A Mike Lux Golden Oldie
From Feb 06, 2010. Original HERE.
Chris Hayes' piece on America's system failure in The Nation on February 3rd is one of the single best posts I've seen in a long time on the long term challenges facing progressive activists in this county. It captures for me that combination of intense discouragement at the problems we've been having getting anything good done in the Obama era so far, with that call for continuing the fight that I think is so important for all of us.
What Chris captured in his diagnosis of the American political system at present was that sense of how broken things are in really fundamental ways. It reminded me of my feelings when old friends from the Clinton administration era read my blog posts and asked if I've moved to the left in the years since I worked in the Clinton White House. My answer is no. I don't think I have, but I do feel that the country is at a much more precarious juncture, and that more fundamental change needs to be pushed right now.
So the marriage has been a little rocky here after the first couple of years. There's been some whining and screaming and throwing of plates; there's been some flirting with other suitors. But I still believe there is plenty of time to patch things up. Where does the relationship between Obama and the progressive community go now?
The answer will come down to the following things:
1. The response to hostage taking. The president set himself up with progressives, and the media in general, by using the hostage language. Because the president seemed to concede the fight early, and because of the terms of the deal, the perception among my fellow progressives has been that the Republicans got most of what they wanted on the tax cut fight, that the terms of the deal were set by them rather than the President. In other words, by his very own language, he gave into the hostage takers. Now every time the Republicans threaten a showdown -- on the debt ceiling, on the budget fights, etc -- he is going to look weak if he doesn't stand up to them at least in part.
Compromises will have to made in divided government, but who gets the best of the compromises matters enormously. In 1995, President Clinton managed the compromise dance by having protracted showdowns with the Republicans at multiple key moments -- threatening vetoes, delivering vetoes even when they shut down the government. Even on welfare reform, which he eventually signed, he vetoed the first two versions of the bill the GOP passed, forcing real concessions before he agreed to sign it, which made it look like he was in charge.
Obama has to manage fights with Congress so that it looks like they are making compromises on his terms not the Republicans, which is what Clinton did on the budget fight and welfare reform. If Obama looks weak, if he looks like he is folding to the Republicans' main demands, progressives will rebel in a way that makes the tax cut reaction look like it was a big endorsement. The concession to Republicans on the tax cuts will smart for a while, but it will be forgiven if Obama shows strength and guts and resolve in future showdowns. And maybe he should just get started early: announce now that he will not allow the credit and financial standing of the United States to be held hostage, that he will only accept a clean, no amendment extension of the debt ceiling next year.
2. The response to the deficit commission. If the President decides to embrace all of what the deficit commission chairs proposed, including Social Security and Medicare cuts and an increase in the retirement age, all hell will break loose. Based on the conversations I have had with folks in the progressive community, this will be nothing like the tax cut deal, where progressives were actually quite divided because of the urgency of getting unemployment comp extended.
There is nothing in the deficit commission report progressives like well enough to be able to stomach cuts in Social Security and Medicare, the most core components of progressive movement identity. If Obama does this, it will truly be crossing the Rubicon, going on a bridge too far (and every other cliché imaginable). It would virtually guarantee a well-funded primary; it would provoke attack ads by Democratic base groups; it would generate millions in online contributions to groups and blogs to fight Obama. It would be civil war within the Democratic Party, the big one.
Along with the civil rights legislation of the mid 1960s, Social Security and Medicare are the ultimate achievements of the modern progressive movement, providing senior citizens (and the children who take care of them) a modest safety net as they grow older. Progressives will never sign off on cutting benefits for elderly Americans, most of whom make less than $20,000 a year with their Social Security, or raising the retirement age for working class folks who work long hours at demanding jobs if they are lucky enough to get full time employment at all. There are plenty of policy compromises and rhetorical moves to the center progressives could live with: this ain't one of them.
3. The response to the loss of immigration reform. For the last two years, the Obama administration has cracked down on undocumented immigrants, driving up deportations to record numbers. They have argued to Hispanics and progressives that doing this was the only way to get the political cover needed to pass comprehensive immigration, or more recently the DREAM Act.
With the sad death of the Dream Act last week and a far more anti-immigrant Congress coming to town in January, any hope of legislative progress on immigration is dead. Obama making preemptive concessions without getting Republican support on this and several other issues has become a real sore spot for progressives in general, but doing it on this issue is inflaming arguably the most politically volatile part of Obama's base. Hispanic voters turned out in big enough numbers, and voted strongly enough for Democrats, to save a bunch of western Senate, Governor's, and House seats for the party this time around, and they are going to be badly needed to do the same in 2012 for Obama to have a chance in states like FL, CO, NV, NM, AZ, and OR.
If Obama sticks with the tough-on-deportation political strategy while showing no progress on immigration overall over the next two years, it will irritate the entire progressive community, but it will enrage his Hispanic base most of all.
4. Which side is he on? On the most fundamental economic issues of our time -- jobs and the foreclosure crisis -- progressives along with middle and working class swing voters need to be convinced that the president is on their side. Because of TARP, the revelations about AIG's bonuses and paying back banks like Goldman in full, the administration not putting the big banks into receivership or demanding concessions from banks in return for saving them, because of opposing attempts to break up the banks during financial reform, and most recently, because of not supporting a freeze on foreclosures or other strong accountability measures on banks engaged in foreclosure fraud, progressives and middle class voters feel like the administration hasn't held the banks to account, hasn't been on their side when the banks are running roughshod over homeowners and regular folks.
It feels to a lot of progressives and working class folks like the president has fought hard to save the banks, but not for jobs or to help homeowners being victimized by bankers. Nothing would repair the breach between progressives and the White House more than taking actions on the foreclosure crisis that showed they were clearly, strongly, unequivocally on the side of the middle class instead of the banks on this foreclosure. As I have argued before, it is the great sleeper issue in American politics over the next two years. And in terms of the jobs issue, the president isn't going to have much success getting new jobs measures though Congress, but there is a great deal that the executive branch can do to promote a strong jobs agenda, and in every speech the president needs to be pushing everybody -- his own agencies of government, Congress, the private sector, even the non-profit sector -- to have a single-minded clarity about creating new jobs.
Corporations need to be pushed to spend some of last year's record profits on producing jobs. Banks need to be pushed to invest in and lend money to businesses that want to hire new workers. Non-profits need to be given incentives and grant money to help them hire more people. President Obama needs to be seen as fighting for jobs in every single thing he does, and he needs to be seen as taking a stand on behalf of workers and homeowners against banks that are taking advantage of them, and companies sitting on big profits but not hiring anyone.
Today, the president had a great signing ceremony of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". His speech was as strong and fired up as anything I have seen in a while. On that issue, it took a long time to get it done, with lots of frustrations along the way, and both the White House and the LGBT community had a lot of tense crabby times with each other. But through persistence and being aggressive, it got done. The president needs to carry that fire and that spirit forward in working with the broader progressive community. There aren't going to be a lot more clear progressive legislative victories over the next couple of years, but the President has plenty of time to rebuild the singed and broken bridge to the progressive community. He needs to show strength in dealing with the Republicans; he needs to not embrace things that progressives hold most dear; he needs to not move to the right on issues when there is no corresponding concession from the other side; and he needs to make crystal clear whose side he is on. That is not going to be easy with the Republicans running the House, and the David Broder's of DC constantly calling on him to move to some kind of mystical DC center with Republicans who keep moving the goalposts back. But this President still has plenty of opportunity, even in a divided government that will call for some compromise, to show progressives he is on their side in the things that matter the most, and they should be on his.
No president has ever won re-election with an estranged base, because it is a president's base that fights your battles for you, that stands with you and defends you when times get tough and the other side is on the attack, that gives you money and knocks on doors for you and talks neighbors and co-workers into voting for you. Mr. President, you can get your base back and you need to. If you show you are on our side, we will be on yours.
Life plays funny tricks on you. In families and among circles of friends it sometimes happens where you are mourning one person's death at the same time a new baby is about to be born, or a wedding is about to happen. Yesterday was like that for the progressive family, and it feels like the last couple of years have been that way all the time.
At the same time we mourn the loss of the commonsense, bi-partisan, utterly moderate idea DREAM Act for immigrant students, we celebrate the long delayed and absurdly painful passage of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". What one hand giveth, the other taketh away. Through the unfortunately standard combination of Democratic bad luck, dysfunctional Senate rules, and poor political decision making, we couldn't have even a moment or two to celebrate a big victory without a horribly painful defeat happening the very same day. This is the story of the last two years. In early 2009, we get the biggest investment in public jobs and infrastructure when every progressive economist was screaming at the top of their lungs that the amount of money in the stimulus bill is way too inadequate to deal with the economic crisis at hand, so we see the official unemployment rate rise to 10%, and voters think the stimulus didn't work. We finally get a version of comprehensive health care reform, but it doesn't include the one thing most progressives were most passionate about, the public option. We get a banking reform bill that does some great things to rebuild the regulatory structure, but it does nothing on the most important problem to deal with, breaking up the big banks. Democrats pass wonderful policy changes that would be highly popular if any actual voter living outside of DC knew about them- equal pay for women, tax cuts for the middle class embedded into the stimulus bill, a big improvement in the student loan system, a bill finally regulating the tobacco industry, a measure to help protect consumers from bank rip-offs- and then never again talk about them.
So this weekend is one of those classic bittersweet moments for me. Both of these issues are really personal to me. I was in a lot of those White House meetings in 1993 trying to figure out how to get out of the corner Sam Nunn and Colin Powell had painted us into on gays in the military, knowing that if we had a showdown on the floor of Congress, we would get our asses kicked and get a policy locked in that was terrible. The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise was a truly bitter pill to swallow, the best we thought we could do given the political dynamics in front of us at that time, and I have been hoping we could finally do the right thing for 17 years since, so this is a truly great day for me. But I have also done a lot of work on the immigration issue, and I have looked into the hopeful and earnest faces of the students who were fighting for the DREAM Act. These young people know the promise and ideals of America better than most of us that grew up here. they know the words on the statue of liberty. They know the words of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address and the I Have A Dream speech. They know what America is supposed to be, and I know they are bitterly disappointed today, and I am disappointed with them and for them.
For the sake of the Democratic party and the broader progressive family, for the sake of our spirits and psychology, this should have been managed better than to put this great victory and this bitter pill together. When your troops are battered and their morale is beaten up, to finally have won a big victory on such an important issue should have been a moment of pure joy, but it got messed up. Democrats need to figure out how to take these victories and highlight them rather than pairing them with something awful.
Having said all that, even with the bitter defeat of the DREAM Act, progressives do need to take a moment here at the end of this tough year and celebrate the end of DADT. It is an important victory for all of us, not just for gays and lesbians. Progress has been made, justice has finally been done, and we should glory in it. We should give credit where credit is due, to all those brave gay and lesbian soldiers who have served their country twice, in our wars and in the cause of justice. We should give credit to the LGBT movement that made this happen, to the insiders and outsiders whose combined efforts made it happen. And we should give credit to the politicians who finally pushed it through all the barriers and hoops and prejudice to make it happen. Change is never easy, even when it should be, and it never feels like you are winning when you are in the heat of battle. But as MLK liked to remind us, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it curves toward justice. It will curve someday toward justice on immigration, and on the other issues we are still fighting on. We just have to keep battling.
I decided to take a break from blogging over the last few days. I hadn't really taken any time off since the elections were over, and between the Thanksgiving weekend and being generally irritated by many of the events of the last month, it just seemed like a good time to mellow out for a few days- and hopefully I didn't also, to steal a line from Woody Allen, ripen and rot. Plus, I was getting tired of writing about a bad economy, bankers ripping off everyone else and no one holding them accountable, and dumb insider DC political debates. But the life and death battle over issues that really do matter to regular Americans doesn't ever stop, and this is a huge couple of political weeks.
The next couple of news cycles will be dominated by the deficit commission report, the attempts by Bowles and Simpson to round up votes on the commission for it, and the Obama administration's reaction to it. The way Obama reacts to this, in particular, will be one of the most consequential and politically significant early signs over which path the administration wants to take going forward. If they decide to embrace this report, as many people are predicting, it means they have decided to choose the DC centrist path toward political rehabilitation: get the Washington Post, the Third Way, and DC establishment all excited, and hope all that excitement trickles down to real voters someday. Given how unpopular the specifics of this plan are, and given that it takes away the fervent defense of Social Security and Medicare (Democrats' strongest political selling point right now), that would be a terrible political decision, making Obama's re-election hopes very dark.
A second option is the muddled option: praise the commission for their "great work", say how glad he is that they are raising these issues, but issue a vague statement saying he doesn't agree with everything. The muddled option is a whole lot better than the first one, because actually embracing this plan is so terrible politically, but the muddled option will leave no one happy. It wouldn't be the first time this White House has chosen that strategy, but it sure does leave everyone cold.
Obama's final option is to thank the commissioners for their work, but to clearly state what things he disagrees with in the report: the things which target the middle class and vulnerable older Americans. Such a reaction would have the DC punditry scowling, but because it would be such big news, it would get a lot of attention. I think hard pressed middle class working families and senior citizens, two big groups that turned against Obama in the last election, would react very favorably to Obama standing up for them, and the Democratic base would have something to rally around and get excited about for the first time in quite a while.
Another huge issue on the plate for this week is that because of the new financial reform bill, the Federal Reserve will have to report on which big banks it helped bail out in the last couple of years. This is one of the most important stories to watch, and should generate an incredibly important discussion about why our government has done so much to help the big banks and way too little to help struggling homeowners and main street businesses. It should lead directly into a big debate over what the administration is going to do in terms of pressuring the banks to write down mortgages that are under water. It will also lead directly into discussion about the Fed's critically important regulatory work on the swipe fee issue, because once again they will be deciding: do we help the big Wall St banks/credit card industry, or do we help main street American business and consumers?
Given that swing middle class voters think Obama is too tied to Wall St, this report gives the Obama administration a genuine opportunity to show people which side he is on. While the deficit debate has huge long term policy and short term political consequences, the stakes on the Fed report and the mortgage/swipe fee issues flowing out of it will be monumentally important both to the economic and political situation.
Then there is the tax cut issue. It sounds like Obama and congressional leaders from both parties had a friendly get-together yesterday, and warm bipartisan talk of compromise is in the air. I'm glad everyone is feeling so good about each other, but the devil is always in those pesky details- or in this case, big stuff that is a lot more than details. If the compromise on the Democrats' part ends up looking like capitulation, because the "details" all favor the Republicans, that is a huge problem politically. Obama can't afford to be seen as weak from the start of his new relationship with the Republicans in Congress.
There is one final issue that is far from the headlines with all this other stuff going on, but it matters a huge amount for the future of this Presidency, and that is the new chair and deputy for the National Economic Council. If we get a couple more Rubin clones in those positions, it means that any hope of bringing fresh new economic ideas to the team are fading. I really hope Obama understands how important it is to bring those new ideas, and a sense of political balance, to his economic team.
Progressives, and those who care about the President fighting for the middle class, will get a lot of signals in the next couple of weeks about which path he is going to choose to try and recover politically. Let's hope he doesn't choose the Washington centrist path, which almost ends up stiffing the middle class and Obama's political base at the same time. If he does that, it will be a very long two years which I fear will likely end in Republican victory. But if Obama shows strength, and shows that his number one concern is to fight for the middle class, he can come back strong. We will have a lot better sense by the end of the year which path he chooses.
The Power of the President is the title of a great new report by the Center for American Progress on some of the things President Obama can and should do that do not require Congressional action. It is important to keep a laser-like focus on this topic because it could not be clearer that the Republican House will not be passing anything useful in bringing our economy back to life. Whether because of not wanting to help the President improve the economy to weaken him going into 2012, having a completely screwed up economic theory, being terrified of their own off the wall base that wants no compromise on anything with Obama, or (most likely) all of the above, Republicans coming to the table to help Barack Obama improve the economy is not happening, no way no how.
Progressives and Democrats need to spend less time commiserating over all the good things that Congress should do but won't. Another stimulus will not happen in the next two years, so we need to move on. Instead, we need to spend more time thinking about the things Obama could do if he aggressively seized the reins of government that he possesses and pushes forward.
The biggest thing that could be done to help the economy and the middle class immediately is to focus on stabilizing and revitalizing the housing market. If struggling homeowners had their mortgages written down, and mass foreclosures stopped wracking neighborhoods all over America, housing prices would finally stabilize and be poised to start going back up. If the shadow housing inventory of the homes that have already been foreclosed on were converted into rental properties, housing costs for working class younger and unmarried people who can't afford to buy a home yet would start to go down. If families finally got their mortgages renegotiated they could get their own finances in order again, and would gain the confidence to start spending money in the economy again. All of these things would improve the economy, and all of them could happen without Congress doing anything: all that needs to happen is for Treasury, HUD, FHA, Fannie and Freddie, and DOJ to start exerting the very considerable authority they have over the banks to push them to start writing down mortgages, and for the President to start issuing the executive orders on housing and financial regulation the CAP report proposes.
Another area that the administration could move aggressively in without congressional action is in regards to manufacturing. CAP has one outstanding idea, which is an executive order related to developing a new strategy around promoting competitiveness, especially in terms of manufacturing policy. While this would help more in the long run than short term, having such policies could do things that would promote manufacturing jobs in the short run as well. Another place the federal government can move now is in instituting a stronger, more assertive Buy America policy in contracting, and making sure federal government contractors pay decent wages. This would make a big difference in promoting American jobs and improving the incomes of American workers. Finally, Treasury needs to get far more assertive with trading partners, especially China, in dealing with currency manipulation, and needs to look at their own policies that keep the dollar so high, which hurts our manufacturing base.
Another big thing this administration could do immediately with no help from Congress is to accelerate the implementation of the Small Business Jobs Act just passed by Congress right before the election. CAP has some great ideas about implementation which have the potential to really speed up job creation in the small business sector.
