Monday, February 28, 2011

Three Oscar Acceptance Speeches

Melissa Leo’s Oscar acceptance speech had to be the worst ever. The problem wasn’t that she lacked the self-possession to keep herself from spontaneously uttering an obscenity. That, if anything, was the high point of her speech because, having been bleeped-out, it afforded the television audience a moment of respite from the idiocy of virtually everything else she said. The real problem with Leo’s speech was that her spontaneity was so transparently affected. Take a look at the F-bomb and decide for yourself:

Do you really believe that Leo was so overwhelmed by the reality of winning an Oscar that she forgot that you’re not supposed to say f*** in front of a full theater and national television audience? Sorry, not buying it. This is a woman who launched a public campaign for this Oscar that was vulgar even by Hollywood standards. Now, clutching her prize, she was realizing an artistic and commercial aspiration that she must have experienced throughout her whole professional life. Is it possible to believe that every one of her gestures hadn’t been rehearsed countless times before?

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Playing By the Rules

After a brutal winter in the New York City area, it takes the beginning of baseball spring training to get the blood coarsing through my veins again.  So I thought I'd rerun a slightly edited version of this post from 6/3/10 that united my interests in politics, law and baseball:

I don’t hold it against conservatives too much for messing up the political world because, from my perspective, that’s what conservatives are for. I’d like in innumerable respects to mess the world up even more from their perspective. But I draw the line when it comes to baseball.

Today all baseball fans who’ve heard about how a manifestly bad call robbed Armando Galarraga of a perfect game are asking themselves a question: should baseball records be corrected on the basis of unimpeachable video replays and the umpire’s open admission that he made a terrible mistake? That’s a difficult question because it involves making an exception to the well-established baseball rule that judgment calls made by umpires on the field are final.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Reflections on Obama’s Libya Statement

Obama finally said something about the carnage in Libya on Wednesday. The usual neocon suspects weren’t the only ones complaining that it was more than a day late and a dollar short. Here, for example, are the editors of the Washington Post (my emphasis):
“Governments around the world have been condemning [Gaddafi’s] appalling stance and the terrible slaughter it has caused. The European Union has agreed in principle to impose sanctions, and the Arab League has said Libya will be excluded from its meetings. British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi all condemned the regime's violence. Said French President Nicolas Sarkozy: ‘The continuing brutal and bloody crackdown against the Libyan civilian population is revolting. The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights.’

“By late Wednesday only one major Western leader had failed to speak up on Libya: Barack Obama. . . . Shouldn't the president of the United States be first to oppose the depravities of a tyrant such as Mr. Gaddafi? Apparently this one doesn't think so.”
Although it was too polite to say it bluntly, the Post was adding its voice to the neocon choir complaining about yet another “failure of presidential leadership.” That’s a misleading formulation, however, insofar as it suggests that Obama has somehow fallen short of his own standards, that he’s trying, unsuccessfully, to do something that he aspires to do. When you look at what Obama actually said, that’s pretty clearly not the case.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cynics and Fanatics

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, you’ll recall, is the guy who presided over the brutal suppression of protests in the streets of Tehran in 2009. Take a look at what he has to say about what’s going on in Libya and try not to laugh:

How are we to understand Ahmadinejad’s shameless hypocrisy? We’re inclined toward laughter because our first impulse (see e.g., Allahpundit here) is to apply an Orwellian template and write him off as an inept propagandist. On this view, Ahmadinejad is cynically applying a different standard to Sunni dictators than he applies to himself and his colleagues running Iran in the expectation that the people he’s addressing will take his words to heart because they won’t notice what he’s doing.

The Administration’s Decision Not to Defend DOMA

The Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) provides, among other things, that “marriage” is confined to opposite-sex spouses under federal law. That makes it vulnerable to an equal protection challenge. In our constitutional system, the legal recognition of marriages has always been the prerogative of the states.  When it comes to dispensing federally mandated benefits and burdens predicated on marriage, same-sex spouses married under the duly enacted laws of states in which they reside are treated differently than opposite-sex spouses. So, although it’s widely interpreted as a matter of Obama’s throwing a political bone to his restive liberal base, his recently announced judgment about DOMA’s unconstitutionality isn’t legally frivolous.

