Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Impious Thoughts

This seems to be the time when those supposed allies and fellow travelers of the Obama Administration get to take free shots at the President. It probably helps that Rahm Emmanuel has departed (less fear in attacking) and that Obama is out of the country. Those who are doing so are falling into two groups: those who need to be cynical about everything for professional reasons, and those who have been secretly harboring bitterness about one issue or another while trying to support the broader Democratic effort during the election campaign.

Now that it's over, and the Democrats have well and truly been shellacked, to these people it seems perfectly natural to come out with virulent attacks about everything except Obama's basketball skills (here, there is truly no reference point, as a basketball-playing President seems without precedent, and it seems they--those skills--are pretty impeccable, anyway). To give the names, I want to villify in particular Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, and Jim Van de Hei. (I would normally provide links, but I really don't recommend that you read the pieces.)

Dowd's fickleness is no surprise; the latest foul ploy is a column written from the perspective of her Republican brother Kevin. I don't believe her and think it's just a cheap trick allowing her to give vent to her most wicked, disloyal thoughts; even if she did have such a brother, why would we want to read his opinions, paraphrased? Rich's column was a real disappointment; he seems to feel that Obama's supporters who went down in the midterm bloodbath were sacrificed for too little; what I'd say is that Rich sees his beliefs challenged by the electoral defeat and blames the leadership. Van de Hei, in Politico, allows a variety of unnamed Democratic pols to vent about a variety of things, some incredibly petty.

The common thread is that Obama is arrogant, out of touch, and isolated. They question whether he can get his mojo back. Rich, Dowd, and the party's carping hectorate seem to want a different President, the one they imagined that they had.

Another common thread is the lack of prescription: Very little is offered in the way of constructive suggestions. Either they have none, or they're waiting for a better time, such as...when?

I am not bound by such restrictions; I can accept the reality of the drubbing without losing faith that we have the best leader, who has pursued wise policies, and that he can lead us to better times. I will modestly suggest some areas in which President Obama can provide some thoughtful leadership, just as he has done in the past, but today I will restrict myself to a few comments on process, and on immediate issues (ones that need to be tackled during the lame-duck Congress).

Popping the Bubble

President Obama has been very frank that he is frustrated by the difficulty of getting exposure to a sufficiently wide variety of "folks" (you don't have to quit using that word, Barack!) The White House is in a permanent state of surface tension, one that is shored up by security needs, and those admitted within are likely to fit into one of three categories: the overawed, friends protecting him, or subordinates protecting themselves.

Two very simple ideas should help soften the shell, if not to collapse it completely. The first is just to have more Cabinet meetings and get the group to participate in a wide range of debates. The Cabinet was well-chosen; it is full of people who are experienced, intelligent, and accomplished, many of them being very savvy politicians, and there is a wide range of political viewpoints (including a significant number of Republicans). President Obama must use them wisely. The rules must be established with all Cabinet members: no telling tales on others, no vital secrets leaked, no disparagement of colleagues; and failure to observe these rules would be grounds for exclusion from future sessions, if not dismissal. Surely they all want to be playing, so they should follow the rules.

The second is to reach out from the bubble to pull us in: to have a systematic outreach effort to identify people who could be brought in and actually encouraged to interact with the President, either one-on-one or in small groups (and backed up by private chat access). President Obama needs to make time--maybe two or three dinners and a couple more hours a week--to sit down with these people and engage them in a relaxed, but substantive, way.

The campaign site has long invited people to contribute and essentially participate in lotteries to meet with the President. This is much too random. There is no doubt that the White House must receive thousands of letters a week; the data base of contributors can be scanned on the Internet to identify people who could be potential candidates; local newspapers have people writing in to express their thoughts. Find the ones who have something constructive to say (even if they're not partisan Democrats), screen them to find ones willing and able to help, and bring them in on the sly.

The 111th Congress is Only Lame, Not Dead
Here's a walking-stick of support.
There are three areas we should hope that the lame-duck session of Congress should address directly, and others that departing Congresspeople should be invited to opine upon freely before they leave.

The first, of course, is that of the expiring Bush tax cuts. Republicans seem to think their interests are best served by taking outrageous negotiating positions on this one; it is true that they can bring up the issue next year with extensions of cuts made retroactive to the beginning of 2011. Obama should take a stance that is extremely accommodating of the Republican point of view with regard to tax cut extension as a short-term program, but that is firm that he will not hesitate to veto tax cuts in 2011 that do not suit him, either politically or economically. Republican insistence on tax cuts for the rich is an issue that will end up burning them badly, if he forces the issue.

My view is that none of the tax rate cuts should be extended more than three years, even for the lower incomes; that, given the weakness of the recovery, dividends and capital gains reductions are the best part of the cuts to extend, if some must be extended indefinitely; that the alternative minimum tax bands have to be more definitively walled off from the middle class, so they won't need to be fixed again every year or two; and that a new band should be established for true high-end incomes over, say, $1 million.

