Friday, January 29, 2010


The Obama-GOP Smackdown...

...that wasn't.

On the contrary, today's exchange between the president and the House Republican conference was one of the best bits of live American political theater I've seen in sometime. Lots of folks on Twitter want more -- because it was so good. Republicans showed the president and the country that they have counter-ideas to what Democrats and the White House is proposing; the GOP is not the "Party of No." The president showed that, yeah, he may use a Teleprompter a lot, but when you ask him specific policy-oriented questions, he knows his stuff -- whether you agree with him or not. Paul Ryan, in particular, stood out.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010


Obama's Big Gamble

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson declares that Barack Obama has "lost his grip on reality."

On the contrary, this State of the Union was actually a rather reality-based speech. It's just that Obama decided to toss aside all the usual conventions for such speeches and decided to focus on a reality different than the one most journalists and commentators expected him to focus on.

Indeed, one could argue that this was even less of a "state of the union" than Obama's "Economic Address To the Nation" that took the place of the SOTU in his first year. Instead, this seemed more akin to a convention keynote address that makes stark divisions between party visions than an annual address that attempts to unite the country.

Note how the usual formulation of "the state of our union is [blank]" was truncated to "our union is strong." For a gifted speaker like Obama who tends to hew to traditional rhetorical convention, this departure was strange -- unless it was particularly designed to send a different message than usual.

indeed, the strangeness continued -- the evidence of which could be gleaned by what was included and excluded in the speech.

To go in reverse order, for the first time I believe since Reagan initiated the practice, there was no shout-out to the special guests in the president's box. The hero cops from the Ft. Hood shooting were reportedly up in the gallery, yet no explicit mention of them? Odd.

Odder still was the specific avoidance of specificity. By that, I mean the president made pointed reference to examples of companies and individuals helped by the stimulus -- but gave no names.

He mentioned a young boy who sent money to the
White House to help Haitian relief -- yet didn't identity him by name. It would be easy to sat that he omitted these specifics to deter fact-checkers, but in the Internet Age, that sort of scrutiny isn't going to be easily evaded. So, why leave out the names?

Meanwhile, what WAS in the speech? Sure, the usual listing of policy proposals, but a lengthy defense of decisions made and policies adopted last year made up the bulk of the first half of the address: The impact of the "Recovery Act", AKA "the stimulus," was the focus.

As such, this was one of the most overtly political SOTU speeches in some time. But perhaps this is actually where the country is -- that actually is the reality that Barack Obama sees.

And so, he has decided to double down on the political -- rather than economic or security -- reality of the moment.

Consider, one conservative last night declared that he was surprised that Obama displayed none of the contrition of
Bill Clinton's 1995 "the era of big government is over" SOTU. Another analyst made a similar point.

Huh!!! Really?

Losing Ted Kennedy's Senate seat is the political equivalent of losing both chambers of Congress -- including the Democratic House for the first time in 40 years! Conservatives really want to make that comparison? Obama appears to be making the bet that a president gets two years before the inevitable midterm correction delivered by the voters. To toss aside all plans now would be the mark of someone with absolutely NO backbone.

Which is why something Obama included in the speech was so off-putting (from a traditional SOTU perspective):
To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve some problems, not run for the hills. And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that sixty votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town, then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well. Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions. So let’s show the American people that we can do it together.
I didn't have time to pour through all SOTUs given, but I can't remember when a POTUS explicitly reminded his side of the size of its majority and the other side the price that comes with asserting that 60 votes are necessary for passage of major bills.

He was, at that moment warning that Democrats risked being labeled cowards and Republicans obstructionists if his agenda wasn't pushed through. Was that serious ass-covering ("If this all falls apart, it's your fault, not mine!")? Maybe, but it's not a completely unfair reading of the current political reality.

Ronald Reagan got his tax cuts through a Democratic House and GOP Senate. George W. Bush -- after losing the popular vote in 2000 -- got tax cuts and No Child Left Behind through a split Senate. Even after the Jeffords flip gave Democrats the majority, the hated-by-Dems Ted
Olson was approved as Bush's solicitor general.

The point here is that with much smaller margins, Republican presidents get things done -- usually because Republicans support the individual in the White House.