Such considerations, however, aren’t sufficient of themselves to justify the administration’s decision to stop defending DOMA against constitutional challenges in federal court. A weighty separation of powers issue comes into play. Under normal circumstances, the executive branch has a constitutional duty to enforce legislation passed by congress and signed into law by the president. That duty has traditionally been interpreted as encompassing the defense of any statute in court as to which there's a reasonable argument in favor of its constitutionality. The administration can hardly argue that DOMA doesn’t meet that standard since it has been upholding its constitutionality in federal courts for the last two years.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bringing Home the Bacon

John Bruning, Nebraska’s Republican three-term Attorney General, is running for the Senate against Democrat Ben Nelson in 2012. Nelson, you’ll recall, is the guy who negotiated the Nebraska kickback (an exemption from Medicaid costs imposed on other states), in exchange for the 60th Senate vote in favor of ObamaCare.  He was left looking like a chump when the exemption nullified by a subsequent Senate budget reconciliation vote.

You might have through that in the present political climate Bruning would be trumpeting his GOP affiliation. But, unless I’ve missed something, you won’t find the word “Republican” anywhere on the “Bruning for Senate” webpage. In his first campaign ad, he has chosen instead to make an issue of the Nelson’s trading his Senate vote special treatment for Nebraskans by the federal government.

Applying the Language of the Left to Wisconsin

Those of us who grew up speaking the language of the left experience a little cognitive dissonance when we hear Wisconsin Republicans describing public sector unions as an insatiable “special interest.” Such talk runs up against an intellectual reflex coded into our ideological DNA, viz., the conviction that the labor movement is by nature the vehicle of general societal interests.

As a matter of intellectual history, that ideological reflex probably originates in the Marxian idea that, under industrial capitalism, the specific class interest of proletarians makes them into the collective agent of a classless society. American liberals domesticated that notion by aspiring, in the words of FDR’s second inaugural address, to make “the exercise of all power more democratic . . . [by] bring[ing] private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government.” The formative political mission of American liberalism was to put together a political coalition that could exert enough countervailing power against the autocratic power of American capital to make it serve the common good. The labor movement furnished a lot of the ideological and organizational cement.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Polls and Elections

Regular readers of the blog already know that I’m easily perplexed. Let me loose on the internet for a few minutes and I’ll usually find something that flummoxes me. Today, I'm scratching my head over the success a lot of Democrats seem to be having convincing themselves that they stand a decent chance of winning the political battle now being waged in Wisconsin over the public employee benefits and collective bargaining rights. Otherwise, they wouldn't be waiting with bated breath for polling data indicating which way public opinion in Wisconsin is breaking.

Here, for example, is Michael Tomasky celebrating a poll indicating that, although they think that Democrats should return to the state so that its Senate can resume its business, a majority of Wisconsinites disapprove of the content of Walker’s plan to limit public employee collective bargaining rights:
“These are the first polls I've seen on the Wisconsin business, and guess what? Trouble for Mr. Governor.

“This is from WeAskAmerica, which TPM says is a GOP-friendly outfit, and is an automated poll. The firm asked two questions: basically, which side are you on, the governor's or the unions', and should the Democratic legislators report back to Madison.

“On the second one, of course a majority said yes, by 56-36%. But on the first question, 43% approved of Gov. Scott Walker's plan against collective bargaining, and 51% disapproved. Interestingly, even non-union households were evenly split at 48-46% (within the margin of error).”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Presidents Day Rerun II: Statism and Immigration (continued)

This slightly edited 5/2/10 post completes the thought of the last rerun:

I noted that immigration generates a curious ideological inversion. Conservatives are reflexively anti-statist when it comes to distributing benefits and burdens among members of the political community but militantly statist when it comes to distributing benefits and burdens between members and illegal aliens. Liberals are reflexively statist when it comes to distributing benefits and burdens among members but militantly anti-statist when it comes to the distribution between members and illegal aliens. There’s an obvious political explanation: Republicans are the party of conservatives and native-born Americans who resent having to bear the cost of illegal immigration; Democrats are the party of liberals and Latino Americans who are intensely interested in the well-being of undocumented Latinos. So each party is just playing to its electoral base.

That doesn’t mean, however, that each side’s positions are ideologically coherent, or that the interests of the constituencies most excited about immigration within each party are enduringly compatible. It’s reasonable to expect ideological incoherence to generate instability within a political coalition over time. An ideology that embraces objectives that are incompatible under normal circumstances won’t unite the different people to whom each of those inconsistent objectives is decisive indefinitely.

Presidents Day Rerun I: Conservative Statism and Immigration

Here's a post from 4/30/10 about the ideological role-reversal between conservatives and liberals in the debate over immigration:

By “statism,” I mean the reflexive presumption that social conditions that can be controlled through state action should be so controlled. Sometimes that’s a matter of deciding whether it’s better for collective action to be undertaken by means of state institutions or the institutions of civil society. A society can make provision for the poor, for example, exclusively through a system of state-enforced legal entitlement, exclusively through a system of private charity, or through some combination of both. Liberals and conservatives argue about whether it’s better to have a system in which the welfare state largely displaces private charity, as in much of Western Europe, or a system like ours that not only leaves ample room for private charity, but subsidizes it through tax deductions and public expenditures to faith-based charitable organizations.

Here, I’m more interested in statism in connection with the political choice between state-sponsored collective action and enjoying (or suffering) the unintended consequences of spontaneous interaction within civil society. That’s what the ideological contest between American liberals and conservatives over the size of government is mostly about. When it comes to the distribution of wealth, risk and social status, liberals are reflexively statist and conservatives are reflexively nonstatist. Liberals presume that there’s something willfully irrational about tolerating the social distribution of benefits and burdens that emerges spontaneously from prevailing market structures when it’s within our power to implement standards of distributive justice. Conservatives reflexively believe not only that state-imposed redistribution is inconsistent with liberty, but that it’s likely to hurt the people it’s designed to help in the long run.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Obama’s Alleged Realpolitik

The administration's equivocations over the last month about what's happening in the Middle East has left a lot of people wondering what the foundational assumptions of Obama's foreign policy outlook really are, and more than a few people beginning to doubt that there are any.  This (slightly edited) post  from 4/16/10  expressed my doubts about the efforts of people around Obama to convince us that he's an unsentimental realist in the mold of Henry Kissinger and George H.W. Bush:

It’s hard to know what to make of Obama’s foreign policy this early in his presidency, especially when the conceptual categories at our disposal (like “realist” and “idealist”) are so inexact. But I’m perplexed by the notion, floated by the people quoted in this  New York Times piece by Peter Baker, that Obama’s foreign policy recalls the realpolitik and realism of the George H.W. Bush administration (my emphasis):
“’Everybody always breaks it down between idealist and realist,’ said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. ‘If you had to put him in a category, he’s probably more realpolitik, like Bush 41,’ the first President George Bush, Mr. Emanuel said.

“He added, “He knows that personal relationships are important, but you’ve got to be cold-blooded about the self-interests of your nation.

“Stephen G. Rademaker, a former official in the George W. Bush administration, said: ‘For a president coming out of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, it’s remarkable how much he has pursued a great power strategy. It’s almost Kissingerian. It’s not very sentimental. Issues of human rights do not loom large in his foreign policy, and issues of democracy promotion, he’s been almost dismissive of.’

Friday, February 18, 2011

What If You’re Wrong?

I’m struck by the contrast between two arguments by accomplished polemicists. First, here’s Peggy Noonan, celebrating Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie for looking the electorate squarely in the eye and telling it that it can no longer afford to be oblivious to the nation’s debt crisis (my emphasis):
“Both Mr. Daniels, who spoke Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who spoke Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute, were critical of both parties and put forward the same message: Wake up. We are in crisis. We must save our country, and we can. But if we don’t move now, we will lose it. This isn’t rhetoric, it’s real.”
And here’s Paul Krugman telling you not to worry too much about the size of the public debt when the economy is on the brink of a Japan-like lost decade. Yes, we'll have to pay down the public debt some day, but the debt crisis we're hearing about today is largely a politically motivated fabrication (my emphasis):
“There are three things you need to know about the current budget debate. First, it’s essentially fraudulent. Second, most people posing as deficit hawks are faking it. Third, while President Obama hasn’t fully avoided the fraudulence, he’s less bad than his opponents — and he deserves much more credit for fiscal responsibility than he’s getting. ”

