Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Obama's 2009 Environmental Record

Disappointed with Obama’s legislative agenda and his leadership style?

Too many compromises and concessions?

Don’t know what to tell your friends when they complain that the new prez isn’t progressive enough?

Take a quick look at this end-of-the-year report from the Natural Resources Defense Council outlining the administration’s direction and accomplishments on the environment.

Compare that to the previous group of plunderers and science-deniers who populated - and corrupted - the executive branch of the federal government.

Now keep in mind that the upcoming inauguration anniversary will trigger lots of media and internet chatter about where Obama has fallen short.

You won’t hear a lot about how this administration - through political appointments, departmental actions and executive orders - has made substantial progress on environmental preservation, conservation, protection and enforcement.

And, of course, there won’t be much discussion of other critically important matters such as workplace and consumer protections.

We’ll talk about that, among other things, next year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

End of the Decade Blog

The last year of the first decade of the 21st century ends and the first year of the second decade of the 21st century begins.

I was born during the second year of the second half of the 20th century when Harry Truman was a lame duck. So I was really an Eisenhower baby. Eisenhower was the only Republican candidate for president my father ever voted for. A working-class New York Jew, Irving Siegel broke from his New Deal roots to support the guy he called “his general.”

I watched John Kennedy wave from his convertible passing through Bensonhurst Brooklyn in 1960 and knew, three years later, that the rumor that he was dead was true when I saw the flag at half mast as I left junior high school.

I never really hated Lyndon Johnson even though I was rapidly radicalizing by the time he packed in his presidency. Even then, I was pulled to the center (I wore a “McCarthy supporters for Humphrey” button).

Nixon I hated, of course, and was certain that Watergate meant that conservatives were toast. I drank fairly heavily the night Reagan was elected and my father died the day before he was inaugurated.

I don’t want to talk about Michael Dukakis.

I loved watching Bill Clinton speak and constantly defended him. Then I just assumed that George W. Bush was a one-termer.

When Kerry lost I was worried sick that right wingers would rule for the rest of my life but then the Democrats took the Congress in ’06 and I cheered up. When the results came in on Obama’s election night I hugged a lot of strangers.

I’ve been on the Democratic Left for more than 40 years and have worked in the Labor Movement in Los Angeles since 1986.

Sometimes I’m pulled toward radical left ideology, but I’m more comfortable as an ordinary American. That can happen when you work with unions and their members.

You don’t have to be a genius to know that the Obama-era would be tough, that the new president was going to protect “elites” and piss-off his base.

Just like everyone else, I’m vulnerable to speculation that Obama was naive, timid, fearful, overly compromised and - oh no! - not really one of us; that he, his circle and Congressional Democrats have already blown it; and that our opponents are on their way again to steering the country back toward their particular brand of authoritarianism.

But, guess what, I’m not convinced.

Barack Obama is my 12th president, my sixth Democrat and the first one who’s younger than me.

It’s almost hard to believe that he’s still in the first year of his first term.

So, for God’s sake, don’t be gloomy. Democrats should enjoy the fact that we’ve gotten at least this far. Consider the alternative.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Union Threats and Militant Action on Health Reform

Criticizing the watered-down Senate version of the health reform bill, two high-profile national union leaders - AFL-CIO’s Rich Trumpka and SEIU’s Andy Stern - brought the Labor Movement to the front of the debate last week.

The well-covered story, of course, is that their remarks reflect a fracturing of the health reform coalition and represent a genuine threat that progressive Democrats will peel off.

We’ll know soon where Labor and other critically important Democratic constituency groups end up on the issue. But this week’s spotlight on Trumpka and Stern points to the difficulty faced by union activists to generate significant media attention and traction for their well-organized hard work on behalf of genuine reform.

While over-the-top expressions of outrage by Tea Party operatives are part of the “national conversation,” camera-ready actions by labor activists, including a coast-to-coast campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience at insurance company headquarters, has barely made a blip or a buzz.

It could be argued that these single payer advocates were cut off at the knees from the beginning because that position was not seriously considered by the administration or congress.

But are the angry and contrived outbursts of Obama-haters really that much more interesting and vital to the debate than the principled actions of rank and file union militants?

On Saturday, a local paper in Louisiana reported on a “24-hour rally” by union members on behalf of reform. While this demonstration seems to endorse the Senate bill, it received little national attention. And a campaign in California for a state-run single payer program (SB 810), gaining support from union activists in Los Angeles, will not be in gear until the federal legislation is settled one way or another.

Nevertheless, it may be that the general perception that Labor is an “inside player” in national politics, preempted the impact of its activities on-the-ground.

With the fate of reform now hostage to the “rule of 60,” Labor’s only leverage at this point are threats by its high-profile leaders to withdraw support.

That doesn’t preclude a union-led insurgency in 2010 on behalf of working-class interests. The question is whether it can match the fervor of the Tea Party movement and get the media - and ordinary Americans - to pay attention.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Paradox of Economic Recovery

Of course we’re hoping that conditions in this nation dramatically improve in 2010.

We want Americans to find work, feel more financially secure, buy what they need and enjoy their lives.

And obviously, as Democrats, we want the economy to show enough progress that we hold our own in the congressional midterm elections.

If the standard measures of growth are pointing north, it will blunt Republican charges that Obama and the Democrats have mismanaged the economy.

In that regard, I’m rooting for a conventional recovery:

Unemployment down a couple of points; consumer borrowing and spending up; the Dow above 11,000; and an uptick in home prices and housing starts.

Yet we also know the severe limitations of simply returning to those standard measures. A drop in unemployment, though vital, doesn’t correct massive inequalities in the labor markets; buying binges by Americans don’t reverse the depletion of domestic manufacturing; fattened investment portfolios don’t mean sustained prosperity; and a return to inflated housing prices don’t make it easier for working-class families to buy.

Even more to the point, those traditional indicators don’t evoke the real promise of the Obama era: a meaningful effort to close the wage and income gap, spurred by a reinvigorated Labor Movement, and a decoupling of economic growth from wasteful consumption.

But in the meantime, we want some basic relief for suffering Americans and better-looking economic numbers. In the short term, that will stifle our opponents and bolster our prospects for positive change in the next decade.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

High-Speed Rail - Manufacturers Commit to American Jobs

Lost among contentious battles over big picture issues - Afghanistan, health care, global warming - are Obama Administration initiatives which could transform America.

The effort to jump start high-speed rail projects across the continental U.S., for example, will have enormous impact over urban and suburban development patterns, energy use and, of course, intercity transportation.

The start-up $8 billion stimulus money is spurring state and regional action on land acquisition, engineering, contracting, and ultimately construction of these corridors. It will certainly be many years and decades before we see 220 mile-an-hour bullet trains connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco, Chicago to St. Louis, Houston to New Orleans, Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and Miami to Tampa, but these labor intensive projects will provide tens of thousands of high-wage jobs.

Spearheading the plan is the U.S. Department of Transportation, led by its energetic Secretary Ray LaHood, who before his appointment by President Obama was a Republican member of Congress from Illinois for 14 years.

The DOT recently announced that more than 30 rail manufacturers and suppliers have agreed that if they’re contracted to work on high-speed rail, they will operate out of U.S.-based production facilities. That means that the tracks, wires and station materials will be built right here in America.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hillary Clinton - Obama’s Kissinger?

A day after President Obama’s West Point speech committing 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on Capitol Hill explaining the policy, deflecting criticism and - side-by-side with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen - adding a considerable dose of gravitas to Obama’s war strategy.

Then it was off to Brussels where Clinton met with European allies and, along the way, did some spunky interviews with, among others, NPR and PBS.

Hillary is emerging as a star player in the administration and someone who is essential to its - and the president’s - success.

With disapproval of the Obama “surge” arousing rowdy and near-hysterical disapproval within important factions of the Democratic Party, the Secretary of State could be pivotal in keeping these constituencies in the fold.

While Colin Powell gave - and ultimately forfeited - his credibility in service to George W. Bush, no Secretary of State in my memory has been so central to a presidency as Clinton since Henry Kissinger fashioned and carried out foreign policy for Presidents Nixon and Ford.

This must be an awful comparison for Kissinger-haters. Dr. Kissinger, the evil genius, never ran for office and in addition to his breakthrough diplomacy with the Chinese Communists, was involved in some of the most pernicious acts ever committed by this nation (the overthrow and murder of Salvador Allende in Chile is just one example).

Nevertheless, Kissinger’s influence was historical and enormous. And now, Ms. Clinton is taking center stage in the post-cold war era.

The move, a year ago, to offer her this key cabinet position may turn out to be President Obama’s most politically astute act and the one that could ultimately save his presidency.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Afghanistan Surge Opponents - Are You Sure?