There are plenty of other great policy ideas I'm not even touching that the Obama administration could do to make a difference on the economy, but my central point is that the President needs to lead, and he needs to act. Republicans and corporate Democrats like Doug Schoen keep bleating about how all Obama has to do is just compromise with the Republicans the way Clinton did, but there are some big problems with that. For one thing, the Republicans have no interest in compromising, only in capitulation. For another, they have no policy ideas that would actually create any jobs. But most of all, it ignores what actually happened in 1995: what Schoen forgets is that he and Penn and Morris all were advocating giving in to the Republicans on the budget fight in 1995. Had Clinton caved without a fight, he would have been seen as weak, and his base would have demanded a primary. Instead, he painted Gingrich and Dole as extremists, stood tall on the fight, and cleaned their clocks. Clinton went from being 10 points down to Dole before the budget fight to 10 points ahead afterwards, he ended any chance of a serious primary challenge, and he never looked back.
President Obama needs to be strong in taking the action he needs to take to make the economy better, and he needs to stand up to Republicans and force them to compromise on his terms, not theirs. He needs to stop bragging about an economic recovery no one feels, show leadership on making the economy better, and show the Republicans to be the do-nothing Congress they intend to be. Obama needs to take what action can be taken, pick some important early fights with the Republicans, and show people the difference between his vision for the economy and the far right wing Republican vision.
There's a lot of discussion about bi-partisanship and the need to compromise going on, which is natural with the Republicans now controlling the House and there being divided government. The key is figuring out the right season to do what in- the right time to cut deals and the right time to stand tall and fight.
Let me start by saying something perhaps surprising for an old school populist progressive like myself: compromise is not a dirty word. It is essential and inevitable in actually making a democratic (note the small d in democratic) government run. Passing budgets, continuing resolutions, debt ceiling increases, and all those basic things that keeps a government functioning will require some compromise and give and take. When politicians choose to make a great symbolic show of intentionally not compromising, all they have to do is look at how nicely that worked out for Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole in 1995. So, yes, everyone in both parties should grit their teeth and prepare themselves: some compromises are inevitable because that is the very nature of divided governments.
I also don't have a problem, as some of my fellow progressives do, with rhetorically offering olive branches to Republicans in a general way. Saying you want to work together, saying you want to talk things through, saying you would like to reach a compromise is not wrong in and of itself, and I don't think the progressive community should freak out every time it happens. It will be a very long couple of years if we do, because this kind of symbolic outreach to the other side is being demanded by voters (Democratic voters among them), and because it is a core part of the symbolic dance that is inherent to divided government.
But let's be very clear about what doesn't have to happen: weak negotiating and capitulation on important issues. Here's a sentence I haven't written very many times: George W. Bush was right about something. But on this one I agree with him: he said you shouldn't negotiate against yourself in public, and he was right. The impression left by all the way-too-early public comments about compromise on the tax cut issue has left Obama looking weak, looking to everyone that he is going to cave on everything that matters sooner rather than later. And the tax cut issue is only the first flash point because there is a growing sense of concern among a lot of the Democrats I have talked to about whether Obama is a strong leader. This Bill Greider piece on Obama has been circulating far and wide, and generating a lot of discussion, because a lot of people have fundamental questions about whether the President will stand up the Republicans.
My advice to my fellow progressives is to not leap to judgment on all this. After the 1994 defeat, it took a while for Bill Clinton to regain his confidence and focus, and things looked very shaky for a few months. But he started standing up to Gingrich on some big symbolic issues like the school lunch fight in the early spring, and when he stood his ground on the big government shutdown battles of the summer, he rallied the base, impressed swing voters with his strength and courage, and established a big lead in the Presidential polling he never relinquished.
My advice to President Obama: don't wait as long as Clinton to stand your ground on important things. The economy is worse and not coming back fast, voters are in bad moods, and the blogosphere (which wasn't around in 1994/1995) and others in the media will eat you alive if you don't show some strength and moxie soon. Most importantly, pick some fights and stand tall on the things that matter not to DC elites but to the hurting and angry working and middle class voters that turned against us in the election. Some specific suggestions that are all both good policy things to do but also weighted with huge symbolic weight both to your progressive base and to the middle class:
1. Side with struggling homeowners, not the banks, on the foreclosure crisis.
2. Pick a fight and make the Republicans defend and specifically vote for extending the Bush tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires.
3. Pick as head of the National Economic Council a person who is known to be a strong advocate for the middle class.
4. Once the Deficit Commission has gone through its process, than thank them for their work but make it clear that you would never support raising the retirement age, cutting Social Security benefits, and ending the mortgage and health care deductions. Propose your own plan that balances the budget in the long run without transferring income from the middle class to the wealthy.
5. Announce an aggressive new plan to rebuild America's manufacturing sector, and make the Republicans say why they don't want to do it.
Doing things like this show strength, and show the middle class you are on their side. Those are the two most important things you can do to reassure both your base and swing voters, and you need to do both to rebuild your Presidency.
Even though I worry a lot about climate change, and was as horrified by the BP spill as any incident in recent years, I have not written much at all about environmental issues. I don't like to write about things that I don't know a fair amount about, and my focus in my work has always been politics and economics, so that is mostly what I write about. However, I feel compelled to drop a note about the controversy that has flared up the last couple of days, in part because it does relate directly to something I do have experience in, which is how White Houses operate.
I'm not going to spend time on the technical details of the working paper from the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. That paper suggests that the administration vastly underestimated the amount of oil going into the gulf in spite of contrary information from scientists using other methodologies. The traditional media, which loves to assume the worst, has written stories implying the reasons for this was that the White House wanted to cover this data up. Robert Gibbs gave this response yesterday:
MR. GIBBS: Look, I think it is important to understand that our response attacked the oil spill in an unprecedented way. It was the largest environmental disaster that we have ever faced and we attacked it with the largest federal response. We did all that was humanly possible in the most challenging of environments.
The report that NOAA sent over did not include in its modeling -- it's not a flow-rate document -- in its modeling did not include any activity that was being done, as I just mentioned a minute ago, to mechanically recover, skim, to burn, to disperse, to boom oil from spreading along the coast and up the Eastern seaboard, which we now know it didn't do.
No information was altered. No information was withheld. And nothing in the report had anything to do with the robust response.
