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“From ‘Lame Duck’ To ‘Fourth Quarter'”: One For The History Books, As President Obama Plays Through To The End Of The Game

It seems to me that the job of political scientists is to identify patterns in political history as a way to predict the future. One of those patterns that has been pretty generally accepted is that once a presidential campaign begins to replace a second-termer, the White House occupant goes into “lame duck” status. That is certainly what everyone was expecting from President Obama after the huge losses Democrats suffered in the 2014 midterms.

But as we all know by now, the President decided he’d start a new pattern…one that saw his remaining two years as a “fourth quarter” in which he vowed to play to the end. His success in being able to do that hinged on several factors.

1. A scandal-free presidency

During my lifetime, no two-term president has managed to escape the drag of either scandal or terribly flawed policies at the end of their second term. Johnson had Vietnam. Nixon had Watergate. Reagan had Iran/Contra. Clinton had impeachment. Bush had the war in Iraq and the Great Recession.

Recently David Brooks noted that the current administration is the exception to that pattern.

I have my disagreements, say, with President Obama, but President Obama has run an amazingly scandal-free administration, not only he himself, but the people around him. He’s chosen people who have been pretty scandal-free.

That means that not only does the President maintain the good will of most Americans, but he doesn’t have to devote an inordinate amount of time to defending himself or attempting to fix policy failures.

2. Previous work is bearing fruit

Last December President Obama sat down for an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep. In response to questions about some of the bold moves he’d already taken since the 2014 midterms, the President said this:

But at the end of 2014, I could look back and say we are as well-positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically, that American leadership is more needed around the world than ever before — and that is liberating in the sense that a lot of the work that we’ve done is now beginning to bear fruit. And it gives me an opportunity then to start focusing on some of the other hard challenges that I didn’t always have the time or the capacity to get to earlier in my presidency.

The major things he is referring to are that the economy was recovering, healthcare reform was working and ground troops were out of both Iraq and Afghanistan. But in addition to all that, diplomacy had opened the doors in Cuba, brought Iran to the negotiating table and led to an agreement with China about climate change.

3. Pen and phone strategy

A lot of the assumption about President Obama’s pending lame duckness had to do with the intransigence of Congress that was only bolstered by the 2014 midterms. But in January of 2014, the President instructed his Cabinet to bring him ideas he could implement via executive order or through persuasion with business leaders and local/state governments. Thus began his “pen and phone” strategy that led to everything from DAPA to new rules for overtime pay to working with local governments to provide paid sick/family leave.

4. Big events

Political pundits are often guilty of assuming that whatever is happening today will be a permanent narrative. But national/international events have a way of changing the current dynamic. Nowhere has that been more evident than the handwringing over President Obama’s assumed irrelevance when House Democrats handed him a “humiliating” defeat on TPA a couple of weeks ago. We all know how that one turned out. Just as the House and Senate re-grouped to pass TPA, the events in Charleston, SC were unfolding and the Supreme Court was preparing to hand down rulings affirming Obamacare, marriage equality and disparate impact. As Michael Cohen wrote, we’ve recently been witness to ten days that turned America Into a better place. From an affirmation of his policies to his Amazing Grace eulogy, President Obama has been front and center on it all.

But big events can help or hurt a presidency. The lesson we should all learn from their recent trajectory is that things can change in a heartbeat. President Obama still has a year and a half to go. There are a few things we know are coming up, like whether or not he is able to work with Iran and P5+1 to reach a deal on nuclear weapons. This December we’ll learn whether or not the agreements the Obama administration has crafted with countries like China, India and now Brazil will lead to an international agreement on climate change at the UN Conference in Paris. Both of those would be historic achievements. And then, of course, there are the unknown events that could be on the horizon.

This may very well be the first time in the modern era that a sitting president has as much influence on a presidential campaign as any of the candidates who are running for office. The increasing size of the clown car on the Republican side means that it might be months before any one candidate is able to break through all the noise. That leaves the stage pretty wide open for a Democratic message. And Hillary Clinton has wisely chosen to run with President Obama and his record rather than against it. That means she’s looking pretty good right about now.

Whatever happens, this will be one for the history books as lame duckness is tossed aside and President Obama plays through to the end of the fourth quarter.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, July 1, 2015

July 2, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Lame Duck, President Obama | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

“The Trouble With Christie”: It’s More Than Ordinary Narcissism

I was there in Tampa in August, 2012, for Governor Chris Christie’s keynote address at the Republican National Convention, and from the first line I knew this guy was trouble: “Well! This stage and this moment are very improbable for me.” For twenty-four overwrought minutes, Christie spoke, proudly, glowingly, about the subject that really gets him fired up, which is himself—how he always faces the hard truths; how he wants to be respected more than loved; how, of his two parents, he’s much more like his tough, brutally honest Sicilian mother (“I am her son!”) than like his good-hearted, lovable Irish father. It was later observed that the Governor almost forgot to mention the Party’s Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, whose nomination Christie was in Tampa to kick off; less widely remarked was that he also practically disowned his sole surviving parent, who was in the audience listening, and presumably didn’t mind.

The trouble with Christie has to do with more than ordinary narcissism, which, after all, is practically an entry requirement for a political career. When Barack Obama used to tell crowds during the 2008 campaign, “This is not about me. It’s about you,” I always interpreted the words to mean that it actually was about him. But Obama, whose ego is so securely under control that his self-sufficiency has become a point of criticism among Washington pundits, would never devote more than a paragraph to his own personality (as opposed to his biography)—which was the subject not just of Christie’s convention keynote speech but of his entire political career. What struck me in Tampa even more than his self-infatuated lyrics was the score they were set to—the particular combination of bluster, self-pity, sentimentality, and inextinguishable hostility wrapped in appeals to higher things. (After declaring that Democrats “believe the American people are content to live the lie with them,” Christie waved the flag of bipartisanship, saying, “We lose when we play along with their game of scaring and dividing.”) Those are dangerously combustible elements in a political personality. Americans older than fifty are all too familiar with them.

The engineered traffic nightmare in Fort Lee, New Jersey, is, of course, being called Bridgegate. The suffix has been used, overused, and misused for almost every political scandal since a “third-rate burglary” at the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters on the night of June 16, 1972. In the case of Bridgegate, there are several key limiting factors. It’s a state scandal, not a national one. A potential Presidency might be at stake, but not an actual one. No evidence ties the Governor directly to the havoc visited on one of New Jersey’s five hundred and sixty-six municipalities—not yet, anyway. On the scale of Teapot Dome and Iran-Contra and even Monica, the four-day closing of two approach lanes to the George Washington Bridge is very minor league.

So why do I keep having flashbacks to 1972? Some of the parallels are weirdly exact. Whether or not he ordered the Watergate bugging, Richard Nixon ran a campaign of dirty tricks for two reasons: he wanted to run up the score going into his second term, and he was a supremely mean-spirited man. Nixon’s reëlection campaign reached out to as many Democrats as possible (not just elected officials but rank-and-file blue-collar workers and Catholics). Nixon ran not as the Republican Party’s leader but, in the words of his bumper sticker, as just “President Nixon.” His landslide win over George McGovern translated into no Republican advantage in congressional races—the Democrats more than held their own. The Washington Posts David Broder later called it “an extraordinarily selfish victory.”

Christie’s 2013 reëlection tracks closely with this story: an all-out effort to court Democrats in order to maximize his personal power, and a landslide victory in November, with all the benefit going to the Governor, not to his fellow-Republicans in the state legislature. On Christmas, the Times published a piece about Christie’s long record of bullying and retribution. In it, the Fort Lee traffic jam was mentioned as just one of many cases (and, I have to admit, not the one that stayed with me) of vengefulness so petty that it inescapably called to mind the American President who incarnated that quality, and was brought down by it.

