The top ten list you shouldn’t be reading

December 20, 2012 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

A new year’s list of travesties:

  1. It costs just 25 cents a day to provide a child with the vitamins and nutrients to grow up healthy, but every hour of every day, 300 children die from malnutrition.
  2. One in seven people on earth goes to bed hungry each night while the top 40 highest-earning hedge fund managers made a combined $13.2 billion in a single year.
  3. Global military spending exceeds $1.7 trillion per year, 100 times more than annual cancer research spending.
  4. 1.4 billion people in developing countries live on $1.25 a day or less, while the global video game market is nearly $50 billion. Read more

Vindicated by new polls, progressive bloggers and activists will determine President Obama’s political fate

September 6, 2011 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

The defining conflict of the Obama presidency is not between the White House and Republicans. It’s not between the White House and the Tea Party. It’s between President Obama and the left, specifically between Obama and progressive opinion-makers and online activists.

It’s no coincidence that the angriest barbs from this White House have been directed at the netroots. And it’s no surprise that the media and political establishment – along with a vitriolic cadre of Obama supporters – are mortified by the principled left, simultaneously dismissing them as bit players and accusing them of being ingrates who are damaging Obama’s reelection prospects (hint: you can’t be both).

I’ve repeated a version of this thesis for years: a handful of influential progressive opinion-makers are canaries in the coal mine, propounding and presaging views and arguments later adopted by rank and file Democrats.

It’s been that way since the dawn of the blogosphere and has only been magnified with Twitter and other online platforms. Just as the netroots laid the groundwork for the eventual downfall of the Bush presidency, the sharp, insistent, principled critiques of President Obama emanating from the left on civil liberties, women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, the environment, secrecy, executive power, the economy, war, among other issues, have had a profoundly outsized effect on perceptions of this president.

Recent polls (including Gallup, which shows a double-digit decline among liberals) indicate significant erosion of support for Obama among groups who propelled him to victory in 2008, reinforcing the idea that reality is catching up with netroots criticism. This crumbling of support is typically attributed by pundits to the poor economy, but the problem is more complicated: it’s the poor economy coupled with the sense (fair or unfair) that Barack Obama has no convictions, no moral center, nothing for which he will take an unwavering stand.

That perception of a lack of  convictions can’t be attributed solely to attacks from the right, since they can be discounted as partisan. It’s when the left makes that argument that conventional wisdom congeals.

Read more

America’s decline and the assault on women’s freedom and the environment

April 18, 2011 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

The right’s target list speaks volumes: from public broadcasters and scientists to health providers, unions, academics and women. Nothing drives the right into greater paroxysms of rage than NPR and Planned Parenthood, climate scientists and teachers unions.

How destructive is the assault on these institutions?

Start with Fareed Zakaria’s TIME article about America’s decline:

The following rankings come from various lists, but they all tell the same story. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), our 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. We rank 12th among developed countries in college graduation (down from No. 1 for decades). We come in 79th in elementary-school enrollment. Our infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world, well behind that of every other major advanced economy. American health numbers are stunning for a rich country: based on studies by the OECD and the World Health Organization, we’re 27th in life expectancy, 18th in diabetes and first in obesity. Only a few decades ago, the U.S. stood tall in such rankings. No more. There are some areas in which we are still clearly No. 1, but they’re not ones we usually brag about. We have the most guns. We have the most crime among rich countries. And, of course, we have by far the largest amount of debt in the world.

Not to mention staggering stats like this, from the LA Times:

One in five Californians struggled to afford enough food for themselves and their families last year, according to a new report by the Food Research and Action Center. The rate in California was slightly higher than the national average of 18%.

The American right is fiercely wedded to the notion of American exceptionalism, but there’s nothing exceptional about undermining women’s rights. Nor is there anything exceptional about blithely ignoring the scientific consensus that we’re endangering humanity’s future by ravaging the environment.

From women’s rights to climate change and a host of other issues, the right is setting America back. I wrote about it in a recent post, comparing America’s decline with the uprisings in the Mideast and North Africa:

The contrast between events in the Middle East and the political reality here in America is striking: as the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere rise by the millions to protest injustice, and as governments from Jordan to Syria see the writing on the wall, the United States gives power to a political movement bent on reversing generations of progress.

The GOP and Tea Party, drifting ever rightward, want to strip away health coverage, undermine faith in science, deny the overwhelming consensus on the mortal threat of climate change, give tax breaks to the rich, increase record wealth disparities, abolish women’s reproductive rights, defund public radio, gut gun laws, curtail gay rights, inject religion into government, and much more.

Targeting scientists, academics, public broadcasters, unions, health care providers and women, among others, they willfully misinterpret the Constitution to make specious arguments in favor of reactionary policies and are whipped into a frenzy by millionaire radio and TV blatherers, whose sole mission is to demonize liberals and liberalism — to the point of inciting violence against them.

Democratic leaders, obsessed with wooing “independent” voters, and captives of a toxic Beltway mindset, barely make a stand in the face of this all-out assault. If we fail to see the irony of a Mideast marching into the future while America races into the past, we will pay the price.

