Thursday, September 30, 2010

Visions of Obama

"We can hear the night watchman click his flashlight
Ask himself if it's him or them that's really insane
Louise she's all right she's just near
She's delicate and seems like the mirror
But she just makes it all too concise and too clear
That Johanna's not here."

Bob Dylan
"Visions of Johanna"

I've been thinking of Dylan's song — which, incidentally, Rolling Stone ranked 404th on its list of the 500 greatest songs of all time — after reading some articles that have been written lately about how Democrats are resigning themselves to an electoral spanking that seems to be inevitable on November 2.

But those articles really make me think of the theme song from a popular TV show from decades ago — although it would require an adjustment to the lyrics to make it more timely ...

"Blame is all around ..."

It seems the walls are closing in on the Democrats, and they're flailing about in all–too–familiar ways. They're running out of scapegoats so they're resorting to cannibalism.

They're blaming the voters. Vice President Joe Biden has been telling Democrats to stop whining, and Obama scolded his supporters, in an interview with Rolling Stone, saying that those who voted for him in 2008 need to prove they are serious and return to the polls in the decidedly less favorable climate of 2010.

Those voters, Obama said, have to "buck up" — as if it was their fault that they expected instant gratification when they pulled the lever for hope and change.

But the truth is that they were only doing what they have been conditioned to do. And the ire they are expressing in the midterms is also something they have been conditioned to do.

There is nothing about this that should be even remotely surprising. Is it bewildering? Absolutely. Infuriatingly so? Perhaps.

But surprising? Hardly.

Nevertheless ...
  • John Podhoretz of the New York Post advises that it just isn't smart to blame the voters.

    I know the Post isn't known as one of Obama's supporters, but it seems as if that should be self–evident. I mean, politicians need votes to win and retain office — so, in a democracy, that makes the voters a politician's employers.

    And who in his right mind would tell his employer to stop whining or to buck up if his employer said the job wasn't being done according to his expectations?

    "Obama is talking to voters as though he is their boss, or their principal, or their father," writes Podhoretz. "He is not any of those things. He is their employee. And employers don't like it when their employees yell at them — even if their employees have it right."

  • The Wall Street Journal — which also has been less than friendly to the current administration — points out that many politicians have blamed the voters for their own shortcomings "but usually they wait until after an election."
It's all part of the mindset.

A lot of things have contributed to that particular mindset over the years, I think. In my memory, things really began to go in that direction when Ronald Reagan was elected.

In his one and only debate with Jimmy Carter in 1980, Reagan asked the voters if they were better off than they had been when Carter was elected — and that has become the measuring stick for presidential success.

Before 1980, there seemed to be a genuine understanding among Americans of both major parties that big problems required a lot of time — and usually a lot of sacrifice — before they could be resolved. Reagan preached that there were simple answers to complex questions, which was never realistic but it was what the voters wanted to hear.

Politically, it was a smart move for a challenger. Before that time, it was typical in American history for most (but not all) presidents who sought another term to be given one by the voters.

But Reagan radically changed the playing field. Expectations were drastically altered, and it has proven to be a double–edged sword. Two years after he was elected, Reagan's party took a drubbing in the midterms because things weren't improving.

Twelve years later, Bill Clinton and his party suffered an even worse voter backlash for much the same reason.

When I was a child, I heard the adults in my world lamenting the fact that John F. Kennedy didn't have enough time to leave his mark. But Kennedy served nearly three–quarters of his elected term.

Less than two decades later, the voters felt that, even though he had been in office less than two years, enough time had gone by for them to start passing judgment on Jimmy Carter — and, when things grew progressively worse in the second half of his term, his re–election fate was sealed, and he became the first sitting president in half a century to be denied another term.

America has evolved rapidly in 30 years. I have heard our society described as a "microwave culture" — and it is. Things that, in the past, required preparation and planning and careful execution — and, yes, sometimes sacrifice — can now be done quickly, with little (if any) thought and with little (if any) sacrifice.

And I have to think things have only gotten worse since the nightmarish midterms that Reagan and Clinton endured. In the 21st century, people carry so much modern technology around with them — laptops, cell phones, etc. — that they can always satisfy every desire wherever they may be.

And they can be on top of breaking news no matter where they are.

So many things can be delivered "on demand" these days — and that is, in many ways, progress — that an individual may get an overly inflated opinion of his/her expectations and desires.

(I recall speaking to another voter when I was standing in line to cast my ballot in 2008. This woman told me that the only issue that she cared about was the ethical treatment of animals and that only those candidates who actually spoke about the issue in their campaigns would get her vote. I'll grant you, that's an important issue for some people, but it didn't rank too highly among the issues of concern for most of the people who voted in that election.)

When a candidate runs under a banner as innocuous as "change" and "hope," it may reap tremendous benefits in the election — as it did in 2008. But it also raises the bar on expectations. It encourages voters to pin any change they desire on him — which sets him up for the blame when change isn't achieved (or, at least, isn't achieved as quickly as the voters would like).

Americans elected Obama — waving his generic banner for "change" — in 2008, and each American who voted for him projected his/her personal vision for change — whatever form that took — onto Obama.

I think it is safe to say that most — but clearly not all — of those who voted for Obama did so with the expectation that he would pursue policies that would save the country's economy. Whether he has been successful depends, I suppose, on which economic indicators are being discussed, and, obviously, some of those indicators suggest that the economy is — slowly — recovering.

But that's a tough sell for the unemployed. The unemployment rate is the most accessible, easiest to understand economic figure for people who didn't major in economics and have little, if any, knowledge of economic theories — and one's knowledge of math doesn't have to be terribly extensive to understand that an unemployment rate of 9.6% (the unemployment rate in June of this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) is higher than 6.5% (the rate when Obama was elected in November 2008).

However, the unemployment rate isn't as straightforward as you might think (or at least hope) it would be. As many unemployed Americans whose unemployment benefits have run out are discovering, they are sort of like 21st century versions of George Orwell's unpersons. If they aren't receiving benefits, they simply aren't counted.

So, when the unemployment rate goes down in this economic climate, you need to do a little research to find out if that decline is because long–term unemployed people aren't being counted anymore — and not thanks to a burst of new jobs.

Anyway, the Republican administration was an obvious target in the 2008 general election campaign, but, after the campaign was over, it must have occurred to Obama and/or people on his staff that it would be good cover for them to keep blaming the previous administration. So that is what they did.

Even as Obama took office and Democrats fully seized control of the federal government, they constantly reminded everyone that the recession began on someone else's watch. We didn't start the fire, they told the American public. We just want to put it out.

And that worked pretty well ... for awhile. But, as they always do when their presidents depend on this particular excuse, the voters tired of it and began to turn on Obama.

And then, recently, the National Bureau of Economic Research reported that the recession ended in June 2009.

That would be good news indeed if there had been job growth in the last 15 months. But instead the unemployment rate, which was 9.7% in June 2009, soared past 10% — and, more than a year after the end of the recession, stands only slightly lower than it was when the recovery began.

And, as Catherine Rampell wrote in the New York Times, with the recession officially over, "any contraction that might lie ahead would be a separate and distinct recession, and one that the Obama administration could not claim to have inherited."

Thus, blaming their political adversaries won't work, anymore. The economy belongs to Obama and the Democrats now. And voters who voted for Obama believing that they were voting for someone who was committed to creating jobs and building a solid foundation for the economy's future, have been disappointed and frustrated.

I've heard it described as "buyer's remorse," this movement away from Obama. If that is so, perhaps the voters' rationale is that they can't do anything about Obama in 2010. No matter what happens on November 2, he will still be president.

But they can do something about the Congress with which he must work. Then, in 2012, they can do something about the president and vice president — if they still want to.

By then, Obama had better hope the voters' vision of him has shifted again.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The First Secretary of State

Until two years ago, the prevailing wisdom in America was that, although there is no foolproof path to the presidency, the best preparation for the presidency — or, at least, a campaign for one's party's nomination — was experience in the statehouse.

