Opinion

The Great Debate

Despite stimulus, middle class still struggles

Five years ago Monday, President Barack Obama signed the signature economic proposal of his presidency, saying that the passage of the $787 billion economic stimulus package heralded the “the beginning of the end” of the Great Recession.

The president told a Denver audience that he was “keeping the American Dream alive in our time.” But for millions of Americans, he made things worse.

It is now clear that bold White House predictions about stimulus jobs “saved and created” were just a prelude to later pledges about keeping your doctors and falling premiums.

Equally maddening has been the president’s unwavering belief that an economic recovery could be engineered by Washington’s central planners. It’s as if he isn’t aware of the cynicism engendered by a stimulus bill that seemed to have been designed not so much on the basis of real need or an empirical study of what would actually help people get back on their feet, but on ideology and political connections.

From the tens of billions that have been poured into green energy to an executive order that basically excludes non-unionized workers from major construction projects, for many Americans the stimulus looked more like political payback than a jobs bill — all compliments of the taxpayer.

America’s long search for Mr. Right

What’s wrong with central casting? It’s a virtual truism: The United States always seems to pick the wrong guy to star as George Washington in some faraway civil war. We sell him weapons for self-defense against his despicable foes — and then, sometimes before the end of the first battle, we find we are committed to a bad actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Genghis Khan.

President Barack Obama just approved the sale of 24 Apache helicopters to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — despite well-founded concerns that Maliki may use them against people we do like as well as those we don’t.

Helicopters aren’t the only munitions on Maliki’s shopping list. Washington has negotiated the sale of 480 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, along with reconnaissance drones and F-16 fighter jets.

The minimum wage fight: From San Francisco to de Blasio’s New York

In his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama urged cities and states to bypass Congress and enact their own minimum wage increases. “You don’t have to wait for Congress,” he stated.

On Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed the president’s advice. De Blasio announced, in his State of the City address, that he plans to ask Albany next week to give the city the power to raise the minimum wage.

The New York mayor is not the only elected official putting Obama’s words into action. Cities across the country, from New York to Seattle, are moving aggressively to confront rising income inequality and falling real wages for low-paid workers. These cities can learn important lessons from San Francisco’s bold experiments over the last 15 years.

What unites Democrats? Republicans!

Back in 1901, Finley Peter Dunne’s character Mr. Dooley said, “The Dimmycratic Party ain’t on speakin’ terms with itsilf.” Is that happening again now? You might think so, given the talk about a populist revolt on the left.

But Democrats are in fact remarkably united on most issues. They agree on everything from increasing the minimum wage, to extending unemployment benefits to raising the debt ceiling.

Yes, there are divisions emerging over trade and energy. But it’s not anything like the bitter confrontations we used to see among Democrats over civil rights and the Vietnam War. It’s also not anything like the bitter civil war that’s broken out in the Republican Party. No one is threatening to walk out.

Populism: The Democrats’ great divide

One day after President Barack Obama called for moving forward on trade authority in his State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared, “I am against fast track,” and said he had no intention of bringing it to a vote in the Senate.

Reid’s announcement came after 550 organizations, representing virtually the entire organized base of the Democratic Party outside of Wall Street, called on Congress to oppose fast track. Though obscured by the Democrats’ remarkable unity in drawing contrasts with the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress, the debate between an emerging populist wing of the Democratic Party and its still-dominant Wall Street wing is boiling.

For a constantly disputatious “big tent” party, Democrats are remarkably unified behind the jobs and inequality agenda the president ticked off in his State of the Union address — raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, paycheck fairness for women, paid family leave, investment in infrastructure, education and research and development, and an “all of the above” energy strategy. Republicans block action on all these relatively modest reforms, providing ammunition for Democrats in the November midterm elections.

Drones: From bad habit to terrible policy

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) recently lambasted legislation that may prevent the White House from transferring the lethal drone program from the CIA to the Defense Department. The provision is in a classified part of the bill, so the public may never know what it says.

This culture of secrecy underscores the reality that real drone reform is on the verge of conclusively failing to launch. Despite months of political fury and negative press, the drone program and its worst impulse — to kill without accountability for who is killed and why — are poised to become a permanent part of the way the United States conducts counterterrorism.

If there is to be any real reform on drone strikes, it must come this year — while the revelations over National Security Agency surveillance are keeping heat on the White House. Secrecy is the common denominator of the criticism the White House faces on both issues. President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on transparency and reform will always trigger cynicism so long as his administration’s practices of official secrecy continue.

Can Obama circumvent Washington?

Washington is broken,” Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president, said in September 2008. “My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works.”

There are three ways that Washington works: compromise, crisis and clout. Compromise is the way Washington is supposed to work. It’s practically mandated by the Constitution, with its complex system of checks and balances and separation of powers. It’s the way the U.S. government has worked for more than 200 years.

But it’s not working very well any more. Party positions have dug in. Deal-making is harder now that there are fewer moderates in Congress. It has taken more than two years for the House of Representatives to pass a farm bill, and it’s already under attack by both conservatives and liberals.

Obama’s address: Borrowing from Bubba and the Gipper

Many presidents don’t have the problem of salvaging their second terms because the voters threw them out of office. Among those who win reelection, the successful communicators, such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, used many of the techniques that President Barack Obama deployed in his State of the Union Address last night. He is likely to repeat them often this year, which is one that will determine whether his administration is remembered as transformational or transitional.

Giving Americans credit: While most recent presidents began their State of the Union addresses by rattling off positive economic statistics, Obama did it differently. Using archetypal anecdotes — a dedicated teacher, a high-tech entrepreneur, a night-shift worker – Obama gave regular Americans credit for reducing unemployment, adding manufacturing jobs and increasing high school graduation rates. In so doing, Obama emulated Reagan, who declared in his second State of the Union address of his second term: “Today, the American people deserve our thanks.”

By speaking for the American people instead of talking at them, Obama seeks to do what Reagan and Clinton accomplished: appeal to swing voters frustrated with political bickering.

On NSA, Obama still says ‘trust me’

President Barack Obama’s speech on Friday on intelligence reform marked a bullish shift in his approach to the National Security Agency.

The president dropped the pretense that there was “nothing to see here” — which his administration has offered since former government contractor Edward Snowden first revealed the NSA.’s expanding surveillance. Obama now acknowledges that there are problems to be solved. Yet his reforms boiled down to “trust me.”

While Obama did announce several new ways to increase accountability at the NSA, most were limited to executive actions. So the president basically changed his mind about the limits that he wants to place on his own powers. That means he can just as easily change his mind again and reverse course. So can the next president.

Christie: Crossing the line

Back in the 1970s, a Jewish organization commissioned a poll to investigate anti-Semitism in the United States. The poll included several open-ended questions. One asked, “Is there anything in particular you like about Jewish people?” The answers were recorded verbatim.

One respondent — a worker from Pittsburgh — answered, “What I like about them is that they are hardworking, aggressive and know how to get ahead.” The next question asked, “Is there anything in particular you don’t like about Jewish people?” His answer: “They’re too pushy and aggressive.”

The puzzled interviewer asked, “Isn’t that what you just said you like about them?” The respondent answered, “Yes. What I like about them is also what I don’t like about them.”

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