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Jamelle Bouie | The Nation

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Jamelle Bouie

Jamelle Bouie

 Politics, wonkery and everything in between.

Buyer's Remorse

Secretary Clinton Travels to Afghanistan

According to a new Bloomberg poll, most Americans are big fans of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and a plurality believe that she would have been a better president than Barack Obama had she been elected:

Nearly two-thirds of Americans hold a favorable view of her and one-third are suffering a form of buyer’s remorse, saying the U.S. would be better off now if she had become president in 2008 instead of Barack Obama.

The finding in the latest Bloomberg National Poll shows a higher level of wishful thinking about a Hillary Clinton presidency than when a similar question was asked in July 2010. Then, a quarter of Americans held such a view.

This is reflective of two things: first, the economy is bad and people are disappointed with President Obama as a result. With the economy on the ropes, people wonder if a better presidential choice might have made a difference (long answer short: it wouldn’t have).

In addition, there's the simple fact of Clinton’s absence from the national stage. Unlike every other politician in the United States—and President Obama most of all—Clinton isn't associated with the flagging economy or some scandal du jour. For that reason, voters can project their fantasies of a better America on her, even if there isn’t any evidence for the proposition.

US Embassy, Kabul photo by Daniel Wilkenson

Presidential Adventures in Herding Cats

During the fight over healthcare reform, it was common for liberals to complain about “centrist” senators like Missouri’s Claire McCaskill or Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, who used their leverage as filibuster-breaking conservative Democrats to water down the stimulus package, healthcare reform and other liberal priorities.

With a few faces notwithstanding (Evan Bayh, who left the Senate, and Blanche Lincoln, who lost her re-election bid), those senators are still around, and they still present significant obstacles to progressive legislation. Here is Politico with the “centrist” reaction to the American Jobs Act, which promises to deliver much-needed stimulus to a faltering economy:

“Terrible,” Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) told POLITICO when asked about the president’s ideas for how to pay for the $450 billion price tag. “We shouldn’t increase taxes on ordinary income. … There are other ways to get there.”

“That offset is not going to fly, and he should know that,” said Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu from the energy-producing Louisiana, referring to Obama’s elimination of oil and gas subsidies. “Maybe it’s just for his election, which I hope isn’t the case.”[…]

“Every dollar that is spent on the jobs bill…is not going to be available to Congress to deal with the debt,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who caucuses with Democrats. “And to me, the top priority of ours should be long-term major debt reduction.”

Poor economic conditions are crucial to Democratic success next year, and conservative Democrats would be much better off with an American Jobs Act than they would without. Despite this, they insist on attacking the president and his proposals. As Matthew Yglesias points out, this behavior is almost unheard of among Republicans, even those that represent moderate and liberal states.

This dissent with the White House even extends to Democratic strategists and activists, who are increasingly dissatisfied with the president. Politico reports:

On a high-level campaign conference call Tuesday afternoon, Democratic donors and strategists commiserated over their disappointment in Obama. A source on the call described the mood as “awful”

“People feel betrayed, disappointed, furious, disgusted, hopeless,” said the source.”

With the exception of progressive lawmakers in the House (which isn’t insignificant), Democrats aren’t enthused about the American Jobs Act or President Obama’s broader effort to regain control of the conversation. This should tell us something—Despite his status as “party leader,” Barack Obama can’t control the actions of Democratic lawmakers, activists or elites, and his overall influence is limited by structural factors within and outside of the Democratic Party.

Last week’s speech was a fantastic defense of liberal ideas, but as is almost always the case, presidential rhetoric—even when it’s strong—does little to address the structural obstacles to better policy. In other words, the barriers to progressive policies are high, enduring and exist throughout the political system.

Say Hello to the Highest Poverty Rate in 17 Years

The Census Bureau has released its poverty numbers for 2010, and the picture isn’t pretty: 46.2 million people were living in poverty last year, according to the bureau’s latest report, the largest number for the fifty-two years that the data have been published. This marks the fourth consecutive year in which poverty rose, with an overall poverty rate of 15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009, and the highest rate since 1993. Indeed, with real median household income at $49,445—a drop of 2.3 prcent from 2009—incomes are lower now than they were more than a decade ago.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, poor households are much more likely to experience hardship than their middle or upper-class counterparts. Among other things, they are more likely to experience hunger, live in overcrowded housing, miss a rent or mortgage payment and forgo medical care. Here’s a chart for illustration:

Poor Hardships

The Republican plan for greater austerity—large spending cuts on all levels of government—would only exacerbate the pain suffered by lower-income families. According to the International Monetary Fund, austerity measures have a tremendously negative affect on economic growth. A budget cutback of 1 percent of GDP would lower incomes by 0.6 percent and increase unemployment by almost 0.5 percent. In the United States, this amounts to a $150 billion cut—pocket change to most conservatives.

In other words, the ideal world for Republicans is one where we cut trillions from the federal budget, and initiate a disastrous program of targeted economic pain.

Exciting.

How Much Will Obama's Jobs Speech Actually Matter?

For most of this year, when taking his case to the public, President Obama has offered himself as the “reasonable man in the room”—the trustworthy adult in a roomful of bickering children. This was most apparent during last month’s fight over the debt ceiling, when the public face of the president was of a stern professor, lecturing his unruly students on proper behavior in the class.

In many ways, this evening’s Barack Obama wasn’t much different. Yes, he was irritated—and at times, even angry—but the target of his ire remained the same, an unidentified collection of “some” people, who happen to block everything proposed by the White House. This, for instance, sounds like the same Obama you’ve always known, “I know some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live. Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes, which is why you should pass this bill right away. ”

Still, for those who wanted a more aggressive president, Obama’s newfound assertiveness was a welcome development. For starters, it gave real urgency to his pitch for the American Jobs Act, the $447 billion stimulus package that formed the core of his address this evening to a joint session of Congress (the fifth of his presidency).

What’s more, it gave real force to Obama’s attacks on conservative ideas, which were present throughout the speech. “No single individual built America on their own,” said Obama, as he attacked right-wing mythologizing, “We built it together. We have been, and always will be, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all; a nation with responsibilities to ourselves and with responsibilities to one another.”

As for the proposal, here’s what it looks like: $175 billion in continued employee-side payroll tax cuts along with $65 billion cuts for employers. $100 billion in spending for infrastructure, which includes $50 billion for highways and transportation, $30 billion for school repair and construction, and $10 billion to establish an infrastructure bank. $35 billion in aid to states—to help them hire and train teachers—and billions in additional unemployment benefits.

Of course, given Republican intransigence, this has no hope of passing Congress. Which means, in a sense, that this address isn’t likely to mean much for the White House’s re-election efforts. President Obama delivered an excellent speech—maybe the best of his presidency—but the bully pulpit isn’t an effective means for moving public opinion. For that, Obama needs decent economic growth, and absent a cooperative Republican Party, that’s not happening any time soon.

Photo credit: President Barack Obama delivers an address on jobs and the economy, Chuck Kennedy, 9/8/11

Bloodlust at the Republican Debate

Even with the participation of Texas Governor Rick Perry, yesterday’s Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library in California was a standard-issue affair. Candidates traded barbs on everything from the individual mandate—they hate it, in case you were wondering—to climate change and economic growth.

There was one moment in the evening, however, that went beyond the usual grandstanding of primary debates and became something a little more disturbing. Sometime toward the end of the debate, moderator Brian Williams noted the 234 inmates that sit on death row in Texas prisons—more than any other state in the country. This, oddly, prompted immediate applause from the audience. Williams’ question, directed to Rick Perry, was this, “Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?” Perry’s answer? “No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process.”

Again, the crowd went wild with applause, and when asked to account for the audience response, Perry told the moderators that he thinks “Americans understand justice.”

The whole exchange was incredible. Perry, a noted skeptic of government solutions, nonetheless believes in the infallibility of the state when it comes to killing people. The audience—a hodgepodge of Republican elites—were positively enthusiastic about the Texas track record for executing people.

Mitt Romney came off well during the debates, but he had nothing like this—Rick Perry was the only candidate on stage to fully tap into the conservative id. Say what you will about his electability in a general election—I doubt he can win—but this is a sign that Rick Perry is still on track to win the Republican nomination for president.

America to Obama, 'Stand Up for Yourself'

In addition to showing Texas Governor Rick Perry’s commanding lead over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann in the Republican presidential primary, the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll also contains what must be disheartening news for the White House. Despite the debt ceiling fight—where President Obama demonstrated his political maturity in the face of complete Republican recklessness—only 39 percent of Americans trust the president to do a “better job” on the federal budget deficit, compared to the 42 percent who trust Republicans. Likewise, Americans are tied at 40-40 on who they trust to successfully create jobs, and only slightly prefer Obama when it comes to who they trust to handle the economy—Obama gets 42 percent support to 39 support for Republicans.

If anything, this is a sign that the White House’s preferred strategy—let’s make Obama the “adult in the room”—isn’t working. Instead, we have a more familiar dynamic: now that the choice is between a Republican message on deficit reduction from Republicans and a Republican-lite message on deficit reduction from Democrats, voters have opted for the genuine article.

That said, the situation isn’t hopeless; with tomorrow’s jobs speech, President Obama has the chance to move away from his usual rhetoric of compromise, and confront the Republican Party on its relentless attacks on Democratic attempts to improve the economy. As it stands, the public wants President Obama to stand up for himself and his party. According to a recent survey from the Pew Research Center, 37 percent of Americans say that Obama should challenge the GOP more often, a ten point increase from earlier in the year. As a whole, Democrats are desperate for the president to stand up to the GOP—57 percent want him to be more forceful.

In general, people don’t watch political events, and presidential addresses are no different; in all likelihood, tomorrow’s speech will be watched by few, and forgotten very soon. But consistent rhetoric can make a difference, and if Obama uses his jobs speech to inaugurate a new era of regular confrontation with the GOP, then he might find himself with a few more people on his side.

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Boycott Campaign Contributions? That's a Terrible Idea

Between Citizens United and the upcoming billion dollar presidential campaign, it’s sometimes hard to see the connection between fundraising and democratic participation. But it’s there. Not only is fundraising a tangible way for candidates to demonstrate their political viability, but the process of fundraising—holding events, making phone calls, shaking hands—can engage interested citizens in ways that go beyond voting. If excess money is a problem in politics, it has everything to do with the narrow source of funds—we need to make the pot larger, not put a lid on it.

At the New York Times, Joe Nocera misses it. After quoting from and praising an e-mail from Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Nocera presses for a boycott of campaign contributions:

Schultz thinks the country should go on strike against its politicians. “The fundamental problem,” he said, “is that the lens through which Congress approaches issues is re-election. The lifeblood of their re-election campaigns is political contributions.” Schultz wants his countrymen—big donors and small; corporations and unions—to stop making political contributions in presidential and Congressional campaigns. Simple as that. Economists like to talk about how incentives change behavior. Schultz is proposing that Americans give Washington an incentive to begin acting responsibly on their behalf. It’s a beautiful idea.

I disagree. Schultz’s idea is deeply wrongheaded, for a whole host of reasons. As a democratically elected body whose aim is to represent the interests of its constituents, re-election campaigns are integral to making Congress work. Far from being a “fundamental problem,” if the re-election incentive were removed, then lawmakers would have few constraints on unilateral actions, as citizens lost the means by which to hold them accountable. Schultz’s suggestion sounds hard-nosed and forward-thinking, but in reality, it’s profoundly anti-democratic.

The same goes for his (and Nocera’s) proposal to stop campaign donations. Leaving aside the huge collective action problem—if CEOs stop donating, for instance, this enhances the influence of non-CEOs—it’s simply the case that Schultz and Nocera are demanding less participation in the political process. In essence, they’re endorsing apathy. If your goal is to make the public less interested in lawmaking, then this is fine. But if the goal is to make politicians more responsive to public needs—and voters more attuned to the failings of their leaders—then both ideas (no re-election incentive and no donations) are at best counterproductive and, at worse, actively harmful.

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Elections Still Have Consequences

It went a little under the radar, but the Washington Post’s long Sunday feature was an excellent look at the forces driving Republicans to intransigence on the debt deal. In fact, it’s worth reading the story as somethng of a companion piece to Drew Westen’s long op-ed in the Sunday New York Times. Westen, a political consultant, blames President Obama’s political troubles on a failure of rhetoric. If Obama had given better speeches or “connected” with the American poeple, then his administration would have stood a better chance against an intransigent and right-wing Republican Party.

As John Sides points out at The Monkey Cage, this is a massive overestimation of rhetoric’s power to shape the public narrative, and it is a poor analysis of the actual constraints faced by the president of the United States. As Sides puts it, “We can learn little about Barack Obama’s presidency from 3,000 words about speeches never given and the alleged character flaws implied therefore. Presidents are embedded in a political system that is full of other actors who themselves have agency, who shape outcomes, and who[m] the president cannot control, least of all by telling stories.”

The Washington Post feature acts a great rebuttal to Westen’s op-ed if only because it details the extent to which this month’s debt deal is a product of political events that were largely out of the president’s control. In last year’s Congressional elections, on the strength of their right wing, Republicans won a large and unprecedented majority in the House of Representatives, which had important implications for 2011’s budget fights.

To wit, the House would have a huge number of GOP members who fell on the far right of their caucus, and who were most interested in sharp budget cuts. Here’s how the Washington Post describes it:

Rep. John Boehner (Ohio), the incoming House speaker who also had worked hard on behalf of many candidates, quickly grasped the potential dilemma posed by eighty-seven newcomers with steep expectations. The House was now stocked with people who had little interest in rubber-stamping another debt-limit increase.