In the last 35 years, that has been a tough conclusion with which to argue. Four of the five men who were elected president between 1976 and 2004, after all, were sitting or former governors.

(Ironically, the single exception, George H.W. Bush in 1988, defeated a governor.)

Many others (both before and after that time frame) either won or ran at least reasonably competitive campaigns for their party's presidential nomination, in large part because their executive experience gave them added credibility with the voters.

Well, that's the way it's been in modern — or, at least, semi–modern — times.

But in the early days of the republic, the real stepping stone to the presidency was seen as secretary of State. That was only natural, I suppose, especially once people began to see how things were playing out.

Nearly half of the men who were president before Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 had been secretary of State, starting with the very first one, Thomas Jefferson, who was appointed on this day in 1789.

It's a sign, I guess, of the role that foreign relations played in the economic development of the new nation. As minister to France, Jefferson was instrumental in promoting trade relations with Prussia. Early in George Washington's presidency, he was appointed secretary of State, a position that had evolved from secretary of Foreign Affairs, but he was reluctant to take the position initially, wrote Fawn Brodie in "Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History" — perhaps because diplomacy, not trade, was to be the focus.

But take it he did, and he went on to establish a tradition that continued through the first half of the 19th century.

Six of the 15 presidents who preceded Abraham Lincoln were secretary of State, and other secretaries of State (i.e., Henry Clay and Daniel Webster) aspired to the presidency at some point in their careers.

No one who has served as secretary of State has been elected president in the 150 years since Lincoln was elected — although some noteworthy people who sought the presidency (i.e., William Jennings Bryan, Ed Muskie, Al Haig, Hillary Clinton) as well as some who were mentioned as prospective nominees (i.e., Colin Powell) have held the job.

But that doesn't mean a past (or future) secretary of State won't sit in the Oval Office again one day.

And, in the meantime ...

... in the unlikely event that the president, the vice president, the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate all die on or around the same date, the secretary of State is next in the line of succession.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The End of 'Recovery Summer'

The summer of 2010 is coming to a close — and thus, I suppose, "Recovery Summer" also is ending.

But, while the administration may have had high hopes when it launched "Recovery Summer," things seem to have flatlined, at best, and a lot of folks just aren't feeling it.

They aren't all Barack Obama's political opponents, either. Some of them are like Velma Hart (see video), an Obama supporter who told the president that she was "exhausted" from having to defend him and his administration while she has seen little evidence of improvement.

Hart joked about having thought that she was past the "hot dogs and beans" stage in her life, then meekly asked Obama if that was the "new reality." If so, she seemed prepared to defend that — as if that's the way it is supposed to be.

But it may be hard for millions of unemployed Americans to see how her life has been affected by the recession. She has a high–paying government job, with all the benefits it provides, and she and her husband are putting their two daughters through private school — which is a choice that they made (as opposed to losing your job, which, in most cases, is a decision that is made for, not by, someone).

Perhaps they have had to make some sacrifices — most Americans, after all, have had to make some concession to the bad economy, even if it has been something as modest as not eating out as often or going to the movies as frequently.

If that's all that Hart's family must do to weather this economic storm, though, they're undoubtedly a lot better off than most blacks in America. Bob Herbert writes in the New York Times about how "black voters ... have been hammered disproportionately by the recession and largely taken for granted by the Democratic Party."

The Democrats' neglect of their black base "is likely to translate into lower turnout among blacks this fall," Herbert writes.

Well, it wouldn't surprise me. Black voters haven't exactly been turning out en masse in this year's primaries the way they did in 2008. Of course, neither are young voters or liberal voters. Without them, Obama could not have won the election in 2008, and it is highly unlikely that the members of his party will succeed without them this year.

It really must be difficult for the Obama apologists, and it's only going to get tougher. We're down to six weeks until the midterm elections. If there is no truly dramatic improvement in the economy between now and November 2, the only thing that can possibly (but not absolutely) reverse the Democrats' fortunes would be an international crisis.

And no one — other than the Democrats who are all but certain to be defeated in November — wants that.

But those who all too eagerly embraced an imprecise call for "change" are realizing, I think, that, in 2008, many people attached many interpretations to that call — and darn few are satisfied with the results, no matter how much Obama may protest that his solutions are long term.

In hindsight, a number of things should be clear, but hindsight is always 20/20, they say. All of which makes it even more ironic that Jane Mayer writes in the New Yorker that former Vice President Walter Mondale sees many similarities between the Obama presidency and the one in which Mondale played a key role, the presidency of Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s.

Now, I voted for President Carter in 1980. It was the first presidential election in which I was old enough to vote, and I believed that President Carter had been doing a good job in spite of the obstacles that kept being thrown his way. I was also deeply suspicious — and, I still think, rightfully so — of Ronald Reagan's policies.

But I was in the minority that year.

When Mondale tells Mayer that the American people "just turned against us — same as with Obama," I know exactly what he's talking about. I lived through it. And it has had a profound influence on how I perceive political movements in America.

Mondale is candid about the things that Carter did wrong — and the lessons Obama and the other members of his party should have learned from that experience 30 years ago but apparently didn't.

The former vice president does seem to have learned from the Clinton experience, noting that Obama "needs to get rid of those teleprompters, and connect. He's smart as hell. He can do it. Look right into those cameras and tell people he's hurting right along with them."

In other words, make sure the voters know that he feels their pain. With his professorial demeanor, he often comes across as a cold fish — which was one of the criticisms of Carter the engineer.

Carter, Mondale reminded Mayer, had an impressive list of legislative and diplomatic accomplishments, but they didn't seem to help him with the voters. And his image wasn't enhanced by his handling of Congress.

In all, Mondale favors a more hardball approach. "[T]he idea of turning things over to Congress — that doesn't work even when you own Congress," Mondale said, and he spoke from experience. Democrats enjoyed large congressional majorities in the post–Watergate years. "You have to ride 'em."

And he was critical of Obama's quixotic quest for bipartisanship. "You should explain clearly what you want, and, if [the Republicans] oppose you, attack them for it."

Mondale is somewhat encouraging in his assessment of Obama's future prospects. Unlike 1980, when President Carter was challenged for the nomination by Ted Kennedy, Mondale does not envision anything like that for Obama.

But I'm not sure about that. The National Bureau of Economic Research says the recession ended more than a year ago, but millions of Americans remain unemployed 15 months later. If things get worse in 2011, it isn't hard for me to imagine a Democrat challenging the president for the nomination — either seriously (i.e. Kennedy) or symbolically (i.e. Pat Buchanan).

That really isn't the worst of it for the administration.

As Catherine Rampell observes in the New York Times, "The announcement also implies that any contraction that might lie ahead would be a separate and distinct recession, and one that the Obama administration could not claim to have inherited."

Well, that's not really true. The Obama administration could still claim — although not plausibly — to have inherited it. Maybe they could get away with it. Probably not, though.

And the race card probably wouldn't work, either. And "change" can't be brought back for an encore because the voters already have seen how that one worked.

I guess the strategy will depend on how much Obama and the Democrats are forced to neglect the economy while trying to defend the tenuous turf they won in their extended skirmish over health care reform.

Because Republicans are making no secret of their desire to chip away at, if not repeal outright, the health care reform law.

Such talk was the fodder of jokes a year ago. It's no joking matter for Democrats today.

And things are looking bad for Democrats in places they never would have expected a year ago. Such as:
  • West Virginia, where the state's voters must select a replacement for late Sen. Robert Byrd. Public Policy Polling says the Republican candidate leads the state's popular Democratic governor by three percentage points in a poll of likely voters.

  • Wisconsin, where a Daily Kos/PPP poll of likely voters shows the Republican challenger holding a double–digit lead over three–term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
Many races in states and districts are volatile this year, more volatile than just about anyone predicted 18 months ago.

I remember, after Obama had been elected and Democrats were giddy with their victory, there was plenty of talk about which great American president Obama's administration would most resemble.

