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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Hillary gives me pause.


The envelope was in my mailbox, the return address: “Ready for Hillary 2016”.  My immediate response: not so much — certainly not yet.  Beyond all else, I am so not ready for two and a half protracted years of presidential politics.  More important, we’re facing a critical Congressional election this November.  So I see this solicitation as a distraction at the very moment when we can ill afford to avert our attention from the immediate task at hand.  Do her supporters not realize how important it is to hold the Senate; are they intentionally trying to undermine our sitting Democratic president?  The promised “photo enclosed” pictured the presumptive first family: Hillary, Bill and Chelsea Clinton, another reason I’m feeling, not so much.  Let me explain.

Don’t get me wrong; if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016 I will certainly vote for her.  At the moment, the odds are in her favor and she may well land in the Oval Office this time around.  Like others back In 2008 I faced a very hard choice.  I had long been deeply committed to both civil and women’s rights.  The prospect of finally having either an African American or a woman in the White House was nothing less than exciting.  I opted for Barack Obama, a choice actually made on the night he spoke at Kerry’s 2004 convention.  I didn’t regret it in the many months that followed and still don’t.  Hillary Clinton was a credentialed and compelling candidate.  My problem was that her campaign had an air of entitlement, an assumption that she would rightfully sail to victory.  That was a turnoff, but there was something more.  Having lived through the two Bush presidencies I was troubled by the idea of dynasty.  Bush/Clinton/Bush/Clinton didn’t sit well with me then, nor does it today.

While we’ve not had husband and wife presidents, we have had father and son — John and John Quincy Adams.  Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt were cousins; Benjamin Harrison was William Henry Harrison’s grandson.  The Roosevelt’s were two of our greatest chief executives. Regardless, these dynasties went against the intent of the Founders who were averse to anything that smacked of monarchy.  His distaste for royalty, led George Washington to shun a third term.  After Franklin Roosevelt took four and died in office, term limits were imposed.  I have always been a proponent of them and wish they would, in some fashion, apply across the board including the Supreme Court.

I admit that my own aversion to dynasties is especially acute these days.  With each passing year, and contrary to what one might hope in an age of hyper communication, America is becoming much more stratified, sharply divided by class.  We like to talk about the oligarchs of Russia and China, but we have as many, even more, of them right here.  Perhaps they didn’t derive their position from the same corrupt transfer of wealth, but some would argue that our stunning income inequality stems from its own kind of corruption.  Think obscene CEO pay.  Parallel to the concentration of wealth — the 1% — we have an entrenched political class and the two have developed a symbiotic relationship grounded in mutual interest.  Political dynasties, of which there are many, fit neatly into that picture.

Our Oligarchs generally stand in the shadows as political funders, though one of their own, Michael Blumberg served as a three-term mayor of New York.  Note he circumvented an enacted two-term limit.  The political class takes on the role of governing and they are remarkably inbred, even if not always by blood.  For many, politics is a family business; the Kennedy’s being the best known in our time.  It’s not accidental that we often refer to these families as “royalty”.  Altogether, it’s a system that belies the romantic notion of a people’s democracy with a level playing field much as it does the myth that anyone in America can make it.  Wealth and politics are incestuous and the dynasties are manifestations of that relationship.  And speaking of Hillary, the wealthy and the political often merge so that at times it’s hard to tell them apart.  The Clintons came to Washington as a family of modest means — they weren’t even homeowners.  Bill left office a little better off thanks to his wife’s best selling book, but in the intervening years he has pursued wealth big time.  He has also courted and befriended the oligarchs, or at least the relatively progressive ones.

Does wealth disqualify Ms. Clinton from the presidency?  Certainly not.  Will it make her more independent, less dependent on the funding rich?  Don’t count on that.  In fact she may be less likely to pitch in her own funds than in 2008.  And I say her own funds (vs. family funds) because it is reported that she is commanding hefty — $200 K plus expenses a pop — lecture fees.  If that isn’t an outlier relative to the average American (even the well compensated ones) on whose votes she depends, I don’t know what is.  Again, wealth — in this case earned wealth — shouldn’t be held against her, but these fees for a few hours work are no less unseemly than the executive pay about which I wrote earlier this year.  Do they spell quid pro quo?  Who knows, but on the other side you can be sure the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson (before whom GOP contenders recently genuflected) are surely expecting something in return.

I said earlier that the Hillary mailing was distracting.  Worse is that the assumption of her unannounced candidacy is so preemptive that no other Democrats dare even voice an interest in the office.  With a second term incumbent in the White House, parties always find themselves with a relatively thin and certainly untested bench.  That’s why they often defer to the Vice President — GHW Bush and Al Gore.  It accounts for some Biden talk this time around.  To be sure, the Democrats have a good number of talented office holders, but virtually all of them are boxed in.  Perhaps the best example is Governor Andrew Cuomo (scion of another dynasty), who must hold back because New York is now Hillary’s home state and she is his political senior.  Until the former Senator and State Secretary announces her intention everything and everyone on hold.  Long term, that can’t be good for the party or the country.