The arguments many progressives are using to oppose Obama’s Afghanistan policy are very persuasive. Here are a couple examples of thoughtful analysis from two very bright guys: Tom Hayden and Robert Scheer.

I’m not smart enough to refute their reasoning and - frankly - I don’t want to make a big fuss against the anti-war passion that’s been stirred by the decision to add 30,000 troops.

If, in fact, Obama is leading us down a terrible path, the outrage is justified.

My problem is with the certainly of some of those who object to the President’s surge.

I don’t know if this military strategy will work or not. I hope it does. I would like if it stabilizes the region and ultimately spares Afghani women the horrors of Taliban rule. And sure, I would want Obama to get a political bump out of it which would strengthen - or maybe even save - his presidency.

But what do I know?

It’s possible, I suppose, that Obama just caved to the Generals, Gates, Clinton and Mullen. That Obama just doesn’t have the chops.

It didn’t seem that way to me when I watched the President at West Point but maybe I was just taken by the setting and the stagecraft?

So - no surprise here - I’m going to support and defend the president and, for the most part, leave the arguing to others.

Except this…

That I think the administration sees the Afghanistan conflict as pivotal in a long-term strategy to contain Islamic extremism. And it could take generations to find out whether they’re right.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Afghanistan Surge - Do You Know Why the President Said Yes?

Here’s what we’ll be wondering as we watch President Obama announce his decision on Tuesday to send additional troops to Afghanistan:
  • Why couldn’t he say no to the Generals?
  • Was he afraid of another fight with Republicans?
  • Does this doom his domestic agenda?
  • Do anti-war Democrats matter?
  • Is this another Vietnam?
  • How many will die?
  • Is Obama a one-term president?
  • What if it works?
Was the president intimidated by military strategists and conservative bullies?  Is he making an independent judgment regarding what’s best for our country?

Or both?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Republicans Block Labor Board Pick Craig Becker

The recent approval by the Senate of David Hamilton to the U.S. Court of Appeals focused attention on the fact that President Obama has made only 27 appointments to fill approximately 100 vacancies on the federal bench, out of which only ten (including Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court) have been confirmed.

Among non-judicial presidential appointments - cabinet departments, agencies, commissions and the like - there are currently at least 500 positions to fill.

While many of these are moving through the system, some key appointments are being stalled in the Senate by Republicans using a parliamentary provision allowing one member to put a “hold” on a nominee. A filibuster-ending cloture vote could be required to bring that nomination to the floor.

Of particular interest is an appointment to the National Labor Relations Board, an independent federal agency which decides important and sometimes precedent-setting cases involving union organizing, representation and bargaining.

Obama’s choice of Craig Becker - a former associate council to SEIU and the AFL-CIO - has aroused conservatives, who accuse Becker of being a “forced unionism extremist” with an agenda to impose labor law reform.

It’s uncertain how and when Democrats will try to end the “hold” Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) has placed on the Becker nomination.

Even without Becker, Democratic appointees will soon control the NLRB. The question is whether the Obama Administration and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are willing to fight to save this pro-union appointment.

It’s very unlikely that the NLRB - with or without Becker - would attempt to exert regulatory authority to institute significant labor law reform. The Labor Movement’s top legislative priority, making union organizing easier through “card check” elections, does not have the 60 vote super-majority in the Senate to pass.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Impossibilities of the Obama Presidency

Am I the only one who doesn’t know where Obama went wrong and what he should have done differently?

Obviously, many thoughtful writers, pundits and advocates try not to be presumptuous. But, in this media-saturated universe, who’s going to pay attention to you unless you can come up with an original idea?

That’s one reason that there’s virtually no breathing room in the political debate. Everything is instantly dissected and then subject to competition....Look over here!

There’s something very pluralistic and democratic about all this - everybody gets into the act - but it enfeebles the political process in ways we don’t yet fully understand.

This is certainly true regarding what we think about - and what we think we know about - President Barack Obama.

The Left thinks he’s governing Right and the Right think he’s governing Left. And, of course, even that’s not entirely accurate.

Lately, I have to work harder than ever to keep my progressive colleagues from getting demoralized and depressed. This is an interesting time in history, I tell them. It’s a complicated country. Obama’s still young. Health reform will pass. The economy will turn around.

I’m exhausted.

My friends on the Left really want to slap me around when I defend conservatives and confide that - even though I’m not one - I can enjoy, learn from and respect conservative ideas and people.

So here’s my two cents about our president:

This guy is basically progressive but clearly has some conservative impulses - look at his bio - which have been sharpened since he took office.

We see this kind of behavior all the time when reform-minded people take on big jobs - in business, nonprofits, unions, colleges. Facing enormous challenges in a very entrenched setting, you tend to hunker down, look at what’s in front of you and start to manage your circumstances one step at a time.

You learn as you go.

Obama, like most of us, was - and is - conciliatory, accommodating and compromising. If he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Those Darn Republicans...

At least some of us thought that Obama’s election would bring a respite in the culture wars and a degree of healing to the bitterly divided electorate.

We knew there would be intense opposition from Republicans but didn’t anticipate how that would escalate into this harsh and extreme rhetoric, behavior and imagery. Who really expected to see Barack’s photo decorated with swastikas, hammers and sickles?

We’ve adjusted; and now accept the fact that our opponents have chosen to go all out to disparage, undermine and destroy this president and his administration.

There are certainly enough glib explanations about why the Right is so adroit at mounting a united front: 
  1. They tap into genuine frustration
  2. They appeal to authoritarian temperaments
  3. They arouse anger and manipulate events
  4. They flummox liberals with incisive sound bites
  5. They trap Democrats mired in their (our) own contradictions 
Some Republicans will argue that their unified and strident antagonism toward Obama and the Democrats wasn’t predetermined, but was driven by the new President’s agenda. Others will insist that they’re not doing anything to Barack that the Democrats didn’t do (or at least tried to do) to bring down their guy, Bush. It’s pay-back time, I suppose. And then, of course, there’s a legitimate case to be made that it’s the noble role of the opposition to defeat the party in power.

Even so, isn’t it just a little sad that the most palpable and memorable expression of national unity over Obama was on election night, 2008 and it’s been downhill ever since?

But that’s the case and, frankly, I don’t want to hear over and over what Obama and the Dems have done wrong. I guarantee, however, that going forward every major decision and action by this President will provoke outraged hysteria from his right, left and middle.

How he and we handle that will be pivotal.

Obama and the Democrats had also better be smart and lucky.

At a minimum, smart enough to pass meaningful health reform and lucky enough to preside over a labor market recovery starting early next year and at full steam by the summer.

That might put Democrats in decent shape for the November, 2010 midterm election which - like it or not - will be seen as a vote of confidence on Obama and his party.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Obama - What's Wrong with You?

There’s a lot of fascinating and brilliant criticism of the President coming from observers who earnestly wanted Obama to succeed but are now just about certain that he’s not going to.

This piece by Lee Siegel (no relation), charging the Prez with an “American Idol style of governing” is very persuasive and fun to read.

So is Chris Hedges’ column of a few of months ago titled “Nader was Right."

But what do you do when people whose opinion and intellect you respect make you feel silly and unsophisticated because you’re determined to stay loyal to Obama and believe he’s our best bet to get America back on track?

You’re almost tempted to attribute something sinister to those “thought-leaders” on the intellectual left; that their impulse for critical analysis, for example, is really a need to sabotage their (and my) ideals and values.

I know I don’t get a lot of support for that kind of speculation, but here’s my dilemma:

I’m already emotionally drained from fighting off attacks from the right. I barely have enough stamina to push against both sides at once.

If necessary, I’ll just retreat to that familiar place: Where Democrats go to resign ourselves to - and defend - what we have. Did I hear you say Bill Clinton?

I’m not suggesting that anyone on what might be called “our side” repress their urge to blast Obama. But I just hope that in our need to tell each other what’s wrong with ourselves, we don’t hand the ball back to the Republicans and waste another chance to make the country better.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Are Republicans Outsmarting Obama?

Sure seems like it.

They certainly know what it means to be the political party in opposition.

They’re tough and ruthless and they use their authoritarian temperament as an advantage.

Obama’s early attempts at conciliation made him look weak rather than gracious.

On health care, the Republicans have created a no-lose scenario: they either kill the bill or weaken it to the point where it won’t work.

They’re aiming to do the same thing on global warming.

On financial reform, they get away with blaming the Democrats for bailing out Wall Street while - at the same time - making sure that meaningful reform is blocked.

They’re the party that can mobilize constituent anger and get media attention. Their search and destroy missions against ACORN and Van Jones have been well executed.