Not whether he would be up to the enormous challenge he faced. It was taken for granted that he would be.

Would he be another Lincoln? Or another Washington? Or another FDR? In some scenarios, he was going to be another JFK because, like Kennedy, he broke a barrier that many thought could never be broken.

But we're almost halfway through Obama's term, and the question must be asked by Democrats when they ponder the 2012 campaign. It can no longer be avoided.

Is it possible? In an electoral context, could he be another Jimmy Carter?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Short Presidency

I often wonder what James Garfield, America's 20th president, might have accomplished if he hadn't been shot about four months after taking office — and died of his wounds two months later.

Garfield, who died 129 years ago on this day, had a mere 200 days as president — only William Henry Harrison's one–month presidency was shorter — and nearly 40% of that time was spent in bed with the gunshot wound that ultimately killed him.

But he showed so much promise.

He wasn't a Rhodes scholar, the way Bill Clinton was. In fact, his academic career appears — to 21st century eyes, at least — a bit sparse. He attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (which later became Hiram College) and graduated with honors from Williams College — where he was regarded as an excellent student in everything (except chemistry).

Did you realize that, not only did he know both Latin and Greek, but he was a professor of both at Hiram College for a time? He also was ambidextrous — and he could use that particular talent to write both languages simultaneously. Well, that's the story, anyway.

Relatively few modern presidents have been able to speak a second language. And even fewer have been ambidextrous. Ronald Reagan, I have heard, was born left–handed but was forced by teachers to learn to write with his right hand when he was a child. And biographer David McCullough has suggested that something similar happened to Harry Truman when he was growing up.

Truman's and Reagan's experiences probably were typical for lefthanders of their generation, and I know from my own somewhat limited experience how challenging it is to try to learn to do things with your non–dominant hand.

When I was 13, I broke my right wrist and it had to be in a cast for about eight weeks. I am right–handed and, because of the nature of the break, virtually my entire arm, from my fingers to my upper arm, had to be encased in this cast and remain locked in one position while the break healed.

Because of the way my arm was positioned, it was impossible for me to write with my right hand so, for eight weeks, I had to turn in spelling tests and any other handwritten assignments with the messiest handwriting you ever saw from the pencil of a seventh–grader.

Anyway, I can respect what Truman and Reagan apparently were forced to do, but I would classify theirs as acquired ambidexterity. Garfield, as I understand it, was left–handed by nature, but I have heard nothing that says he was forced to do things with his right hand. His type of ambidexterity appears to have been natural.

Or perhaps it was the result of the subtle influence of a person in Garfield's life when he was growing up. As I say, I am right–handed, but there are certain things that I do — or did when I was a child — with my left hand, and I have always believed it was because my father, who is left–handed, must have shown me how to do them when I was small. And I just mimicked what I saw him do.

For example, I have always used a pool cue from the left. And, although I do not own a rifle, on the occasions when I have fired a rifle, I have done so from the left.

And, when I was a child and I played kickball or kicked a football with my friends, I kicked with my left foot. I never was able to kick with my right.

So it is possible that environment played a role in whatever ambidexterity Garfield acquired.

But it does seem to me that a distinction must be drawn between acquired ambidexterity — and natural ambidexterity, in which one can move effortlessly between the two, kind of like a natural switch hitter in baseball.

And Garfield's ambidexterity, as I say, appears to have been natural.

Of course, ambidexterity is not necessarily evidence of above average intelligence. But it seems to me that, to be able to apply one's ambidexterity to one's other pursuits does require a certain amount of creativity — which does, in my experience, require a certain level of intellectual depth.

Well, whatever his ambidexterity may have said about his intelligence, Garfield had about as varied a resume as anyone who ever took the presidential oath. He was the first former college president — and, as far as I know, the only former preacher — to be president.

From what I have learned of Garfield, he was quite well read, which certainly suggests a high level of intelligence.

He was a "policy wonk" a century before the Clinton candidacy and presidency popularized the phrase. He never appears to have been bored with the minutiae of policy making.

And he seems to have been a very outgoing man, the sort who enjoys the politician's life. He was muscular and handsome, and he enjoyed good health.

Now, none of these things tell us that Garfield was unusually gifted or special, although he has been described as one of the most talented orators of his day. He appears to have been somewhat Clintonesque, actually. He was "[e]xtremely tactile," wrote historian William DeGregorio. "[H]e liked to hug and stroke friends and characteristically slung an arm around the shoulders of whomever he was talking to."

But he was unique in at least one way. In more than 200 years, he remains the only sitting member of the House to be elected president.

I'm not sure, though, if much can be learned from Garfield's experience in the House. He was there for nearly 20 years, and during that time he appears to have earned a reputation as something of a waffler. He seems to have been far too concerned with making everyone happy — and, as a result, made relatively few people happy.

That, too, may seem somewhat Clintonesque, although, in an odd kind of way, Garfield seems to have managed to combine the qualities of both Clinton and the man he defeated in 1992, former President George H.W. Bush.

DeGregorio writes that (in true Clinton fashion) "he was most ambitious," but (like Bush) he was modest and disinclined to self–promotion.

"I so much despise a man who blows his own horn," Garfield reportedly said, "that I go to the extreme of not demanding what is justly my due."

But if his pre–presidential career suggested an indecisive presidency, that was not what came across after Garfield took office — certainly by modern standards.

One of the earliest tasks — and perhaps the most crucial — of a new president in the 19th century was that of making political appointments, and the federal system was fraught with corruption. By the time Garfield took office, there was a burgeoning movement for civil service reform in the land, and it was against that backdrop that Garfield made his stand against a power broker from his own party, Sen. Roscoe Conkling of New York.

Conkling felt it was his responsibility to appoint the chief collector for the Port of New York because he was the state's senior senator. And, traditionally, it was something that the state's senator handled, even though it seems brazenly corrupt today — especially the way Conkling doled out patronage.

To put this in a context that 21st century people might understand, it would be comparable to Virginia Sen. Jim Webb claiming that, because the Pentagon sits on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, he, as Virginia's senior senator, should appoint the secretary of Defense.

As I say, it seems brazenly corrupt today, but it was a pretty common procedure at that time. It was covered by the principle of "senatorial courtesy," which is still observed to a certain extent but not as widely as it was then, in no small part because of Garfield.

Garfield decided to challenge the practice of a spoils system by appointing one of Conkling's political rivals chief collector. Conkling and his senatorial colleague from New York both resigned in protest, only to discover that the state's Republican Party was not going to support them against the president, and Garfield had struck a blow for civil service reform.

It might be obvious, given his background as a college president and a preacher, that Garfield took an extremely unusual route to the presidency.

As a young man, Garfield fought for the North in the Civil War, achieving the rank of major general. He earned a certain amount of notoriety for that, but it hardly served as his launch pad into presidential politics. Instead, it launched him into 18 years of service in the House of Representatives.

Then, fate intervened in 1880, and Garfield became the Republicans' compromise choice when 35 ballots failed to produce a presidential nominee.

One of the candidates for the nomination that year was former President Ulysses S. Grant. In fact, Conkling had been the leader of the movement to nominate Grant (who had been president from 1869–1877) for an unprecedented third term. But Grant deadlocked with James G. Blaine and John Sherman, and the delegates turned to the dark horse Garfield.

In the general election, Garfield defeated another former Union commander, Winfield Hancock, becoming one of the youngest men (48 on Election Day) to win the presidency.

The men who originally sought the nomination that became Garfield's did not have kind things to say about him, either while he was president ("Garfield ... is not possessed of the backbone of an angle–worm," said Grant) or more than a decade after his death ("His will power was not equal to his personal magnetism," wrote Sherman in 1895. "He easily changed his mind and honestly veered from one impulse to another").

In his inaugural address, Garfield spoke of civil service reform, and he can be said to have fired the first real shot of that revolt in his skirmish with Conkling. Actual reform, however, was ultimately achieved by his successor, Chester Arthur — although it was done, in large part, as a tribute to Garfield.

