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Archive for September, 2011

President Obama the Warrior

September 27th, 2011

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This piece was originally posted on the Huffington Post.

President Obama the problem-solver is turning into President Obama the warrior. It just might save him.

Politics is the enemy of problem-solving. That’s common knowledge. Why can’t the country deal with the national debt? Politics. Why can’t we do something about climate change? Politics.

We see more evidence of it every day. Why is the country on the brink of another government shutdown? Politics. Why can’t we get disaster relief to people who desperately need it? Politics. President Obama told a rally this month in Richmond that the American Jobs Act could pass if Republicans “set politics aside for a moment to deal with America’s problems.”

Set politics aside? Not on your life. House Speaker John Boehner made that clear when he said, “Tax increases… are off the table.” Obama’s response a few days later: “I will not support — I will not support — any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans.” In other words, “Go ahead — make my day.”

President Obama is by nature a problem-solver. That hasn’t changed. The president’s two big speeches this month were aimed at solving the nation’s two big problems — jobs and debt. He insists on a “balanced” solution that cuts government spending (“but not… with spending cuts that would hamper growth”) and also raises taxes on the wealthy (“We can’t just cut our way out of this hole”).

Problem-solving is cool, rational, and technocratic. It sees issues as problems to be solved, not fundamental conflicts of interests and values. But politics is not just about problem-solving. Politics is also about causes and values that stir the blood: “us” versus “them.”

Republicans have become totally committed to that ideological style of politics. Problem-solving is secondary. Every issue is a battle between “us” and “them.”

The minute President Obama called for higher taxes on the wealthy, Republicans denounced him for “class warfare.” A spokesman for the conservative American Crossroads political action committee told Politico, “The president is explicitly driving a wedge between Americans. That’s not leadership, that’s borderline demagoguery.”

The president’s response? “That’s not class warfare. I’m not attacking anybody. It’s simple math.” What could be more bloodless than math? Math is problem-solving.

It will probably be impossible for President Obama to make deals with Republicans to pass his jobs plan or his debt-reduction plan. That’s fine with many Democrats, who believe that every time Obama makes a deal with Republicans, he gets rolled.

The jobs problem and the debt problem are not likely to be solved in the next year. Which means that any attempt by President Obama to run for re-election as a problem-solver is likely to fail. So what can he do?

He can do what he did in 2008: stir the blood. Run as the passionate leader of a cause. In 2008, it was “hope” and “change.” This time, it’s “fairness.”

President Obama mentioned “fairness” 11 times when he introduced his debt reduction plan: “Anyone who has signed some pledge to protect every single tax loophole so long as they live, they should be called out. They should have to defend that unfairness.”

“Fairness” gets Democrats’ juices flowing. But it doesn’t always work.

In 1984, it was a flop for Walter Mondale — who also promised to raise taxes. Mondale’s error was timing. The “fairness” theme paid off for Democrats in the 1982 midterm. That year, unemployment peaked at 10.8%. When the economy is bad, middle-class people are receptive to the argument that there’s something wrong with the system. They say, “People like me are hard-working and have the right values and we still can’t make it. It isn’t fair.”

In 1984, however, it was “morning in America.” When the economy is good, middle-class Americans say, “I’m doing O.K. and so are people like me. If there are some people who still can’t make it, it must be their own fault.” The fairness issue falls flat.

Right now, it’s not “morning in America.” It looks a lot more like 1982 than 1984. “When everybody went up, it was a lot harder to make [the fairness] argument,” Sen. Charles Schumer told the Washington Post. Now another recession seems imminent. “I think the time is ripe again,” Schumer said. “I think the president sensed that.”

President Obama can run for re-election on two messages. Why are our problems not solved? Because Republicans put politics first. They refused to compromise. The other is “my values are better than their values.” Fairness trumps smaller government. After all, solid majorities of Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy.

What will the Obama campaign sound like? Like President Obama in Cincinnati last week: “I’m a warrior for the middle class! I’m happy to fight for the middle class! I’m happy to fight for working people, because the only warfare I’ve seen is the battle against the middle class over the last 10 or 15 years!”

Fighting isn’t problem-solving. It’s politics. Sometimes good politics.

Time for Teamwork on Trade

September 23rd, 2011

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This piece was originally posted by The Wall Street Journal.

Last December, in an NFL game between the Tennessee Titans and the Houston Texans, two Houston teammates were involved in an on-field brawl – with each other. While the Texans fought, the Titans scored and, not surprisingly, won the game 31-17.

Washington has been doing much the same with pending trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. While the many supporters of these trade deals have been battling and bickering, America’s international competitors have been running up the score – and America’s companies and workers are losing out.

The Obama Administration and leading Congressional Republicans agree that these trade agreements would create needed economic growth and good American jobs. American business, state and local leaders and many Congressional Democrats also support these deals. The Senate Finance Trade Subcommittee estimates that just the tariff reductions on goods under the Korean trade deal would create some 280,000 U.S. jobs, while opening Korea’s sheltered $580 billion services market would create additional American jobs in key service sectors. Read the rest of this entry »

More About What Makes a Middle Class School

September 21st, 2011

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The goal of our recent report “Incomplete: How Middle-Class Schools Aren’t Making the Grade” was to jumpstart a national conversation around the state of middle-class schools. Given the response, it looks like we’re off to a good start.

We’ve received a wide range of feedback from educators, policymakers, and thought leaders who share a common purpose—getting our kids ready to succeed in the 21st century. Since a portion of the response has focused on our definition of “middle-class” or our approach to school-by-school data, we wanted to take a moment to tackle some of the issues that have been raised.

It seems that the main point of contention that some have with our report has to do with how we define a middle-class school.

To sum up their argument, they find our use of eligibility statistics for free or reduced school lunch to be either arbitrary or too sweeping. Let us be clear: Our decision to use this criteria was a deliberate choice, grounded in established procedures and data.

With the current education reform debate almost entirely focused on low-income schools and students, we wanted to shed light on the schools in the middle that serve a majority of Americans. We paralleled the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of high poverty schools and districts as those with more than 75% of students qualifying for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Schools and districts with 25% or less of their students eligible for free or reduced lunch are the upper-end of the income spectrum. In essence, the middle two quartiles of schools are middle-class schools.  Read the rest of this entry »

A Full Circle on Marriage

September 21st, 2011

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In the fall of 1996, social conservatives in Washington, DC, pushed and passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman under federal law. It was signed—15 years ago this week—by a Democratic President who was considered the most gay-friendly in history. And its passage was meant to end the debate on marriage for gay couples once and for all. A decade and a half later, gay couples in six states and DC can marry, and more than a dozen other states provide civil unions or some other form of recognition for their relationships. What explains this fundamental shift?

First, public opinion has swung rapidly and remarkably in favor of gay couples. Support for allowing gay couples to marry has doubled since 1996, from 27 percent to 53 percent. This reflects a greater warming of Americans toward their gay and lesbian neighbors. Only 42 percent said they personally knew a gay person when DOMA passed, compared to 77 percent today. And in this case, familiarity did not breed contempt. Today, fully two-thirds of the country would use the word “family” to describe a gay couple with a child—in the DOMA days it was just 29 percent. Read the rest of this entry »

When did Americans stop tolerating risk?

September 20th, 2011

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This piece was originally posted The National Journal Expert Blog.

The real question we should ask about Solyndra is, “When did Americans stop tolerating risk?”

Loan guarantees inherently carry risk. If they didn’t, the loans wouldn’t need guarantors. The U.S. Department of Energy’s program was designed specifically to fund cutting-edge innovations that could not secure sufficient private capital. That’s the way to help potentially breakthrough technologies get off the ground without picking specific winners and losers. The expectation is that a handful of these companies might succeed spectacularly and that some of these companies would fail. This risk was explicitly built into the program by Congress and the Bush Administration at its inception. Read the rest of this entry »

Was Bill Clinton Clintonian?

September 15th, 2011

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This piece was originally published by The Washington Post.

For Bill Clinton’s detractors, the term “Clintonian” implies reliance on poll-tested political formulations and shifting policy positions. Earlier this year, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) derided President Obama’s rhetoric as full of “Clintonian back-flips,” while the conservative Daily Caller recently taunted Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, calling his varying views on government bailouts “Clintonian.”

To his supporters, however, the term “Clintonian” is the opposite of slick. To be Clintonian means you possess a political philosophy, intellectual integrity and the courage to take on the outdated orthodoxies of your own party. (This stands in stark contrast to today’s leading GOP presidential aspirants, who oppose even minimal tax increases, deny global warming and question the validity of evolution to appeal to a unique slice of Americans known as Iowa caucus-goers.) Read the rest of this entry »