It’s the seemingly little things:

Okay, so it’s not exactly earth-shattering green political news — but it’s still indicative of the new anti-environment attitude that’s swept into the US House of Representatives. Four years after our nation’s esteemed governing body decided to stop using one of the most destructive, ungreen materials in existence, our lawmakers have decided it’s time to cancel the program that supported biodegradable packaging, and to bring Styrofoam back.

To the big things:

“We’re broke! We’re broke!” Speaker John Boehner said on Sunday. “We’re broke in this state,” Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin said a few days ago. “New Jersey’s broke,” Gov. Chris Christie has said repeatedly. The United States faces a “looming bankruptcy,” Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist, wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. It’s all obfuscating nonsense, of course, a scare tactic employed for political ends. …  a substantial part was caused by deliberate decisions by state and federal lawmakers to drain government of resources by handing out huge tax cuts, mostly to the rich. As governments begin to stagger from the self-induced hemorrhaging, Republican politicians like Mr. Boehner and Mr. Walker cry poverty and use it as an excuse to break unions and kill programs they never liked in flush years.

No matter the issue, the right’s reactionary positions are undermining generations of progress. The most egregious example is the shameless attack on women’s rights:

Using small-government, libertarian rhetoric, the Tea Party ushered in a new crop of Republican leaders under the banner of fiscal responsibility. But the aggressive antichoice legislation coming from the new GOP majority in the House makes perfectly clear that belt-tightening deficit reduction is entirely compatible with an older social agenda committed to pushing American women out of the public sphere.

These initiatives are well coordinated and poised to make an enormous impact on women’s lives. House Republicans, joined by ten Democrats, passed Mike Pence’s bill to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which in addition to pregnancy termination provides basic reproductive healthcare, STD testing, birth control and cancer screenings to millions of American women. The Republican Party has also proposed eliminating more than $1 billion from Head Start’s budget. As a result, 157,000 children may go without preschool care.

Meanwhile, the South Dakota legislature has considered a bill justifying homicide in the case of imminent harm to a fetus, a law that critics believe may in effect legalize the murder of abortion providers. Republicans in Arizona have proposed different birth certificates for children born to women who are not US citizens in order to nullify the birthright citizenship established by the Fourteenth Amendment. And Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is poised to eliminate most of the collective bargaining rights of public employees, including nurses, teachers and other pink-collar workers who are disproportionately women.

Put simply, America can’t be ‘number one’ as long as the right chooses to undermine the very entities that make it what it is.

UPDATE: Bob Herbert’s farewell column for the New York Times is a devastating look at America’s skewed priorities:

The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely. Nearly 14 million Americans are jobless and the outlook for many of them is grim. Since there is just one job available for every five individuals looking for work, four of the five are out of luck. Instead of a land of opportunity, the U.S. is increasingly becoming a place of limited expectations.

…The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent. This inequality, in which an enormous segment of the population struggles while the fortunate few ride the gravy train, is a world-class recipe for social unrest. Downward mobility is an ever-shortening fuse leading to profound consequences.

A stark example of the fundamental unfairness that is now so widespread was in The New York Times on Friday under the headline: “G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether.” Despite profits of $14.2 billion — $5.1 billion from its operations in the United States — General Electric did not have to pay any U.S. taxes last year.

…Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.

UPDATE II: Fred Hiatt goes after climate deniers:

The Republican self-deception that draws the most attention is the refusal to believe that Barack Obama is American-born. But there are Republican doctrinal fantasies that may be more dangerous: the conviction that taxes can always go down, but never up, for example, and the gathering consensus among Republican leaders that human-caused climate change does not exist.

The climate change denialism is a newer part of the catechism. Just a few years ago, leading Republicans — John McCain, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty among them — not only accepted global warming as real but supported some kind of market-based mechanism to raise the cost of burning fossil fuels. Now polls show declining numbers of Republicans believing in climate change, and a minority of those believing humans are at fault, so the candidates are scrambling to disavow their past positions.

And the New York Times describes the GOP’s eagerness to ravage the environment:

In the past month, the nation’s focus has been on the budget battle in Washington, where Republicans in Congress aligned with the Tea Party have fought hard for rollbacks to the Environmental Protection Agency, clean air and water regulations, renewable energy and other conservation programs.

But similar efforts to make historically large cuts to environmental programs are also in play at the state level as legislatures and governors take aim at conservation and regulations they see as too burdensome to business interests.

When Republicans wrested control across the country last November, they made clear that reducing all government was important, but that cutting environmental regulations was a particular priority.

UPDATE III: Check out these numbers:

It’s almost an unbe­liev­able fig­ure — 916. That’s the amount of leg­is­la­tions that have been intro­duced so far this year, in an attempt to reg­u­late a woman’s repro­duc­tive sys­tem, and we’re only in April.