Thursday, February 17, 2011

“It’s Like Cairo Has Moved to Madison”

Something extraordinary is happening in Wisconsin. Scott Walker, the newly elected Republican Governor, and the Republican-controlled Senate are trying to fulfill their campaign promises by eviscerating public employee collective bargaining rights and making them contribute more money to their defined-benefit pensions and state-subsidized health insurance. The fact that their pension and health care benefits are a lot better than those enjoyed by the average private-sector employee hasn't kept enough unionized public employees from calling in sick to close the public schools and disrupt essential public services. Thousands of them spent the day surrounding the state Senate while their allies in the Democratic Senate caucus were shutting down the chamber by hiding in undisclosed locations to prevent it from achieving a quorum.

The Chris Christie Bubble

You can’t help but be impressed by the ubiquitous You-Tubes of Chris Christie telling some hapless public employee what’s what. Say what you will about him, but the guy’s got style. The fact that Ann Coulter is celebrating Christie’s political gifts just shows that he's movement conservatism’s flavor of the month. But you know that his stock as a national politician is rising when a purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom like Eleanor Clift is touting his authenticity:
“His refusal to join in [the lawsuits brought against ObamaCare by other states] suggests a degree of pragmatism that is attractive to non-true believers. This is a guy who has focused his message of change, and is clear about what he stands for. This is distinct from Obama's message of change, which meant different things to different people in 2008 and left almost everybody disappointed.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The President as Seminar Leader

Given half a chance, Republicans will bend your ear off about how the budget that Obama just delivered to Congress represents a shameful abdication of presidential responsibility. When, by anyone’s reckoning, the government is headed toward insolvency, they think it’s the president’s job to set national priorities and figure out how to pay for them. The President, as George Bush liked to say, is “the decider” who has been authorized by the American people to exercise his own will in their collective behalf. Taking that notion of the presidency to heart, Republicans conclude that equivocation and evasiveness in the face of a budgetary crisis represents a dereliction of presidential duty.

Accordingly, they think Obama ought to be ashamed of himself.  Yet you can’t help noticing how conspicuously unashamed Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, are about this budget. I suppose that could be because they’re just shameless.  But it’s more likely that they're operating with a much different idea of presidential authority than the Republicans.

Will Obama Take His Own Side in the Budgetary Argument?

You don’t need to be much of a political tactician to decipher the theory behind Obama’s budget: The American people hate big government in the abstract, but reliably dig in their heels when confronted with specific reductions in government services and subsidies. So the key to political success for Obama is to make the Republican House do the heavy lifting in proposing specific spending cuts provoking outraged howls from Democratic congressmen. Then Obama steps in at the last minute as a grownup refereeing a spat among partisan children who could use a lesson in civic responsibility.  That's supposed to result in the most liberal outcome that's politically viable.

No surprise there. Pretending to stand above the partisan fray is Obama’s signature move, the same one he used with respect to ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank when Democrats enjoyed substantial majorities in both the House and the Senate. Notice, however, that it's nothing like the political strategy Bill Clinton perfected after the 1994 midterms. He was perfectly happy to be the Democrat most visibly mixing it up with Newt Gingrich in the expectation that, if independent voters were forced to choose sides, they’d gravitate toward him. Clinton never had any trouble taking his own side in the central political arguments of his day.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Criminalizing Shamelessness

This NBC report makes it sound like the only thing standing between John Edwards and a criminal indictment is a sign off from high-ranking officials in the Justice Department. His alleged offense? Soliciting funds from a couple of wealthy supporters to keep his mistress and illegitimate daughter under wraps during the 2008 presidential election campaign:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Niall Ferguson is Out for Blood

I had something to say about Niall Ferguson’s declaration of war against the Obama administration’s foreign policy, or perhaps its lack of one, here based on his cover story in Newsweek. Watching him on the Morning Joe show makes me think I may have underestimated Ferguson's zeal to cut Obama down to size.  See for yourself:

It will be interesting to see how many opinion-leaders jump eagerly to Obama's defense.

