Monday, February 28, 2011

The World Keeps On Turning But So What?

"So it seems that the world keeps on turnin' but so what
I don't doubt it, it just keeps on the move."

Little Feat

Barack Obama is going to be a one–term president — and deservedly so.

Some people will read that sentence and only one word will leap into their minds — racist.

But I defy anyone to identify anything that is racist about it.

It is based on the same assessment I would give to any president more than halfway through his term.

At this stage, frankly, my assessment is not good.

In more than two years of his "leadership," unemployment has gotten steadily worse — and Friday's report is likely to show a jump in the last month. Gas prices are higher than they have been since his predecessor's days and likely to get much higher. Food prices are following suit.

If people were going to the polls today and asking themselves Ronald Reagan's question from 1980 ("Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"), the answer would be a resounding "No!"

Not since Herbert Hoover has an American president, with the economy imploding around him, been so content to play Nero, fiddling while Rome burned.

The pain and suffering of millions of average, formerly hard–working Americans have been all but ignored by this president so he could have "teachable moments" or focus on reforming health care — it really seems absurd to have to say this because it oughta be obvious, particularly to someone who was once a community organizer and supposedly had to work with people who were down and out, but if you're out of work, whenever you do have a little money in your pocket, you're going to buy food or pay for whatever meager shelter you may have; you aren't going to worry about paying for health care.

This president does things backwards. You have to restore the working class before you begin tinkering with health care.

But he approaches things from the detached, theoretical perspective — as if conducting experiments in a laboratory.

I have long heard Obama compared to Dwight Eisenhower, and I have concluded that he is much like Ike in another way. Like Eisenhower, I believe Obama is simply out of touch with the needs and concerns of ordinary Americans.

Eisenhower, of course, was a general before becoming president. Mundane tasks were handled for him by others, both before and during his time in the White House.

Anyway, when Ike left the White House and went into retirement, so the story goes, he picked up a telephone to make a call for the first time. Before that time, an aide had always dialed the number and then handed the phone to Eisenhower when the party had been reached. But, on this occasion, Eisenhower had to do it himself. He picked up the receiver and then told whoever was with him that there was something wrong with the phone.

Eisenhower said there was a strange buzzing sound. When his companion picked up the receiver, he/she realized that what Eisenhower was talking about was the dial tone. He had been so shielded during his public life that he had never heard a dial tone before.

I'm sure Obama knows what a dial tone is. He was raised in a different time than Eisenhower.

But he's still like Ike. He's as remote from the suffering that goes on in this land as he can be.

Since taking office, he has behaved as if the rest of the universe will stand still while he, The One, tinkers with individual problems and nudges them along.

Of course, that isn't how things work — oil spills happen independently of whether the economy is good or bad, revolutions occur in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The world keeps on turning, and a president must be proactive, not reactive.

This president hasn't been. There is no sign that he will be.

And, while there has been some talk that he will drop his current vice president and put someone else (maybe Hillary Clinton) on his ticket with him in 2012, that isn't the correction that is needed.

This country needs a president who will be its champion, who will stand for what he believes because a big part of what he believes is that it is good for all.

Obama's defenders often say people should remember who was president when things turned sour and that people also should allow time for things to get better. They make a valid point.

But the voters need to believe that things are moving in the right direction. After four years of a presidency, they are entitled to that feeling.

After two years of this presidency, where is that feeling to be found?

Friday, February 25, 2011

People Power

It was called the "revolution that surprised the world," and it has been said that it inspired the movements that toppled Eastern Europe's Communist governments three years later.

I always thought it was a stirring sight.

Twenty–five years ago today, the Philippine Revolution of 1986 — more popularly known as "People Power" — effectively overthrew the corrupt government of Ferdinand Marcos.

It was a revolution, all right, one that installed a fresh, new leader in petite Corazon Aquino, whose husband had been murdered by Marcos' henchmen in August 1983.

But it wasn't really like the rebellion in Egypt. Marcos had been in power for a couple of decades, but, unlike Hosni Mubarak, he was driven from power by a series of nonviolent demonstrations.

Gandhi would have been proud.

That wasn't the astonishing part — well, not by itself. You see, Marcos was elected president in 1965 and then re–elected in 1969. He was prohibited by law from seeking a third term so, in 1973, he declared martial law via a presidential proclamation. He said civil disobedience was going up.

In the historical context, though, he hadn't seen nothing yet.

Marcos clamped down and ruled with an iron fist. Critics were arrested or killed. The country's constitution was abolished. Marcos and his wife embezzled a ton of money (Ferdinand died in 1989, but a few hundred charges are pending against Imelda in the Philippines) and enjoyed an opulent lifestyle while many in their country struggled to survive.

Anyway, martial law continued until the 1980s, when Marcos was re–elected for a third time.

And, through the early 1980s, Marcos resisted all attempts to remove him from power — including through the use of deadly force.

Yet, when the People Power Revolution occurred, he slipped away silently.

Under pressure from Washington, Marcos announced in late 1985 that a presidential election would be held in February. Aquino was urged to run by the opposition party, and she did. In fact, she won — according to the National Movement for Free Elections. But the Commission on Elections said Marcos won.

Nearly 30 of the Commission's computer technicians walked out in protest of the way vote counts were being manipulated to favor Marcos, a move that many believed at the time (and still believe today) sparked the nationwide civil disobedience that led to Marcos' departure.

The revolution changed the way things were done in the Philippines. Mrs. Aquino later said, "[O]urs must have been the cheapest revolution ever."

CBS' Bob Simon may have put it best: "We Americans like to think we taught the Filipinos democracy. Well, tonight they are teaching the world."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

When Presidential Politics Began to Change

Presidential politics began to change on this day 35 years ago, although no one knew it at the time.

Not even Jimmy Carter, and he is the man who was responsible for the change.

On this day in 1976, the people in New Hampshire went to the polls to express their preferences for president in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

Carter was but one of about half a dozen people on the Democratic ballot. Only two candidates — President Ford and Ronald Reagan — were on the Republican ballot.

New Hampshire, of course, was then, as it is now, the first state to hold a presidential primary, and all the hopefuls — the longshots as well as the favorites — came to pursue every possible vote. In modern times, New Hampshire's retail politics has both launched and destroyed presidential campaigns, and in 1976, until this day, most of the serious contenders for their parties' nominations were on the ground there, each hoping to be the one to catch lightning in a bottle.

Historically, however, presidential primaries were relatively rare prior to 1976. Delegates were still chosen via caucuses or in the old–fashioned smoke–filled rooms, where politicos made deals with no consideration given to their constituents' wishes. Before 1976, many primaries were nothing more than popularity contests.

When things got started in 1976, the three Democrats who were probably considered the front runners for the nomination were Sen. Henry Jackson, Gov. George Wallace and Gov. Jerry Brown. A fourth — Ted Kennedy — was probably the sentimental choice of many Democrats, but he declined to seek the nomination.

Carter made a point of entering every Democratic primary, taking his case directly to the people. He really had no choice. When the primary season began in 1976, he was virtually unknown nationally, even though he had finished ahead of five other rivals in the Iowa caucuses in January.

(People often think Carter won those caucuses, but he didn't. He finished second to "uncommitted.")

The Iowa caucuses really didn't have a lot of clout in those days — and that, too, I think is something that Carter changed because, as he had hoped, Iowa gave him some momentum — and he did go on to win the New Hampshire primary four weeks later.

There was talk at the time that the results might have been different if Jackson had entered both Iowa and New Hampshire, but he did not, and his victory in the Massachusetts primary the following week could not derail Carter, who won the next 10 primaries and, in essence, clinched the Democratic nomination in late spring.

With the nomination assured, Carter could take his time in selecting his running mate, a luxury that was rarely available to presumptive nominees prior to that time.

"If an instant choice had been required at that time," Carter wrote in "Keeping Faith," his presidential memoir, "it would have been Senator Frank Church of Idaho, or perhaps Senator Henry Jackson of Washington."

Jackson, however, might have caused problems within the party. His support for the Vietnam War had been divisive. Church would have caused no such problem.

Ultimately, of course, Carter chose Walter Mondale.

"I have always been thankful that we formed this partnership," Carter wrote. "He has sound judgment and strong beliefs and has never been timid about presenting them forcefully to me. But whenever I made a final decision, even when it was contrary to his own original recommendation, he gave me his full support."

The relationship between the president and the vice president would be forever changed by the Carter–Mondale partnership. Until they were elected in 1976, most presidents seemed to ignore their vice presidents.

But that, of course, was still in the future. On this day in 1976, it was far from clear who would be the Democrats' standard bearer that fall.

When I think of that day, I think of a ritual that I started the day before and repeated frequently that year with a dear friend of mine. I've written about her here before. I knew her as "Aunt Bess."

I had been visiting Aunt Bess on Wednesday afternoons for about four months when the 1976 presidential campaign got under way. She was old enough to be my grandmother, and she would listen to whatever I had to say as intently as any grandmother would.

Our Wednesday afternoons together were special for both of us. She would pour glasses of tea or Coke or whatever she had on hand, and we would sit and sip our drinks and talk for an hour or more on the issues of the day. If the weather was nice, we might sit outside. Other times, we would sit in her dining room, which was rather small but had the benefit of a large window through which we could watch the world while we talked.

Then, when our time was up, she would prepare to leave for church, and I would return home.

It is a memory that means a great deal to me now. I loved Aunt Bess very much. In fact, she and another good friend of mine, Phyllis (I've written about Phyllis here frequently since she died last August), were members of the same Baptist church in my hometown.

(Actually, the fact that they were both Baptists really isn't significant, I suppose. I was brought up in the Methodist church in my hometown, but the fact is that, then as now, Baptists far outnumbered any other religious group in Arkansas.

(When I lived there, it really wasn't possible to not have friends who were Baptists. Well, perhaps it was possible, but I know it wasn't easy. Can't say I ever tried to prove or disprove it, but I'm pretty sure it is so. More than three–quarters of Arkansans are Protestants, and half of them are Baptists. I don't know what the percentages were in Conway at that time, but they probably mirrored the rest of the state.)

By late February 1976, we had been talking about the presidential campaign for several weeks. We had both become Carter supporters since his strong showing in Iowa, and we both hoped a Southerner could win the nomination and the general election, but neither of us would commit to the idea that it was probable — or even possible.

In February 1976, Carter had generated some talk, but there wasn't much evidence, even after the New Hampshire primary, that he was anything more than the flavor of the month, the latest manifestation of the public's desire to sweep away the last remaining traces of the Nixon years.

Then, the day before the primary, I remember calling Aunt Bess on the phone and giving her my prediction for what would happen the next day.

I remember few specifics about my prediction — except that I correctly predicted who would win on each side. Carter's victory that day really wasn't a big surprise. He had been in the news after his showing in Iowa, and I predicted that he would receive about 30% of the vote. He actually got 28% of the vote, but that was clearly more than the runnerup, Mo Udall, got.

I was most proud, at the time, of my prediction in the Republican primary. President Ford and the GOP establishment were nervous about Ronald Reagan, and many believed Ford was vulnerable for a number of reasons.

It turned out they were right — but in the general election, not the primaries, even though Reagan did make things interesting, to say the least.

Prior to the primary, most observers said the GOP race was a tossup. I told Aunt Bess that Ford would win by a single percentage point — and he did.

In hindsight, though, I'm proud of something else. I told Aunt Bess that I thought Carter would be the Democrats' nominee — "and I think he'll beat Ford." I didn't mention it again, and I have seldom thought of it in years.

I still like to predict the outcomes of presidential primaries and elections. We still have one presidential election every four years, but there are a lot more presidential primaries than there were when Carter first sought the presidency.

And that is a major part of his legacy.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Musings on Popularity

"The 2010 Colorado electorate was a total outlier (67 percent with a B.A. or more), while Ohio was a near–microcosm of the national presidential electorate. Every Midwestern state for which exit polls are available looked pretty much like Ohio."

William Galston
The New Republic

Gallup reports that Barack Obama's popularity is down across the board.

His highest approval ratings come from Hawaii, where he was born, and Washington, D.C., two places that are about as secure for a Democratic presidential nominee as any in the United States. Hawaii has supported the Republican nominee twice in its 50 years as a state; D.C. never has.

For a president who is midway through a term that began with approval ratings well into the 60s, those are the only places that exceed 60% approval less than two years before he must face the voters again — and, as high as the approval ratings are for Obama in those two states (84% in D.C., nearly 66% in Hawaii), they're still lower than they were a year ago.

Thus, if this was Election Day 2012, Obama presumably could count on at least seven electoral votes, needing a mere 263 to wrap up a second term.

In fairness to Obama, several states are reporting approval ratings that exceed 50% — right now. That may or may not be true in November 2012, but right now New York, Delaware, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Connecticut, Illinois and Vermont give Obama approval ratings in the 50s — the state of Washington barely gives the president a majority.

(The flip side is that Obama's approval has dropped by more than 10% in seven of those states in the last year — and all the exceptions also report declines. If he keeps hemorrhaging support at that rate, many of those currently supportive states could be in jeopardy as well. )

If Obama carries all those states (most of which, it should be noted, are in the Northeast), that would result in a total of 144 additional electoral votes. With the ones from Hawaii and D.C., Obama would have 151 electoral votes — but that still leaves him needing 119 to win. Where will they come from?

That brings me to an intriguing article by William Galston in The New Republic about two possible campaign strategies for Obama — only one of which, he says, can succeed.

But, before I get into that, let me point out that those states currently giving Obama majority approval in Gallup's survey are states that have been inclined to support the Democratic nominee in recent years. The last time a Democrat did not carry California, Illinois, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware or Maryland was in 1988. New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Washington last voted Republican in the Reagan landslide of 1984.

Anyway, back to Galston's article.

He starts off by observing that, in presidential politics, the economy tends to trump everything else — and, with unemployment still staggeringly high, gas in the $3–plus range and food prices surging, it seems all but certain that the economy will be the dominant topic in next year's election.

A whole bunch of things could happen between now and November 2012, Galston concedes.

"The economy could over– or under–perform current projections; the Republicans could choose a nominee who's too conservative or lacks credibility as a potential president," he writes.

"But it's more likely that both the economy and the presidential nomination contest will yield results in the zone where strategic choices could prove decisive. In that context, two recent events are alarming, because they offer clues to what may well become President Obama's re–election strategy."

One of those events, Galston says, was David Axelrod's remark that Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet's triumph in last fall's Colorado Senate race was "particularly instructive."

The other was the choice of Charlotte, N.C., over places like St. Louis, Minneapolis and Cleveland as the site for the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

These two events, Galston says, "focus more on the Democratic periphery — territory newly won in 2008 — than on the heartland, where elections have been won and lost for the past half–century."

This, he says, has the potential to be "a mistake of epic proportions" because the U.S. has much more in common with Ohio than Colorado.

True, Obama carried Colorado in 2008, but it was the second time in the last 15 presidential elections that Colorado was in the Democratic column. It may occasionally elect Democrats to statewide offices, but it remains, at heart, a red state, and I believe it is a longshot to support the president's re–election campaign.

After all, Colorado voted for Bill Clinton in 1992, but it opposed his re–election in 1996.

And I wouldn't necessarily say that there was anything especially instructive about the Senate race in that state. Republicans nominated a terrible candidate; even so, a shift of 15,000 votes (out of nearly 1.8 million) would have altered the outcome, and many people believe the candidate who lost the GOP nomination, the state's lieutenant governor, would have captured the seat.

In what was clearly a Republican year, Democrats really dodged a bullet in Colorado.

What's more, Galston observes that (according to Gallup) people who lean Democratic or identify with Democrats have declined in every state since 2008.

"The median loss was 6.1 percent," he points out. "And every Midwestern state was at or above the median."

(That includes an 8.2% drop in Obama's home state of Illinois.)

The Democrats' base is shaky at best.

"The Midwest is home to large numbers of white working–class voters, who accounted for nearly 40 percent of all voters nationwide in 2008," Galston writes. "Obama has never done very well with this group, losing them by 2 to 1 against Hillary Clinton in the primaries and by 58 percent to 40 percent against McCain in the general election. And they turned against Democratic candidates in the vast majority of 2010 House and Senate races."

Thus, those 151 electoral votes are not exactly in the bag yet. And, even if they are, I ask again, where will Obama get the other 119?

Then 10 states with the highest disapproval rating for Obama — Wyoming, Idaho, West Virginia, Utah, Oklahoma, Alaska, Kentucky, Montana, Arkansas and Kansas — all voted for John McCain in 2008. They also voted for George W. Bush twice.

If Obama asked me for my advice, I would tell him to avoid spending much time or money in any of those states. But my guess is that this was already going to be part of the plan. It wouldn't be much of a change from last time, though, since he spent little to no time or money in any of them in 2008.

Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia last voted for a Democrat in 1996. The others haven't voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Gallup says Obama's approval rating in Colorado is currently 45%, approximately the same as Texas and below Mississippi and Georgia, three states with large minority populations that haven't voted for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter 35 years ago.

Obama's 2008 triumphs in places like Florida, North Carolina and, especially, Virginia raised some eyebrows, but they were clear exceptions to the rule in the South. With Obama's popularity sinking, I doubt that he can expect to retain them, particularly if Republicans nominate a strong candidate next year.

(That might not be imperative. Gallup recently reported that Obama is running even with a generic Republican nominee.)

Back to the question. Where ya gonna get those 119 votes?

Well, let's go back to that strategic question posed by Galston, the tug–o–war he sees between Colorado (and the recently acquired territory) and Ohio (and states that have been voting primarily for Democrats for the last 20 years).

Apparently based only on political considerations, he favors an agenda that is directed at the working–class white, modestly educated voters in Ohio as opposed to the more intellectually inclined voters in Colorado.

Some folks would say that is playing to the lowest common denominator, but Galston thinks it makes sense — and so do I.

Obama swept the Midwestern states by generally wide margins two years ago, but Gallup's numbers show him in a precarious position there.

If approval ratings are any guide, only Illinois would be likely to vote for Obama today. Michigan (49% approve) would be close; so would Minnesota (48%) and Ohio (47%), but Indiana (44%) appears poised to resume voting for Republicans. Barring a dramatic development, I think you'll see Indiana voting for the GOP nominee next year.

The Democrats' decision not to hold their convention in St. Louis may have been a wise move. Now, personally, I love St. Louis, but I don't think Obama can win the Show–Me State, where only 41% approve of his performance as president. There wouldn't have been much to gain there.

Well, he didn't win Missouri last time, anyway. And he did win North Carolina. That is true, but I don't think he will be able to hold North Carolina, even with the convention being held in Charlotte.

What about the other states that voted for Obama?

Those states are torn. If Monday had been Labor Day 2012 instead of Presidents Day 2011, Obama would have had a lot of ground to make up and not a lot of time to do it. His biggest problem is that this is not confined to a single region. It's all over the map — New Mexico's approval is 49%. Nevada's is 47%. Oregon's is 48%. So is Iowa's. Pennsylvania's is 46%.

I guess 2011 will be the year Obama will have to earn his salary.

And a good way for him to keep earning that salary would be to do whatever he can help unemployed Americans start earning salaries, too.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

National Institute for Civil Discourse

In nearly two months, I haven't encountered anyone who believes that what happened in Tucson, Ariz., on January 8 was not a tragedy. We all seem to agree that it was.

But that, apparently, is where the agreement ends.

Some people have insisted on blaming the shrill political dialogue from the Tea Partiers and Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh — when, in fact, there is no evidence that the gunman was motivated by them in any way.

All evidence of that link seems to be circumstantial, but the proponents of that particular theory are loathe to let it go. Consequently, plans for a National Institute for Civil Discourse were announced Monday by the University of Arizona.

Stephen Stromberg of the Washington Post observes that the idea was "[i]nspired by the debate that surrounded the shooting" and points out that former presidents from both parties, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, will be co–chairing, similar to (I presume) their service following Hurricane Katrina.

Stromberg, incidentally, wonders if a civility institute really is necessary — and he makes a legitimate point.

"Civility isn't that hard," he writes. "A fundamental rule in good opinion journalism is: Always try to consider an opponent's argument honestly, and accept that there can be principled takes on both sides of most debates, even if one seems unhinged to you. Mistrust people who are too sure of what they're saying — even if you're one of them. And, while you're doing all this, try not to compare your opponents to Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot unless they literally are Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot, respectively."

Stromberg is skeptical that a National Institute for Civil Discourse is what the situation calls for — and I tend to agree.

Granted, the Tea Partiers are good suspects if one is determined to find some sort of conspiracy behind the shooting in Arizona. Their rhetoric has been incendiary, and the shooting played right into the hands of those who have been warning that "this kind of thing" became inevitable when people started bringing guns to rallies and carrying signs that equated Barack Obama with socialists — let alone the ones that compared him to Hitler.

But I haven't seen a shred of evidence that the gunman paid any attention to the Tea Partiers. His act appears to have been inspired by his own twisted logic. Those closest to him have said repeatedly that he sympathized with neither the right nor the left, that he was, essentially, apolitical.

That seems to be irrelevant, though.

The Prescott (Ariz.) Daily Courier appears to have bought into the notion that whether the shooting was motivated by the political debate or not is not important. What is important is that "something good" comes from it.

As far as the Daily Courier is concerned, "something good" apparently is more bureaucracy wrapped in a package of workshops, programs, classes and research, all designed to tell people things they should have learned in grade school, if not kindergarten — Play nice. Wait your turn.

"Is it sad that it took a national tragedy and elementally named institute to remind Americans how to converse respectfully?" the paper asks. "Absolutely."

Nevertheless, it must be done — because (I suppose) the next shooting might actually be the result of the extremist rhetoric. And we must prevent that before it happens.

I suspect, though, that the target (if you'll pardon the pun) of the institute's efforts will be the right wing, not the left, which has been guilty of some extreme rhetoric of its own.

The main difference has been the right's blatant use of violent language and images. For the most part, the left has avoided that.

But it is far from guiltless.

In fact, as long as this institute is going to be a reality, I have a good place for it to start its work — Wisconsin, where pro–union protesters have been carrying some pretty extreme signs at their rallies.

Once again, I'm with Stromberg.

"Call me a pessimistic realist," he writes, "but I'm not sure more workshops are really going to help."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Destined for Greatness?

Art Linkletter used to say that kids say the darnedest things.

But those kids had nothing on some of the adults living in America today.

According to Frank Newport of Gallup, "Americans are most likely to say Ronald Reagan was the nation's greatest president."

I'm not trying to turn this into an English lecture, but it seems to me that sentence really should say Americans are more likely to name Reagan, not most likely.

To me, the latter implies a majority, and nothing resembling a majority picked Reagan. He actually got 19%, which was more than anyone else, but it was hardly a landslide.

The runnerup, Abraham Lincoln, was the choice of 14%. The third–place finisher was Bill Clinton with 13%. John F. Kennedy was fourth with 11%, and George Washington was fifth with 10%.

It was obvious a couple of weeks ago, when the nation observed the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth, that Americans generally respect the 40th president, but it's wrong to rank him the greatest president — even if you agree with everything he ever said in public — which I did not.

As I wrote here a couple of years ago, when C–SPAN released its rankings of the presidents, you have to give history a chance to catch its breath by allowing a president's actions some time to bear fruit.

"I would say that any presidency that ended in the last 20 years should not be considered," I wrote. "That would remove both of the Bushes and Bill Clinton from consideration, although the elder Bush would be eligible in the first survey that is taken after the next presidential election.

"Twenty years is an arbitrary figure, though. Based on my personal observation, it would be wiser to allow 30 years — thus giving history additional time to render its assessment. Using that yardstick, the Reagan and Carter presidencies would not be eligible for ranking this time."

Under that restriction, Jimmy Carter would now be eligible for consideration as the greatest president, but Reagan would not.

If it seems unlikely that Carter would be chosen as the greatest president in American history, consider this. Gallup reports that 1% of respondents did name him as America's greatest president.

For that matter, both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — the two most reviled presidents in my lifetime — got some support in the survey. Not much, but some.

Anyway, if that 30–year restriction was in place, then any folks who named Reagan, Bill Clinton, either of the Bushes or Barack Obama would have to choose someone else.

That would free up about two–fifths of the respondents — as it should. It's still too early to pass that kind of judgment on those five presidents — especially the incumbent because his administration is still in office.

How can we judge the effectiveness of his policies at this point, especially when his signature legislative achievement, health care reform, really will not begin to have an impact for a few more years? Yet 5% of the respondents chose him.

Remember the phrase "destined for greatness."

It seems to me that, if a man is going to be judged truly great, it will be revealed over a long period of time.

It is not achieved if one simply wins an election — or even two.

Nor is it gained through seductive oration.

It is a marathon, not a sprint.

Greatness truly is a destination.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Twisting Slowly in the Wind

There have been many tragic stories coming from Egypt in recent weeks, but the most tragic may well have been the report of the sexual assault and barbaric beating of CBS correspondent Lara Logan.

Reports of attacks on foreign journalists have been fairly common, but Caroline Glick writes, in the Jerusalem Post, that "the most egregious attack ... took place ... when ... Lara Logan was sexually assaulted and brutally beaten by a mob of Egyptian men."

I can't argue with that.

CBS, Glick goes on to say, "took several days to even report the story, and when it did, it left out important information. The fact that Logan was brutalized for 20 to 30 minutes and that her attackers screamed out 'Jew, Jew, Jew' as they ravaged her was absent from the CBS report."

Glick tells a tale of journalistic cowardice and misogyny that makes the attack on Logan seem virtually inevitable, and she begins her column with the bewildered questions that many people no doubt were asking after word of the attack began to spread:

"The Western media have been unanimous in their sympathetic coverage of the demonstrators in Egypt," Glick writes. "Why would the demonstrators want to brutalize them? And why have Western media outlets been so reticent in discussing the significance of their own reporters' brutalization at the hands of the Egyptian demonstrators?"

Such questions distract from the facts. This wasn't some kind of uncontrolled response to persecution. The mob wasn't angry about unfavorable representation in the media. What happened to Logan was a crime, and the people who were responsible should be treated like criminals. No one should justify their acts because their acts cannot be justified.

I am reminded of a scene from the Jack Lemmon–Sissy Spacek film "Missing," in which an American has disappeared during a coup in Chile and his father, played by Lemmon, and his wife, played by Spacek, try to find him.

Lemmon believes his son must have done something to lead to his arrest, and he keeps asking people to tell him what it was. Then a native scoffs at the idea. "You Americans," he says, "you always assume you must do something before you can be arrested."

"Isn't that the way it usually works?" Lemmon asks.

"Not here," the man replies.

And that isn't the way it works in Egypt, either. I've read many reports on the attack on Logan, and I have found not a single word that suggests that she was doing anything other than her job when she was attacked. Meanwhile, the men who did this to her have been protected, their faces blurred to hide their identities in broadcasts of videos showing Logan with her assailants just before the assault.

Here in America, there are still people who think a woman brings such an assault on herself, usually by dressing and/or behaving provocatively. But even if Logan was wearing a short, tight skirt and a low–cut blouse and grinning suggestively at the men who attacked her, that would not make what was done to her all right — by any stretch of the imagination.

Logan's attack presents an ugly picture, and it tells a twisted and shameful tale of media coverage in foreign lands. Many foreign journalists have been intimidated by their treatment in the Middle East, and they have been eager to avoid rocking the boat.

The absence of courage among Western journalists has been, to use the most charitable term possible, disappointing.

But what this says about the treatment of women is, if anything, even worse, because it isn't the kind of thing that is confined to Egypt or other places teetering precariously between freedom and repression. The subjugation of women is often tolerated in supposedly free nations.

In essence, journalists (who have always been willing to risk their lives to bring the news to their readers and listeners — but who could usually count on a certain amount of support and protection from their employers and governments in return) are being left to, in the words of Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, "twist slowly in the wind."

That may be an unfamiliar sensation for many journalists. But the women in their ranks have long felt that way in Egypt and elsewhere.

What happened to Logan may yet yield some good things because it shines the spotlight on the appalling treatment of women in Egypt. As Jeff Jacoby writes in the Boston Globe, "Perhaps the most shocking thing about the despicable sexual attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan ... is that to those who know Egypt, it wasn't shocking at all."

Nearly three years ago, the BBC reported that 83% of Egyptian women — and nearly all foreign visitors — had been subjected to some form of sexual harassment. The BBC called it "Egypt's cancer."

Mary Rogers wrote about sexual harassment at nearly four months ago.

While I'm on the subject, a good place to begin moving past the "socially acceptable bigotry" (in Glick's words) that is permitted to exist would be to start calling that attack what it was.

I don't mean to insert a note that is too frivolous for the subject, but I have long been a fan of the late George Carlin — and I particularly enjoyed his observations about language.

Carlin didn't care for euphemistic language. He said Americans had invented a "soft language" to help them avoid dealing with reality, and he was right. Sometimes, as he pointed out, the euphemisms were fairly innocuous — like saying "bathroom tissue" instead of "toilet paper." No harm, no foul, right?

But sometimes euphemisms are used to hide really ugly truths, and this case seems to be loaded with euphemisms like that.

If Logan was sexually assaulted (by approximately 200 men, I have heard) and the attack went on for 20 or 30 minutes, she was raped.

I know the Wall Street Journal disagrees with that. The Wall Street Journal, quoting an unnamed source, insists that she was not raped. But could such a thing really be possible?

"Sexual assault" sounds like it was not as bad as it almost certainly was. It makes it sound like it involved everything but penetration (which wouldn't be particularly good, either, but some people could use that distinction to minimize what happened).

It sounds to me like the attackers were in a frenzy. How many blows would have been required to render Logan unconscious and then strip the clothes from her body? Are we supposed to believe that her attackers suddenly stopped after fondling Logan and said to each other, "Stop! We can go no farther. We are already guilty of sexual assault. If we go past this point, it will be rape."

Let's call it what it was — rape.

Even if, technically, only one of Logan's attackers committed the rape. Or two. Or three.

Wouldn't anyone who stood by while someone else committed a rape be guilty of, at the very least, being an accessory?

I'm not a lawyer, and I don't know the fine points of the law so I could be wrong. But it would be consistent.

See, "sexual assault" is rather broadly defined and is often used interchangeably with "rape." But "sexual assault" could mean a lot of things.

"Not all sexual harassment is physical," Jacoby writes. "[B]esides groping women's bodies, grabbing at their clothing, and indecent exposure, it can also include blatant ogling, sexual catcalls, and stalking."

And, for the "I'm–too–sexy–for–my–shirt" naysayers, Jacoby has this: "More than half the Egyptian women reported being molested every day. And contrary to popular belief, most of the victims were wearing modest Islamic dress."

Different jurisdictions have different definitions for rape — or statutory rape. And they don't necessarily have to include intercourse. Even if Logan was not violated (which I still find doubtful), her assailant(s) could be charged with rape.

The sight of Egyptians protesting against their corrupt government certainly was stirring for many pro–democracy types, including those who aren't especially worried about whether freedom really is inclusive.

But, as Miranda Devine writes in Australia's Herald Sun newspaper, a free Egypt will mean nothing to its women ...

... And it will mean even less to its foreign visitors.

Surely, there must be some way for justice to be served — and for Egypt's newfound freedom to have real meaning.

Let's stop hiding behind words. Let's say what we mean and mean what we say.

And let's take a resolute stand against this kind of behavior, wherever we find it.

Life Expectancy and the Oscars

They'll be handing out the Academy Awards a week from tomorrow.

Ordinarily, I suppose, that would be a topic I would address at my Birth of a Notion blog. That's where I usually write about entertainment–related subjects.

But I want to write about it here because what I have in mind sort of transcends the entertainment boundary.

Last August, Katie Hafner had an intriguing piece in the New York Times about a University of Toronto researcher, Donald A. Redelmeier, who has done some fascinating work in the last couple of decades and has come to some thought–provoking conclusions ...

... One of which suggests that the winner of an Oscar is likely to live longer than the runnerup.

If you'll permit me to digress for a few moments ...

It all reminds me of a study I read once in Parade magazine, the Sunday supplement that was always included in the Arkansas Gazette when I was growing up.

Anyway, this study spoke of what a man killer the presidency was. It presented case history after case history of former presidents who died within a few years of leaving office. The stress of the job apparently was considered a leading culprit.

It was logical and reasonable. It made sense to me.

But language and history have always been my strengths, not science, and I failed to take into consideration (as did the researchers who wrote the article for Parade) that most of the presidents who had served up to that time (which would have been around 1970) lived when human life expectancy was not nearly what it is today.

Many scientific discoveries that have permitted people to live longer, more productive lives had not been made when John Adams or Thomas Jefferson or James Madison held the highest office in the land — and yet each lived to be well over 80 years old.

Two centuries later, average American longevity is at least five years behind the lifespans of those presidents.

I have discussed this with friends over the years, and a few have pointed out to me that the stress factor may have become more pronounced for later presidents when international pressures and tensions (world wars, natural resources, religious and regional conflicts, etc.) became more prominent considerations.

In the first half of the 20th century, only one–third of the men who were president lived past the age of 70 — and two–thirds of the presidents who did not die in office died within 10 years of leaving of office.

Most people probably expect (or, at least, hope) to live more than 10 years after they retire. I'm sure Teddy Roosevelt (who was the youngest man to take the oath of office) expected to live longer than that, but he died nearly 10 years after leaving the White House.

The trend seems to be changing. In the last half–century — with the present exceptions of the incumbent president and two of the living former presidents — Lyndon Johnson was the last ex–president who did not reach the age of 70. Richard Nixon was in his 80s when he died. Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan were both in their 90s.

Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush are in their mid–80s and show no signs of decline.

The presidency doesn't really seem to be the man–killing job that Parade's researchers suggested. Sure, there are tensions and conflicts, but presidents also have access to state–of–the–art medical care. If a president so much as has a cold, he has a team of doctors seeing to his every need.

Thus, it seems likely to me that, even if a president serves only one term, he has had enough people monitoring his health factors that medical science will have all the information it needs to keep him going as long as possible.

(Redelmeier doesn't seem to have participated in any studies concerning presidential longevity, but he has done some research into the relationship between presidential elections and risk — and he came to the conclusion that more people die in car accidents on a presidential election day than usual — "which he attributes to increased traffic, rushed drivers and unfamiliar routes," writes Hafner.)

Of course, that doesn't mean an ex–president won't be afflicted with something deadly (and presently unpreventable). But recent evidence suggests that, if you or someone in your immediate family has been president, your health care is likely to be a lot better than just about anyone else's.

In that regard, people who are nominated for Oscars are more like the rest of us.

I don't really know what kind of health care plans actors or actresses or directors may have. My guess is that they have to provide their own health care coverage — for which they certainly have the resources, unlike millions of average Americans.

It's an individual choice so the quality of their health care coverage is sure to vary.

Redelmeier's reserch involving the Oscars apparently began around 2000 "when he was watching the Academy Awards and noticed that the celebrities on stage 'don't look anything like the patients I see in clinic,' " Hafner wrote. Redelmeier didn't think it had much to do with external things, like "the makeup and the plastic surgery and wardrobe.

"It's the way they move, it's their gestures. They seem so much more vivacious."

He found that Oscar winners live about three years longer than their runnersup.

That might go a long way toward explaining why Katharine Hepburn, a four–time Oscar winner, lived to be 96.

Of course, if nominations alone had been the determinant, he might well have reached the erroneous conclusion that, because Hepburn had been nominated 12 times for Best Actress, she was immortal.

Then again, that might be his conclusion about Meryl Streep, who has been nominated 13 times (16 if you count her three Best Supporting Actress nominations).

I'm still waiting for Redelmeier's conclusions on Oscar nominations.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Read His Lips

Echoing the words of the 41st president, Republican George H.W. Bush, [Boehner] added, 'When we say we're going to cut spending, read my lips: We're going to cut spending.'

Washington Post

Why do politicians insist on recycling phrases that have been discredited — in fact, have been ridiculed — over the years?

Just last fall, Barack Obama appeared on The Daily Show and said his economic adviser had done a "heckuva job."

That, of course, reminded everyone of Obama's predecessor's enthusiastic endorsement of his FEMA director in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — but even George W. Bush couldn't make that one fly and "Brownie," as Bush called him, was out the door a few days later.

Eventually, when the stories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are written, the Bushes may be remembered as foremost among the presidents for originating the kinds of phrases that future politicians would be advised to avoid if they wish to be taken seriously.

"Heckuva job" is certainly one of those phrases.

And so, too, is "Read my lips," originally a line from a Clint Eastwood movie that George H.W. Bush used, presumably because he wanted to project more of a macho image.

The elder Bush, as I'm sure many still recall, used "read my lips" as part of his promise to stand firm against tax increases — but that was a pledge he ultimately broke and for which he paid a political price.

(I always thought he was trying to emulate Ronald Reagan, who co–opted another Eastwood line — "go ahead, make my day" — in his promise to veto any tax increases.)

So I have to wonder about the judgment displayed by House Speaker John Boehner yesterday when he said, "When we say we're going to cut spending, read my lips: We're going to cut spending."

There's no doubt the stakes are high. As Kathleen Hennessey observes in the Los Angeles Times, "The prospect of a government shutdown loomed larger ... when Republican leaders ruled out the easiest path around a budget impasse and Democrats accused them of playing a dangerous game of chicken."

It seems to me that the language in this debate should reflect the seriousness of its high–stakes nature, but the speaker of the House chose to use a phrase that can only be linked to defiance, manipulation and broken promises on, essentially, the same issue. That's no way to build a consensus.

Those folks who remember when Bush said "read my lips" during his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican convention are bound to remember that, ultimately, his bravado meant nothing without sincere efforts to reach a compromise with the other side.

In Congress, Democrats held the upper hand when the elder Bush was in the White House. Today, power is divided on Capitol Hill, but the challenge is the same.

Then, as now, the situation called for leadership.

Not macho catch phrases.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Winning the Future

During his State of the Union address last month, Barack Obama spoke of "winning the future."

To most ears, it had a positive sound to it — even if Sarah Palin famously used the acronym WTF to describe her reaction to it (and it wasn't an abbreviation of "winning the future," either, the way that Gerald Ford's WIN in the 1970s was an acronym for "whip inflation now").

Palin, of course, is a divisive figure. When she is the topic of conversation, no one seems to be in the middle of the road. She always inspires strong feelings, either pro or con.

For that reason, I have long felt that she is not likely to be the Republicans' presidential nominee — in 2012 or, for that matter, any other year. She's kind of like Hillary Clinton. Her supporters really love her. Her detractors really hate her.

No middle ground. No room for compromise.

Palin's unfavorable ratings are just too high. To be as politically extreme as Palin and be nominated for — and go on to win — national office, you have to be likable, and she isn't. Palin may, at times, sound warm and fuzzy like Ronald Reagan, but, upon closer inspection, she comes across as cold and prickly like Pat Buchanan.

Obama is a different kind of politician, more inclusive in his words, less defiant in his actions. In 2008, I guess he always seemed to be cut more from the same cloth as the politicians who have been the traditional American leaders. He came across as someone who rose from humble beginnings — a latter–day Lincoln — and had a vision.

But, for all his talk about winning the future, Obama is not winning. He is running out of time. By this time next year, the New Hampshire primary is almost sure to be over, and the Republican front runner is likely to be anointed.

Obama is losing ground to that candidate, according to Gallup. A recent survey says Obama is running dead even with a nameless, faceless, generic Republican opponent.

At about the same time last year, when that question was asked, Obama led, 44 to 42. Now, they are tied at 45 to 45.

The big shift seems to be coming from the folks who said they were undecided. Last year, 11% of respondents said they were undecided. That number is down to 6% today, and the generic Republican picked up three times as many of the undecideds as Obama did.

When you break down the findings, it seems that Obama's support remains fairly constant among women and nonwhites, and his opposition remains equally constant among men and whites. But, while race and gender were often mentioned when Obama and Hillary Clinton were dueling for the nomination, they do not appear to be the crucial battlegrounds today.

Another component of his 2008 triumph was young voters, and Obama's popularity with them is clearly down. Young voters were unusually motivated to participate in 2008, and nearly two–thirds of them voted for the Democrat. Today, Gallup reports, barely a majority of young voters would vote to re–elect Obama.

How much of an impact will young voters have in 2012? Well, absent the kind of motivation that Obama provided three years ago — and absent an equally appealing Republican rival — my guess is that their participation rate will return to a more historically consistent level.

What may be even more worrisome for Obama is the trend among voters in the 35–to–54 age range. In 2008, Gallup says, Obama won 53% of the votes in that group. Today, only 43% say they will support his re–election.

That could be a problem for Obama because, unlike younger voters, people in that age range do tend to vote — at least in greater numbers than the young.

Voting, in fact, is something that people do more regularly as they get older. Thus, the older voters tend to be the more reliable ones. And maybe, in 2012, they will be motivated to support Obama because of his health care reform legislation (assuming it survives congressional repeal attempts).

If that proves to be the case, Obama may have the last laugh on all of us. Voters over the age of 55 only gave Obama 48% of their ballots in 2008, Gallup reports. Consequently, if health care reform is viewed favorably by older voters in 2012, a majority of them may support him for re–election.

But there is no indication that anything like that is happening. Only 43% of voters over the age of 55 support Obama against the generic Republican in 2012, Gallup says.

Poll numbers, of course, are fluid, like the approval ratings of which I wrote this week. And one thing that both should indicate is that presidents, with the "bully pulpit" of which Teddy Roosevelt spoke a century ago, have a certain amount of control over their fate — even when the midterm elections go heavily against them.

Gallup reminds its readers that, when a president is seeking re–election, the election is less a choice between two individuals as a referendum on the incumbent.

"That is not to say it won't matter whom the Republicans choose as their standard–bearer," writes Lydia Saad of Gallup, "but perhaps it matters slightly less than it would in an open election" like the one Obama won in 2008.

The voters' verdict has yet to be written, but time is short for Obama. To make a convincing case for a second term, he must preside over a clearly improving economy — and, as long as unemployment remains where it is and job creation remains as anemic as it has been, it will be hard to persuade voters that things are getting better.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bad Craziness

When I was a teenager, I was a fan of the Doonesbury comic strip.

I recall reading a strip once in which the Hunter Thompson–inspired character, Uncle Duke, in a clearly hallucinatory state, slumped behind something and muttered, "Bad craziness," while some sort of bizarre creature hovered over where he had stood in the previous frame.

I don't remember the details — and they aren't important, anyway.

But "bad craziness" is what came to my mind when I heard that gas prices have hit a 28–month high.

That is true in spite of the fact that, as Sandy Shore of the Washington Post reports, "[O]il and gas supplies in the U.S. continue to grow and demand for gas is weak."

It's the same through–the–looking–glass sensation I get when I look at the monthly unemployment report.

Earlier this month, we were told that joblessness went down dramatically. But the number of jobs created was not enough to keep up with the growth of the working–age population.

Mathematically, it doesn't add up — until you realize that only the people who are receiving benefits are counted. People whose benefits have expired aren't being counted anymore. They may still be unemployed — and, in this economy, they probably are — but they aren't being counted.

And bureaucrats can congratulate themselves on lowering the unemployment rate — when, in fact, they have done nothing to lower the unemployment rate.

Bad craziness.

Likewise, it is bad craziness for gas prices to be at their highest level since the fall of 2008.

One would be tempted to blame the unrest in Egypt for the price spike. But, as Shore points out, gas prices have been going up since November — predating the revolt in Egypt (which, nevertheless, has contributed to the regional instability that has traders worried about disruption of production and delivery).

And how's this for news? Gregory Karp of the Chicago Tribune reports that prices "aren't likely to go down anytime soon."

Bad craziness.

Presidential Business

"A close reading of Obama's speech ... to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce allows you to conclude pretty much whatever you are inclined to conclude about his actual view. And that tells you a great deal about the current phase of his presidency."

E.J. Dionne
Washington Post

E.J. Dionne has an interesting analysis of the president's recent remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

And, essentially, his conclusion is that the Barack Obama of 2011 really wants to be the Barack Obama of 2008.

He wants to be, as I have written here before, all things to all people — or, as Dionne puts it, "an effective Democrat to Democrats and a post–partisan to post–partisans."

Actually, that all–things–to–all–people shtick is hardly new. Presidents and would–be presidents have been trying to pull that one off for a long time, with varying degrees of success.

But that is an easier case to make when one is out of power than when one is in. Obama the Outsider could pull it off because he had no record to speak of.

Obama the Incumbent has a record. Obama the Incumbent has had to make choices. He has often made them timidly because, when you get right down to it, he does not really want anyone to be hurt by a decision he must make, but therein lies the problem. It is the nature of government to make choices that favor the interests of the many over the interests of a few.

Folks tended to recoil at Timothy McVeigh's use of the phrase "collateral damage" because they knew that, in his case, "collateral damage" meant all the innocent victims, especially the children, of his bomb in Oklahoma City.

And that, truly, is a vile image.

But, whatever one may say or think about McVeigh, it cannot be disputed that he understood the laws of nature. For someone to gain, someone else must lose.

It doesn't seem fair, but that is the way it is with everything — including public policy.

Obama often tries to cushion the blows from his policies. He talks a good game but pulls back if it appears someone will be hurt. It's an empathetic quality in him that some voters clearly find endearing — and it often is, I suppose, when it is found in a senator or a congressman.

But a president cannot be that thin–skinned. The buck must stop on his desk.

After more than two years in the White House, I would have thought that Obama would understand better by now that a president can't be a community organizer. There are down sides to decisions, and presidents must accept that.

Every decision a president makes is going to hurt someone, and calling for sacrifices is rarely a popular thing to do because people don't want to give up things. But most voters recognize that Obama walked into some quicksand when he took office, and it's going to take awhile to get out of it.

They just want to believe that things are moving in the right direction, and that has been a hard sell with all of the economy's fits and starts.

Obama may not want to mention the specifics, but his foes certainly will, which is sure to put Obama on the defensive.

That isn't good for a president who wants a second term.

This is the time in a president's first term when his focus should start to turn to his intentions in the next election. He is past the midterms now and must view his every move, every statement in political terms.

His opponents, of course, have been doing that all along. If Obama thought he was under a microscope for the last two years, well, he ain't seen nothing yet. Now, his every move, every utterance will be dissected endlessly by opportunistic Republicans who seem to be lining up for a shot at him like the armed passengers waiting their turns to beat the hysterical woman on "Airplane!"

As I'm sure you've heard, Obama's approval ratings have been on the upswing of late. Earlier this month, FOX News reported Obama's approval rating exceeded 50%. That's a few points higher than he got from Gallup a few days later.

Based on that, many Democrats claim that Obama, whose prospects for 2012 seemed doubtful at best following the hammering he took in the midterms, is on the rebound and is all but sure now to win a second term.

But this renaissance that Obama allegedly is enjoying may well turn out to be temporary, fueled by the contradictory economic report that said unemployment fell last month even though the economy generated far fewer jobs than are needed just to keep pace with the increase in the working–age population.

Obama is in the third year of his four–year term. That is a critical time for a first–term president. Where have other first–term presidents stood at this stage, and what did it mean?
  • George W. Bush was reviled at the end of his presidency, but, in February 2003, just before launching the invasion of Iraq, Gallup reported that his approval rating stood at 58%.

  • Bill Clinton, who is frequently cited as a Democratic role model for bouncing back from losing both chambers of Congress in 1994 to winning re–election in 1996, had an approval rating in Gallup/CNN/USA Today that was almost identical to Obama's — 47% — in February 1995.

  • George H.W. Bush, who was defeated for re–election by Clinton, was riding a wave of Gulf War popularity in February 1991. Gallup reported his approval rating at that time was 80%, but it went into a steady decline shortly thereafter.

  • In February 1983, Ronald Reagan, the icon of American conservatives, was beginning to emerge from what turned out to be the lowest approval ratings of his presidency.

    For a brief time after the midterms, his popularity dropped below 40%, but, that February, Gallup said 40% of respondents approved of the job he was doing.

    And his presidential popularity never dropped below 40% again, even when the Iran–Contra affair dominated the news.

  • In September 1978, Jimmy Carter brokered the Middle East peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, and that may well have lifted his party to a stronger performance in the midterms than might otherwise have been the case.

    Anyway, by February 1979, the bloom was off the bush. Islamic extremists sparked a revolution in Iran that would lead to the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran later that year, and Carter, who had enjoyed approval ratings in the 60s and 70s in the early days of his presidency, slipped below 40% for the first — but not the last — time in Gallup's survey.
If anything is clear from recent history, it is that presidential approval ratings mean virtually nothing when it comes to a president's re–election prospects.

If they did, Reagan and Clinton almost certainly would have been one–term presidents — and George H.W. Bush almost as surely would have swept to a second term, perhaps becoming the first to carry all 50 states.

There is, though, a certain predictive quality to presidential approval ratings — even if it seems to take on the aura of a self–fulfilling prophecy sometimes.

Based on his approval rating at this point, for example, Carter wouldn't have been expected to be re–elected — and he wasn't.

And the younger Bush would have been expected to win a second term — which he did, but not by the landslide proportions that the approval ratings of February 2003 would have anticipated.

The only conclusion one can draw from approval ratings at this point in a presidency is that there is still much work for the president to do. His fate is still in his hands. What he chooses to do this year will have a lot to do with what happens next year.

The business of America, Calvin Coolidge famously said, is business.

And that, it seems to me, is the unmet challenge of the Obama presidency. Unemployment numbers are misleading. There is no real sense that the economy is improving. Gas has been flirting with $3/gallon again. Food prices are on the rise.

The business of America in the early 21st century is putting Americans back to work — and I've been reading a fascinating column by David Brooks of the New York Times that speaks of values.

Brooks has been reading a book that says that "until sometime around 1974, the American economy was able to experience awesome growth by harvesting low–hanging fruit ... [b]ut that low–hanging fruit is exhausted," in large part because "many of this era's technological breakthroughs produce enormous happiness gains, but surprisingly little additional economic activity."

We're not creating wealth.

The president's business in 2011 is to do everything in his power to encourage job creation.

If he is successful in 2011, I expect he will be successful in 2012.

If he is not successful in 2011, I have serious doubts about 2012.

As much as Obama's followers would like to make Republicans the scapegoats for whatever happens (or doesn't happen) this year, the choice is really up to him.

He is the president.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The White Stuff

We're enduring another round of winter weather here in north Texas.

Dallas looks a lot like it did last week, with freezing rain and a little snow.

An acquaintance of mine posted this on Facebook today. It kind of sums things up.

There were a lot of people who complained about the terrible weather we had here in the days just before Sunday's Super Bowl.

A Super Bowl should always be played in a warm–weather city, they said. Well, good luck finding one that also happens to meet the NFL's requirement that a city cannot host a Super Bowl unless it also has an NFL franchise.

Fact is, this is pretty unusual weather for Dallas. I've lived here for most of the last 22 years, and I visited here on a regular basis when I was a child — and on rare occasions it does get cold and it does snow, but mostly what we get around here when it gets cold is ice.

We don't get that much of it around here, anyway. Besides, the weekend before the Super Bowl was balmy.

That's the kind of thing people are accustomed to around here. The weather can change in the blink of an eye — except in the summer, when it rarely deviates from "hot" and stays that way from April to October.

The people from Pittsburgh and Green Bay who were whining about Texans' "wimpy" responses to the winter weather need to come down here sometime in the summer — when the temperature is over 100°.

They'll find that most Texans are accepting of the heat. They expect it every year. They may not like the high utility bills or having to get in cars that have been sitting exposed to the summer heat all day, but it doesn't catch them by surprise. It's part of the bargain they made when they decided to live here.

But ice and snow wasn't part of that deal. That's why all those Packer fans and Steeler fans found there were no snow plows around here to make it easy for them to get around last week. Snow plows would be an unconscionable waste of public funds — and that is in the best of times.

It has been said that Jerry Jones wants to bring the Super Bowl back to Dallas for the 50th anniversary in February 2016. It has also been said that many folks want to play that game in Los Angeles. That is where the first Super Bowl was played, and L.A. is, after all, a warm–weather location.

But L.A., once home to two NFL franchises, is now home to none. Either an existing franchise will have to move there, or a new franchise will have to be created there — or the NFL will have to change its own rules.

And even if the NFL does change its rules, there are very few American cities, even L.A., that can promise mild, sunny weather in February. The best any can do is to point to the historical trend and claim that the odds favor one thing or another — and that trend in Dallas has generally favored mostly mild conditions.

But anything can happen here, as the cartoon above clearly illustrates. Texans know that. That's why they can sit back and chuckle about a Super Bowl that didn't produce the kind of economic windfall they expected because the weather turned nasty.

That's Texas for you, they're surely saying today. The temperatures were really nice the weekend before the Super Bowl. If everything had been done a week earlier, it would have paid off the way everyone hoped and expected.

Texans have reputations for being gamblers, and I suspect that most would understand what a friend and former co–worker (and frequent gambler) used to say about sure things.

There's no such thing, he would say, as a sure thing. That's why they call it gambling.

Scheduling a Super Bowl in north Texas was a gamble — weatherwise.

I'm sorry if it disappointed our visitors from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. I would have liked to oblige them by providing them with sunny skies and warm temperatures during their visit, and, as I say, if everything had been held a week earlier, we could have.

But the weather turned on us. It was one of those Texas things.

All things considered, I'll take the winter we're having over the one they're having.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

In Honor of Groundhog Day ...

Did you ever see the movie "Groundhog Day?"

Of course you did. I guess that's sort of like asking if you ever saw "Forrest Gump" ... or ... "Titanic."

Anyway, since you almost certainly have seen "Groundhog Day," I'm sure I won't have to mention the general theme of the story — but I will anyway.

The star, Bill Murray, kept living the same day (Groundhog Day) over and over again.

Shoot, the idea has almost become a cliche. If you mention "Groundhog Day" to anyone, it's practically code language for experiencing a really bad sense of deja vu.

Locally, we've taken that concept to new extremes lately.

The icy weather we've been experiencing this week apparently has put an excessive demand on the state power grid. To keep from having total blackouts, so–called "rolling blackouts" were initiated.

I knew nothing about this when the first one occurred in my neighborhood. It came shortly before 6 a.m. I was still in bed, and there wasn't much noise or light in my apartment at that hour so my first indication that anything was different was when I woke up and realized I felt cold. I looked at my clock, and the digital numbers were not illuminated — and right away I knew the power was off.

I was searching in the dark for a flashlight when the power came back on about 20 minutes after it went off. I fixed some breakfast and watched the national news. The apartment was warming up again — and the power went off.

It came back on about 20 minutes later, and I immediately checked some local news sources. That was when I learned about the rolling blackouts.

In a way, it was a relief.

I've been living in these apartments for more than 10 years now, and we've had our issues with the utilities. In all fairness, it isn't always a complex issue; sometimes it is the provider's fault. My point is that it is a recurring theme.

Last March, for example, early on a Sunday morning, someone apparently ran his/her car into the power station that serves my apartment complex, and power was cut to all the customers who were served by that station.

Snow had been falling for about an hour before the accident. I never heard whether the snow contributed to what happened, but I have a pretty good idea that it did. All I know is we got a ton of the stuff that day — extremely unusual for Dallas, Texas.

I tried repeatedly to reach someone at my apartment complex office, but no one was in the office. The power was off all day, and residents couldn't contact anyone.

There have been other episodes like that, and I wasn't anxious to repeat them, but the knowledge that these rolling blackouts were happening everywhere was reassuring. It meant that the fault wasn't with the apartment complex and it wasn't with the provider. It seemed more like an act of God.

After awhile, though, I began to feel like Bill Murray, looking for new ways to make the most use of the hour of power that I would get before being plunged into a comparatively brief period of nothing.

There is talk that there will be more of these rolling blackouts tomorrow. Local temperatures are not expected to rise above the mid 20s.

Makes me nostalgic for those days when temperatures around here were in the 70s. Was it only last weekend?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

My Street Becomes an Ice Rink

Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

This was the scene in front of my apartment a few minutes ago.

Just to set the stage for you, we got rain, freezing rain, sleet and snow here in Dallas starting early this morning and continuing until a little while ago. Even now, we're getting some blowing snow, but the snow isn't as heavy as it was.

Snow isn't the problem, though. It never really is. There are times when snow is a little slippery, and that keeps it from being a very pleasant experience, but ice is never a pleasant experience, whether you're walking on it or trying to drive on it.

It's deceptive, too. The pavement may look all right until you're on top of it — then, you quickly discover that it isn't all right, after all.

And neither are you. If you're on foot, you are apt to find yourself going from vertical to horizontal with no warning. And if you're behind the wheel, you may find yourself spinning out of control.

Apparently, some seemingly clear spots deceived some drivers on my street. None of the vehicles in the above picture were in motion.

It doesn't look like we're going to get above freezing around here for a few days, which means anything that is slush when the sun goes down will turn to ice overnight. Driving could be pretty hazardous.

Stay tuned for future developments.