While we all wait — possible candidates, party activists and citizens — the press is obsessed with Hillary.  They eagarly await her forthcoming book, which will be heavily promoted.  Frank Rich has written a NY Magazine story that presupposes her nomination and the expected Republican response.  Earlier this month the New York Times’ Mark Landler and Amy Chozick’s offered an assessment of her State Department legacy and how it might play in an expected run.  As important as the dynasty issues, there are probably much more important questions about what kind of president Ms. Clinton might be?  In that context, along with considering her own record, people speculate about how she might have addressed the issues faced by Obama.  She was widely respected in the Senate, and certainly was an energetic State Secretary.   She traveled widely, but it’s hard to pinpoint what she accomplished other than as part of the administration.  Her record will inevitably be compared to that of John Kerry.  His successes could put her at a disadvantage, but it’s too early to judge.   All indications are that she came down on the side of hawkishness during internal policy debates, often ending up in the minority.  Indeed her original support of the Iraq war probably reflects and overall ideology that differs from what has come to be Obama policy.  That concerns me.
In recent weeks there has been more talk, along with the expected articles, about a Jeb Bush run for the presidency.  Wow, a real head-to-head Clinton-Bush.  Jeb’s mother has famously spoken out against his candidacy, but political families do change their minds.   Conservatives who now control the Republican grassroots don’t trust the Bushes nor do they see Jeb as one of them.  Given their acquiescing to two perceived “moderates” — McCain and Romney — both of whom lost badly in the general election don’t be surprised if they insist on nominating a “real conservative”, say Rand Paul.  With much of the electorate, though you wouldn’t know it, moving in the other direction that could be suicidal.  At this point, as concerned as I am about 2014, I don’t feel projecting a Democratic victory in 2016 is just wishful thinking.  So thinking seriously about Hillary, albeit being forced to do it prematurely, makes sense.  And the bottom line is that at this moment she gives me pause.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

OMG. Obama is President


We watched Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration with great expectations.  In retrospect, I’d suggest totally unrealistic though not surprising expectations.  We were desperate, fatigued and disillusioned.  An administration's purposeful terror mongering used to launch two questionable, costly and unfunded wars had done a number on our national psyche.  Our standing in the world was at a low — yes at a low in the Bush years — and the bottom had fallen out of our over leveraged economy.  With this backdrop came a tall handsome knight in shining armor, a man of soaring speech with the ability to attract and move enormous crowds.  He spoke of the change for which we hungered and we invested heavily in his and its promise.  And so was he (perhaps also unrealistically), “fired up and ready to go”.

The late Mayor Ed Koch would go around New York asking citizens, “How am I doing?”  With more than five years logged into his presidency, its seems a good time to assess how Obama is doing, most especially for those of us who supported him in ‘08 and still do.  Lets stipulate that he was dealt a terrible, almost unprecedented, hand.  While that explains a lot, it’s time to stop invoking the inherited Great Recession and unresolved wars.  No doubt, Obama’s performance has been impacted by the starting gate, but this far in we judge presidents for their performance not for their handicap entering the game.

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign will go down as a watershed in American politics.   It raised record dollars, a good deal of it at the grassroots level, and was the first to engage the full power of technology.  What was put in place then paid dividends four years later, giving the president a decisive second term win.  There is a vast difference between campaigning and governing.  As if to underscore that point, the organization and methods that work in building election victories don’t necessarily do as well in support of governance or policy.  Obama’s organization, albeit rebranded, kept going throughout his first term and continues today, but has not been able to sufficiently mobilize positive public opinion on his most important initiatives.  Beyond that, making speeches as a candidate — or making speeches in general — is far easier than executing.  Speeches are solo acts where one is virtually in full control.  Executing effectively requires teamwork and a large degree of consensus building, often with people of contrary views.  Speeches can be pure; the product of the legislative process and even of executive action is almost always just the opposite.  It is messy and often results in painful compromise.

How is Obama doing?  Not as well as his campaign speeches might suggest and certainly not up to our expectations of him at the start.  There are of course many reasons, including not inconsequentially that difference between campaigning and governing.  That he has had to contend with an inordinately hostile opposition, exacerbated by the issue of race discussed in my last post, has only added to whatever underperformance we might attribute to him.  During the heat of the '08 primary campaign, Hilary Clinton ran her famous 3 AM Ad suggesting that Obama was ill prepared for the sudden crisis that face all presidents.  Other contenders, contrasting themselves with the inexperienced freshman senator, claimed their readiness ”on day one”.  I’m not sure that even the most seasoned politician is truly ready for the very different and unique challenges that face presidents.  Even so, Obama came with very limited Washington and executive experience.  These deficiencies clearly put him at some disadvantage.

Obama is almost unmatched in speaking to and firing up crowds.  He is less so in smaller settings and, if press reports are accurate, in the one-on-one exchanges with politicians in either party required to get things done in DC.  For a man who has come so far so fast, he is not a natural (backslapping) politician.  Despite his campaign’s phenomenal success in mobilizing the grass roots, Obama falls short at retail politics.  Part of that may be because the president for all his public exposure is at heart a private person, a man with a very small close knit set of friends who is most at home, literally and figuratively, with his immediate family.  Superficial engagement just isn’t his cup of tea.  Early on, people on the Hill have complained that he doesn’t socialize or build personal relationships with them.  This probably hurt his presidency, though in the current hostile and poisonous environment, it’s hard to say how much.

One of the ironies of Obama’s tenure is that what will probably be his greatest domestic accomplishment is also the source of what has weakened him most.  Most troubling is that it has been a largely self-inflicted wound, and a mystifying one at that.  With two years to get prepared, the administration bungled the launch of his signature healthcare program.  While new websites, especially those that have to deliver on very complicated functionality, can face glitches, the ACA’s breakdown was inexcusable.  In the end it was, as many of us predicted, fixed.  Enrollment actually exceeded original targets.  But the damage the initial cock-up inflicted on the Obama presidency may have been catastrophic.  If the Senate is lost in November, the ACA’s inept rollout will probably be to blame.  Republican control of both houses in this environment would mean his presidency will effectively be over.

