Nudging Obama

Formerly "Obama Watch" Keeping the promise of change

Obama’s First Year: The Great Overlap and the Stall

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Dissent UpFront

Obama’s First Year: The Great Overlap and the Stall

Todd Gitlin

IT IS an ancient assumption that tribulation is the threshold to deliverance. George Bush’s rule was so deeply ruinous in so many different ways and for so long that his successor’s campaign automatically lent itself to messianic hopes. It wasn’t that Barack Obama declared himself the messiah—to the contrary—but that many of his supporters tended to project onto him all their pent-up desires, while he practiced not only the politics of overlap but the politics of strategic vagueness. (“Hope.” “Change.” “Change You Can Believe In.”) It was as if in Barack Obama all the desires intersected.

The left wanted, in the main, financial regulation, Keynesian investment, civil liberties, green jobs, laws to cut greenhouse gases, a collaborative foreign policy, and the end of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The broader center-left, along with independents, had contradictory hopes: intelligence and greater equality, high-mindedness and practicality, simple decencies—transparency and telling the truth, for openers—coupled with a fighting faith. And don’t underestimate the compelling imagery of a black president. As long as he was ideologically simpatico to the great overlap, his skin color was a bonus. But obviously it would not have sufficed.

Ideological overlap was a precondition for victory. But it was never as simple as Obama and his well-wishers said. A lot of Obama’s supporters were Progressives—not in the current sense, a euphemism for liberals, but in the original sense, from the early twentieth century. They wanted, in other words, the politics of high-minded, middle-class idealism: throw the rascals out, clean up corruption, put adversaries around the table and reason together. A lot also were populists, who combined a politics of sturdy, working-class virtue—fairness and less inequality—with a politics of resentment. Progressives are, in the main, insiders—professionals, used to being deferred to. Populists are, in the main, outsiders—amateurs, galvanized by emotional furies. (I wrote about this split, under the rubric of Parties and Movements, in my book The Bulldozer and the Big Tent, and an article in Dissent, “Democratic Dilemmas: The Party and the Movements”.)

A lot of his supporters weren’t sure what they were and wouldn’t even have recognized the categories. But one way or the other they wanted a restart. The contradictions were real and hard to confront. It wasn’t cynical but tactically useful to suppress them.

ANY DEMOCRAT elected in 2008 would have carried a huge weight. Obama, so nicely equipped to bear this weight, found that what it takes to run a triumphant campaign is not what it takes to convert an electoral victory into tangible results. Once in office, he played to what is not only one of his strong suits but the strongest element in his character: Progressivism. He was eminently rational, and sounded that way, if with preacherly overtones. He deliberated. He was mannerly. (When it came to Afghanistan, he was more mannerly to war supporters than those who preferred phasing out.) He was mindful, perhaps too mindful, of the optics of rule—thus the stimulus had to be kept below the (black) magic number of $1 trillion.

He learned from the Clinton health care debacle of 1993-94 that the president cannot ram a bill down the throats of Congress. He veered in the opposite direction, leaving it to the legislators—meaning also the lobbyists—to write a bill. He thought he could drive a wedge into the “Coalition of No” by splitting the pharmaceutical lobby from the insurance lobby. That was a reasonable idea. The problem was that it turned out to be mistaken.

So all summer, everything fell into the hands of the “Gang of Six” from the Senate Finance Committee—representing states that account for a grand 2.6 percent of Americans. The most laughable national legislative body in the world spent the summer in thrall to the Party of No. The Party of No was fueled by an outsider movement, the Tea Party, more sure of itself—more activist!—than its quiescent opposites on the left. The Senate did what it normally does: stall its majority.

Stuck in a morass, Obama hung tough for post-partisanship. Months passed. After his fine September 9 speech to Congress, he retreated back behind the scenes. Republican “moderates”—all two of them from Maine—and that most immoderate quisling from Connecticut took every concession as a reason to demand more. When the country is largely quiescent and distracted, when the media love “death panels,” when the majority party plays post-partisan and the minority doesn’t, when supermajorities are taken for granted as having the moral standing of majorities, then the plutocrat-friendly partisans can stall.

Obama’s only chance of coming out of the stall was to return to campaign mode. But the White House—and the Obama movement of the year before—had let outside energy wither. Obama for America, the 13-million-strong Internet list, changed not only its name to Organizing for America, but its raison d’être. It surely wouldn’t have been easy, either for legal or psychological reasons, to fire up the popular engines again. But we see what happened when no one seriously tried. Enter the Tea Party movement.

AT THIS writing, there can still be a constructive health care bill. But a lot of time and momentum is already lost. We’re still facing double-digit unemployment. Obama has to play his other strong suits. He is a lucid explainer and an inspirational moralist. He needs to combine the two and go post-post-partisan. He can explain that choice to himself because he is an empiricist. (This is the upside of Progressivism.) You try an approach and you see what happens. If playing nice doesn’t bring the necessary results, then you adjust accordingly. The way to adjust now is take a certain risk of looking like an angry black guy—but with a smile. He should welcome the hatred of the corrupt financial industry, the Republicans, and the Tea Party.

The way to go post-post-partisan is to explain patiently, in large forums, how the Republicans erected one brick wall after another. Procedurally, the Party of No availed themselves of the Senate’s supermajority rules. Having brought down the country, made us despised around the world, let insurance companies and drug companies keep a hammerlock on health care, produced a gigantic deficit, and then—to boot—brought down the world economy and produced high unemployment, these know-nothings are hostage to a party base that believes, resolutely believes, that effective government = socialism = Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Che. (Glenn Beck made this case in an astounding propaganda film on Fox News Jan. 22, “Revolutionary Holocaust.” If you think I’m making this up, check it out here.)

Obama’s populist turn is overdue. How convincing will it be?

Todd Gitlin is on Dissent’s editorial board and is a professor at Columbia’s Journalism School.


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February 28, 2010 at 5:37 pm

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Obama’s First Year: It Could Have Been Worse

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Dissent UpFront

Obama’s First Year: It Could Have Been Worse

AFTER OUTRAGE, disappointment is probably the easiest emotion of the left. I am always disappointed before the fact, so as not to be too disappointed afterwards. Right now, though, I am resisting disappointment. Granted, Obama’s first year has not seen a radical transformation of American society—not even the transformation that Roosevelt wrought in his first one hundred days. But there is a reason for that. Roosevelt came into office after three years of severe depression and frighteningly high unemployment. The country was ready for radical experiments. Obama came into office after only a few months of recession, and the country wasn’t ready for much more than he has done.

He brought with him a group of economic advisors and policy-makers who were committed to the restoration of the status quo ante—not to any radical reconstruction of the economic order. Had they been social democrats, rather than conventional liberals, they might have recognized the urgency of job creation and invested more heavily in it. But any more significant economic reconstruction was not a felt need in the country; there had been no political preparation for it; there was no movement mobilizing support for it and nothing like agreement on its necessity in Congress, not even among Democrats. The mere fact that we, on the left, wanted reconstruction is no reason to be disappointed that it didn’t happen. We are not entitled to get what we want, and we shouldn’t expect to get what we want until we convince a majority of our fellow citizens that they should want it too. And that we plainly haven’t done.

Popular anger against the bankers might still force a stronger reform of the financial system than Obama’s advisors originally endorsed. That would be a good thing. But I am not disappointed that Obama has refused to summon up and then exploit a wave of populist fury. Populist politics is always more available to the right than to the left, and the anger it arouses tends to float freely from bankers to Jews to immigrants to “communists”—to all the standard objects of resentment. Our politics is different. We need to make the case for structural reform, build public support for it, and strengthen the intermediate associations—like unions and consumer groups—that can educate and mobilize their members.

A lot more of that sort of work has been done to reform health care than to reform the banking system, but not enough, not nearly enough, to enable Obama to avoid the compromises that have been forced upon him—and the further compromises that will be forced upon him after the debacle in Massachusetts. For a while it looked as if we were going to get a piece of legislation that writers like Paul Krugman and Paul Starr described as a great achievement. That may be unachievable now, but even then it wasn’t quite the achievement that we dreamed about. We have been told: “In dreams begin responsibilities.” So where are the responsible agents of a real reform? Obama’s election did nothing to change the fecklessness of Democrats in the House and Senate. The left needs other agents—and so does Obama.

Many Americans are going to be better off because of Obama’s first year than they might have been. The recession didn’t turn into a depression; unemployment stopped at 10 percent (though it’s actually higher and in any case, much too high); some, not enough, foreclosures were prevented; some, not enough, small businesses got loans they wouldn’t have gotten; family savings were saved and pension funds stabilized. And it may still happen that in a few years (which is too long) many more (but not all) Americans will have access to decent health care, paid for—one way or another—by the federal government. The costs will continue to rise; the insurance companies will have too much power, but…

It could have been worse.

