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“Substance Over Style”: New Term, New Truthers, Same President Obama

If I had to pick my favorite political ad of the last few years, a strong contender would be the one from 2010 Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, in which she looked into the camera and said sweetly, “I’m not a witch. I’m nothing you’ve heard. I’m you.” The combination of a hilarious lack of subtlety with a kind of sad earnestness made it unforgettable. And it’s the message that almost every politician tries to offer at one point or another (the “I’m you” part, not the part about not being a witch). They all want us to think they’re us, or at least enough like us for us to trust them.

So when the White House released a photo over the weekend of President Obama shooting skeet, the smoke of freedom issuing forth from the barrel of his gun, you could almost hear him saying, “I’m not an effete socialist gun-hater. I’m you.” If “you” happen to be one of the minority of Americans who own guns, that is. Even at this late date, Obama and his aides can’t resist the urge, when confronted with a controversial policy debate, to send the message of cultural affinity to the people who—let’s be honest—he is most unlike.

We should give the White House some credit, though. This came about because in an interview with The New Republic, Obama was asked whether he had ever fired a gun, and he responded that he shoots skeet “all the time” at Camp David, prompting conservatives to begin demanding photographic evidence. His aides knew that a photo of Obama shooting skeet wasn’t going to convince anybody of anything, and in fact would just spur the President’s most deranged opponents to make fools of themselves. Which is why White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer tweeted the photo “For all the ‘skeeters,'” and senior advisor David Plouffe did the same, writing, “Attn skeet birthers. Make our day – let the photoshop conspiracies begin!” Lo and behold, a bevy of conservatives obliged with fine-grained analyses of why the photo was faked or staged, making it clear that their opposition to President Obama is rational and policy-based, and they are absolutely not a bunch of crazy people.

And to Obama’s credit, in the interview that started the discussion about skeet shooting, he displayed what we actually ought to seek from politicians: an effort to understand people’s differing perspectives and the things that are important to them. “Part of being able to move this forward is understanding the reality of guns in urban areas are very different from the realities of guns in rural areas,” he said. “And if you grew up and your dad gave you a hunting rifle when you were ten, and you went out and spent the day with him and your uncles, and that became part of your family’s traditions, you can see why you’d be pretty protective of that.”

That’s true, and the gun owners Obama is referring to are, according to opinion polls, supportive of the kinds of measures he’s proposing, like universal background checks and limits on certain military-style guns and large-capacity ammunition clips. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the controversy from the 2008 campaign, when Obama was recorded saying people in small towns “cling to guns or religion” (you may have forgotten it, but people on the right haven’t, I assure you). A supporter had asked him how to convince people in economically depressed small towns in places like Pennsylvania who are hostile toward Democrats to change their minds, and his answer was actually an attempt to explain to the questioner where those people might be coming from. What he was saying was that they felt let down by politicians who promised them again and again that they could improve their economic circumstances, and so they turned to cultural issues—and more particularly, resentments—to define their political identity and determine their votes. He ended by saying that even if you can’t convince very many of them, it’s important to try. It may have been phrased inartfully (to use Mitt Romney’s formulation), but it was an attempt to understand and bridge personal divides, even if it became exactly the opposite. He couldn’t say “I’m you” to those small-town white voters, but he was trying to say, “I get you.”

Let’s not forget too that part of what made Barack Obama so much more appealing than the average Democratic candidate to so many liberals in 2008 is that, in fact, he is them. Multi-racial, hailing from a big city, educated, sophisticated and urbane, Obama looked to many liberals like the kind of person they might encounter in their daily lives, maybe even the kind of person they imagine themselves to be. Much as liberals have derided the efforts of politicians from both parties to create cultural affinity—from George W. Bush, son of Kennebunkport, pretending to be a down-home reg’lar fella, to John Kerry, well, hunting—their cultural connection with Obama was thrilling to them. But liberals don’t get that same thrill from him anymore, for the simple reason that he’s been president for four years, and those feelings of affinity from 2008 have been overwhelmed by the feelings they have about everything that has happened since, both good and bad.

And that’s true of the rest of the country too. Americans may not follow politics very closely, and they may not know very much about policy, but in 2013, if there’s one thing they have a pretty good idea about, it’s their feelings on one Barack Hussein Obama. After a first term full of consequential policy changes and significant real-world developments, substance has inevitably become far more important than style. The ones who find him alien and threatening wouldn’t have their minds changed by a thousand photos, no matter what they seemed to communicate. Obama surely knows that. But maybe someday, a Republican candidate will stage a photo-op to convince voters that despite all appearances, he’s just like college professors or Brooklyn hipsters. Instead of the “heartland” voters being pandered to, it’ll be the coastal urban dwellers. “I’m you,” he’ll say. And just as they do now, voters will respond, “Yeah, right.”


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, February 4, 2013

February 4, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Public Be Damned”: GOP Senators Threaten Obstruction Unless Consumer Protection Bureau Is Weakened

When the Dodd-Frank financial reform law first passed, Senate Republicans refused to confirm a director for the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. They promised to block any nominee — regardless of that nominee’s qualifications for the job — unless the Bureau was weakened and made subservient to the same bank regulators who failed to prevent the 2008 financial crisis.

President Obama was thus forced to recess appoint Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray to be the Bureau’s first director. Now that Obama has renewed Cordray’s nomination, the Senate GOP is again promising to block any nominee unless the Bureau is watered down:

In a letter sent to President Obama on Friday, 43 Republican senators committed to refusing approval of any nominee to head the consumer watchdog until the bureau underwent significant reform. Lawmakers signing on to the letter included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee.

“The CFPB as created by the deeply flawed Dodd-Frank Act is one of the least accountable in Washington,” said McConnell. “Today’s letter reaffirms a commitment by 43 Senators to fix the poorly thought structure of this agency that has unprecedented reach and control over individual consumer decisions — but an unprecedented lack of oversight and accountability.” […]

In particular, Republicans want to see the top of the bureau changed so it is run by a bipartisan, five-member commission, as opposed to a lone director.

They also want to see the bureau’s funding fall under the control of congressional appropriators — it currently is funded via a revenue stream directly from the Federal Reserve.

Republicans want to implement a commission (instead of a lone director) and subject the CFPB to the appropriations process in order to stuff it full of appointees with no interest in regulating and starve it of funds. The other financial system regulators that have to go before Congress for their funds already don’t have the resources to implement Dodd-Frank, thanks the House GOP, leaving large swathes of it unfinished. There are also a host of other reasons that the CFPB needs to be both independently funded and have a strong, independent director.

The CFPB has done important work on behalf of consumers, winning wide praise from consumer advocates and the financial industry. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have made it abundantly clear that they believe that blocking any and all nominees is an acceptable strategy.


By: Pat Garofalo, Think Progress, February 2, 2013

February 4, 2013 Posted by | Consumer Financial Protection Bureau | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The First Progressive Revolution”: It Did Happen And It Will Happen Again

Exactly a century ago, on February 3, 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, authorizing a federal income tax. Congress turned it into a graduated tax, based on “capacity to pay.”

It was among the signal victories of the progressive movement—the first constitutional amendment in 40 years (the first 10 had been included in the Bill of Rights, the 11th and 12th in 1789 and 1804, and three others in consequence of the Civil War), reflecting a great political transformation in America.

The 1880s and 1890s had been the Gilded Age, the time of robber barons, when a small number controlled almost all the nation’s wealth as well as our democracy, when poverty had risen to record levels, and when it looked as though the country was destined to become a moneyed aristocracy.

But almost without warning, progressives reversed the tide. Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901, pledging to break up the giant trusts and end the reign of the “malefactors of great wealth.” Laws were enacted protecting the public from impure foods and drugs, and from corrupt legislators.

By 1909 Democrats and progressive Republicans had swept many state elections, subsequently establishing the 40-hour work week and other reforms that would later be the foundation stones for the New Deal. Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 presidential election.

A progressive backlash against concentrated wealth and power occurred a century ago in America. In the 1880s and 1890s such a movement seemed improbable, if not impossible. Only idealists and dreamers thought the nation had the political will to reform itself, let alone enact a constitutional amendment of such importance—analogous, today, to an amendment reversing Citizens United v. FEC and limiting the flow of big money into politics.

But it did happen. And it will happen again.


By: Robert Reich, The American Prospect, February 3, 2013

February 4, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Income Gap | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Peacemaking On Contraception”: An Olive Branch To The Catholic Church On Contraception Coverage

America’s Big Religious War ended on Friday. Or at least it ought to.

A little more than a year ago, the Obama administration set off a bitter and unnecessary clash with the Roman Catholic Church over rules mandating broad contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The Department of Health and Human Services’ announcement of new regulations is a clear statement that President Obama never wanted this fight.

The decision, the administration’s second attempt at compromise, ought to be taken by the nation’s Catholic bishops as the victory it is. Many of the country’s most prominent prelates are inclined to do just that — even if the most conservative bishops seem to want to keep the battle raging.

But more importantly, the final HHS rules are the product of a genuine and heartfelt struggle over the meaning of religious liberty in a pluralistic society. The contraception dispute was difficult because legitimate claims and interests were in conflict.

The vast majority of Americans believe that health insurance should cover contraception. At the same time, the Catholic Church has a theological objection to contraception, even if most Catholics (including regular churchgoers) disagree with its position. The church insisted that its vast array of charitable, educational and medical institutions should be exempt from the contraception requirement.

The church made a mistake in arguing its case on the grounds of “religious liberty.” By inflating their legitimate desire for accommodation into a liberty claim, the bishops implied that the freedom not to pay for birth control rose to the same level as, say, the freedom to worship or to preach the faith. This led to wild rhetorical excesses, including a comparison of Obama to Hitler and Stalin by one bishop and an analogy between the president’s approach and the Soviet constitution by another.

But the church had good reason to object to the narrowness of the original HHS definition of what constituted a religious organization entitled to exemptions from the contraception requirement. If an organization did not have “the inculcation of religious values” as its purpose and did not employ or serve primarily those who shared the faith, it got no exclusion at all.

