February 2009


First the speech, now the budget.  We’re beginning to see that Obama is no centrist after all.  His agenda is distinctly to the left of left of center and he’s not an incrementalist.  He’s setting about to change America radically and fast.

America needs change.  The problem is that our choice for political leadership in this country is between a hyperactive Democratic Party with a leftist agenda and tired and worn out Republican Party with a right wing, moralistic, and arguable overly-free market agenda.  The fact remains that there exists a huge amount of real estate between the two extremes, real estate upon which I would argue America would be better building its future home the than real estate being proposed by the two American parties.  And today, one party is in control and it is on their real estate that the we’re proposing to build.

What concerns me the most about Obama’s proposals is the relative lack of thought and preparation that is behind them.  He has produced all of this in just one month!  Echoing what David Brooks observes in his column in the New York Times today (The Uncertain Trumpet) Obama is merely laying out a conceptual framework for the future but he is leaving it to others to work out the details.  That’s dangerous when the others are Congressional leadership dominated by Nancy Pelosi Democrats.  I am concerned that facts (rationality) will play too small a role and leftist ideology to large a role as laws are passed and programs are initiated to build on the Obama conceptual framework.  Likening policy to a road map, it needs to be based upon reality in order to deliver us to the desired destination.  If based on fantasy, it is unlikely to lead us to where we want to go.  Reality and rationality must trump shallow and overly-idealistic ideology.  

I will keep returning to energy as an example as, substantively, I know it best.  On energy, the budget is very “command and control” and sets about picking winners and losers.  One loser appears to be all things “oil and gas”.  A first glimpse at Obama’s energy budget reveals that he proposes elimination of almost every incentive for domestic oil and natural gas production on the books.  It also appears to eliminate all oil and natural gas research and development.  This is not wise when the American economy is dependent upon foreign oil to fuel an economy that will not even under the most optimistic scenarios be able to wean itself from oil for transportation for decades.  Complex issues require complex solutions.  It doesn’t appear we’re going to get them from Obama.  He’s too busy painting colorful conceptual murals of the America he envisions and leaving it to others to try to turn that fantasy into reality.

In Obama’s defense, I suspect most of the “oil and gas” policy outlined in the budget proposal yesterday was the less the process of an Obama policy process than it was the creation of green eye shade types at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) who’ve fought oil and natural gas for years.  Apparently President Reagan’s first budget did almost the same thing.  

For today, at least, that is going to be the extent of my criticism of President Obama.  As I’ve indicated, I believe the country needs change.  Of that I have no doubt.  But this much change so fast concerns me enormously.  It risks losing rationality in the process and without that in the mix, we will have nothing to show except enormously expanded American debt.  Let me now recommend some of the better and/or most informative pieces that I encountered this morning in my journey through today’s Washington Post and New York Times. 

I think the best sources of basic information this morning on the President’s budget proposal are the “analysis” pieces that can be found in both the Post and the Times.  The Post’s piece by Dan Balz is entitled Ambitious Blueprint a Big Risk The President is Willing to Take.  The Times’ “news analysis” piece is by John Harwood and is entitled Political Skills Put to the Test.  On the opinion front, representing left, right and center, I recommend three: Climate of Change by Paul Krugman; The Obamaist Manifesto by Charles Krauthammer; and the David Brooks column referenced and linked above.

As I indicated above, I am going to withhold criticism and give Obama a chance.  There will be plenty of time to oppose, if that is what is ultimately called for, as the conceptual frameworks become blueprints become law.  

David S. Broder’s column in today’s Washington Post adds an adjective to the ones I’ve seen most often attached to President Obama’s speech on Tuesday night.  In addition to ambitious and audacious Mr. Broder would have us add “risky”.  I’d go one step further and say “dangerous” as well.  Here’s an excerpt from the column entitled Obama Rolls the Dice:

The size of the gambles that President Obama is taking every day is simply staggering. What came through in his speech to a joint session of Congress and a national television audience Tuesday night was a dramatic reminder of the unbelievable stakes he has placed on the table in his first month in office, putting at risk the future well-being of the country and the Democratic Party’s control of Washington.

The country has come out of a rough 8 years of a presidency that did little of merit other than “keep us safe”.  I would add that I’m not even certain of the “keep of safe” yet.  It remains to be seen if seeds sown by the methods and tactics employed to keep us safe sprout and grow into even greater threats and dangers to the nation.  The point is that Bush left the country a much weaker one than the one he inherited.  It is into this scene that Barack Obama steps onto the national stage with a clear mandate to change direction – to address our ills and get us back on our feet.  And this he is telling us he intends to do, but much more as well.

