I like this 2009 clip of the currently beleagured autocrat, who is taken aback by Charlie Rose's news that someone has written a book called "Egypt After Mubarak":
Via Ben Smith
So it looks like I was wrong about Jon Huntsman: he really is considering a run in 2012. His first achievement has been to confuse the internet, at least the US political blognescenti. Nobody understands what he's up to. His signalling of intent (and if only by not shutting this story down, he is very definitely signalling) has been greeted as an attack on the laws of political sense. Here's the smart conservative commentator Daniel Larison:
What intrigues me about Huntsman’s campaign is that it seems to make no sense at all.
Larison's reaction is typical. In a party seized by Tea Party extremism, there's really little call for a candidate who would sit to the left of Mitt Romney. In a campaign that's all about defeating the incumbent, it would be weird to nominate a man who has worked for him quite happily for the last eighteen months (and who will risk looking duplicitous and disloyal if attacks his former employer overtly).It's crazy. It makes no sense at all.
Why's he doing it then? We know he's not stupid. Perhaps Huntsman is engaged in an act of aesthetic assault on the customs and conventions of political discourse. Perhaps he is seeking to shatter the very notion of rationality itself. I mean, you have to wonder.
Then again maybe he thinks he has a shot. Let's at least try and guess what he's thinking.
He's done his time in China, no doubt had a fascinating time, and burnished his foreign policy credentials. But now he's a little bored (ambassadors, even senior ones, don't have much power) and thinking about what to do next. He knows he wants to be president. He thought he'd wait until 2016 after Obama has come to the end of a second term and the GOP's ideological fever has subsided. But as 2011 comes around, Obama is looking more beatable than he seemed when he was elected. The rest of the Republican field is weak, with no clear front-runner, and many candidates. It's therefore inherently unpredictable, and there's a chance - even if it's only 5-10% - that an unlikely outsider could bounce through the pinball machine of the primaries and somehow emerge as the last man standing, if you'll excuse my mixed metaphor. John McCain looked like a no-hoper in 2007.
And if, as is likely, Huntsman loses - well, he wins. He will have gained national name recognition in his party and in the country at large (the media will adore his candidacy and give him disproportionate airtime). He will have accumulated very valuable experience, and built relationships with voters and key future allies in primary states. If he does well he can come back strong - the favourite even - in 2016. Very relevant here is his financial position. He has a massive (inherited) personal fortune. So he can afford to throw some of it at a race he knows he's likely to lose.
So why not give it a shot, thinks Huntsman. After all, what else am I going to do?
Almost exactly three years ago Barack Obama drew a very pointed contrast between Ronald Reagan and two other presidents. Reagan, argued Obama, "changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and Bill Clinton did not."
What seemed to be an ad lib was in fact calcuated to stir up and enrage the Clinton camp, which it duly did. Bad enough that Bill should be mentioned in the same breath as Nixon. Worse, his legacy was being slighted by a fellow Democrat, who seemed to suggest that Reagan was the greater president. A week or two later a fire-breathing Bill Clinton appeared to compare Obama to Jesse Jackson, and it was pretty much game over. This was a cocky, fearless move by Hillary Clinton's challenger. But it was true to form - ever since the 2004 speech that launched him as the Democrats' great black hope, Obama has had no qualms about presenting himself as a transformational figure, the next in a line of Great Men stretching from Jefferson to Lincoln to Kennedy.
Last week's State of the Union was the moment when it became clear, however, that Obama is much more like Bill Clinton than Ronald Reagan in his approach to politics. He's an incrementalist, a fox rather than a hedgehog, a cautious leader who, in office, actually has little time for the narrative-based idealism of Reagan, or indeed of Obama the candidate. The slightly stale 'Sputnik moment' soundbite was a half-hearted attempt to keep the Reaganesque Big Talk going, but the substance of the address was a series of smallbore initiatives reminiscent of Bill Clinton's State of the Union at the same stage in his first term. Peggy Noonan, who has become Obama's most eloquent and devastating critic, sums it up well:
America is in a Sputnik moment, the world seems to be jumping ahead of us, our challenge is to make up the distance and emerge victorious. So we'll change our tax code to make citizens feel less burdened and beset, we'll rethink what government can and should give, can and should take, we'll get our fiscal life in order, we'll save our country. Right? Nah. We'll focus on "greater Internet access," "renewable energy," "one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015," "wind and solar," "information technology." "Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail." None of this is terrible, but none of it is an answer.