Here are two out-of-the-box ideas to help make it work: 1) Obama and the Democratic leadership should agree that, if an agreement can be reached on high-end tax rate cuts and their duration, that would be passed first as a confidence builder. Once they've gotten theirs, with Democratic support, the tax cuts for everyone else would be approved--and to guard against the possibility the Republicans renege, President Obama can use the pocket veto.
2) A novel approach that violates economic theory but could work would be to make the tax cuts dependent on the expansion of jobs in 2011; if the job expansion materializes (as confirmed by some official measures), the cuts would continue(!) indefinitely, and if they prove not to work, they would expire. Part of the rationale for this counterintuitive approach is that if jobs increase, then there will be more revenue, allowing us to meet long-term budget targets while continuing something that's working. The targets might be modest, like closing 10% of the jobs gap toward a desired level like the traditional non-inflationary 5% gap from full employment.

The second big issue that must be tackled is the proposed START2 treaty with Russia. The proposal has been thoroughly vetted in committee and by defense experts, and it's been watered down by requiring (unnecessary) development of a new batch of nuclear weapons, It's time to fish, not to cut bait. It's make or break time, in terms of relations with Russia, and breaking is exactly what we should not do. If we are serious about our participation in the international nonproliferation treaty, we are basically required to do something, and this is such a small thing, we must do it. To give just one example of the huge negative consequences a failure would bring, not approving it would virtually guarantee an end to Russian cooperation in keeping Iran from making and testing a nuclear weapon. Plenty of Republican senators will support the treaty if given a chance; a filibuster would not work. John Bolton has now come out against "hasty action", and he's my pole star: I navigate directly away from whatever he says.

Last of the big unfinished business that must be done now is bringing to a conclusion the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" saga. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has come out in favor of ending the policy--and the law--and he has clear ideas on how to implement the change. Very simply, Gates should request an audience with the current Congress' Republican caucus, he should tell them how it should be done, and they should get behind it. Otherwise, the Administration should announce an orderly end to its enforcement of the policy; the Defense Department has already signaled this direction by requiring any penalty discharges be approved at the highest level, and the policy can no doubt be redefined by fuzzing up the definition of coming out gay until it becomes acts of insubordination, and thus something that directly undermines unit discipline.

Last outreach suggestion for today: The outgoing Congresspeople are among the best possible ones to get advice--on the record--about two long-term problems: a sensible plan for reining in the deficits, with or without full employment; and the mortgage deduction phase-out being proposed by the deficit reduction commission; and a short-term issue: a nonpartisan proposal for revising the rules of the Senate (specifically the filibuster-related provisions). Any proposal would have to be made at the outset of the Senate session in January, but the concept of a proposal that favors neither the majority nor the minority might seem fair to people in both parties now.

A Kinder, Gentler Bushite
Are They Human? Or Are They Dancing?--The Killers
I have been impressed by the discipline former President George W. Bush has shown since emerging from retirement to launch his new book. Showing great respect for his former office, as well as to the job's difficulty and complexity, Dubya is refusing to make any criticism of President Obama and his policies, and he's sticking to it. I'm not ready to read the book, much less to recommend it, but I'm willing to praise this, and I'll make this further offer: I will retire my use of the word "Bushite" to refer to "establishment Republicans" (that phrase for it that seems to have settled in, despite my best efforts). The only conditions on that promise are that fmrPOTUS W continue to observe that restraint, that his brother Jeb does not run for President, and I allow myself its use as a putdown when someone impolitely calls me a "libturd". What is that supposed to be a wordplay on, anyway? (Don't answer, it's a rhetorical question.)

I missed David Brooks' editorial "The Crossroads Nation" when it first came out Wednesday. Naturally, when I ran across it, I thought it was about Turkey, and opened it to find a fairly modest proposal that, if we play it right, this lonely outpost America could have a global future as the location of a chain of local hives of cultural and economic activity in a hypothetical 2050. To me, he was making the entirely reasonable suggestion that we must think about such things--and now--and just throwing out his idea, for what it's worth, to start the debate.

In the letters, Brooks was flamed deeply, widely and persistently. I read several pages of the comments--starting from the Most Recommended--and never saw one that supported even the topic of the discussion. The comments were mostly about how stupid Americans were, in so many ways as evidenced by the recent elections, and very little about how that related, or didn't relate, to Brooks' idea. OK, it was bad timing, but I'm going to persist in trying to stay on the subject when I post on those things, even if I agree with some of the sentiments.

I will try to bring future suggestions under the tag (Label) of "impious thoughts".

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

I cleaned this up a bit and posted it on Kos: