Opinion

The Great Debate

Romney’s second shot at healthcare reform

Americans believe in second chances. The oral arguments before the Supreme Court last week were a rare opportunity to dispassionately re-examine the divisive healthcare debate of two years ago. What happens if, after the smoke clears, we get a second chance at healthcare reform?

We’ve long known that healthcare will be a central theme in the 2012 presidential contest. The High Court’s deliberations and June decision only reinforce that reality for President Obama and Governor Romney.

Unlike with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), the constitutionality of Governor Romney’s Massachusetts law has never been seriously questioned. States, not the federal government, have police powers, allowing them to require purchases (car insurance, taxes and licensure) and to pass wide-ranging public health laws and public safety laws. The Bay State law enjoys broad popular support.

In contrast, the case before the Supreme Court was brought by the majority of states. Regardless of what the Court decides, the PPACA will continue to polarize the country.

President Obama may cite Romney’s Massachusetts reform as inspiring his efforts, but there are profound differences in the size, reach and financing of the two laws. Elected just six months after the law’s passage, Romney’s successor, Democratic Governor Deval Patrick, has obscured some of those differences by taking a big government approach to implementation.

America’s path to alternative energy runs through Brazil

Mitt Romney alone can no longer be saddled with the label of most obvious flip-flopper among this year’s presidential candidates. That honor instead belongs to Barack Obama, whose 180 on the Keystone XL pipeline construction last week was sufficient to induce whiplash among oil industry executives and green advocates alike.

In an effort to actually make good on his “all of the above” energy policy, promoting both fossil fuel and renewable energy, President Obama had no choice but to pull off a neck-twisting reversal. Five months ago he postponed a decision on whether to build a controversial $7 billion pipeline to bring Canadian oil sands fuel down to Texas refineries. But it turns out that was only a temporary sop to the activists who see the structure as both an environmental threat as well as the embodiment of reckless Big Oil greed.

Now, with his opponents falsely equating current high oil prices with Obama’s perceived inaction on domestic energy development, Obama is acting differently. He’s scrambling to counter them by not only reconsidering the earlier postponement but actually accelerating the pipeline’s build as a national priority.

Trayvon Martin, Obama, and the persistence of bias

By now the facts are well-known: Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old young black man who, on Feb. 26, 2012, was walking home from a 7-Eleven in Sanford, Florida, with a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman of white and Latino heritage, though advised by police not to pursue Trayvon himself, got out of his car carrying his 9-millimeter handgun. Allegedly after some confrontation, Zimmerman shot Trayvon dead.

Should we think about this horrendous incident as a random encounter, or does it teach us something about the politics of race and the persistence of racial bias in America today?

When Zimmerman first called the police about Trayvon Martin, he said: “There’s a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he’s up to no good, on drugs or something. It’s raining, and he’s just walking around looking about.” Writer E.J. Graff termed this “Walking While Black.” In other words, Trayvon was presumed to be guilty of something nefarious simply because of the color of his skin.

Obama’s first foreign policy blunder

This is an excerpt from The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, published recently by Penguin Press.

The defining mistake of Obama’s first-term foreign policy was his decision to escalate American military operations in Afghanistan. There were 35,000 American troops in Afghanistan when Obama was inaugurated. By the summer of 2011 there were roughly 100,000. The main national security rationale for their presence was to prevent the Taliban from regaining sufficient strength to invite Al Qaeda back to the Afghan training camps and sanctuaries they had operated from before 9/11. But since early 2002, seven years before Obama became president, Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden himself — until he was tracked down and killed by U.S. commandos in May 2011 — had been based in Pakistan, under the protection of a Pakistani army that continues to receive billions of dollars in American military aid.

Long before his presidential bid, Obama had called for an increased American military effort in Afghanistan. He repeated that position frequently during the 2008 campaign. Obama’s strong opposition to the Iraq War led many supporters to imagine that he rejected the idea of defending America against terrorism by waging conventional military conflicts in distant Islamic lands. Some of the more philosophical passages in Obama’s autobiographical books, writings, and speeches elaborating on his opposition to the Iraq War fed that misimpression.

Mr. 1 Percent versus Mr. 1 Percent

Listening to a newly populist President Obama or to Mitt Romney, who touts his CEO past at every turn, it is tempting to imagine a 2012 election that unfolds as textbooks imagine, with Republicans speaking for business and Democrats standing up for the little guy. Don’t be fooled. A more accurate reading of the contest features two elite candidates who represent different wings of the 1 Percent – a group increasingly divided over economics and the role of government.

Look closely at Obama’s rhetoric and you see that he’s not channeling Occupy Wall Street as much as a pragmatic tax-and-invest liberalism. Obama speaks for highly educated, affluent Americans who want government to do more, not less, on a number of fronts – like education, infrastructure, scientific research and clean energy. These folks don’t envy Europe; they envy China, which is deploying a muscular statism to compete economically and dominate the future.

Yes, Obama has made some strong statements lately about inequality and raising taxes on rich people. But most of this goes over just fine in Malibu or Manhattan. Many of the rich are ready to pay higher taxes – with polls showing, for instance, that a majority of millionaires support the Buffett Tax. And many agree that inequality has gone too far, seeing the growing wealth divide as a threat to America’s economic dynamism and social cohesion. The things that liberal rich people don’t like – unions, protectionism, and regulation, etc. – Obama doesn’t like much either.