There's nothing inherently wrong with being an incrementalist. Bill Clinton made a pretty good job of the presidency based on that approach. But then, he lived in incrementalist times. America was enjoying its post-1990 salad years: economic expansion and (in relative terms) peace abroad. There was no pressing need to 'change the trajectory'. The trajectory was going just fine.
That's not true today. America has massive debts, endemic unemployment, and draining foreign entanglements from which it can't easily extract itself. This is surely the time for a Reagan, or an FDR, depending on your political preference. To use David Brooks's terms, a Hamilton rather than a Burke. Perhaps the polarised stasis in Washington is so entrenched that no president could make a big difference. But the thing about President Obama is that - unlike Candidate Obama - he doesn't even seem that interested in making the effort.
The NYT has a fascinating review of a new book about Ronald Reagan, by his son. Ron Reagan writes very well, and movingly, about his father, who became stranger and more mysterious the closer you got to him.
Reagan had what his son calls a “preternatural talent for excising unpleasantness from his picture of reality"; always amiable, happy, a pleasure to be around, yet oddly distant, even to his family:
“His children, if they were being honest,” Mr. Reagan writes, “would agree that he was as strange a fellow as any of us had ever met. Not darkly strange, mind you. In fact, he was so naturally sunny, so utterly without guile, so devoid of cynicism or pettiness as to create for himself a whole new category of strangeness. He was, in some respects, too good — like a visitor from an enchanted realm where they’d never even consider inventing a Double Down sandwich or credit default swaps. I often felt I had to check my natural sarcasm and sense of absurdity at the door for fear of inducing in him a fit of psychological disequilibrium.”
Though the younger Mr. Reagan — an avowed atheist with decidedly liberal leanings — would have philosophical arguments with his father over the years, their difficulties had nothing to do with politics but with emotional connection. The author says that he never felt that his father didn’t love or care for him but that he often seemed to be “wandering somewhere in his own head.”
His son speculates that Reagan's uncanny determination to fashion a kind of heroic narrative from the raw materials of his life stemmed from his insecure, crisis-scarred childhood.
Link to review.
For most viewers, the 2011 State of the Union was all about the salmon.This wordcloud illustrates the answers given by listeners to America's National Public Radio, when they were asked, a few minutes after Obama's address, to describe it in three words.
For those of you wondering why on earth a freshwater fish looms so large, it's because Obama told a joke to illustrate the problem of over-complicated government regulation:
"The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they're in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they're in saltwater," Obama said. "I hear it gets even more complicated once they're smoked."
It's not exactly Reaganesque but I suppose it must be so rare for a president to crack a gag in a State of the Union address that it's all anyone notices.
With SotU speeches, what matters isn't the immediate response so much as what it portends for the president' strategy for the year ahead. And it seems that with his "winning the future" theme, Obama is determined to get better at what he hasn't done well to date: project an optimistic, upbeat vision of the next few years and America's future more generally. He also made a determined effort to sound bipartisan, and above the fray. All of which is smart and bodes well for him in 2012.
It wasn't a great speech, however. This response, from the Atlantic's Joshua Green, is fairly representative of many Obama supporters:
I'd put this speech in the same category as Obama's inaugural address. The point wasn't soaring rhetoric or soothing the nation, as the president has done so well on so many occasions, from his 'race speech' in Philadelphia to his recent speech in Tucson. Instead, like the inaugural address, tonight's speech seemed like it was intended to do a job: to set the agenda and refocus the nation's attention where Obama would like it to be...I thought too much of the speech came across as hucksterish and hokey, as though Obama were fresh from some all-day motivational conference by Tom Peters or some other catch-phrase spouting business guru type. But if only through bludgeoning repetition, I think he got his point across.
Others made similar sounds of mild disappointment after Obama's inaugural. It should now be clear, however, that Obama's speeches fall into two distinct categories: the workmanlike, and the inspirational, and that these two categories equate to, respectively, his political speeches and (for want of a better word) his spiritual speeches. By 'spiritual' I mean speeches that address big, basically apolitical themes of social and cultural matter: eg race, or civility. These are the speeches Obama does best; these are the ones that soar and inspire. But - being a politician - most of his speeches are political. And here he is pretty much a boilerplate kind of a guy: he does laundry lists, invokes cliches, attempts the odd joke, but doesn't really apply his imagination or infuse his words with passion.