OMB is a regular part of a process that reviews government documents before they're released. NOAA, as we put out in a statement yesterday, understood that the analysis did not include that, went back and included that, and that report was released and is on the Internet for anyone to read today.
Q Okay, but -- so OMB did deny a request from NOAA, just not that request?
MR. GIBBS: OMB sent the report back to NOAA to include that in the 500 different modeling analysis that were done on shoreline impact. That report is on the Internet now for people to look at. The worst-case scenario -- and if you look at those maps, the worst-case scenario was oil off the coast of what looks like probably the Hilton Head/Charleston area in South Carolina, which is, as you know, several hundred miles, maybe a thousand or so miles from where the oil actually did get to because the response prevented it from spreading.
Q One of the fundamental points that the working documents make is that the optimistic expression of information from the administration showed the government was either not fully competent to handle the spill or not fully candid. Was it either of those?
MR. GIBBS: This was an unprecedented environmental disaster met with an unprecedented federal response, which prevented any of the worst-case scenarios to coming to fruition. It prevented the spread of oil along the East Coast.
When we had information, we gave it to the public. That was -- that has always been our charge. We were -- throughout this process, we got better information. When the rig exploded and the blowout preventer failed 5,000 feet below the ocean, nobody could see what was happening. Through the course of several months, we got better information. We got cameras 5,000 feet below the surface. We enhanced the video that we saw. We were able to do more three-dimensional modeling. And then we directed, at Secretary Chu's insistence, BP to install pressure monitors at the site to get the best available data on the flow rate. And that's what we did. We always sought to provide the best information as we were engaged in the most robust federal response that we've ever seen to an accident of this magnitude ever.
I am quite inclined to believe Gibbs on this one, because I look at it from the perspective of what would benefit the White House short and long term. At the time all this was going down, there was a confusing swirl of facts and a high urgency crisis going on. There was no benefit to the White House to downplay the problem, and it would have been silly for them to try: everybody understood that this was a huge deal- environmentally, politically, and in every other way. If anything, it seems to me like the White House would be trying to underscore how monumental the challenge was. Look at it this way: if the spill got solved fast, even if it was a huge disaster, they get all the more credit. If the problem dragged on, which is what ended up happening, they get less blame if the public understands just how big a blowout this was.
Here's the other thing: everyone who has served at a White House knows that on something with this level of media and political scrutiny, it does not pay over the long term to gloss over or minimize problems, because if you do it will be found out.
The Obama White House had no political incentive at the point in the crisis being discussed. What was happening was a thousand different scientists from dozens of agencies were desperately and urgently trying to figure this out, and estimates were all over the place. As Gibbs indicated, even the reports being sent over from agencies like NOAA did not include certain kinds of things in its modeling that were being included in other models. It is not surprising that one set of scientists might get their nose out of joint because their numbers weren't the ones being used at that particular point, but there certainly doesn't seem to be any ill intent on the part of the White House on this one.
Now was the White House response to the BP spill overall perfect? Of course not. I wish they had been more aggressive with BP from the beginning. But this draft report from the commission strikes me as a tempest in a teapot. I'd love to hear from those of you who know more about the science here than I do if you think I'm wrong, because like I said I am always uncomfortable venturing into an area I don't know much about. But on the political motivations of the White House, I feel pretty confident I'm right.
When the notarization on foreclosures issue suddenly flared up over the last 24 hours, my heart sank. Just as regular homeowners were starting to get some legal traction to fight back against fraud and predatory lending by big banks, it seemed, some bank lobbyist had managed to sneak something through in the dead of night that would screw people over again. It was Washington at its worst: the bank lobbyists in control, and Congress asleep at the wheel.
But then, that most delightful and rare of Washington moments happened: the system worked. Consumer advocates started raising hell on the blogs and in traditional media, the White House started looking more closely at the issue, and literally within a matter of hours, Obama announced that he was not going to sign the bill. No long, painful, drawn out internal debate at 1600 Pennsylvania. No twisting round trying to split the middle on the issue. As soon as the issue was raised, the White House team focused on it, and made the right decision quickly. Elizabeth Warren, the new Assistant to the President and Treasury Secretary, weighed in. Pete Rouse, the new Chief of Staff, got engaged immediately. And the President made the right decision.
So what did we learn? First, that exposing sleazy dead-of-night deals cut by the special interests does sometimes work. And second, that having good people in key government roles really does matter. Obama might well have done the right thing without Warren and Rouse there, but it sure did happen quickly and easily with them around.
So, okay, I haven't lost it: I know that not all these decisions are going to go the right way as far as progressives and consumer advocates are concerned. But I think it is fair to ask ourselves what happens next and how the progressive community should respond to it.
I know the progressive community has a lot of folks who strongly dislike Obama, and won't change in that view. I know others who still strongly support him. (For myself, I have been in the middle- critical on quite a few things, supportive on others). But the tensions between Obama and many in the progressive community have been quite palpable for quite awhile now, on both sides. The question now is how progressives respond if Obama does start to move in a more progressive direction.
I know all the past sins people commenting on this post will recite (commenters, start your engines), but look at the past few weeks: the move toward more progressive and populist rhetoric on the campaign trail; the appointment of Warren; insisting on letting the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year expire; the replacement of Rahm with Pete Rouse, who is thought by many inside the White House to be more sympathetic to progressive points of view than Rahm was. Based on what I am hearing, there will be more outreach to progressives over the next several weeks than there has been for a while.
So is it all nirvana? Is Obama turning into Bernie Sanders? Of course not. But if the Obama White House starts a concerted effort to reach out to progressives, and appoints some of them to key positions, and works with them constructively on more issues, does that change how the progressive community works with the White House?
I hope so. In the late '50s and early '60s, John and Bobby Kennedy did not start as avid civil rights advocates, and LBJ was cutting deals in the Senate for incredibly weak, watered-down civil rights bills. But the movement pushed them, and they responded by eventually moving left. Same with FDR and labor in the 1930s, and Lincoln and the abolitionists in the 1860s. Those movements had the flexibility and strategic sophistication to protest those Presidents when they needed protesting or work constructively with Presidents when they moved in the right direction- they didn't engage in a one size fits all tactic of protesting everything all the time. I hope the progressive community today has the strategic wisdom.
