic, lacked real energy, enthusiasm. And worst of all specifics. He was virtually detail–less."
"Obama was like a Harvard–trained nurse talking vacation to a new patient bleeding all over the ER floor. Hello, could we please stop the blood flow here before we discuss the long–term recovery?"

Andrew Malcolm
Los Angeles Times

How could that be? The news was full of reports yesterday about how much more oil was being released into the Gulf waters every day than anyone had believed.

It seems clear that BP was, indeed, guilty of reckless behavior. But, as the Boston Herald wrote, there was "convincing evidence" of the absence of "an early coordinated response to protect the coastline." Consequently, "while the president tried to convince a skeptical nation that he was indeed in charge now, this was too little, too late."

OK, a convincing argument can be made that the Herald has never really been in Obama's corner. It was, after all, one of the newspapers that endorsed John McCain in 2008. But the thing about the "Message: I care" moment is that a president isn't just criticized by his foes but also, however offhandedly, by his friends.

And one of Obama's friends, the New York Times, wrote, "We know that the country is eager for reassurance. We're not sure the American people got it from a speech that was short on specifics and devoid of self–criticism."

Maureen Dowd, who writes for the Times, just can't seem to break that tendency to fawn over Obama even when she scolds him.

But scold him she did.

"Of the many exciting things about Barack Obama's election, one was the anticipation of a bracing dose of normality in the White House," she writes. "So it's unnerving now to have yet another president elevating personal quirks into a management style. How can a man who was a dazzling enough politician to become the first black president at age 47 suddenly become so obdurately self–destructive about politics?"

Personally, I would argue that it wasn't as "sudden" as Dowd seems to think. That conclusion seems particularly baffling to me when I read what Dowd observes next — how his "emotional detachment" has "obscured his vision."

Frankly, it astonishes me when I hear people speaking of Obama's detachment as if it is a new thing. I've seen it in his response to the burgeoning epidemic of unemployment that has wrecked millions of lives. The fact that he seems detached when dealing with another catastrophe that threatens millions all along the Gulf coast is not a surprise to me.

What does surprise me is that a bright, articulate, Harvard–educated president doesn't get that there are times when a president must prioritize. We can hold BP accountable after we plug the hole and start cleaning up the mess in the Gulf. We can devote money and manpower to developing better energy sources once this crisis is over.

Until then, this disaster in the Gulf is plenty big enough to keep us busy.

Obama was "not particularly inspiring," said the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, which endorsed Obama in 2008 but can't quite seem to shake that decision, even though it feels compelled to proclaim that Obama "offered more than rhetoric."

Indeed? Well, the St. Petersburg Times also seemed to agree with Malcolm that Obama was short on specifics.

"[A]n anxious American public wanted to know, HOW are you going to accomplish all this?" Malcolm wrote.

But Obama spent half of his address — his first from the Oval Office — lecturing his listeners about the need to explore alternative energy sources.

Is Obama right that this is something America needs to discuss? Yes. Is it something that America has needed to do for a long, long time? Yes. Is it appropriate to be talking about it now? No.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

In Defense of ... Broccoli

Tonight, many people are writing about Barack Obama's Oval Office speech.

And tomorrow, I am sure, so will I. I've got a pretty good idea what I want to say. I'm just not in the mood to say it tonight.

I've been on Facebook this evening. My goddaughter, who lives about 800 miles away from me, is in the hospital. They're trying to relieve some kind of air pocket in her chest. Anyway, she's been posting updates and all sorts of stuff — apparently via the text function of her cell phone.

Funny, I thought people weren't allowed to use cell phones in hospitals. I guess I was wrong. Or maybe I'm not up to date on technological advances, but something must have changed because she's been posting updates and photos from her room and all sorts of stuff. Tomorrow is her son's third birthday, and the family is planning to bring the party (complete with cake and, I assume, the child's birthday presents) to her hospital room. I expect to see pictures of that posted tomorrow.

But, anyway, her half–brother paid her a visit today. And the two of them were talking about some broccoli that they shared and how good it was.

I responded that one seldom sees the words good and broccoli in the same sentence.

That's something I've never understood. I mean, I know a lot of people don't like broccoli. When he was president, George H.W. Bush spoke about how his mother forced him to eat broccoli and he hated it.

Since then, I've become more and more aware of all the people who really don't like broccoli. Bush's declaration was like an epiphany for the broccoli haters, and they emerged from their closets.

