12/30/2008 3:56:08 PM
Before Barack Obama won the 2008 election, pundits and politicos were already planning his first 100 days in office. Since then, the situation in the United States has gotten worse and the urgent calls for reform have gotten louder.
“No president in recent memory has come into office with so many and such varied crises to deal with,”
passing and (the hard part) implementing universal health care,” Donahue and Stier report.
After a campaign based on such amorphous themes as “hope” and “change,” some expect the myriad problems to evaporate as soon as the new president takes office. “I think that we've replaced the housing bubble in the United States with an Obama bubble,” Steve Clemons, a senior fellow and director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation told Salon.com. Clemons and others are calling for quick, decisive action on foreign policy and other initiatives. According to Clemons, “He's got a very short window to make the Obama bubble mean something before it explodes.”
A huge challenge for the incoming administration is deciding which issues should be dealt with first. Shirley Ann Jackson, writing for the Scientific American, has joined a multitude of scientists and environmentalists calling energy security, “the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity of our time.” In his first 100 days in office, Jackson wants Obama to update the national power grid, create a $200-billion “clean energy” bank for investment in sustainable energies, and “triple the currently paltry federal investment in basic and applied energy research and development.”
Though energy reform and foreign policy may garner big headlines, the most important tasks of the new administration may be the most mundane. Donahue and Stier report for the Washington Monthly that Obama should focus on fixing the federal bureaucracy, before moving on to bigger ticket items. “To put it bluntly” Donahue and Stier write, “even with brilliant policy ideas and flawless political instincts, Barack Obama’s administration is likely to fail if it doesn’t reverse the erosion in federal capacity.”
The disastrous example of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Hurricane Katrina has shown what can go wrong when a federal agency is dysfunctional, and Donahue and Stier report that many important federal offices have fallen into disrepair. Donahue and Stier provide an urgent call to reform Medicare and Medicaid, the Office of Thrift Supervision, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Defense Contract Management Agency, the Defense Nuclear Detection Office, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and especially FEMA, now under the Department of Homeland Security.
Most people realize that Obama’s promised “change” won’t come overnight, and that’s not a bad thing, according to Mark Schmitt writing for the American Prospect. Many politicos and pundits urged Obama to hit the panic button at various points throughout the 2008 election, but the candidate won with “a long, patient strategy of assembling a majority of delegates, one at a time, in friendly and unfriendly states alike.” Schmitt writes that the President-elect will need to use that same patient style to truly turn the country around in 2009.
, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/29/2008 5:42:11 PM
Take a break from guessing who’s going to snag an Oscar and check out who’s in the running to take home top honors for their political blunders this year. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo released the nominees for the second annual Golden Duke awards with fun categories like Sleaziest Campaign Ad and Best Scandal: Sex & Generalized Carnality. My favorite is Outstanding Achievement in Corruption-Based Chutzpah. Marshall says it’s difficult to judge because it’s so nuanced—not to mention “the difference between chutzpah and just being a complete f---ing moron sometimes is subtle.” Winners will be announced on Wednesday, so now is the perfect time to start an office pool for your personal favorites. You could also just bet on Sarah Palin—the repeat nominee is bound to nab at least one.
12/29/2008 3:35:14 PM
Barack Obama’s leadership style, as he’s defined it so far, is remarkably similar to the ideas behind the progressive parenting movement, Andie Coller observes for Politico:
The “change we can believe in,” it turns out, shares a lot with the revolution in thinking about child-rearing sprung from the work of Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, which centers on principles such as mutual respect — or what the president-elect has called “the presumption of good faith” — fostering independence (“Team of Rivals,” anyone?), and encouragement (“Yes we can!”).
Coller notes that Obama’s “love and reason” parental leadership model stands in stark contrast to President Bush’s “more no-nonsense, SuperNanny-style approach to his job (‘It’s in their nature to test the boundaries and it’s up to you to make sure they don’t cross the line’).”
“The most respectful—and effective—approach to parenting consists of working WITH children rather than doing things TO them,” Alfie Kohn, author of the book Unconditional Parenting, told Coller. Parents who work with their children “talk less and listen more," Kohn continued. “They regularly try to imagine how the world looks from the child's point of view. They bring kids into the process of decision-making whenever possible. ‘Doing to’ parents, on the other hand, impose their will and use some combination of rewards and punishments in an attempt to elicit obedience.”