Unfair or not, Barack Obama is daring Democrats to walk away from him on health care -- now that each chamber has passed a bill. A party legislative dream of decades is tantalizingly close. November may prove that Massachusetts was the warning sign that Republicans and many independents believe it to be. But Obama has put down the gauntlet to declare that he deserves to have half his first term play out before the post-mortems of his presidency are carved in stone -- regardless of how unpopular health care is at this moment.

In short, Obama is faced with the perpetual tug in politics -- does an elected leader stick to the inner compass or does he follow what the polls (and one special election) tell him?

Obama seems willing to bet his congressional majority on the former. That's why this was a give-no-inch political speech.

That's not to say that there weren't areas in which he still managed to leave himself vulnerable. While he -- in his own fashion -- went after the economic fears bedeviling the country, he ignored the advice of one blogging pundit who suggested hours before the speech that he make an aggressive rhetorical move to speak to terrorism concerns. Obama's mild reference to the Christmas bomber may be an underselling that could well come back to haunt him.

But in the larger picture, we'll see, come November, if the overall bet Barack Obama made Wednesday night was a smart or stunningly stupid one. In the interim, it's going to be bumpy ride, because Obama declared the state of our politics to be fractious and harsh -- and
he's willing to declare it a war zone.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010


The Competence Factor

Every State of the Union is filled with a laundry list of policy proclamations. There will also be the requisite guests in the balcony that symbolize some presidential priority. And, of course, there will be the staged lines guaranteed to elicit applause/standing ovation from one side of the aisle and scorn (at best) from the other side (will the GOP assign a page to be on "gag-Joe-Wilson" duty?).

However, the best thing Barack Obama might try to present tonight isn't a huge list, but project more a mood of control. In the last few weeks, continued unemployment, the health-care reform mess -- combined with the Christmas Day airplane plot -- helps underscore a sense that Washington, DC, isn't working as it should. Has Barack Obama launched too ambitious an agenda for sclerotic Washington to push through? Is it too much, too soon? Was a freshman president who had barely four years as a senator too naive to think the "establishment" could juggle all the balls he tossed into the air?

Those balls are still floating.

Obama needs to put forth words of to speak to the nation's broader anxiety -- anxiety grounded in both economic and personal safety fears. That means he's got to go beyond just talking about job creation.

He's got to to reassure the country that his approach to dealing with terrorists -- closing Gitmo, moving detainees stateside, trying them in civilian courts, giving them Miranda rights -- is not just constitutional, but is also the smartest option that will keep Americans safe. (And, yes, that means at home and abroad: our servicemen and women shouldn't, say, have to fight terrorists that have been released from Gitmo).

In short, Barack Obama has to reassure the American people that they were correct when they took a flier on a freshman senator who just happened to be attractive, had a great personal story, a beautiful family and could speak fantastically. Can he convince them that he's competent enough to get Washington working?

Tonight's speech is a start, but after a disappointing first year, Barack Obama needs, in the days ahead, the power of deeds rather than words.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010


Today's Word


UPDATE: Alas, it was not to be. For most Jets fans, perhaps the most foreboding statistic shown on CBS right before halftime was "Jets defense had never given up a touchdown in the last two minutes of the first half." That stat, of course, was shown right after Peyton Manning had driven the team 90 yards to make the score 17-13 in the last two minutes. Instead of the Jets up by 11 and getting the ball to start the third quarter, the Colts grabbed confidence and momentum.

Of course, Shonn Greene getting hurt on the first play of the third quarter didn't help. But that explained why the Jets couldn't score in the second half. The big story is that the Colts adjusted on the Jets defense -- Manning was barely touched from late in the second quarter through the rest of the game. That allowed the best QB in the game to pick apart the Jets secondary -- by going everywhere Darrelle Revis wasn't. The "secondary" receivers -- Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie -- took over the game.

So it goes.

But Jets fans have to feel better about this off-season than any in recent memory. Mark Sanchez didn't justt "manage" the game. He helped the team truly win the first half. He's going to look and play even better in his second year -- barring injury, of course. Greene will be better. One assumes Leon Washington will be back as well. The offense will be more efficient and explosive all around.

Rex Ryan has really infused the organization with a new confidence and energy. 2010 can't come soon enough!!

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