I don't know for sure what will happen next in the White House, or whether there will be more outreach and appointments and policy decisions us progressive activists cheer- it is way too early to tell. But progressives should be ready to move to meet the President halfway and work with him in the areas where he does move our direction, and we shouldn't always assume the worst. We should keep our healthy skepticism, push hard when we need to push, but be ready to engage when a door is opened to us to engage on.
I have been on the road and intensely busy the last few days (in case you hadn't guessed, this is what's known as the busy season for those in the political business), so I haven't written anything yet about the big Chief of Staff news. I had been debating writing anything since so much has been written about it already, but I thought I would at least lob a couple of thoughts out there.
First, don't get too caught up too much in the hype. Pundits and political junkies love to go on and on about what does it mean and what will change and all that. But the White House more than any other is an institution that is driven by the attitudes, interests, priorities, values, and style of the boss at the very top, and that is the President not the chief of staff. This is especially true on the policy decisions made by the President. I worked with all four of President Clinton's COS, and they were very different men in terms of their experience, way of organizing things, and level of progressivism. Each of them brought interesting changes to the flow of White House work and how things got done. But the policy agenda and political positioning did not change when his most conservative COS (Erskine Bowles) left and was replaced by his most progressive COS (John Podesta)- it was still the same President making all the big decisions. When you hear prognosticators going on and on about what it all means and how much things will change, take it with a grain of salt.
Having said all that, Pete's appointment does represent an opening for progressives that I hope both sides (the White House and the progressive community) will take advantage of. Rahm had two core beliefs that made it very difficult for him to have a good relationship with the progressive community. The first is that he has always adhered to the strategic idea that progressives have nowhere else to go, and that the political play is always (a) in the middle, and (b) where you can raise the money. The second is that Rahm for the most part embraces the free trade, free market, light regulation worldview of the Bob Rubin wing of the party. Those two core views made Rahm disinclined to ever put much priority into reaching out to progressive folks, and of course made progressives inclined to blame him for every bad thing that happened in the administration (sometimes deservedly, but only sometimes).
Pete is a different kind of guy. He has always valued reaching out to the progressive community. He always worked well behind the scenes while with progressive leaders while with Sen Daschle. The first week Pete was in the job as Obama's Senate COS, he called me and ask me to come in and meet with him and another senior staffer there to help them think through a strategy for reaching out to progressives. During the 2008 campaign, when most of the rest of the Obama team were ignoring my emails about the campaign stiff-arming progressives, Pete would respond and try to help solve problems. From what I have been told, he has been the leading advocate inside the White House for reaching out more often to progressive folks. He was a strong advocate for bringing Elizabeth Warren into the administration. And in general, I have always had the sense that Pete's values are more in keeping with progressive populism than with Rubinomics.
Don't get me wrong, everything in the Obama White House is not suddenly going to be nirvana for us lefties. Robert Gibbs will still be around to throw his occasional verbal bombs our direction. Tim Geithner is still going to be the leading economic adviser and will remain too close to the Wall Street guys. Anonymous White House sources will still trash progressives sometimes. And Barack Obama will still sometimes make policy and political decisions that piss a lot of us off. But Rahm leaving and Pete being the new COS opens a door, allows for- if not a fresh start- at least a new kind of dialogue to be had between those of us on the "professional left" and this White House. The problem with the strategy that says progressives have nowhere else to go is that when a President is in trouble politically, he needs passionate political people out there defending him to the hilt. Given the challenges facing Obama over the next two years, it would be good to have an open door and a rebuilt bridge to the base of his party.
I feel compelled to make a quick comment about the Axelrod/hippie punching moment in the blogger call yesterday, because I have been in Axelrod's shoes and know how tough those moments are.
I'll say at the outset that I have been extremely critical of the Obama political strategy much of the time over the last couple of years, including in a sharply worded post just a couple of days ago which Susie referenced in her question to David. I have been angry at the "left of the left" and "professional left" type of insults thrown out too often by this White House, not because I was personally offended but because I thought it was stupid politically and I want this President to succeed. I think the White House needs to expect these kinds of questions from bloggers when they dish out the insults themselves.
Here's the deal though: when your job is to speak for the administration, and defend it from attacks, you can't be passive when asked a question like that. Axelrod has been criticized for pushing back on Susie's question, but I don't think he had many options. I was on the call and all the questions up until then had been more traditional sounding questions in topic and tone, and then Susie went for it. I don't blame Susie for the question, not at all- like I said the White House needs to understand they will get these kinds of questions from bloggers. But I think David didn't have many options but to try and push back a little, try to form some common ground (with his "you're right, on both sides" line), but also to defend.
Look, a White House spokesperson can't just say "you are right, we suck" in reaction to that kind of question. And I have been in his situation, being forced to take the heat for things done by other people in that building. The irony here is that, admitting some bias here because David is an old friend, I think Axelrod is one of the good guys inside. From everything I have heard, he has been on the right side of most of the debates inside, has pushed back pretty consistently against folks like Geithner on policy and personnel decisions, and has been the leading advocate for a more populist message and policy. By all accounts, he was the leading advocate for bringing Elizabeth Warren in. And I am fairly sure I know who has done most of the anonymous left trashing talk, and it has definitely not been David, who I am consistently told is the leading advocate for reaching out to the base.
David's answer to Susie wasn't eloquent. The tone wasn't just right because he was caught by surprise. Having been in his shoes, I know these moments are tough. But I do hope people will cut him some slack on this, because I think he is one of the good guys in that building on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Politico's article today is the latest in a string of articles about the massive edge in money pro-Republican outside groups have over pro-Democratic groups. The article cites a $23 million to $4 million dollar ratio in advertising so far. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that outside groups tend to be trusted more than political party advertising.
The article makes pretty clear that some Democrats on the Hill want to blame the outside groups on our side for not doing enough, and we will see more of that kind of blame game in the coming weeks. It is certainly understandable that individual members who take tough votes are frustrated when big corporate interests dump money on their districts for ads that in many cases are just blatant lies, and no one comes to their defense. I know the party committees are pulling their hair out with the barrage of corporate money being thrown into targeted races everywhere. But here's the deal: congressional leaders need only look down the street, Pennsylvania Avenue to be precise, to find the answers as to why there isn't more money going into independent expenditure efforts on the Democratic side.
