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“Beltway Hyperventilators”: Those Media Hysterics Who Said Obama’s Presidency Was Dead Were Wrong, Again

It’s been a pretty good week for the Obama administration. The bungled healthcare.gov Web site emerged vastly improved following an intensive fix-it push, allowing some 25,000 to sign up per day, as many as signed up in all of October. Paul Ryan and Patty Murray inched toward a modest budget agreement. This morning came a remarkably solid jobs report, showing 203,000 new positions created in November, the unemployment rate falling to 7 percent for the first time in five years, and the labor force participation rate ticking back upward. Meanwhile, the administration’s push for a historic nuclear settlement with Iran continued apace.

All of these developments are tenuous. The Web site’s back-end troubles could still pose big problems (though word is they are rapidly improving, too) and the delay in getting the site up working leaves little time to meet enrollment goals. Job growth could easily stutter out again. The Iran deal could founder amid resistance from Congress or our allies.

Still, it seems safe to say that the Obama presidency is not, in fact, over and done with. What, you say, was there any question of that? Well, yes, there was – less than a month ago. On November 14, the New York Times raised the “K” word in a front-page headline:

President Obama is now threatened by a similar toxic mix. The disastrous rollout of his health care law not only threatens the rest of his agenda but also raises questions about his competence in the same way that the Bush administration’s botched response to Hurricane Katrina undermined any semblance of Republican efficiency.

A day later, Dana Milbank gave an even blunter declaration of doom in the Washington Post:

There may well be enough time to salvage Obamacare.

But on the broader question of whether Obama can rebuild an effective presidency after this debacle, it’s starting to look as if it may be game over.

And Ron Fournier, the same week, explained in National Journal that things were so grim for Obama because his presidency had reached a kind of metaphysical breaking point:

Americans told President Obama in 2012, “If you like your popularity, you can keep it.”

We lied.

Well, at least we didn’t tell him the whole truth. What we meant to say was that Obama could keep the support of a majority of Americans unless he broke our trust. Throughout his first term, even as his job-approval rating cycled up and down, one thing remained constant: Polls showed that most Americans trusted Obama.

As they say in Washington, that is no longer operable.

Granted, finding overwrought punditry in Washington is about as difficult as hunting for game at one of Dick Cheney’s favorite preserves. Making grand declarations based on the vibrations of the moment is part of the pundit’s job description, and every political writer with any gumption is going to find himself or herself out on the wrong limb every once in a while. That said, this has been an especially inglorious stretch for Beltway hyperventilators. First came the government shutdown and the ensuing declamations about the crack-up of the Republican Party. Then, with whiplash force, came the obituaries for the Obama presidency. The Washington press corps has been reduced to the state of the tennis-watching kittens in this video, with the generic congressional ballot surveys playing the part of the ball flitting back and forth.

What explains for this even-worse-than-usual excitability? Much of it has to do with the age-old who’s-up-who’s down, permanent-campaign tendencies of the political media, exacerbated by a profusion of polling, daily tipsheets and Twitter. Overlaid on this is our obsession with the presidency, which leads us both to inflate the aura of the office and to view periods of tribulation as some sort of existential collapse. Add in the tendencies of even more serious reporters to get into a chew-toy mode with tales of scandal or policy dysfunction, as happened with the healthcare.gov debacle – the media has been so busy hyping every last aspect of the rollout’s woes that it did indeed start to seem inconceivable that things might get better soon.

But things did get better, as one should have been able to anticipate, given the resources and pressure that were belatedly brought to bear on the challenge. The fiasco took a real toll on the law and on the liberal project, for which Barack Obama bears real responsibility. But the end of a presidency? Take a deep breath, folks.

The sad thing about this spectacle isn’t even the predictable display of presentism. It’s the evident ignorance of the constitution and the basics of American politics. For the next three years, Obama will occupy the presidency, a position that comes with remarkable legal powers, especially now that he’s been partly liberated from the filibuster’s constraints. Washington columnists—the folks who presumably get paid to disseminate this kind of wisdom to the rubes beyond the Beltway—ought to know this better than anyone else, yet even as they fixate so much on the office’s aura, they are awfully quick to declare an administration defunct. News happens, and in the Oval Office, or the House majority, you always have the ability to influence it, even when you don’t deserve it. Kind of like certain well-known writers I could name.

