Paul Krugman’s Feigned Sense of Shock and Surprise

21 08 2009

In his most recent column, Paul Krugman argues that the White House should not be “shocked and surprise” that the liberal base would be angered and feel betrayed by any signals that it would be less than fully committed to a public plan option in health care reform legislation. Like many on the left, the Princeton professor believes that the administration’s yearning to work with an intransigent group of Republicans will only spell defeat for any expansive health care bill.

But Krugman’s disappointment with President Obama goes beyond just health care reform. Behind the thinly veiled snark and condescension you can tell he was ready to write this column for some time.

Though he apparently saw no need to neither quote nor cite any one in particular when he claimed, “A backlash in the progressive base — which pushed President Obama over the top in the Democratic primary and played a major role in his general election victory — has been building for months,” Krugman felt confident that he was speaking on behalf of millions.

Of course, there are several people Krugman could point to that have been skeptical of Obama’s approach on issues ranging from health care to executive power to stemming the foreclosure crisis. Single-payer supporting liberals, thee ACLU, and a variety of consumer groups can easily provide the kind of ammunition for sharp criticism Krugman is alluding to, but honestly its not necessary about any of those specific policies for Krugman. He has a problem with President Obama’s approach to governing period.

“The fight over the public option involves real policy substance, but it’s also a proxy for broader questions about the president’s priorities and overall approach,” said Krugman in his column today. “It’s hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Obama has wasted months trying to appease people who can’t be appeased, and who take every concession as a sign that he can be rolled.”

As everyone observed during the campaign, Obama is much more communitarian politician who wants to persuade and cajole. He is not confrontational and populist figure. That does not sit well with Krugman who always wanted an candidate in the mold of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, that is someone who does not shy away from his own instincts for governmental intervention and eagerness to bend Congress to his will.

To be sure, Krugman does raise an interesting question about how one should deal with an implacable opposition whose sole purpose is to obstruct any plan the president endorses. It also does seem odd that the president would single out Senator Chuck Grassely of Iowa when he is one of the main culprits out there propagating this myth that a House bill floating in Congress contains a provision that will pull the plug on grandma. At the same time, however, Krugman conveniently sides steps the other question about how one should deal with conservative Democrats and implacable Republicans in a fiercely divided Congress.

Consider the following: The stimulus passed with little support from Republicans in the Senate and a not insignificant amount of Democrats voting against it in the House. The House cleared a climate change bill by a measly 7 votes even though Democrats have a 78 member majority in that chamber. Congress also neither appropriated funding for shutting down Gitmo and adamantly rejected any proposal that invovled housing detainees at any of the supermax prisons on the mainland.

Even passing legislation that would have granted bankruptcy judges the mere discretion – not mandate, but the option  – of reducing the principal and interest on certain mortgage loans that need to be restructured  proved to be a challenging feat. The measure – which could have prevented nearly one million Americans from losing their homes – got a pitiful 45 votes which is far short of the 60 need to overcome a procedural motion known as cloture and send it to the floor for a final vote.

In other words, Congress a body has been terriby unhelpful to the president at the very moment when we need them the most. But somehow its all Obama’s fault. I am not saying the administration is or should be  immune from criticism nor am I suggesting the push for health care could not have been handeled differently. After all, the president did urge all of us to hold him accountable. But that does not mean we should not lose sight of the wider political context and environoment that has contributed to frustrating the president’s agenda.


Muddying the Health Care Message

14 08 2009

From Marc Ambinder at the Altantic:

As usual, in a pattern that the left patented during the Bush administration, the organized right lost control of its message. Lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, were being asked to respond to non-sequiturs (would you support a health care reform plan that grows the deficit?  Health care grows the deficit right now, so it’s a nonsense question, one that is easy for politicians to answer); they found their meetings full of engorged spleens.  Unrestrained, these town hall meetings are going to turn off the type of voters Republicans most need to pressure Blue Dog Democrats — independents who don’t have red genes or blue genes.  Both Fox and MSNBC televised Sen. Arlen Specter’s raucous town hall meeting live. It was full of confrontation and protest. There were boos when Specter reaffirmed his president’s Americanness.

I have not made up my mind about whether Ambinder is truly onto something here. Sure, I agree that Republicans have lost control of their message given how few people are really discussing patient choice and controlling deficits anymore and are now on shouting about death panels and taxpayer funded abortion. Sure, I agree that the activist right has courted extremist who have turned this fight into a partisian drama with deafening decibel levels. But I am not so sure that even if the Republicans damage themselves and their brand in the process in these astroturfed inspired protests that they won’t be able to sucessfuly defeat health care reform.

These tea bagers turned birthers turned health care opponents turned Obama haters are shifting much of the skepticism of the president’s plan so far to the right, it will take probably until the end of September to get the country to focus on the problem in more sober terms. That’s assuming the White House and health care reform advocates can regain the bully pulpit within a week or so.

For months, the White House has been telling the public that “the key to our nation’s fiscal future – and there are substantial efficiency improvements that are possible to deliver better results at lower costs in the health system.” We are now in the middle of the August recess and four bills have survived committee votes with a critical bill yet to emerge from the Senate Finance Committee. Conservatives, however, have managed to distort Obama’s message on fiscal responsibility with great zeal. Its gotten to the point where we are far more likely to hear people ‘debate’ whether or not the president is a socialist than see people argue about the merits of the what he and the Congress are proposing.

While the Obama White House went wonky, conservatives went visceral and populist.  To their credit, the administration in recent days has tried to reframe this health care battle as you the patient and the American citizen, as opposed to a mere consumer, against the health care insurance industry. At Portsmouth, New Hampshire earlier this week, President Obama reminded his supporters about what’s really at stake:

Now, health insurance reform is one of those pillars that we need to build up that new foundation. I don’t have to explain to you that nearly 46 million Americans don’t have health insurance coverage today. In the wealthiest nation on Earth, 46 million of our fellow citizens have no coverage. They are just vulnerable. If something happens, they go bankrupt, or they don’t get the care they need.

But it’s just as important that we accomplish health insurance reform for the Americans who do have health insurance — (applause) — because right now we have a health care system that too often works better for the insurance industry than it does for the American people. And we’ve got to change that. (Applause.)

Oh yeah change. I have not hear that word in a while. We need to hear more of that. But more importantly we need to hear who the change is for and why. It does not matter that we heard it during the campaign. People need to hear it again.

Big Daddy Kane on the Meaning of the November Election

12 08 2009

Before a crowd of thousands of mainly 30-somethings at a Celebrate Brooklyn  Festival concert in Prospect Park, the legendary Bedford Stuyvesant born and raised rapper Big Daddy Kane adorned in an immaculate white suit minus the flat decided to expound on the meaning of President Barack Obama’s victory in the November 2008 election.

“We now have a black man as president, something that some people thought would never happen” Kane informed a sympathetic crowd that applauded approvingly. “That means no more excuses…I don’t wanna hear all this about the white man is keeping me down.”

I doubt that this signals Kane is poised to join the chorus of conservatives and a minority of liberals who have interpreted the results of the November election as evidence of death of racism or watershed moment finally ushering a new era post-racial of bliss in the U.S. But on that Saturday night many people in the audience probably agreed with him in knowing that Obama’s win meant that at least some things we otherwise suspected and that the country has become less racist than it was maybe 20 years ago.

I of course, wondered how do you square this with other facts of American life. Blacks and Latinos are more than twice as likely to be stopped, searched, or arrested by law enforcement officers as are whites. Or the fact that even when they had similar credit scores blacks and Latinos were more than likely to be pushed into higher cost home loans than whites. Or how children of color attend poorer perfoming schools than do white children that are also chronically underresourced and underfunded.

I struggled to make sense of it all as Kane was sermonizing.

But by the time he got into “Ain’t No Half Steppin‘” I was onto another thought.

Sotomayor Confirmed by Senate 68-31

6 08 2009

History was made today as with U.S. Senate confirming Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring Justice David Souter as the next Associate Justice of the United States. In addition to Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Gingsburg she will be the third New Yorker serve on the Court. She will also be the first Latino/a and third woman to ever confirmed to the Supreme Court bench.

The final vote tally can be found here.

From Bronxdale projects to the highest court in the land. Only in America.

On Excerpts of The Battle for America 2008

1 08 2009

I have never been much of consumer of campaign books. I tend to think they more or less rehash everything that has already been dissected in contemporaneous reporting even if they do offer juicy tidbits about campaign infighting, portraits of a frustrated candidate, and a loads of humorous anecdotes. Couldn’t I get much of that on YouTube spoofs anytime I want? Aside from a peculiar variety of political junkies, I often wonder to myself who actually purchases such books.

But after reading the an excerpt of “The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election” by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson in the Washington Post today, I think I’m beginning to understand the appeal of that genre of books. Of course, the 2008 presidential contest from primary to the end of the general election is an unusual serious of events featuring an unlikely stew of characters giving life to grand themes. Somehow the white guy from the South, former Senator John Edwards, became the underdog and a white woman from a northern blue state and black guy with a Muslim name became the main competitors on the Democratic side. And even in that struggle contained hues of David versus Goliath storyline that the media found easy to sell to a eager public.

Meanwhile, the Republican corp had a number of cartoon characters from the adamantly anti-immigrant then-Congressman Tom Tancredo to the jolly aw shucks evangelism of former Arkansas Mike Huckabee. A more disciplined Senator John McCain had to emerge from the ashes before taking the lead. And that only happened after his big win in New Hampshire.

The media’s appetite for sideshow personalities like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Joe the Plumber, and Bill Ayers made the long campaign easy fodder for water cooler talk for those who wanted a little gossip go with wonky debates on the minutiae of preconditions, the importance of a employer mandates in a health care plan, and the intricacies of the delegate and Superdelegate count.

Historians will have fun with that moment in American politics for generations to decades to come – maybe even longer than that.

But everything revolved around the eventual victor Barack Obama. Compared to his competitors, his campaign was heralded a marvel of near pitch perfect management with few dips in morale matching the posture of its intrepid leader. And the public, particularly his supporters, were very impressed with his cool demeanor, keen intellect and soaring rhetoric.

Balz and Johnson, however, seized on the moments in which those notions did not hold up.

Aides worried that Obama’s low morale might infect others in the campaign and spoke to him about it. They tried to buck him up, but at points in the spring and early summer of 2007, he was deeply frustrated — with his own performance and with that of much of his campaign. On July 15, he met with his senior staff at the home of Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and confidante to both Obama and his wife, Michelle. One adviser recalled it as the moment Obama began to take a more direct role in the operations of his campaign. He was blunt in his critique, and the exchanges among some of his advisers became testy. Beyond fundraising and the operation overseeing the Internet and new media, the campaign was not performing well, Obama said. The message still wasn’t where it should be. The political operation wasn’t up to speed. The campaign lacked crispness and good execution. He believed it was becoming too insular and wanted new people added to the inner circle. He told his team members they were all doing B work. If they continued on that course, they would come in a respectable second.

“Second is not good enough,” he said.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the excerpt so far, however, was then-chief campaign strategist and now White House senior adviser David Axelrod’s candid and prescient assessment of the big O’s potential weaknesses in a 2006 memo.

“It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don’t know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don’t relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched,” he said of Obama’s 2004 Senate opponent.

Many in the blogosphere and beyond often wondered if Obama was in fact the happy warrior beneath all that cool even if he could seduced legions of voters with great speechifying. The sheer force of the machinery of the campaign helped quell, thought not silence, many of those lingering doubts. And Obama knew it telling Balz and Haynes:

As he reviewed the campaign from his transition headquarters in mid-December, Obama offered a frank assessment of his two main competitors: Clinton and John McCain. “I was sure that my toughest race was Hillary,” he said. “Hillary was just a terrific candidate, and she really found her voice in the last part of the campaign. After Texas and Ohio she just became less cautious and was out there and was working hard and I think connecting with voters really well. She was just a terrific candidate. And [the Clinton campaign] operation was not as good as ours and not as tight as ours, but they were still plenty tough. Their rapid response, how they messaged in the media was really good. So we just always thought they were our most formidable challenge. That isn’t to say that we underestimated John McCain; it’s just that we didn’t think that their campaign operation was as good.

I cannot help but note the irony here that the campaign that was often dubbed as personality driven and almost free of doubt was in fact the very same tightly organized campaign that achieved success in no small part due to a healthy fear of losing. Its not news, but still a tidbit worth chewing. And maybe with enough of these kinds of insights it might even form a book worth reading.

The Teachable Moment that Wasn’t

31 07 2009

With so much that has been shouted and so little that’s been said during this “teachable moment,” I am glad that the photo-op and the platitudes that accompanied the Gates-Crowley affair has  been now put to rest over a few brewskis. We have not learned anything new about racial profiling, or had an honest conversation about racial prejudice, or matured as a nation in any way since the story broke.

Instead, we were fascinated by the fact that these two strangers of different hues are in fact very distantly related, that St. Crowley tried to resuscitate to the late Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis, that we should not call the get together a Beer Summit, that Vice President Joe Biden does not drink at all, and that the conservatives think that our part white and part black president somehow hates white people.

But most of all we learned that the best way to not talk about race is to trivialize the issue by reducing it to the isolated prejudices of others not as a living and mutating phenomenon that may influence our split second impressions of one another.

We did not learn, however, that even if we are racist ourselves its still possible that racial prejudice may still be a factor in how we treat one another. We also did not learn about what leads to racial profiling. We did not learn why many people of color and whites sees these kind of controversies so differently.

To be sure, this incident could not have come at a worse time for the president and I certainly recognize that. He really does not have time or the interest in playing racial healer, especially when he is trying to convince the American public and even members of his own party, even with commanding  majorities in both chambers, of the merits of his health care plan.

By the same token, I cannot help but lament the fact that this was the “teachable moment” that wasn’t.

Glenn Loury Gets it Wrong

27 07 2009

Or at least some of it.

In a curious op-ed that he penned for the New York Times on the controversy surrounding the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Brown University Professor Glenn Loury says the whole affair was “the rough equivalent of a black man being thrown out of a restaurant after having berated an indifferent maître d’ for showing him to a table by the kitchen door, all the while declaring what everybody is supposed to know: this is what happens to a black man in America.”

Perhaps this would be true if the Sgt. Crowley, the officer who arrested Gates, performed his duties in according to the letter of the law. But the fact of the matter is that even if Gates got ‘uppity’ and became belligerent, there’s still precious little to suggest that the grey haired professor should have been cuffed for disorderly conduct in his own home or in close proximity to it. This is especially true, if Gates produced an ID with his home address on it, which he in fact did do. Also, I noted in an earlier post, what Gates was accused of doing does not rise to of say violent or threatening drunkness that may lead to creating a nuisance or danger to the public as stated under Massachusetts law.

Secondly, Loury seemed compelled to defend racial profiling by law enforcement on the grounds that “police are at the front line in our society’s response to them. We should be slow to judge them, and slower still to embrace crude stereotypes about their motives — just as they should be slow to conclude that someone is a likely criminal suspect because he happens to be black and male.”

Sigh. Of course, we would not want to unnecessarily malign police men and women and other first responders. Of course, they have very tough jobs. But that does not excuse the pervasiveness and uselessness of racial profiling. Several studies have shown that its counter-productive, whether the context is the war on drugs or the war on terror, which is why much of the law enforcement community has endorsed the End Racial Profiling Act.

ERPA would ban the practice of racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies and provide federal funding to state and local police departments if they adopt policies to prohibit the practice.  It has yet to be introduced this Congress, but criminal justice reform advocates have been clamoring for its passage for years.

Ending racial profiling it and of itself could be an important first step in diminishing the mutual suspicion that exists among people of color and law enforcement and maybe lead to a more cooperation.

Plus, to suggest that the stereotypes of policemen by people of color, who are more likely to be stopped, frisked, and victims of use of force by law enforcement, is somehow as equally powerful as the stereotypes that might exist in the minds of a minority of police officers who carry out such acts is just wrong. This is not to disparage police officers who play by the rules and put their lives on the line everyday, but it is to acknowledge that there is an asymetrical power relationship here.

Thirdly, while Loury does have a point in criticizing candidate Obama for choosing to avoid commenting on last year’s the verdict in the Shawn Bell case and ducking many questions having to do with racial justice generally since he has become president,  its not entirely true that the administration is indifferent to plight of poor black folk.

(Last year three New York City police officers fired 51 shots on the night right before Sean Bell, a 23-year old black man, was to be wed when he hit an unmarked police car twice just after exiting a strip club. Two of Bell’s friends in the car were also injured. All three officers were acquitted. “The judge has made his ruling, and we’re a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down,” said then-Senator Obama.)

To its credit, the Obama administration has supported an equalizing federal sentencing for cocaine and crack possession. Under current law, five grams of crack carries a mandatory minimum of five years in prison. To get the same penalty of cocaine one needs to possess 500 grams of cocaine. This creates a 100 to 1 disparity for what is pharmacologically the same drug. The sentencing disparity is widely credited with having a disproportionate affect on the incarceration rates of African Americans.

Of course, the president has not made anything publicly about it, but he has Attorney General Eric Holder recently said, “This Administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences is unwarranted, creates a perception of unfairness, and must be eliminated. This change should be addressed in Congress.”

A bipartisian bill – the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act (H.R. 3245) – is now making its way through the House of Representatives and a companion bill be introduced in the Senate soon too.

Also, the announcement of the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, which is designed to help poor performing schools, will disproportionately help African Americans and Latino students.

Neither the effort to equalize the federal sentencing on powder and crack nor the education initiative were mentioned in Loury’s column.