The problem is that the vast charitable work done by religious organizations to help millions, regardless of their faith, is manifestly inspired by religion. The church could not abide the implicit reduction of its role merely to private expressions of faith. Don’t most Americans devoutly wish that religious people will be moved by their beliefs to works of charity and justice?

The HHS rules announced Friday scrapped this troubling definition in favor of long-established language in the Internal Revenue Code. In an interview, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius showed a becoming humility, and it would be nice if this rubbed off on her critics. However defensible the original rules might have been, she said, “they really caused more anxiety and conflict than was appropriate.”

“What we’ve learned,” she said, “is that there are issues to balance in this area. There were issues of religious freedom on two sides of the ledger” — the freedom of the religious institutions and the freedom of their employees who might not share their objections to contraception.

This is where the other accommodation kicked in: Many Catholic institutions self-insure. While the administration rightly wants broad contraception coverage to include hospital workers, teachers and others at religious institutions, it also seeks to keep religious organizations from having “to contract, arrange, pay or refer” for coverage “to which they object on religious grounds.”

Under the new rules, employees who want it will be able to get stand-alone coverage from a third party. Some of the costs will be covered by small offsets in the fees insurers will have to pay to participate in the new exchanges where their policies will be on sale. It’s an elegant fix.

There are two reasons for hope here, particularly for Catholic progressives. First, the administration recognized the problem it had created and resolved it. Vice President Biden played a key role here, keeping lines of communication with the church open.

Second, many bishops have come to realize that the appearance of a state of war with Obama not only troubled many of the faithful — Obama, after all, narrowly carried the Catholic vote — but also threatened to cast a church with strong commitments to immigrants, social justice and nonviolence as a partisan, even right-wing organization.

This war has been bad for everyone involved. Obama has moved to end it. Here’s a prayer that the bishops will also be instruments of peace.


By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 3, 2013

February 4, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Birth Control | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rewriting Inconvenient History”: Calling Out Conservative Bugnut Idiocy

Rush Limbaugh thinks John Lewis should have been armed.

“If a lot of African-Americans back in the ’60s had guns and the legal right to use them for self-defense, you think they would have needed Selma?” he said recently on his radio show, referencing the 1965 voting rights campaign in which Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, had his skull fractured by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. “If John Lewis had had a gun, would he have been beat upside the head on the bridge?”

Right. Because a shootout between protesters and state troopers would have done so much more to secure the right to vote.

Incredibly, that’s not the stupidest thing anyone has said recently about the civil rights movement.

No, that distinction goes to one Larry Ward, who claimed in an appearance on CNN that Martin Luther King Jr. would have supported Ward’s call for a Gun Appreciation Day “if he were alive today.” In other words, the premier American pacifist of the 20th century would be singing the praises of guns, except that he was shot in the face with one 45 years ago.

Thus do social conservatives continue to rewrite the inconvenient truths of African-American history, repurposing that tale of incandescent triumph and inconsolable woe to make it useful within the crabbed corners of their failed and discredited dogma. This seems an especially appropriate moment to call them on it. Not simply because Friday was the first day of Black History Month, but because Monday is the centenary of a signal event within that history.

Rosa Louise McCauley was born a hundred years ago. You know her better by her married name — Rosa Parks, the quiet, unassuming 42-year-old seamstress from Montgomery, AL, who ignited the civil rights movement in December, 1955, when bus driver J.F. Blake ordered her to give up her seat for a white man and she refused.

Doubtless, Limbaugh thinks she should have shot Blake instead, but she did not. She only waited quietly for police to come arrest her. Thus began the 381-day Montgomery bus boycott.

Though legend would have it that Parks, who died in 2005, refused because her feet were tired, the truth, she always said, was that it was not her body that was fatigued. “The only tired I was, was tired of giving in” to a system that judged her, as a black woman, unworthy of a seat on a public bus.

Years later, Martin Luther King Jr., the young preacher who led the boycott, would phrase that philosophy of refusal in terms of rhetorical elegance: “Noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”

Mrs. Parks put it more simply that day in 1955: “No,” she said.

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI, which counts Rosa Parks’ bus among its holdings, has persuaded the Senate to designate Monday a “National Day of Courage” in her honor. Full disclosure: I gave a compensated speech for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights at the museum last month. While there, I had the distinct privilege of climbing onto that bus.

Sitting in that sacred space, it is easy to imagine yourself transported back to that fateful moment of decision. Fifty-eight years later, those of us who are guardians — and beneficiaries — of African-American history, who live in a world transformed by the decisions of Rosa, Martin, Fannie Lou, Malcolm, Frederick, W.E.B., Booker T. and a million others whose names history did not record, now have decisions of our own to make. One of them is this:

What shall we say to conservatives who seem hellbent on rewriting, disrespecting and arrogating that history? Many sharp rebukes come to mind, but none of them improves on the brave thing said by a tired woman born a hundred years ago this week.



By: Leonard Pitts Jr., The National Memo, February 4, 2013

February 4, 2013 Posted by | Civil Rights | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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