Now they seem to be successful in swaying independents in their direction.

Was 2008 a fluke?

Did we win only because of the ineffectual George Bush and the chaotic McCain / Palin ticket? Will an articulate conservative - Tim Pawlenty, Eric Canter - wipe out Obama in 2012 after Republican Congressional gains in 2010?


Are these just the early rounds, the chance for Obama and the Democrats to absorb some punishment before coming on strong and steady and winning back public confidence?

There’s a great deal of anxiety, doubt and disappointment on our side right now. Our opponents know this and they know how to exploit it.

Bullies always depend on exposing their victim’s weakness and forcing a sense of helplessness.

This is not the time, fellow Democrats, to go limp.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

List of Republicans Voting to End Filibuster of David Hamilton’s Appointment

Ten Republicans joined 58 Democrats and two independents on the cloture motion to allow David Hamilton's nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit go to the Senate floor for a vote:

Lamar Alexander (R - TN)
Saxby Chambliss (R - GA)
Susan Collins (R - ME)
John Cornyn (R - TX)
Judd Gregg (R - NH)
Orrin Hatch (R- UT)
Richard Lugar (R - IN)
Lisa Murkowski (R - AK)
Olympia Snowe (R - ME)
John Thune (R - SD)

Twenty-nine Republicans voted to sustain the filibuster with one Republican not voting.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan - It’s Hard to Say No to the Generals

Remember William Westmoreland, the pugnacious general who commanded American troops in Vietnam?

Those of us from the Vietnam War protest era had a perfect foil: a hard core, right wing, dissident-hating stoic, Westmoreland personified what the new left hated about the military.

That imagery began to change considerably when Colin Powell became chairman of the Joint Chiefs and General Norman Schwarzkoph commanded Gulf War troops under Bush I in 1991.

The 21st Century style of military leadership is even more formidable.

Watch current Joint Chief Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen field questions and you’ll see a smooth, thoughtful and articulate military advisor. (Check out the Admiral’s Facebook page).

CENTCOM Commander General David Patraeus, who earned his PhD from Princeton in 1987, exemplifies the military intellectual.

The arguments President Obama is hearing from top brass at the Pentagon about an Afghanistan surge are not jingoistic and fear-based but sophisticated, geo-political analysis.

Saying no to the military’s intellectual firepower will not be easy.

(In addition, the stature and standing of the military rank and file is higher than it’s been since World War II).

Afghanistan war strategy should not be decided based on the charisma or IQ of military leaders. But this current batch of generals - and the admiral - is certainly quite capable of making a very compelling case.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

“Creation Care” – God’s Voice on Global Warming

Along with the usual suspects, the coalition supporting Congressional action on global warming includes a broad selection of religious organizations - most interesting are evangelical groups which promote the idea of “Creation Care” which seeks to

… educate, inspire, and mobilize Christians in their effort to care for God’s creation, to be faithful stewards of God’s provision, and to advocate for actions and policies that honor God and protect the a desire to be faithful to Jesus Christ.

Exactly the kind of Christian values-driven sentiment which can blunt republican opposition to environmental legislation.

A global warming bill passed the House in June and the Senate Environmental Committee recently approved a measure. But don’t expect passage anytime soon.

Here are some of the religious groups building pro-environment constituencies:

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Why Aren't We Doing Better? - A List for Democrats

So why can’t a Democratic White House and a Democratic Congress bring about the kind of change we want?

Here’s what we’ve been hearing:
  • Obama’s not very progressive
  • The Democrats have no guts
  • Corporate and financial interests control Congress
  • The Republicans tricked us again
  • It’s a conservative country
  • Americans are dumb
  • The Bush deficit
  • The media can’t cover complex issues
  • It’s too late to liberalize this nation
  • It’s Nixon’s and Reagan’s fault
  • Religious people are manipulated
  • The working class doesn’t vote
  • Clinton damaged the presidency
  • Iraq and Afghanistan burn up the budget
  • Larry Summers

 Here are a few reasons to be hopeful:

  • Obama is 48 and getting smarter
  • Right wing Republicans will devour their party
  • Henry Waxman
  • Unemployment has bottomed out
  • Health reform will pass
  • Young voters lean toward tolerance
  • American’s aren’t so dumb
  • The EPA is doing its job again
  • Democrats want to win
  • Progressives know how to organize

Who knows what will be. My advice is to stay positive, enjoy the ride and try to remember what it was like just a few years ago. Need any help...?:
  • Dick Cheney
  • Donald Rumsfeld
  • John Ashcroft
  • Gale Norton
  • John Roberts
  • Tom Delay

Friday, November 6, 2009

The President’s “Statement” Doesn’t Connect

I was discouraged this morning when I caught the President’s remarks from the Rose Garden about the Fort Hood shooting and persistently high unemployment. Obama looked more like a White House staffer reading a statement than a President connecting with Americans over their grief and pain.

Don’t read to us. Talk to us in your own words. Feel it and mean it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

U.S. Interior Department’s Clean Energy Forum

Watch a few minutes of C-SPAN’s coverage of the Interior Department’s Clean Energy Forum held November 2, and you’ll see something both ordinary and extraordinary:

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, his Deputy, Assistant Secretaries, Directors and Commissioners presenting an intelligent and persuasive case for the Obama Administration’s Clean Energy Strategy.

Contrast this group of professionals with the cast of characters at the highest levels of the Interior Department during the Bush era.

Remember Gale Norton, who ran the Department for six years, using her office to turn federal land and resources over to her friends in the mining, timber, oil, gas and coal industries. Norton is now under investigation for conflict of interest related to oil shale leases in Colorado. She was followed as secretary by former Idaho Republican Governor Dick Kempthorne, known for his animosity toward open space in the West.

Disillusioned Democrats, frustrated by stalled legislation in Congress and a cautious White House, should keep in mind that this administration is slowly and steadily shifting the internal practices and policies of federal departments, agencies and commissions.

This takes time. While it’s not exactly a “purge,” populating the federal bureaucracy with appointees who believe in the mission of government is an enormous asset for environmentalists, unions, consumer advocates and progressive organizations from A to Z.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Obama as the Democratic Reagan - An Update

There was talk during last year's campaign about certain similarities between then Senator Obama and Ronald Reagan. The comparison gained even more traction when Obama himself characterized the former Republican president as "transformative." That was seen as a way of appealing to moderate voters who had crossed over to Reagan as well as a swipe at Bill Clinton who, though certainly competent, did not qualify as transformative.

There hasn't been much Obama as Reagan chatter since Barack took office but there are some interesting parallels which could be very encouraging to supporters of the current president.

Look, for example, at Reagan's trajectory:

He wins big in 1981 against incumbent Jimmy Carter, but a weak economy and controversial policies drive down his poll numbers. His popularity, however, recovers along with the economy and by 1984 he sweeps Democrat Walter Mondale in every state except Minnesota (and D.C.).

Also, putting policies aside for the moment, the current and former presidents both show similar leadership attributes:

  • Unflappable and Flexible - Stick to your guns and know when to compromise
  • Disciplined and Personable - Stay on script (teleprompter) but be yourself (likable and authentic)
  • Opportunistic and Optimistic - Use crisis to your advantage and stay true to your principles
Some Reagan-haters attribute the former president's "larger-than-life" status to a clever and manipulative campaign engineered by right wing "thought leaders." This so-called "Reagan Legacy Project" has been persuasively critiqued by Reagan opponents.

But let's not argue that here. Instead, let's hope that historical forces line up for Barack Obama - as they did for Reagan - and that this president can create a lasting record of accomplishment and true transformation.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Don't Hate the Haters

When tea party types are asked to explain their placards comparing President Obama to Adolph Hitler, their answers are often - well - unsophisticated. That makes it pretty easy for us to then see those protesters as morons, or worse.

Moreover, if we were to probe their belief systems, we would likely find some hidden - or not so hidden - racist, anti-semitic and homophobic tendencies. Then we could comfortably conclude that it’s actually the attitudes and behaviors of the Obama- accusers that are, in fact, “Hitlerian”.

But I don’t think we should do this.

We know that demonization sometimes takes place on the left. In particularly bitter union organizing, contract and political battles, for example, worker hostility toward employers, business leaders and political foes can be acute. Stirring up militant emotions is important in building union power. But the level of rage among certain workers in these campaigns can often seem over the top.

I’m not offering a direct equivalence between worker anger in a labor dispute and fanatic right wing hysteria. But organizers across ideologies know that creating an “us versus them” dynamic is usually essential in motivating people for action.

The common denominator is, I think, a sense of helplessness among many struggling Americans. With the reach of the American Labor Movement drastically reduced over the years, wage-earners are isolated and susceptible to extremist views.