Keystone XL’s organizing principle

In October 2011, National Journal surveyed energy experts about whether Obama was likely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar-sands oil through the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. Ninety-one percent of the “energy and environment insiders” believed he would.

On Wednesday, Obama proved them wrong.

How could the experts have gotten it so wrong? The answer is twofold: Grassroots environmentalists were stronger, and congressional Republicans dumber, than anyone predicted.

Back in August of 2011, when author and activist Bill McKibben staged the first anti-Keystone rallies around the White House, political observers scoffed. These were, after all, the same environmentalists who had been rendered irrelevant by their cap-and-trade defeat and the stress of economic recession. No way they could stop a fossil fuel infrastructure project with big money behind it.

A shrinking middle class means a shrinking economy

The following is an excerpt from a speech Alan Krueger, chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, gave at the Center for American Progress on Thursday. The full text is available here.

Although I have done much research on inequality, I used to have an aversion to using the term. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal ran an article in the mid-1990s that noted that I prefer to use the term “dispersion.” But the rise in income dispersion – along so many dimensions – has gotten to be so high, that I now think that inequality is a more appropriate term.

President Obama summarized the rise of inequality very succinctly in his Osawatomie, Kansas speech, when he said, “over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.”

Obama’s Ted talk

The president’s new populism comes from Teddy Roosevelt’s new nationalism.

By Michael A. Cohen

The views expressed are his own.


Has there ever been an American President more regularly compared to his predecessors than Barack Obama? Since arriving on the national stage Obama has been weighed against Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan, Kennedy, Truman, Carter and even George W. Bush. But after his remarkably full-throated populist speech yesterday in Osawatomie, Kansas we have to add another one to the list – Theodore Roosevelt.

The choice of Osawatomie for a speech that basically establishes the outlines of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign was hardly accidental. It was the sight of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous “New Nationalism” speech, a set of remarks that laid the foundation for his 1912 run to recapture the White House and signaled his own ideological break with the conservative wing of his own Republican Party.

In evoking Roosevelt’s century-old rhetoric, his attacks on concentrated wealth, and his call for a more active and engaged federal government, Obama yesterday embraced a grand tradition in American politics — that of the anti-business populist standing with the ordinary American. In doing so, Obama has framed the 2012 election in terms that have been the focus of presidential campaigns since Roosevelt ran for a third term in 1912: what is the proper role of government in the lives of the American people?

Occupy Wall Street has already beaten the Tea Party

By David Callahan

The views expressed are his own.

Occupy Wall Street protestors are pondering their next steps after police raids this week dismantled more Occupy encampments in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In some ways, though, the movement has already scored its most important victory: It has changed the “narrative” that frames public debate. Polls show that the Tea Party story – about an America being destroyed by big government – has been pushed aside by the Occupy Wall Street story, which stresses rising inequality and corporate greed.

This is good news for President Obama. While there is little that Obama can do between now and next November to jumpstart the economy, he may have a strong chance at reelection anyway if Americans keep gravitating to a progressive worldview.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken earlier this month, 76 percent agreed that the “current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country.” In another recent poll, by The Washington Post/ABC News, respondents were asked: “Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans?” A majority – 60 percent – said the government should pursue such policies.

What happens after Obama’s jobs bill dies?

By Nicholas Wapshott
The opinions expressed are his own.

You can add to the list of hollow cries from history–such as “Ban the Bomb!” and “Bring the Troops Home!”–the president’s favorite refrain, “Pass the Jobs Bill Now!” Like the rest, Obama’s oft repeated demand is a sham, a mere slogan. Neither he nor his party, and certainly no Republican, believes Congress is going to pass even a small part of the bill, for it combines two elements his opponents detest the most: public works and higher taxes on the rich.

While the GOP squabbles over which of a barely electable field to pick as its candidate, Obama has already begun his reelection campaign in earnest. The simple message he is taking on the road is that Congress should “pass the jobs bill now!” That’s a plea he knows is sure to be ignored, leaving him in a position, he believes, to blame persistent joblessness on the Republican obstructionists. He is onto something. As Jimmy Carter found out, Americans hold their presidents to account when the economy is tanking; they expect them to improve the economy and are prepared to fire them when they don’t. It is a lesson for conservatives who believe that governments can’t and shouldn’t attempt to change the economic weather. Voters blame the government anyway, whether they intervene or not.

Obama, like Franklin Roosevelt, believes in trying to fix the symptoms of a broken economy, while his GOP opponent, whoever it turns out to be, must hold to the Hayekian orthodoxy insisted upon by the Tea Party and the Republicans’ fiscally conservative wing that there is nothing much governments can or should do to improve the economy and that stimulus spending either does not work at all or will only make the smallest of differences in the short term. As Obama gleefully knows, a rival promising austerity, the long haul, a far worse economy before it gets better, and a dim light at the end of a long, long tunnel will be running against the spirit of optimism that Americans feel and like to hear from their leaders.

  •