This is in part a historical problem, a pattern in the party leadership that I sometimes refer to as the curse of the control freaks. Republicans for many years have understood far better than Democrats that outside issue and ideological groups ought to be empowered, not discouraged. Haley Barbour, Karl Rove, and other top Republicans have for years happily worked hand in hand with Grover Norquist, the NRA, the Christian Coalition, the Chamber of Commerce, the Koch Industries front groups, and the entire right-wing infrastructure. Republicans came to their strategy meetings, attended their fundraising dinners, signed their direct mail pieces and emails and Tweets and text messages. Republican operatives have for decades understood that conservative organizations with well-known brands had more credibility with key blocs of voters than either political party and most candidates.
The same is true with progressive groups and key voting blocs as well, but the Democratic Party has never paid these groups much attention. Polling shows quite clearly that many swing suburban voters find ads or mailings from Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters, and groups like them far more credible than ads from the Democratic Party. Union members are far more likely to read and respect a mailing from their union than a partisan mail piece.
These trends are even bigger in an election cycle like 2010, when both parties' brands are in the mud. Independent group messages have far more credibility and clout than those from party and candidate committees- even groups with generic-sounding names no one has heard of. Republican strategists like Rove got this early, and went about methodically organizing a network of corporate money to get involved in independent expenditure ads in swing races all over the country. But the Obama White House, sure of its fundraising ability and organizing genius, has consistently sent the signal to Democratic donors to not support outside efforts. They did it after they won the primary in 2008; they did it when they set up OFA to operate solely inside the DNC in 2009; they did it during the health care fight when they felt HCAN was being a little too independent in pushing for a public option, sending a clear signal to donors not to give to them at crucial times during the fight; they did it when ACORN had some bad publicity, very quickly making the decision to distance themselves and let them die even though no group has registered more voters or turned out more people in the last 10 years than ACORN.
I have been fighting this battle inside Democratic strategy circles for 15 years now, but the problem is worse with the current team at the White House. The folks running the Obama political operation have always believed they could control the message and the resources of the party better than anyone else, and that they didn't need or want to empower outside progressive groups. Now embattled House and Senate candidates are paying the price, and it is a bitter price to have to pay. The groups that do have resources that are pro-Democratic- labor, MoveOn, Emily's List, the trial lawyers- are doing their best to stem the tide. But corporate money in the post-Citizens United era is swamping us, and unlike in some cycles in the past (2004, 2006), wealthy progressive donors were sent signals not to engage, or just not cultivated at all, and the result is that we are being badly outspent.
One final note on all this: the irony of outside progressive groups being blamed for not doing enough to help the Democrats when the White House has been complaining about the "left of the left" and the "professional left" for many months- and de-motivating donors the whole time- should not be lost on anyone. You can't attack progressives for being too strident and then wonder why they aren't doing more and still have much credibility.
As I have written in recent days, I still have hopes that Democrats can do better this cycle than the conventional wisdom suggests, especially if the Democrats use a pro-reform populist message that is actually effective. But the curse of the control freaks is not helping anything.
I have beaten up on the Obama White House enough that I'm no longer very welcome by many of the top staffers there, and on no issue have I been tougher on them than on their policies regarding dealing with the biggest banks and the TARP program. This morning, though, I am all smiles, delighted to my core, because the reports, confirmed multiple times, about the appointment of Elizabeth Warren are a big home run.
I am more than a little biased, because Elizabeth has become a good friend over the past few years, and because I have rarely seen the kinds of guts and tough bargaining strategy that I watched her show during the financial reform fight and the TARP oversight work. She publicly and repeatedly faced down Tim Geithner on a series of major issues around TARP and the overall handling of the financial crisis. She privately went nose to nose with Barney Frank and Chris Dodd and Treasury during negotiations over the financial reform bill. She had to time and again back Dodd down when he was getting ready to make bad compromises on the consumer agency. (Why do you think Dodd has fought so hard to keep Warren from being nominated?) She is the real deal, a fighter for middle class and poor families through and through.
Now, some progressives are arguing this joint appointment to the White House and Treasury is somehow a weak attempt to fool us, that Warren is being given the job as window dressing but will have no real power. The people arguing that just don't know Elizabeth very well, or understand what motivates her. I do not believe for a minute that she would meekly accept a powerless window dressing job, or would put up with it very long if that is what it turned into. She has never been interested in being in government for the sake of a title, and she isn't going to start now. The impressive thing is that I think Obama understands that, too, and gave her the job anyway.
For Elizabeth, the options here were the choice of basically being put on ice for several months at least during an extended confirmation battle, a time where she couldn't speak out or do any actual work on the agency while Geithner was free to start building it any way he wanted; being at Treasury reporting solely to Geithner, who I believe would do everything he could to undermine and disempower her; or this intriguing combination of working with Treasury to craft the agency while also reporting directly to the President. I don't know exactly how this deal went down, but it looks to me like Elizabeth helped craft something that might actually work in her mission to help consumers in dealing with the big banks. She always has the option of walking away if it doesn't- and knowing her, she would have the guts to do just that.
I think this is one time when we can give Obama credit for doing the right thing. Wall Street was determined in its opposition, and establishment insiders like Dodd did everything they could to derail Elizabeth from having any role in creating this agency. But the progressive movement fought like crazy to make this happen, Elizabeth showed her usual savvy and toughness once again, and the President did the right thing.
And here's the deal: this really does matter. I am constantly frustrated by the brain dead politics and corporate oriented policies of many of the people in the Democratic party, but there remain two reasons I still work hard to get Democrats elected. The first is that the Republicans scare the hell out of me with their extremism, but the second is that at least some of the time, Democrats who really care about working people and the poor do get placed in positions of power. Cecilia Munoz being the one to negotiate with Governors over how poor people are treated under government programs in the states matters. Melody Barnes playing a role in the crafting of domestic programs in the federal budget matters. Hilda Solis being in charge of running OSHA matters in terms of workers safety. And Elizabeth Warren being given the job of building an agency to make sure consumers are treated fairly by the big banks who dominate our country's economy is a very big deal.
This is a great day for America's working families, and we should celebrate.
For reference, Obama and the left, part 432 can be found here
The progressive community and the Obama administration are once again in a firefight, this one started by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. There has been and will be a huge amount of commentary on this in the blogosphere and the media in general over the next few days, and Gibbs' quote will go right up there with the infamous "left of the left" quote during health care, Rahm's infamous "f'ing retarded" quote (he apologized afterwards to advocates for those with mental disabilities, but of course not to progressives), the locker room gloating "organized labor just flushed $10 million down the toilet" quote, and a variety of other random insults that progressives have to chew over.
Thankfully, Gibbs has released a statement pulling back from that interview, and I am assured by friends at the White House that this is just "Robert being in a bad mood", etc. Happy to hear it, and I am willing to give the White House the benefit of the doubt (which I know may not be very popular among many folks in progressiveland). I also am happy to give this Administration credit where credit is due, and they do actually deserve some.
Given the economic straits we are in, the stimulus was too small, and had too many tax cuts in it, but it is still the biggest jobs bill in American history, and the biggest investment in public goods (schools, teachers, roads, bridges, clean energy, firefighters, cops, broadband, etc.). The health care bill had big flaws, including the lack of a public option, but Obama succeeded at extending coverage to virtually everyone and reining in major insurance abuses (on pre-existing conditions, lifetime caps, etc.) when every other President before for a hundred years had failed. The financial reform bill didn't break up the banks, but we won very significant victories in reining in the financial sector, and went the right direction on financial regulation instead of the wrong direction as we did in the last four Presidents' tenures. The federal budgets Obama submitted have been the most progressive in many way s at least since 1993, and maybe since the 1960s. We won a major victory on, and expansion of, the student loan program for college students. Tobacco is regulated by the FDA for the first time. The equal pay law got passed, S-CHIP got expanded, the hate crimes bill got signed, unneeded weapons systems got eliminated. And Obama has at least pushed for other big legislation on climate change, immigration reform, and more jobs programs, even if he didn't succeed at everything.
It hasn't all been perfect, far from it, but Obama deserves enormous credit for wading into these big fights, and with persevering on some of the toughest, like health care (where his chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel wanted him to back down and give up.) If I were in the Obama White House, I might be feeling a little irritable myself at the lack of credit I was getting.
Were you waiting for the "but"? Well, you can find it in the extended entry.
It is August of an even-numbered year, and I am trying mightily to shift my attention to the elections. I had planned to do a blog post today about House races, followed by posts about key races most of the rest of the days between here and the election; I have signed on with MoveOn to help them on their exciting new campaign to clean up the corporate corruption in DC; I am beginning to work with BlogPac, CPC PAC, and other progressive PACs on key races; I am keeping in touch with my progressive donor friends to move money into key races. I'm doing all the dutiful things any good Democrat should do as the election season comes upon us.
This is as core an issue as there is for everyone who uses the internet. Letting only the biggest companies and richest individuals have good quality service wreaks havoc with everything that is good about the internet: the freedom of speech, the ability to mobilize people, the entrepreneurial spirit that allows new tech companies to get started, the ability by charities and small business people to create low cost revenue streams. What the Obama administration is about to let happen is a stake in the heart of our democracy and the ability of small businesspeople and not-profits to provide the innovation of the future.
What is most tragic about this was that in the 2008 campaign, this issue of net neutrality and democratic media was where Obama was the most unequivocally good. His platform and speeches on this issue were clear as a bell, and left no room for error: he was on the side of consumers, activists, and entrepreneurs in fighting against the telecoms efforts to make the internet a playground for only those who could afford to pay the big bucks. Then he appointed a strong net neutrality advocate, Julius Genachowski, as the head of the FCC. I met Julius when I worked in the transition, and was delighted by the appointment, because I was under the impression he would be strongly on our side on this issue.
Now the administration seems to be walking away from all their promises. It is a bitter betrayal.
I am still going to help the candidates who are going to fight against these kinds of policies, but now that I have this betrayal to fight against, it sure does make it harder to focus on the work, let alone defend the Obama administration.
The FCC needs to get its act together, and stop the destruction of what's good about the internet.
This isn't a criticism so much as a bewilderment at how the White House sometimes says two different things in its messaging. To me, from a purely communications and observational point of view, one problem with the White House's handling of BP has been the message that is "we're in charge here, we will stop this" on one day, then "only BP can clean up the spill, they have the technology, we're powerless to stop it, no we're not going to nationalize them".
Well, here's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on The Kudlow Report last night:
Sec. GEITHNER: We have a pro-growth agenda. Part of the agenda is growing exports. They're central to our future. What the president today is to say, that is important to the United States, we're going to be committed to making sure we're that we're expanding opportunities for American business everywhere. Now, this president understands deeply that governments don't create jobs, businesses create jobs. And our job as government is try to make sure we're creating the conditions that allow businesses to prosper so they can hire people back, get this economy going again.
This echoes President Obama, as quoted in a piece by TAP's Tim Fernholz:
"Now, government can't create jobs, but it can help create the conditions for small businesses to grow and thrive and hire more workers," President Barack Obama said yesterday as he urged Congress to take up new jobs legislation at an event honoring Small Business Owners of the Year. "Government can't guarantee a company's success, but it can knock down the barriers that prevent small-business owners from getting loans or investing in the future."
The president was right, except for one little clause: the idea that government can't create jobs. Of course the government can create jobs, unless you rank police officers and teachers, or in a less Norman Rockwell-mode, DMV employees and meter readers, among the unemployed. Which, to be clear, you should not.
Aside from being (a) false, as Tim points out, and (b) a conservative talking point that encourages the "if we want to create jobs, we have to lower corporate taxes and loosen regulations" line of thinking, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me that this Administration has been saying for a year and a half "our Administration's stimulus package has either saved or created x number of jobs" over and over and over again, but then stomps on its own message in a quick effort to appeal to business and Wall Street.
And they wonder why no one in the public thinks the stimulus worked. Just a thought.