Saturday, February 21, 2009

Slovenly Words and Foolish Deeds

President Barack Obama's first press conference was serious, measured, and according to Mark Nikolas (, three grade levels more complex than President George W. Bush's first press conference.

A cursory glance at readers' comments to Nikolas' post reveals sharp disagreements about both the empirical claim and its implications. Since I have used the Flesch readability scale to score the rhetoric of every president since George Washington, I will venture to offer some observations to suggest that George Bush and Barack Obama aren’t all that different.

Superficially, they couldn’t be more different. While the former president is a self-styled cowboy who has rejected his northeastern roots in favor of a Texan down-home speaking style, the current one is a former professor of constitutional law who (if one recalls his speech on race in Philadelphia at the height of the Jeremiah Wright fiasco) will not demure from pontificating on things complex and controversial. I doubt many people will argue that Bush was a more sophisticated speaker, but people disagree about whether or not his simple sentences were delivered at the expense of complex thoughts.

Complex thoughts can be simply expressed, his defenders contend. But Einstein also said that "things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." Consider John Robert's question to President Bush in his first press conference in 2001: "I'm wondering what message he (the Secretary of State) will take from this administration to leaders of the Middle East in the area of sanctions that matter, sanctions that are effective on the regime?"

President Bush answered in his inimitable style: "I have said that the sanction regime is like Swiss cheese. That meant that they weren't very effective. And we're going to review the current sanction policy and review options as to how to make the sanctions work. But the primary goal is to make it clear to Saddam that we expect him to be a peaceful neighbor in the region, and we expect him not to develop weapons of mass destruction; and if we find him doing so, there will be a consequence."

President Bush dedicated little time to "review options" on improving the efficacy of sanctions on Saddam's regime. And the conditional clause "if we find him (Saddam) doing so" (developing WMDs) was far from satisfied before the President rushed to war. The fact is it was by our president's slovenly words that we were led to do rather foolish things, as George Orwell warned.

Yes, we need a president who connects with the people. Simple words can conceal complex thoughts. But that is exactly the problem. If we allow presidents to sweet talk us with simple platitudes, and assume that complex negotiations and deliberations are going on behind the scenes and outside of public earshot, we abdicate our role as citizens to adjudicate the direction of public policy. A seduced citizenry cannot hold their executive accountable. Eloquent platitudes generate applause, not reflection. As a component of democratic discourse, they are, like Swiss cheese, utterly inadequate.

Lest this may sound like a partisan post, let me say that Obama is not immune to the draw of anti-intellectualism. The President's and Secretary Geitner's messages on the economic stimulus package and especially TARP 2 have thus far been woefuly lacking in detail. The President is back to being the Poet-in-Chief, taking his message on road as if he never left the campaign trail. The stock market takes no partisan sides, and it has not taken kindly to the president's eloquent generalities.

Life is like a box of chocolates, Mama Gump once told Forrest. Profound truths can be simply said, but what we need now are concrete solutions, not quotable verses. President Obama may be speaking at a higher grade level than President Bush, but so far, he appears no more adept at offering us precise answers. The President can use his words – simple or complex – to educate or to obfuscate. The choice is his.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Obama's Honeymoon Continues

The unity and clarity of message exhibited by the Republicans this past week seemed to suggest that they have found their role as loyal opposition in minority. This may be, but Republicans have an uphill battle before them. This week in politics, it was the President who won.

Bipartisanship only became a governing keyword in the 20th century because of the frequency of divided party control over the different branches of government. The fact is there is no need for bipartisanship when a majority exists in the Congress, and the Republicans know it. This is why they have tried to make a virtue out of bipartisanship as an end in itself, decrying the way in which the economic stimulus bill was passed.

Yet Republicans were complaining about a 1,100 page bill that nobody had perused at the same time that they were arguing that it was a bill of pork and spending. Here’s the problem: the more Republicans made a stand against the process by which their input was stymied, the less credibility they had making a stand against the substance of the bill. So the wisest Republicans focused most of their attack on the process, because accusing the Democrats for not consulting with them is a face-saving strategy on the off-chance that the stimulus package actually works. In 2010, we shall see if their gamble paid off.

The truth is it is not easy being in the minority. In the run-up to the passage of the bill in the Senate, everywhere we heard that 60 was the new 50. But this may have been a higher bar than was necessary for the Democrats to cross. The fact is 50 may well have been enough, given the high political cost the Republicans would have had to bear if they fillibustered a bill in a moment of perceived economic emergency. As it is, Democrats are already accusing the opposition party for becoming the obstructionist party.