Image by acaben, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/29/2008 2:28:21 PM
Americans are facing tightening budgets as the economy continues to worsen. The American military budget, on the other hand, continues to balloon. Next year, the Department of Defense will have a budget of more than $600 billion (pdf), “roughly equal to the rest of the world,” according to retired Air Force Colonel Chet Richards, writing for the Center for Defense Information. “Because we are not facing the possibility of conflict with the rest of the world put together,” Richards writes, “it’s clear that some adjustment is appropriate.”
The $600 billion estimate is conservative, according to Lou Dubose of the Washington Spectator. Including supplemental appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, defense programs at the Department of Energy and Department of Veterans Affairs, and defense-related interest on the national debt, Dubose estimates that the 2009 defense spending will be closer to $1 trillion dollars.
Dubose suggests that the incoming Obama administration should cut back on military spending, scrapping expensive programs like the F-22 jet fighter, which Dubose describes as an out-of-date “winged white elephant.”
Some argue that a cutback in spending would be a mistake. Writing for the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page Martin Feldstein writes that government stimulus money should be dedicated to military spending. “A substantial short-term rise in spending on defense and intelligence,” according to Feldstein, “would both stimulate our economy and strengthen our nation's security.”
A better use of that money would be to spend it on green jobs and education, Phyllis Bennis writes for Foreign Policy in Focus. More money should also be dedicated to finding jobs for soldiers once they return home. “War production doesn't create real economic health,” according to Bennis, and the United States is already spending enough on the wars.
12/26/2008 10:06:09 AM
Faced with tumbling ratings, MTV is overhauling its programming, dumping “the backbiting and bitchery of most nonfiction fare” in favor of reality shows profiling young people on the up-and-up, reports Variety.
Who inspired the network to abandon “bitchery”? None other than president-elect Barack Obama.
“Our new shows will feature themes of affirmation and accomplishment,” Brian Graden, president of entertainment for MTV, told Variety. “Our shows are going to focus less on loud and silly hooks and more on young people proving themselves. These are themes that are consistent with the Obama generation.”
12/22/2008 1:32:36 PM
One of the most unpopular administrations in U.S. history will leave office this January, passing the presidency on to Barack Obama, a man millions expect to be a transformative leader. Obama will take the reigns in the midst of a worldwide economic meltdown, with American troops fighting two wars abroad, the climate in crisis, and that’s just the beginning.
The time is ripe for political resolutions to ring in the New Year.
The coming year should be the time we “return to integrity and put pressure on our government and corporate leaders, our employers and colleagues, to do the same,” Courtney E. Martin writes for the American Prospect. It’s time to “hold one another accountable to our highest selves,” she argues.
Taking a global perspective, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon trumpeted a more concrete resolution at his last press conference of the year, the AFP reports: “2009 will be the year of climate change.” He continued, “We must reach a global climate change deal before the end of the year —one that is balanced, comprehensive and ratifiable by all nations.”
Obama is widely expected to heed the call to step-up American leadership on climate change. And he’s already made a slew of other promises for new direction, including pledges to “value science,” create millions of jobs, initiate health care reform in his first year in office, shutter Guantanamo Bay, and restore America’s stature on the world stage. Here’s hoping these New Year’s resolutions aren’t forgotten by March.
Have any political New Year's resolutions of your own? Share them in the Utne Salons, or in the comments section below.
Image by Waldo Jaquith, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/22/2008 1:25:16 PM
Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, whose scandals are rivaled in size only by his hair, made an impassioned plea during his press conference on Friday for support and non-judgment from the media. His speech included a passage from Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem “If.”
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating…”
On her blog, journalist Claudia Rosett has reworked the poem to more accurately reflect Blago’s situation. Here's a key stanza:
“If you can keep your job while all about you
Are fielding bribes and blaming it on you,
If you can duck the Feds while all men doubt you,
And bleep-ing show the charges are untrue,
If you can fight and not be tired by fighting,
Or, being wiretapped, profess surprise,
Or argue that there will be no indicting
Because it’s all a bleep-ing pack of lies...”
(Thanks, Weekly Standard)
12/18/2008 11:54:25 AM
Caroline Kennedy made her interest in filling Hillary Clinton's senate seat official this week. While her uncle Teddy is keen on the idea, the dynastic nature of her bid has provoked a resounding backlash in the blogosphere. Among the anti-Caroline offensives being mounted online is this: Caroline Kennedy is less qualified for the Senate than Sarah Palin was for the White House.
