Saturday, February 28, 2009

Obama To Nominate Kathleen Sebelius For HHS

The Washington Post, as well as other news sources, are reporting that Kansas Governor, Kathleen Sebelius has accepted President Obama's invitation to be nominated as Secretary of Health and Human Services. In many ways, Sebelius is an attractive and compelling figure. A reformer from a conservative state, with family ties to both parties and a reputation for facilitating bipartisan consensus to enact progressive change. Sebelius was an early Obama supporter during the 2008 primary season and is eminently qualified for the position.

She's no Howard Dean, whom netroots liberals like myself prefer, conservatives loath and White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel despises. Thankfully however, she's also nothing like Tennessee Governor, Phil Bredesen, who is opposed to meaningful healthcare reform. Liberals of all stripes, including me, would have revolted had Obama nominated Bredesen instead.

Nonetheless, I disagree with picking Sebelius because she also happens to be the only Kansas Democrat with a chance of winning a senate seat in 2010. Republican incumbent Sam Brownback had previously announced he wouldn't seek re-election. A Democrat of Sebelius's stature could have a real chance to win this open seat.

As we have already seen with the stimulus debate, it is imperative that Democrats achieve a filibuster proof majority of sixty seats. Hence, Sebelius would better serve the cause of healthcare reform by staying home and campaigning for Brownback's open seat. I have to believe there were choices other than Sebelius, who support meaningful healthcare reform without being politically radioactive like Howard Dean.

The cause of healthcare reform is ill served by removing candidates who can pickup red states. Democrats may regret this pick if Obama's coattails are diminished during the midterm elections next year.

Obama The Fighter

Earlier this week, I did not jump on the bandwagon following President Obama’s nationally televised speech. As speeches go, it further reinforced the growing stature gap between Obama and the Republican Party’s insipid indecency as illustrated by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Nonetheless, my immediate reaction Tuesday evening was ,
“Obama's words and presence illustrated why I personally admire him but the substance of his administration's soon to be released budget are more important than this single speech. I still get a clinical thrill from observing how Obama's speeches impact others but I want to read the fine print of his budget proposal.”
Well, we’re still awaiting the fine print to be released in the spring. In the meantime, the administration has released an encouraging blueprint. Their 142 page outline, combined with this morning’s weekly address (access the video above), suggest the conciliatory Obama from the stimulus debate has been benched in favor of a pugnacious liberal.

John Edwards could have drafted today’s weekly address and Obama’s proposed budget offers a transformational paradigm shift. From cap and trade with respect to carbon emissions to setting aside $634 billion for healthcare reform, there is much to like about this budget from the liberal perspective. Even better, Obama threw down the gauntlet with today’s weekly address when he said,
"I realize that passing this budget won’t be easy. Because it represents real and dramatic change, it also represents a threat to the status quo in Washington. I know that the insurance industry won’t like the idea that they’ll have to bid competitively to continue offering Medicare coverage, but that’s how we’ll help preserve and protect Medicare and lower health care costs for American families. I know that banks and big student lenders won’t like the idea that we’re ending their huge taxpayer subsidies, but that’s how we’ll save taxpayers nearly $50 billion and make college more affordable. I know that oil and gas companies won’t like us ending nearly $30 billion in tax breaks, but that’s how we’ll help fund a renewable energy economy that will create new jobs and new industries. I know these steps won’t sit well with the special interests and lobbyists who are invested in the old way of doing business, and I know they’re gearing up for a fight as we speak. My message to them is this:
’So am I.’”
Thankfully, the president learned after the stimulus debate that he’s better served by establishing a high threshold at the onset of negotiations. Perhaps, the president also realizes that the public’s perception of him as “reasonable” following the stimulus debate allows his administration to take a firmer stand this time. That’s good because the stimulus debate is child’s play compared to the high stakes bargaining ahead.

Obviously, the budget Obama proposed will not be what ultimately passes through two houses of congress. Liberals don’t have a filibuster proof majority in the senate, Norm Coleman continues to tie up Al Franken in the courts and special interest money is flowing to conservative blue dog Democrats.

If so-called moderate senators such as Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman put up a fight, than Obama should be prepared to stare them down. I suspect it won’t come to that however with those senators. Of greater concern may be senators such as influential Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, who will protest cuts to agricultural subsidies – especially if he convinces any Democrats to join him.

Hence, this process will require strong nerves and Obama not blinking. In 1995, President Bill Clinton prevailed in his showdown with Newt Gingrich because his reputation as a compromiser allowed him to appear tough without looking partisan. Similarly, Obama’s greatest political asset is that his fist in the velvet glove approach allows him to stand firm while appearing flexible.

It should also be noted, that Obama’s budget is far more honest than any we’ve seen from the executive branch in recent years because it doesn’t pretend that we’re not fighting two wars or ignore the possibilities of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina. Nonetheless, like all budgets, it has its own deceptions. For example, the economic growth projected by the administration seems unlikely, at least in the near term. To some extent, ignoring the possibility of low growth is their way of promoting needed confidence. Even if we stipulate to the political necessity of rosy projections, the administration better have a backup plan.