Michael Walzer is Dissent’s co-editor. He and Nicolaus Mills edited the Dissent-Penn Press book, Getting Out: Historical Perspectives on Leaving Iraq.

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February 28, 2010 at 5:33 pm

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Doctors’ Group: Obama Plan Leaves Millions Uninsured, Boosts Private Insurers

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Doctors’ Group: Obama Plan Leaves Millions Uninsured, Boosts Private Insurers

by Physicians for National Health Program

WASHINGTON – President Obama’s health care proposal, preserving as it does a central role for the for-profit, private health insurance industry, is incapable of achieving the kind of universal, comprehensive and affordable reform the country needs, a spokesman for a national doctors’ group said Wednesday.

“Regrettably, the president’s proposal is built on some of the worst aspects of the Senate bill,” said Dr. Quentin Young, national coordinator of Physicians for a National Health Program, an organization of 17,000 doctors who support single-payer, Medicare-for-All approach to reform. Young’s statement comes on the eve of the president’s bipartisan summit in Washington.

“For example, the president’s proposal would ship hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to the private health insurance industry in the form of subsidies,” Young said. “And to help finance this, it would impose a new tax on health benefits of workers, especially those in high-cost states.

“Its individual mandate would force millions of middle-income uninsured Americans to buy insurers’ skimpy products – insurance policies full of gaps like ever-rising co-pays, deductibles and premiums. Such policies already leave middle-class American families vulnerable to economic hardship and medical bankruptcy in the event of a serious illness like cancer,” continued Young, citing a recent study.

“Even so, at least 23 million people would remain uninsured,” he said. “We know that being uninsured raises your chance of dying by about 40 percent,” he continued, citing another recent study. “That translates into about 23,000 unnecessary deaths each year. As physicians, we find this completely unacceptable.”

“In short,” Young said, “this proposal is an insurance company bonanza, not good, evidence-based health reform. The president would do better by abandoning the insurance and drug companies and instead taking up the single-payer approach.” His group has estimated that such an approach could save hundreds of billions of dollars annually by simplifying health administration.

“By building on and improving the already popular Medicare program, we could put our patients’ interests first,” he said. “Were President Obama to do so, he would meet with strong public support, including from the medical community.”

Although the physicians’ group requested an invitation to Thursday’s summit at Blair House, no reply from the White House has been forthcoming, Young said. Similarly, requests from Reps. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Anthony Weiner of New York and Peter Welch of Vermont president that single-payer advocates be included in the meeting have apparently gone unanswered.

Outside the Blair House on Thursday, a grassroots “Sidewalk Summit for Medicare for All” will underscore popular support for the measure.

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February 24, 2010 at 10:40 pm

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What Ever Happened to Candidate Obama?

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What Ever Happened to Candidate Obama?

Subject to Debate

By Katha Pollitt

How disappointed are the Obama warriors of 2008? “May your love for me not fade as quickly as your love for Obama,” read one pale pink e-card making the rounds on Valentine’s Day. Obama himself addressed the topic of a one-term presidency in a recent interview with Diane Sawyer, albeit in a noble, idealistic, theoretical way (“I’d rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president”). Well, OK, who wouldn’t rather be really good for four years than mediocre for eight; but how many really good one-term presidents have there been? (Only one–James K. Polk–according to a New York Times op-ed by Robert W. Merry, publisher of Stratfor and author of a biography of, well, James K. Polk.)

I’m still glad I supported Obama over Hillary Clinton. If Hillary had won the election, every single day would be a festival of misogyny. We would hear constantly about her voice, her laugh, her wrinkles, her marriage and what a heartless, evil bitch she is for doing something–whatever!–men have done since the Stone Age. Each week would bring its quotient of pieces by fancy women writers explaining why they were right not to have liked her in the first place. Liberal pundits would blame her for discouraging the armies of hope and change, for bringing back the same-old same-old cronies and advisers, for letting healthcare reform get bogged down in inside deals, for failing to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan–which would be attributed to her being a woman and needing to show toughness–for cozying up to Wall Street, deferring to the Republicans and ignoring the cries of the people. In other words, for doing pretty much what Obama is doing. This way I get to think, Whew, at least you can’t blame this on a woman.

