Monday, March 02, 2009

Obama's administration, the early days; Or, how the press corps will kill democracy

Please, great lord, don't go on new travels: we courtiers must have someone to whom we can pay court around the clock

Elizabeth Drew is one of the better journalists among the Establishment press. (Not to damn her with faint praise!) And she has a piece in the upcoming New York Review of Books that's worth reading: The Thirty Days of Barack Obama 02/25/09 (03/26/09 issue).

This is a decent analysis of the attitude of the House Republicans at the start of the new Obama administration:

The most important problem that Obama and his aides weren't prepared for was the degree to which the Republicans would oppose him. In part, this was circumstantial: the first major bill to test the President's stated desire for bipartisanship was on the subject that arouses the most partisanship: taxing and spending. The Democrats were bent on using the opportunity of the stimulus bill to expand or create as many domestic programs as they could. Against the evidence of the past eight years, the Republicans remained wedded to tax cuts as the way to stimulate the economy. To some extent, Obama set himself up by calling for bipartisanship—especially on this subject. He was acting on his campaign pledge to "change the ways of Washington," or "end the partisan wrangling," which didn't necessarily mean winning bipartisan support for every bill.

The House Republicans, greatly reduced by the 2006 and 2008 elections, were now as a whole more conservative than they've been in a generation—moderate Republicans having been reduced to a mere dozen or so. There were signs from the outset that the Republicans had no intention of cooperating with Obama. Lacking the leverage to affect policy, or the votes sufficient to defeat Obama's stimulus plan, they could do what they wanted, however short-sighted, without being saddled with responsibility for killing it. Moreover, they concluded from their losses in 2008 that they hadn't been conservative enough; they had come under a great deal of criticism for having presided over too much spending.
But then she proceeds to write a strange story interwoven with her account of recent events.

Democrats in Congress, she tells us, weren't in the mood to be "bipartisan" much more than the Republicans were? Really? Dang, lots of us hippie bloggers thought they were way too ready to accommodate obstructionist Republicans, especially in the Senate.

Drew repeats a Republican talking point here about that mean old Nancy Pelosi, in wording that implies without saying so that the charge was correct:

The House has been particularly polarized for decades: when each party gains the majority, it takes revenge for having been, as they see it, mistreated by the other. Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was rushing the bill through the House, it was easy for Republican leaders to get their followers worked up against it.
But the part about the Democrats being eager to take revenge on the other side, I guess that must have played out in some other world to which she has access. Shoot, I bet in that world the Dems even made Joe Lieberman beg and plead to be accepted back into the Democratic fold under humiliating conditions! Things played out a little differently in this world, though.

Here's another combination of good analysis ...

This should have signaled to the White House what was to come. The Republicans in Congress do not want Obama to be a successful president, perhaps dooming their party to minority status for quite a while. And Obama sought Republican support for his bill not solely out of an idealistic desire for bipartisanship itself, but for pragmatic reasons as well: he wanted "cover"—as politicians often do in order to claim broad (however defined) support for their initiatives, especially controversial ones. The Republicans understood this, and they had no interest in helping him out.
... followed up with a standard Pod Pundit assumption that because they themselves are devoted to the High Broderist ideal of sweet bipartisanship, the American people must be similarly inclined:

But Obama also knew that his elaborate courtesies to the Republicans—meeting with them, having them over for cocktail parties and the Super Bowl—looked good to voters. In doing these things, he was talking to the greater public.
Actually, in this world, it's more likely that he was talking to the Beltway Village, where David Broder is considered a font of wisdom. And possibly following his own inclinations to build the widest possible coalition and disarm potential adversaries, if possible.

But in PunditWorld, it's because he was playing to the desires of conformist Villagers the American public.

She offers this bit of shaky economic analysis:

Economists have debated for years over the extent to which infrastructure projects stimulate the economy, partly because such projects can take many months to get underway, partly because of government regulations. But the country badly needs to improve bridges, roads, and dams, and eventually there are solid objects to show for this investment. While their stimulative effect may be spread out—as the projects take time to complete—it's also deemed important to prevent an "air pocket" at the end of two years, when people are out of work again.
Actually, states and localities were suspending projects already under way and postponing others that were in an advanced stage of planning. The infrastructure money allows many of those to go forward immediately.

Her general summary of the Recovery Act wasn't too bad by Village standards, though. Again, faint praise, but credit where credit is due.