Obama and the Intellectuals

From the moment he stepped onto the national political stage as the Keynote Speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama had his way with intellectuals. Even those who rejected his left-of-center politics routinely acknowledged his ample personal virtues. Once you left matters of ideology aside, what was there about Obama not to like? The breathtaking eloquence? The commanding intelligence? The even temperament? The tactical dexterity? The relentless self-discipline? You know the litany as well as I do.

But notice something about the logic of attributions of virtue. A virtue is a person’s disposition to respond to a certain type of situation in an admirable way. So you can’t begin to know whether someone has a virtue without having seen him respond to a decent-sized sample of situations. Judgments about presidential virtue early in a president's first term are like believing that a rookie baseball player belongs in the Hall of Fame because he had a good spring training and a hot April.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Weekend Rerun: The Conservation of Racism

I think this post from 5/3/10 holds up pretty well:

Here’s how Wikipedia defines the “conservation of energy”:
“The law of conservation of energy is an empirical law of physics. It states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant over time (is said to be conserved over time). A consequence of this law is that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only be transformed from one state to another. The only thing that can happen to energy in a closed system is that it can change form, for instance chemical energy can become kinetic energy.”
I’m no physicist, but I don’t think that calling the conservation of energy an “empirical law of physics” means that real physicists treat it as a hypothesis that stands in need of empirical confirmation. If a physicist’s experiment seemed to show that the total amount of energy in a closed system had dissipated, he’d assume that the experiment's design or the instruments he was using to measure energy were faulty, not that the “law of conservation of energy" was wrong. For the physicist, the idea that energy “can neither be created nor destroyed” functions less like a fact in the world than a description of what's empirically inconceivable.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Domestic Politics of the Egyptian Revolution

How will developments in Egypt play politically for Obama? Obviously, that depends on what happens in Egypt between now and 2012. But you can’t say that the optics have been very good for Obama so far. It’s not a good thing for a president when the Wall Street Journal is running the headline “Crisis Flummoxes White House” and his guy at the CIA seems to be getting his analysis from CNN. But things can always turn around. You can’t blame Democrats for hoping that instability in Egypt presents Obama with a political opportunity.

I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Let’s explore what’s probably the best-case scenario for Obama: suppose that sometime next fall, the Egyptian military turns over power to a stable government chosen through a free and fair election in which neither the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other anti-American constituency, participates. Assume, moreover, that the Obama administration’s fingerprints end up being all over that benign outcome to the point where a majority of American voters believe it wouldn’t have happened but for its adroit diplomacy. That would be a pretty formidable boost to Obama’s chances of reelection, right?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

You Call This Regime Change?

It looks like we won’t be seeing much more of Hosni Mubarak. Here’s the latest from the New York Times:
“Egypt’s armed forces on Thursday announced that they had begun to take ‘necessary measures to protect the nation and support the legitimate demands of the people,’ a step that suggested the military intends to take a commanding role in administering the strife-torn nation.

“The command of Egypt’s military stepped forward Thursday in an attempt to stop a three-week-old uprising, declaring on state television it would take measures “to maintain the homeland and the achievements and the aspirations of the great people of Egypt” and meet the demands of the protesters. The development appeared to herald the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

“Several military leaders and officials in Mr. Mubarak’s government indicated that the president intended to step down on Thursday. . . .

“The character of the military’s intervention and the shape of a new Egyptian government remained uncertain. A flurry of reports on state media on Thursday indicated a degree of confusion — or competing claims — about what kind of shift was underway, raising the possibility that competing forces did not necessarily see the power transfer the same way.”

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Jacksonian Democrats?

Ben Smith’s report that Virginia Senator Jim Webb won’t be seeking a second term underscores a point that I made yesterday in connection with the so-called “Reagan Revolution.” By the end of the Reagan presidency, I observed, the term “conservative populism” was starting to sound redundant and the term “liberal populism” was starting to sound like a contradiction in terms. Webb's political career challenged that proposition.

Prior to 2006, his public profile consisted in his highly decorated combat experience in Vietnam, a stint as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy and a successful career as an author. His opposition to the Iraq war, and his unconcealed disgust with the way that the Bush administration started and prosecuted it, propelled him into national politics along with his evident dissappointment that lower-middle and working class Americans weren't sharing in the prosperity associated with the Bush recovery.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Obama’s Freedom Agenda

Last week, we were hearing a lot about the Obama administration’s determination to promote the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people in their time of need. How’s it going after one week? Well, if you believe the L.A. Times, the democracy-project has been subcontracted out to Egyptian Vice-President Omar Suleiman, the principal architect and overseer of the Mubarak regime’s longstanding program of intimidating democratic political opposition:

Reflections on the Reagan Centenary

Pundits are dusting off their best Ronald Reagan lines on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth. As you’d expect, conservatives (like Peggy Noonan, who particularly excels as this sort of thing) have offered their best elegies. But the remarkable thing is how few liberals (Michael Kinsley is a notable exception) still bother trying to cut Reagan down to size. They’re much more likely to try using his uncontested stature to cast a dark shadow on today’s movement conservatism (see e.g., Eugene Robinson here).

What did Reagan have going for him? Undoubtedly a lot of things, but I’m interested in one in particular, viz., that he was the first national politician who made movement conservatism work for him in his capacity as a democratic politician.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Jeb in 2012?

Rich Lowry makes the case that Jeb Bush may well be the best presidential candidate of conservative Republicans in this election cycle:
“Four years after leaving the Florida governor’s mansion, he remains one of the most impressive Republican politicians in the country, a formidable policy mind with the political chops to drive conservative reforms even out of office. So why isn’t he running for president? Bush told Miller what he’s said to others, too — he won’t run in 2012, but he’ll consider 2016. This is a mistake. Bush should run now . . .”
You can read Lowry’s eight plausible reasons why Jeb should run now for yourself. It’s not for me to be telling conservative Republicans who their candidate for president should be in this or any other election cycle.  Yet when I try to step into Republicans’ partisan and ideological shoes I have a hard time seeing a candidate with as much going for him as Jeb Bush. And when I step back into my own comfortable footwear, he’s probably the candidate who scares me the most politically (and without exciting as many fears for the well-being of the country as some of the other leading candidates). When I try to view Bush from the right, I don’t see how you could do much better; when I view him through my own eyes from the left, it’s easy to see how we all could do a lot worse.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Liberalism and Pluralism

Here's an edited post from 2/3/10 about the anti-pluralist streak in today's liberalism which, if anything, has grown even more prominent in the last year:

Yesterday, Obama attracted my attention by casually citing his rationality—in this case, his readiness to search for the most efficient means to realize his liberal ends—as evidence that he’s no ideologue. You couldn’t miss the dig at his Republican interlocutors: too bad, he implied, that he had to spend so much of his first year in office contending with their subordination of rationality to crass partisanship. Today I want to suggest that this was no idiosyncrasy on Obama’s part. It was the expression of a powerful ideological reflex that he acquired in the company of liberals.

Consider the platitude that politics is a subject as to which reasonable people can, and inevitably will, disagree. That’s a straightforward consequence of the fact that we inhabit a culture rich enough to sustain a plurality of powerful ethical, religious and ideological traditions having inconsistent implications. The idea of “reasonable political disagreement” only makes sense on the assumption that my reasons for upholding a political position can count as good reasons for me even while you reasonably reject them.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Weekend Rerun: One Year of Obama

Now that we're contemplating the first two years of the Obama presidency, I thought it's worth recalling how things looked to me after one year in this 1/22/10 post.  Rereading the post has me asking myself whether Obama's core values are any less inscrutable now than they were then:

One year into the Obama presidency there's a glaring disparity between how much of him we've seen, and how much about him we know. George Packer suggests that there's a connection between Obama's ostentatious rationality and the obscurity of his priorities (my emphasis):
“His preferred approach, as we’ve learned this past year, is to bring together his relatively non-ideological advisers, let each one argue a point of view, then make a decision on the rational basis of evidence and expertise, and explain it to the public in a detailed, almost anti-inspirational manner. Thus the bank plan, the Afghanistan policy, the “jobs summit,” etc. A Democratic politician recently told me that the best way to get Obama to do what you want is to tell him that it’s the unpopular, difficult, but responsible thing.

If Obama has any ideology, it’s this process . . . .