I’m not even sure how much of it you can blame on Obama. We’ve had ample evidence of how little power he has over the Democratic barons of the Senate–so little that he had to bribe Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu with great big haunches of pork to get their votes on a healthcare bill that would benefit millions of their constituents. He is trying to bring some of the Guantánamo prisoners to trial on the US mainland, and Democrats like Jim Webb have sold him out. The Republicans have made clear their intention to obstruct his every move, and thanks to antidemocratic customs like the filibuster and the Senate hold, they’ve done a pretty good job so far. These are basic features of the landscape.

But let’s not go overboard. The real-world constraints on what Obama can do are considerable. (Thank you, founding fathers, for setting up the Senate so that white, rural, conservative states with the population of Staten Island get the same two senators each as multiethnic urban powerhouses like California and New York. That little gift to the slave states of 1788 continues its antidemocratic work today.) But he is, after all, the president. He can propose, he can set forth an agenda, he can demand. He can ask for more than he knows he can get, he can push the boundaries. He doesn’t have to do the Republicans’ work for them–by asking for a smaller stimulus than necessary, by having the bulk of healthcare reform not kick in until 2014 to keep costs down, by praising obscenely rich bankers as “very savvy businessmen” to a nation with a 9.7 percent official unemployment rate. It’s as if the Blue Dogs have gotten into his head, and instead of thinking how to push the possibilities to the max, he’s thinking how he can placate his opponents in advance. Right now, the story of healthcare reform suggests that this is not possible–it simply enables a fresh set of even more egregious demands.

It’s true that Obama was elected with the votes of many independents and some Republicans, and he has to respect that or end up building houses with Jimmy Carter. Lots of people were inspired by his promise to transcend party differences and take what was best from both Democrats and Republicans–I never understood it, because from my perspective Republicans have nothing to offer; but he did say it, and people took it seriously. A year later, though, those independents are leaving his side in droves, and with the possible exception of ordinary people of color, the base–prochoice women, labor, civil rights activists, opponents of war, progressives, leftists, civil libertarians–is demoralized. His poll numbers may be above 50 percent (although as I write a CNN poll shows a majority opposing a second term). But passable polls don’t measure enthusiasm, and enthusiasm is what gets people to write checks they can’t really afford, give up their vacations to knock on doors, spend their evenings phone-banking and push their friends to vote. It’s easy to dismiss progressives as insignificant and dreamy or, as Rahm Emanuel put it, “fucking retarded.” But Obama won’t get re-elected without them. They are the troops.

During the campaign Obama was often attacked as being all airy speeches and noble rhetoric. Maybe he took that criticism too much to heart and made the mistake of trying to rack up accomplishments quickly through wonkery and compromise and deal-making, the normal things politicians do–only unfortunately the Republicans aren’t interested in governing, and the Blue Dogs are mostly interested in themselves. We’ll never know what would have happened if he’d continued to call on the better angels of our nature–if, for example, he’d presented healthcare reform as social solidarity, if he’d made people really feel the suffering of others and called upon them to right this terrible wrong. Maybe people–including progressives–wouldn’t have been so easily discouraged and disillusioned by the inevitable complications and imperfections of the plan itself.

What is the point of Obama being conciliatory and careful if his opponents are reckless and don’t want to conciliate? Why not use this awful moment when so many are losing their jobs and houses, and states are cutting services to the bone, to remind people why they voted for him?

About Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt’s writing has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Her new book of poems, The Mind-Body Problem, has just been published by Random House. Her previous books include Learning to Drive: and Other Life Stories (Random House), a collection of personal essays. more…

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February 24, 2010 at 3:13 am

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A Decoy Gambit? How badly does Obama want to impose pricing limits on health insurers?

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How to fix health policy.

A Decoy Gambit? How badly does Obama want to impose pricing limits on health insurers?

Click here for a guide to following the health care reform story online.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.

Barack Obama

“Watch out for people who lure you away from the real issue with the Decoy Gambit,” warns Roger Dawson, author of Secrets of Power Negotiating. The decoy gambit is a negotiating tactic in which Party A introduces a demand he doesn’t really care about. If all goes well, Party B will make a concession to persuade Party A to drop his insincere demand. Dawson claims the decoy gambit is unethical (though he admits he used it once to lower a hotel bill). I say all’s fair in politics.