In the e-mails that went public last week when the scandal broke, the tone of Christie’s aides and appointees displays the thuggery and overweening arrogance that were characteristic of Nixon’s men when the President was at the height of his popularity—utter contempt for opponents, not the slightest anxiety about getting caught. In both cases, whether or not the boss sanctioned these actions, the tone came from the top. It’s the way officials talk when they feel they have nothing to fear, when there’s a kind of competition to sound toughest, because that’s what the boss wants and rewards. Once all hell broke loose, Christie insisted, in a compelling and self-indulgent press conference that, like his keynote speech, was all about himself, that he was the scandal’s biggest victim. “I am not a bully,” he said, in an echo of one of Nixon’s most famous remarks.

Character is destiny, and politicians usually get the scandals they deserve, with a sense of inevitability about them. Warren G. Harding surrounded himself with corrupt pols and businessmen, then checked out, leading to the most sensational case of bribery in American history. Ronald Reagan combined zealotry and fantasy, and Oliver North acted them out. Bill Clinton was libidinous and truth-parsing but also cautious, while George W. Bush was an incurious crusader who believed himself chosen by God and drove almost the entire national-security establishment into lawlessness without thinking twice. Christie, more than any of these, is reminiscent of the President whose petty hatefulness destroyed him—which is why, as NBC’s newscaster said when signing off on an early report on that long-ago burglary, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.


By: George Packer, The New Yorker, January 14, 2014

January 15, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie, Politics | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Illusions Of Grandeur”: Imaginary Republican Scandals Don’t Need Distractions

The “White House rocked by scandals” narrative clearly didn’t work out well for President Obama’s critics. The Benghazi conspiracy theories proved baseless; the IRS story quickly evaporated (even if most of the political world ignored the exculpatory details); and the AP subpoenas and NSA surveillance programs turned out to be policy disputes — on which many Republicans agreed with the administration’s position. As Jon Chait recently put it, “The entire scandal narrative was an illusion.”

But a funny thing happened after Scandal Mania 2013 ended: the right decided to pretend the narrative remained intact.

National Review ran a fairly long piece this week, arguing, “The truth about Benghazi, the Associated Press/James Rosen monitoring, the IRS corruption, the NSA octopus, and Fast and Furious is still not exactly known.” The headline read, “Obama’s Watergates.” (Yes, the president doesn’t have a Watergate; he has multiple Watergates.)

Yesterday, Marc Thiessen’s latest Washington Post column insisted that the IRS’s “political targeting of [Obama’s] conservative critics” — which, let’s remember, didn’t actually happen — is “undermining our nation’s security” and “has exposed Americans to greater danger.”

And on Fox News, Steve Doocy has cooked up a conspiracy theory that addresses his conspiracy theories.

“Remember last week all the talk was about ‘phony scandals’ and all that other stuff and the NSA and the IRS and suddenly we get this alert that something could be happening in the Arab world somewhere toward western interests, and it is pro-administration. We’ve heard this a million times. […]

“Just that they would reveal such detail. They burned a source and a method, and that’s the problem. They could still say be careful if you’re in these areas. But to be so specific to make it look like the administration is working overtime, look at these fantastic avenues of intel, that is troubling.”

So, for Doocy, the White House leaked sensitive national-security information to distract attention from scandals that don’t actually exist.

It’s awfully difficult to take this line of argument seriously.

Several news organizations learned of the administration intercepting al Qaeda communications — we do not yet know the source of the leaks — which led to the closings of many U.S. diplomatic outposts in the Middle East and North Africa. For some on the right, this was part of an elaborate White House scheme.

But that really doesn’t make any sense. For one thing, Scandal Mania is over, and there’s no incentive for the administration to turn attention away from stories that the political world has largely given up on. For another, the administration doesn’t gain anything by leaking news of the intercepted messages.

Wait, the right responds, the White House now gets to implicitly argue, “NSA surveillance is really important so these programs shouldn’t be shut down.” But the administration doesn’t need to say that — efforts to stop NSA surveillance aren’t going anywhere, at least not now, and the programs were going to continue anyway.