Another concern is just what the hell did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promise the Chinese during her Asian trip? Our ability to afford a progressive agenda is contingent upon the Chinese continuing to finance our consumer debt. Reading between the lines, when Hillary Clinton said last week she didn’t want to let “issues” such as human rights interfere with the economic crisis or climate change, it was obvious that the administration promised the Butchers of Beijing something in return.

The administration and corporate press will likely parrot the line that our plans for deficit reduction has reassured foreign investors we can pay back our loans. If you believe that, I have a bridge here in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you. Even so, given the crisis he inherited, Obama had little choice but to assuage the Chinese and other foreign investors to finance our debt. Hopefully, the price for their forbearance won’t be too high.

So, a little more than a month into his presidency, Obama has moved further to the left domestically with his proposed budget. Ironically and perhaps tragically, President Obama has moved to the right with foreign policy as 17,000 troops are being deployed in Afghanistan without an exit strategy and our “pullout” from Iraq will still mean leaving behind 50,000 troops. That worries me because the last time a Democratic president tried to have guns and butter at the same time resulted in President Richard Nixon.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Follow Up Thoughts re Gov. Bobby Jindal

Delivering the response to a president's speech in front of a joint session of congress, is arguably the toughest assignment in politics. Few garner enthusiastic reviews after a president benefits from the symbolic majesty of such a moment. Yes, Virginia Senator James Webb was terrific a couple years ago. I can also recall former Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright, delivering an effective response following Ronald Reagan's 1987 State of the Union speech.

Nonetheless, Jindal's performance last night was the most pitiful response I have seen since former Senate Republican leader Bob Dole in 1996. At the time of Dole's response, I was quite critical of Bill Clinton from the left. Nonetheless, it was apparent that no one in the Republican Party held a candle to him.

Governor Bobby Jindal's performance last night and even John McCain's petulance at the "Fiscal Responsibility Summit" the day before, illustrates that the stature gap between Republicans and President Obama is widening. How will this impact substance I wonder? It still requires sixty votes to move legislation in the Senate. When will President Obama opt to stare the Republicans down and dare them to filibuster? And would enough Republican's blink when confronted with Obama's stature?

I'm convinced that President Obama has an opportunity to use his political capital and bargain aggressively for a far more activist agenda than he has to this point. Obama's speeches are wonderful. I just hope he seizes the moment and negotiates more effectively than he did with the stimulus bill. Even as the stature gap between Obama and the insipid opposition party widens, liberals must remain vigilant on behalf of peace, prosperity and social justice. As much as I respect President Obama, substance matters more than serving a cult of personality.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sober Times, Mature Leadership, Pitiful GOP

Quickly, here are my six immediate impressions following President Obama's first speech in front of a joint session of congress and the Republican response delivered by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal:

1) The three themes of the speech were hope, shared sacrifice and responsibility from government and society.

2) As with his inauguration speech, even as the president sought to reassure Americans better days were ahead, he reiterated we as a society could no longer live beyond our means.

3) With respect to the banking and credit crisis currently stoking populist outrage, Obama forthrightly told the nation he would not govern out of anger or make policy based upon Wall Street's daily high or lows. Readers of this blog already know my feelings about this subject.

4) This president clearly intends to spend his political capital before it evaporates on big ticket items such as health-care.

5) Obama's words and presence illustrated why I personally admire him but the substance of his administration's soon to be released budget are more important than this single speech. I still get a clinical thrill from observing how Obama's speeches impact others but I want to read the fine print of his budget proposal.

6) If Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is the best the Republican's Party has to offer, they may go the way of the Whigs from Abraham Lincoln's era. The GOP is intellectually and morally bankrupt. This is unfortunate, because it's never good when one party is left to debate with itself. Politics works best when it's a vigorous competition within the marketplace of ideas. As the Republican Party only offers a failed ideology, the real policy debate is among the left like myself and centrist Democrats. Both sides are competing for Obama's attention and favor while Republicans are imploding from ossified titans such as John McCain and pitiful lite weights like Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Monday Night Ponderings

  • It will be interesting to observe how President Obama walks the fine line between addressing reality while simultaneously promoting hope during his first speech in front of a joint session of congress tomorrow night.
  • Even as I remain critical of President Obama’s centrist direction, there is no denying he dwarfs everyone else on the political scene. Today’s bipartisan fiscal responsibility summit with members of congress, business, leaders and academics, was brilliant stagecraft. Furthermore, granting Arizona Senator John McCain the honor of asking the first question further enhances Obama’s image as a self-assured transformational figure while diminishing his political adversaries. It also serves to address one of Democrats longstanding perceived vulnerabilities, that they are the party of wasteful spending, even though Republicans have a far worse track record as fiscal stewards.
  • Nonetheless, I fear President Obama's stated objective of halving the nation’s deficit by the end of his first term will do severe harm. Franklin Roosevelt made the disastrous mistake of listening to deficit hawks in 1936 and cut spending while the economy was just getting off the ground. A far better course would be to re-direct savings from reducing our troop presence in Iraq and the expiring Bush tax cuts to pumping more stimulus into the economy. Also, one wonders how much more nation building America could have at home with genuine procurement reform of the Pentagon. Alas, that is not likely as long as Defense Secretary Robert Gates is allowed to ignore the administration’s new lobbying restrictions with his appointments.
  • With respect to the metastasizing banking crisis, the unfolding narrative is a horrific kabuki dance. We’re gradually being prepared for inevitable nationalization as a temporary step until privatization is restored. What good is it however to restore privatization of these feculent mega-sized financial institutions, even if they’re subject to more regulation? The end result is analogous to rescuing a pyromaniac from burning himself just so he can drop a lit cigarette on a gas leak. I can accept the necessity of preventing these mega-sized institutions from collapsing as an emergency stopgap measure. But rescuing them should merely serve as a transition to ending their monopoly on the banking industry and restoring the prominence of independent community sized banks. America doesn’t need smaller government; it needs smaller banks instead of these global financial institutions that are too far removed from local communities to identify credit worthy risks or have a stake in the well being of localities. Citigroup, Bank of America and so forth represent exhibit A of globalization's destructive power and they can't be reformed.
  • NYBRI over at the Albany Project, provides a link to a joint letter by New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand to President Obama. The senators advise that our struggling state will happily accept any stimulus money Republican governors refuse:
"New York receives 78 cents from the federal government for every dollar we send to Washington. If other states are willingly refusing federal support in this time of economic crisis, New York should benefit given our 'donor state' status."
Reading their letter, I can’t help but reminisce how Republican governors in states such as Wyoming, happily accepted wasteful money on dubious homeland security projects while New York City was shortchanged after 9/11.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Coping With Tragedy

Among life’s harshest lessons is coping with grief when someone close is needlessly killed. My office co-worker, Melissa Kolis is learning that lesson after her close friend, Melissa Scherr died in a driving while intoxicated (“DWI”) hit and run accident a few weeks ago in Long Island. You can read more about this tragedy by clicking here and here.

Melissa Scherr’s family and friends are coming together to raise money for Mother’s Against Drunk Driving (“MADD”) in her memory. My colleague will be a participant for TEAM MELISSA SCHERR in the annual “Walk Like MADD” 5-K walk on May 31, 2009 at Farmingdale State College. This walk helps support programs for victims of drunk driving as well as to help prevent drunk driving and underage drinking.

As we’re all painfully aware, these are tough times and raising money for worthy causes is a formidable challenge. I can appreciate how many of you are reluctant to donate to any cause at the moment. Nonetheless, I urge my readers to consider the following facts as reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
  • Every day, 36 people in the United States die, and approximately 700 more are injured, in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver.
  • In 2006, 13,470 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third (32%) of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.
  • Alcohol-related crashes in the United States cost about $51 billion a year.
The three bullets points referenced above are all preventable and prevention education in schools is a vital component of MADD’s mission.

I am so proud of my colleague for coping with this tragedy through community activism. Hence, I am asking my readers to please make a donation to MADD and help save lives. Just follow these four simple steps:

Step 1: Click here to access the donation webpage.

Step 2: Click on my colleague’s name, Melissa Kolis, under team members.

Step 3: Click on “Donate Now.”

Step 4: Choose your donation amount (Please note: There is an option to donate however much you would like) and follow the rest of the directions and click on “Next Step” to enter payment info/confirmation.

Again, my thanks to readers here for their consideration.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Obama's Weekly Address

The most important news from President Obama's weekly address is that employers will be directed to withhold fewer taxes in paychecks. According to the administration, a "typical" family will take home $65 more every month after April 1st. The speed of this adjustment is impressive and wage earners will be able to determine the impact for themselves soon enough.

Next week President Obama delivers his first address to a joint session of congress. Thematically, the administration is attempting to project each policy as a component to an overall comprehensive economic recovery strategy. To date, we have seen three pieces of this strategy:
  • The stimulus package.
  • A housing plan to help nine million homeowners struggling to meet their financial obligations.
  • Continued bailouts for America's largest banks.
In my opinion, the administration's stimulus package and housing plan are conceptually on target but far too limited in scale. Both will help reduce the bleeding which is some consolation. As I’ve posted previously however, President Obama’s failure to leverage his political capital more effectively and aim higher is disappointing.

With respect to continued bailouts for banks, Obama’s strategy to repair our financial system is ill conceived and nationalization only a matter of time. Presently, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and his fellow plutocrat, economist Larry Sumners are focused on reviving large financial institutions such as Citigroup. Nobody with any clout in the body politic seems willing to admit the truth: hyper sized banks are irredeemable and bailing them out a waste of precious funds.

Instead our economic strategy should be focused on restoring smaller community banks as the source of credit and loans. Community sized banks have better track records with lending and are more inclined to promote the well-being of their localities. Both presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush empowered hyper sized banks such as Citigroup and Bank of America to swallow community sized banks.

Predatory conservatives accuse liberal Democrats of preferring “big government” to more sensible solutions. The real truth however is that predatory conservatives have destroyed the middle class with their fetish devotion to expanding the power and reach of financial institutions on steroids. Sadly, Democrats have been enablers to this madness.