“Part of Obama’s weakness has been this unwillingness or inability to say a few simple things passionately, which would let Americans know that he is on their side. Reagan knew how to do it, which meant that, even when his popularity was sinking at a similar point in his presidency (remember 1982?), the public still knew where he stood, not necessarily on the details of policy, but on a few core principles that he could at least pretend never to sacrifice. This is partly a problem of communication, worsened by a tendency of the White House (as if the campaign never ended) to make Obama’s the face on every issue, so that the more he says, the less people know what he wants.”

Friday, February 4, 2011

Is the Individual Mandate an Assault on Liberty?

I’ve already given my reasons for thinking that the legal question about ObamaCare’s constitutionality doesn’t have much of anything to do with the liberty of people subject to the individual health insurance mandate. Let’s leave legalities aside and ask a different question: is penalizing people for not buying private insurance health insurance an assault on their liberty?

For both conservatives and liberals, the answer seems to be a no-brainer. Of course it’s an assault on your liberty, say conservatives, for the government to compel you to buy a product in the private market that you wouldn't buy but for that compulsion. A government that can make you do that can take away the last shred of your economic liberty.  Of course there's no encroachment on liberty, say liberals, since no one can possibly have a right to shift the cost of his health care onto others while refusing to bear his fair share of the cost of other people’s treatment.   We routinely deny people permission to take a free ride on mutually advantageous social arrangements.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mubarak Flips Obama the Bird

Listen to Christiane Amanpour’s report on her Mubarak interview. Isn’t this what an embattled dictator sounds like when he’s telling an American president to mind his own business?

The Perception of Presidential Impotence

The sad fact is that there’s not much the Obama administration can do, in the short term, to bend developments in Egypt to its will. And that means that Obama has a political problem despite the fact that earlier administrations would have reacted in substantially the same way. No administration can avoid inciting the ire of its ideological and political opponents. But the perception of its impotence saps its support across the political spectrum. Remember the political price Obama paid for not being able to "plug the damn hole" in the Gulf?  
The same sort of thing is likely to happen in connection with events spiraling out of Obama's control in Egypt.  Here’s a little quiz. Who said this?  
“It might seem surprising that Mubarak was so willing to defy the Obama administration’s clear hint that he s[h]ould quickly transition out of power. In fact, Mubarak’s slap in the face of President Obama will not be punished and it is nothing new. It shows again American toothlessness and weakness in the Middle East, and will encourage the enemies of the US to treat it with similar disdain.”

The Appearance of Executive Impropriety

The judicial and legislative branches of government are self-policing.  They hold themselves to ethical standards that require not only that judges and congressmen avoid actual impropriety, but its appearance. 

Even when they’re sure they can decide a case impartially, judges have an ethical duty to recuse themselves whenever their financial or personal attachments raise the slightest inference of partiality. Congressmen are subject to ethical rules that seem to take the appearance of impropriety more seriously than its actuality. Charlie Rangel enriched himself by cheating on his taxes and gaming the New York City rent-control laws. But the House ethics committee seemed more distressed by the fact that he’d used the stationery of his congressional office to solicit funds for a research center bearing his name because that raised an appearance that he was trafficking on his office.  (Leave aside the comical fact that, as far as the House Ethics Committee was concerned, that appearance wouldn't have been raised if Rangel had just used personal stationery.)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

More on Egyptian Reactionaries in the Streets (Updated)

Here’s Nicholas Kristof throwing cold water on the idea that there’s anything spontaneous about the violence in the streets coming from Mubarak supporters:
“[T]he pro-Mubarak thugs are arriving in buses and are armed — and they’re using their weapons.

“In my area of Tahrir, the thugs were armed with machetes, straight razors, clubs and stones. And they all had the same chants, the same slogans and the same hostility to journalists. They clearly had been organized and briefed. So the idea that this is some spontaneous outpouring of pro-Mubarak supporters, both in Cairo and in Alexandria, who happen to end up clashing with other side — that is preposterous. It’s difficult to know what is happening, and I’m only one observer, but to me these seem to be organized thugs sent in to crack heads, chase out journalists, intimidate the pro-democracy forces and perhaps create a pretext for an even harsher crackdown.”

Egyptian Reactionaries Take to the Street

According to this CNN report, violent Mubarak supporters are taking to the street. That makes it a lot harder for the Egyptian military to maintain its neutrality among contending political factions.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011