Many of Obama’s strongest supporters expected a far more liberal president.  In part that disappointment comes more from their hopes and expectations than from what he had promised.  Obama’s rhetoric has always been that of a progressive moderate, more of the center than of the left.  The country’s right tilt just doesn’t produce many left-liberal politicians, certainly not nationally successful ones.  Nonetheless, he promised to close Gitmo (yet to be done) and his rhetoric certainly did not foretell the NSA intrusions, the crackdown of leaks and the deporting of so many of the undocumented immigrants.  Perhaps Democratic presidents have to prove their national security bona fides, but that doesn’t compensate for our disappointment.  So, we can’t give him a pass.

In the aftermath of Viet Nam, America went through a period of military humility, even shell shock.  George HW Bush’s first Gulf War — short and successful — probably turned that around.  The hubristic aggressiveness of his son swung the pendulum too far, reawakening our post Viet Nam mindset.  People like John McCain haven’t gotten that message, or refuse to hear it.  Obama does.  He understands the public’s appetite for interventionism is limited, probably nonexistent.  So he has been reluctant to engage in other people’s conflicts (often civil wars) and, in my view, correctly so.  The idea that his policies have weakened America is preposterous.  As said earlier, our standing in the world had already taken a huge hit in the Bush years, and in part because of them.  But perhaps more important is that while we may still be the preeminent super power, the world has changed drastically.  The idea that there can be a single center of gravity no longer obtains in the 21st Century. 

To be sure, Obama’s approach to foreign policy has been cautious, and his administration like others before it, has made some mistakes.  For all our clout around the world, we remain a very insular nation with often dangerously limited understanding of other countries and cultures.  Obama’s caution in part stems from understanding that, as with the presidency itself, his (and our) power is greater in theory than reality.  He also seems at times to be torn between his own restraint instincts and the pressure of others (including some Democrats) to act, to do more.  So he has drawn “red lines” which made no sense at the start and, once abandoned, have dismayed some at home and abroad.  Those are valid criticism, but in truth our record of intervention is at best spotty.  War didn’t work in Viet Nam and yielded precious little in Iraq and Afghanistan — all three with huge and long felt costs.  Can we do better with negotiations?  The jury is still out on Iran and most certainly on Israel-Palestine, but I’m inclined to believe the outcomes are likely to be better, certainly measured against cost-benefit.

Obama, like each of his predecessors, has had some substantial failures.  That presidents can fulfill our unfettered hopes is a myth, much like the idea that we are “the greatest”.  But in addition to Affordable Care Act, the president has had some notable accomplishments.  The economy remains challenging in part because some of the problems that remain are systemic rather than tied to a normal cycle.  That said, the recession didn’t morph into a depression and millions of new jobs have been created.  Progress, albeit less than we’d like, has been made at financial reform.  Dodd-Frank is making a difference, some of it yet to take full force.  Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has been repealed and marriage equality (with the President’s full support) is on its way to becoming a national reality.  Some believe too many people remain, but we have ended our military role and have exited Iraq; Afghanistan will follow this year. 

Have our expectations of an Obama presidency been met?   Perhaps not entirely, but relative to what we experienced in the previous eight years — yes they have.  Our country faces some huge problems, some shared with others around the world.  Writing this post from Manhattan where income inequality hits you in the face everywhere you look, fixing the disparity seems all the more urgent.  We can’t go on like this, certainly not without major social upheaval.  Obama is talking about it, pressing for raising the minimum wage, but much more concrete action will be required.  We’ve lived through a weird weather year, seasons not behaving in the expected manner, and still are not doing nearly enough to address (even in conversation) the environmental crisis.  Even if Obama focuses on nothing else in his remaining time it won’t be enough, but he should try.  I think he knows that. 

I don’t know who will sit in the Oval Office on January 20, 2017.  Whoever it is, she or he should be grateful that Barack Obama kept the place going and led this nation.  The hand they will be dealt won’t be a cakewalk, but it’s sure to be far better than what he faced eight years earlier.  Yes, the presidency comes with considerable power, but in many ways it’s a miserable, unpredictable and often thankless job.  This critical assessment notwithstanding, I’m so glad Obama took it on and remain proud to say he’s my president, our president.

Friday, April 4, 2014

OMG — A Black President.


As Barack Obama raised his hand to take the oath in 2009, he stood before the largest crowd ever assembled for an event in Washington DC.  The estimated 1.8 Million that gathered on that day easily broke the previous record (1.2 M for LBJ) and was seven times larger than the 1963 March on Washington (250K), a record in its time.  Millions more of us were glued to our television screens in rapt attention.  It was an exciting moment filled with emotion and historic consequence, but also one accompanied by an element of disbelief.

That may have been especially so for those of us with a history in Civil Rights struggles, but probably no less for those who had worked so hard on a campaign that Obama often characterized as “unlikely”.  There he was, a black president — our president — and we were figuratively or literally pinching ourselves to make sure that it wasn’t all a dream.  Could it be, and so relatively soon since King’s iconic speech and the struggle that often seemed insurmountable?  OMG, we had elected an inaugurated a black president.  What a great day, how very far we had all come.

We were hardly alone in expressing that OMG, but not everyone saw it in a positive way.   Far from considering it a great day, a significant number of Americans saw January 20, 2009 as unnerving, horrific and even catastrophic.  They too watched in disbelief, bearing witness to their rightful order, the one on which they counted, evaporating before their eyes.  Would it have happened if not for our collective war fatigue and a near financial collapse in an election year?  Let’s leave that to historians, but for sure Obama’s election did not fit the plan nor did it reflect the rightward direction in which the country had been heading for more than four decades.

Many of those who now felt disenfranchised saw Obama as an illegitimate president, someone who in their mind was not even American.  What he called his “funny name” was indeed alien, even his claimed Christian faith suspect.  As I’ve suggested before, for many Obama typifies the other, someone “not like us”.  He personifies a potential and threatening sea change, a transfer of power away from the “entitled”.  And much, if not all of this unease, centers on a single word: race.  If these last five plus years have proven anything, it is that any notion of a post-racial America was always a dream, and a naïve one at that.

It’s been many weeks since I’ve written a post.  Much of this quiet time has been spent trying to make some sense of the mess in which we find ourselves on so many fronts, domestic and foreign.  It’s a crazy idea but I’ve been trying to think before writing.  In much of that time, the title of this blog has been sitting atop an otherwise blank Word document.  In thinking ahead to the coming elections and about these last years of political acrimony and gridlock, the idea of “OMG, A Black President” just wouldn’t leave my mind.  Was I being irrational, wrongly obsessed with how race was playing out before us?  Well, thanks to my friend Eric Dashman the answer, the confirmation of sanity, came in alerting me to Bill Moyers’ interview of law professor Ian Haney Lopez.  Lopez, discussing his recently published book, was saying all the things I was thinking and more important making a compelling case for what ails our country, and why.

Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class was on my iPad within minutes of watching the interview.  I couldn’t put it down.  Lopez’ title was inspired by a simple device that we humans can see, but that can be heard and understood only by dogs.  Dog whistles speak in a special code and so too do the metaphoric racial political dog whistles employed by the politicians and opinion makers who use them.  These are suggestive messages, rich in innuendo and aimed at specific target audiences.  But, as Lopez suggests, it doesn’t take much for all of us to understand their meaning.  We have come to understand the buzzwords and images, and they have had a cumulative effect in drawing and reinforcing the lines that so divide us.  When Mitt Romney spoke of the 47%, we instinctively knew their identity.  We understand the underlying meaning of the “takers” — recipients of food stamps, Medicaid, and even public education.  Conversely, we recognize who falls under the definition of “hard working American taxpayers” and who does not.  Race is writ large in these coded words.

I won’t attempt to more than skim Lopez’s case here — you should read it.  His story begins with the prescient, albeit unsuccessful, campaign of Barry Goldwater and takes firm hold a mere four years later with Nixon’s infamous Southern Strategy.  Beyond all else, this is a perception game, one premised on a simple strategy of steering white voters toward a common self-preservation cause under the umbrella of their (White Republican) party.  It has been remarkably successful not only in determining the priorities and direction of the GOP, but also in influencing the conversation and ultimately policy across the entire political landscape.  Republicans turned increasingly (hard) right but so, to some significant degree, have Democrats (especially since Clinton) followed along, abandoning liberalism for something right of center.  A striking outcome of Dog Whistle Politics is that since 1960 Republicans have garnered a plurality and usually a majority of white voters in all but one presidential election cycle.

What was implied in Nixon’s Southern Strategy became more blatant with Reagan’s talk of “Welfare Queens” and George HW Bush’s racially infused Willy Horton commercial in 1988. To get a sense of how intrusive this has been, Bill Clinton, who has been called our first “black president”, made much of his presidential legacy about “ending Welfare as we know it”.  The reform was premised on the idea that “lazy” recipients need to be forced off the government tit and into the workforce.  And who are these people?  Mostly shiftless black recipients, people who prefer gaming the system rather than being productive — read, being hard working taxpayers.   An assault on public sector unions/employees, including teachers who serve the same disadvantaged citizens, is only a different side of the same coin.

In 1965 President Johnson signed Title XVIII of the Social Security Act providing universal healthcare for America’s seniors.  For sure Medicare had its detractors including those who saw it as socialized medicine.  But no one ever called it Johnsoncare; no one tried to turn the president’s name into an epithet.  In attacking the Affordable Care Act and pejoratively branding it Obamacare, we can see a striking example of the dog whistle.  As Lopez writes, “here comes a black man to get government involved raising taxes on you in order to fund even more giveaways to minorities.”  More specifically, “…Obama cares about minority loafers and not white taxpayers”.

The wave of new voter ID laws being passed in the very states where poll taxes and bogus qualification “tests” were used to subvert and prevent African American participation may now be aimed at suppressing Democratic votes, but only the blind can miss its larger racial component, one that also impacts Latinos.  “Voter fraud” is the dog whistle code for keeping the right people (Republicans and by extension whites) in power.

Today’s heightened role of race in politics correlates directly to America’s dramatic demographic shift.  Whites are on their way to losing numerical preeminence.  Having a black president just rubs salt into the festering wound of feared power loss.  Whether that loss will occur and when is still a mater of conjecture.  Lopez believes that Republicans are likely to coopt second and third generation Latinos into the white fold, something that might turn the projected demographic shift on its head.  Some light skin blacks “passed” in an earlier time. Accent free citizens of Hispanic heritage can easily meld into the “white” population totally unnoticed.  Some already have.  In a cautionary message, Lopez sees this as a likely “solution” to the GOP’s demographic dilemma.

The point is that there are lots of potential weapons in the arsenal of those who seek to turn back the clock.  What I find most disturbing is that those using those weapons, the whistle blowers, have been very successful in coopting others, sometimes unwittingly, to their cause.  Considering how transparent the pejorative use of Obamacare, it is shocking to see the likes of the NY Times and NPR being subverted into playing along.  More telling is that Obama and his Administration have fallen into the same perilous trap. 