“I’ve made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it’s pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with” the debt limit, Boehner told reporters on Nov. 19. “We’re going to have to deal with it as adults. Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations, and we have obligations on our part.”

Moreover, because of their ideological fervor and stated opposition to raising the debt ceiling, these members would wield a tremendous amount of leverage, both within their caucus and in negotiations with Democrats and the White House. And this is exactly what happened: by occupying a powerful place within the GOP majority, Tea Partiers could exercise an effective veto on actions by the entire Republican caucus. In effect, this meant that Tea Partyers could exercise a veto over Congress as a whole, since the Constitution mandates agreement by both chambers in order for a bill to become a law.

I’ve said this before, but any political analysis of the last several months needs to begin with November 2010. Yes, Obama could have been a better negotiator; Republican leverage over the debt ceiling was a product of the midterm elections. Insofar as there’s any lesson to learn, it’s this: liberals need to worry less about narratives, and more about winning elections.

Violence and Economic Mobility in the Jim Crow South

Between Melissa Harris-Perry, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Matthew Yglesias and The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer, there’s been a great discussion on the origins of the American middle class, and the extent to which it was purposefully built to exclude African-Americans. To add to the conversation, I’ll say this: in addition to emphasizing the actual anti-black policies pursued by the federal government, it’s also worth noting the pervasive climate of anti-black violence that directly discouraged African-Americans from reaching above their “station.”

Lynchings, for example, were often used against blacks who emerged as economic competitors to local whites, and overrall, the lynching rate was correlated with regional economic performance. When competition for jobs was low, lynchings declined, and when competition for jobs rose—particularly during economic downturns—lynchings increased. The same was true for outbreaks of mass racial violence; by and large, white supremacists targeted prosperous black communities for destruction. The Tulsa race riots stand as a prominent example, along with the Rosewood massacre of 1923 and the East St. Louis riots of 1917.

In other words, not only could you be killed for transgressing the nebulous and arbitrary social requirements of the Jim Crow, but you could also be killed for starting a business, accumulating wealth and otherwise trying to improve your situation. Together with state and federal discrimination against blacks, you had—until the middle of the twentieth century—a country where the government worked to prevent black economic advancement, with an assist from widespread violence from private actors. With few exceptions, this predicament was unique to African Americans, and a critical part of understanding the “wealth gap” as it developed through the twentieth century and into the present.

Unfortunately, this is one of those things that doesn’t have a place in the public conversation, in part because most Americans either can’t or won’t imagine an America where—if you were the wrong color—pulling yourself up by your bootstraps was punishable by death.

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When Will the Press Wake Up and Blame Republicans?

This, via Politico’s Playbook, is the new Republican spin:

Steven Law, president of Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads: “Our economy really is hanging by a thread, and Republicans must stop President Obama’s reckless scheme to raise taxes in the middle of a jobs recession. The fact that Obama is willing to hold our country’s fiscal stability hostage over more taxes shows how ideologically committed he is to expanding government regardless of the economic cost.”

Of course, It’s no surprise that the president of a conservative political action committee would repeat the fiction that President Obama is somehow responsible for the brinksmanship on display in negotiations over the debt limit. What’s disappointing is the extent to which this lie has wormed its way into mainstream journalism and opinion writing. Yesterday, for example, David Brooks bemoaned Obama’s tone, blaming his press conference last week for any recent intransigence by House Republicans. Likewise, headlines at MSNBC, CNN and the Washington Post—“Boehner, Reid Appear to Give Ground”—imply a parity of intransigence, as if both Republicans and Democrats refused to compromise on their priorities.

Of course, the literal opposite is true. It’s the Republican Party that broke from decades of precedent in order to use the debt ceiling as leverage for right-wing policies, and it’s Republican leaders who pledged—from the beginning—to take this to the brink unless Democrats capitulated to their demands. Here, for example, is what House Speaker John Boehner said several months ago in an address to the Economic Club of New York:

“Without significant spending cuts and changes to the way we spend the American people’s money, there will be no debt limit increase,” Mr. Boehner told members of New York’s business and finance community. “And cuts should be greater than the accompanying increase in debt authority the president is given.” Mr. Boehner said those cuts should be in the trillions of dollars, not billions.

After a month where Democrats have repeatedly given into Republican demands—even going as far as to raise the Medicare eligibility age as part of a deal—is too much for the press to say that this is a crisis of GOP’s making?

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