Allow me to explain. On Feb. 22, President Obama introduced a White House proposal on health care reform, crafted from the bills that already passed the House and Senate. The proposal adds some minor features of the House bill to the Senate bill, none of them very surprising to people who followed the House-Senate negotiations that occurred before Republican Scott Brown’s election to Sen. Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat blew them all to hell. For example, the White House plan makes subsidies to people who purchase nongroup health insurance a tad more generous to people at lower incomes than the Senate provided for. It also adopts a few Republican proposals, none of them of any great moment, aimed mostly at battling fraud in Medicare and Medicaid. And it further scales back the ill-advised tax on high-value “Cadillac” health plans by raising the threshold (which started at $23,000, then rose to $24,000) to $27,500 and by putting off its implementation (for everyone, not just union members) to 2018. To take up the revenue slack, the White House builds on the Senate bill’s 0.9 percent Medicare surtax on family incomes above $250,000 by adding, as foretold, a surtax on investment income for families in that same income group. Also unsurprising is what the White House bill doesn’t include. It contains no public option, and it doesn’t address how health insurers receiving government subsidies may treat abortion. The failure to resolve this last question, which has lately received scant attention, poses the biggest obstacle to health reform’s passage.

So far, absolutely nothing to cause Republicans to cry, “I was blind, but now I see.” This is essentially the same bill the GOP has opposed all along.

But the White House also added something new. Something bold and somewhat surprising. It added a proposal that would give the federal government veto power over insurance premium hikes. I suspect this provision is a decoy—something the White House added so it could be bargained away later.

Under the Obama proposal (which was modeled on an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D.-Calif., that never got a floor vote) the Health and Human Services department would create a new Health Insurance Rate Authority to review health insurance premium increases and determine whether they’re fair. Thirty-three states currently perform this task. The Obama proposal would enable such review in the remaining 17 states and provide backup to all 50.

The proposal builds on provisions in both the House bill (Title I, Section 104) and the Senate’s (Title One, Section 1003) empowering HHS to conduct an annual review of excessive rate increases. The purpose of these, however, is mere disclosure; HHS would post evidence of price-gouging online. It would then be up to state insurance commissioners to use the data to recommend to the newly created health insurance exchanges that the worst offenders not be allowed to participate. The Obama proposal, by contrast, would empower HHS itself to scale back proposed premium hikes or demand rebates for hikes that have already taken effect. Although this does not constitute across-the-board price controls (each premium increase would be considered on its own merits), it is a form of price control, something conservatives have always hated and that liberals have long shied away from at the national level. Administering it could prove a nightmare.

The central issue, of course, is defining “excessive.” Are health insurers gouging prices now? The evidence is mixed. A report issued earlier this month by Health Care for America Now!, a labor-backed pro-reform coalition, showed that the nation’s five largest for-profit health insurers (WellPoint, UnitedHealth, Humana, Cigna, and Aetna) saw a combined profit increase last year of 56 percent, yet provided private coverage to 2.7 million fewer people than they had the year before. But the profits weren’t across the board; Aetna saw an 8 percent decline. The huge combined increase was driven mostly by Cigna, whose 356 percent increase appears to be unrelated to its core health insurance business. As for declining private coverage: Health insurers argue (not implausibly) that it’s largely driven by the tendency of young, healthy people to drop nongroup health insurance in tough economic times.

Profits in the health insurance business aren’t as great as many suppose. In a Sept. 25 online column for the New York Times (“How Much Money Do Insurance Companies Make? A Primer“), Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt calculated the profit margin for WellPoint, parent company to Anthem Blue Cross (which earlier this month caught hell from the Obama administration for raising California premiums by up to 39 percent). In 2008, Reinhardt wrote, WellPoint’s profit margin was 4.07 percent. In 2007 it was 5.47 percent. In 2006 it was 5.42 percent. “Relative to other industries,” Reinhardt concluded, “these are not particularly high numbers.” None of the big five ranks among the United States’ 10 most profitable insurance companies, as ranked in 2009 by Fortune; on Fortune‘s list of the 53 most profitable industry sectors, health insurance ranks 35th. One expects more from an industry that enjoys so ludicrous a degree of market concentration. A 2007 study by the American Medical Association found that fully 64 percent of all metropolitan statistical areas had at least one insurer that had a market share of at least 50 percent.

The Obama administration is aware of all this, but bashing insurance companies when premiums are rising sky-high is can’t-lose politics, especially considering that health insurance is the one major health-industry sector that for the past six months has actively opposed the health reform bill. It’s a nice way to paper over the uncomfortable reality that the health reform bills that cleared the House and the Senate do almost nothing to control medical inflation. And it should help shore up Obama’s Democratic base, which loves to imagine that health insurance profits are grotesquely huge. That’s why they’re so evil! Liberals seldom consider that the reason health insurers are so stingy and so untrustworthy is not that they’re hugely profitable but that they aren’t hugely profitable. Indeed, it’s far from clear that the economic model of private for-profit health insurance is viable when we demand that health insurers behave decently. Conservatives would say that’s an argument to ease up on regulation. I say it’s an argument not to weep too many tears for an industry that may be going the way of the dodo. If the market can’t provide decent health insurance, the government (or heavily regulated nonprofits) certainly can. But I don’t think making the federal government the referee on premium increases is an especially good way to regulate private health insurance. Neither, I suspect, does President Obama.

Threatening to do so, however, is a great way to drive Republicans crazy. Should they demand he retreat, Obama can do so and then use his bully pulpit to point out that his is the only side in this negotiation willing to make any concessions. I’m not convinced it will get a health reform bill passed. Threatening to create a government-insurance “public option” program was, at least in the minds of some Democrats, similarly a decoy (though the favored term was “bargaining chip”). Yet jettisoning it didn’t win any GOP votes. But the decoy gambit isn’t a bad way to put an advantageous spin on health reform’s demise. I wish I thought the White House expects to achieve anything more than that.

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February 23, 2010 at 5:47 am

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So much for reform: Immigration Reform Advocates Losing Patience with Obama

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Immigration Reform Advocates Losing Patience with Obama

by Marcelo Ballvé

Subhash Kateel thinks impatience with President Obama’s immigration agenda has begun to boil over. An immigrant advocate in Florida, Kateel says there is a potent mix of frustration and disappointment percolating through immigrant communities nationwide.

President Obama promised sweeping changes to the immigration system before taking office and raised immigrants’ hopes, says Kateel. Instead of delivering, the administration has maintained the status quo: high-handed enforcement tactics that separate families and funnel immigrants into substandard immigration courts and detention centers.

“Yeah, things are changing,” says Kateel, who works for the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Rights Coalition. “They’re getting worse. That’s what we hear on the ground.”

Kateel is one among many immigrant advocates nationwide who sees a need to reignite the immigrant rights battle with more imaginative and hard-hitting tactics.

Arrests of immigrants – mostly for petty crimes – have increased under Obama, advocates point out. Department of Homeland security budgeting for immigration enforcement, detention and deportation has continued ballooning.

The advocates would like to hold the White House accountable for its broken promises. Plans are underway to attract tens of thousands of activists to Washington, D.C. on March 21 to demand reform.

But besides relying on timeworn tactics like street protests and lobbying lawmakers, the immigrant rights advocates also have turned to more imaginative and radical approaches.

One is the shaming of specific public figures that are perceived as enablers of anti-immigrant activity and sentiment.

Late last year, CNN anchor Lou Dobbs resigned after he was targeted in a high-profile media campaign, “Basta Dobbs,” that painted him as a megaphone for distorted information on immigration.

Last month, over 10,000 people turned out in Phoenix to rally against local Sheriff Joe Arpaio who, thanks to a contract with the federal government, has transformed his office into a de-facto hard-line arm of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

On the same day, Jan. 16, smaller rallies were held nationwide to coincide with the anti-Arpaio protest.

Faith leaders, young people and more recent immigrants are playing prominent roles in organizing protests like the Phoenix rally.

The Phoenix rally was successful in part thanks to a high level of engagement from young people, says Shuya Ohno, spokesman for the Reform Immigration for American campaign in Washington, D.C.

“I would say youth are leading the way right now,” agrees Katherine Gorell, communications director for the Florida Immigrant Rights Coalition.

Students have recently innovated with their own original protest concepts. Along with four other students from South Florida, 23-year-old Felipe Matos is walking 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, D.C., to promote in-state tuition at public colleges for undocumented immigrants.

“The government hasn’t done anything for us, so we need to do something for ourselves,” says Matos.

Like two of the other walkers Matos is an accomplished student at Miami Dade College, but is blocked from financial aid and other forms of support due to his lack of papers., an online Latino organizing group that also helped organize “Basta Dobbs,” is one of the backers of the students’ protest, dubbed the “Trail of Dreams.”

In New York, a five-day road trip this week dubbed “Road Trip for our Future” took 10 immigration activists, many of them first- and second-generation immigrants, on an itinerary that includes farm towns, rust-belt cities, and suburban communities.