There are no Watergates for the right to play with here.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, August 7, 2013

August 8, 2013 Posted by | Conspiracy Theories | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Hoping No One Will Know The Difference”: Conservatives Shift Gears On IRS To “Income Tax Audits”

Something odd happened to Barack Obama’s approval rating last week: nothing. With a bunch of controversies swirling about the administration, one might think Americans would be thinking less of his performance. Yet the latest polls from Gallup and CNN both show his job approval essentially unchanged, at just at or above 50 percent.

So far anyway, these “scandals” are, like most scandals, an almost completely partisan phenomenon. Yes, there are some—Watergate, Iran-Contra—where the facts are so damning and undeniable that even the president’s own party can’t help but acknowledge them. But Benghazi and the IRS are not Watergate or Iran-Contra. Perhaps they’ll turn out to be, if we find out something completely shocking. Perhaps we’ll discover that Barack Obama is on tape personally ordering the Cincinnati IRS office to put the screws to Tea Party groups, just as Richard Nixon was on tape ordering his aides to get the IRS to audit his political opponents. But that hasn’t happened yet.

So conservatives are trying something new. If you were paying close attention the last couple of days, you saw them bringing up a new charge, one unrelated to the actual controversy: IRS income-tax audits. At first glance that may seem strange. After all, there hasn’t been any evidence that anyone was audited because of their political beliefs or activities. This controversy is about political groups being given undue scrutiny when they applied for 501(c)(4) status as “social welfare” organizations. The part of the agency that carries out those reviews doesn’t audit individuals’ tax returns. Yet here was Peggy Noonan, claiming “The IRS scandal has two parts. The first is the obviously deliberate and targeted abuse, harassment and attempted suppression of conservative groups. The second is the auditing of the taxes of political activists.” The “evidence” for Noonan’s explosive charge is that she read about a couple of conservatives who were among the 1.5 million Americans who were audited by the IRS last year (read Nate Silver for more on how unbelievably stupid Noonan’s allegation is). Here‘s an account of the weekend’s Virginia GOP convention, at which a whole slate of Tea Partiers was selected to run in November’s elections there: “By being here today, every one of you has just signed up for an audit by the I.R.S.,’ Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, said in a keynote speech. ‘You are officially now on the White House enemies list.'”

We’ll be hearing more of these stories. Because after all, if 1.5 million Americans were audited last year, plenty of them were conservatives. And plenty of those will be happy to tell their stories to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh or Peggy Noonan. “I signed up for my local Tea Party, and not six months later the IRS came after me!” they’ll say. Some of these stories will be told in high-profile forums, and others in more obscure outlets; for instance, here’s a conservative writer telling her tale of oppression to the Catholic News Agency. During her audit, she says, “They only wanted to talk about who was paying me to do my writing.” Really? “Hendershott said that the questions were not explicitly political, but she interpreted them to mean the agency was ‘wanting to know if there were individuals or groups who wanted me to write to advance their cause.'” Maybe. Or maybe because she’s a writer and they were auditing her income taxes, they were asking her who paid her to write because that’s where she gets her income. Just tossing that out there.

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on here. On one hand, nobody likes the IRS, so people are ready to believe the worst about the agency’s activities. On the other hand, getting your 501(c)(4) application subjected to unusual scrutiny is not something most people can relate to. Even worse, the reporting that’s emerging about the IRS office in Cincinnati (see here) paints a picture not of some coordinated effort at political oppression, but of a bunch of overworked, ill-trained people who barely understood the standards they were supposed to apply to these applications and didn’t get the support they needed from Washington. They ended up acting inappropriately, but it wasn’t a criminal conspiracy, and it didn’t reach up to the heights of power.

For conservatives, that’s not a very satisfying story. But they know that everyone fears getting their tax returns audited. So why not just tell everyone that’s what happened?

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 20, 2013

May 22, 2013 Posted by | Conservatives, Internal Revenue Service | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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