He might have been remembered in the history books as a crusader against corruption, but after only four months in office, Garfield was shot by a disgruntled and mentally unbalanced office seeker. And, instead of being recognized for the influence he could have had on American life, he is often regarded as a footnote, an oddity.

It has been suggested by some that Garfield could have survived his wound if it hadn't been for inadequate medical care.

"At least a dozen medical experts probed the president's wound, often with unsterilized metal instruments or bare hands, as was common at the time," wrote Amanda Schaffer of the New York Times in 2006. "Historians agree that massive infection, which resulted from unsterile practices, contributed to Garfield's death."

What might have been?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

They May Think It's A Movement

"And the only reason I'm singing you this song now is 'cause you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if you're in a situation like that there's only one thing you can do, and that's walk into the shrink wherever you are, just walk in, say 'Shrink, you can get anything you want at Alice's restaurant' and walk out. You know, if one person, just one person does it, they may think he's really sick, and they won't take him. And if two people, two people do it, in harmony, they may think they're both faggots, and they won't take either of them. And if three people do it, three, can you imagine, three people walking in, singin' a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out? They may think it's an organization. And can you imagine 50 people a day, I said 50 people a day walking in, singin' a bar of Alice's Restaurant and walking out? Then, friends, they may think it's a movement.

"And that's what it is, the Alice's Restaurant Anti–Massacree Movement, and all you got to do to join is sing it the next time it comes around on the guitar."

Arlo Guthrie

Five years ago, in the summer and fall of 2005, liberals and Democrats (and, despite all opinions to the contrary, the two terms are not interchangeable) didn't object to the notion of a movement.

At least, they didn't object when it meant an antiwar activist like Cindy Sheehan was camping out outside George W. Bush's ranch in Texas and attracting the support of more and more mainstream Americans who were frustrated by the sausage grinder war policies of the Bush administration.

(Mind you, there were those who opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. And opposition had been growing ever since George W. Bush's famous "Mission: Accomplished" speech on board the ship at sea. But Sheehan, who came to oppose the war after her son's ultimate sacrifice, made it fashionable to speak out against it.)

Nor did the liberals and/or Democrats have any objections to associating the word "movement" with Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008. Perhaps that was a subconscious thing. "Movement" conjures up memories of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King — and Obama, the first black nominee of a major party, accepted the presidential nomination on the 45th anniversary of King's legendary "I Have a Dream" speech.

Maybe it was all too neat and orderly. Maybe it seemed preordained. Or maybe it just raised the bar of expectations to impossible heights.

I wonder if, perhaps, actually living up to the crushing demands to make amends for centuries of injustice is too much to ask of any one man or any one administration in a full four–year term, let alone two years. There is anger, frustration and resentment in the minority communities that has been largely bottled up over the years, and those communities have been understandably eager to come to terms with the past and look to the future.

That would have been a challenging task even if the economy had been humming along, adding more jobs than were necessary each month to keep pace with the working–age population. Or if the American people hadn't been footing the bill — in more ways than one — for two wars.

Whatever the reason may be — and this is a complex issue so I have no doubt that several factors are at work here — those same liberals and/or Democrats who cheered on Sheehan when her presence was a daily thorn in Bush's side and who happily rode the wave of public dismay to victory under the banner of "Change!" two years ago don't like grassroots movements today.

At least, they don't like the so–called Tea Party movement.

Why? Again, there could be (and, undoubtedly, are) many answers to that question.

The one that makes the most sense to me is that the Tea Partiers represent a threat to the status quo. And it's a growing threat. So far this year, it has grown from a slow trickle to a shower.

The ones who are directly threatened by it don't know how to stop it so they look for ways to discredit it.

For some, that means discrediting the most visible spokesperson for the movement, Sarah Palin. I can only guess that is because, in spite of what I see as pretty significant obstacles to the GOP nomination, Palin is viewed in some quarters as a threat in the presidential race in 2012.

I expect to have more to say about Palin as this general election campaign unfolds so I won't spend much time on her in this post, but let me say that, at this point, I don't believe Palin is the problem for the Democrats. Personally, I think Obama and the Democrats should have focused their efforts from Day One on the issues that seemed likely on Inauguration Day to dominate the midterms. But they didn't.

Some liberals and/or Democrats have been dismissive of the Tea Party movement in general and the threat it poses. They've made jokes about it. I heard one, for example, who agreed that it was a legitimate movement — "a bowel movement," he said and laughed uproariously as if he had been the first person to come up with that pun.

There are none so blind as those who will not see.

Some have relied on the Democrats' favorite scapegoat — racism. This allows them to equate the Tea Party movement with racial bias — and avoid having to address the shortcomings of their own policies.

Does racism play a role with some people? Of course it does. To suggest, even in this presumably more enlightened age, that racism has been completely conquered would be as patently absurd and naive as the statements made by those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened.

People always have been — and, I imagine, always will be — suspicious of any person who differs from them in one way or more — race, religion, age, gender, etc.

Because that is so, I have no doubt that there are some Tea Partiers who have been against Obama from the beginning, primarily because he is black, and latch on to any popular movement that opposes anything Obama is for or supports anything he is against.

That isn't so radically different from what every president encounters, though. Every president has his hard–core base of supporters, even the unpopular ones. It was widely believed, for example, in 2009 that the entire country was ready to be rid of George W. Bush. And most Americans were — but there were some Americans who were sorry to see him go.

Bush's father and Jimmy Carter both lost bids for re–election. And Richard Nixon, who had been re–elected by a landslide less than two years earlier, was hemorrhaging support daily before he resigned rather than face a trial in the Senate that he seemed all but sure to lose.

But all three presidents did have their supporters, even in their darkest hours.

And even the popular presidents have had their hard–core bases of opposition. Their opponents always sound like Chicken Little, convinced that every initiative from the administration is leading the country down the road to perdition.

Their squawking usually sounds a bit hysterical and more than a little unlikely — unless the country already appears to be well down that road. Then it suddenly seems more plausible.

What's different now is that Obama's supporters can use race as their excuse for denying what is about to happen to them — until it happens. And they use it as a wedge just like the Republicans used patriotism. I'm sure some of the Lee Atwater wannabes in the Democratic Party are already working on post–election strategies pointing the finger at the racists in the electorate.

I guess this sort of tactic has the potential to be more pronounced when a president is a groundbreaker. Maybe it would have been no different if Hillary Clinton had been elected the first female president. The only real difference might have been the theme — men vs. women instead of black vs. white.

I suppose, in the midterms of 1982, some of Reagan's supporters could have blamed the anti–administration movement on age bias or puritanical attitudes about people who have been divorced (although that wouldn't really make much sense, considering that the voters who made up a significant part of Reagan's base in 1980 would have been the kind of Christian fundamentalists who disapproved of broken marriages).

Of course, the fact that Reagan's first marriage ended in divorce was never an issue in his presidential campaigns. And he became the first — and, so far, only — president who had been divorced. (For that matter, I don't recall Obama's race being mentioned very much in 2008.)

Or in the 1962 midterms, some of John F. Kennedy's supporters could have blamed religious bigotry if things had gone against them. We'll never know if 1962 would have been a Republican year. The Cuban missile crisis that October made Americans rally behind their president and his congressional allies when they went to the polls.

I guess it all depends on whose ox is being gored.

Racism is a handy excuse, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Of course, I suppose that relatively few excuses ever do manage to tell the whole story. But when was the last time you heard anyone — least of all a politician — who gave a damn about getting the whole story?

In my experience, almost all the time, people are only interested in the details that support what they have already concluded, whatever serves their agenda. To hell with everyone else.

Trust me. I have lots of experience in this area.

To me, a tendency to inject the subject of race whenever someone disagrees with the president suggests that the president's defenders aren't interested in hearing about that disagreement and the reasons for it, regardless of that person's race, gender, age or religion.

This suggests a dangerous belief that all that counts is what the president thinks. To have a different opinion is evidence of an absence of patriotism (or, in modern spin, proof of racism). Isn't that the kind of blind loyalty that so many Democrats openly ridiculed in George W. Bush's supporters, who concluded that opposing the war in Iraq was proof that someone did not support American troops?

Whatever happened to all that high–minded talk from Democrats a few years ago about how disagreeing with the president was not unpatriotic but rather a display of genuine patriotism?

Extremist movements are always seen as a threat to the other side. And the Tea Party movement is an extremist movement. But it isn't gaining traction because of the president's race. It is gaining traction because people are afraid, and the administration has done nothing to allay those fears.

It is a movement that Obama could have nipped in the bud. He could have, but he didn't. These are times that call for bold measures. Obama took timid steps. And he is paying for that now.

His actions in the first months of his presidency suggested to many voters that he did not take joblessness as seriously as the voters had believed he did. It told them he had no plan for fighting unemployment, and many were terrified by this knowledge as they saw job losses — at monthly rates in six digits — mount in 2009.

They have been through too much in the last 19 months to be fooled by Obama's sudden flurry of economic activity, his burst of initiatives that seem designed to appease the unemployed, much like Obama tried unsuccessfully to appease the Republicans in Congress.

I have read some columns recently by some people who say the Tea Partiers who have been getting nominated by the Republicans may actually offer the Democrats their last glimmer of hope of retaining control of Congress — because the Tea Partiers are perceived as being so far to the right.

A few weeks ago, I was talking on the phone with an old family friend who happens to be a Republican — more moderate than most. And she was worried about what could happen if the Tea Partiers won a lot of races this year.

I told her that I didn't think many would win — and I still feel that way, even after yesterday's primaries — but the fear factor is really the wild card.

Some of the places where Tea Partiers have been nominated for Senate seats — like Alaska — have deep Libertarian streaks, and they are likely to send a Tea Partier to the Senate. Some places are iffy — but still likely to elect a Tea Partier in the present environment.

And then there are places like Delaware, which sent Joe Biden to Washington for more than 30 years. Now, as vice president, Biden presides over the Senate, and, at one time, his son was thought to be his heir apparent in this year's special election to replace him.

But, when his son announced that he wouldn't seek the seat after all, the revised conventional wisdom was that Republicans would win the seat. The state's Republicans, after all, appeared likely to nominate popular moderate Rep. Mike Castle to run for it.

But that didn't happen. Tea Partier Christine O'Donnell won the nomination this week. And, at first glance, I have to wonder if she can win in Delaware — which, in my mind, moves the seat from the Leans Republican column to the Toss–up column. For now.

I mean, if Delaware Republicans nominated O'Donnell — "a perennial loser with a trainload of baggage," in the words of Newsweek's Howard Fineman — logic tells me that the GOP's road to a majority in the Senate is a bit steeper and rockier than it appeared to be only a few days ago.

But that is how it looks to me in September. What remains to be seen is how much more fearful people will be in about seven weeks. How much angrier will they be at the administration for permitting so much suffering to continue?

And how much will they punish the Democrats for it?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Darn! Denied Another Teachable Moment?

I have to think that, in Professor Obama's "Teachable Moments" lecture series, Rev. Terry Jones and his plans to burn copies of the Quran on Saturday — the ninth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks — had to be the capstone.

Consequently, it must have been a disappointment for the professor (even though he made a public appeal to Jones to listen to the "better angels" of his nature) late this afternoon when Jones announced that he would not proceed as planned but would, instead, go to New York to meet with a Muslim leader.

There are, after all, so few things Obama can speak about in public these days in which he will come off looking better than his naysayers.

And Obama, who must suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, has been bouncing around the country of late, trying to appease voters he lost long ago because he ignored their pleas for an emphasis on job creation.

There's nothing that can be done now about unemployment that will alter the outcome. In fact, the unemployment rate is about the same now as it was in July 2009, when Obama decided to take advantage of the highly publicized case of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates being taken into custody by Cambridge, Mass., police and have Gates and the arresting officer to the White House for a beer and a "teachable moment."

In the months after the teachable moment, unemployment continued its slog to the 10% level, then fell back a couple of tenths of a percentage point but now seems to be moving back up again. The difference is that, in 2009, only a couple of off–year gubernatorial elections and a special election in Massachusetts were on the political horizon. There wasn't much at stake.

But in 2010, the regularly scheduled midterm election is coming up. And what was once thought to be unthinkable — that Obama, who seemed to have the Midas touch when he campaigned for the presidency in 2008, has become an albatross for many of his fellow Democrats — appears to have come true.

Of course, that conclusion is based on the poll numbers. And, as always, I will concede that nothing is written in stone when one speaks of polls. Nor, for that matter, do the survey results that are being cited tell the whole story.

For example, many Obama defenders will point out that many polls show that, in the famous generic congressional poll, Democrats are closing the gap with Republicans — trailing, in many polls, by nearly the margin for error, which, in theory, means that they could be running about even.

But those polls only asked the respondents if they were registered voters. It is pretty easy to be a registered voter in this country. There is no shortage of politically active groups that set up registration tables and booths on college campuses, in shopping malls and at county fairs every election year.

The days when some voters were prevented from registering in some parts of the country are long gone.

Being a registered voter, though, is not the same thing as being a likely voter. Pollsters determine the likely voters by asking them questions about their past voting behavior. That isn't 100% reliable, of course, but it is the best indicator we can get for what is likely to happen in the election.

And the polls have shown, repeatedly, that likely voters are supporting the Republicans by ridiculous margins. In fact, if some of these polls are right, Election Day is going to be a brutal day for many Democrats.

It's hard — for me, at least — to conclude that there is a cause–and–effect relationship at work here, but it's even harder for me to make a plausible case that there isn't one.

After last summer's teachable moment, Obama's approval ratings remained — mostly — in the 50s for the next four months or so, but his approval ratings in most surveys dropped into the 40s around the start of December, and they have seldom seen the 50s range since.

Well, it seems that Obama may have the chance to have that teachable moment lecture after all.

Can it reverse the tide? I doubt it. But it might be entertaining.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Celestial Navigation

Do you remember the last year or so of George H.W. Bush's presidency?

He was like a moth on a summer night, frantically drawn to whichever light beckoned to him from the many competing beams that seemed to be shining. And, for the last painful months of the first Bush presidency, he was bouncing from one light source to another, only to discover they were never among his famous "thousand points of light."

Moths, they say, are attracted to light because they fly using a form of celestial navigation so they zero in on a light source and that keeps them flying in a reasonably straight line. It's an act of faith, I suppose ... inasmuch as moths are capable of having faith in anything.

Anyway, back in 1992, Bush was drawn to whichever light seemed to promise him guidance to victory in the election. I guess they were all dead ends or mere reflections of light (and not actual light sources) because Bush lost the presidency to Bill Clinton in a big way, and his party was reduced to a minority status that was almost identical to the one in which Republicans found themselves after the 2008 elections.

After Clinton took office, the hard times lingered. Despite different policies, improvements were slow. And, with the passage of time, Clinton — to use a phrase that has gained popularity in recent years — took ownership of the economy in the eyes of the voters. He insisted on reminding voters that he inherited the bad economy, but that point was irrelevant. Two years after Clinton was elected and Democrats took huge majorities in Congress, the voters handed legislative power to the Republicans.

Now, in terms of the numbers (of displaced workers, of sluggish economic performance, general severity, etc.), comparing the economy of the early '90s to the one facing this country today is like comparing tinker toys to steel girders.

But today's Democrats — and their leader, Barack Obama — have insisted on treating the steel–girder recession like it's the tinker–toy recession. Their words may have said one thing, but their actions have said something else.

Their actions — whether intended or not — have conveyed an inattentiveness to, an utter disinterest in the plight of the unemployed.

As I have mentioned on several occasions, Obama never said a word in public about unemployment on Labor Day weekend 2009 (when his approval ratings were still in the 50s), but he's been singing a much different tune in 2010, when those approval numbers have slid into the low 40s.