The activists held rallies outside lawmakers’ offices and met with local activist groups including, in tiny Pittsford, N.Y.,-“The Raging Grannies,” a troupe of elderly ladies who sang a ditty in favor of immigration reform.

One of the caravanning activists, Gabriela Villareal, is also advocacy policy director for the New York Immigration Coalition. She expressed peoples’ frustration with the immigration system with a personal anecdote. Under current law, it would take 22 years for her to lawfully bring her adult brother from the Philippines to live with her in the United States.

Hunger strikes – that age-old tool of last resort in political protests – have lately become more common in immigrant rights organizing.

Last year, solitary confinement had to be used to break apart hunger strikes at an immigrant detention facility in Basile, LA. And at the beginning of this year Florida activists grouped as “Fast for our Families” went on a fast to protest inflexible deportation policies that the fasters said needlessly separate immigrant families.

The Florida group was joined on Jan. 18 by some 70 fasters at the Port Isabel Detention Center in Bayview, Texas.

Some of the new immigration activism is taking place in states and localities that would hardly be expected to be hotbeds of immigrant rights agitation.

Alma Díaz, a 28-year-old bartender and mother of a three-year-old daughter, helped organize an unexpectedly large pro-immigrant rally in Cincinnati last month in collaboration with workers’ and faith-based groups.

“Lately, this year, and the final months of last year I’ve seen many Latinos … including many who can’t yet speak English, who are informing themselves, and are organizing and making themselves heard on immigration,” says Díaz.

In Utah, Colombian-American Isabel Rojas has begun urging leaders and rank-and-file members of the Mormon Church – of which she is also a member – to take a more explicit stance in favor of immigrants.

The Mormon Church or Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS church for short) has spoken out in favor of compassionate treatment of immigrants, but has stopped short of condemning Utah immigration legislation that critics saw as too harsh.

Rojas hopes that as its immigrant membership continues to swell the LDS Church will join the Catholic Church and some evangelical and protestant denominations in advocating openly for immigrant rights.

But in the meantime, Utah’s get-tough 2009 immigration bill had one favorable consequence for her work with Comunidades Unidas, a grassroots immigrant advocacy group.

“That scare was what got people looking again at re-energizing and reorganizing,” Rojas says.

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February 23, 2010 at 2:23 am

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Obama’s Big Bang goes bust

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Obama’s Big Bang could go bust


Stars shine in a galaxy, President Obama speaks and a town hall attendee yells.

Barack Obama’s Big Bang is beginning to backfire, as his plans for rapid, once-in-a-generation overhauls of energy, financial regulation and health care are running into stiff resistance, both in Washington and around the country.

The Obama theory was simple, though always freighted with risk: Use a season of economic anxiety to enact sweeping changes the public likely wouldn’t stomach in ordinary times. But the abrupt swing in the public’s mood, from optimism about Obama’s possibility to concern he may be overreaching, has thrown the White House off its strategy and forced the president to curtail his ambitions.

Some Democrats point to a decision in June as the first vivid sign of trouble for Obama. These Democrats say the White House, in retrospect, made a grievous mistake by muscling conservative Democrats in swing districts to vote for a cap-and-trade energy bill that was very unpopular among their constituents.

Many of those members were pounded back home because Democrats passed a bill Republicans successfully portrayed as a big tax increase on consumers. The result: many conservative Democrats were gun-shy about taking any more risky votes — or going out on a limb on health care.

The other result: The prospects for winning final passage of a cap-and-trade bill this year are greatly diminished. And, while most Democrats still predict a health care bill will pass this year, it is likely to be a shadow of what Obama once had planned.

“The majority-makers are the freshman and sophomores from conservative districts where there’s this narrative building about giveaways, bailouts and too much change at once,” said a top House Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to discuss internal politics candidly. “There’s this big snowball building in those districts. That’s why those folks are so scared.”

David Axelrod, Obama’s political architect, said it was “very clear early in the transition” that Obama would have to attack a number of festering issues simultaneously.

“The times demanded it,” he said in an interview. “We didn’t have the luxury of taking things sequentially, year after year, and hoping we got there. That’s the reason that all these major issues had been deferred for decades: Change is hard.”

Axelrod said the president is “looking forward to an active fall” when he returns from next week’s vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, and is not as worried about the outlook as the denizens of Washington, where “every day is election day.”

But the “Big Bang” theory of governance, as some White House insiders called it, is not without risk and consequences.