Barack Obama is our first black president, an accomplishment that undoubtedly makes him acutely aware of how race plays out in this country.  What Ian Lopez contends is not new to him.  But race, perhaps especially to him, is a sensitive and conflicting subject.  On the one hand, one might expect the president’s voice to be raised against dog whistle politics and its use as a corrosive weapon of civic destruction.  On the other, he carries the burden of any groundbreaker, one familiar to other first of their kind: African Americans, women and in another generation to Catholics like Kennedy and Jews like Louis Brandeis.  In fact, Obama is probably the least able to take on the race fight, certainly not with any regularity and consistency.  Like other pioneers before him, his first priority is to prove that someone like him can perform equal to, or ideally better, than any “more likely” counterparts.  His identity is, if you will, the cause of the perceived problem and carrying the anti-racist flag would only be reconfirm the dog whistle blowers’ contention — “what can you expect, we told you so”.  Put simply, it’s up to many of us to combat the dog whistle, and it’s on us that it remains so powerful.  How Obama is doing the job he was elected to do is another and important question, the subject of my next post.

Friday, January 31, 2014

That speech.


To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we're there.  Chief Justice John Roberts, 2010

George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address, a practice Jefferson stopped and Woodrow Wilson resumed in 1913.  I never miss this annual ritual.  While some presidents are better orators than others, there is a distinct sameness to it.  That includes a good bit of transparent staging with First Lady guests used as rhetorical or emotional props. Most presidents like to balance touting accomplishments with setting legislative agendas and seeking to inspire.  Some are more successful than others, but regardless of party only at the margin.

Pundits and, to borrow from Frank Rich, bloviators are quick to assess these speeches with largely predictable pontification.  In addition to “performance reviews” their comments generally reflect conventional wisdom about a president’s current standing.  Often presidents are measured against how well they deliver on what the individual pundit thinks should have been said.  When too many legislative objectives are put forward (Clinton’s long laundry lists), they complain about that.  When relatively few specifics are given, the speech is judged too general, lacking substance.  Presidents just can’t seem to win.

Barack Obama is one of our best presidential orators, but pundits invariably follow his speeches expressing disappointmenta man with his skills should have done better.  I don’t seem to recall Ronald Reagan — the great communicator — being subjected to similar criticism.  It’s hard to overlook that Obama is often judged against a higher standard just because of who he is.  You know, a guy representing his people should do better, outperform at every occasion.  But let’s no dwell on that here.

You may not agree, but let me go out on a limb here and say that within their particular oratorical capacity, all the presidents I’ve listened to since Eisenhower do relatively as well with the State of the Union.  The opposition response (started in 1966) has always been a mixed bag including some awkward bombs (Jindal’s flat speech in 2009 and Rubio’s water break in 2013), but the headliners tend to perform well, sometimes at their best.  So what interests me more is not so much the president but his audience. 

I don’t often agree with John Roberts, but his 2010 characterization of the State of the Union as “a political pep rally” is spot on.  According to Article 2, Section 3 of the Constitution, the president “…shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary…”  Over the years, this “information of the state of the union” has evolved into mostly political theater.  It is not only “a political pep rally”, but also a highly partisan one that can get silly, even ugly.

To paraphrase the poetic words of  Ecclesiastes 3, there is:
A time for rising and a time for sitting
A time to applaud and a time to refrain from applauding
A time to cheer and a time to jeer.
Those times during the State of the Union are dictated by what a president says, but more so by the political divide.  The rote and predictable gymnastics of rising and sitting often borders on the comical.  Just keep your eye on the awkward Vice President and Speaker who don’t quite know when to tag along.  Rising, normally reserved for recognizing the extraordinary, loses any meaning with indiscriminate repetition.  When Obama makes a point, Republicans in the chamber tend not only to refrain from applauding; they seem to be sitting on their hands.  George W. Bush experienced the same thing, but in reverse.  Audible jeering is rare, but even in its implied state, makes for a pretty ugly scene.

Partisan reactions to presidential speeches have always been there, but the bitter nature of partisanship since the GOP was taken over by fringe rightists has heightened the divide, made it more consistent and raw.  So the yeas and nays are more numerous, vocal and predictable than ever before.  Nonetheless, there are moments of unity when the entire chamber erupts in applause and in demonstrative standing.  Togetherness abounds when presidents evoke American Exceptionalism.  That may be a straightforward, “America is the greatest” or a patriotic bow to our military — thank you for your sacrifice.  And, it happened when Obama referred to our Olympic team bringing home the gold.  That evoked not only standing cheers but also barnyard chants of USA, USA, USA.

Indeed, the one thing that seems to unite us is this claim of exceptionalism.  It is routinely taken as fact, never questioned or scrutinized.  I have great pride in the land of my birth, in its enduring Constitution and in its people.  We certainly have a lot going for us in comparison with other nations, perhaps even more than most.  But to claim “we’re the greatest” or that “we’re exceptional” is so boastful, so lacking in humility, that at the very least we should feel obliged to regularly put it to test.  I’m not talking here about proving the claim to others, but soberly looking in the mirror and asking if we can substantiate the words to ourselves.