Ouch, that's gotta hurt. But is it true?
After confessing, “I’d never thought I'd write this sentence,” Noam Scheiber of the New Republic goes out a limb, asserting, “Palin is vastly more qualified than Kennedy,” even considering the higher office Palin sought. Rod Dreher of the Crunchy Con blog seconds Scheiber's thoughts, adding that “anyone endorsing the Camelot princess for the US Senate owes Sarah Palin a huge apology.”
In a back-and-forth with the ladies of Slate's XX Factor blog, Emily Yoffe takes a different angle on the same point: “However ill-prepared Palin was for the vice presidency, she was chosen because she got elected governor of Alaska. And she did that without money, connections, or a famous name.” Yoffe argues that Kennedy’s appointment would reinforce the have and have-not dichotomy that rules our society. Many have-nots “think there's no point making an effort because everything is already wired for the haves,” writes Yoffe. Kennedy's appointment could help fortify that barrier to upward mobility.
Kennedy’s defenders in the Caroline vs. Sarah debate are likely to make an argument similar to this one by commenter elaine1, posted in response to a Politico story: “Don't compare Caroline Kennedy to Sarah Palin. Caroline is intelligent, savvy, and dignified.” Also standing up for Kennedy is Bernie Quigley on The Hill’s Pundits blog, who contends that Kennedy has shown “true and natural leadership” and that her experience as a mother, lawyer, and philanthropist “is the kind of varied experience the Senate calls for.”
If Kennedy does score the appointment, it won't be just because she has a famous name, but because her particular famous name is one Americans have a uniquely persistent, romantic fascination with. Ruth Marcus, in a recent column for the Washington Post, effusively (and without a hint of irony) sums up that sentiment: "[W]hat a fitting coda to this modern fairy tale to have the little princess grow up to be a senator."
12/17/2008 11:59:27 AM
Many thought that President Bush was conspicuously absent from the 2008 presidential race because he didn’t want to bring down John McCain. Now we know the real reason: He was actually working on the new Barney Christmas Movie.
Below you can see the fruits of Bush’s labor. Yes, it’s real. Yes, it’s a waste of time. And yes, it might make you want to throw your shoe at your monitor.
12/17/2008 9:18:46 AM
This summer, Michigan State University sparked a heated discussion when they proposed shortening their fall 2009 semester. Student government and University Committee on Student Affairs member Kara Spencer condemned the idea by writing a personal response to the proposal and emailing it to 391 faculty members. According to the university’s bulk email policy, Spencer had violated their anti-spam guidelines and would have to undergo formal investigation.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education took on the case, arguing that Spencer was exercising her right to free speech. The emails were not inherently disruptive, they claimed, and should not fall into the category of spam. FIRE’s letter to MSU officials called their actions a “threat to free expression” and “legally and morally unacceptable.”
More than three months after the initial incident, Spencer was found guilty by the Student-Faculty Judiciary, who placed a formal warning in her student file.
“MSU's decision defies the First Amendment, fairness, and common sense,” according to Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program. “MSU is effectively preventing the campus community from sending e-mails criticizing the administration to more than an extremely small fraction of the MSU community. The university should be ashamed, and the president should immediately overturn this illiberal finding.”
12/16/2008 9:51:48 AM
You’ve undoubtedly heard by now that in Iraq, having a shoe chucked at you, as President Bush did on Sunday in Baghdad, is a huge slap in the face. If you’re still wondering why, Brian Palmer at Slate breaks it down: shoes are a choice weapon of disrespect “because they’re so dirty.” Though it’s unclear where the tradition originated, “Arabs—and perhaps Iraqis in particular—throw their shoes to indicate that the target is no better than dirt.”
Palmer goes on to explain the significance of feet in various cultures, noting that George W. isn’t the first member of his family to be sullied by shoes: “After the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein installed a mosaic of President George H.W. Bush on the floor of the Al-Rasheed Hotel. Hussein delighted in releasing images of foreign dignitaries stepping on Bush's face.”
Disrespect aside, the shoe incident may be “the best thing that’s happened to Bush in a while,” John Dickerson opines also for Slate. The shoe is being interpreted by opponents and supporters of the Iraq war as a sign of the conflict's failure or success, Dickerson writes, and he analyzes what the reignited popular debate could mean for Bush in his twilight days. Dickerson expects, if nothing else, “a spark of patriotism will kick in when some Americans watch the tape.” If that’s the case, perhaps Bush is looking forward to the farewell he’ll receive from protesters who, according to Politico, now plan to pelt the White House with shoes on his last day in office.
Image by Van Damme M., licensed under Creative Commons.
12/11/2008 11:57:34 AM
Since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 2 million Iraqis have been driven out of the country, and observers have criticized the U.S. government’s reluctance to shoulder the responsibility for taking care of these refugees. The State Department has been slow to resettle displaced Iraqis within U.S. borders. By its own admission, the department has accepted only 4,238 Iraqi refugees into the country as of April 2008.
In a feature last week, Detroit’s Metro Times takes a more intimate look at the lives of these refugees, explaining the United States' obligation to them better than any set of figures can. The piece focuses particularly on people who have been subjected to violence because of their connections to the United States: Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government or businesses in Iraq, and with Chaldeans, a Christian minority group subjected to violence because the religion is associated with American culture.
One young man interviewed for the piece fell into both categories and fled Iraq after some harrowing harassment. Six of his coworkers were murdered, and he grew fearful for his own life after being followed home by cars of armed men and receiving anonymous phone calls demanding the names of his company’s Iraqi employees.
Metro Times also highlights the difficulties faced by Iraqi refugees upon arrival in the United States: struggling to master English, find jobs, and build communities while dealing with the emotional consequences of war. Some Michigan-specific organizations have cropped up to support them, but it's clear there are no easy solutions.
Last year, Congress passed the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, which forces the State Department to create concrete strategies to resettle more Iraqis in the United States. As more refugees make their homes here, it's important to keep these stories visible in the continuing discussion about the United States' responsibility to Iraq.
12/9/2008 1:06:19 PM
Desperation over the financial crisis has driven some of the economy’s most unfortunate victims to suicide. The New Yorker recently profiled Addie Polk, a 90-year-old widow from Akron, Ohio, who shot herself after a police officer showed up to assist in the foreclosure of her home. Polk survived the self-inflicted wound, and was rushed to a local hospital to recover. When Dennis Kucinich caught word of Polk’s situation, Peter J. Boyer writes that the Ohio congressman sprang into action, talking about her on the floor of Congress and pressuring Fannie Mae to forgive her debts. Many others around the country haven’t been so lucky.
“Rates of stress, depression, and suicide invariably climb in times of economic turmoil,” Nick Turse wrote for TomDispatch.com. Though much of the evidence for the rising suicide rate is anecdotal, Turse provides a long list of suicide attempts in response to the economic downturn. Instead of the high-flying Wall Street executives who played the stock market and lost, most of these stories involve the nation’s poor who have lost their homes.
12/9/2008 10:23:03 AM
As part of Barack Obama's promise to increase transparency in government, his Change.gov site has announced “Your Seat at the Table,” a page where users can read every policy document resulting from the transition team’s official meetings with other organizations. Readers also have the opportunity to leave comments or post their own material, all of which gets reviewed by the team.
Here’s Michael Strautmanis, public liaison and intergovernmental affairs director of the transition team, describing the site:
12/8/2008 1:46:19 PM
Soon after Barack Obama’s election, women’s groups voiced concerns that prominent cabinet and advisory appointments would, as usual, go mostly to men. But the announcements of Obama’s national security and foreign policy teams have put at least some of those fears to rest.
As A.J. Rossmiller points out in a recent essay for the New Republic, Obama’s choice of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, Janet Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security, and Susan Rice as ambassador to the U.N. represent important gains for women in policy areas traditionally dominated by men.
Just how shut out of these jobs have women been? Very. According to Rossmiller, “in the 318 total years those positions have been occupied, women have held them for 16.” If Michele Flournoy joins the administration as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, as has been speculated, these four women can match that threshold in a single term, he adds.
Even more noteworthy, says Rossmiller, is that these appointments have been welcomed “by a collective public yawn”:
Government positions dealing with war-fighting, tough negotiations, and security have for too long been off limits to women, due to prejudice and stereotypes, as well as structural impediments such as military restrictions against women serving in combat positions, a common path for upward mobility in these fields. But despite these long-lasting barriers, no one now questions the toughness or capabilities of these women.