But Drew disappointingly repeated one of the dumber pieces of neglect of which her fellow journalists were guilty. She describes how the bill was cut from $825 billion to $787 billion. Watch what comes after:

Specter insisted that the final bill go no higher than $789 billion (later adjusted to $787 billion), even as he demanded $6.5 million more for cancer research (Specter has cancer). Thus, most unusually, the final amount was less than that voted for in either the Senate or the House (who normally compromise their differences in a final bill). Obama got about as much money for the stimulus bill as the political traffic would bear. [my emphasis]
Our press corps was apparently so bored with all these budget numbers - or so lacking in ability to understand them - that most of them didn't seem to find it odd that the House had a higher amount when they first passed the bill, the Senate passed a lower amount, and the final compromise bill that was negotiated was even smaller. Drew at least managed to notice in passing that this was at least a bit out of the ordinary: the two Houses "normally compromise their differences in a final bill", she writes. But she didn't feel moved to actually explain that quite unusual circumstance to us in this important case.

Now this is an interesting series of judgments and assumptions:

A highly troubling result of the fight over the stimulus bill is that it could make getting another one - which might well be needed - through Congress extremely difficult. To show fiscal prudence, while the stimulus bill was being considered, Obama announced he'd hold a "fiscal responsibility summit" and would take on the problem of entitlements. (Later, he proposed to cut the budget deficit in half in four years, in part by winding down the war in Iraq and in part by allowing Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy to expire in 2011. None of this will be easy.) His address on February 24 mixed a stern reckoning of the failures of responsibility that had led the country to "difficult and uncertain times" with a call "to act boldly and wisely." His agenda included a program of caps on carbon pollution and more investment in alternative sources of energy; health care reform (but not universal coverage); a call for at least one year of higher education for everyone; and rewards for teacher performance (highly controversial in his own party).
In his joint address to Congress on February 24, Obama said:

This budget builds on these reforms. It includes an historic commitment to comprehensive health care reform – a down-payment on the principle that we must have quality, affordable health care for every American.
And he mentioned health care several other times during that speech. Not once did he specify it wouldn't be a universal health care plan. He did make that case during the campaign. But not in that speech, and I've seen at least one report suggesting he may go for universal coverage, after all.

But by Drew's Beltway Village reckoning, the fact that Obama got an historic recovery bill passed by Congress, a very expensive one, passed in record time, with substantial majorities in both Houses, and opinion polls showed high approval of him and his recovery bill: this will make it harder for him to pass further stimulus measures!

And, like the other Villagers, she's convinced there's a "growing populist sentiment gripping the country, with many complaining that people who made bad deals shouldn't be bailed out", without bothering to adduce any actual evidence for it. But for the press elite, Rick Santelli mouthing off on CNBC is evidence enough of a populist revolt against Obama and in favor of the plutocrats. Or something like that.

This is a real Heatherish observation:

But one of the conclusions that he and his aides reached after the early, bumpy days was that he should go out on the road more. This is a typical reaction on the part of a president's aides: show him relating to "the people," get outside "the Beltway chatter." Presidents need to maintain popular support in order to get things done, and they draw sustenance from the cheering crowds; it's much more enjoyable than governing.
The idea that actually going out and interacting with groups of the public not screened to be Potemkin events - like most of Bush's were - is actually a part of governing seems not to have occurred to her. He must be doing it because it's more fun.

And she even concludes by scolding Obama for not staying in the Beltway Village nearly enough!

The recent increased amount of presidential travel—to Indiana, Florida, Arizona, and Colorado—may have been another indication that Obama was not particularly happy in the White House, and that 2012 election politics were already on his and his aides' minds. John Dickerson, of Slate, said on Washington Week in Review on February 13 that the President's aides had concluded that it hadn't been helpful for Obama to be seen participating in the give-and-take of Washington, that "that's not what he was elected to do." Yes it is. [my emphasis]
Establishment journalists and pundits luu-uuv talking about the horse race. They're ready to handicap the 2012 Presidential race already.

And this isn't FOX News. It's the New York [Cheney]ing Review of Books! Which is one of my favorite magazines and runs some excellent articles. But here's Elizabeth Drew, tutting and sniffing that Obama isn't staying around the palace attending to his courtiers nearly enough.

This is the kind of drivel we get from even the best of the best of our Establishment press. We can only hope a new and more responsible generations of real journalists take over the business before democracy dies from lack of basic news being provided to the voters.

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