For many Americans, regardless of party, any suggestion that we should question our exceptionalism constitutes blasphemy.  That’s terribly sad.  In fact, I would submit that it could ultimately be suicidal.  Whenever I hear a politician make that “we’re the greatest” claim, it strikes me that she/he is mouthing a platitude and that we’re essentially talking to ourselves.   It’s bad enough when we tell ourselves a story, but really dangerous when we believe our own myth.  How can we expect to “perfect our union” if we aren’t honest with ourselves about how and where it falls short, where it isn’t exceptional?

There have been great empires throughout human history but none have shown themselves to be invulnerable.  Empire is one of those loaded terms.  The British relished it; we have always eschewed it.  We argue that empire neither reflects our reality or intentions.  Let’s not get distracted by semantics.  Empire or not, we have been a or the dominant world power for some time. 

There are many reasons why dominant powers lose their grip, but a sure sign of decline is when an empire nation’s rhetoric and self-proclaimed greatness no longer matches reality.  In the twentieth century, Britain touted its global empire long beyond the time when the title had largely morphed into hollow symbolism.  The Soviets proclaimed its superpower parity, while imploding from within and losing their grip on subservient Satellites.  Both were talking to themselves, telling a story that some of their people still believed or wanted to believe.  The story itself was a killer.

Are we doing the same thing?  Are we really exceptional, the greatest country on the face of the earth?  You be the judge, but I’d suggest that if we want to keep on saying those things we had better address the shortfalls that might one day metastasize into self-inflicted mortal flaws.  Sure we have great universities, but our education system is falling behind and in some respects never matched up to the best around the globe.  We have great medicine including leading edge discovery, but our healthcare system fails to touch all and is delivered at an astronomical cost.  We have no better and sometimes worse outcomes than countries that spend far less.  Our government has become so politicized that it is dysfunctional, not a banana republic or an Italy yet but seemingly heading in that direction.  Economic inequality is growing exponentially headed I fear to a tipping point that could produce the kind of angry disruptions that have undone earlier empires.  We boast democracy and being the greatest when most citizens feel they are losing their grip on their own future and the nation’s direction.  I could go on, but you get the point.

Are we the greatest, the exceptional, nation?  In my lifetime, despite having become the world’s solo superpower, I think less so.  As the past has shown, dominance tends to be fleeting.  Fleeting it will always be, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be extended, can’t be renewed.  I believe it can and should, but first we have to stop talking to ourselves, boasting to ourselves and admit to what’s broken and desperately needs to be fixed.  What time is it?  It’s time to consider the real state of our union.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Overpaid.


That Jamie Dimon got an $8M raise bringing his 2013 salary to $20M in the aftermath of JP Morgan’s shelling out billions to settle misdeeds is beside the point.  And that Dimon is charismatic or considered a star in the banking world is equally so.  Dimon is overpaid. Anyone who works, especially at a taxing job with considerable responsibility knows how hard that can be.  We understand that embedded in the idea of a career ladder is the expectation that the higher up we get, the more we will earn.  After all, the place relies on our leadership and the burden of performance is greater.  But $20M for a single year’s work — that’s about $55,000 a day assuming one works seven days a week, which we don’t.  Give us a break.

Dimon’s overly generous salary is hardly unique.  It actually pales in comparison with some of his fellow CEOs.  Before getting to that, I should note that because of the different ways companies report and analysts calculate (some include options, others don’t) it’s hard to get a consistent “apples to apples” handle on  compensation.  I am using and relying on listings compiled by Forbes Magazine and Bloomberg.  While some companies question their calculations (especially the treatment of stocks and options) both tabulations are well worth a look.  Check out the links.

Forbes, which closely follows the super-rich and super-compensated, listed McKesson’s John Hammergren as 2011’s top earner with a total take home of about $131M.  That’s right, $359K a day.  To be fair, without disputing the number, his company questions attributing all those earnings to a single year.  I won't get into that.  The important thing is that Forbes applies their methodology consistently.  Using it, they report that fifty-three other top executives were paid more than Dimon.  Interestingly, despite the conventional perception that Wall Streeters are raking in the most, drug and biotech CEOs actually take home 2.5 times as much as bankers.

To say that Mr. Dimon and his compatriots are overpaid is, in my view, a gross understatement.  Ask yourself, how much harder are they working than the multitude of women and men in their companies who come in daily, often putting in extra hours with no extra compensation?  Okay, Dimon may work harder than many and carry a heavier corporate burden, but $55,000 a day — more than most Americans earn in a year? Bloomberg may use a somewhat different methodology, but their calculation compares a CEO’s compensation with that of his/her company’s average wages.  Their listing is for 2012 when Hammergren’s take home seems to have fallen in to $40M ($110K at day), 733 times the McKesson’s average compensation of $54K.  This multiple calculation is revealing, often shocking.  Ron Johnson (whom JC Penny subsequently fired for poor performance) was earning highest take home of all company CEOs — 1,795 times more than Penny’s average employee.  Astounding.

And then there is the issue of pay raises, which have become so scarce or puny that we have generally seen wage stagnation.  In 2011, according to Forbes, “…the chief executives of the 500 biggest companies…got a collective pay raise of 16%...to $5.2 billion. This compares with a 3% pay raise for the average American worker.”  So not only are these executives earning many times more than employees, they are also getting much higher percentage pay raises.  You don’t have to be a genius mathematician to figure out that over the years this differential takes on a huge multiplier effect further exacerbating and widening income inequality.  These are important numbers because, while there is certainly a gap between the 1% and the poor, the overarching and crucial gap is between people at the top and the millions of working people below, often in the same companies.  Income inequality is stretching and often eliminating the middle class.  That touches virtually of us and in multiple ways.