And I found that kind of response baffling.

Because my mother used to serve broccoli with a cheddar cheese/jalapeno sauce that was outrageously good. I loved it.

Actually, I've never thought that broccoli had much of a distinctive flavor to which people could object.

So I'm asking for your input.

Do you like broccoli? If you don't, what is it about broccoli that you don't like?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Leadership? Or Showmanship?

Barack Obama plans to address the nation tomorrow night about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The speech is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. (Central), after Obama returns from a two–day visit to Alabama, Mississippi and Florida, the president's fourth trip to the region since the oil rig exploded in April and triggered the events with which Obama and the government's emergency responders have been trying to deal ever since. It is said Obama will speak for about 15 minutes about the disaster.

This is a pivotal moment in the Obama presidency.

After nearly eight weeks of this, Americans have a general idea what's happening, and they don't want to hear an update. Well, that isn't entirely true, I guess. They'd like it just fine if Obama could tell them exactly how much oil is pouring into the Gulf every day. There seems to be a distinct discrepancy between BP's figures and everyone else's.

Beyond that, though, they've got a pretty good handle on what's happening. What they want to know is the course of action that will be taken.

What sacrifice, if any, will be asked of them?

Personally, I feel that was one of the great failings of the Bush administration. After the attacks of September 11, the country was in a common cause frame of mind and would have been responsive to a presidential call for a shared sacrifice — but Bush told a few Americans to prepare for war, and he told the rest of us to go shopping.

Would it have been necessary for American troops to remain in Afghanistan as long as they have if all Americans, those at home as well as those in uniform, had been urged to make a common sacrifice for a common objective?
"Americans need to know that Mr. Obama, whose coolness can seem like detachment, is engaged. This is not a mere question of presentation or stagecraft, although the White House could do better at both. (We cringed when he told the 'Today' show that he had spent important time figuring out 'whose ass to kick' about the spill. Everyone knew that answer on Day 2.)"

New York Times

Perhaps in the early days of his presidency, when Obama's approval rating hovered at astonishing heights — and at a point in his term when, technically, there was nothing (or, at least, very little) of which to approve or disapprove — Americans, many of whom appeared weary after eight years of George W. Bush's mangled syntax, were content to listen in admiration, as they had during the presidential campaign, to Obama's smooth oratory.

But those days are gone. The bloom is off the rose. So, to borrow a phrase from Joe Friday, just give us the facts.

There is a symbolic quality to this that is hard to measure. When a president engages in straight talk with the American people about a particularly vexing problem, he enlists their service in solving it. There is an incalculable value in that, but what it comes down to is this: people like to feel like they are part of the process.

Actually, a character like Joe Friday, from a popular TV series, provides an apt analogy for the Obama administration — in truth, for any administration. Modern Americans see their president on TV every day. For a time, they are enthralled, but there comes a point when they become disenchanted. When that happens, the negative perception begins to harden, and it requires something really dramatic to alter the downward trajectory.

You could say that John F. Kennedy reached a similar point in 1962, the second year of his presidency, when U.S. surveillance revealed that the Soviet Union was installing nuclear missiles in Cuba. When Kennedy addressed the nation, he didn't offer flowery language. He didn't try to impress the voters with his vocabulary and his extensive education. He told the American people how dire the situation was and enlisted their cooperation.

Engage us, Mr. President.

Friday, June 11, 2010

I've Seen That Movie, Too

On June 9, 1982, I covered Bill Clinton's press conference
the day after his runoff victory in the gubernatorial race.

That was the name of a somewhat obscure song on Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" album nearly 40 years ago.

And, if you don't recognize it, that's understandable. There were several songs on that double album that got a lot more airplay, both at the time and in the years since. In fact, to be honest, I'm not sure I ever heard "I've Seen That Movie, Too" played on the radio. It's something of a favorite among John's fans, not so much for the rest of the mainstream audience.

I wouldn't call myself an Elton John fan — I like some of his albums, don't care for others. But that song has been on my mind lately as I have watched the parade of political primaries in the spring and early summer.

I've seen this movie before, I keep telling myself. And I really think I know how it will end. Of course, I could be wrong. That's the way it is sometimes with remakes — the ending of the remake differs from the ending of the original.

But this plot is so familiar. I just can't imagine a radically different conclusion.