 

By: Alec MacGillis, The New Republic, December 6, 2013

December 7, 2013 Posted by | Media, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Obama Gets Real”: A Growing Deficit Of Opportunity Is A Bigger Threat To Our Future Than Our Rapidly Shrinking Fiscal Deficit

Much of the media commentary on President Obama’s big inequality speech was cynical. You know the drill: it’s yet another “reboot” that will go nowhere; none of it will have any effect on policy, and so on. But before we talk about the speech’s possible political impact or lack thereof, shouldn’t we look at the substance? Was what the president said true? Was it new? If the answer to these questions is yes — and it is — then what he said deserves a serious hearing.

And once you realize that, you also realize that the speech may matter a lot more than the cynics imagine.

First, about those truths: Mr. Obama laid out a disturbing — and, unfortunately, all too accurate — vision of an America losing touch with its own ideals, an erstwhile land of opportunity becoming a class-ridden society. Not only do we have an ever-growing gap between a wealthy minority and the rest of the nation; we also, he declared, have declining mobility, as it becomes harder and harder for the poor and even the middle class to move up the economic ladder. And he linked rising inequality with falling mobility, asserting that Horatio Alger stories are becoming rare precisely because the rich and the rest are now so far apart.

This isn’t entirely new terrain for Mr. Obama. What struck me about this speech, however, was what he had to say about the sources of rising inequality. Much of our political and pundit class remains devoted to the notion that rising inequality, to the extent that it’s an issue at all, is all about workers lacking the right skills and education. But the president now seems to accept progressive arguments that education is at best one of a number of concerns, that America’s growing class inequality largely reflects political choices, like the failure to raise the minimum wage along with inflation and productivity.

And because the president was willing to assign much of the blame for rising inequality to bad policy, he was also more forthcoming than in the past about ways to change the nation’s trajectory, including a rise in the minimum wage, restoring labor’s bargaining power, and strengthening, not weakening, the safety net.

And there was this: “When it comes to our budget, we should not be stuck in a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago.  A relentlessly growing deficit of opportunity is a bigger threat to our future than our rapidly shrinking fiscal deficit.” Finally! Our political class has spent years obsessed with a fake problem — worrying about debt and deficits that never posed any threat to the nation’s future — while showing no interest in unemployment and stagnating wages. Mr. Obama, I’m sorry to say, bought into that diversion. Now, however, he’s moving on.

Still, does any of this matter? The conventional pundit wisdom of the moment is that Mr. Obama’s presidency has run aground, even that he has become irrelevant. But this is silly. In fact, it’s silly in at least three ways.

First, much of the current conventional wisdom involves extrapolating from Obamacare’s shambolic start, and assuming that things will be like that for the next three years. They won’t. HealthCare.gov is working much better, people are signing up in growing numbers, and the whole mess is already receding in the rear-view mirror.

Second, Mr. Obama isn’t running for re-election. At this point, he needs to be measured not by his poll numbers but by his achievements, and his health reform, which represents a major strengthening of America’s social safety net, is a huge achievement. He’ll be considered one of our most important presidents as long as he can defend that achievement and fend off attempts to tear down other parts of the safety net, like food stamps. And by making a powerful, cogent case that we need a stronger safety net to preserve opportunity in an age of soaring inequality, he’s setting himself up for exactly such a defense.

Finally, ideas matter, even if they can’t be turned into legislation overnight. The wrong turn we’ve taken in economic policy — our obsession with debt and “entitlements,” when we should have been focused on jobs and opportunity — was, of course, driven in part by the power of wealthy vested interests. But it wasn’t just raw power. The fiscal scolds also benefited from a sort of ideological monopoly: for several years you just weren’t considered serious in Washington unless you worshipped at the altar of Simpson and Bowles.

Now, however, we have the president of the United States breaking ranks, finally sounding like the progressive many of his supporters thought they were backing in 2008. This is going to change the discourse — and, eventually, I believe, actual policy.

So don’t believe the cynics. This was an important speech by a president who can still make a very big difference.

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 5, 2013

December 7, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Income Gap | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“An Undead Policy Idea”: Rand Paul Pulls Out His Dog-Eared Playbook

Sen. Rand Paul decamped in Detroit today to open a new GOP office (good luck with that), and while he was at it, pulled out his thin, dog-eared playbook of conservative urban policy ideas, as reported by Slate‘s Emma Roller:

Paul’s real mission in Detroit is his new plan to stimulate the bankrupt city’s economy. In a call with reporters Thursday, Paul announced a bill that he insists is not a stimulus. The gist: radically lower taxes for areas that have 1.5 times the national unemployment rate, or roughly 11 percent. As of August, unemployment in Wayne County was at 11.1 percent, and 17.7 percent in Detroit proper.

Yes, it’s “enterprise zones,” the crown jewel of 1980s-style Republican expressions of concern for urban areas, associated especially with HUD secretary and conservative warhorse Jack Kemp. As Roller notes, it hasn’t been a particularly successful idea:

Would insanely low corporate taxes convince Jeff Bezos to build Amazon’s next warehouse in some long-abandoned Detroit building? Would they even convince business owners in adjacent Macomb County—which has an only 9.5 percent unemployment rate—to venture into the city? Critics (as they are wont to be) are skeptical:

“Enterprise zones are not especially effective at increasing overall economic activity or raising incomes for the poor,” said Len Burman, director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and a former Clinton administration official. “They just seem to move the locus of activity across the zone’s boundary — reducing activity outside the zone and increasing it inside.”

Burman might well know, because probably the most extensive application of the enterprise zone concept was actually as a small element of the Clinton administration’s “empowerment zone” initiative, which packaged federal grants with tax concessions in urban areas agreeing to undertake a comprehensive strategy for self-improvement. This was not one of my favorite Clinton policies (as I expressed once in a magazine op-ed that enraged the initiative’s majordomo, a guy named Andrew Cuomo), but it was a lot better than the original GOP model.

But here it is again, a truly undead policy idea.

Once when I was involved in rural development efforts in Georgia I wrote (for the private amusement of my colleagues at the state agency where I worked) a savage parody of enterprise zones by “proposing” that we offer poor counties the opportunity to legalize every kind of income-producing vice: prostitution, gambling, drugs, you name it. They’d be called “erogenous zones.” A quarter century later, enterprise zones haven’t become any less worthy of ridicule.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, December 5, 2013

December 7, 2013 Posted by | Rand Paul | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Oh Ye Of Little Intelligence”: Rick Santorum Wins The Prize For The Worst Nelson Mandela Tribute

ObamaCare is a great injustice, much like the institutionalized racism and segregation of post-colonial South Africa, according to former Pennsylvania senator and failed presidential candidate Rick Santorum (R).

In an appearance on Fox News with Bill O’Reilly Thursday, Santorum likened Mandela’s anti-apartheid crusade to Republicans’ continued efforts to dismantle the president’s health care law.

“He was fighting against some great injustice,” Santorum said, “and I would make the argument that we have a great injustice going on right now in this country with an ever-increasing size of government that is taking over and controlling people’s lives. And ObamaCare is front and center in that.”

Leaving aside the fact that shanghaiing a world leader’s death to peddle your political beliefs is gross opportunism at its worst, Santorum’s comparison is flawed for another simple reason: Mandela was a prominent proponent of expanding access to health care, especially for the poor and disadvantaged.

From a South African department of health report on the nation’s health care system:

On the 24th of May 1994, President Nelson Mandela announced in his State of the Nation address that all health care for pregnant women and children under the age of 6 years would be provided free to users of public health facilities. The free care policy at primary care level was extended to all users from 1 April 2006. [DOH]

Free public health care? Sounds like socialism to me.