By doing so much, so fast, Obama gave Republicans the chance to define large swaths of the debate. Conservatives successfully portrayed the stimulus bill as being full of pork for Democrats. Then Obama lost control of the health care debate by letting Republicans get away with their bogus claims about “death panels.” The GOP also has successfully raised concerns that the Obama plan is a big-government takeover of health care — and much of Middle America bought the idea, according to polls.

By doing so much, so fast, Obama never sufficiently educated the public on the logic behind his policies. He spent little time explaining the biggest bailouts in U.S. history, which he inherited but supported and expanded. And then he lost crucial support on the left by not following up quickly with new and stricter rules for Wall Street. On Friday, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman echoed a concern widely shared among leading liberals. “I don’t know if administration officials realize just how much damage they’ve done themselves with their kid-gloves treatment of the financial industry, just how badly the spectacle of government supported institutions paying giant bonuses is playing.”

By doing so much so fast, Obama jammed the circuits on Capitol Hill. Congress has a hard time doing even one big thing well at a time. Congress is good at passing giveaways and tax cuts, but has not enacted a transformative piece of social legislation since President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform of 1996. “There’s a reason things up here were built to go slowly,” said another Democratic aide.

By doing so doing so much, so fast, he has left voters — especially independents — worried that he got an overblown sense of his mandates and is doing, well, too much too fast. A Washington Post-ABC News poll published Friday found that independents’ confidence in Obama’s ability to make the right decisions had dropped 20 points since the Inauguration, from 61 percent to 41 percent.

Axelrod and others argue Obama had no choice but to tackle all of these issues at once. That might be true for a stimulus bill and the bank and auto bailouts — but that case is harder to make for energy and health care, which have been the focus of intense debate for decades past and probably will for decades to come.

Go-big-or-go-home isn’t the only theory of the case that a new president can adopt. The most promising alternative is to build public support over time by showing competence and success, then using that to leverage bigger things.

So imagine if Obama had focused on fixing the economy, and chosen presidential power over congressional accommodation and constructed his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a true, immediate stimulus without the pork and paybacks.

He then could have pushed through tougher regulation of financial institutions, making it clear people were paying for their sins, and would have a much harder time doing it again. This would have delighted the left and perhaps bought Obama more durable support among independents. Instead, the left thinks he’s beholden to investment banks, and much of the public sees no consequences for the financial mess.

Add in some serious budget cuts, and Obama would have positioned himself as a new kind of liberal with the courage to tame Washington and Wall Street, as promised. Under this scenario, Obama might be getting more credit for the economic recovery that appears to be under way. This would have positioned him to win health care reform starting next year — a mighty achievement, and clear vindication against the doubters. Some White House officials said they are skeptical of moving controversial bills in an election year, when lawmakers are often more timid.

White House officials say they never seriously considered a more incremental approach to the year, though they did privately discuss trying to get regulation of the financial sector done right after the stimulus bill. There was too much disagreement among Democrats at the time over how far to go with regulation to proceed.

If the current strategy fails, the same person who got much of the credit for the crisp first 100 days will get some of the blame: White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. It was Emanuel who has strongly advocated the big-bang approach, declaring during the transition: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Now, what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do.”

The confidence of Obama’s aides was bolstered by their fresh memory that a similar approach had worked very effectively for then-President George W Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. With the public on edge, Bush was able to enact restrictive policies under the banner of protecting American soil, and build an entire new department of government that voters otherwise might have opposed. The economic meltdown would be Obama’s Sept. 11 — the predicate for sweeping legislation that he wanted to enact anyway.

Just past halftime in his first year, the president has won passage of a long list of bills that the White House points to as proof of their approach. In addition to the stimulus, Obama signed major bills on tobacco, pay equity, children’s health insurance, national service and the mortgage rescue.

If he gets health care and either energy or regulation this year, it would be hard to argue the big-bang plan wasn’t a success.

Former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), now president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, cautions that any verdict on Obama would be “kind of like judging a major surgical operation in the middle of the operation.”

With Obama reaching the defining season of his freshman year, Hamilton said the current agenda reminds him of the scale of the Great Society programs Congress was tackling when he came to Congress in 1965. “This president thinks big but I also think he acts pragmatically,” Hamilton said. “So many things in a congressional session come together at the last few hours, the last few weeks.”

But sometimes they just come undone.

Zachary Abrahamson contributed to this report.

Written by bearmarketnews

February 23, 2010 at 2:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized