Education Policy

I’ve been meaning to comment for a number of days now on Obama’s education plan as it is taking shape.  David Brooks’ column entitled ‘No Picnic For Me Either’ appearing today in the New York Times will serve as my catalyst.  I will, however, keep my remarks very short, as David Brooks says it so well.  Suffice it to say that I am pleased and optimistic that the President is coming down on the right side of the debate about public education, that is the side of students.  That is all that matters.   

There’s a very good piece by Michael Gerson in the Washington Post this morning.  It’s entitled A Week of Revelation.  It is Mr. Gerson’s take on the last week when America began to get a look at the real Barack Obama.  We hadn’t seen the Obama of last week in Candidate Obama but I think it’s safe to conclude that the cobwebs are finally falling away and the real Obama is emerging.  Here are the closing words to Mr. Gerson’s piece:

On defense policy, the peace candidate is not a radical. On economic policy, the post-partisan could hardly be more partisan. Obama does not want to cultivate conservatives; he wants to crush them. And that is a revelation.

I recommend giving the entire piece a read.  It is edifying. 

There are a number of ways to judge the success of a presidency.  There is the historical perspective that takes a great many decades to determine with any accuracy.  There is whether the president was able to win re-election, always an important indicator of success.  And, there is whether, when the president is term-limited, the country swings wildly in the opposite political direction when picking the president’s successor.  It is possible, as we’ve just seen, for a president to win re-election yet leave office with abysmally low ratings and a successor that stands for just about everything that he didn’t.  In President Bush’s case, I would argue that his winning re-election was not so much an indicator of his popularity or “success”, but a complete lack of enthusiasm for his opponent.  The Democrats in John Kerry simply didn’t give the country a choice it found acceptable–better the devil you know.  That Bush left office deeply unpopular and with a successor who is his polar opposite in almost every way–personality, intellect, political philosophy–says something about how deeply unpopular, and I would argue “successful” George W. Bush was.

Having last week finally seen the complete unveiling of Barack Obama–no, not a centrist but a true blue Democratic liberal–it is interesting to speculate on how the American public is ultimately going to judge its new leader.  The 2010 mid-term elections will give us a first indication.  Then will come the 2012 general election.  Finally, should Obama be re-elected in 2012, there will be the election of his successor in 2016.

I’m not going to speculate on outcome.  I have no clue at this point.  I am going to suggest scenarios, however, that may give us some indicators.  Let me start by observing that it is entirely possible that by 2012 the bloom will be off the Obama rose but that the Republicans will still be in such philosophical disarray (which includes, in my book, clinging to the southern conservative model of Republicanism) that anyone the Republicans select will be doomed, ala John Kerry in 2004.  Of course, if Obama is despised at that point, which I doubt, it could be that almost any Republican could be elected.  Let’s hope this is not the case for the sake of our country.

Another scenario is to posit Barack Obama as the Democratic Ronald Reagan.  By this I mean a someone who, while clearly a darling of the ideological extremes of his party, is also able to capture a significant amount of independents and centrist members of the opposing party.  To accomplish this it is important that one be charismatic (check), a great communicator (check), and I would argue one more thing.  It will take someone who while talking enough of line to appease his ideological base, delivers policies that are mainstream enough that they don’t alienate the center, where the majority of American electorate resides (unknown).

Now this is where it gets tricky with Barack Obama.  He has announced to the delight of his party’s liberal base a very “liberal” agenda.  How will centrist America take to this?  I would argue that one thing that Ronald Reagan had going for him, that Obama does not, was a Congress that was never entirely in his camp.  In other words, Ronald Reagan never experienced having a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate.  While he had the Senate eventually, he never had a Republican House majority.  I would argue that this required him to moderate his course and deliver a product that was less ideologically conservative than it might otherwise have been and than what he might otherwise have preferred.  Given that most of the electorate is in the center of the political spectrum, this need to moderate arguably inured to Reagan’s political advantage.  Ronald Reagan both won a resounding re-election campaign in 1984 and left office in 1988 highly popular, replaced by his vice-president.

Using the Ronald Reagan model, Barach Obama doesn’t have the barrier (I would also say “advantage”) that Ronald Reagan had.  Unlike Reagan, Obama has healthy majorities in both the House and the Senate.  The only thing he does have that is arguably somewhat similar is a non-filibuster proof Senate.  That could well yet serve him well by holding him back from delivering a more liberal ideological product than he might prefer, but it could also save his political neck.  Since it is less of an obstacle than was Ronald Reagan’s obstacle, it may, however, prove less beneficial.

Of course, a third alternative exists.  America is indeed ready to make a major political shift from center-right to left/center-left.  This could be aided by an economy that is among the worst in the country’s history.  This will depend upon when the economy recovers and which party gets the credit.

I am disinclined to believe the American electorate is radically re-aligning itself to the left.  It will tolerate health care reform and education reform, but only so long as it delivers, on budget.  It will not tolerate huge deficits and massive new unfunded entitlement programs.  It will not tolerate massive new taxes, including taxes masquerading as greatly higher bills for electricity caused by an ill-conceived cap and trade system.  It will also tire of energy program that fails to accomplish its stated objectives (likely, as I pointed out in my posting yesterday).

The bottom line is that this story has yet to unfold.  It could go in many ways.  It will interestingto watch.  It will also be scary, as the country has so much at stake.  Had this been normal times, with an economy that was anywhere withing the range of normal, this liberal experiment that Obama’s proposing might have been an interesting and valuable exercise for the country.  In times of economic crisis, it seems rash and dangerous.  Let’s hope for the best case scenario, for failure could be unthinkably bad.  Let’s hope that Barack Obama does, indeed, turn out to be a liberal Ronald Reagan.

The Senate has begun it’s process of fixing the deeply flawed stimulus bill passed last week by the House of Representatives.  Consensus seems to be growing that the House bill is a dog and must be recast to have both a stronger shot at stimulating the economy and garnering significant bipartisan support.

In a meeting with a number of Democratic lawmakers yesterday, President Obama apparently “took a blunt tone with the lawmakers, urging them to drop whatever needs to be cut from the bill to gain bipartian support and to pass Congress soon”,  so reports the Washington Post in a story today entitled Obama is Upbeat On Stimulus Plan

ABC News’ The Note also reports this morning that it will be centrists in the Senate who will ultimately decide the content and fate of the stimulus bill.  Here’s an excerpt:

Team Obama lost the early battle to define the bill — which has become a pork-stuffed monstrosity, instead of economic salvation wrapped in legislation.

That’s where Senate centrists come in. The loose coalition of lawmakers that are scrubbing the measure with an eye on offering joint amendments — being led by Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine — are quickly becoming the group to watch.

They have the votes to exert their will, and that means sorting out spin from reality (or at least their take on it) on a measure that’s easy to hate for its scope, and maybe easier to mock for its specifics.

I am always happy when I see centrists exerting their potentially considerable influence.  I know that when they do, ideology and partisan fervor will take a back seat to pragmatic policy-making.  This is what has needed to happen since Pelosi and her crew got the first cut at the bill. 

The slower Senate process is also allowing for greater scrutiny and thought to be given to particular provisions of the House bill.  As I argued last week, this is too important a bill to rush.  While we should slow this process down even further if we’re to avoid all of the boondoggles, fortunately this additional scrutiny and thought is showing us at least some of the flaws.  One such flaw, in my opinion, concerns the House bill’s mandate that billions of dollars be spent to expand broadband internet service to rural and otherwise under-served America.  While important, we need to make certain that any such program is done right.  This is discussed in an excellent article in the New York Times today entitled Internet Money In Fiscal Plan: Wise or Waste?  Here’s an excerpt:

But experts warn that the rural broadband effort could just as easily become a $9 billion cyberbridge to nowhere, representing the worst kind of mistakes that lawmakers could make in rushing to approve one of the largest spending bills in history without considering unintended results.

“The first rule of technology investment is you spend time understanding the end user, what they need and the conditions under which they will use the technology,” said Craig Settles, an industry analyst and consultant who has studied broadband applications in rural and urban areas. “If you don’t do this well, you end up throwing millions or, in this case, potentially billions down a rat hole. You will spend money for things that people don’t need or can’t use.”

Dozens of programs included in the stimulus measure could entail a similarly complicated cost-benefit analysis. But with Congress and the White House intent on adopting the economic recovery package by the end of next week, taxpayers are unlikely to find out whether these programs are great investments or a total waste — or something in between — until long after the money is out the door.     

Let me close by linking to another advocate of slowing this stimulus train down a bit, again to make sure we get the most bang for the extraordinarily large bucks.   He is Richard Cohen of the Washington Post in his column today entitled $100 Billion and No Change Back.  He points out that the funds heading to the Department of Education are going with no “reform” strings attached and he argues that we are losing an incredible opportunity to make a difference.  Slowing the train down can give us the time to do it right.  I agree with him completely.

So, let’s hope that the slower train that is the United States Senate slows down even further and allows more input that makes this bill as good as we can get it before it goes to the President’s desk for signature.  Getting a bill in the middle of February is less important that getting it right.  A few more weeks is not going to matter if we can do a much better job.