It is the “much more” that’s concerning people.  Wouldn’t it be enough to simply right our economic boat?  Wouldn’t he be a great President if he just accomplished that well while he begins to lay the foundation for most of the “other” in a second term?    

I am concerned that the agenda is so expansive that it and therefore the President can’t help but fail.  The first and most likely failure is political.  Too ambitious and bold and Obama risks not getting the critical 2-3 Republican votes he needs in the Senate, let alone carrying all Democrats.  Political failure is dangerous.  It has the potential to weaken our government and diminish our standing in the world.  I am also concerned that with so much on the table that deliberation will be rushed.  We will not be able to address issues as carefully and as rationally as they need to be addressed.  They will be imperfect, if not deeply flawed, just as the stimulus was rushed and deeply flawed.  That risks another failure–failure of the policy to accomplish its desired objectives.  The verdict will be out for a while on whether the stimulus bill is going to work.  Are we ready to rush into so much else as well.

I conflicted in the sense that I agree there is much that needs to be addressed.  It is just that I’m uncomfortable in moving so fast.  I’m also uncomfortable with the Democratic Party having sole control of this process.  I’ll be frank in admitting that I do not see the liberal experiments of the New Deal or Great Society as being resounding successes.  Yet this is that and more.  Yes, we need to address a host of issues but we need to take great care before we create new government programs to address them.  We can’t afford new entitlements when the ones we have are out of control. 

Read the David Broder column in its entirety.  He ends by noting the dangers of the world in which we live.  Taking risks at home may leave us less able to address those risks in the world at large.  There is indeed danger in the President’s expansive call to action. 

Another useful perspective on this is offered today by William Kristol, now of the Washington Post.  His piece is entitled Republican’s Day of Reckoning.  I agree with him that what Republicans need to do is “[s]low down the policy train.  Insist on a real and lengthy debate.”  For me this is important, not to increase the Republicans’ political standing or the party’s chances of winning the next election, but to save the country from foolish, dangerous and ill-conceived public policy.  I don’t care if Republicans ever win the presidency or control of Congress again, so long as their opposition is able to accomplish two things:  First, check the excesses of the Democratic party and its liberal ideologues.  Second, slow down the process and allow a rational debate that increases the chances of solutions that can work.  That’s a tall order, I know, especially as both parties are most often less interested in solutions that work than in winning the next election.  

David Leonhardt in the New York Times today explains in his column that a tax increase is most definitely in our future, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  The piece is entitled The Upside of Paying More Taxes.

My view is that we can’t go on expecting more of government and paying the same amount of taxes.  While conservatives have made “no new taxes” their mantra for decades, they’ve spent unbelievable sums of money that we don’t have to fight the war in Iraq and pursue other of their funding priorities, creating massive budget deficits in the process.  Reality requires that we will have to raise taxes or expect less from our government.  We can’t have it both ways.  It will also require, of course, entitlement reform and great care as we undertake new endeavors. 

 

Ambitious.  That about sums up our President’s address to the nation last night.  Obama is promising the country almost everything.  The problem is, everything is pretty hard to deliver upon.  Does this mean that if we don’t end up getting “everything” that he has failed?  Might it not have been better to scale back the promises, if not the intent, and work on just a few things.  My concern here is heightened by the fact that the risks are so great.

A good “news analysis” of President Obama’s speech last night is provided by Peter Baker in the New York Times this morning.  It’s entitled In Time of Crisis, Urging Bold Action and Big Ideas.  I am personally encouraged we have a leader of the apparent caliber and self-confidence of Barack Obama, but I’m concerned that he can pull it off. 

My concerns are heightened by his ambitious energy goals.  Knowing what I know about energy I am concerned that his other goals are equally ungrounded in reality.  Obama talks about a renewable energy future but doesn’t acknowledge the critical role of the fossil present.  He talks about weaning ourselves from foreign oil but doesn’t discuss the pain it will take to get there.  When Obama promises to double our use of renewable energy that means going from 7% to 14%.  Good, but not enough to wean us from foreign oil, especially when just 7% of renewable energy goes to transportation today.  Today the country is 96% reliant on oil for transportation, the majority of that imported.  The remainder comes from natural gas (2%) and renewables (2%).  A real solution to dependence upon foreign oil will require increased domestic production of oil and natural gas.  To achieve this Obama will have to face down the liberals of his party and environmental groups and convince them that the path to both energy independence and a renewable future involves medium-term dependence on American-produced fossil fuels.  This is the reality.  The other is fantasy.  Will Obama get it right?  I have hope but significant doubts.  Our present system will make it very difficult for him to buck the environmental left on this.  If he doesn’t buck it, he cannot achieve energy independence and the country loses.  If he does buck it, he risks lose a key constituency and significant Congressional support.  Watch how this develops.  If we don’t open the offshore to significant new development we’re operating in fantasy land and Obama’s stated energy goals are likewise fantasy and will fall short.  If he does it, maybe he’s indeed got what it takes.