This infor­ma­tion comes from a report by The Guttmacher Insti­tute, and it finds that 49 states have con­tributed to this num­ber with var­i­ous bills geared towards reg­u­lat­ing Abor­tions and a woman’s right to choose. The report states that in 15 states, the fol­low­ing mea­sures became law:

  • expand the pre-abortion wait­ing period require­ment in South Dakota to make it more oner­ous than that in any other state, by extend­ing the time from 24 hours to 72 hours and requir­ing women to obtain coun­sel­ing from a cri­sis preg­nancy cen­ter in the interim;
  • expand the abor­tion coun­sel­ing require­ment in South Dakota to man­date that coun­sel­ing be pro­vided in-person by the physi­cian who will per­form the abor­tion and that coun­sel­ing include infor­ma­tion pub­lished after 1972 on all the risk fac­tors related to abor­tion com­pli­ca­tions, even if the data are sci­en­tif­i­cally flawed;
  • require the health depart­ments in Utah and Vir­ginia to develop new reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing abor­tion clinics;
  • revise the Utah abor­tion refusal clause to allow any hos­pi­tal employee to refuse to “par­tic­i­pate in any way” in an abortion;
  • limit abor­tion cov­er­age in all pri­vate health plans in Utah, includ­ing plans that will be offered in the state’s health exchange; and
  • revise the Mis­sis­sippi sex edu­ca­tion law to require all school dis­tricts to pro­vide abstinence-only sex edu­ca­tion while per­mit­ting dis­cus­sion of con­tra­cep­tion only with prior approval from the state.

Epic irony: Mideast moves forward while America moves backward

February 23, 2011 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

The contrast between events in the Middle East and the political reality here in America is striking: as the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere rise by the millions to protest injustice, and as governments from Jordan to Syria see the writing on the wall, the United States gives power to a political movement bent on reversing generations of progress.

The GOP and Tea Party, drifting ever rightward, want to strip away health coverage, undermine faith in science, deny the overwhelming consensus on the mortal threat of climate change, give tax breaks to the rich, increase record wealth disparities, abolish women’s reproductive rights, defund public radio, gut gun laws, curtail gay rights, inject religion into government, and much more.

Targeting scientists, academics, public broadcasters, unions, health care providers and women, among others, they willfully misinterpret the Constitution to make specious arguments in favor of reactionary policies and are whipped into a frenzy by millionaire radio and TV blatherers, whose sole mission is to demonize liberals and liberalism — to the point of inciting violence against them.

Democratic leaders, obsessed with wooing “independent” voters, and captives of a toxic Beltway mindset, barely make a stand in the face of this all-out assault.

If we fail to see the irony of a Mideast marching into the future while America races into the past, we will pay the price.

UPDATE: The GOP’s mission to deny women’s reproductive rights/freedom is exemplified by this:

One hundred members of Congress (so far) have cosponsored a bill introduced by far right Congressman Joe Pitts (R-PA) called the “Protect Life Act.” They want to “protect life” so much that they have written into the bill a new amendment that would override the requirement that emergency room doctors save every patient, regardless of status or ability to pay.  The law would carve out an exception for pregnant women; doctors and hospitals will be allowed to let pregnant women die if interventions to save them will kill the fetus.

Heinous beyond words.

UPDATE II: More disturbing examples of America’s reverse trajectory…

First:

Georgia State Rep. Bobby Franklin has introduced a 10-page bill that would criminalize some miscarriages, and make abortion in Georgia completely illegal and punishable by death. Basically, it’s everything an “pro-life” activist could want aside from making all women who’ve had abortions wear big red “A”s on their chests.

Second:

For nearly a year, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Virginia’s crusading Republican attorney general, has waged a one-man war on the theory of man-made global warming. Invoking his subpoena powers, he has sought to force the University of Virginia to turn over the files of a prominent climatology professor, asserting that his research may be marred by fraud. The university is battling the move in the courts. Now his allegations of manipulated data and scientific fraud are resonating in Congress, where Republican leaders face an influx of new members, many of them Tea Party stalwarts like Mr. Cuccinelli, eager to inveigh against the body of research linking man-made emissions to warming.

Third:

In 2010, for the first time in 15 years, more bank branches closed than opened across the United States. An analysis of government data shows, however, that even as banks shut branches in poorer areas, they continued to expand in wealthier ones, despite decades of government regulations requiring financial institutions to meet the credit needs of poor and middle-class neighborhoods.

Thank You, Republicans!

November 18, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

This Alan Grayson video is an instant classic:

President Obama was smart to tackle health insurance reform when he did

November 5, 2010 by Peter · 1 Comment 

Paul Krugman makes an excellent point today (when doesn’t he make excellent points?):

Democrats, declared Evan Bayh in an Op-Ed article on Wednesday in The Times, “overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation during a severe recession.” Many others have been saying the same thing: the notion that the Obama administration erred by not focusing on the economy is hardening into conventional wisdom.

But I have no idea what, if anything, people mean when they say that. The whole focus on “focus” is, as I see it, an act of intellectual cowardice — a way to criticize President Obama’s record without explaining what you would have done differently.

After all, are people who say that Mr. Obama should have focused on the economy saying that he should have pursued a bigger stimulus package? Are they saying that he should have taken a tougher line with the banks? If not, what are they saying? That he should have walked around with furrowed brow muttering, “I’m focused, I’m focused”?

The issue, says Krugman, is not the lack of focus, but the inadequacy of the White House’s economic plan. This is something Krugman has been hammering from day one and who knows where we’d be if Democrats had listened to him and others who were advocating for a more audacious stimulus.

This raises another point. I actually think Obama was smart to use the momentum of the 2008 campaign to pass a health insurance bill. My complaint – and that of many progressives – was that the administration was ceding too much ground in the debate, was flat-footed in response to the rightwing noise machine, was blithely negotiating away key bargaining chips, and was getting bogged down in appeasing a few centrist Democrats who appeared to be negotiating in bad faith. Remember, progressives were agitating for the threat of reconciliation long before Scott Brown’s stunning victory.