There’s more.

South Africa’s constitution enshrines a “right” to health care in the same subsection that it guarantees the rights to “sufficient food and water.” The Kaiser Family Foundation named an award after Mandela honoring “the efforts of individuals who make extraordinary contributions to improving the health and health care of the most disadvantaged sectors of the population in South Africa and internationally.” And Mandela’s work, both in office and after, laid the groundwork for South Africa’s new universal health care system.

We’re sure Rick Santorum will be issuing a retraction any moment now.

 

By: Jon Terbush, The Week, December 6, 2013

December 7, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Nelson Mandela | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why Republicans Can’t Address Rising Inequality”: Even In The Face Of Reality, They Cannot Confess That They Aren’t Troubled At All

So far, the Republican response to President Obama’s historic address on economic inequality has not veered from the predictable clichés of Tea Party rhetoric. It was appropriately summarized in a tweet from House Speaker John Boehner, complaining that the Democrat in the White House wants “more government rather than more freedom” – and ignoring his challenge to Republicans to present solutions of their own.

But for Republicans to promote real remedies – the kind that would require more than 140 characters of text – they first would have to believe that inequality is a real problem. And there is no evidence that they do, despite fitful attempts by GOP leaders on Capitol Hill to display their “empathy” for the struggling, shrinking middle class.

Back when Occupy Wall Street briefly shook up the national conversation, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan both professed concern over the nation’s growing disparities of wealth and income. But their promises of proof that they care – and more important, of policy proposals to address what Cantor admits are “big challenges” – simply never materialized.

Meanwhile, working Americans learned what rich Republicans say in private about these sensitive topics when the “47 percent” video surfaced the following summer, in the final months of the 2012 presidential campaign. In Mitt Romney’s unguarded remarks to an audience of super-rich Florida financiers, the contempt for anyone who has benefited from public programs (other than banking bailouts) was palpable. Whether that sorry episode turned the election is arguable, but the Republican brand has never recovered – and the perception that Republicans like Romney and Ryan are hostile to the interests of working people remains indelible.

Of course, the House Republicans have done nothing to diminish that impression and everything to reinforce it. They have set about cutting food stamps, killing extended unemployment benefits, rejecting Medicaid expansion, as if competing in demonstrations of callous indifference. They complain about the lack of jobs – so long as they can blame Obama – but undermine every program designed to relieve the suffering of the jobless.

Callous or not, they are certainly indifferent to the injuries of inequality. In a party consumed by right-wing ideology and market idolatry, the further enrichment of the super-rich at the expense of everyone else is a feature of capitalism, not a bug. Whenever they bray about “getting government out of the way,” that means removing the last defenses against that process.

With Pope Francis and President Obama — a pair of the world’s most powerful voices — warning against the dangers of social exclusion and excessive greed, we can expect to hear expressions of remorse as well as rage from all the usual right-wing suspects. But what we shouldn’t expect is honesty. Republicans know that worsening inequality disturbs the great majority of Americans, so they cannot confess that they aren’t troubled at all.

Congress could begin to address the income gap, which conservative policies have exacerbated for three decades. Raising the minimum wage significantly would be a first step toward restoring fairness. Rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and school systems, rather than letting them continuously decay, would raise employment substantially and improve incomes. Removing obstacles to unionization would begin to level the gross disparities in economic power between the 1 percent and the rest of us.

Now the president has vowed to fight inequality for the rest of his days in office. He is taking that fight directly to the Republicans who have frustrated so many of his initiatives. He will have to cast aside the last illusions of bipartisanship.

No matter what he does or says, he may not be able to win a higher minimum wage or a serious jobs program or universal pre-school with the other party controlling Congress. But if he consistently challenges us — and his adversaries — to restore an American dream that includes everyone, he may yet fashion a legacy worthy of his transformative ambitions.

 

By: Joe Conason, Featured Post, The National Memo, December 5, 2013

December 7, 2013 Posted by | Economic Inequality | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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