In perhaps another sign of the times, the appointments of Clinton, Napolitano, and Rice were made soon after Ann Dunwoody became the first woman to achieve the rank of four-star general in the U.S. Army.
12/8/2008 9:01:58 AM
Zoinks! Until recently, it’s been all too easy to dismiss cryptographic voting technology—i.e. systems where voters reveal hidden codes that enable them to confirm their votes—as a wonky pipe dream, reports Technology Review. But now, there’s a new system designed to work with the optical ballot-counting scanners already in use.
This is how it works: I go to my neighborhood polling place and fill out a ballot per usual. But I use a special pen, which reveals a secret code inside of any bubble I mark. I think, “Damn. This is just like something Q would’ve dreamed up for James Bond.” My ballot has a number, so I make a note of these codes for myself—and then later, go online and make sure that my ballot number and confidential codes match up. Voila!
Imagine what such a system would have done in Minnesota, where the Norm Coleman vs. Al Franken Senate race recount, flush with contested ballots, is still pending a month after votes were cast. Minnesota Public Radio has been posting a sample of the contested ballots online; some of the votes seem so clearly intended for a particular candidate that it’s left me wondering just how many mistakes do slip through. With a cryptographic system, voters could be their own election judges.
12/5/2008 4:41:06 PM
Leave aside the fever-pitched bickering about gun control—all the condescending talk of hicks clinging to guns and the machismo stubbornness of prying a pistol from somebody’s cold dead hands. Instead, imagine a new approach: What if illegal guns were treated like pollution and gun violence like a public health problem?
The Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine spotlights this tack, launched by the university’s Center for Gun Policy and Research, in its fall 2008 issue:
When a community knows that its water and land are being poisoned by effluent from a chemical factory, or its air is being rendered foul by smokestacks, it goes after those polluters to protect the health of its people. The approach taken by the epidemiologists, public health experts and lawyers at the Center for Gun Policy and Research is the same: “Where are these guns coming from? It’s not like they spontaneously generated in the forest—‘Oh look, a baby gun!’” says Stephen Teret, [the center’s founder]. “The loading docks of the gun manufacturers are the point sources of this pollution.”
The center uses a mixed staff of lawyers, epidemiologists, researchers, and policy experts to deploy a battery of strategies ranging from legal challenges to legislative advocacy to hardcore data-sifting to working with state and local officials to track illegal gun dealers.
You can learn more about the center at its website. Also check out a handy sidebar to the magazine’s main article on how to build a safer gun.
12/5/2008 4:39:59 PM
Making philanthropic efforts more effective is a daunting challenge: How do organizations decide who gets what, especially when resources are stretched thin? One part of the answer can be found in census data that tracks community needs like healthcare and education. But often the people who need that aid the most are those who, on paper, don’t exist.
Mobile Metrix, a nonprofit market research company created at Stanford University, has a mission to count the uncounted and transform those statistics into better programs and resources for communities in need. The organization works with local governments, international agencies, and nongovernmental organizations across the globe to provide accurate data on things like access to drinkable water, education, and adequate sewer systems.
Even the company’s data-collection method works toward the goal of eradicating poverty. Mobile Metrix trains and employs young activists to gather data in their own communities, who in turn earn a living wage comparable to what they'd take home in illegal trades like drug or sex trafficking.
12/1/2008 12:45:40 PM
Who says the fashion choices of male politicians never turn heads? Barack Obama’s ensemble caught the attention of Politico 44 today, which notes that the tie he wore to introduce his national security team looked remarkably like the one he wore on election night:
It would seem that particular piece of clothing might qualify for the Smithsonian some day, and so would get the wedding dress treatment — you know, stored away and preserved, tucked into a display case, stashed in Obama’s box of memorabilia, which is probably a little crowded by now.
Then again, maybe the president-elect is thinking practically in these tough economic times, and thought such an auspicious tie deserved an instant replay.
Hillary Clinton’s outfit, however, received no commentary. She was spared, at least for today.
We've now spent a good deal of time (that we can never get back) evaluating the ties and have decided that, though they appear quite similar, they are in fact not the same. Fashion police can now retreat. The evidence is below.
Here's Obama on election night:
And here he is announcing his national security team:
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