And, with polls showing Democrats on the brink of a hammering that may be historic in terms of its scope, he seems to be emulating "41" (as the elder Bush was affectionately known) by bouncing from one topic to another in what can only be seen as politically motivated moves.

In less than eight weeks, the American people will go to the polls. And Obama, in true George H.W. Bush style, has been indulging in his own "Message: I care" moments — i.e., this week's transparent push for new economic proposals — that are intended to mollify the voters until they've voted for the party in power.

Then the voters can be forgotten again.

I really have a hard time following the logic. A year ago, you might have been greeted with, at least, an incredulous look if you had suggested that the voters might be on the verge of giving legislative power to the party that has been in the minority since January 2007. But not so today.

Today, the conventional wisdom and the polls favor a Republican electoral wave in November that may well exceed the one that swept the Democrats from power in 1994.

The warnings seem to be everywhere — like that week in August 2005 when Hurricane Katrina was crossing the Gulf of Mexico or the post–9/11 claims from intelligence sources that the terrorists' electronic "chatter" was deafening in the summer of 2001.

The warnings have been out there for months.

Byron York writes about it in the Washington Examiner. York is a conservative, but I could hardly have expected a gentler treatment of the subject from anyone at the other end of the political spectrum.

"The American people don't expect Obama to perform miracles," York writes in describing the bewilderment of Republican strategists. "They know he inherited a mess. They don't think the unemployment rate will magically fall to 4.5 percent. But they do expect the president to devote himself completely to the economy, and they want to see signs of progress by election day. By 'progress,' they mean not just a good month but the clear sense that the economy is moving in the right direction.

"Instead, they got policy potpourri and 'Recovery Summer.' "

Conventional wisdom suggests that it is much too late for anything to happen domestically that could turn things around for the Democrats. When I was studying political science in college, we talked of how voters' attitudes tend to "harden" about five or six months before an election. In my experience, that has been true. It certainly seems to have been true in 1994.

Speaking of 1994, I learned from that experience. I've been a Democrat most of my life (until earlier this year, in fact). I've been studying voting trends most of my life, too.

I was a registered Democrat in 1994. And, frankly, the tsunami that washed over the country that year came as a shock to me, coming as it did only two years after Democrats won huge congressional majorities, as well as the presidency itself.

But, as I say, I learned from that experience. And one of the things I learned was that, when a president takes office in the midst of hard times, that president must address the issues that are of the most concern to the most people. Usually, that means encouraging job creation.

The president may not want to devote his time and energy to jobs. He may have grander ideas for his presidency. Most presidents, it seems to me, are driven by a desire to lead, but when times are hard, they must do what may be counterintuitive to them and follow — follow, for as long as it takes, the will of the people. Respond to their needs and concerns.

A president can't choose the times in which he serves, but he can choose how he handles the challenges of his times. And the nature of the times is almost always dictated by the state of the economy. Bad economies require a focus on pocketbook issues. If the voters don't get that from their leaders, they will choose new leaders.

If, in the last 20 months, the voters had gotten what York calls "the clear sense that the economy is moving in the right direction," they might have been more receptive to the things for which Obama clearly wants to be remembered. But they haven't gotten that sense.

"Wait a minute!" Obama's defenders say. "Isn't the president pressing a bold economic plan even as we speak?"

Yes. But York has a compelling response: "If these are such great ideas, why wasn't the president pushing them earlier?"

It's a fair question. And today, I can see no circumstances — other than an international incident — that can save Democratic lawmakers in November. Perhaps — by the sheer grace of God — they may be able to salvage either the House or the Senate.

I don't think they will be able to save both. I think they're more likely to lose both.

But unless they can save both, I expect a fight in Congress next year over the repeal of the health care reform package upon which Obama gambled his presidency. And a prolonged fight over health care reform is going to delay any efforts to encourage job creation.

Sure, you can find the Pollyannas of the Democratic Party, like Susan Estrich, who wrote, in a recent column for Creators Syndicate, that, no matter how grim things may seem, the Democrats do have a thing or two on their side.

Nevertheless, Estrich did feel compelled to give a disclaimer, "What all this means is not that Democrats will hold on to the House come next fall, but that they can."

Her experience as Michael Dukakis' campaign manager 22 years ago must have taught her the value of spin because she quickly added that "even if they don't, it hardly spells doom for the president. The one area where the gap between the parties is clearest is that of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm comes from activists and ideologues. Instead of attacking them, this president and his team have to remember to spend some time wooing them."

Is it just me, or does that sound reminiscent of Obama's attempts last year to appease the Republicans in Congress? Well, we all know how well that worked, don't we?

So, logically, it will work even better, now that it's the Democrats, and not the Republicans, who are on the ropes. Right?

That kind of logic reminds me of a monologue I saw David Letterman give on The Tonight Show before he became a late–night host.

In the monologue, Letterman observed that, if a patron complained about the quality of the food, the approach at many restaurants at that time was to bring that patron more of that item.

"If there's anything better than bad food, it's lots of it," Letterman said.

I guess, if you're going to apply that line to current political tactics, you could say that "if there's anything better than bad legislative strategy, it's lots of it."

Well, I guess you could say that if you're a Republican. Not if you're a Democrat.

If health care reform is repealed, the centerpiece of Obama's presidency will be gone with no chance to get it back before Obama himself must face the voters. Without health care reform, what will be the basis for his argument to be given another four years?

And if voters continue to get the sense that the economy is not moving in the right direction in 2011, as they almost surely will not if the administration must constantly engage in skirmishes on Capitol Hill over health care reform — the issue that won't go away and can't be resolved — Obama can forget about a second term.

It didn't have to be this way.

I've seen this coming. I've been warning about it on this blog since before Obama took office. I've seen other people warning about it, too.

But I've been increasingly frustrated by the dawning knowledge that today's Democrats are intent upon forgetting (or ignoring) the recent past.

I could understand their hesitance to take decisive steps that could at least mitigate the damage in a midterm election — which almost always goes against the party in power, anyway, but not always decisively, as seems likely this year — if they were farther removed from the last time the opposing party took control of Congress. In 1994, it had been 40 years since the last time Republicans were in the majority in both chambers.

Most, if not all, of the Democrats who lived through the flip in the 1950s were gone by 1994. They couldn't warn the new generation of Democrats.

But, in 2010, the Democrats are only 16 years removed from the last time that happened. Joe Biden was a senator for more than 30 years. He's seen presidents from both parties wrestle with hard times. He lived through the 1994 midterms. And, when he was in the Senate, he tended to be blunt about what was needed to reverse the tide. But he's been the enabler–in–chief as vice president.

They couldn't have forgotten so quickly, could they?

Apparently, the answer to that is a resounding "yes they could."

And, in 55 days, we will find out exactly how much they have forgotten.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Bad Times for the Enemies List

These haven't been good times for the folks on the infamous "Enemies List" of the Nixon White House.

Of course, it's been nearly 40 years since the existence of the list was made public, and many of the folks who were on the "Enemies List" are gone now. That's to be expected, I guess. Just about everyone who was on the list would have to be in their 70s or 80s now.

In fact, if you're too young to remember the Nixon presidency, the very existence of an "Enemies List" should tell you all you really need to know about Nixon.

There are a few additional details you might need to know. There were no professional restrictions on this list. On the list you could find an assortment of politicians, actors, athletes, captains of industry, journalists, etc. Anyone who ever rubbed Nixon the wrong way, it seemed, wound up on the list.

I've heard that Gerald Ford, the man who was chosen to fill the vice presidential vacancy after Spiro Agnew resigned (and wound up succeeding Nixon as president when Nixon resigned), once observed that "Any man who has to keep a list of his enemies has too many enemies."

Ford was ridiculed during his presidency for being not too bright, but you've got to admit he might have been on to something there.

Anyway, some of the folks from the "Enemies List" are still around, but the passage of time seems certain to take them with more regularity in the years to come — and that is what has been happening lately.

It's been a tough time for those in the media — something Nixon might appreciate. First, Daniel Schorr died in late July, and then three–time Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist Paul Conrad died yesterday.

I can't let Conrad's death come and go without making a few comments.

Winning one Pulitzer Prize would be the pinnacle of just about any journalist's career. Conrad won it three times, an accomplishment that almost no other cartoonist has been able to duplicate since the end of World War II.

When conservatives complain about a liberal bias in the media, they may have Conrad in mind. He was unapologetically liberal, and his political cartoons had a decidedly liberal slant. In fact, he was so liberal that it is said that he was most proud of being included in the list of Nixon's enemies.

He could draw most politicians rather well, but he seemed to have a special knack for capturing Richard Nixon. Maybe it was the shiftiness of Nixon's eyes, his hang–dog expression, the sagging quality of his jowls. Whatever it was, Conrad could nail it like no one else.

Robert McFadden of the New York Times recalled a fitting comment about Conrad:
"Conrad's name strikes fear in the hearts of men all over the world," the humorist Art Buchwald wrote, with echoes of the Shadow and Superman. "Where there is corruption, greed or hypocrisy, everyone says, 'This is a job for Conrad.' "

Hypocrisy and the Damage Done

If anyone confuses me with a George W. Bush supporter, I can only conclude that person
  • doesn't know me, or
  • hasn't read much in this blog.
Perhaps (or maybe that should be probably) both.

After all, Bush was still president when I wrote that his actions in office needed to be investigated.

I still believe that to be true, but, after revisiting that particular post, I feel I need to amend what I said — if only to make what I feel are somewhat obvious points about hypocrisy.

I'm not saying that Barack Obama was dishonest about his intentions in Iraq — but he has been, at the very least, inconsistent in what he has said.

On the surface, Obama appeared to be gracious toward his predecessor when he said, in his speech informing the public that he had fulfilled his pledge to end all combat operations in Iraq, "[N]o one can doubt President Bush's support for our troops, or his love of country and commitment to our security," and he went on to observe that "there were patriots who supported this war, and patriots who opposed it."

But there has long been a rising chorus in America of people who believed that the Bush administration (the president and all the others whose names will be forever linked to this tragedy) lied to the people to further its own agenda. And one of those voices had been Obama's.

In the now–forgotten days before the economic implosion, Obama's opposition to the war in Iraq and his desire to end American military involvement there was one of the main things that drew voters to him, not unlike Gene McCarthy's insurgent candidacy against LBJ four decades before.

It may be hard to remember now, but the campaigns for both parties' presidential nominations were conducted with the unpopular Iraq war as the backdrop, not the economy.

"There was no such thing as Al Qaeda in Iraq," Obama told an audience in Ohio during the 2008 presidential campaign, "until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq."

Hmmmm. Seems to me Obama was asserting on that occasion (and on others in the spring of 2008) that both Bush and McCain had been guilty of lying when they pressed Congress for the authority to invade Iraq.

After all, the primary reason for going to war (which has long been discredited) was the alleged existence of "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, weapons that supposedly were aimed at America, ready to launch at a second's notice. And those allusions to mushroom clouds from folks like Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, et al., drove that message home.

And, because Al Qaeda was such an emotional subject for most Americans in the months immediately following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the proponents of a war with Iraq tossed around the suggestion that Al Qaeda had used Iraq as a base of operations. That, too, proved to be false.

But, without those two arrows in their quiver at that time, the so–called neocons never could have frightened the American public — or the American Congress — into going along with them.

Lying about the reasons for launching an invasion doesn't seem very patriotic to many Americans — especially Americans who were passionate about their opposition to the war (and believed their opposition was a valid expression of their own patriotism) and yet were slandered as unpatriotic by those who supported the war.

How do you suppose they feel when they hear Obama praise Bush's "love of country" in connection with the Iraqi operation?

Does it seem hypocritical to you?

Hypocrisy isn't an easy thing to confront, is it? Of course, no one is perfect, but Eugene Robinson, an Obama enabler from the Washington Post who complains that American voters are petulant "spoiled brats" who are ready to turn over the Congress to a party they loathe because Democrats haven't produced improvements fast enough to suit them, frets that what voters appear all but certain to do in November makes no sense.

Actually, in the context of the American experience, it does make sense. At the very least, it is consistent. In the midterm campaigns of 1982 and 1994, respectively, both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton repeatedly reminded the voters that they had inherited bad economies.

And surveys showed that the majority of respondents agreed with Reagan and Clinton — but the voters had moved on. They weren't thinking about who started the fire. They were thinking about who had been chosen to extinguish the fire. And, in both cases, that had not been done.

Robinson doesn't think it is fair, and maybe it isn't. But what does fair have to do with it? It's the way American voters have behaved as long as I can remember. It shouldn't surprise anyone.

I'm inclined to think Robinson makes a valuable point when he says Obama can "point to any number of occasions on which he has told Americans that getting our nation back on track is a long–range project." Yet, in the very same column, Robinson admits that, when he was running for president, Obama's "campaign stump speech ended with the exhortation, 'Let's go change the world' — not 'Let's go change the world slowly and incrementally, waiting years before we see the fruits of our labor.' "

And that's the point. Obama raised the bar for himself by making "change" the centerpiece of his campaign. And his words had an urgency, an almost revolutionary sound, to them.

Now, not only is change coming too slowly for some, most can't agree on what kind of change the campaign was really about (and, therefore, the Obama presidency should be about).

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Obama campaigned under the banner of change, and change is what the voters expected. If the voters can't see it, that doesn't mean it hasn't happened. It might mean it isn't the kind of change they expected, or there hasn't been enough of it to make a difference in their lives.

It may well be true, as some have suggested, that some economic indicators are doing better and that this is a stubborn economy — and that, even though it will be years before most Americans see any change in their health care, it is a landmark achievement (that could well be repealed if the other party takes legislative power in a few months) — but real change, the kind that makes a positive difference in people's lives, is hard for many to see, especially when the latest report from the Labor Department showed unemployment moving back up in the direction of 10%.

Perhaps that explains why Gallup reports finding that less than 40% of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing on the economy. And, while Obama may be proud of passing health care reform legislation, he would be wise not to bring it up too much if Gallup is right. His handling of that issue is only marginally more popular than his handling of the economy (Gallup's finding, by the way, is confirmed by CNN polling, which tends to be more pro–Democrat than the typically neutral Gallup).

Some voters continue to take it on faith that the economy is getting better and blame the previous administration for all their difficulties, and Obama eagerly embraces that approach, as other presidents have.

But it just seems hypocritical to me that the same man who, in the days before his inauguration, urged his countrymen to look to the future instead of the past by investigating his predecessor's actions in office — who launched his presidential campaign with an eloquent plea for taking responsibility ("We've been told that our crises are somebody else's fault. We are distracted from our real failures and told to blame the other party, or gay people, or immigrants, and as people have looked away in frustration and disillusionment, we know who has filled the void") — now excuses his own failings by reminding people, at every opportunity, who was in office when the recession began.

And then he praises his predecessor's patriotism as he concludes a war that predecessor began.

This isn't exactly what I would call an "alternate history." If you're looking for something like that, may I recommend David Brooks' piece in the New York Times this week?

While his column rightfully could be considered an example of Monday morning quarterbacking, Brooks does suggest a plausible scenario in which the prospects for the midterm elections wouldn't be as dire for the Democrats — even if the employment numbers were fundamentally unchanged.

American voters may seem like petulant children to Robinson, but the lessons one learns from childhood do have a staying power all their own. They can continue to guide one's steps in adulthood.

And, while I may seem blase about the concept of being fair, I do understand that desire for fairness, justice and all that — and the bitterness one can feel when fair treatment has been denied.

I recall that, when I was about 6, I found myself in a situation in which the people around me were discussing something of which I knew nothing. I don't remember the specifics — or what I opted to do in that situation except that, whatever I did, it must have backfired on me because I felt compelled to discuss it with my mother.