Still, the bill passed, and I don’t buy into the congealing conventional wisdom that Obama should have postponed tackling health care.

Low-information nation: What do Americans really know about “big” government?

October 11, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

Information is the currency of democracy. –Attributed to Thomas Jefferson
Get a brain! Morans –Sign displayed by conservative protester

In Low-information nation: Palin, Beck, Tea Partiers and American ignorance I wrote about myths and misunderstandings surrounding health reform:

The defining battle between Obama and the rightwing attack machine was over health insurance reform. The summer of town halls and tea parties was the official descent into the bizarre reality we face today, with Quran burnings, mosque-free zones, disappearing oil spills, rampant climate denial, conservative ‘feminism’, the assault on women’s reproductive rights, legacy theft of Dr. King, rehabilitation of George W. Bush, and shunning of the left.

During the health care debate, one question loomed largest for me: what did Americans really understand about the issue? If policy wonks and political professionals vehemently disagreed about various provisions and outcomes, how could a non-expert citizen, overwhelmed with the demands of daily life, fully comprehend the complexities of the health insurance overhaul? When media outlets and pollsters trumpeted the public’s support or opposition to the bill, what were they polling? Genuine knowledge or vague impressions? Analytical conclusions or parroted soundbites?

That’s obviously not to say that citizens need to be experts to have legitimate opinions, but that if the opinions are based on a lack of understanding, or in some cases utter misunderstanding, shouldn’t the first order of business be to better explain the issues and educate the public rather than use erroneous views as evidence of the inherent value of the proposed policy?

…What value do we assign to voters’ views on deficit reduction, for instance, when leading economists can’t get their thoughts straight? And how can Americans make determinations about politicians, parties and issues without at least a basic comprehension of the underlying policies?

Now, far from being a screed against the supposed ‘ignorance’ of the American public, this is meant to raise the question of how to better communicate and debate good ideas without having them mangled in a partisan media filter.

No matter how shallow their knowledge, people are programmed to believe they are right and will withstand a significant amount of cognitive dissonance before reason kicks in and alters their view, if ever.

Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, the vast majority of participants in our national debate genuinely believe they possess the necessary facts and have reached a fair judgment. It’s a mistake to attribute bad faith to a wide swath of the population. So when a Tea Party member sounds off about “defending” the Constitution, it’s perfectly plausible to assume they know little about the document but authentically believe they are expressing fealty to it. Still, we can’t settle for a national dialogue disconnected from facts and truth.

The single most under-appreciated and understated aspect of American life, the proverbial elephant in the room, is that most Americans have little more than a cursory understanding of the issues and history on which they base their political beliefs and decisions.

In Low-information nation: Whose Constitution is it? I focused on the much talked about but little-read U.S. Constitution:

Two new opinion pieces explore the Tea Party’s professed reverence for the Constitution.

Ron Chernow:

The Tea Party movement has further sought to spruce up its historical bona fides by laying claim to the United States Constitution. Many Tea Party members subscribe to a literal reading of the national charter as a way of bolstering their opposition to deficit spending, bank bailouts and President Obama’s health care plan. But any movement that regularly summons the ghosts of the founders as a like-minded group of theorists ends up promoting an uncomfortably one-sided reading of history. The truth is that the disputatious founders — who were revolutionaries, not choir boys — seldom agreed about anything. … Instead of bequeathing to posterity a set of universally shared opinions, engraved in marble, the founders shaped a series of fiercely fought debates that reverberate down to the present day. Right along with the rest of America, the Tea Party has inherited these open-ended feuds, which are profoundly embedded in our political culture.”

Lexington:

Wouldn’t it be splendid if the solutions to America’s problems could be written down in a slim book no bigger than a passport that you could slip into your breast pocket? That, more or less, is the big idea of the tea-party movement, the grassroots mutiny against big government that has mounted an internal takeover of the Republican Party and changed the face of American politics. … The constitution, on its own, does not provide the solution. Indeed, there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century. Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts. He calls it “constitutional idolatry”.

It’s encouraging when citizens take pride in our founding documents and in the noble principles that undergird our democracy, but it’s dangerous to adopt passionate, often dogmatic, political views based on something you don’t understand, to lay claim to a shared Constitution you’ve barely read, to falsely attribute values to our founders then demonize political opponents for undermining those values, or to insist that your reading (or lack of reading) of the Constitution is definitive and inviolable.

I don’t want to discourage my fellow citizens from basing their views on a shared set of ideals and a common history — that’s what makes us all Americans. But I certainly don’t think we can have an honest debate if those shared ideals and principles are distorted, misconstrued or hoarded by one side.

“Defending the Constitution” may be one of the most overwrought and misused political phrases, but it is eclipsed by the ubiquitous rightwing talking point about “big government.”

Paul Krugman:

Here’s the narrative you hear everywhere: President Obama has presided over a huge expansion of government, but unemployment has remained high. And this proves that government spending can’t create jobs.

Here’s what you need to know: The whole story is a myth. There never was a big expansion of government spending. In fact, that has been the key problem with economic policy in the Obama years: we never had the kind of fiscal expansion that might have created the millions of jobs we need.

Ask yourself: What major new federal programs have started up since Mr. Obama took office? Health care reform, for the most part, hasn’t kicked in yet, so that can’t be it. So are there giant infrastructure projects under way? No. Are there huge new benefits for low-income workers or the poor? No. Where’s all that spending we keep hearing about? It never happened.

WaPo:

If there is an overarching theme of election 2010, it is the question of how big the government should be and how far it should reach into people’s lives. Americans have a more negative view of government today than they did a decade ago, or even a few years ago. Most say it focuses on the wrong things and lack confidence that it can solve big domestic problems; this general anti-Washington sentiment is helping to fuel a potential Republican takeover of Congress next month.

But ask people what they expect the government to do for themselves and their families, and a more complicated picture emerges. A new study by The Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University shows that most Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare “very important.” They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role in regulating health care.

The study suggests that come January, politicians in both parties will confront a challenging and sometimes contradictory reality about what Americans really think about their government. Although Republicans, and many Democrats, have tried to demonize Washington, they must contend with the fact that most major government programs remain enormously popular, including some that politicians have singled out for stiff criticism.

In a nutshell, many Americans who rail against big government do it because they’ve heard the soundbite and it sounds right, not because they’ve carefully analyzed the role of government in their lives.

Liberal bloggers are bringing down Obama, part II: It’s NOT the economy, stupid, it’s Obama’s character

September 29, 2010 by Peter · 15 Comments 

My post, How a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency, provoked a range of responses and I’d like to address the dominant themes. Here’s an excerpt of the piece for context:

When Robert Gibbs attacked the professional left he didn’t specify anyone by name, but the assumption was that it was cable personalities, disaffected interest groups, bloggers and online commenters. With each passing day, I’m beginning to realize that the crux of the problem for Obama is a handful of prominent progressive bloggers, among them Glenn Greenwald, John Aravosis, Digby, Marcy Wheeler and Jane Hamsher. Virtually all the liberal bloggers who have taken a critical stance toward the administration have one thing in common: they place principle above party. Their complaints are exactly the same complaints they lodged against the Bush administration. Contrary to the straw man posed by Obama supporters, they aren’t complaining about pie in the sky wishes but about tangible acts and omissions, from Gitmo to Afghanistan to the environment to gay rights to secrecy and executive power.

The essence of their critique is that the White House lacks a moral compass. The instances where Obama displays a flash of moral authority – the mosque speech comes to mind – these bloggers cheer him with the same fervor as his most ardent fans.

Some will dismiss them as minor players in the wider national discourse, but two things make them a thorn in the administration’s side: a) they have a disproportionately large influence on the political debate, with numerous readers and followers — among them major media figures; and b) they develop the frames and narratives that other progressive Obama critics adopt and disseminate

I’ve argued for some time that the story of Barack Obama’s presidency is the story of how the left turned on him. And it eats him up. You know it from Robert Gibbs, you know it from Rahm Emanuel, you know it from Joe Biden and you know it from Obama himself. The constant refrain that liberals don’t appreciate the administration’s accomplishments betrays deep frustration. It was a given the right would try to destroy Obama’s presidency. It was a given Republicans would be obstructionists. It was a given the media would run with sensationalist stories. It was a given there would be a natural dip from the euphoric highs of the inauguration. Obama’s team was prepared to ride out the trough(s). But they were not prepared for a determined segment of the left to ignore party and focus on principle, to ignore happy talk and demand accountability.

As president, Obama has done much good and has achieved a number of impressive legislative victories. He is a smart, thoughtful and disciplined man. He has a wonderful family. His staff are good and decent people trying to improve their country and working tirelessly under extreme stress. But that doesn’t mean progressives should set aside the things they’ve fought for their entire adult life. It doesn’t mean they should stay silent if they think the White House is undermining the progressive cause.

Point #1 (Does the White House really care about a handful of liberal bloggers?)

Although several readers disagreed that bloggers had the power I was attributing to them, there was general consensus that they were an annoyance to the White House.

Politico said that Bill Burton’s silence reveals how the White House feels:

Who, exactly, makes up this “professional left” that is so bothering President Barack Obama and his advisers? On Tuesday, Gibbs’ deputy, Bill Burton, made it clear that the occasionally critical cable personalities originally associated with this comment have the administration’s blessing. “If you’re on the left, if you’re somebody like Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow or one of the folks who helps to keep our government honest and pushes and prods to make sure that folks are true to progressive values, then [the president] thinks that those folks provide an invaluable service.” Burton told reporters. Noticeably absent from Burton’s embrace was anyone from the blogosphere once courted so avidly by the White House. Peter Daou thinks he knows why…”

Ezra Klein, as well-sourced as anyone I know, writes:

Peter Daou is right that liberal bloggers are getting under Obama’s skin.

Point #2 (Do liberal bloggers want to bring down Obama?)

The title of my post (“How a handful of liberal bloggers are bringing down the Obama presidency“) was largely interpreted as a slam on the bloggers themselves. It certainly wasn’t meant as one, which I hope was clear from the body of the post. Rather, it was intended as a literal observation that a small group with disproportionate influence was contributing to President Obama’s depressed approval ratings by holding him accountable whenever he appeared to undermine core Democratic and progressive principles.