At some point — I can't pinpoint precisely when — 2010 became known as the "anti–incumbent" year. I never really bought that — last month, for example, I speculated that centrists, not necessarily incumbents, were threatened in our polarized political atmosphere.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow apparently has reached the conclusion that the "anti–incumbency" furor is fiction. "[A]ctually all the incumbents are winning," she said Wednesday night.

Now, before I go any farther, let me say that I like Maddow — as a person. Sometimes I agree with what she says. Sometimes I don't.

I don't believe this particular conclusion is correct or incorrect — yet. I believe it is premature. For the most part, the parties have been been standing by their men — or, in the case of Arkansas' Democrats, their women. The real test of the incumbents will be this fall, when all of a state's voters can pass their judgment.

I do think Maddow is right when she suggests that, many times, when the pundits pronounce something, it becomes a self–fulfilling prophecy through sheer repetition — not unlike the "Big Lie" of which Hitler wrote in "Mein Kampf."

This particular fiction, Maddow insists, was decided on by the "Beltway media" — everyone's favorite whipping boy — who "decided that this was going to be anti–incumbency year. The anti–incumbency theme was going to be the story that they told to explain politics this year."

But a funny thing happened on the way to throwing all the bums out, Maddow said. The voters didn't hold up their end of the bargain.


I beg to differ. All the voters haven't been heard from yet.

Now, earlier this week, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, who is widely regarded to be a centrist, survived a hotly contested runoff in my home state of Arkansas against Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who was considered the liberal in the race. Perhaps that was the last straw, as far as Maddow was concerned.

I admit, I expected Halter to prevail. My Democratic friends who live in Arkansas have their issues with Lincoln, and my impression is that Democrats in general have moved more to the left in recent years. Consequently, I believed that, in a one–on–one confrontation, the more liberal candidate would win the nomination of today's Arkansas Democrats.

Liberals have always been in the distinct minority in Arkansas. Nearly all of the Democrats who have been successful there in general elections in the last 50 years have been centrists. Before that, I suppose, most Arkansas Democrats would be considered conservative by modern standards.

That doesn't mean that Arkansas' Democrats have always nominated centrists in the last half century — and some of those "centrists" haven't been as centrist as they were advertised to be — but the successful ones always managed to balance some liberal views with some conservative ones.

Well, I haven't seen any exit polls or any comparisons of the vote in the May 18 primary to the vote in Tuesday's runoff. But you can only vote in a runoff if you participated in the original primary, and my guess is that a lot of people took it for granted that about 13% of the voters, who originally supported a conservative businessman who ran third in the primary, would support the challenger, so great is the apparent dissatisfaction with Lincoln in Arkansas and with incumbents in general.

I don't know if either candidate benefited from the third candidate's votes to any extent. But turnout was down about 25% for the runoff, and that could easily include everyone who voted for the third candidate plus another 40,000 or so who voted originally for Lincoln or Halter.

So maybe it was simply a matter of Lincoln doing a better job of getting her voters to return to the polls for the runoff than Halter did.

I learned a long time ago that runoffs in Arkansas are strange and wondrous things, and this one seems to have been no different.

Without getting into too much detail,
  • I questioned the wisdom of allowing Obama to make a radio commercial for Lincoln just before the May 18 primary.

    Obama isn't particularly popular in Arkansas — and, I reasoned, while Obama's support might tip the balance in the race for the Democratic nomination, it might weigh heavily on Lincoln in the fall campaign, when the participants in general are apt to be more conservative.

  • Perhaps Lincoln countered that response by bringing in former President Bill Clinton in the final days. He always has been popular in Arkansas. In more than 40 years, he's the only Democrat (except Jimmy Carter in 1976) to carry Arkansas in a presidential election, and he carried it twice. No Democrat had done that since Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s.

    Arkansans elected Clinton their governor five times, usually by impressive margins. They liked him. They had probably heard every rumor about him that could possibly be spread between his first statewide race (for attorney general) in 1976 and his last gubernatorial campaign in 1990, and they knew some of what was said about him was probably true, but they trusted him all the same.

    The Democrats of today are the philosophical descendants of the Democrats who nominated Clinton in the 1970s and 1980s — minus those who found themselves at odds with some elements of the party's agenda. There seems to be a great deal of regard for Clinton among today's Arkansas Democrats.

  • The problem for Arkansas Democrats is that there aren't as many of them as there used to be. When I was growing up, the candidate who won the Democratic primary for just about anything was, in effect, elected. It isn't that way anymore.

