Thursday, January 29, 2009

Obama walks softly, but carries a big stick


That's how many House Republicans voted for President Obama's stimulus package after he went to great lengths to meet with them to explain the package and hear their views. This gaping partisan divide says very little about President Obama's skills. It says a lot about just who is left in the diminished Republican House ranks.

"Moderate Republican" has become an oxymoron. These mostly guys play to the "base," the 25 percent of Americans who still believe George W. Bush was a great president, the ones who watch Hannity and O'Reilly or listen to Limbaugh, that wholesome threesome who, while the world celebrated the inauguration, were busy wringing their hands about when the muslim hordes would land on our shores with Obama in charge. It's unsettling that nearly one in four Americans actually lives on another planet, seemingly unaware that this one is moving on from their pretty-much-anti-everything view of things. But it isn't unsettling enough to waste too much energy on.

So far, President Obama has struck the right balance, telling one Republican Congressman, "I won," when asked why he wasn't incorporating more Republican ideas, yet continuing to meet with and listen to Republican leaders in what I'm guessing is a slow-moving effort to at least expose them to arguments they don't usually hear.

Two things happened on Wednesday that exemplify the dance step the president is trying to master. In a statement praising House passage of the stimulus package, Obama made no mention of the uniform Republican opposition. But he did say: "What we can't do is drag our feet or allow the same partisan differences to get ino our way. we must move switly and boldy to put Americans back to work, and that is exactly what this plan begins to do."

Then he threw a cocktail party -- for leaders of both parties. The message seems clear: "Republicans, you can play now or pay later. But I won't demonize you or isolate you, even
as your mouthpieces trash me."

Will the Republicans drop their overt partisanship? No chance. In the House, especially, they're all marching to a drummer most of us just don't hear anymore. But Obama is wise to follow the lesson of a Republican president of a different time -- Teddy Roosevelt. When it comes to economic policy at least, so far he's chosen to "walk softly, but carry a big stick."

Monday, January 19, 2009

ON the cusp of something special

A friend of ours works for the World Wildlife Federation and often travels overseas. She has heard from family in her native Zimbabwe and friends in New Zealand excited about watching Barack Obama's inaugural address tomorrow.

Even in these glum economic times, this is a week of euphoria for many Americans and many around the world. That any politician could reach halfway around the world before taking office is dizzying and a little terrifying. Can any one man live up to such expectations?

It's an interesting exercise to make sense of the giddiness that surrounds Obama and his inauguration. Is it because of his race? His relative youth? His telegenic family? His exotic name and international background? His repeated calls for a unified America, for all working as one without regard to race, creed, religion or party affiliation? Is it because of our utter fatigue and disgust with George W. Bush? Is it because hope is something everyone needs these days?

I suspect all these pieces play some part in sorting out the puzzle. But to me one other, even brighter, element stands out -- the intelligence and humanity of Barack Obama. He reads. And he can write, not only better than most presidents but better then most writers. Watching him emerge and evolve as president is an awfully exciting prospect after eight years of listening to a guy who steadfastly refuses to pronounce the word "nuclear" or to believe in scientific evidence. This bad dream is finally ready to end, though, judging from the wreckage left behind, it was no dream at all.

Yet out of this morass, something special is emerging. Slowly, through the prompting of the words of Obama the story teller, as well as through the reality of Obama, our first African-American president, Americans have begun sharing their own perspectives on and experiences with racial and social divisions in what, in a virtual sort of way, is emerging as a kind of societal dialogue with no moderator and no physical common for the exchange.

So let me join in. I grew up the son of liberal Democrats -- in an all white suburban Long Island town. The only black in our school didn't live there. His name was Matt Snell. He ran like a bulldozer, and after graduating from Carle Place High School, he went on to a Hall of Fame professional football career as a fullback.

One super star, bused in. That's what passed for integration in the '50s and '60s in more than our middle American community. Back then, many hundreds of miles north of cities like Birmingham, Jackson and Selma, places in the news because of their vicious and violent opposition to anything smacking of change from the ways of Jim Crow, we too still had an awfully long way to go.

