Archive | Politics As Usual

Campaigning Vs. Governing

Steve Clemons reacts to a close look inside the Obama White House, written by Financial Times Washington bureau chief Edward Luce. Go read the whole thing, Steven’s comments are enlightening:

At a crucial stage in the Democratic primaries in late 2007, Barack Obama rejuvenated his campaign with a barnstorming speech, in which he ended on a promise of what his victory would produce: “A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again.”

Just over a year into his tenure, America’s 44th president governs a bitterly divided nation, a world increasingly hard to manage and an America that seems more disillusioned than ever with Washington’s ways. What went wrong?

Pundits, Democratic lawmakers and opinion pollsters offer a smorgasbord of reasons – from Mr Obama’s decision to devote his first year in office to healthcare reform, to the president’s inability to convince voters he can “feel their [economic] pain”, to the apparent ungovernability of today’s Washington. All may indeed have contributed to the quandary in which Mr Obama finds himself. But those around him have a more specific diagnosis – and one that is striking in its uniformity. The Obama White House is geared for campaigning rather than governing, they say.

[…] An outside adviser adds: “I don’t understand how the president could launch healthcare reform and an Arab-Israeli peace process – two goals that have eluded US presidents for generations – without having done better scenario planning. Either would be historic. But to launch them at the same time?”

Again, close allies of the president attribute the problem to the campaign-like nucleus around Mr Obama in which all things are possible. “There is this sense after you have won such an amazing victory, when you have proved conventional wisdom wrong again and again, that you can simply do the same thing in government,” says one. “Of course, they are different skills. To be successful, presidents need to separate the stream of advice they get on policy from the stream of advice they get on politics. That still isn’t happening.”

(This reinforces what I recently wrote about Obama’s lack of executive skills. Seems like I’m not the only person who noticed.)

Clemons calls the piece a “vital” and “brave” article, noting that most of the insider media isn’t mentioning it at all:

But one thing essential to understand is that the kind of policy that smart strategists — including by people like National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other advisers like Denis McDonough, Tom Donilon, James Steinberg, William Burns, (previously Gregory Craig) — would be putting forward is getting twisted either in the rough-and-tumble of a a team of rivals operation that is not working, or is being distorted by the Chicago political gang’s tactical advice that is seducing Obama towards a course that has not only violated deals he made with those who voted him into office but which is failing to hit any of the major strategic targets by which the administration will be historically measured.

President Obama needs to take stock quickly. Read the Luce piece. Be honest about what is happening. Read Plouffe’s smart book again. Send Rahm Emanuel back to the House in a senior role. Make Valerie Jarrett an important Ambassador. Keep Axelrod — but balance him with someone like Plouffe, and get back to putting good policy before short term politics.

Set up a Team B with diverse political and national security observers like Tom Daschle, John Podesta, Brent Scowcroft, Arianna Huffington, Fareed Zakaria, Katrina vanden Heuvel, John Harris, James Fallows, Chuck Hagel, Strobe Talbott, James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and others to give you a no-nonsense picture of what is going on.

And take action to fix the dysfunction of your office.

Otherwise, the Obama brand will be totally bust in the very near term.

Steve’s an old-style conservative Dem (hence his advisor recommendations) but other than that, I think he’s on point.

The other thing I learned as an executive recruiter (and I brought this up all the time during the Bush era) is that when you put people into a job that’s over their heads, they will instead put all their energy into exercising whatever part of their skill set that makes them feel competent. That’s because people like to feel competent, and the more out of control the rest of their job becomes, the more energy they will put into the part they do know how to do – however irrelevant it may be at the time.

NJ Gays To Dems: See Ya

Good. They can’t keep marginalizing people and expecting them to wait for crumbs:

The largest gay-rights advocacy group in New Jersey has announced it will no longer give money to the Democratic Party.

The move follows the state legislature’s failure last month to legalize gay marriage and amid growing signs that the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is already faltering.

“No political party has a record good enough on LGBT civil rights that it can rightfully claim to be entitled to our money on a party-wide basis,” said the chairman of Garden State Equality, Steven Goldstein, as quoted at

“No longer will we let any political party take our money and volunteers with one hand, and slap us in the face with the other when we seek full equality,” Goldstein added.

Obstruction and Acquiescence

Looks like the Republicans will try to block the jobs bill. Which reminds of something Paul Krugman wrote yesterday: “A vote for a Republican, no matter what you think of him as a person, is a vote for paralysis.”

But by now, we know how the Obama administration deals with those who would destroy it: it goes straight for the capillaries. Sure enough, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, accused Mr. Shelby of “silliness.” Yep, that will really resonate with voters.

Live on the TV

Okay, it’s a strategy. Will it work? It has definite possibilities in terms of putting Republicans on the defensive over health care reform, and in providing a rationale for the “radical” idea of passing the legislation through reconciliation.

But I’d prefer something gutsy:

President Barack Obama is planning to host a televised meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders on health care reform. The Feb. 25 meeting is an attempt to reach across the aisle but not a signal that the president plans to start over, as Republicans have demanded, a White House official said. ‘I want to come back [after the Presidents Day congressional recess] and have a large meeting — Republicans and Democrats — to go through, systematically, all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward,’ Obama said in an interview with Katie Couric during CBS’s Super Bowl pre-game show Sunday. Obama said he wants to ‘look at the Republican ideas that are out there. If we can go, step by step, through a series of these issues and arrive at some agreements, then, procedurally, there’s no reason why we can’t do it a lot faster the process took last year,’ he said. In a statement, the official said, ‘What the president will not do is let this moment slip away. He hopes to have Republican support in doing so — but he is going to move forward on health reform.’

Obama first suggested reopening talks with Republicans during his State of the Union address last month, and reiterated the call at a Democratic fundraiser Thursday, but the White House had kept details of his plan under wraps until Sunday. The idea has been met previously with skepticism by the congressional leaders of both parties.

Republicans say they see little room for compromise because the bill should be scrapped, while Democrats argue they have already tried a bipartisan approach, but failed.

… The half-day meeting will take place at Blair House, and be broadcast live, presumably by C-SPAN, making it the first televised White House meeting on health care reform since a forum last March.

Who’s Lying On Social Security?

Glenn Greenwald points out why the use of unnamed sources is so misleading to the public:

In order to assuage concerns among progressives that the Obama administration intends to follow in the Bush administration’s footsteps by trying to cut Social Security benefits, high-level Obama officials have been telling journalists such as The American Prospect’s Ezra Klein — on the condition of anonymity — that they have no intention of touching Social Security, producing reports which then faithfully communicate that message, such as this one from Klein, two weeks ago:

What people at the White House have told me on Social Security — and what I wrote in the post she’s referencing — is that there’s no intention to touch Social Security in the foreseeable future. It’s not a priority and it’s not a political winner. . . . The problem, they say, is health care, not Social Security, and that’s where the White House is focusing.

Based on those same anonymous conversations, Klein wrote other posts telling progressives who are worried about Obama’s intention to cut Social Security that they were worrying about something that doesn’t exist.

But in The New York Times today, David Brooks recounted what he described as “conversations with four senior members of the administration.” Those unnamed Obama officials all called Brooks in order to refute his column from last week which argued “that the Obama budget is a liberal, big government document that should make moderates nervous.” Brooks — like Klein — granted anonymity to and then proceeded to quote all four “senior members of the Obama administration” (a) without explaining why he did so, (b) without describing efforts, if any, to persuade them to use their names and (c) without providing any information about who they are or what their motives might be (all flagrant violations of the supposed NYT policy governing the use of anonymity). These paragraphs were the result of the anonymity Brooks gave to the Obama White House (emphasis in original):

Besides, the long-range debt is what matters, and on this subject President Obama is hawkish.

He is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending.

What Klein’s anonymous White House sources told him (“there’s no intention to touch Social Security in the foreseeable future“) is directly contrary to what Brooks’ anonymous White House sources, two weeks later, told him (Obama “is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security”). But there’s no way to resolve those contradictory White House claims because Klein and Brooks allowed these officials to hide behind anonymity when making these claims. That’s what anonymity does — it allows dubious or even false government claims to be spouted with impunity and without any accountability.

What Klein’s anonymous White House sources told him (“there’s no intention to touch Social Security in the foreseeable future”) is directly contrary to what Brooks’ anonymous White House sources, two weeks later, told him (Obama “is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security”). But there’s no way to resolve those contradictory White House claims because Klein and Brooks allowed these officials to hide behind anonymity when making these claims. That’s what anonymity does — it allows dubious or even false government claims to be spouted with impunity and without any accountability.

That’s why anonymity is such a valuable weapon for government officials and such a risky and questionable practice for journalists. If the claims from Klein and Brooks’ sources are true about the intentions of the White House, then why can’t they just attach their names to those claims and why aren’t they made to do so by the journalists before having their statements amplified to the public?

First let me note that, as a contract employee -which is what the Times’ columnists are, Brooks is mostly likely not bound by the anonymity rule, although he should be.

Second, I don’t know that these are as contradictory as Glenn thinks. This is where I’ll put on my former-press-secretary hat. You never want to lie to a reporter if you can help it, but you will mislead them. My guess is, the person they misled is Ezra Klein. First of all, “not in the foreseeable future”? Classic weasel words. “When I talked to you, Ezra, it really wasn’t a priority. But circumstances have changed since then.”

And while we all know who he is, in the Beltway world, Ezra’s not a big name and doesn’t have a huge megaphone – except in the blogosphere, so the thinking would be that he’s not as big a potential threat as Brooks. But if you activated the liberal base at this time with a possible threat to cut Social Security, that would be a real distraction at a time when they’re focused on other things. Trust me: They don’t want to deal with this right now (i.e. “for the foreseeable future.”) So yeah, score one for truth.

If the Obama administration was really serious about never touching Social Security, odds are they would have made that strategic leak to someone more prominent. Real leaks (that is, accurate ones), on things that matter, are always used to float trial ballons and either reward the reporter for previous favorable coverage – or get him in line to soften future coverage.

From my own experience as the person pushing those stories to reporters, I’d say Brooks was the one who got the accurate story on this because 1) it’s the Times and you don’t want to piss them off if you don’t have to 2) they wanted to soften him up to give Obama the benefit of the doubt on budget issues in general and 3) they wanted him to pass it along the secret message to other conservatives – “I didn’t put this in the story, but Axlerod told me, strictly on the QT, that…”. In other words, this has all the signs of a classic strategic leak.

And if there’s any doubt here, you have to give the edge to appointments – namely, that Obama has surrounded himself with many, many advisers who have actively supported either the privatization or partial privatization of Social Security. Are those the people you’d hire if you wanted to save Social Security?

So while it is indeed difficult to read between the lines when “sources” spout conflicting stories, in this case? Not so much. Because I think they were both told a version of the truth. No, Obama’s not planning to touch Social Security – at this time. And yes, Obama plans to cut Social Security spending – in something. Only time will tell what those cuts include.

Social Security ‘Reform’, etc.

Well, it seems I’m not the only one who’s worried. Jane:

Ben Smith says today that the left is “silent on Social Security reform” even as the administration considers it, and quotes Blue Dog Jim Cooper who says Obama is “in a honeymoon phase, and many liberals are afraid to express concerns.”

Atrios calls it trolling. Perhaps it is, but there have been signs that serious Social Security reform is in the works, and people who have been briefed on the administration’s plans indicate that things like raising the retirement age and cutting benefits are under consideration.

Consider — in December, Cooper said a report which showed “that the governments unfunded liabilities are roughly $56 trillion” was “shocking.” He called for a commission to address it, which Hoyer endorsed but Pelosi opposed. The White House agreed to it in January:

Obama said that he has made clear to his advisers that some of the difficult choices–particularly in regards to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare – should be made on his watch. “We’ve kicked this can down the road and now we are at the end of the road,” he said.

So who is going to be on this panel? Kent Conrad, Judd Gregg, the Blue Dogs and “a host of outside groups with ideas on the matter.” Said Paul Rosenberg:

So, Blue Dogs in. Progressives? Not so much. Surprised? Didn’t think so. The agenda here “difficult choices–particularly in regards to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare” is straight out of the fiscal slasher movie on CNN last weekend, IOUSA, which Digby blogged about earlier in the week, and which was thoroughly debunked by economist Dean Baker and his associates at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which he co-directs, when it first came out in theatrical release last fall.

Whatever plan the task force comes up with, Cooper does not want Congress to be able to amend it.

Cooper was a health care spokesman for Obama during the campaign. Mike Lux sounded the alarm at the time, noting that Cooper had been critical to killing health care reform in 1993/94 and was a solid spokesman for the insurance industry position. Digby has more of his history.

Now as Ben rightly notes, during the campaign the only time Obama discussed revamping Social Security was raising the cap on Social Security taxes. But that’s hardly what Jim Cooper and the Blue Dogs are looking for. Nor, does it seem, that folks inside the Obama team think that this will be sufficient. The framework they are evidently looking at is outlined in a 2005 Brookings Institute paper called the Diamond-Orszag Plan, co-written by…yes, Obama’s budget director, Peter Orszag.

You can find the plan here, but this should give you a hint:

Since Painful Choices Must Be Made, a Key Question Is, Which Ones?

The Social Security deficit can be eliminated only through different combinations of politically painful choices: tax increases and benefit reductions. Unfortunately, too many analysts and politicians have ignored this reality, responding to the painful alternatives by embracing “free lunch” approaches.


Our plan makes the painful choices that are necessary—selecting a combination of benefit and revenue changes to restore long-term balance. In doing so, it focuses on three areas which contribute to the actuarial imbalance: improvements in life expectancy, increases in earnings inequality, and the burden of the legacy debt from Social Security’s early history.


Workers who are 55 or older will experience no change in their benefits from those scheduled under current law. For younger workers with average earnings, our proposal involves a gradual reduction in benefits from those scheduled under current law. For example, the reduction in benefits for a 45-year old average earner is less than 1 percent; for a 35-year-old, less than 5 percent; and for a 25-year-old, less than 9 percent. Reductions are smaller for lower earners, and larger for higher ones.

Obama met with the Blue Dogs Tuesday night. Before the House vote on the stimulus bill, Rahm Emanuel had promised them that they would soon see “signs of Obama’s commitment to fiscal reform,”and according to one Blue Dog, “Tuesday night was a fulfillment of the commitment Emanuel made that day.”

If Blue Dogs like Cooper have been emboldened by the idea that the left will quietly accept Social Security reforms that include reductions in benefits because of Obama’s popularity, they have sorely deluded themselves. As Atrios notes, it would create “an epic 360 degree shitstorm.” If people on the left are being quiet, it’s not because they don’t’s because they don’t think Obama will ever do it.

Told Ya

I’ve been talking about this all along. The “success story” was never real:

Everyone who followed the debate about privatizing Social Security back in 2005 has vivid memories of the Chilean model. Sometimes it seemed impossible to get through any discussion of fixing Social Security without hearing a free-market paean to the way Chile had given its workers control over their own retirement investments, followed by a demand that the United States get on the same boat.

Therefore, it seems worthwhile to note that the Chileans are now bailing water.

The Chilean government recently announced that in 2007 it plans to pursue far-reaching reforms aimed at creating a larger government role in Chileans’ old-age security. The reforms are urgently needed. It has been nearly a generation since the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet began to supplant Chile’s government-supported retirement system with a plan for Chilean workers to save 10 percent of their salaries in private accounts. Today, roughly half of Chilee’s labor force has either not participated or has not accumulated enough to generate what the government considers a minimum payout of about $140 a month.

The overarching problem for Chile — and the real lesson for the United States — is that private savings are not a substitute for a guaranteed core tier of old-age support. The first measure of success of a retirement system is not how much certain individuals manage to sock away, but whether the system as a whole provides basic dignity for all. By that measure, Chile’s privatized system has failed and Social Security has succeeded.

‘Ashamed to be an American’

My tradition is to spend the day after Thanksgiving with an old friend and her family. We were sitting at her sumptuous spread of leftovers and talking politics.

Her husband, a retired NYC cop and Vietnam vet, was shocked when I told him we were using napalm and white phosphorus on civilians during the seige of Fallujah.

“They’re using jellied kerosene instead of gasoline, but yeah, it’s napalm,” I told him.

He shook his head. “You know, I dropped white phosphorus on my boot once and I couldn’t get my boot off fast enough,” he said. “You should see that stuff. It burns right on through, real fast. When you use it on people, it does the same thing. It’s like putting dry ice on someone’s skin.”

“Fallujah was like a recruiting program for terrorists,” I said. “The things we did to civilians there have guaranteed them volunteers for decades.”

“It just makes me feel ashamed to be an American,” he said.

“Yeah, I know. I never felt this way before.”

I have. Once before,” he said.


WXPN is having a musical tribute today in honor of Neil Young’s birthday Saturday – which was also the birthday of my friend Mike – and King Britt.

Okay, so here’s my Neil Young story.

When I was about 15, I went with a friend to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the old Electric Factory. (Admission was $2.50. Minimum wage was, I think, $1.25.)

Anyway, we got invited backstage. We stood around, watching the band. Some people offered us drinks; we declined. Finally, we said we were leaving.

“Leaving? What do you mean?” a shocked roadie said.

“It’s a school night. We have to go home,” I explained.

We had no idea we were invited back for, uh, a specific function. It took me decades, but I finally figured it out.

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