Some people argue, and perhaps rightly so, that multibillion dollar fines imposed on Dimon’s bank notwithstanding, the government has not done enough to prosecute Wall Streets misdeeds.  But also true, and in some ways equally disturbing, is that bank directors have done little or nothing to hold upper management, especially CEOs, accountable.  If Washington is filled with lobbyists and office holders waiting to become lobbyists, and it is, management’s cronies generally populate and control corporate boards.  It is an incestuous relationship where the same directors sit on multiple boards and that includes CEOs.  It’s a buddy system. You sit on my board and I’ll be on yours. You watch my back and I’ll watch yours.  So, in what amounted to a gentle “slap on the wrist” for an arguably gross performance shortfall Dimon’s board reduced his 2012 pay to $12M (about $33K a day).  Wow, that really hurts!

Those 1-percenters, politicians and pundits who decry and classify talk of income inequality, as “class warfare” should be ashamed.  That anyone, for example, may question why (according to Bloomberg) CBS’s Les Moonves is making 1,111 times the salary of his company’s average employee, is not class warfare.  It’s looking at this glaring disparity and coming to the logical, and I’d argue objective, conclusion that there is something very wrong with this picture.  To put it bluntly, the compensation of many CEOs is an obscene manifestation of unfettered greed.  Don’t get me wrong.  CEOs should absolutely be making more than the average employee and even more than the senior executives on their team, but these numbers are simply and blatantly way out of any reasonable proportion.  It is hard to justify them and keep a straight face.

Of course, corporate directors and so-called compensation experts do justify them, which only shows how out of control and routine this money grab has become.  It seems that they, and those who have shrugged this inequity off as “just the way it is” have lost any and sense of values.  Shouldn’t there be some semblance of even-handedness in assessing an individual’s contribution and worth for a year’s work?  Again, I’m not suggesting that there shouldn’t be some premium, even a considerable but appropriate differential.  On Bloomberg’s charting of 250 CEOs pay ratios, William Sullivan of Agilent Technologies has the lowest, only 173x — $10M (27.4K a day) vs. employees averaging $58.6K.  Does that meet the smell test?

Calling our growing outrage about income inequality “class warfare” is a smokescreen.  If there is any war here, let’s be clear that it’s those at the top getting those huge payouts and their enablers who are well armed.  In a corporate setting, they hold all the cards.  They buy influence whether its the current PAC spending of the billionaire Koch brothers or the self-funding a Michael Bloomberg uses to thwart enacted term limits to gain an extra term as mayor of New York (not to mention the office itself).  They do what ordinary people — and that means most all of us — can’t.   Not only are they unwilling to let go, they fight tooth and nail to hold on, often with a good degree of arrogance.  Employees of their companies fear them and so do we.  Perhaps, like buying a lottery ticket, we don’t cry out because we hope, if they can do it, so can I.  But we know, or should know, for 99% of us that’s mostly an illusion.  It’s an American Dream that seems to be dimming with every passing year.

Singling out Jamie Dimon from a cohort that has collectively acted in much the same way — demanded and happily accepted more than their due — may seem unfair.  Don't' feel bad, I think he can handle the kitchen’s heat.  Dimon may be smart.  He may be well regarded on The Street, but he isn’t our hero and he certainly shouldn’t be our society’s role model.  American CEO’s may be doing good work, but I think they are grossly overpaid while most Americans are being left behind.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Liberalism: the challenge.


Liberals were thrilled when 2012 Massachusetts voters sent Elizabeth Warren to the US Senate.  Her victory was particularly sweet both because she defeated the once Tea Party darling Scott Brown and that she reclaimed the seat held for decades by Liberal Lion Ted Kennedy.  Perhaps Senator Warren’s victory signaled a shift in the political landscape.

If the Warren vote seemed a ray of light for liberals, the 2013 election of Bill DeBlasio as New York’s first Democratic mayor in twenty years made it only brighter.  An unabashed liberal, his Tale of Two Cities campaign theme resonated in a city where income inequality stands in such sharp relief.  The new mayor’s predecessors — Republican Rudy Giuliani and poster person of the 1% Michael Bloomberg — had come to office with very different backgrounds and philosophy.  Further evidence of a shift in the political landscape?

Perhaps, but some words of caution are in order.  Warren won in a pretty reliably blue state, the only one captured by McGovern in 1972.  Despite the concentration of wealth in Manhattan, New York is hardly a bastion of the Right.  Also, and this should really give us pause, DeBlasio was elected with the city’s lowest ever (24% of eligible voters) turnout.  That is most troubling especially when so many elections today are pretty much pre-decided in the primary season.  All too often only a fraction of the population determines how, and by whom, we are governed.  While DeBlasio’s low turnout may be attributed to polls projecting a no-contest blowout, we should never accept that as an excuse for not meeting our citizen obligation.

It is remarkable how quickly things can change in this connected age.  In the public arena, the best example is the stunning and unexpected pace with which marriage equality is spreading across the land.  But we should not be fooled by this anomaly.  Shifting widespread electorate sentiment is something else entirely.  Here the status quo is so deeply embedded that real change still moves at a snails pace.  Add to that the success that conservatives have had in discrediting the word “liberal”.  DeBlasio proudly stood under its banner but most candidates/officeholders are loath to do so, even when liberal fits their ideology and actions.  Being thought of as a “centrist” is so much less controversial, so much safer.  Think Bill Clinton.  The really sad and frustrating thing is that while rank and file liberals like to talk (and criticize), they often shun activism or even their responsibility to cast votes.  The Right has its Tea Party movement; the Left has none or at least none that grows or sustains — think Occupy.