Alas, financial industry careerists such as Timothy Geithner are not equipped intellectually or ideologically to facilitate the systemic change our financial system truly needs. Trying to “reform” our financial system with promises of better oversight is analogous to allowing a murderous pedophile to work in a daycare center and assuring everyone that the terms of his parole will keep everyone safe. Yet the corporate media will continue to spin bailouts of these economic barbarians as the global economy’s only answer.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Monday Night Hit & Run Thoughts

  • Listening to Republicans sanctimoniously whine about “bipartisanship” is both humorous and grating. Their socio-economic philosophy is completely discredited yet they cry foul because Democrats have no enthusiasm for adopting their stale “ideas” which has the world on the brink of total catastrophe. If Democrats were to make policy changes based upon the world being round, Republicans would whine about being excluded for believing the world is flat. Bipartisanship is not possible when people who belong in a lunatic asylum lead the opposition party.
  • My visceral sense is that the stimulus debate was a seminal moment for President Obama. It’s a political victory, yet at the same time insufficient for what the country needs because he failed to define the terms of debate and bargained away too much at the onset of negotiations (read this post). If I read Obama correctly, he knows this as well and won’t be such an easy mark going forward. Obama's nominee for Health and Human Services may be a bellwether of his administration's direction. If it’s Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen, I’ll feel betrayed unless that appointment is coupled with a healthcare legislation czar determined to bargain hard with the HMOs. My preference is Howard Dean but that’s probably not going to happen because Chief of Staff Rham Emanuel hates him and Republicans hate truth tellers.
  • Nationalization of the banks is coming and President Obama knows it. First though will be the obligatory kabuki dance of Treasury Secretary Geithner’s “plan.” I suspect Geithner’s troubling and vague performance is partly attributed to the administration’s belief that citizens learning more truth about the insolvency of our banks would result in massive withdrawals. Speaking of truth, tomorrow night I plan to watch a PBS Frontline special about America's economic day of infamy: September 18th, 2008.
  • It will be interesting to contrast the rollout of Obama’s plan to stabilize housing with last week’s Geithner plan. The word is the administration will reveal far more details. More details with a housing plan is likely to generate confidence and hope. Whereas, as I referenced in the previous bullet point, with the Geithner plan, the powers that be are convinced confidence is best served by not revealing the complete truth.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Truth Telling Is A Thankless Job In the USA

A few days ago an acquaintance of mine asked me, "Why are you liberals always so shrill?" Well, the video above is for the acquaintance that asked this question. Watch how truth teller Peter Schiff is consistently rebuffed every time he tries to warn that smoke and mirrors were sustaining our Wall Street economy.

To be a liberal in America has been analogous to watching a car crash in slow motion, screaming at the top of our lungs and be laughed at or called unpatriotic. This is true on the economy as well as issues of war and peace. Now that we have a president who is at least trying to address the mess we're in, these very same conservatives have become spendthrift doomsayers and decry that lack of “bipartisanship.” If these people had their way, brokers at Bear Stearns would have managed the Social Security trust fund! Think about it.

Hat tip to the talented blogger, Sean Paul Kelley over at the Agonist for this video.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Texas Republican Ron Paul Asking Questions Too Many Democrats Ignore

I disagree with Ron Paul about most domestic policy issues. However, when it comes to war and peace, this Texas Republican dares to ask questions too many Democrats prefer to ignore.

Bipartisanship No, Working Majority Yes

In the grown up world, honorable and reasonable people may initially disagree but eventually compromise upon a collective review of empirical evidence. It was in this spirit, that the nascent Obama administration reached out to Republicans with respect to their proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which finally passed both houses of congress yesterday.

Unfortunately, most Republican politicians are neither honorable nor reasonable. Instead, most Republican politicians are predatory conservatives dedicated to establishing a permanent corporate theocratic plutocracy. As far as they’re concerned, the 2008 election is merely a temporary setback and attempting bipartisanship with this crowd resulted in legislation far less bold than most economists hoped for.

Hence, it is in the spirit of admiration and support that I urge this new administration to absorb the following lesson: Bipartisanship No, Working Majority Yes. President Obama is a quick study and has likely absorbed this lesson for himself. Indeed, I recall him often using the phrase “working majority” during the campaign. Nonetheless, it is instructive for both liberal activists as well his administration to always keep this simple phrase on the front lobes of our brains. Repeat after me: Bipartisanship No, Working Majority Yes.

This phrase is especially pertinent to the United States Senate. Senators are divas with parochial interests, outsized ambitions and a Constitution that empowers their narcissism. Hence, the only language these people truly understand is leverage with a proper dosage of ego massage. They know that any one of them has the power to hold any piece of proposed legislation hostage to their whims.

Indeed, senators sometimes behave as if they have the power of little Anthony Freemont in the classic Twilight Zone episode “It’s A Good Life.” Like that little boy, one can just imagine Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell, fantasizing about wishing supporters of universal healthcare into a cornfield never to be seen or heard from again. That is the mentality we’re dealing with.

The upside however is there will always be enough politicians prepared to bargain in order to elevate their own importance, demonstrate independence and serve the interests of their constituents. With respect to the stimulus legislation, the three so-called Republican moderate senators were Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter and Maine’s Olympia Snow and Susan Collins. Connecticut’s “Independent” Republican patsy Joe Lieberman and conservative Nebraska Democrat, Ben Nelson, also joined those three in bargaining with the Obama administration, the Senate majority and the House of Representatives.

Had President Obama initially proposed legislation far bolder they still would have bargained, a filibuster majority still would have been achieved and the end result would have been far superior to the legislation that ultimately passed. Next time around it may be a different group of Republican senators and recalcitrant Democrats doing the bargaining, perhaps related to geographic interests. As long as President Obama’s political standing remains high, it will always be possible to cut deals on favorable terms with a rotating group of senators because their relevance depends upon it.