Which is why I said “bringing down” not “brought down.” The former is a question of degree, and reversible, the latter much less so. And nowhere did I argue that these bloggers wanted to bring down the administration. Quite the opposite. In a concurrent tweet, I said: “Critical difference between Obama’s liberal critics and his conservative ones is that the former want him to succeed, the latter to fail.”

Point #3 (Wouldn’t Obama be doing fine if people had jobs?)

Notwithstanding the opening sentence (“This post was originally written about the frightening case of Anwar al-Aulaqi”), a number of readers took issue with what they perceived as an inordinate focus on civil liberties and rights. They contended that Obama’s problems boil down to the bad economy, no more no less.

Alex Pareene at Salon:

I think the principled civil libertarian critique of Obama is completely correct — and I also think it has little to do with his, or the Democratic Party’s, unpopularity. I think if the economy was booming and unemployment was low, Glenn Greenwald would still be completely correct and the president would be much more popular.

Glenn Greenwald and Marcy Wheeler, two of the bloggers I referenced in the piece, echoed that refrain.

Glenn:

I think the reason why people are so angry at Democrats and disenchanted with Obama has very little – basically nothing – to do with what bloggers have been saying, and everything to do with the fact that there are no jobs and millions of people are having their homes foreclosed.

Marcy:

As much as I focus on torture & assassination, I’d buck up a lot faster if the Admin focused on helping people save their homes.

It’s always daunting to cross verbal swords with the likes of Glenn and Marcy, but even though it’s indisputable that a better economic environment would benefit Obama, I think pinning the president’s troubles on the economy is an incomplete reading of the social and political climate.

For one thing, most Americans still blame Bush:

Nearly two years into his presidency, 51% of Americans say President Barack Obama bears little to no blame for U.S. economic problems, while 48% assign him a great deal or moderate amount of blame. More Americans now blame Obama than did so a year ago, but a substantially higher percentage, 71%, blame former President George W. Bush. LINK

A majority of the country still believes that President Obama isn’t responsible for the state of the U.S. economy, but the number has steadily declined since his presidency began. According to the brand-new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 56 percent think Obama inherited the economic situation, versus 32 percent who say his policies are responsible for it. LINK

For all their economic gripes, 52 percent of Americans say they’d rather have President Obama than his predecessor in control of economic policy, vs. 35 percent who’d prefer to have former President Bush in charge. LINK

For another thing, there’s actually a case to be made in favor of the administration’s economic policies, not least of which are avoiding a depression and saving the auto industry. Ezra elaborates:

A $787 billion stimulus? Yes, it was too small. But everything Washington does is always too small. And within the confines of that stimulus, the Obama administration and the Democrats in Congress managed to make a host of long-term investments that would’ve been considered huge accomplishments in any other context, but are largely unknown inside this one. Huge investments in green energy, in health information technology, in high-speed rail, in universal broadband, in medical research, in infrastructure. The Making Work Pay tax cut. The Race to the Top education reform program. No recent president has invested in the country on anything like that level.

The fact of financial reform is less impressive given the fact of the financial crisis, and readers know that I’m skeptical about the final design of the bill. But the consumer protection agency really is an important addition that might not have been included if the White House was occupied by a different team. There are the smaller items that, in any other administration, would be seen as achievements. Menu labeling in chain restaurants. The Independent Payment Advisory Board to bring down Medicare costs. Ted Kennedy’s SERVE America Act. And then there’s what didn’t happen: The financial system didn’t collapse. Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke and George W. Bush deserve some of the credit for that — though they also deserve some of the blame for not preventing the crisis in the first place. But as Ben Smith says, TARP, which was begun by Bush and implemented by Obama, is probably one of the most successful policies in American history — and it’s also one of the least popular.

(Steve Benen has made a similar case, as have others.)

The reality is that Obama’s problems have been brewing from the day he took office. They came to a head during the health insurance battle and they have been exacerbated by an ailing economy and a series of events, actions and decisions, many of which seem insignificant against the backdrop of a back-breaking recession, but taken together, reinforce doubts about Obama’s ideological and moral compass.

For nearly two years, I’ve written about the demise of “hope and change,” basing my arguments on two related theses:

1. The convergence of left-right opinion is a critical factor in the shaping of conventional wisdom against Obama.

2. A range of acts and omissions have resulted in a sense that Obama lacks moral authority, lacks the courage of his convictions, lacks convictions, all fatal impressions for a leader.

On the first, I’ve argued that  the cauldron of opinion that churns incessantly on blogs, Twitter, social networks, and in the elite media generates the storylines that filter across the national and local press, providing the fodder for public opinion and ultimately determining conventional wisdom.  Typically, countervailing left-right narratives create enough tension to prevent the public from rapidly congealing around a single view. However, in some cases (Bush with Katrina, Obama on health care), left and right come to agree that a political leader is on the wrong track. It is this merging of left-right opinion that has damaged Obama. He can sustain relentless attacks from the right – it’s what everyone expects – but when the left joins in, the bottom drops out. That’s why opinion-shapers in the liberal blogosphere exert inordinate influence over Obama’s fortunes. And from the growing alarm at the White House, it’s clear they know it.

This is directly related to the second thesis, that Obama’s problem is not about policy but about character. Here’s how I framed it in a recent post:

Obama and Democrats have undermined their own moral authority by continuing some of Bush’s’ most egregious policiesEverything flows from the public’s belief that you stand for something. The most impressive legislative wins lose their force if people become convinced you’ll sell out your own values.

It would be unfair and silly to portray all Democrat politicians as devoid of moral convictions, but it’s not inaccurate to state that there is a widespread phobia among Democrats of appearing “weak,” which paradoxically leads to behavior that further reinforces that impression. When you fret too much over what others think, you tend to contort yourself in an attempt to please, often at the expense of your core beliefs. When the specific complaint is that you’re weak, there is a tendency is to do whatever your critics characterize as strong – and in the case of Democrats, they tend to ignore the strength of their own values and emulate Republicans, ending up looking even weaker in the process. From gay rights to executive power to war to the environment, the left increasingly believes the Obama White House lacks the moral courage to undo Bush’s radicalism.

This is not just a blogospheric theme. The NYT on Monday:

We are starting to wonder whether Congressional Democrats lack the courage of their convictions, or simply lack convictions.

Long before the American public rendered judgment on Obama’s economic policies, a core group of progressive bloggers and activists were expressing alarm at everything from gay rights to Gitmo to torture, women’s reproductive freedom to Afghanistan. They were essentially saying that Obama was betraying his implied and explicit promise to be the anti-Bush.

As far back as May, 2009, I wrote:

Over the past four months there have been a series of flare-ups between the Obama administration and the progressive activist community, centered mainly around the new administration’s willingness (or lack thereof) to reverse Bush-Cheney’s radical excesses in the realm of civil liberties, secrecy, detainee treatment, interrogation, and counter-terrorism.

Ever astute and incisive, Digby raises what I think is the critical point in this entire debate:  “The argument against torture is slipping away from us. In fact, I’m getting the sinking feeling that it’s over. What was once taboo is now publicly acknowledged as completely acceptable by many people. Indeed, disapproval of torture is now being characterized as a strictly partisan issue, like welfare reform or taxes.”

Ari Melber, my former Kerry campaign colleague, takes a parallel tack, arguing that there should be no debate here; torture is illegal. Even Bush acknowledged that. Glenn Greenwald, an indispensible voice on this topic, says bluntly: “Ever since he was inaugurated, Obama has taken one extreme step after the next to keep concealed both the details and the evidence of Bush’s crimes, including rendition, torture and warrantless eavesdropping.”

As has been the case for years, Democratic leaders, operating within the Washington bubble, misconstrue the concerns of the netroots and often privately dismiss them as the rantings of immature outsiders and political neophytes. But as always, the progressive community, a far more efficient thinking machine than a handful of strategists and advisers, is looking ahead and raising a unified alarm. The message is this: anything less than absolute moral clarity from Democrats, who now control the levers of power, will enshrine Bush’s abuses and undermine the rule of law for generations to come.

Setting aside all the campaign slogans about hope and change, what Obama really signifies is a razor sharp break from Bush, Cheney, Yoo, Rice, Rumsfeld, Addington, Libby, Bybee et al. After eight years of damage to the fabric of our Constitution and our nation, the entire point of a new face, a smart, youthful, inspiring Democratic president is to completely and totally reject the Bush years, to reject the lawless behavior, the Orwellian rationales, the blatant disregard of the Constitution. Neglecting to do so, and leaving any doubt about where Democrats stand on these issues, is profoundly detrimental to the country.

This was about Obama’s character, not just his policies, about moral courage and conviction — and the lack of it. The right, led by radio blatherers and the still potent rightwing attack machine, had their sights on Obama’s character from the very beginning. They were bent on destroying him. It’s when the left began conveying doubts about his moral authority that the warnings signs should have started flashing in the West Wing.

The health care debate, with the left’s profound disappointment over the public option and the right’s overwhelming antipathy to a “government takeover” permanently defined and enshrined the previously inchoate impressions of Obama as a man whose obsession with conciliation rendered him incapable of taking an unshakable stand in defense of his principles.

This is how I see the steady unraveling that has led to Obama’s steep drop in the polls and the deflation of the hope bubble. So even though a better economy would improve his standing, to reduce his problems to a poor economy is a gross oversimplification.

P.S. Even though it’s self-explanatory, to avoid any misunderstanding, the word ‘stupid’ in the title is only there as part of the infamous “it’s the economy, stupid” phrase. And saying “it’s Obama’s character” is not a value judgment but a contention that his problems are about character more than policy.

Millennium Development Goals explained

September 20, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

The Millennium Development Goals have been described as the world’s to-do list. Here’s more on the MDGs from my UN Dispatch colleague, Mark Goldberg and John McArthur of Millennium Promise:

The Age of Denial

September 18, 2010 by Peter · Leave a Comment 

America is in an Age of Denial, a time in which intolerable injustices are widely ignored, from preventable hunger, poverty and disease to irreversible environmental destruction to the global oppression of girls and women.

It is an age where wealth disparities are at record levels, where a war based on lies and deceptions that resulted in unimaginable carnage is heralded as a success, where the assault on basic rights and liberties is greeted with a yawn — if not a cheer.

It is a time when a minor celebrity infraction receives more attention than an epidemic of sexual violence in which young girls have their insides shredded with broken bottles and sticks of wood, when a sports game arouses more passion and emotion than a million babies dying.

This denialism afflicts the entire nation, not one party, not one particular group, not one ideology.

Many liberals stand by while a Democratic administration affirms and cements the worst excesses and overreaches of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, authorizing extra-judicial killings, indefinite detention and rendition, among other egregious practices. They stand by as a catastrophic oil spill is purposely scrubbed from public awareness because it has an adverse effect on Democratic electoral prospects. They stand by as the lies and deceptions that led America into Iraq are forgiven and forgotten and the Republican architects and purveyors of those lies are lauded by Democratic leaders. They stand by as obscenely rich bankers are bailed out at the expense of struggling taxpayers.

Conservatives stand by as their leaders callously exploit fear and xenophobia. They stand by – or worse, participate – as rightwing blatherers spew an endless stream of hateful invective across the airwaves. They yearn for war, war and more war against an ill-defined enemy. They traffic in jingoistic soundbites and call it patriotism and stand in defense of a Constitution they haven’t bothered to read. And perhaps more destructively than anything else they say, do or deny, they willfully toy with our future by pretending that the wholesale ravaging of the environment has absolutely no effect.

On the last point, David Roberts of Grist provides insight:

However muted denialism may have gotten in the late 2000s, it has come roaring back … Climate denialism is part of something much broader and scarier on the right. The core idea is most clearly expressed by Rush Limbaugh:

We really live, folks, in two worlds. There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap. … The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.

The right’s project over the last 30 years has been to dismantle the post-war liberal consensus by undermining trust in society’s leading institutions.

The decline in trust in institutions has generated fear and uncertainty, to which people generally respond by placing their trust in protective authorities. And some subset of people respond with tribalism, nationalism, and xenophobia. The right stokes and exploits modern anxiety relentlessly, but that’s not all they do. They also offer a space to huddle in safety among the like-minded. The conservative movement in America has created a self-contained, hermetically sealed epistemological reality — a closed-loop system of cable news, talk radio, and email forwards — designed not just as a source of alternative facts but as an identity. That’s why conservatives catch hell when they’re skeptical of climate skepticism. They’re messing with tribal cohesion and morale.

It’s a species of theater, repeated so often people have become inured, but if you take it seriously it’s an extraordinary charge. For one thing, if it’s true that the world’s scientists are capable of deception and collusion on this scale, a lot more than climate change is in doubt. These same institutions have told us what we know about health and disease, species and ecosystems, energy and biochemistry. If they are corrupt, we have to consider whether any of the knowledge they’ve generated is trustworthy. We could be operating our medical facilities, economies, and technologies on faulty theories. We might not know anything!

Roberts captures the frightening implications of denialism, a breakdown of trust in our basic institutions, an ideological war against facts and science, a kaleidoscopic skewing of national priorities. This is America in the Age of Denial.

What’s most troubling is that when you confront a denier, they’ll deny that they’re in denial.

UPDATE: Bob Herbert writes about the denial of our economic reality:

The movers and shakers of our society seem similarly oblivious to the terrible destruction wrought by the economic storm that has roared through America. They’ve heard some thunder, perhaps, and seen some lightning, and maybe felt a bit of the wind. But there is nothing that society’s leaders are doing — no sense of urgency in their policies or attitudes — that suggests they understand the extent of the economic devastation that has come crashing down like a plague on the poor and much of the middle class.

The American economy is on its knees and the suffering has reached historic levels. Nearly 44 million people were living in poverty last year, which is more than 14 percent of the population. That is an increase of 4 million over the previous year, the highest percentage in 15 years, and the highest number in more than a half-century of record-keeping. Millions more are teetering on the edge, poised to fall into poverty.

More than a quarter of all blacks and a similar percentage of Hispanics are poor. More than 15 million children are poor.

The movers and shakers, including most of the mainstream media, have paid precious little attention to this wide-scale economic disaster.

UPDATE II: The spiking of the Deepwater Horizon spill — the ultimate example of today’s denialism — comes full circle with this jaw-dropping story:

While BP plans to permanently abandon its stricken well in the Gulf of Mexico, with little but a plug left at the top, it may yet make use of the reservoir of oil and gas that the well tapped into.

Experts say that there are no technical or commercial reasons why BP — or another company if BP is wary of the political or public-relations repercussions — could not eventually produce oil from the formation, which BP once estimated contained about 50 million barrels of oil. The well spewed only about one-tenth of that amount, according to government estimates.

“The bottom line here is that this reservoir still remains a target for further production,” said Tadeusz W. Patzek, chairman of the department of petroleum and geosystems engineering at the University of Texas.

Dr. Patzek said he thought the formation might contain even more recoverable oil and gas, “but whether it’s 50 million or 100 million, that’s still a pretty decent target,” with potential revenues in the billions of dollars.

Through a spokesman, BP said it was too early to say what would become of Mississippi Canyon Block 252, the nine-square-mile plot about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast where the well was drilled. But in August, Doug Suttles, the company’s chief operating officer, while saying the stricken well and two relief wells would be abandoned, left open the possibility that the company might drill in the area again.

“There’s lots of oil and gas here,” he said at the time. “We’re going to have to think about what to do with that at some point.”

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