    When I was a child, Arkansas had six representatives in Washington as it does today — its two senators and four representatives in the House. For decades, the two senators were John McClellan and Bill Fulbright, and one of the state's congressmen was Wilbur Mills — three men who seldom had to face serious challengers back home — in either party primaries or general elections. Consequently, they accumulated seniority that brought power and prestige — and pork — to their comparatively small state.

    But things began to shift in the 1970s.

  • To get an idea of that, let's compare this year's Senate race to some high–profile campaigns from the past. Nearly 330,000 people voted in the May 18 primary. Three weeks later, just over 250,000 voted in the runoff. The estimated population of the state in 2008 was a shade under 2.9 million.

    In 1974, Fulbright ran for a sixth term in the Senate. He was challenged by Gov. Dale Bumpers, who built a reputation as a political "giant killer" when he was elected governor, coming from virtual anonymity to defeat former Gov. Orval Faubus in the Democratic primary and then incumbent Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller in the general election.

    Bumpers was billed as a "new Southern Democrat," a liberal alternative to Fulbright, who, in addition to promoting his share of perks for his state, had opposed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act along with most of his Southern colleagues — but also had been one of the leading critics of Vietnam policy, which was not exactly in line with the more hawkish positions taken by many Southern Democrats.

    Nearly 600,000 Arkansans voted in that primary. Based on the 1970 Census, it is fair to assume the state's population in 1974 was around 2 million, about two–thirds of the estimated 2008 population figure. Yet the turnout in a high–profile Democratic Senate primary (long before cable and 24–hour newscasts) was nearly twice what it was in 2010.

  • As exhibit B, consider the Senate Democratic primary of 1978. McClellan died in 1977, about a year before the conclusion of his sixth term, and Gov. David Pryor, in accordance with state law, appointed a caretaker to complete McClellan's term, then ran for the office himself. He was challenged by two congressmen, Jim Guy Tucker (who later became governor) and Ray Thornton (who had achieved a certain amount of national notoriety as a member of the House Judiciary Committee that impeached Richard Nixon in 1974). Their primary campaign drew nearly the same number of voters as the 1974 Bumpers–Fulbright showdown.

    So, in the last 36 years, population has gone up while Democratic primary participation has gone down.

  • Republican primary participation has never been very impressive in Arkansas. Mostly, it seemed to be the hard–core party activists who participated in Republican primaries at all, and such primaries were seldom necessary because candidates were rarely challenged within their party.

    The first truly competitive Republican primary I can recall there was the 1976 presidential race between President Ford and Ronald Reagan. Slightly more than 50,000 people voted in that one.

    Even fewer people voted in the 1980 Republican gubernatorial primary. The 1980 Census showed a population of about 2.2 million people in Arkansas, yet less than 10,000 participated in that primary (by comparison, more than 100,000 people voted in the Republican Senate primary last month). Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands voted in the Democratic primary that renominated Clinton for governor by a wide margin over a nondescript, elderly turkey farmer.

    But that year clearly showed me that primary results can be deceiving. The Republican defeated Clinton that November. Maybe he rode Ronald Reagan's coattails to victory. It was, after all, a narrow win — but it was a win, nevertheless.
Like this year is expected to be, 1980 was a bad year for incumbents — but not in their party primaries. A dozen incumbent Democratic senators went down to defeat that year, but only three were rejected by their own party. Nine — including a former presidential nominee — were beaten in November. And both Clinton and President Carter, who had won Democratic primaries handily in late May, lost in Arkansas in November.

I understand Maddow's frustration. And I believe she is right when she says anti–incumbency hasn't played a major role in the primaries.

But I never thought it would.

For most incumbents, Judgment Day will be on November 2. And, as much as things have changed, there are still a few truisms in American politics that are valid.

One of which is ...

The same party seldom enjoys success in three consecutive election cycles.

And the Democrats were the big winners in 2006 and 2008.

History says the pendulum is swinging back the other way.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

An Instinctive Response

"May God stand between you and harm, in all the dark places you may travel."

Eighteenth Egyptian dynasty

Each president carves out his own niche, based on his personality and his individual style.

He is elected to face the next four years as leader of the American people — who expect him to do so in his own way (although there are certain things that are expected of every president).