Hence, a working majority will always be ripe for plucking even without a filibuster proof majority. And even if we had sixty Democratic senators, a few of them would threaten denying a filibuster proof majority to promote their independence and get what they want. At the end of the day, bipartisanship has nothing to with it. Leverage, enlightened self-interest, service to constituents or contributors and political survival are everything. There is no love in politics. Only leverage, respect and fear.

The appropriate posture is to treat reluctant politicians with symbolic respect, bargain hard for every penny and compromise from a position of strength. That is the best way to maximize potential of a working majority going forward while simultaneously maintaining broad public support. Sometimes, operating a working majority will require President Obama to demonstrate toughness, walk away and threaten vetoes if a few senators opt to behave like Anthony Freemont in the name of bipartisanship.

Barack Obama is an impressive human being with many admirable qualities. Indeed, Obama represents an ennobling change of pace after George W. Bush’s insipid indecency. He is learning however that governing is a delicate balance requiring the dual personalities of Mahatma Ghandi and Don Vito Corleone. If anyone can achieve that delicate balance it’s this president. Nonetheless, we must remain vigilant and toughen his hide.

Bipartisanship No, Working Majority Yes.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Truth Teller William Greider

I first read William Greider as a kid in the 1980s (yes, I was a nerd!) after his Atlantic Monthly article entitled, The Education of David Stockman was published in 1981. My Dad had left the article lying on top of the sports section which was my usual reading preference. For me personally, Greider's article was a seminal moment in my political awareness.

In the video above, Greider is essentially telling us Democrats that we can no longer be a little bit pregnant. Either Democrats opt to work on behalf of wage earners or the fat cats. Given the current economic crisis, straddling with half measures as recently offered by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is no longer sustainable. We liberals have an opportunity to seize this moment of crisis and restore the Democratic Party to what it was from FDR to LBJ.

I believe in President Barack Obama personally even as my critique of his administration so far may seem harsh. In our political system, Presidents are hesitant to be too out in front when it comes to bringing systemic progressive change. Legend has it that FDR once instructed a group of liberal reformers to "make me do it." That is the best way to support both Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Winning in 2008 was stage one. Taking over the party so it can become an agent of peace and economic and social justice is stage two.

Obviously, stage two remains a far more formidable challenge than stage one. So called moderates will continue to rationalize kickbacks to agents of America's plutocracy as a way of keeping Democrats in the "center." It's up to us however to keep up the fight on behalf of the decency center.

UPDATE: A few weeks after this post I actually did a podcast interview with William Greider. Click here to access that post.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hit & Run Thoughts

  • I’m still processing the bizarre performance of Timothy Geithner yesterday with respect to the Obama administration’s inept plan to rescue America’s banks. It seems to me we are watching a kabuki dance unfold. Nationalization is only a matter of time but first the corporate media and Wall Street apologists need yet another demonstration of why the system as we’ve known it can’t be saved. If a few million American citizens are financially ruined during this demonstration I suppose it will be regarded as collateral damage.
  • Liberals need to begin mobilizing for what comes after the stimulus package is passed. There is no sense whining about President Obama’s mistake bargaining way too much at the onset of negotiations to appear bipartisan. What’s done is done and hopefully he’s learned the way a small child realizes that touching a hot stove burns. Instead we need to regain the initiative with the upcoming omnibus appropriations bill. Yes, it would have been better to maximize Obama’s political leverage in a comprehensive economic recovery package. But that ship has sailed so the next step is to win as much as possible in the appropriations process.
  • If you keep stocking your administration with center-right people it will result in a center-right presidency. Nominating Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen as Secretary of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) would be tantamount to dropping a cluster bomb on the Democratic Party’s liberal base. Whenever HMOs regard a candidate for HHS to be “reasonable” it means another presidency with no healthcare reform.
  • As a Jew I am mortified at the rise of a fascist party in Israel. I had just turned 21 when I visited the Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland in 1990 and to this day I have nightmares from walking those grounds. Concentration camps are the end result when extreme right wing political figures that initially appear to be clowns are not stopped. Make no mistake, Avigidor Lieberman is a fascist and so is his Israel Is Our Home party.
  • If Netenyahu prevails, Lieberman will exploit the rules of parliamentary democracy as his coalition partner and subvert Israel’s civil society in the name of national purity. Eventually, a Netenyahu government will be forced to disappoint Lieberman’s supporters when dealing with the United States. At that juncture, Lieberman will likely withdraw his support resulting in political chaos. Perhaps Netenyahu will become more inclined to reach out to centrist parties to maintain power. It is also possible however that a nationalist populist backlash will propel Lieberman into power in the next election. At best that could be the last election Israeli Arabs enjoy equals rights as voting citizens. I shudder to think about the worst that could happen.
  • I am no fan of Kadima’s Tzipi Livini. As far as I’m concerned she, her party and the Kadima-Labor governing coalition have innocent blood on their hands. Tragically though, Livini represents the last finger in the dike against Israel’s version of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. There is an old cliché that eventually we are doomed to resemble our enemies. We Jewish people above all others have no excuse for failing to recognize the danger that Avigidor Lieberman represents. That a figure like this could emerge in the Jewish state is a shameful irony.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Israeli Exit Polls Project Livini's Kadima As Winnter

Israel's Haaretz is projecting Tzipi Livini of the "centrist" Kadima Party as the winner in today's election. Overall, the new math for Israel's Knesset, is projected as Kadima having won 29 seats, while Bibi Netenyahu's Likud Party doubled their total with 27 seats and Ehud Barak's Labor fell all the way back to 14 seats. Truthfully, none of the options were very good but Ehud Barak and Labor were the best of bad options. It is dismaying that Israel's once proud Labor Party was so thoroughly routed. The political left in Israel is a distant memory.