This is why people get that sense of faint disappointment, and it partly explains the perceived disjunction between Obama the candidate and Obama the president. Obama won't, or can't, take some of the magic dust from the second category and sprinkle it on the first; he doesn't mingle poetry and prose. He simply doesn't bring his best game to political setpieces.
At heart, Obama is a preacher, not a politician. He would, if he was allowed, make only speeches like the ones he gave in Tucson this month or Philadelphia in 2008. This is the bargain he has made with himself. He pays the price of being a politician so that he can preach; he makes eight prose speeches so that he can deliver two in poetry.
Arguably, of course, this is the wrong way round, for a president.
That's the question posed by this extraordinary study:
This paper considers the decision of Gentiles whether or not to rescue Jews during the Holocaust, a situation of altruistic behavior under life-or-death stakes. I examine the role to which economic factors may have influenced the decision to be a rescuer. Using cross-country data, and detailed individual-level data on rescuers and non-rescuers, I find that (1) Richer countries had many more rescuers than poorer ones, and (2) Within countries, richer people were more likely to be rescuers than poorer people. The individual-level effect of income on being a rescuer remains significant after controlling for ease of rescue variables, such as the number of rooms in one's home, suggesting that the correlation of income and rescue is not solely driven by richer people having more resources for rescue. Given that richer people might be thought to have more to lose by rescuing, the evidence is consistent with the view that altruism increases in income.
I don't have much time to post today so I'll leave you with that to ponder...Any SOTU comments later.
The best/worst ad of the 2012 campaign is upon us. A little background: Tim Pawlenty is a mild-mannered former Republican governor of Minnesota, soon to announce his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination. Few dislike Pawlenty - he's a nice, moderate kinduva guy with a reasonable governing record. His problem is that he's not well known, and easily forgotten. Those that do know of him put him somewhere near Calvin Coolidge on the charisma scale. He's a kind of American John Major.
Pawlenty, no fool he, is intently aware of his problem. He knows that nice is not enough. So the brief for this ad must have been: let's inject some excitement, some action, some goddamn sex into the Pawlenty brand!
And - oh my - just look what they came up with...
It's a wonder they don't show him engaged in hand-to-hand combat with a bearded terrorist, and growling "Get off my plane...!"
My tip to Pawlenty: if you're going with the action hero thing, lose the 'Tim'.
New York magazine's John Heilemann has a typically excellent piece on "Season II" of the Obama White House, which really starts on Tuesday, when the president makes his State of the Union address.
Obama's greatest strength is his self-belief, which is almost unshakeable. But of course, this can be a weakness too. Heileman captures something of Obama's tendency to over-confidence in the following anecdote:
The president’s friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett sometimes pointed out that not only had he never managed an operation, he’d never really had a nine-to-five job in his life. Obama didn’t know what he didn’t know, yet his self-confidence was so stratospheric that once, in the context of thinking about Emanuel’s replacement, he remarked in all seriousness, “You know, I’d make a good chief of staff.” Those overhearing the comment somehow managed to suppress their laughter.
After spending most of the last two years ignoring his critics - just as he did during the campaign, and to great effect - he seems to have realised that some of them are talking sense. He and his White House have been too inward-looking and insular, too reactive, and too political, in the sense that the president has become a partisan figure rather than standing above the fray.
The midterm defeats administered a big enough shock to break through the complacency that forms the outer crust of Obama's deep self-belief. He and his closest advisers have woken up, later than everyone else, to the possibility that they might lose in 2012. To his credit, rather than turning further inward he has used the midterm pummelling to break out of his comfort zone, inviting a succession of outsiders to the White House to tell him what he's been getting wrong, and he has started acting on their advice. The biggest and most important manifestation of this course correction is the appointment of William Daley to chief of staff.
Heilemann suggests that the next two years will the White House trying to return to what the Obama campaign promised and embodied: calm, strategic, post-partisan leadership. Tucson was the overture. Act One begins tomorrow.
Full story here.
PBS has an absolutely fascinating Q&A with Robert Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist and one of the world's leading researchers into dreams and dreaming. In Stickgold's view, dreams are what happens when the brain searches for new connections between ideas, associations and emotions stored in the memory. Some of these explorations are dead ends and end up generating nonsense. Others help us land upon insights or work problems through towards resolution.
One reader asks whether we simply dream about what has happened to us during the day:
No. Dreams seem to be more about what the brain calculates as most important. Arguably, this can be what you spent most of the day thinking about, but it need not. A simple example would be an unexpected but very emotional event occurring shortly before you go to bed. You're much more likely to dream about that than the four hours you spent, say, weeding the lawn. Now you could argue that you are thinking about more important things while weeding, but that brings it back to being about what's important. Having said that, it's also undoubtedly true that anything you spend a lot of time thinking about during the day will be likely to be interpreted by your brain as important simply because you spent so much time thinking about it. But I suspect it's something like the importance multiplied by the time spent on it that determines what we dream about.
Stickgold also refers to an interesting hypothesis for the prevalence of flying dreams:
Allan Hobson has suggested that this is an example of the brain trying to figure out what's going on. In our dreams, we are almost always "in motion." But in reality, our bodies are lying in bed, motionless. At the same time that the dreaming brain is constructing the illusion of movement, it's also getting feedback from the body that we're not, in fact, moving any muscles. Flying might be one way that the brain can put this together—we're moving, but our limbs aren't bending and moving.
But do read the whole thing.
Ed Miliband and his new attack dog/shadow chancellor Ed Balls.
Johnson's departure from the frontline is a great shame for politics, and not just the Labour Party. Unusually for a politician these days, he is widely liked, and even loved. Unpompous, witty, fluent but rarely glib, he manages to be warm, likeable and serious all at once. He is also, as Martin Kettle points out, the last in a long line of working-class auto-didacts who came up through the ranks of the unions and then the Labour party to reach the commanding heights of government. It's all SPADS and PPEs from here on in.
(I think, by the way, that if he'd felt more comfortable in the job, he'd have stayed. I suspect he was already unhappy with it, and with this great personal unhappiness heaped on top, decided to call it quits.)
Having said that, I think the Labour front bench is stronger now that Ed Balls is shadow chancellor. I don't like Balls. He is dangerously impressed by himself. I think the role he played in the Blair-Brown wars - he was chief poisoner, head thug - did great damage to the effectiveness of the last government. His intellectual cleverness hides a strategic naiveity, as well as a lack of some basic human skills - the Cheshire Cat grin with which he delivered his faux-grave expression of sympathy for Alan Johnson's 'tough times' last night was indicative of a certain lack of empathy and self-awareness. But there is no doubt that he understands the details of fiscal and monetary policy far better than anyone else in the shadow cabinet, or indeed the cabinet, or that he has the kind tactical nous and relentless aggression to be a very effective adversary for George Osborne.
The only other question, which nobody, not even Miliband and Balls know the answer to, is whether they can form a relationship that has the strengths of the Blair-Brown partnership without its corrosive tensions. The problem, however, is that Blair and Brown had a lot of respect for each other, and recognised that each had something the other did not. I'm not sure that's true of these two.
OK so this post is not just an excuse to republish one of the weirdest photos of politicians in recent times. It's also to comment on this (from James Forsyth at The Spectator):
Andy Burnham crossed a line today in using Sarah Vine, Michael Gove’s wife, to take a pop at the Education Secretary. Burnham, mockingly citing a recent Vine column, argued that the fact that the Goves have a cleaner ‘raises further questions about whether he is living in the same world as the rest of us.’ ... This ungallant attack seems particularly unpleasant when you consider that Sarah Vine came to Frankie Burnham’s defence when she was attacked for the outfit she wore to an unveiling of a statue of the Queen Mother. Burnham should be man enough to apologise to the Secretary of State and his wife.
I agree. Burnham's attack was snide and petty. Gove, in response, was more grown-up, praising Burnham before asking for an apology.
What is it with Andy Burnham? He comes from a working-class background, made it to Cambridge and then to the cabinet. So he's clearly very smart and very disciplined. When he entered the Labour leadership contest, I hoped he would blossom into a real potential leader. But he didn't, and in fact he shrunk before our eyes. The fundamental problem was that he just didn't seem to have anything to say, except 'I'm not posh'. His displayed no political or intellectual boldness (other than his admirable refusal to recant his support for the Iraq war). Perhaps, at some level, he lacks confidence in himself.
He is also prone to making clumsy mistakes like the one above. He got himself into trouble a couple of years ago with a similarly ill-judged remark about the relationship between David Davis and Shami Chakrabarti. The remark was bad enough; worse was his subsequent failure to see why it caused offence. He seems to be lacking in the fundamental empathy-based social skills that politicians need to thrive at the top level.
On yesterday's incident, the only place I differ from James' interpretation of events is when he says that Burnham's offence is worse because Sarah Vine 'defended' Burnham's wife from public criticism. Hmm. Let's see what she said:
I shall never forget poor Andy Burnham’s wife turning up to an unveiling of a statue of the Queen Mother in 2009 in a red corsage and matching shoes, which one particularly vitriolic commentator described as “befitting a six-year-old with attention deficit disorder”. I’ve never met Frankie Burnham but I thought she looked rather sweet — and she’s clearly an intelligent woman who was simply trying to make an effort.
You can almost hear the trilling. If I was Frankie or Andy Burnham, this would actually annoy me more than full-frontal attacks. Not only does Vine repeat, for the amusement of her readers, a cruel phrase that she can conveniently attribute to some other ghastly person, she says Mrs Burnham looked 'rather sweet': a phrase that positively drips with middle-class condescension. 'Clearly intelligent', for God's sake - how on earth could you tell from what dress she's wearing? It's almost as if Vine is engaged in self-parody, vigorously signalling her own insincerity. But one can sympathise with Andy Burnham's personal animus against the Secretary of State's wife without thinking that making it public is anything but a terrible idea.
There's a larger political point here. Labour's biggest danger, post-defeat and post-Ed, is that it retreats to its natural constituency and becomes a sectional party of the working class, rather than - as under Blair - a party that the middle-classes want to be associated with. What exactly does Burnham mean by "the rest of us"? It may have escaped his attention, but these days having a cleaner doesn't make you the proprietor of Downton Abbey. The growth of the domestic services industry - cleaners, nannies - is one of the social and economic stories of the last twenty years. The middle-classes are unlikely to return to Labour in 2015 if they sense the party is stuck in 1985.
When he was president, Ronald Reagan was underrated by many on the left. These days, he is vastly overrated, and across the political spectrum, in America at least. He was very good at parts of the job and was lucky enough to be in power when the Soviet Union finally started to disintegrate under the weight of its own internal contradictions. Much that was a product of him 'being there' has subsequently been attributed to his visionary powers.
Here, Jonathan Chait discusses the speculation - revived in a new book by Reagan's son - that the president was suffering from Alzheimer's in his second term. That question seems to me to besides the point, which is that Reagan's mind was never up to much in the first place. He wasn't dumb, by any means: he had excellent, strong political antennae built on many years of executive experience, a good instinct for employing smart people, and of course, great powers of communication. Perhaps that is all you need to be a good president; that and a lot of luck. But - as we're reminded by this wonderful, scathing description by Hendrik Hertsberg (via Chait) of what it was like to work in Reagan's White House - he wasn't the sharpest tool in the box, or even the wisest head:
Within the White House, Reagan himself was consulted precisely as one consults a horoscope. To his frazzled assistants he had mystical power, but was not quite real. Like a soothsayer's chart, he required deciphering. "Reaganology,' Cannon writes, "was largely based on whatever gleanings could be obtained from body language." The president's pronouncements in meetings, which usually took the form of anecdotes that might or might not be relevant to the matter at hand, were open to various interpretations. When the conversation ranged beyond the handful of Animal Farm-type certainties that made up what Cannon calls Reagan's "core beliefs" (taxes bad, defense good; government bad, markets good) Reagan was lost. Though the people who served with him respected him for his occult powers — his rapport with the television audience his ability to read a text convincingly, the powerful simplicity of the core beliefs — they viewed his intellect with contempt. They thought he was a big baby, and they were right.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran shows off his new footwear range (Photo: NYT)
As some readers may recall, last month I linked to the most extraordinary report on how a computer virus known as Stuxnet had found its way into the ultra-secure Iranian nuclear facility and wrought havoc over a period of a year, as terrified engineers and their bosses struggled to work out why their machinery was screwing up so badly. With stories like this one is never quite sure what to believe, but it looks like this is for real, and it surely ought to be bigger news.
As per announcements in recent days from the State Department, Iran's nuclear program has been set back by several years, giving the US and its allies a very welcome period of breathing space to persuade the Iranian administration to cease it. Stuxnet seems to have been a joint US-Israeli project. This is a sign of things to come; cyber-warfare can now be added to diplomacy and 'real' warfare as a key factor in international relations. From the New York Times:
The biggest single factor in putting time on the nuclear clock appears to be Stuxnet, the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed.
In interviews over the past three months in the United States and Europe, experts who have picked apart the computer worm describe it as far more complex — and ingenious — than anything they had imagined when it began circulating around the world, unexplained, in mid-2009.
Many mysteries remain, chief among them, exactly who constructed a computer worm that appears to have several authors on several continents. But the digital trail is littered with intriguing bits of evidence.