Northern bigotry was subtler. As a kid, I remember a corporate cocktail party somewhere in Ohio, an affair for the executives of the lighting company for which my father worked. An executive's wife asked my mother what she would do if I -- probably 7 or 8 years old at the time -- were to date or marry a black woman. "My sons can go out with whomever they want," my mother shot back, perhaps a bit too righteously. In my town, you see, there were no black girls, no brown ones either.

Sometime in the same mid-'50s timeframe, my father struck a public blow for racial equality, though I think it was prompted more by a growling stomach than a sense of social outrage. Such was Gunther Lanson. My family was on a ferry, heading, I believe, toward Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay, and the dining quarters on the crowded boat were segregated, though I didn't really know what that meant. All I saw was one area with a long line of people waiting to be seated and another, smaller area, that was nearly empty. That's where we Lansons sat down -- and waited a long time for a waiter to approach. That's when my father had one of his most persuasive temper tantrums -- and the lily-white Long Island Lansons got served in the "Negroes Only" section of the dining room. I'd like to tell you that my father was making a bigger statement that day. But I think he just wanted lunch.

Today, I have to wonder whether my kids have similar insights into their parents. I confess. We live in a town that's only a bit more diverse than the one I grew up in. And, no: Good schools are no excuse for seeking what amounts to self-segregation. Still, I'm starting to make sense of the stupidity of the stultifying racial divides that have too long held back these United States. At least once every week I hold an ambassador of a new America close to my heart, in the squirming shape of my gorgeous mixed-race grand-daughter. I've come a long ways, too, in my interest, understanding and outreach to friends who didn't grow up in -- and back then weren't welcome in -- the homogenous and oh-so-dull communities like the one of my upbringing. Still, like most of us, I have a ways to go before race and ethnicity play no role in perception of the reality around me.

That, too, is why I'll be watching the inaugural at noon Tuesday with a special sense of renewal and excitement. These United States under the leadership of Barack Obama face truly daunting times and truly daunting tasks. But I sense from all that Barack Obama is and represents that we will all be in this struggle together, following a man with a keen sense of the moment and a clarion eloquence to articulate what we can do to make the most of it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

When it comes to democracy, messy is just fine

Let’s get it right this time, not just get there quickly.

That’s the message some Democrats in Congress are delivering to Barack Obama, and I believe they are right to do so.

Just a few months ago, Congress raced to pass a $700 billion bailout for the banking industry after the Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke warned that dilly-dallying could cause a global economic meltdown. Well, guess what:

-- The global economy pretty much melted anyway.
-- No one really knows where the money from the first half of that plan went. It's a mere $350 billion, rouighly 10 times the entire federal budget for Homeland Security in 2008, five times that for Health and Human Services. But the banks have refused to account to Congress for how the the money was spent. Credit markets remain tight. And American taxpayers? They got bilked. It's a ludicrous situation.

Now some in Congress are balking at the broad-stroke provisions of the incoming president's $775 billion stimulus package. Liberal Democrats want the money to be spent on actions that directly create jobs, benefitting citizens and the country, not corporate moguls. They want to see the money spent building bridges, fixing highways, improving the energy grid, investing in the country’s infrastructure. They don't want to water down that investment by handing out one-time, $500, tax credits to citizens who likely won't spend that savings or so-called incentives to small businesses to ostensibly hire new workers. (I wonder if anyone would notice if those new hires got fired after the tax incentives were doled out.)

Republicans, who borrowed and deregulated America into this mess over the last eight years, have suddenly found religion, tut-tutting that a big stimulus would be irresponsible at a time of huge deficits. A hint of the heat scorching Obama from both sides could be seen in two articles on today's New York Times opinion pages. On the left, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman writes that Obama's economic plan "isn't as strong as his language about the economic threat. In fact it falls well short of what's needed."