Am I suggesting that under different circumstances, some or many of the Obama-haters would be on our side, fighting for good wages and a more equitable economy? I suppose I am.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

More Unjustified Optimism from Observe Obama

Many of us became poll-obsessed during the ’08 General Election, daily tracking the overall and state-by-state numbers. Our confidence grew during the final weeks as the numbers held. Remember the exhilaration when the Obama family walked onto the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park?

That was so last year.

Now we have the presidential approval numbers. Not so much fun, right?

Just stay above 50 percent for now and we’ll be O.K. We have a year until the Congressional midterm elections and three whole years before the next presidential.

A lot can and will happen during that time. There will be dramatic and unexpected turns in health care, Afghanistan, the economy and the unknown.

Not everything will go our way. But there are different ways we can greet the history of the Obama era as it unfolds before us. We can be glum, outraged and desperately disappointed.

Our entire sense of well-being can depend on whether we get a public option!

Or we can welcome the changes that come our way: what it means to have the EPA run by environmentalists rather than industry hacks, how liberating it is not to be fighting to keep Scalia-clones off the bench; having a real conversation about a national high-speed rail system.

I know. You think I’m grasping for straws because Obama couldn’t deliver the transformational change we craved.

Fair enough.

But this Obama thing is just getting started.

What made you think that the Republican’s would give up fear-mongering, name-calling and even a contemporary version of red-baiting? This stuff has worked for 80 years.

I urge my friends and colleagues to hang in there. Don’t get depressed. This is America. It’s a complicated place with very conservative impulses.

If progressive ideas are going to work here, progressive people must look like we’re having a good time, not sitting around staring at our feet.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

What Should We Do, John Kerry?

When we sent John Kerry up against George Bush in 2004 we thought we picked the right guy. Thoughtful, experienced and self-possessed, the “other” Senator from Massachusetts seemed more serious than Howard Dean, more authentic than John Edwards and certainly more presidential than the incumbent.

But when the Republicans do what they do best - disparage, distort and degrade - Kerry wobbled. The candidate - and the campaign - lacked that sharp edge that we need against conservative tactics.

What was missing in the Kerry candidacy became quite apparent four years later when we saw Obama - and his organization - in action.

Despite his mediocre performance, Kerry was spared the distain many Democrats felt toward our 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis who squandered a large lead in the polls to George Bush Sr. and was clueless when Republicans began to create their usual brand of mischief, picking Dukakis apart on crime, “un-Americanism” and looking silly riding atop an army tank.

After finishing his term as Massachusetts Governor in 1991, Dukakis went into a sort of academic exile at Northeastern and UCLA. Kerry, on the other hand, has stayed right in the thick of it. It was interesting to see him this week alongside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, having helped broker the deal to rerun that nation’s election.

Although Kerry didn’t quite deliver for us five years ago, he certainly didn’t disgrace himself and retains quite a bit of respect among mainstream and progressive Democrats.

The chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now positioned, I think, to be a big voice on the war issue and could give cover and credibility - on the left - to a possible call for an Afghanistan “surge” by President Obama.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where are the Blue Dogs?

There are 52 Blue Dog (conservative to moderate) Democrats in the United States House of Representatives out of a total of 256 Democrats.

In Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah, Blue Dogs comprise half or more of the Democratic House delegation in that state. California has the most Blue Dogs with seven, followed by Pennsylvania with five.

The following list shows the number of representatives from each state, the number of Democrats and the number of Blue Dogs:

Alabama-------------7--------------- 3---------------- 2
Alaska--------------- 1---------------0---------------- 0
Arizona-------------- 8---------------5---------------- 2
Arkansas------------ 4--------------- 2---------------- 2
Colorado------------- 7--------------- 5---------------- 1
Delaware-------------1-------------- 0----------------- 0
Florida-------------- 25--------------10-----------------1
Georgia--------------13-------------- 6----------------- 4
Hawaii--------------- 2-------------- 2----------------- 0
Idaho-----------------2-------------- 1----------------- 1
Illinois--------------- 19------------- 12---------------- 0
Indiana---------------9-------------- 5------------------3
Kansas---------------4-------------- 1-------------------1
Kentucky------------ 6-------------- 1 ------------------1
Louisiana------------ 7-------------- 1------------------ 1
Maine----------------2-------------- 2------------------ 1
Maryland-------------8--------------7------------------ 1
Massachusetts--------10-------------10---------------- 0
Michigan------------- 15------------- 8----------------- 0
Minnesota------------ 8--------------4------------------1
Mississippi----------- 4-------------- 3----------------- 2
Montana------------- 1--------------- 0---------------- 0
Nebraska------------ 3--------------- 0-----------------0
Nevada-------------- 3----------------2-----------------0
New Hampshire----- 2---------------- 2----------------0
New Jersey--------- 13--------------- 8-----------------0
New Mexico--------- 3----------------3------------------0
New York----------- 29-------------- 27-----------------1
North Carolina------ 13--------------- 8-----------------2
North Dakota------- -1----------------1------------------ 1
Ohio---------------- 18---------------10----------------- 2
Oklahoma----------- 5--------------- 1------------------- 1
Oregon-------------- 5---------------4------------------- 0
Pennsylvania--------19-------------- 12------------------ 5
Rhode Island---------2----------------2------------------ 0
South Carolina------- 6--------------- 2------------------ 0
South Dakota---------1---------------1------------------- 1
Tennessee------------9-------------- 5------------------- 4
Texas--------------- 32------------- 12------------------- 1
Utah----------------- 3--------------1-------------------- 1
Virginia------------- 11---------------6------------------- 1
Washington----------9--------------- 6------------------- 0
West Virginia--------3---------------2-------------------- 0
Wyoming------------1---------------0-------------------- 0

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The American Parliamentary Election...Congressional Majorites Above All

I’ve had a lot of arguments with my friends about Joe Lieberman.

When the Connecticut Senator and former Al Gore running mate was defeated in the 2006 Democrat primary by Ned Lamot, many progressives were elated. Lieberman had infuriated Democrats by sticking with Bush’s Iraq war policy long after the support of most Americans had peeled away.

Unwilling to surrender his seat, Lieberman ran as an independent and won the general election by ten points over Lamot and 40 points over his Republican challenger.

Most importantly, however, after the election, Joe decided to caucus with the Democrats and provide the pivotal vote in returning the Senate to Democratic majority control, 51-49 (a 50-50 split would have maintained the Republican majority with Vice-President Cheney breaking the tie). Lieberman didn’t have to do that.

Two years later, Sen. Lieberman outraged and enraged Democrats by actively supporting John McCain for President and even received serious consideration as the Republican’s running mate.

Well, after the dust settled in ’08, Joe again petitioned to caucus as a Democrat and again was admitted back into the club (although as penance he was removed as chair of the Homeland Security Committee). But, most importantly, Lieberman is now one of 60 Senators (58 Democrats, plus Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders) who comprise the so-called “filibuster-proof" majority.

Why bring this up now?

There’s already a lot of yakking about conservative House Democrats, particularly their reluctance to support a public health insurance option. Recently, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel reportedly urged progressives to lay off the Blue Dogs. Apparently concerned that the House could be in play in 2010, Emanuel thinks it’s unwise (not his words) to do anything which could jeopardize losing the Democratic majority (and with it, of course, the speaker, committee chairs and, of course, the agenda).

I agree.

Losing the lower house of congress would be a disaster, far worse than not getting a public option into health reform legislation. An argument could be made that failure to pass a meaningful and robust health bill is what would really put swing state Democrats at risk in ’10. Maybe, but I doubt it.

The ’06, ‘08 and '10 races should be seen as our equivalent of parliamentary elections, with our principal purpose to maintain majorities. I will not support any primary challenge to any incumbent Congressional Democrat. Period.

Finally, back to Lieberman.

A lot of Democrats hate Lieberman. Although he lines up with conservatives on foreign policy, he’s moderate on most other issues. (His rating by Americans for Democratic Action - a generally accepted indicator of liberalism - is 85 percent).

In my view, our effort to punish him in 2006 nearly backfired and we were lucky to keep him on our side. Among other lessons is if you’re going to take on the king, you’d better be able to kill the king.

There’s very little upside at this point in threatening any Blue Dog Democrat with a primary challenge. The President and the nation need these congressional majorities and we shouldn’t jeopardize that prospect because the left-wing of the party wants to “teach somebody a lesson.”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

2010 United States Senate Elections

On November 2, 2010 voters in 36 states will be choosing a United States Senator. Currently holding these seats are 18 Democrats and 18 Republicans. Among the eight retiring Senators, five are Republican. All but two of these races will decide full six-year Senate terms.

The election in Delaware fills the last four years of Vice President Joe Biden’s unfinished term. Appointed incumbent Democrat Ted Kaufman is not seeking reelection to that seat. The election in New York fills the last two years of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s unfinished term. Appointed incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand does intend to run.

In addition, an off-cycle election will take place on January 19, 2010 in Massachusetts to fill the final two-plus years of deceased Sen. Ted Kennedy's term. Appointed incumbent Democrat Paul Kirk is not seeking reelection to that seat.

Finally, incumbent Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison is expected to resign before the end of 2009 with a special election to be held three to four months later.

Currently, Democrats have a so-called filibuster-proof 60 - 40 majority which includes two independents - Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut - who caucus with the Democrats.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Election Anniversary Stirs Democrat's Anxiety

Instead of celebrating next month’s anniversary of Obama’s victory, many Democrats will be nervously facing the prospect of the 2010 Congressional midterm election.

You can already hear the moaning and groaning about losing the House and our “filibuster-proof” Senate majority.

We’ve got to hand it to the Republicans. They’ve energized their base, driven down Obama’s polls and exposed weaknesses in the White House, the Administration and the President himself.

Democrats are split and confused on who to blame. One impulse is to blast Obama for a failure of courage, for not “taking on” his opponents. Another explanation is that Americans are pretty conservative and reform-resistant.

Of course, within that simple dichotomy is considerable nuance. Some progressives tend to believe that elite institutions - corporate, media, financial, military - control the levers of power, the debate and ultimately the public mind.

Fair enough.

Others who roam the American left - like me - can’t shake the idea that there’s a conservative temperament that runs deep in the American character.

We can’t settle that argument here.

But this is what we know and can agree on:

The Republicans are depending on a strategy of constantly chipping away at Obama’s stature, credibility, competence and integrity. Their goal is to fracture the President’s governing consensus. (See RNC chair Michael Steele’s remarks on the Nobel Peace Prize).

Nothing is more important than for Democrats - progressive, liberal, centrist, whatever - to prevent another Republican takeover.

If you need a fresh reminder, pay attention to former Sen. Max Cleland’s account of his reelection defeat in 2002. A Vietnam vet and triple amputee, Cleland was savaged as unpatriotic in the Karl Rove-engineered campaign.

When we won nearly a year ago, I was certain that my friends and colleagues on the left would become disappointed, disillusioned and frustrated with the inevitable concessions, compromises, stumbles and setbacks.

My approach to the Obama-era has been to advocate closing ranks and holding our ground. I admit that I operate out of fear.

I can’t forget how dangerously and frighteningly close our nation came to authoritarianism in the Bush years.

So however health care legislation comes out, I will support it. Whatever financial reform looks like, I’ll back it. And, a year from now, I will cheer on any and every Democratic Congressional candidate including - and especially - the Blue Dogs.

The Republicans hope to win back the House in 2010. We’d better not let them.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

President Obama's Political Appointments

Keep on eye on who gets top jobs in this Administration:
  • Cabinet Departments and Agencies - Commerce, Defence, Interior, EPA, Labor, Treasury, more
  • Executive Office of the President - Council on Environmental Quality, OMB, U.S. Trade Representative, more
  • Regulatory Agencies - Consumer Product Safety Commission, FTC, SEC, more
  • Independent Agencies - CIA, National Labor Relations Board, Peace Corp, Small Business Administration, more
  • White House Staff

From Assistant Secretaries, Commissioners, General Councils to Inspectors General, Deputy Secretaries and Directors, get the background of these key players.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Will Progressives Bolt if Obama Says Yes to Afghan "Surge"?

Here’s a tough one:

Could it be that the war in Afghanistan is worth the costs for America?

Progressive Democrats are inclined to oppose foreign military actions. Many of us cut our teeth politically opposing the war in Vietnam, Reagan’s crusade to destroy the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Bush’s fiasco in Iraq.

But from the beginning - just weeks after September 11th – the war in Afghanistan has split the American Left.

It may be unwise for us to act reflexively against General Stanley McChrystal’s plan for increased troops.

Obviously, I don’t know whether this plan can work, how long it would take, how many troops and Afghanis will die or suffer horrible injuries, if it can save Afghan women from Taliban enslavement, what the political toll will be on Obama and how the Republicans will use this conflict to manipulate public opinion for their own devious purposes.

But I do know that we learned an interesting lesson when, nearly three years ago, there was virtually universal liberal / progressive opposition to the “surge” in Iraq by President Bush. While the results may be mixed, the General David Petraeus plan was not the complete disaster many on the left predicted; and that whatever stability may have been achieved in Iraq has made it easier for this administration to implement its withdrawal plan.

For Obama supporters, evaluating military options is tricky business. Does it make me a hawk, a militarist or – God forbid – an imperialist to entertain the prospect that an Afghanistan War surge might be a good idea?

I might as well admit right now that if President Obama supports something that looks like a surge, I will not automatically join the opposition.

And I will tell you, without hesitation, that if and when Osama Bin Laden is captured or killed under the Obama regime, you’ll find me right there in the cheering section.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Obey Obama to Observe Obama

Obey Obama was conceived, in part, to prepare Progressive Democrats for the inevitable. Of course the new president would disappoint his base with compromises, missed opportunities, stumbles and setbacks.

I was just as certain that the activist wing of the party would quickly begin to complain and criticize the proposals, policies, strategies and even symbolic actions by Obama, starting with the big fuss over the invitation to evangelical Rick Warren to make the inauguration invocation.

I’m usually impressed by thoughtful arguments from the left and obviously consider it fair game for that constituency to advocate, vocalize and organize on behalf of its positions.

And I’m sensitive to the charge that Obama gave away too much, too soon on health care and is doing that again on financial reform.

But I’ve cautioned against the impulse among many on our side to become depressed, disillusioned and defeatist. I’m worried that the American left will revert to familiar self-destructive tendencies and swarm all over this guy.

President Obama faces extraordinary pressures, a skillful and devious political opposition and an electorate – including many who voted for him – with very conservative values.

I try to make the case that in winning the nomination and the election, Obama showed enormous personal skills, political flexibility, strong values, courage and discipline; and that these qualities will prove to be tremendous assets as this presidency evolves

Obey Obama was my argument to let the new president lead and to give him cover as he unpacks this very complicated government, nation and world.

Observe Obama is not a repudiation but an extension of this notion.

Observe means more than just watch.

When you observe a holiday, for example, you’re also paying respect. And being observant implies loyalty.

So don’t expect a big change in attitude.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Attack of the Misguided Missiles

Was John McCain being unusually clever this week when he attacked Barack Obama’s plan to scrap the Bush-era, European land-based missile interceptor system?

The Arizona Republican called the president’s decision “misguided,” as in misguided missiles. Or was it just an inadvertent word play, a hasty reaction based on the need to instantly attack anything this president says, proposes, announces, implies or insinuates.

There’s nothing particularly “dovish” about Obama’s decision to support a weapons program which launches U.S. missiles from naval vessels rather than land-based silos in Poland or the Czech Republic. Western European allies tend to think it’s a good idea and so do the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Missile attacks from Iran will still be thwarted. And it’s a money saver.

Also this week, the House voted to streamline the Federal Student Loan Program by ending subsidies to private lenders, a plan which delivers more aid to college students, removes an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and again saves money.

Six out of 173 Republicans supported the measure (which now moves to the Senate). Republican opponents muttered something about “new entitlement spending,” and the elimination of the “innovation of the private sector.” Continuing his onslaught, Representative Joe Kline of Minnesota called the legislation “job killing.” The bill was triggered by last year’s disclosures of suspicious links between private lenders and some college financial aid officers and a tendency by these private lenders to offer – surprise, surprise – less favorable rates than the federal government.

These are not the inflammatory and toxic issues that dominate the current political atmosphere. That’s why they’re particularly useful examples of how Republican legislators think, react and operate.

There is plenty of time for progressive activists, bloggers, thought-leaders, Congressional Democrats and the Administration to pound home to voters the everyday behavior of our opponents.

While Republicans have certainly done damage with their clever and devious manipulation of hot button issues, they continue to be extremely vulnerable for their blind loyalty to business interests, opposition to consumer and environmental protection, knee-jerk support for excessive military spending and, of course, rabid hostility for just about every item on the Obama agenda.

On big picture issues, next up is financial reform.

Here we see obvious opportunities to showcase expected Republican resistance to Wall Street accountability and their anticipated refusal to protect the public from abusive practices.

Whether Democrats lead that charge depends, in part, on their own willingness to take on the financial elite. And, hopefully, the majority in Congress and the White House will do a better job positioning that debate than they did with health care.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Conservative Protests are Tricky for Democrats

Maybe the only good thing about republican control of the White House and Congress from 2002 to 2006 was that their right wing base was somewhat pacified.

Now conservative extremists are liberated from the restraint of governing.

Look out, America.

However health care reform shakes out, we now know that organized and well-funded ultra-conservatives are inserting themselves into broad national policy questions. Saturday’s “Taxpayers” march in D.C. drew headlines. Like it or not, they are part of the American spectacle.

Liberals are often caught off guard by right-wing populist revolts. Examples from the 1970s include the anti-school busing protests in Boston and other northeastern cities, the clamor to reinstate the death penalty across the country and Prop 13.

The current uprising from the right poses a very complicated dilemma for activist democrats, members of the congressional majority and the president.

Although it’s very tempting to dismiss right wing protesters as nuts, I think we have to be careful not to disparage or ridicule conservative values and attitudes. This is difficult because our opponent’s attacks on us and our president are irrational, cruel, hateful and noticed.

Nevertheless, I think the president is smart to talk, for example, about including all points of view in the health reform debate. This is especially opportune now, when Obama is explaining the difference between constructive contributions and tactics designed to obstruct progress.

By keeping even a slight distance from the congressional ideological battleground, the president continues to nourish the prospect of creating progressive policy coalitions of religious and business-oriented voters, mountain-state populists and suburban moderates. I believe one reason Obama got such a nice bump in the polls after his joint-session speech last week was the determined effort from the start of his presidency to graciously reach out to republicans, a gesture clearly intended for independents.

Many progressives disagree with the “reaching across the isle” approach, believing that Obama and congressional democrats are being snookered and bullied by republican activists and leaders; and that we should stand up for ourselves and our principles.

But politics is a subtle game. It’s possible that Obama’s stated commitment to bipartisanism - seemingly futile on health care - will be very useful in future legislative campaigns. Likewise, his calm and deliberate temperament may be blunting the sharpest attacks from right-wing extremists, namely that he is “un-American.”

Representative Joe Wilson’s “you lie’ shout out to the President showed how nimble mainstream republicans can be, denouncing this breach of protocol while stoking much scarier right wing antics like this summers town hall mob scenes.

Joe Wilson was a heroic figure at yesterday’s conservative rally with some protestors wearing “Joe Wilson for President” stickers. If that element of the conservative movement steals the show, it might play right into our hands.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Swing Voters Dropping Obama?

It’s painful to watch Obama’s popularity decline.

His presidency is being overwhelmed by brutal attacks from the right and ongoing criticism from his base. Meanwhile, swing voters - whose political sentiments are generally shaped viscerally, not intellectually - are turning off.

Republicans are behaving as expected. After all, they have a history of winning elections and governing by mocking their opponents and arousing fear and hate among the voters. We know this, though we’re always surprised at how effective right wing elected officials, thought leaders and noise makers are in adapting to changing conditions.

Progressive Democrats are also behaving as expected. Wanting bold reform and “real change”, important parts of Obama’s base have already concluded that the president has made colossal strategic and policy errors. They argue persuasively that he allowed himself to be the helpless captive of health care obstructionists.

Then there is that broad swath of swing, independent and moderate voters who seem to be drifting away from Obama. The Los Angeles Times Labor Day edition headline: “Obama is fast losing white voters’ support” was beyond depressing.

I had similar feelings fifteen years ago when “Whitewater” and “Troopergate” stories first appeared about Bill Clinton. I’m afraid that it’s getting away from us, again.

So instead of twisting our minds over what Obama could have or should have done, we should prepare for the possibility of a shift to the political center.

The conclusion in the White House may very well be that to regain electoral and policy support, reforms have to be toned down. Does this mean that:

1) The conservative loud mouths have carried the day?
2) Americans are not inclined to accept progressive change?
3) Obama didn’t have the guts and / or the smarts to pull it off?
4) We’re seeing a Clinton Administration redo?
5) We should shut up and be happy that the Republicans are not running the White House and Congress?
6) Or are they?
7) All, some or none of the above?

Figure it out and let me know.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Up the Learning Curve for Dems and Obama

Here’s an optimistic scenario:

Months from now we’ll look back on August 09 and recognize it as a turning point. Yes, the republicans whooped us. They stirred their base around health care, captured the media and cleverly spread innuendo, fear and misinformation.

But instead of getting flustered and indignant, we wised up.

We learned that in every campaign for reform - financial regulation, global warming, labor law, gay rights - our esteemed opponents will do all they can to trick, scare and confuse the public.

Good thing we figured this out early on, before a mid-term or – God forbid – a presidential election.

We also determined that we don’t have to disparage or demonize anybody, and that it’s a damn good idea to continue to look for support among religious voters, gun owners, suburban moderates, you name it.

And we settled into the comforting notion that we have a smart, capable, disciplined president who makes mistakes and then learns from them.

Finally, we’ll remember August 09 for the death of Ted Kennedy and its dignified aftermath. The three Kennedys were central to my generation’s political identity and our relationship to American history. The lesson from Ted, among many others, is that political maturity means understanding both possibilities and limitations. But you keep your head up and you stay in the game.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Obama Apologist Speaks Up - Sort Of

It’s getting rough out there for Obama apologists.

Even we have a critique of what the prez is doing wrong.

So to demonstrate the value of restraint, I’ll just offer some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head.

First, no matter how politically courageous, principled, clever and bull-headed our new president had been, he still would have come up against the nearly impossible task of imposing center/left solutions on a center/right country.

Americans from various classes are evidently quite willing to put up with considerable risk in return for the opportunity to direct their own circumstances, as they see them, for better or for worse. Isn’t it possible that a lot of Americans are willing to roll the dice on their own health care rather than invest collectively in a federal solution?

Second, if you turn off the mediablog for a minute, you’ll find enormous good will among moderate to liberal-minded Americans who want this president to succeed and will stay with him, even if health reform is highly-compromised. These voters basically like Obama but have some ambivalence themselves about an overly robust problem-solving government.

Third, having worked with unions and on the left for a long time, I can’t shake the sense that we’re at it again; feeling let down, even betrayed and acting out the latest version of “if only….”

… if only our leaders stood for what they believe and stood up to their opponents. If only they didn’t chicken out and sell out. If only they did it our way.

Fourth, consider the possibility that, in modern America, the minute by minute scrutiny of politics and governance exposes the manipulation, errors and weaknesses of everyone engaged, including - and above all - the president.

Barack Obama is thoughtful, capable, disciplined, earnest and only human. He’s under unimaginable pressure. It’s very early in his presidency. He has time to adjust to changing circumstances, including better anticipating republican antics.

Fifth and finally, to my talented and insightful friends, the “thought-leaders” on the left: Please consider the possibility that premature talk about Obama’s crisis or a failed presidency is exactly what the republicans want us – and everyone else – to be talking about.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Top-Ticket Democrats Judging Obama

What was most interesting about Obama’s town hall in Belgrade Montana on Friday was the body language of the state’s three democratic honchos who sat together just behind the president:

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, freshman Sen. Jon Tester and main man Max Baucus, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, who is determined to tease out republican votes on health reform.

In a state where Bush beat Kerry in 2004 by 20 points - Obama lost to McCain by less than two and a half percent - it’s encouraging to have three democrats at the top (the sole House member is republican). And although Montana is not a pivotal swing state, winning here could help us in the future become competitive in, for example, the adjacent Dakotas.

So as much as progressive democrats may disagree with or dislike Sen. Baucus, he is, at least by some indicators - 80 percent on the Americans for Democratic Action’s 2008 scorecard - a reliable moderate democrat.

As the three of them watched the prez answer their constituent’s questions (Gov. Schweitzer is in the middle with the string tie, Max to his left), the impression I got was of three elders, sitting in critical judgment of their out-of-town visitor. It was an audition. The 67-year-old Baucus, a U.S. senator for 30 years, faces reelection in 2014. The 53-year-old Tester, who won three years ago by less than 3000 votes, would run again in 2012.

On stage in shirtsleeves and no tie, Obama responds. As always, there are a few too many hesitations and “uhms”. But as the q & a continues, he seems to find his way through his complicated and nuanced message, that of building what he calls a “uniquely American system of providing care.”

Much of what the president said was in deference to Baucus (currently being lobbied nonstop by a slew of former aids in the pockets of anti-reform forces) who may be the single most important figure in determining if a bill passes and what’s in it.

Brian, Jon and Max shift slightly in their seats and there were even some small changes in their facial expressions. They were stoic and watchful. What were they thinking?

My guess is that with Obama’s popularity slipping, top-ticket democrats, like these dudes from Montana, are worried. They want to make sure that this president has what it takes.

In that respect, Obama’s August showdown with republicans is not just about health care. He has to demonstrate, one way or another, that he can outsmart or outmaneuver opponents, appease and pull in business democrats and hold his base.

If he does this, and delivers meaningful reform, he will be perceived as a pragmatic problem-solver. That’s what top-ticket democrats - and many anxious activists - want to see.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The New Backlash?

Wouldn’t it be ironic if current right-wing extremist behavior triggers a response by mainstream Americans similar to the reaction 40 years ago to the antics of the New Left?

The “political theatre” of 60s radicals was, after all, intent on taking down “the system,” oftentimes showing utter disrespect and disgust for settled values. Decades of conservative governance which followed were based, in part, on this perception (and its manipulation) of an arrogant class of self-appointed elitists.

Now Americans get to witness an internet-era movement of angry right wing nudniks taking marching orders from media madmen like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Abbey Hoffman they’re not, but there is a paradoxical similarity between the Yippies and this current incarnation of dissidents with their contrived indignation and outrage.

Very different times, conditions and issues. We’re much more accustomed to obnoxious spectacles. But this uncivil behavior has a lot of Americans of diverse political values shaking their heads.

Right now, conservative strategists are doing a pretty good job using their troops and true believers to shape the political environment. But this advantage may not last much longer.

Making a mockery of the system during the later phase of the protest movement gave young radicals a rush. But then the reaction set in.

Let’s see if Obama and the dems are clever enough to stir an instant backlash against these creepy anti-reform loudmouths.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Right Wing is Having Fun and We're Not

Congressional Republicans are enjoying themselves these days.

During TV interviews they seem to betray a smug, almost naughty smirk when they talk about “birthers” and health reform opponents who have uncovered the proposed plan to euthanize the aged.

Anti-Obama Republicans (are there any other kind) cleverly maintain a degree of ambiguity about the president’s origin and those insidious government control measures hiding out in the thousand-page health care bill.

Our side is always off guard when preposterous notions gain traction. Now that it’s becoming evident that this insurgent behavior is orchestrated, we’re particularly outraged.

Why are they so good at tricking us and why does the public keep falling for it?

It was almost a year ago when we were in a panic because of the enormous post-convention bump that McCain got over the Sarah Palin pick.

I almost dropped dead when I saw a front page photo of a Palin rally with Rosie the Riveter banners.

Sure we all felt better when the Palin fraud was exposed. But I think that experience is useful now.

The republican are good at snookering us and provoking reactions which make us look bad. So I think we’d better take a breath and close ranks (like we did around Obama last fall) and remember that although the stakes are high, you never want to let them see you sweat.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

How Obama Stumbled

Anyone who presumes to understand what happened to our prez this week must tread carefully. His long-winded answers on health care reform at his press conference followed by his off-message remarks on the Gates arrest left the impression that the Obama persona is fracturing.

He was so tightly wound and obsessed with getting his health reform talking points across, is it any wonder that his improvised reflections on Gates spun in the other direction?

Am I the only one to speculate that his blurt about the Cambridge police behaving stupidly was a projection of his feelings about himself at the moment?

Anyway, it’s easy to point out what he did wrong and insist he behave differently. Here are my two cents:

Stop acting like a control freak at press conferences. Forget the scripted opening statement, answer the reporter’s question quickly and move on to the next one.

At the health reform town hall in Cleveland the following day, he was charming, comfortable and relatable, which says something about his capacity to recover. So let’s give the guy a chance to regain his balance. He’s under some pressure. You think?

And finally, to my friends who regularly advise me to pay more attention to substance than style, this post will probably confirm my enduring lack of depth and analysis. Frankly, I prefer leaving the most complicated policy questions to those serious thinkers on my left and right.

I’m with many Americans who have an enormous emotional stake in Obama. For them and me, this was a painful week.

Let’s hope we’ve all learned a thing or two.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Senate Majority - A New Problem for Progressives

Much more important than the so-called filibuster-proof majority for Senate Democrats is the fact that 24 states now have two Democratic Senators (or independents who caucus with Democrats).

Beside the usual suspects, these states include Arkansas, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico and Virginia.

Democrats have at least one U.S. Senator in an additional 12 states, including Indiana, Louisiana, North Carolina, Nebraska and South Dakota.

This is spectacular news for those of us who want to build and maintain Democratic majorities and would have been fantasy just five years ago.

But this new configuration is a problem for progressives as key Democratic Senators in recently conservative states are reluctant to risk their political future by moving too far beyond their constituents.

Like it or not, health care, global warming, financial reform, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell are going to be brokered by Senate Democrats such as Max Baucus of Montana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

And President Obama will have his hands full with this crowd. (In the House, “Blue Dog” Democrats can be more easily appeased or in some cases ignored).

Since 2004, in just two national elections, we’ve picked up 15 Senate seats. We’ve expanded the base dramatically. Now the question is: How do we move the agenda?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Timing Not Timidity Drives Obama on Gay Rights

To understand how Barack Obama will overturn the ban on gays in the military, look at the administration’s strategy on achieving health care reform.

Obama’s style is to carefully assemble coalitions which include buy-in from groups traditionally opposed to reform.

Just as the President recruited business and medical industry elites into his health care strategy and proposals, he has begun that same process with military and defense department officials, who will be critically important in dismantling “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Progressive democrats are understandably impatient with this process. Daily Beast’s Matthew Yglesias accuses the president of being timid for allowing the military to continue to dismiss gay service men and women.

While progressives may disagree with Obama’s approach, it is not driven by timidity but timing.

We know what it will look like: the President at the White House podium (or, better yet, at a military base) flanked by the Defense Secretary, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and key members of Congress, the Pentagon and the services.

If done right, the end of legal discrimination against gays in the military will signify a spectacular leap for the gay rights movement. It will appeal to many social moderates who oppose or are ambivalent on gay marriage.

Imagine the enormous transformation for this nation when the patriotic and brave gay men and women of the military - who sacrifice and serve their country - receive the respect they deserve.

And that moment is coming.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Obama's War

Seven American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan Monday, marking a spike in U.S. and NATO fatalities. There was little uproar over this tragic news, which was accompanied by military official predictions that the death toll will rise as the conflict intensifies

Opposition to the troop buildup has been muted. Progressive democrats, generally disinclined toward American military action, are reluctant to attack Obama. Supporters of aggressive military intervention, usually conservative, tend to agree with this escalation.

This gives the president some latitude to carry out his risky Afghanistan strategy.

During the Bush Era, the American public’s disgust with the war in Iraq deepened as the number of American troops killed passed 2,000, than 3,000, than 4,000.

Barack Obama knows that there is limited patience for American casualties. But this is not simply a political calculation.

This is his Afghan policy. Soldiers will be suffering and dying based on his decisions and his orders. If the Obama plan in Afghanistan isn’t working, at what point does he withdraw? How will this president tolerate the enormous burden of war?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Evangelicals and Climate Change

An ad campaign on country music radio stations in the South is urging Evangelical Christians to support Congressional Global Warming legislation. Using Biblical references - "God's creation cries out for relief" - the spots are causing grief among economic conservatives who opposed the Waxman-Markey climate bill which passed the House last week.

As the battle moves to the Senate, this is exactly the kind of outreach to socially conservative religious groups that President Obama had in mind when he invited Rick Warren to give the benediction at the inauguration.

And it helps explain why this president moves cautiously on liberal social agenda issues which trouble some religious voters.

Look for more efforts to recruit evangelicals into an environmental and economic populist coalition.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Progressive and Patriotic

Among progressive democrats there’s a lot of angst these days that Obama will give away too much as he moves his agenda through Congress.

We’ll be talking a great deal about those thin lines between bending and folding, compromising and capitulating, succeeding and surrendering. And no matter which way things go, the contingencies of the political process will certainly dim the light on our new prez.

Here’s some of what we’ll hear:

He should’ve fought harder for this. Held the line on that. Whacked the republicans over the head. Called the bluff on the blue dog democrats. Taken on the elites. Gone straight to the people.

In the months ahead, each of us will have to come to terms with our disappointments and frustrations. My advice: be a fierce advocate for your position, but take a step back.

I was in D.C. last week. My first trip there since we won. The kids came. How different it is to visit the memorials - Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, World War II, Vietnam - at a time when we’re feeling upbeat and optimistic about America. The kids, their mom and I talked founding ideas, national identity, good wars and bad, injustice and struggle. Our Obama-era teenagers know that their country can do right and can do wrong - and they also know how cool it is that the nation elected Obama president.

We’re just beginning to pull ourselves out of a very dark period. And I’m still celebrating.

