Tag: Barack Obama

What if

by on Oct.29, 2010, under Politics

For someone who usually gets more excited to go door-knocking on Election Day than on Halloween, I’ve had a fairly detached view of the national political scene in the run-up to Tuesday’s election.

It’s clear that the Democrats will lose the House and keep the Senate, and that the President will spend the next two years doing small-bore politics frustrated by Congressional investigation a la the last six Clinton years. His re-election will depend on the state of the economy (political constraints suggest to me that it will not turn around very fast, which will cost Obama the 2012 election).

The last two years suggest to me that the next two will not cost progressives huge opportunities that were ever real. The utter failure of two years of a Democratic Presidency and a Congress under lopsided Democratic control to get anything done on climate change suggests that prospects for the future of the earth haven’t been very high and though they’re now dimmer, it’s not by much. The structural reform that could make the biggest difference would be the elimination of the filibuster, but too many Democratic Senators are too fond of their privileges to make that a reality, and even in a majority-rule Senate, I think that regional concerns would defeat effective climate change intervention.

It’s tempting to ask what if? I’m inspired by the round of What if Al Gore had taken power in 2000 over at Unfogged to ask this question: what if, for the past two years, the labor movement had been united?

(continue reading…)

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Hakadosh Barack Who?

by on Mar.22, 2010, under Politics

Like Matthew Yglesias, I was impressed by Jacob Weisberg’s forceful rebuttal of Israeli apologetics in Slate.com:

But if the stupidity of the settlements is obvious to most American Jews, it is not to the majority of Israelis, who have chosen a prime minister who represents the rejection of a two-state solution. At the same time, American liberals have recoiled from the pattern of miscalculation and inhumanity—there is no other word for it—in Israel’s attempts to protect itself from Hezbollah and Hamas.

However, Weisberg’s conclusion — that this would lead to the much-predicted Republican resurgence among Jewish voters — was surprisingly unsourced and unbuttressed to me:

Barring a breakthrough in the peace process or a change in the Israeli government, I’d predict the drift to continue to continue, with Likud-Republican-religious-AIPAC supporters settling into one camp and Kadima-Democratic-secular-J-Street supporters coalescing into another. […] For Democrats, the fracturing of Jewish support, which is crucial both in terms of money and swing votes in a few key states, hardly bodes well. Those who undertook the “great schlep“- to Florida to convince their grandparents to vote for Obama may be getting an earful from them now. Obama won nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. I doubt he will get as much of it in 2012.

There’s relatively little evidence that Jewish voters care enough about Israel to switch party allegiance. (There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence. Have you met my family?) Sarah Posner in the American Prospect, looking at exit-poll data from the Pew Center on Religion and Public Life, found that “Obama garnered 79 percent of the Jewish vote (which looked more like Gore’s 78 percent than Kerry’s 74 percent), despite a relentless campaign of vicious smears, rumors and insinuations targeted at that community and claims that Obama was anti-Israel and a friend of terrorists.”

According to this chart, Obama’s gains with Jews (+4%) were slightly lower than his gains with other groups and with voters overall (+5%). It’s arguable that another Democratic candidate, who was hit with as much “soft on terror” but less “seekrit Muslim”, would have been more popular with Jews the same year. It’s also possible that it’s harder to make gains as the scale of the majority grows; OTOH “blacks voted 95-4 for Obama (up from 88-11 in 2004)”. Regardless, until the evidence in, I think Jews are going to continue, in the words of Milton Himmelfarb, “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”

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Scott Brown for President

by on Jan.20, 2010, under Politics

I’m hardly the only person to say this today, but Scott Brown would be foolish not to run for president. A state senator who lept to the U.S. Senate. Brown’s opponent did him plenty of favors, but Obama’s opponent was so laughable as to raise reasonable questions about Obama’s ability to survive an actual competitive election. Brown is telegenic, looks good naked, has a national base but can probably (by virtue of living in Massachusetts alone) mitigate fears that he aligns perfectly with that base’s beliefs. The career paths of John Kennedy, Bob Dole, John Kerry, Barack Obama and John McCain all deprecate the value of “experience”, suggesting that candidates quickly grow stale in the Senate. At some level, voters prefer governors with executive records; legislative records pile up for consumption by op researchers; magic and local identity wear off.

Given a wide-open field and two and a half years to the convention, I’ll put up $125 right now that Brown takes the GOP nomination if you’ll give me 4:1 on it. Who wants a piece of that action? Honest Harry holds.

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No Excuse

by on Oct.17, 2009, under Politics

This Washington Post article caused a minor blogospheric stir yesterday:

During his first nine months in office, Obama has won confirmation in the Democratic-controlled Senate for just three of his 23 nominations for federal judgeships, largely because Republicans have used anonymous holds and filibuster threats to slow the proceedings to a crawl.

Some Republicans contend that the White House has hurt itself by its slow pace in sending over nominations for Senate consideration. President George W. Bush sent 95 names to the Senate in the same period that Obama has forwarded 23.

You can’t control what you can’t control. Senate Republicans are gonna do what they’re gonna do. But there’s really no earthly reason for Obama to have sent over only 23 nominations when, as we learn a few paragraphs later, there are currently 90 vacancies in the federal courts.

If it were only the courts I’d be inclined not to worry about it. But this inexplicable delay in nominations affects every part of the Obama administration. For example:

Obama has filled just 15 of the 93 U.S. Attorney posts, with another 12 recommendations awaiting review by the Senate Judiciary Committee and three awaiting confirmation by the Senate.

So a total of 30 nominations for 93 jobs. As far as I know, Obama still hasn’t nominated a USAID administrator since the Senate Foreign Relations Committee complained about the vacancy three or four weeks ago. There’s been no nomination of an Inspector General for EPA.

Yes, Senate Republicans are putting an unprecedented number of holds on every subcabinet post under the sun for obvious ideological reasons. But the hold is a courtesy. If Senate Democrats believe that courtesy is being abused, they have more than enough power to do something about it, they needn’t just whine.

More importantly, it’s still no excuse for not nominating after this much time. The regulatory decisions of federal agencies can make huge differences in people’s lives much faster than new laws. Obama’s already sacrificed nearly a year’s worth of such policymaking for no good reason.

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One Of Us!

by on Oct.13, 2009, under Politics

Plenty of people have offered reasoned assessments of why it was too early to award Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. Plenty more have responded in an even more appropriate manner, a kind of combination faceplant-and-sputter. And Big Josh pointed to a few alternatives who make much more sense.

But this, from Matt Taibbi, is the first thing I’ve seen that goes to some effort to decode the Peace Prize…

Even when the award is given to a genuine dissident, it tends to be a dissident hailing from a country we consider outside the fold of Western civilization, a rogue state, “not one of us” — South Africa from the apartheid days, for instance, or the regime occupying East Timor.

You never, ever get a true dissident from a prominent Western country winning the award, despite the obvious appropriateness such a choice would represent. Our Western society quite openly embraces war as a means of solving problems and for quite some time now has fashioned its entire social and economic structure around the preparation for war.

…and make a strong, positive argument for why Obama was a fitting recipient:

This is what Barack Obama did to “earn” the Nobel Prize. He put the benevolent face back on things. He is a good-looking black law professor with an obvious bent for dialogue and discussion and inclusion. That he hasn’t actually reversed any of Bush’s more notorious policies — hasn’t closed Guantanamo Bay, hasn’t ended secret detentions, hasn’t amped down Iraq or Afghanistan — is another matter. What he has done is remove the stink of unilateralism from those policies.

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People Who Probably Deserved A Nobel Peace Prize More Than Barack Obama

by on Oct.10, 2009, under Politics

The monks of Burma

Mir-Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Father John Dear

Hu Jia

Piedad Cordoba


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Don’t Have Kids

by on Sep.25, 2009, under Politics

Yeah, yeah, all of you who know me are thinking. Here comes the predictable rant about Park Slope parents blah blah.

This time that’s not what I have in mind.

Climate researchers now predict the planet will warm by 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century even if the world’s leaders fulfill their most ambitious climate pledges, a much faster and broader scale of change than forecast just two years ago, according to a report released Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program.

The increase is nearly double what scientists and world policymakers have identified as the upper limit of warming the world can afford in order to avert catastrophic climate change.

And that assumes several things I don’t believe will happen, for example, that the U.S. Senate will pass the global warming legislation currently on the table without weakening it even more.

In fact what’s happening is that because the Senate almost certainly won’t pass ACES by December, the U.S. won’t be able to participate realistically in negotiations for the successor treaty to Kyoto. And without meaningful U.S. participation, the Copenhagen negotiations probably won’t go anywhere, at least for a while.

Obama said earlier this year that he would like to show up in Copenhagen with a climate bill passed by the Senate in his hands. However, with the debate on health care raging and the fragile economy just getting off life support, some have expressed doubt that lawmakers have the political will to pass a bill.

Without a commitment from the U.S. to significantly reduce its industrial emissions, the best that environmental advocates can hope in Copenhagen is an extension of negotiations.

Here are three small reasons I’m pessimistic today.

1) Rich nations are already failing to live up to their promises about helping poor nations adjust to global warming, even though rich nations are causing the problem and the global poor are the ones who will suffer.

2) I saw this post from the liberal AmericaBlog: Enviros want your quilted toilet paper. Yes we do. Because only old-growth trees have the long fibers needed to make puffy paper, and we’d really rather you use recycled paper to wipe your ass. If we can’t even make that small step (and judging by the comments, even liberals aren’t willing to) can we really make bigger steps like reducing our meat consumption?

3) Oh, speaking of meat consumption: “For every newly converted vegetarian, four poor humans start earning enough money to put beef on the table.”

Those of us in our thirties now will probably die before the worst of the climate catastrophe, though our lives won’t be as nice as our parents’.  Children born now won’t be so lucky. Think twice before you inflict the coming world on them.

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Wise Latina

by on Sep.18, 2009, under Politics

During arguments in a campaign-finance case, the court’s majority conservatives seemed persuaded that corporations have broad First Amendment rights and that recent precedents upholding limits on corporate political spending should be overruled.

But Justice Sotomayor suggested the majority might have it all wrong — and that instead the court should reconsider the 19th century rulings that first afforded corporations the same rights flesh-and-blood people have.

Judges “created corporations as persons, gave birth to corporations as persons,” she said. “There could be an argument made that that was the court’s error to start with…[imbuing] a creature of state law with human characteristics.”

Sotomayor Issues Challenge to a Century of Corporate Law, Jess Bravin in the Wall Street Journal, 9/17/2009

It would be easy to make too much of this. So why not do the easy thing? Disappointment is clearly going to be the fighting liberal’s default mode for the duration of the Obamallenium, but you can’t have real disappointment without hope. You can’t have low results without high expectations. Under the beach, the paving stones!

In 1996, Ralph Nader ran for president on the Green Party ticket. The relationship, and Ralph in general, would curdle, but speaking in Yale’s Battell Chapel a few days before Clinton’s reelection, Ralph made a very strong case that the only means by which democracy could be meaningfully restored was by curbing the corporation’s outsize role in American civic life. It was a clarifying and totalizing critique that made the sand-the-edges interventions of Clintonism comprehensible and wan. A week later, in Ward One, Nader outpolled Bob Dole by four votes. (As I remember it, Clinton had around 700 votes and Ralph and Bob were each in the high 300’s.)

The problem of corporate personhood was one that Nader had been flogging for a decade; “Corporations Are Not Persons” ran in the New York Times in 1988. As Nader’s stature as a left critic has been dwarfed by his ego-outburst electioneering, critiques of corporate power that address this originary judicial interpellation have become harder to find.

Meanwhile, the trend in liberal jurisprudence is to accommodate the corporation. Last year, Jeffrey Rosen’s New York Times Magazine piece “Supreme Court, Inc.” demonstrated at length the comfort level that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has with the supposedly liberal wing of the Supreme Court:

In opinions last term, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and David Souter each went out of his or her way to question the use of lawsuits to challenge corporate wrongdoing — a strategy championed by progressive groups like Public Citizen but routinely denounced by conservatives as “regulation by litigation.” Conrad [from the USCOC] reeled off some of her favorite moments: “Justice Ginsburg talked about how ‘private-securities fraud actions, if not adequately contained, can be employed abusively.’ Justice Breyer had a wonderful quote about how Congress was trying to ‘weed out unmeritorious securities lawsuits.’ Justice Souter talked about how the threat of litigation ‘will push cost-conscious defendants to settle.’ ”

Sotomayor’s question above came in questioning for Citizens United v. FEC, the outcome of which depends on whether campaign finance law steps on the First Amendment rights of corporations. The Roberts court is quickly getting a reputation for narrow-bore decisions that don’t upset the apple cart too much, and liberals are strategizing around the best ways to lose there.  Meanwhile, the Obama administration has gotten off to a slow start with judicial appointments; in the New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin suggests that it will be long time before the Republican judiciary faces any challenge in numbers, let alone in ideology. But if pragmatic, non-ideological judges like Sotomayor can smuggle in a healthy skepticism for corporate personhood, I’ll suspend my disappointment for a little while longer.

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Illegal Immigrants, Loyalty, Morality

by on Sep.14, 2009, under Politics

By now everyone has heard about Rep. Joe Wilson’s cri de coeur during Obama’s health care speech last week. He was furious that Obama would dare to deny that his health care plan might cover illegal immigrants. (The next day Sens. Conrad and Baucus announced plans to strengthen bans against illegal immigrant participation, thereby retroactively validating Wilson.)

That anger seems a pretty clear example of the loyalty phenomena studied by Enzo Luttmer (PDF):

I show that self-reported attitudes toward welfare spending are determined not only by financial self-interest but also by interpersonal preferences. These interpersonal preferences are characterized by a negative exposure effect—individuals decrease their support for welfare as the welfare recipiency rate in their community rises—and racial group loyalty—individuals increase their support for welfare spending as the share of local recipients from their own racial group rises. These findings help to explain why levels of welfare benefits are relatively low in racially heterogeneous states.

In other words, if you see benefits going to members of your own race, you support welfare more than average. If you see benefits going to members of another race, you support it less than average.

Illegal immigrants are only the current racial bugbear of much of the right. If it wasn’t them, you can be sure we’d be hearing fear about benefits being sucked up by some other unworthy group. My taxes going to pay for those people. Never mind that in fact it’d be more likely the other way around—immigrant taxes would pay for old white people:

According to a July article in the American Journal of Public Health, immigrants typically arrive in America during their prime working years and tend to be younger and healthier than the rest of the U.S. population. As a result, health-care expenditures for the average immigrant are 55 percent lower than for a native-born American citizen with similar characteristics. With the ratio of seniors to workers projected to increase by 67 percent between 2010 and 2030, it stands to reason that including the relatively healthy, relatively employable and largely uninsured illegal population in some sort of universal health-care system would be a boon rather than a burden.

Reactions like these are why I think I have to part with Josh K-sky on the desirability of ingroup loyalty as a moral principle, at least when it comes to those invoked in politics. A feeling of belonging may be important for mobilization, but the moral appeals of liberal politics rarely depend on it. I’d say it’s the difference between what you feel (solidarity) and the morals you invoke in your rhetoric. There’s plenty of “we are as good as you” or “we deserve the same justice as you.” Not so much “stick with your own.” Not constructively, anyway.

I suppose there might be some. But I don’t think it’s wrong to be reflexively suspicious of anybody who comes making those sorts of appeals. Highly suspicious.


Part of the problem I think I may be having with Haidt’s framework is that he seems to be conflating “moral judgments” with “things people care about.” Take, for example, this bit on bumper stickers Josh K-sky linked to in a comment:

The soft-spoken psychologist is acutely annoyed by certain smug slogans that adorn the cars of fellow liberals: “Support our troops: Bring them home” and “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

“No conservative reads those bumper stickers and thinks, ‘Hmm — so liberals are patriotic!'” he says, in a sarcastic tone of voice that jarringly contrasts with his usual subdued sincerity. “We liberals are universalists and humanists; it’s not part of our morality to highly value nations. So to claim dissent is patriotic — or that we’re supporting the troops, when in fact we’re opposing the war — is disingenuous.

“It just pisses people off.”

The University of Virginia scholar views such slogans as clumsy attempts to insist we all share the same values. In his view, these catch phrases are not only insincere — they’re also fundamentally wrong.

But “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” isn’t an attempt to insist we all share the same moral values. It’s an attempt to recapture the concept of patriotism in a liberal, nonmoralistic context. To put it another way, just because I don’t believe love of country is a moral imperative doesn’t mean I don’t love my country. When Haidt insists that I’d be insincere to say so, it pisses me off.

This is how liberals conceive of identity and solidarity in a diverse society, too: I value my group, or my heritage, without appealing to it as a font of rectitude.

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One Thing I Don’t Want To Hear In Barack Obama’s Big Speech Tonight

by on Sep.09, 2009, under Politics

That rhetorical tic of his where he says “Now let me be perfectly clear” and then says something vague.

I’m sure it’ll be there.

Fortunately, I don’t plan to watch.

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