As I've said and others have noted, David Brooks is the most consistently interesting of Obama's critics on the right, in part because he so clearly wants this president to succeed; to live up to his promise of Change. Brooks is pretty down on the new administration at the moment. He's exasperated by what he sees as Obama's excess of deference to the crusty old denizens of Capitol Hill who sit atop key committees and fashion bad legislation in back rooms the same way they've been doing forever:
If you watched Obama’s magnificent speech Tuesday night, you got the impression that he bestrides Washington like a colossus. He imposes his authority in ways large and small, purging old habits. In reality, the situation is messier. At times, there is a weird passivity emanating from the White House, a deference to the Washington establishment. Almost no sacred cows are cut from this budget. The president is now engaged in an argument with Democratic appropriators about whether to strike earmarks from the omnibus spending bill. He’s apparently getting rolled even on a matter as easy and clear-cut as this.
The bigger problem is health care... this is an area where aggressive presidential leadership is mandatory. Yet in no other area does the administration cede so much authority.
This may well be where Obama's lack of experience tells the most. It's a little reminiscent of Blair in 1997. He swept to power with a huge mandate, but for some reason was too timid to take on entrenched interest groups in the private and public sectors and really leave his mark as a great reforming prime minister. He later regretted his passivity and switched into a more aggressive mode, but by then he'd lost a lot of the political capital he had in those first years and found it hard to make progress. What's the betting that Obama "finds himself", politically, late in his first term or in his second, and confides to interviewers that he wishes he'd been more bullish in 2009 and 2010?
Perhaps Tony should give his buddy Barack a quick call and warn him to make the most of his honeymoon.
As part of an interesting discussion on the economy and 2012 scenarios (if Obama's stimulus fails, do the GOP come back strong? Not necessarily...) Ross Douthat speculates on a gap opening up for an independent...
This is obviously an unlikely scenario - but there's nothing written in stone that says the current two-party lock on the presidency has to endure unbroken forever, and a long L-shaped recession in which both parties look ineffectual is exactly the kind of time when unlikely scenarios start looking at least somewhat more likely. Ross Perot's 1992 candidacy, you'll recall, was premised on the idea that the GOP had failed and the Democrats couldn't be trusted; if Obama's presiding over an economic disaster in 2012, then a third-party run premised on the idea that the Democrats have failed and the Republicans can't be trusted might do rather well indeed.
I think it's unlikely too, but as Douthat might have added, the emergence of the internet as a powerful grassroots campaigning medium makes it a little more likely than before. But who? It would obviously need to be somebody who has proved their mettle outside of politics, but who is trusted to run the country and ensure its security.
I suspect that Obama will be taking quite a lot of care not to alienate this chap.
The Orz has a blog. All key members of the new administration are being encouraged to blog and YouTube and Twitter. There's going to be a heck of a lot of communicating going on. And a lot of burst blood vessels in the White House press office. Not that Orszag (who kept a blog in his last job as head of the Congressional Budget Office) is likely to crack any dodgy jokes or link to Perez Hilton. Title of first post: "Discipline, Efficiency, Prosperity." It's like a very short self-help book.
As I've mentioned before, whilst Obama has moved quickly, in historical terms, to fill his cabinet, he presides over a worrying number of vacancies at the under-secretary and deputy level; senior management roles that are vital to making the machinery of any administration run smoothly. Alarmingly, this applies most to the department that can least afford to not to get things done in a hurry: the Treasury. Now, Paul Volcker, the 81-year-old former Treasury Secretary now chairing Obama's Economic Advisory Board, has been moved to use strong language to describe the problem:
"There is an area that I think is, I don't know, shameful is the word," Paul Volcker said this morning at a Joint Economic Committee hearing. "The secretary of the treasury is sitting there without a deputy, without any undersecretaries, without any, as far as I know, assistant secretaries responsible in substantive areas at a time of very severe crisis. He shouldn't be sitting there alone."
This partly explains why Geither's poorly received banking plan was so sketchy. The poor chap is having to manage the financial crisis single-handedly. Volcker is doing him a favour to call this out.
(via Ben Smith)
Ryan Lizza's long profile of Rahm Emanuel for the New Yorker is wonderfully written, and the man himself leaps off the page in vivid colours. He is, famously, a virtuoso of the curse-laden diatribe. There are really too many good quotes to pick from, so I'll start with a couple and perhaps come back for more later.
Here's Rahm on the economist and pundit Paul Krugman, who was a prominent critic of the president's stimulus bill (which Emanuel shepherded through Congress):
"Now, my view is that Krugman as an economist is not wrong. But in the art of the possible, of the deal, he is wrong. He couldn’t get his legislation."
The ongoing legal battle to seat Al Franken in Minnesota made Emanuel's task harder than it should have been:
"No disrespect to Paul Krugman,” Emanuel went on, “but has he figured out how to seat the Minnesota senator?... Write a fucking column on how to seat the son of a bitch. I would be fascinated with that column. O.K.?”
Lizza manages to convey, somehow, that Emanuel's rants are delivered in good humour.
When Emanuel said this, I noticed that over his left shoulder, on the credenza behind him, was an official-looking name plate, which he said was a birthday present from his two brothers. It read, “Undersecretary for Go Fuck Yourself."
Makes Malcom Tucker look tame.
The Republicans, having persuaded themselves that their united opposition to the stimulus bill represented light at the end of the tunnel for their beleaguered party, are starting to wake up to the likelihood that it was just the light of an approaching juggernaut, in the shape of a powerful Democratic president determined to reshape the political landscape.
Right after Obama's speech to Congress on Tuesday, Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review and one of the sharpest minds in the conservative commentariat, wrote a brief post entitled "Scariest Passage?".
As soon as I took office, I asked this Congress to send me a recovery plan by President's Day that would put people back to work and put money in their pockets. Not because I believe in bigger government - I don't.
He’s trying to redefine extensive government activism as simple pragmatism, and if he succeeds, might well shift the center of American politics for a generation.
David Brooks, speaking on TV, despairs of the Republican response to the current crisis, as embodied by Jindal's infomercial last night:
You know, I think Bobby Jindal is a very promising politician, and I oppose the stimulus because I thought it was poorly drafted. But to come up at this moment in history with a stale "government is the problem," "we can't trust the federal government" - it's just a disaster for the Republican Party. The country is in a panic right now. They may not like the way the Democrats have passed the stimulus bill, but that idea that we're just gonna - that government is going to have no role, the federal government has no role in this, that - In a moment when only the federal government is actually big enough to do stuff, to just ignore all that and just say "government is the problem, corruption, earmarks, wasteful spending," it's just a form of nihilism.
Having watched the speech all the way through, I'm struck most forcibly by the confidence and ease of Obama's delivery. More so than in the inaugural, he really seems in his element - there's far more variation in tone, from warm to stern to playful and passionate, and he moves seamlessly from grand public declarations to more personal remarks. This is a man who believes he can move mountains.
Marc Ambinder captures the ambition at the heart of the Obama presidency: to lead a more activist government, but to simultaneously make that government more effective, transparent, and accountable than it has been in the past:
No longer will responsibility and fiscal discipline react with spending like matter with anti-matter.To produce equilibrium in government, health care and the economy in the future, the government needs to spend now, and take off the artificial, politically-driven constraints that have generally prevented bolder action. So -- how to reconcile these opposites? Obama promises transparency and accountability, which are psychological counters to the idea that Big Government is bad in the first place. If government spends the money properly, it will contribute to economic growth, it will instill confidence in the American people, it will keep long-term interest rates in check, and deficits will be smaller, in the end, than what they would be if action isn't taken now.
When Obama said, during the campaign, that he wanted to "make government cool again", he was describing something more than a few YouTube videos. The line in his inauguration about the question being not whether government is too big or too small but whether it works, is at the heart of his philosophy. It's a position somewhere between traditional left and right (I've called it techno-liberalism). It demands that if we increase the size of government, we also reform it to make it more effective. It's a position akin to mature Blairism in the UK. Blair's efforts to reform the public sector were largely thwarted by his own party (and his Chancellor). It may yet be that Obama's ambitions meet a similar fate. He'll certainly have to show more appetite for taking on his own party than he has yet done so if he's to succeed.
Bobby Jindal was thought, at least until last night, to be the most likely next president of the United States. The 37-year-old Republican governor of Louisiana has huge potential. The son of Indian immigrants, he has the ability to reach out beyond the shrinking core constituency of the GOP. Yet he's also appealing to the base, because of his positions on abortion and government spending (he's against them). He's largely thought to have brought a measure of competence and dynamism to Louisiana's creaking and corrupt state government. He's clever (a graduate of Harvard, Yale and Oxford) and likeable.
It wasn't coincidental, therefore, that Jindal was picked by his party bosses to deliver the response to Obama's speech last night. It was a big moment for him, as his national profile is still fairly low. I think he fluffed it.
Now, he had a difficult task. He needed to project a persuasive alternative voice to a currently very popular president, whilst sounding in tune with the national mood. Two paths presented themselves. The Schwarzenegger path: be broadly supportive of the president's programme whilst sounding cautionary notes. Or the Washington Republican path: oppose, oppose, oppose. A really skillful politician would have found some middle way between the two. Jindal chose the well-trodden path of outright opposition, but showed little conviction and less imagination in doing so. He railed against big government and pork, but didn't really offer a convincing alternative to Obama's plan of action. He may have pleased his party bosses, but I suspect his message failed to excite the voters. He also spent too long talking about himself.
The second problem is presentational. In public, Jindal often speaks way too fast. The words flood out of him. He lacks gravitas as a result. He's aware of this, clearly, and seems to have worked at slowing down and modulating his speech. But on the evidence of last night, he's been overcoached. Judge for yourselves. I think, frankly, he comes across as a bit of a tool; ingratiating, stiff, and patronising, like a bad kids' TV presenter.
Jindal will come back from this. He's too talented not to. But, as has been remarked elsewhere, last night was a good one for Mike Huckabee.
These thoughts will have to be brief, I'm afraid; more later.
President Obama's state-of-the-union-in-all-but-name address, to both houses of Congress, is deemed by most commentators to have been a strong speech. But as even his biggest fans are aware, we should really be writing these reviews in a year's time.
He used the speech to argue that era of big government had, er, started again - this time out of necessity as much as ideology. He said to those who opposed the bailing out of the banks, "I get it", but argued that a failure to do so would consign the country to a hopeless recession. He called on America to face up to its biggest challenges in health, energy and education - that is, to support massive government programs of investment and reform. He namechecked government's greatest hits: railroad investment after the civil war, the GI Bill, etc. Like the inaugural this was a fairly sober, prepare-for-hard-times speech, although there was of course plenty of optimism and brighter days ahead (but not because Mr Know-it-All said there should be). As a performance it was commanding, and controlled, with flashes of warmth and humour, and indicative of a man at ease in his role.
A good talk - but really, it all comes down to the walk. As David Brooks said on Monday - in an eloquent piece of handwringing - for a bottom-up guy, Obama is putting a whole lotta faith in big, top-down government to solve the nation's problems. We won't have to wait ten years to know if this faith is justified. Big speeches are important marking points but they're increasingly irrelevant at this stage. I think Obama is aware of this more than anyone, by the way, which is why last night's address and the inaugural were relatively free of high-flying rhetoric. Talk is getting cheaper by the day.
(Photo: Chicago Tribune/Zbigniew Bzdak)