In the meantime we watch, and hope.   

 

There’s a worthwhile-read by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times today.  Mr. Friedman is obviously on a world tour, his column today being posted from Seoul, South Korea.  There is nothing like travel and the opportunity to meet world leaders to give one perspective.  WeI have to settle on getting our perspective from those like Mr. Friedman and David Ignatius of the Washington Post who are able to travel the world and do this for us. 

In the Friedman piece today (Paging Uncle Sam) he’s talking about America’s role as world leader.  Although the world may love to hate us, and resent us for our leadership, there is no other alternative on the world stage.  The world, especially in a time of global economic crisis, needs the leadership only the U.S. can provide.   Here’s an excerpt from the column:

“No other country can substitute for the U.S.,” a senior Korean official remarked to me. “The U.S. is still No. 1 in military, No. 1 in economy, No. 1 in promoting human rights and No. 1 in idealism. Only the U.S. can lead the world. No other country can. China can’t. The E.U. is too divided, and Europe is militarily far behind the U.S. So it is only the United States … We have never had a more unipolar world than we have today.”

For better or for worse we now have an activist president with an activist agenda.  Let’s hope Obama’s leadership of America and America’s world leadership all work out to every one’s mutual benefit.  There is a lot of need and the risks of failure are high.  

Leonard Cohen is on the road performing again.  Although I’ve been aware of Leonard Cohen and some of his music for years, it is only of late that I’ve become a true aficionado.  He is brilliant.  In a seemingly sychronistic way I was today presented with both a New York Times piece on Cohen (On the Road, For Reasons Both Practical and Spiritual) and an invitation from a local Washington DC club to buy tickets to his Washington performance.  Cohen is a master poet and musician with a “golden voice”.  He has also had a profound influence on a generation of musicians.  At 74 there may not be many more opportunities to see this musical giant.   For those of you interested, the tour dates and locations can be found here.   

Former U.S. Senator and currently President of the University of Oklahoma, David Boren, pens an Op-ed in today’s Washington Post entitled Building Bipartisan Habits.  The piece is a most worthwhile-read.  I had the pleasure of attending the Bipartisan Summit that he hosted last year in Oklahoma City.  I attended as an observer (audience member, not participant). 

Bipartisanship has its limits but it definitely has its place.  We can’t give up on it.

To his credit, the President held a fiscal responsibility summit yesterday at the White House.  The basic story can be found in a Washington Post story entitled Health Care Tops Fiscal Need List.  Dana Milbank in his Washington Post column today reports that it was sparsely attended. 

While not the serious effort it was perhaps first conceived as being, the 3 1/2 hour meeting was important.  It signalled that the President understands there’s a problem that needs to be addressed and it certainly helped to educate America about the problem.  The President is to be commended for the effort.

Defusing the ticking time bomb that is our entitlements crisis will be complicated.  It is the raison d’etre for the Peter G. Peterson foundation of which I’ve previously written.  They are doing important work bringing the crisis to the nation’s attention and keeping it on the radar screen.  They launched a new ad campaignyesterday featuring an iceberg.  On their website you can also sign a petition thanking President Obama for holding yesterday’s summit. 

The liberals are striking back, however.  In a column in yesterday’s Washington Post, Robert Kuttner of the American Prospect decries The Deficit Hawks’ Attack on Our Entitlements.  Forget about deficits he seems to say.  If we get our economy back on track we’ll be fine, and by the way, the country needs needs its entitlement programs just as they are.  “The attack on social insurance is really an ideological assault, dressed up as fiscal high-mindedness.”  Peter G. Peterson gets special critical mention.  

So, according to Mr. Kuttner, presenting the liberal case, the entire point of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation is to conduct an ideological assault on our country’s entitlements programs.  The fact is we have a serious problem in America.  It can’t be ignored.  It doesn’t mean gutting our social safety net, but it does mean mending it.  This was all enough of a concern to the former head of the General Accounting Office, David M. Walker, that he left GAO to head up the the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.  There’s an interesting piece on David M. Walker in today’s Washington Post, entitled Internal Gadfly Tries Other Side.  Somehow Mr. Walker doesn’t strike me as a right wing ideologue.  Does he you?

There have been a couple of comments of late of which I want to make readers aware.  They can be found here and here.  Additional comments are welcome. 

There was one more foreign policy perspective I should have added to my posting earlier today.  It is a piece by Jim Hoagland that appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post.  It’s entitled Obama vs. Clenched Fists.  Again, it is somewhat critical.  There is a theme here.

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