The President has only stood to gain from the Democrats’ victory in Congress. When the revised conference bill passed in the House, Congressional Democrats lavished praise on the president, even though they were the ones who had crafted and delivered on the bill. All the president did was go on the road in the final days before passage to sell it. This is hands-off leadership that has benefitted him, because the cries of foul from the Republican aisle are mostly being leveled on congressional Democrats, not the president. But Obama’s gain does not come without strings. Both Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid know that he needs them, so it is unclear for how long he would be able to stand above party in his hitherto futile effort to chase the ghost of bipartisanship.

For now, President Obama has won the battle, and the honeymoon is still his to enjoy. The stimulus package may have more spending than tax cuts in it, as Republicans assert, but congressional majorities agree with him that such spending is necessary. Without income support (making up $100 billion of the bill), unemployed workers would be forced to reduce spending, thereby causing a vicious contractionary circle. If the federal government did not offer support to cash-strapped state and local governments (making up $250 billion of the bill), more jobs would be lost, or so modal opinion seems to hold. No surprises that some Republican governors are on board with the stimulus. The Daschle and Gregg nomination embarrassments reveal the danger of making lofty promises on the campaign trail that the reality of government may not permit, but they also pale in comparison to the significant achievement of passing the biggest economic stimulus package in US history. If the president’s fortunes tell us anything, they suggest that the Republican minority have not yet found their footing.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

On Necessity

Necessity is a key word in Washington these days. President Barack Obama tells us that if we don't pass a stimulus package the consequences will be unthinkable. "We can't afford to make perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary," he told the nation in his radio address last Saturday.

How can that which is imperfect also be absolutely necessary? Even though imperfection runs on a spectrum, the President will have us believe that doing something – anything – is better than doing nothing. Well, we’ve heard this before. There are no ifs and buts when emergency calls. Better a decisive mistake than an indecisive impasse, said Machiavelli to his Prince. But as the Bard taught us, "they stumble that run fast."

Fortunately, Obama isn’t the only one playing this game. Congressional Republicans have cloaked their ideological priorities in the language of necessity too. Aid to states was slashed in the Senate version of the bill, as was money designated for school construction. We are told that none of these are pressing concerns that deserve a place in a stimulus package, and so the vocal Republican minority have decided that it is OK for state employees like teachers to lose their jobs even if the impact of this on the economy would be immediate and demonstrable – the very criteria they are using to decide what counts as a “stimulus.”

The Senate will likely pass its version of the stimulus package bill by a precarious margin early next week, and Congressional leaders should be able to work out the differences between the House and the Senate bills. The end result will not be bipartisan, and it will not solve all our economic woes. But in its imperfections we shall see that we are not slaves to anybody’s invocation of necessity. In our system of government, no institution, no party, and no one has a monopoly – at least not for long – on what necessity demands. Even at the brink of a grave recession, we remain free to disagree on if, when, and how. And so in our recalcitrance we shall live and suffer our liberty.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A New Republican Party

The Republican party has become Andrew Jackson's Democratic party, strong in Appalachia and in the west through Oklahoma. It has become the party of whites in the deep South. Great, except that we're not in 1828. The selection of Michael Steele to head the Republican National Committee signals an intention to do what the Democratic party has done since Franklin Roosevelt - woo minorities. "We're going to bring this party to every corner, to every boardroom, to every neighborhood, to every community," Steele said in his short victory speech.

And if this wasn't clear enough, he also said to local party leaders in an inteview with Time, "if you want to be chairman under my leadership, don't think this is a country-club atmosphere where we sit around drinking wine and eating cheese and talking amongst ourselves. If you don't want to drill down and build coalitions in minority communities, then you have to give that seat to someone who does."

Steele means business, but he has his work cut for him, because there are elements within the Republican party who do not think of America as a demographic or cultural mosaic. Republicans will struggle to hold on to their identity and principles while becoming – if they are successful - the very thing they have accused the Democrats of becoming, a patchwork coalition of motley interests.

Steele's moderate Republican supporters recognize as much. "He understands the importance of having candidates who appeal to different constituencies without promoting a monolithic agenda," says Kellie Ferguson, executive director of Republican Majority for Choice. There are elements within the Republican party who continue to hold on to a monolithic conception of America. As the first African-American man to head the party of Lincoln, Steele has been symbolically charged to dispel his party's Jacksonian nostalgia. (Steele won the race for the RNC's chairmanship on the fifth ballot against Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, who until last September had been a member of an all-white country club. So this battle within the party isn’t over yet.)

The one reliable motive force in America politics is that the desire to win elections will motivate politicians to destroy even the most ancient of institutions and the most stubborn of prejudices. "It is time to turn it on and work, and work to do what we always do well - and that is win," so proclaimed Steele. Conservatism will change if only to win. So change I expect it will.