So don’t fixate on Obama mistakes and missed opportunities. We’re shifting the public conversation. We’re building consensus and support for progressive political values.

It takes a while.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

We've Got Your Back, Mr. President

By now, many democrats have found some or several reasons to feel disappointed with the President and his administration; that he’s too compromising or too timid on health care, financial reform, union rights, gay rights, immigration and more.

Yet most of us still clearly see a remarkably talented leader with enormous potential.

Republican strategy - a familiar replay of their nasty and torrid attacks on President Clinton and Senator Kerry – is already succeeding in peeling away some support among independents. Democrats are confounded by their options.

What’s the best way to blunt republican criticism and help Obama succeed with Congress and the public?

Choices being made right now will have enormous political and historical consequences.

My approach is to give this president tremendous latitude to decide how to tackle these challenges.

I know how difficult it is to subordinate deeply held values and principles for a vaguely authoritarian notion such as loyalty.

My tendency to defer is based partly on having spent 25 years in the Labor Movement and a willingness to accept the premise that what workers want is not based on my vision of their world, but on their experience of their own lives. Likewise, I usually accord union leaders - notwithstanding the enormous range of talent, commitment and integrity among them - a great deal of respect.

The point is that I’m used to living with very imperfect solutions, engineered by very imperfect leaders on behalf of members whose values may be quite different from mine.

Progressive democrats right now may be feeling that President Obama is losing his bearings, and that he’s giving away too much, too soon. Maybe so.

But it is extraordinarily difficult to shift power, resources and opportunities from economic elites toward workers - and to do it in a political culture skeptical of government and collective action.

I’m convinced that that’s what our President wants to do. And I’m with him 100 percent of the way.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Quiet Down. Stay Patient. Support the President

The near unanimous vote by house republicans against short-term funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show how much the GOP is willing to risk in their effort to disparage, discredit and destroy Obama.

While they explained their opposition to the $106 billion bill because of a provision which included financing for the International Monetary Fund, typically republicans would never leave themselves vulnerable to charges of deserting our troops.

Combine this with Republican criticism of the President’s restrained remarks on the Iran election – a response dictated by diplomatic considerations and approved by foreign policy operatives left to right – and it’s increasingly apparent that republicans are positioned to fight just about everything which comes from this administration.

Health care reform, financial re-regulation, green energy, Sotomayor - all hang in the balance. This is an absolutely pivotal period when Obama must demonstrate that he can defeat congressional republicans and win these battles.

I disagree with my friends who earnestly believe that the Prez needs pressure from the left on gay rights, labor law reform, troop withdrawal and other critical issues. This is not a good time for the administration to have to contend with division and distraction.

It won’t be easy. Single-payer advocates must be genuinely offended when Obama rejects the approach and then uses that position to showcase his independence from progressives.

But please remember, this is not Bill Clinton triangulating. This is the boldest and broadest effort at progressive change since LBJ (yes, LBJ).

The republicans are playing for all the marbles. They’re good at it.

So quiet down. Stay patient. Support the president.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Republicans Play It Both Ways

Forget for a minute all the complexities of the bank and auto bailouts, the stimulus plan and even health reform.

The broad political debate around these issues is taking a very familiar turn. Each step by the Obama-led democrats to fix capitalism is met by a disapproving and disdainful rebuke by republicans.

There’s an obvious paradox here. It’s the republicans, after all, whose political identity is most directly linked to the success of free enterprise.

In some respects, the republicans have an advantage. They can criticize Obama every step of the way but, in the long-run will benefit by his success.

Conventional thinking gives FDR credit for saving capitalism and for enabling the enormous prosperity of the post-war period. If true, that means that the ideologues who took control of the economy in the Nixon / Reagan / Bush years could only exist because the capitalist system was salvaged by New Deal programs.

Today’s republicans know that they don’t have the votes or the clout to stop Obama even if they wanted to, which I don’t think they do. So they stake out their opposition. If the economy tanks, they can claim the cause as overregulation, excessive taxation and an administration butting in where it has no business. And if the economy recovers, they can say “but look at the price we paid.”

Some believe that the republicans are committing political suicide by rejecting Obama’s reforms. I’m not so sure. Over the next several years, we’re likely to see mixed economic results with the republicans playing both sides. While Obama-backers will recognize the contradictions, we know from experience that merely pointing out republican hypocrisy is not enough.

Let’s not fall into the trap of believing that our opponents are too inept to succeed or that their deceptions are so obvious that they won’t be taken seriously.

The leaderless republicans won’t stay that way. And it will be our side that will bear the burden, once again, of rescuing capitalism from the economic savages who can’t resist biting the hand that feeds them.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Pres. Clinton vs. Pres. Obama - So Far, No Contest

Obama’s strikingly bold agenda contrasts sharply with Bill Clinton’s early months as President.

Though circumstances were certainly very different in 1993 - the economic problems Clinton inherited were obviously less acute than they are now and Clinton won the White House without achieving a majority of the popular vote – the new president was the first democrat in 12 years and he came to office with his party controlling both houses.

We knew that President Clinton was brilliant, remarkably articulate and perhaps a political genius, but that wasn’t enough. What was missing? The new administration was stumbling badly after five months (Remember “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”). By 1994, with the defeat of health reform, we were teed up for the 1994 Congressional takeover by Republicans.

It could be argued that Americans were not ready for progressive leadership in the early 1990s - that the electorate was still in a Reagan frame of mind - and that Clinton’s political skills were keeping conservatives at bay. Many democrats made the case at the time that “triangulation” was a practical approach to governing.

Clinton the centrist promoted sound fiscal policy, presided over a period of economic growth and stability, expanded environmental protection and appointed moderate and reasonable federal judges. But he did little to thwart - and in many cases supported -financial market deregulation which would contribute to the economic blow-out a decade later. And then, of course, there was that issue which our opponents would exploit very adroitly, leading Clinton and the nation to the humiliating spectacle of impeachment and then on to Republican rule.

Obama and Clinton are both extraordinary achievers, enormously successful and self-made. One difference between them is their time in history. But what may really separate Obama from Clinton is that this president is not engaged in a public struggle with his internal demons over his identity. Barack Obama, so far as we can see, knows who he is.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Prez Tilts Toward UAW

Nearly 28 years ago President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers, in an action widely acknowledged to signal a new era of anti-unionism in America.

The American Labor Movement was in decline before the Reagan years, but the disastrous PATCO strike is seen symbolically and substantively as a turning point.

President Obama’s determination to save Chrysler and General Motors does not offer a great “historical moment”, but it may prove as pivotal for our era as the Reagan -PATCO event did in the early 1980s.

The United Auto Workers, like most American unions, has had triumphs and failures, has had great leaders and pathetic ones, and has been bashed from the right and the left.

Some in the media conclude that Obama is obliged to defend the UAW because unions are part of his base. That’s simplistic.

In his remarks explaining the GM bailout, the President said that the government’s commitment to the domestic auto industry is an “investment” so that “our children can grow up in an America that still makes things.”

And his dedication to the autoworkers is an affirmation of his belief that wage earners deserve decent income and security.

Closing the income gap in the country will be enormously challenging to this Administration. By going way out on a limb for the auto industry – and its unionized workforce - Obama is tilting public policy to institutions which advocate and agitate for increased wages.

With the asset wealth bubble popped – along with some of the myths about the “free market” - Americans want to know how they can recover their middle class status.

That should certainly make the union option a little more appealing.

And even more so with Obama’s willingness to stand firm with the UAW.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Abortion Advocates Relieved -- What Was Gained?

What was gained by pro-choice groups in forcing the White House to affirm the Supreme Court nominee’s proclivity to support abortion rights?

Now that Administration spokesperson Robert Gibbs has declared the President is comfortable with Sonia Sotomayor’s position on abortion, we’ve given the conservatives something for nothing.

What was wrong with the ambiguity created by Sotomayor’s absence of a judicial record on abortion? Are pro-choice groups now “relieved?” What would they have done if the White House hadn’t assuaged their anxiety? Would they have demanded that Obama pull the nomination?

President Obama has been reaching across to the other side on the abortion question, trying to expand the democratic party base by bringing socially-conservative voters into a broad coalition organized around populist sentiment for economic reform.

This is more important right now than making nice to liberal social groups. Obama’s unwillingness to support gay marriage is a case in point.

It would have been a strategic advantage for Judge Sotomayor to enter the Senate hearing room with a question mark on abortion and other democratic party litmus test issues. The fact is that the more she can present herself as an independent, the harder it will be for the republicans to draw blood.

It is an act of political maturity for liberal democratic groups to contain their impulse to squawk. Be patient. Stay calm. Let the president build his bridges.