So the Warren and DeBlasio votes are only small first steps, signs of a possible shift that need to be tested if they are to be expanded.  In that context, despite the national stage on which senators play, the DeBlasio vote may be more important or more telling.  To say public offices are not the same may be stating the obvious, but there is a huge difference between being a legislator and being a chief executive officer (president, governor or mayor).  Senator Warren is one among one hundred.  From time to time legislators pass laws (remember those days) and they do engage in oversight or constituent service.  But what they do most is talk, regularly (in the Senate) to a camera and largely empty chairs. What they never have to do is deliver on that talk in the sense of making the trains run on time.  Senators, whether named Warren or say McCain, can freely express their (and often our) views in the most direct and ideologically pure way.  We love (or loathe) them for it, but we have little idea of what they might do if charged with getting those trains going.  Almost without exception, they are destined to disappoint if and when taking on that task.  This isn’t because their overriding views necessarily change, though that sometimes happens, but that talking about the rails and keeping cars on the track are two different things.  Purity goes out the window when the nitty-gritty of execution sets in.

Just days in office, Bill DeBlasio has already discovered this reality.  Removing snow from the streets of a huge spread out city is a challenge.  For years people in New York’s outer boroughs or living on narrow streets, DeBlasio among them, have complained that their area wasn’t getting equal attention.  Well, New Yorkers were complaining again, this time residents of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a haunt of the 1% unused to inattention.  They complain and more importantly they read into what’s not happening (or what is).  In this case, the streets were snowbound because the new liberal mayor is against the rich.  Right.

Bloomberg, a Republican at the time, was the object of similar complaints as have been mayors of all cities throughout our history.  Citizens, having voted or not, are unsparing in judging those who govern.  Governors and presidents are similarly held accountable (think Bush and Katrina), but their portfolio is larger which usually provides them with some degree of cover.  Not so with mayors.  We expect our garbage to be picked up and we know who is at fault when it isn’t.  As an avowed liberal, DeBlasio faces a special burden in the context of a larger environment where liberalism has been so discredited.  Snowstorms aside, sure a successful businessman like Bloomberg can manage and deliver, but can a liberal?  Not only his city but the country will be watching.  I don’t envy him either the messy task of running New York where I spent most of my adult life or the visibility.

And without overstating it, the symbolic stakes are high.  So are the risks.  I have noted in earlier posts how this difference in campaigning and governing has impacted Obama.  He came to office being perceived of as a liberal, though he didn’t run under that banner.  Calling for change — yes we can — in the face of a conservative incumbent let us fill in the blanks.  But effective governing requires a kind of pragmatism that, aside from the mechanics that produce victory, is largely absent from campaigns.  And as I have written before, liberals and all Democrats face a special burden in proving not only that they can run things but that they are not soft on, for example, national security.   DeBlasio campaigned against stop-and-frisk but he will be expected to keep crime in check without it.

The new liberal mayor has also decried development in Manhattan and elsewhere that is skewed toward the wealthy and is pricing out both the middle class and poor.  Walk through New York today and you’ll feel the city is one uninterrupted construction zone.  And speaking of zone, the Bloomberg administration was successful in changing the zoning of many areas which previously had limited such development.  Redirecting that building boom to allow for greater affordable housing will be very difficult.  With permits in hand and zoning changed, developers will unlikely reconfigure their plans much less stop.  The election of a liberal mayor can’t change that and as Barack Obama recently reminded the New Yorker’s David Remnick, executive power is far more limited than one might think.  DeBlasio supporters near and far, especially the purists, will at times be disappointed.  In the end, he is likely to be judged not on whether he could turn a huge ship stuck in a narrow straight but if he managed the behemoth reasonably well and, yes, got rid of the snow.  Meeting that test will help move the cause for liberalism further.

There is talk of Elizabeth Warren running for president.   A chance for an avowed liberal to take on the big job.  We certainly know what her ideology might be expected to bring to the office, but have no idea how she would actually perform.  That can be said of all would-be presidents.  She may be some liberals' hope, but there seems to be a growing groundswell by the liberal establishment to finally crown Hillary Clinton at the 2016 convention.  When it comes to selecting candidates, parties behave more like sitting mayors, governors and presidents than legislators.  They tend, or try to be, pragmatic — not what someone says or her/his ideology, but who they think can win.  They also, and this is especially true for Republicans, often give the nod to those who paid their dues — ran unsuccessfully for the nomination before and are now entitled to the grand prize.  That doesn’t always work out so well (Dole, McCain, Romney and John Kerry).

Leaving aside the question of dynasty, Clinton is more a credentialed centrist than a liberal.  Despite finally disavowing the Iraq war and being our lead diplomat, she remains at heart more hawk than dove.  She generally lobbied for intervention and escalation.  A tireless traveler and effective relationship builder, her substantive accomplishments at State were limited.  If Secretary Kerry is successful in any and certainly all of his bold initiatives, that modest record may not stand up well in contrast.  While a big if given the odds, one would hope hard fast commitments won’t be prematurely made.  Will I vote for a Clinton nominee, and with a high degree of confidence and enthusiasm?  I will.   The choice I made for Obama over Clinton was a hard one, not the least because I believe we are way overdue having a Ms. President in the White House.  Will her nomination or victory advance a resurgence of liberalism in America?  Not so much, or not as much as I and many others would like.  That said, the obvious Democratic bench is small (in large measure do to the assumed Clinton ascension), so we may have to wait a little longer.  After all, losing the presidency would be much more costly and not only for liberalism.