Please note that Israeli exit polls are notoriously unreliable. Hence, the homicidal Netenyahu may still prevail. If Livini is the victor, she will likely struggle to cobble a coalition of centrist parties together. Alas, if Netenyahu prevails over current projections, he will be able to form a majority government with far right crazy parties. Among the most dangerous of Netenyahu's likely coalition partners is Israel's answer to Pat Buchanan, Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel Is Our Home Party.

I cried when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995. Rabin, a soldier-statesman, was the last political figure in Israel with any credibility possessing the will to pursue peace. A decade later the caliber of Israel's political class appears degraded beyond repair.

Monday, February 09, 2009

President Obama's First Prime Time Press Conference

Click here to review a transcript of President Obama's press conference this evening as provided by CNN. Unfortunately, as of yet, I can't find any html video embedding coding of the press conference that works so linking the transcript is the best I can do.

Overall, I'm left with the following impressions:
  • Stylistically, no one on the political scene today can hold a candle to President Obama's ability to project intelligence, poise and composure. Substantively, however, the press was largely pathetic. Conservatives will likely gripe that not a single question was asked with respect to the tax problems of Obama's cabinet nominees and his team's suspect vetting process. And on that score conservatives have a valid complaint. Perhaps the press feels that's beating a dead horse but it certainly merited at least one question. If baseball's latest steroids controversy merited one question then how is it nobody asked a single question about Tom Daschle?
  • As for the economy, it irks me that the questions and Obama's answers were solely focused on the conservative point of view. Obama was defending the legitimacy of large spending against conservative criticism and the notion that only the federal government can inject the required capital. Listening to the questions and Obama's answers, one would think that the conservative critique is the only debate taking place. Somebody should have challenged President Obama from the liberal perspective and asked if the legislation offers too little spending. I suspect tomorrow's press conference with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will be far more revealing with respect to domestic policy than anything we heard this evening.
  • I found Obama's responses to questions about his strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan disturbingly vague. Indeed, I'm very concerned that the national security team of Robert Gates, Hillary Clinton and Jim Jones are thinking tactically with no exit strategy in sight.
  • Kudos to the Huffington Post for asking about Vermont Senator Leahy's proposal for a truth and reconciliation commission to address any crimes committed by the Bush Administration. Alas, it's quite apparent that the Obama administration will be at best passive actors in facilitating any accountability. It is imperative that the liberal netroots keep the pressure on and demand justice. On this there can be no compromise.
  • I hope Helen Thomas lives forever.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Reinventing America's Relations With the Muslim World: An Interview With Former CIA Analyst Emile Nakhleh

Building consensus within America’s body politic and national security establishment for a new way forward with Muslims worldwide is a formidable challenge. Many Americans still don’t appreciate the complex nuances of Muslim society and remain stubbornly Islamophobic almost seven and half years after 9/11. Equally formidable is earning the goodwill of Muslims worldwide following the Iraq War as well as American atrocities perpetrated upon Islamic detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Hopefully, President Obama’s historic election has finally opened a path for constructive conversation about how America can most effectively engage the Muslim world.

The CIA’s former point man on Islam, Emile Nakahleh, has vigorously entered this conversation with his new book, A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations With the Muslim World (Princeton University Press). From 1991 to 2006, Nakahleh served as the director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program in the Directorate of Intelligence at the CIA. He holds a PhD in international relations and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Nakhleh’s book combines a revealing memoir with in-depth analysis and proposals for the future. Ever since his retirement from the CIA in 2006, Nakhleh has been a vociferous critic of the Bush Administration’s legacy with respect to American-Muslim relations. Indeed, in September 2006, Nakhleh told Harper’s Magazine that because of Bush’s policies,
“We've lost a generation of goodwill in the Muslim world.”
Nakhleh's proposals for improving American-Muslim relations stems from his conversations with Muslim "interlocutors" spanning three decades. These conversations include government ministers, Islamic activists, academics and radicals. Nakhleh also examined and analyzed considerable polling data of Muslims worldwide.

Overall, Nakhleh contends that the vast majority of Muslims and America have common interests and values. His blueprint includes robust dialogue with mainstream Islamic political parties as well as a tangible commitment towards democracy in the Muslim world, even if we don’t always like the short-term electoral results. His book is an accessible 160 pages and divided into four chapters: (Chapter 1) Political Islam and Islamization, (Chapter 2) Intelligence, Political Islam, and Policymakers, (Chapter 3) Public Diplomacy: Issues and Attitudes and (Chapter 4) Public Diplomacy: A Blueprint.

Nakhleh was born in Galilee, north of Nazareth in Palestine and raised a Greek Catholic. He emigrated from Israel to the United States approximately 50 years ago and attended a Benedictine university in Minnesota for his B.A., a Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., for an M.A. and was awarded a Ph.D. from the American University in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the CIA he taught at a catholic college in Maryland for 26 years.

Nakhleh agreed to a telephone interview with me in podcast format. Among the topics we discussed was whether he believes the surge in Iraq worked, the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran inside Iraq, President Obama’s new strategy in Afghanistan, Hamas and America’s role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his argument that American commitment to democracy in the Muslim world is imperative to our long term interests.

Some of Nakhleh’s answers and views may surprise many listeners. Our conversation was just over 47 minutes. Please refer to the flash media player below.

Either searching for the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman” can also access this interview at no cost via the Itunes Store.

Update: I erred in the introduction in the podcast when I said Emile Nakhleh worked for the CIA between 1991-1996. I meant to say he worked with the CIA between 1991-2006. Also, my apologies for the echo sound on Emile's side. Sometimes technology has its limits.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Obama's Weekly Address

Here is my problem with the economic recovery plan making its way through congress. As President Obama notes, we have lost over 3.5 million jobs since this recession (if I still have my job it's a recession, if you lose your job it's a depression) began. He acknowledges that the economic recovery plan will only create 3 million jobs over two years in the "private sector." Hence, simple math suggests this plan is at best merely keeping the hole from getting deeper but not filling it. More likely though is that job losses will continue to outpace any job creation resulting from this plan. Why must this be so? Just to appease Republicans so they can have more corporate tax cuts which do not work?

If I were a member of congress, I would make my support contingent upon our addressing those items Republicans have forced out of out of this economic recovery plan such as family planning, bankruptcy relief for homeowners who have lost their jobs, education, healthcare and aid to the states.

All this talk about "stimulus" has allowed Republicans to demonize other elements vital to an economic recovery. For example, aid to states does create jobs. Without additional state aid, municipal governments across the country will be forced to raise taxes on citizens and businesses and scale back on public sector projects. Public sector jobs are just as legitimate as private sector jobs. Why are private sector jobs looked upon as the holy grail? It takes both to keep our economy humming.

So called moderates, predatory conservatives and their minions in the corporatist press have dominated this debate while truth has been drowned out. Obama should be using his bully pulpit to fight for something bolder and more expansive than he has.

Friday, February 06, 2009

It's About Time

President Obama has finally taken the gloves off in defense of his economic stimulus plan. Below, is a report from the Today show covering his speech to the Democratic House caucus this morning. Perhaps the President is learning that he can't simply function within a "post partisan" ivory tower. There is no love in politics. Only leverage, respect and fear. The great ones can slug it out yet appear above the fray with a fist in the velvet glove. We often saw that from Obama during the campaign and we did again this morning.

Nonetheless, he should be fighting for something far bolder. Instead of pairing down aid to states and spending we should be eliminating tax cuts and investing more. Sad to say the body politic is resistant to doing anything more. To use a sports analogy, Obama is "taking what the defense gives him." In my opinion, Obama should unleash an all out blitz and create turnovers. It's only our civilization at stake.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Hit & Run Thoughts

  • An activist friend of mine and I speculated over email whom President Obama might nominate as Secretary of Health and Human Services now that Tom Daschle dropped out. In a moment of delightful snark he wrote, “Maybe Obama will appoint another Republican. I don’t think we have enough of those in the cabinet.” With New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg’s nomination as Commerce Secretary, the Obama Administration will have three Republicans in his cabinet. President George W. Bush only had one Democrat in his cabinet following the contested results in Florida after the 2000 election. Think about it.
  • I don’t agree with Republicans very often. However, I appreciated Republican Texas Congressman Ted Poe, who recently said that the new Mets baseball stadium should be called “Taxpayer Stadium” instead of Citifield. Damn straight!
  • One legacy President Bill Clinton can be proud of is Supreme Court Justice Judith Bader Ginsburg. Earlier today it was learned that Justice Ginsburg has pancreatic cancer. Too me Ginsburg has always epitomized what a Supreme Court Justice should be: principled yet open minded, fair, dignified and low-key. How awful that such a classy lady has to endure something so painful.

Obama As Gorbachev

The early days of President Obama’s administration has me thinking about Michael Gorbachev. Gorbachev was arguably the world’s finest statesman in the latter part of the 20th century. Upon rising to the top of a homicidal and corrupt regime, Gorbachev presided over the disintegration of a nuclear empire with tolerance and sense. Under his leadership, the Soviet Union also became more tolerant of dissent and one-party domination came to an end.

During the “velvet revolutions” of 1989, Gorbachev resisted his country’s military industrial complex and allowed Eastern Europe to go its own way. Hence, a piece of the Berlin Wall is among my most prized possessions today. Gorbachev’s ultimate legacy is that the Cold War ended with minimal bloodshed and he deserves the world’s everlasting gratitude.

Yet Gorbachev today is not well regarded in Russia or any of the former Soviet Republics. He made the fateful mistake of trying to reform a system that was irredeemable, inept and beyond repair. As a result, Russians blame Gorbachev for the lean years that followed the Cold War’s end.