To his right (but still a moderate by Republican standards) is fellow Times columnist David Brooks. He writes, "The Obama presidency is going to be defined by audacious self-confidence ... This will be the most complex legislation in American history, and as if the policy content wasn't complicated enough, Obama also promised to pass it via Immaculate Conception -- through a new legislative process that will transform politics."

Are they talking about the same president? The same plan?

Whomever Obama listens to he needs to do something other than split the difference. As much as I admire Obama's instinct to forge broad-based coalitions, this isn't the time to give sops to a shrinking Republican minority that has pretty much wrecked the economy with its one-note mantra of "cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes."

I am no economist. But in the face of spiraling unemployment and a recession with no end in sight, I think it's safe to say we need bold leadership now, not collegiality. And if that’s offensive to the 3o percent of Americans who still think George Bush is hunky dory, well, that’s tough. The election made that clear. People are hurting. They want to try a new course. If Republicans try to block it, Democrats should flex their muscles and run over them. The public will be on their side.

But first Democrats need to encourage loud debate from all quarters among themselves. Some people are wringing their hands at the sight of Democrats arguing with Democrats. They shouldn’t. They should celebrate. Democracy is once again a messy business in America. That is what democracy is supposed to be. It's how it works best.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Word from Turkey: Big wait for 'Bye-Bye Bush' shoe

Below is a real email (with picture above to back it up), forwarded by a friend in New York, from a friend of hers who visited Istanbul. Who says the U.S. has cornered the market of brash capitalism?

I didn't want to leave Turkey without visiting the factory where shoe model 271 is manufactured. Never heard of it? Well, it just happens to be the name of the shoe that was hurled at George Bush a few weeks ago in Iraq. The Turkish shoemaker (Ramazan Baydan) recently renamed the shoe "Bye Bye Bush" and is back-logged with orders (well over 300,000). He's apparently hired about 100 extra factory workers to keep pace with the demand. Unfortunately, we couldn't go to the assembly line, but we did see the showroom. The shoes are thick and heavy - good thing Bush was adept at ducking b/c they would have done some serious damage.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Democrats should stop wasting time blocking Burris

No question: Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is a foul-mouthed creep as well as an alleged crook. But even if he did try to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat, there's no evidence that he persisted after his efforts were outed by a federal investigation. The law says two things: (1) He's still governor of Illinois and, therefore, has the legal right to name Obama's successor (2) He's innocent until proven guilty.

So why are Democrats wasting so much time trying to block 71-year-old Roland Burris from taking a Senate seat -- Obama's -- to which he was legally appointed? Is there any evidence that Burris greased Blagojevich's palm? Not that anyone has disclosed. Is there any evidence that Burris was on the take during a career that included a stint as Attorney General of Illinois? Again, not that anyone has reported. Is it likely that, at age 71 and as the beneficiary of an appointment that comes under storm clouds, Burris will wrap up the Senate seat for years to come? No.

Those are three reasons why Democrats should get on with the nation's business instead of their own posturing. If they don't stop trying to look Holier than Thou, it could well blow up in their face and slow much-needed legislation. Today, as other senators are sworn in, Burris has said he'll show up at the Senate to take his seat. Do Democrats really want to turn his arrival into a blast from the past, a photo-op of the '60s South, complete with security guards escorting the only African-American senator out of the chamber? Do they want the story to lead the news for the next several weeks when Americans desparately need Congress to move forward on a stimulus that creates jobs?

Let Roland Burris be. He's neither a nut nor a novice. He's a lifetime public servant, whose only apparent sin is that he's an ambitious but not terribly charismatic politician. Democrats should seat him in the U.S. Senate and then move swiftly and soberly to hold impeachment hearings for the governor, who truly does smell like a rotten fish.

It's true. Blagojevich's nomination of Roland Burris taints the nominee with guilt by association. But if that were the standard for unseating a politician of either party, there would be a whole lot of empty desks on Capitol Hill when the new Congress convenes.

Published on OpedNews, Jan. 6, 2009