If the voters approve, the president usually is re–elected. If they don't, he might still be re–elected, but he's going to have to work a lot harder.

Which will be true of Barack Obama?

I don't know. A majority of Americans apparently liked what they saw in 2008 — but that was back in the days when many Americans didn't know nearly as much about him as they will by 2012, when they will have seen him on their TV screens every day for more than three years.

You really get to know someone you see every day, and this constant exposure has been the undoing of some presidents. Familiarity, don't you know, breeds contempt.

And it focuses attention like a laser beam on those traits with which people just aren't terribly comfortable. For example, have you ever been in a relationship in which one of you snored? The one who snored may have possessed several fine and endearing qualities, but the many positives may have been outweighed by the single negative.

Anyway, I realize that those comfort boundaries vary from person to person, but I'm seeing some things from the president in this Gulf oil spill crisis that I find unsettling — and unsettlingly familiar. And I wonder how many other people feel that way, too.

Let's get some perspective first.

Go back a couple of years to the presidential campaign, when Obama frequently spoke of eight years of "failed" Bush policies. Well, that's the kind of thing the opposition is expected to say during the heat of a campaign, and the circumstances surrounding the general election campaign were ideal for that kind of criticism.

And if any presidency in modern times deserved to be labeled a failure, the Bush administration did.

But when you've won the election and you take office, it's time to stop campaigning and start governing.

Oh, and you also take ownership of what has already happened (because the voters chose you to deal with it) — and responsibility for whatever will happen in the next four years (because voters deemed you more capable). It's part of the deal.

Now, I know that, in today's world, the campaign never really ends.

But crude oil started spewing into the Gulf when the offshore rig exploded in April. It is now June. I find it troubling that, when Obama spoke of the subject recently, he placed at least as much emphasis on fixing blame as fixing the problem, saying that he wants to know "whose ass to kick."

Obama won't be running for a second term for two more years, and this is the kind of crisis a president can use to make his case for re–election (if everything works out) — but this president acts like he's thrown in the towel on this problem and is focusing on his case for pointing fingers. I suppose that "ass" remark was his attempt to provide some of that macho swagger that lots of people (even some of his critics) admired about George W. Bush.

I know it must be frustrating for Obama. Bush certainly deserved to be blamed for much of the mess that was waiting for Obama after he took the oath of office. But he can't be plausibly blamed for something that happened more than a year after he left the presidency.

And that leaves Obama with a different problem. Who can be blamed?

This problem is a big one. Millions of lives and hundreds, if not thousands, of cities and towns hang in the balance. And I agree that, ultimately, at some point, someone's head must roll.

But obsessing about it now indicates to me that Obama does things in reverse order. Maybe that is his instinctive response.

If it is, I can sympathize — sort of. I remember when I was in ninth grade, and my algebra teacher gave me a problem to do. I went up to the board and did it in reverse order. I got the same result as those who did it correctly and in the correct order. I just did mine backwards.

I remember my teacher watching me with a puzzled look on her face, then, when I was done, she asked me, "Why did you do it that way?" I confessed that I did not know. It was just easier for me.

Well, it's one thing to do an algebra problem in reverse when you're 15 years old. It's quite another to be worrying about who to blame for something that could wreak such havoc in so many lives for so many years — when the problem hasn't been resolved.

This, it seems to me, is characteristic of Obama. Before becoming president, he had no experience in executive problem solving. That doesn't make him unique. But that may help to explain some things.

Perhaps, because of the times in which his presidential campaign was waged, Obama got the idea that being president was about two things — blaming someone else when things went wrong and making sure you get credit for showing up when things do go wrong, even if you don't provide a solution or, for that matter, much leadership.

I became accustomed to this approach from the start, when the Democratic Party's congressional lackeys boasted that they were "the jobs squad" after working out a compromise of the economic stimulus package. But when the jobs failed to materialize as advertised, they resorted to the pass–the–buck strategy. That mess we inherited was worse than we thought, they whined.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans who were employed the day Obama was sworn in joined the ranks of the jobless — and statistics suggest that many have remained there. We miscalculated, they said, and then they turned their attention to a Supreme Court nomination that was never in doubt and health care reform that won't begin to go into effect for several years.

I had a hard time swallowing that one. Obama was quite vocal in the fall of 2008 about his concerns for the U.S. economy. We were headed for a second Great Depression if we elected John McCain, voters were warned.

The scare tactics worked. A race that had been close before the economic implosion turned into a borderline landslide.

Now, certainly, there are things that candidates don't know — and won't know until they are approved by the voters and the transition process begins. But it seems to me that it's kind of hard to make a convincing case that you didn't comprehend how bad the economy really was when you used that kind of rhetoric to be elected.

Recent job gains notwithstanding, the stimulus has yet to create jobs at the rate this country needs. Yet, every time that I have heard a congressional Democrat asked in the last 16 months what was being done to create jobs, the response has begun with "Well, this is Bush's fault ..."

I know I can't speak for everyone, but, as one of the unemployed, my (typically mental) response has been "let's fix the problem."

But nearly every word I hear uttered from Obama's defenders is about blame. Not responsibility. Not what is being done to correct the problem. Blame.

Obama doesn't rely on blame as much as his supporters do, but he works his way into that fairly regularly — and subtly — nonetheless. Sometimes it comes in the form of Obama codespeak — "This problem was years in the making" so therefore it will take years to repair.

And sometimes it is implied. Obama doesn't seem to like discussing unemployment. He does it when he has to, like on the first Friday of each month, but not always. Last year, for example, I criticized him on Labor Day for failing to speak publicly about joblessness on that occasion.

I have often thought that Obama simply does not know what to do about unemployment. And I don't fault him for that. It's a daunting problem. There's no doubt it was daunting for FDR. And I suppose, if I were president, I would be tempted to do as Obama has done and quietly hope the problem resolves itself.

But I'm not the president — and FDR knew it was the most urgent problem his administration faced.

And I am certainly not the only one who thinks it is the most urgent problem this administration faces. Obama likes to present himself as proactive, but, truthfully, there is little a president can do to heal an ailing economy. He can encourage policies he believes will help but not much more than that.

I'm sure he feels a sense of outrage that is compounded by the problem in the Gulf, but he may also, as CNN's John Blake writes, be resisting the temptation to be the "angry black man" — because that is an image that many voters find disturbing.

If a president's skilled in the role of Empathizer–in–Chief, which Obama is not, he can address the unemployed in a heartfelt way and assure the voters he is doing everything he can to help them — even if he's really just blowing smoke.

Last week's jobs report gave the administration plenty of smoke to blow, but Bob Herbert of the New York Times saw through it.

"[T]he No. 1 problem facing the U.S. continues to fester," he writes, "and that problem is unemployment."

Whoa, that can't be right, I can hear the Obama defenders saying. Nearly half a million jobs were created in May.

Ah, the deception of numbers. "The government hired 411,000 workers to help with the census," points out Herbert, "but those jobs are temporary and will vanish in a few months." The private sector, meanwhile, turned in a "dismal performance," creating only 41,000 jobs in May.

And oil continues to pour into the waters of the Gulf as it has for more than 50 days.

There was a wonderfully understated — yet, at the same time, so telling — moment in "Thirteen Days," the 2000 big–screen dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In a conversation with presidential assistant Kenny O'Donnell, President Kennedy says, "I thought there'd be more good days."

I don't know if Kennedy actually said that or if it was a piece of manufactured dialogue, but it would be an appropriate thing for the current president to say. I certainly couldn't fault Obama for bemoaning the fact that there haven't been more good days in his presidency.

Presidencies can be like that, one crisis after another, irrespective of the president's strengths and weaknesses — which brings me to my reason for opening this post with a quote from the 18th Egyptian dynasty.

More than 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, the 18th dynasty ruled Egypt. It may be the most famous dynasty of all, having included King Tut as one of its pharaohs, but I don't think it was responsible for any great achievement — like the construction of the Egyptian pyramids — of which people continue to speak in hushed tones today.

The 18th dynasty appears to have had some fine intellects, though, one of whom (whose name is lost to antiquity) conceived the blessing that is reproduced at the start of this post.

Obama, too, possesses a fine intellect. And, when he began his quest for the presidency, I'm sure he envisioned something entirely different from what has transpired in his first 16 months as president.

But it's what it is.

Obama may find himself traveling in many dark places in the next couple of years. And, whether he leaves behind an achievement that people are still talking about 3,000 years from now or not, I hope that, as he travels to those dark places, God does, in the words of the Egyptian dynasty's blessing, stand between him and harm.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Castles in the Air

Liebe and I liked apple pie when we were 5.

"If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

Henry David Thoreau

Today is the birthday of someone I've probably known longer than anyone else — excluding my immediate family members, of course.

We're about the same age. I'm about six months older than she is. Our mothers were close friends since childhood so I guess you could say ours is a second–generation friendship. It certainly wasn't as random as most friendships seem to be. I mean, we didn't just bump into each other one day in a play group or a kindergarten classroom and become lifelong friends.

I couldn't tell you when we were introduced — probably before we could speak. We've just always been friends, even though we've spent most of our lives separated by hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, and I suspect we will always be friends, no matter where our lives take us or how long our lives turn out to be.

We seem to have gravitated toward artistic pursuits, which is something we both attribute, at least in part, to my mother's encouragement. We've both been sidetracked by the bad economy, but we remain hopeful for better times.

I have always been a writer, although that hasn't always been how I made my living. I worked for many years — and in various roles — for newspapers. Liebe (pronounced LEE — bee) was always more of a thespian. She has been a clown, and she has written, produced and performed in puppet shows. She has a lot of talent, and she backs it up with a lot of hard work.

(I've heard some speak disparagingly of occupations like clowning and puppeteering, mostly because they seem so simple. But that's deceptive. Those who do something very well, no matter what it may be, make it seem effortless.

(Believe me, there is much truth in the old observation that if something was easy, everyone would do it.

(I am reminded of a fellow who was a guest host on the Tonight show during one of Johnny Carson's absences. His monologue was a real bomb, and it set the tone for the rest of the show. After the program aired, Carson called the substitute on the phone and said, "It ain't as easy as it looks, is it, kid?")

Anyway, it seems ironic to me that, since today is Liebe's birthday, today also happens to be the 200th anniversary of the first publication of the Gazeta de Buenos Ayres, which was created by journalist Mariano Moreno (pictured at left) in Buenos Aires to publicize the actions of the first government of Argentina.

Because the illiteracy rate was so high in those days, the government ordered that the newspaper be read at chapels following mass so information could be spread more efficiently.

Ultimately, the Gazeta de Buenos Ayres was closed down in 1821.

The newspaper may well have served as a "government house organ," as Marcelo García writes in the Buenos Aires Herald, and he may be right when he says that "[t]his alone says much about the tradition, present (and future?) of Argentina's journalism," but apparently the act of publishing a newspaper was so meaningful to the people of Argentina that, since 1938, June 7 has been celebrated there as "Journalist Day."

OK, well, that would probably be more ironic if today happened to be my birthday. But I think it is significant for Liebe, too, because the concept of freedom of the press — and, along with it, freedom of thought and freedom of expression — changes constantly in America as well as the other nations of the world.

The openness of our culture is reflected in the freedom of the press. In turn, it affects how we report on the events of our times and how we interpret them in our art, our literature, our music.

There have been some pretty amazing developments just since Liebe and I have been around. And today I have been musing — what kind of amazing things await the people whose lives are just beginning on this day in 2010?

I'm not going to betray how old Liebe and I are, but, frankly, I find it staggering when I think of how much the world has changed in our lifetimes. Since we were born, man has walked on the moon. Communism in Russia collapsed. A black man has been elected president. Women have served on the Supreme Court, and they have run for vice president.

I doubt that my parents, or Liebe's, could have imagined when we were born the world we live in today.

And I can't imagine what may happen in the coming decades. Admittedly, there are times when I feel like Charles Duell, who was commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Duell supposedly remarked at the end of the 19th century that "everything that can possibly be invented has already been invented."

There has been some conflict over whether Duell ever actually said that, but, even if he did, it isn't as ludicrous as it may seem on the surface. Seen from Duell's perspective, a century of unprecedented change was concluding. Think how far mankind had come since the days of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. What could the next century do to top it?

Quite a lot, as it turned out. But Duell was an administrator, not an inventor. I never heard anyone suggest that he was a visionary.

And I know of no one who foresaw, in 1899, jets or space travel or any of the other miraculous things the 20th century brought. So don't be too hard on Duell. He was an ordinary, hard–working stiff.

When I was growing up, I never imagined mobile phones or CDs or computers in homes — or an internet where anything I wrote could be seen by anyone on the planet who had access to a computer.

But progress comes at a price — and sometimes that price is pretty steep. I hope those who are born today learn from the mistakes we've made.

Our achievements will seem small in hindsight if they do not.

Happy birthday, Liebe.