And that brings me to President Obama. Obama is well intentioned, intelligent and possesses a judicious temperament. He skillfully navigated the perilous waters of Chicago backroom politics, survived the gold fish bowl of a presidential campaign and prevailed over America’s racist culture. I’m hopeful that his presidency will restore America’s geopolitical standing, end our suicidal global war on terror posture and refocus our priorities to address global warming. Already, Obama has moved the terms of debate in a more progressive direction on numerous fronts. I remain a proud supporter.

Sadly though it is apparent that Obama either believes Wall Street capitalism can be reformed or is simply too beholden to the financial services sector to truly restructure America’s economy. Just as Soviet Communism was irredeemable, Wall Street capitalism is also beyond repair. Hence, I find the current debate about the economic stimulus package foolish. In the scheme of things the package that will ultimately pass is a penny ante game when America needs to entirely restructure it’s economic and social paradigm.

Hence, I suspect that the years ahead will not so much be about “right” vs. “left” but repair vs. change. Obama campaigned on change but in reality his administration is aligned with the cause of repair. It seems to me our Wall Street centric economy is beyond repair. A few years ago repair may have been possible but that ship has sailed. I hope I’m wrong but I suspect efforts at repair will only serve to deepen America’s cascade of ruin. I further suspect that citizens across the political spectrum will catch up to this reality long before our elected leaders. Hopefully, President Obama will figure it out sooner rather than later.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

America, It's Time To Say Goodbye To Wall Street: An Interview With Author David Korten

“We face a monumental economic challenge that goes far beyond anything being discussed in the U.S. Congress or the corporate press. The hardships imposed by temporarily frozen credit markets pale in comparison to what lies ahead.
Even the significant funds that the Obama administration is committed to spending on economic stimulus will do nothing to address the deeper structural causes of our threefold financial, social, and environmental crisis. On the positive side, the financial crisis has put to rest the myths that our economic institutions are sound and that markets work best when deregulated. This creates an opportune moment to open a national conversation about what we can and must do to create an economic system that can for work for all people for all time.”
Internationally renowned social scientist and historian David Korten wrote those words in the introduction of his new book, Agenda For A New Economy: From Phantom Wealth To Real Wealth, scheduled to be released by Berrett-Kohler Publishers tomorrow.

Some of you may have previously read Korten’s 1995 international bestseller, When Corporations Rule the World. Longtime readers/listeners of the Intrepid Liberal Journal may also recall my August 2007 podcast interview with Korten about his book, The Great Turning: From Empire To Earth Community. You can learn more about Korten’s background by clicking here and reading the introductory text to that podcast.

Korten’s current book is organized in four parts: Part I, The Case for a New Economy; Part II, The Case for Eliminating Wall Street; Part III, Agenda for a Real Wealth Economy and Part IV, Change the Story, Change the Future. Essentially, Korten divides the economy into “Wall Street” and “Main Street.” The first half of Korten’s book is dedicated to indicting Wall Street for generating “phantom wealth” at the expense of society’s quality of life. In the second half, Korten promotes twelve concepts to empower a “Main Street” economy that facilitates the exchange of tangible goods and services among citizens living within their means.

His diagnosis and prescriptions are jarring. Korten postulates that Main Street is far closer to the original vision of Adam Smith while Wall Street capitalism is the antithesis of a free market economy. Reform-minded liberals, who believe we can work within America’s established financial credit markets banking system and stabilize our economy with band-aids and bailouts, will likely be just as opposed to his book as Wall Street apologists. Conservatives will likely dismiss Korten’s solutions because he believes in government regulation to ensure that businesses and citizens behave within agreed upon social norms.

As Korten sees it, corporations in a Wall Street economy are given incentives to destroy the planet’s environment and inflate its financial statements by taking a wrecking ball to the middle class. In a true market economy, business entities that inflict harm on the environment and their community’s overall quality of life could not survive. Hence, Korten writes that under a Wall Street economy, corporations,
“If it were a real person, it would fit the clinical profile of a sociopath.”
Sadly, in American society, sociopathic behavior was rewarded as the proper spoils of capitalism. Hence, one of Korten’s twelve concepts to empower a Main Street economy is to “Reclaim the corporate charter” so that the public has a means of ensuring accountability and social responsibility.

The future that Korten envisions is a community ethos in which citizens and businesses have a stake in the health, infrastructure and overall quality of life in their local community as well as the world at large.

Vicki Robin, coauthor of Your Money or Your Life and cofounder of Conversation Cafes issued the following praise for Korten’s book:
“Once again David Korten has provided us with a clear understanding of why the old economy is driving us and nature to ruin - and a framework for transforming it. Especially in this time of economic meltdown it's crucial for caring people everywhere to get that patching the tires of a vehicle that's going over a cliff is neither sane nor acceptable. The financial crisis is a healing crisis and Korten gives us prescriptions that could actually give us a thriving and just economy that works for people and the planet. I hope every reader feels, as I have, a sense of relief at hearing the truth and a renewed passion for civic engagement, now knowing what direction we need to steer our ship."
Korten agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone yesterday afternoon about his latest book, why he believes the Wall Street economy is irredeemable and his solutions for the future. Our conversation was approximately forty-two minutes. Please refer to the flash media player below.

Either searching for “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman” can also access this interview at no cost via the Itunes Store.