(For some reason, I think this incident involved a discussion some of my peers were having about a TV program. But not everyone had a TV in those days, and it seems to me that, at the time, my family didn't have a TV set, so I knew nothing about TV programs. I probably felt left out of the conversation and decided to change the subject to something I knew about — resulting in a predictable outcome.)

Anyway, Mom told me there would be times in my life when the people around me would be discussing something in which I had no interest or knowledge to contribute to the conversation. In such situations, she told me, there were three things I could do. I could
  • ignore the feelings of those I am with and change the subject to something I feel more comfortable talking about,
  • try to contribute to the conversation, even though I have nothing to add to it, thereby embarrassing myself and wasting the others' time, or
  • be respectful of those who are talking and remain silent.
She told me the third option was the best. And, although I don't remember the specifics of the incident that led to this conversation, I still remember what she told me: "Show courtesy and respect for others, and wait your turn."

I loved my mother very much, and I always wanted to please her. I don't recall if her answer made sense to me at the time, but it made sense to her, and that was all I needed to know.

As I think back on moments from my childhood, it occurs to me that I accepted many of the things Mom told me on face value. I didn't always understand the things she told me or the advice she gave me — and, in that case, I may well have been equally influenced, even if I didn't realize it, by the admonition that supposedly came from Mark Twain that "It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt" — but if she believed it, I believed it, too.

I guess I should have asked more questions, though, because there have been times since Mom died when I have wondered if the sense of justice and fair play that she passed along to me might have been somewhat askew. Or maybe I've just applied her lessons wrong.

I know of at least one occasion about five or six years ago when I was having lunch with a group, and the women in the group were discussing something to which I had nothing to contribute. I don't remember now what the subject was, only that it was something I knew nothing about.

I was in a situation I had neither foreseen nor prepared for. I was also sensitive to traditional gender roles, and I was aware of the issues that always exist just beneath the surface, even if they aren't spoken out loud. I didn't want to trample on anyone's feet. And there were other factors at work as well.

So Mom's advice kicked in. I sat there in silence. I thought I was being courteous and respectful. Apparently, it wasn't taken that way. I say "apparently" not because any of the women in the group ever showed me the courtesy of telling me that my silence had been offensive to them in any way but because one of them told someone else — and he told me.

I've been paying the price for my "transgression" ever since. So much, I suppose, for the sense of fair play and justice in which I believed since I was a child.

Well, that's on a very small (albeit personal) scale. And it may not be entirely applicable.

Maybe I would have gotten the same response if I had said something stupid or insisted on changing the subject. Considering what I have long known of these people who have crucified me ever since for remaining silent, I was in a no–win situation. I believe there was nothing I could have done that would have been right in their eyes, even if I had had hours to carefully consider my options because nothing I have ever said or done has been right in their eyes.

I guess the moral for a president, who faces more demanding critics, is that there are times — especially when the economy sucks — when a president is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

Maybe it's like the moral I always drew from "Short Cuts," Robert Altman's film of several Raymond Carver stories that eventually intersect.

One of those stories dealt with a young boy who was hit by a car being driven by a woman who was distracted by her personal problems. The woman tried to persuade the boy to let her take him to his home, but he seemed OK and, because his mother had always told him never to accept a ride with strangers, he politely refused her offer and insisted he was all right.

But he wasn't. Apparently, he had severe injuries that became more and more apparent after he got home. He fell into a coma and was rushed to the hospital, where he eventually died. His parents spent virtually every waking moment by his side.

Meanwhile, a baker who had been commissioned to bake a cake for the boy's upcoming birthday grew angrier and angrier as the days passed and no one came to pick up the special order (and pay him for all his hard work). The baker, knowing nothing of what had happened to the boy, began making harassing, anonymous calls to the parents' home.

It's always seemed to me that the moral was that life would be a lot simpler and things would turn out a lot better if people knew the whole story before they jumped to conclusions (as neatly as such conclusions may fit their particular world view).

The baker probably wouldn't have made those calls if he had known the family was facing a crisis. And that crisis might have been avoided if the boy had realized that, when his mother told him not to accept rides with strangers, she didn't mean to turn down a ride from someone who has hit you with her car and wants to make sure you are all right.

For that matter, the driver of the car never knew the fatal consequences of her inattentiveness. She told her husband about the incident, but she believed it had been a narrow escape.

Anyway, the grieving parents put two and two together and confronted the baker about the phone calls. When he learned what had happened to the boy, he regretted making the calls and tried to do what he could to make amends for his behavior, offering them some of his freshly baked rolls. "You should eat something at a time like this," he said. And they accepted his offering, perhaps more as a courtesy than because they were hungry.

And the rolls were good. I haven't read all of Carver's short stories, but I have read that one — eventually, I'd like to read the others that were brought to the screen in Altman's movie — and it describes the reassuring flavor of the rolls and the soothing warmth of the kitchen. The parents had not asked for the rolls, but they were good and the parents were grateful for the baker's act of kindness.

But the baker couldn't give the parents the one thing they did ask for. When the mother asked if she could see the cake he had made for her son, he had to confess that he had thrown it away.

And maybe that really is the moral of the story.

Sometimes the damage is done. Sometimes it is too late to know the whole story — or for that knowledge to make a difference.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What Else Is On the Line?

Many people — too many, in fact — think the 2010 midterm elections are only about which party controls the House and/or the Senate.

To be sure, that is one of the critical things that will be decided in November.

But there are other races that, in their own way, could have a longer–lasting influence on American government.

I am speaking about the races for governor. The winners of those races may wield important influence for the rest of this decade in the form of congressional redistricting based upon the eventual findings from this year's Census.

Yet hardly anyone speaks about this.

Here are the facts:

In 36 of the 50 states, the state legislature is responsible for coming up with a plan for redistricting. Whatever plan the legislature comes up with must be approved by the governor in many of these states.

A few states leave the task of redistricting up to an independent commission. A couple of states let such a commission come up with a plan, which then must be approved by the legislature.

Currently, seven states have populations that are so small that they only have one at–large representative in the House — and, for them, redistricting is not an issue, unless the Census shows that one (or more) of those states has grown enough to qualify for a second House seat.

If that happens, it is possible that the existing legislature might have to draft and vote on a law that spells out how redistricting is to be done. It might be an entirely new experience for a state.

But right now, I know of no state that is thought to have grown so much that it would qualify for a second House seat.

The statehouses are almost split down the middle as we head into the general election campaign. Democrats are governors in 26 states, Republicans are governors in 23 states and one Republican–turned–independent is a governor as well.

Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball now predicts the Republicans will gain eight governor's offices, thus taking a majority just when redistricting for this decade is due to commence.

In last week's projection, the Rothenberg Political Report was only slightly more restrained, anticipating that Republicans will add 6–8 statehouses to their total. But, even if the GOP has to settle for the low end of that range, it still comes out to a projection that there will be more Republican governors than Democratic governors by next January.

Barack Obama and the Democrats appear to be focused exclusively on what will happen in the congressional races in November. And that is something about which they should be concerned. It's also a nice change from the somewhat smug state of denial in which so many Democrats seemed to exist until the ill–fated "Recovery Summer" proved to be anything but.

And now, I think, the reality of the magnitude of the losses staring them in the face has frightened many Democrats. The president, as his party's leader, must try to do what he can to minimize losses in the statehouses as well. It won't be easy, and he probably won't succeed. But he must try.

He won't like having to do it. In the last 20 months, Obama has proven to be as artless at governing as he was artful at campaigning. But he could be the outsider in 2008. As president he has often exposed himself as not really having a taste for the way the game of politics is played.

It's really too late now to be acquiring that kind of touch. But if he doesn't, he will pay a price for it in the second half of his term, and the tab will come due in November 2012.

He will probably have to pay that price no matter what happens between now and November. But what he does may well decide whether his successors must continue to pay for it as well after he has left the Washington scene.