Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has confounded his critics by making a sensational comeback. He may well lead the Eagles to the Superbowl XLV in 2011. Imprisoned for his role in participating in a dog-fighting ring, Vick has led the Eagles from one triumph to the next. Meanwhile, Washington, DC can only watch helplessly as the Redskins, who picked up Donovan McNabb, compile another losing seasons.
Now President Obama has weighed in on Vick. He told Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, according to the Washington Post, that it was essential that Vick, who had previously led the Atlanta Falcons (with mixed results), had been given another shot. It's a story of redemption, in other words, one that is particularly apposite at Christmas time--the fall from grace into the abyss of a federal penitentiary, then a second chance at glory. Will Vick now fulfill his great expectations? Does he now feel, like the stripling Pip, that "heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlaying our hard hearts"?
We will never know what is in Vick's heart of hearts. But Obama, as recounted by Lurie, apparently declared,
"He said, 'So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance,' " said Lurie, who did not indicate when the call occurred. "He said, 'It's never a level playing field for prisoners when they get out of jail.' And he was happy that we did something on such a national stage that showed our faith in giving someone a second chance after such a major downfall.''
In two and a quarter centuries, only four presidents have been slower than President Barack Obama in exercising their authority of executive clemency -- granting either pardons or commutations of sentences to the convicted -- with thousands of applications pending at the Justice Department.
If Obama believes in second chances, then why he isn't practicing what he preaches?
(Photo by André Karwath)
It's official: President Obama is on his comeback tour. Charles Krauthammer even goes so far as to say that Obama has won The Triple Crown, in getting a tax cut bill passed, Don't Ask Don't Tell repealed, and the New START treaty approved. As Krauthammer puts it, Obama "came back with a vengeance," leveling the field with the new Congress.
But is it true? Did passage of Start allow Obama himself to get restarted? Did the GOP blunder by signing on to the tax bill?
Certainly Obama seems to be taking nothing for granted. He's engaging in a major shakeup of his administration. The New York Times reports that David Plouffe, who headed the 2008 campaign, is returning to the White House, while Press Secretary Robert Gibbs is set to either leave the administration or become a senior adviser. Obama is also looking for a new head for the National Economic Council. It seems clear that vice-president Joe Biden's influence keeps rising as well. He's Obama's link to the Senate, where the Democrats continue to hold a slender majority.
All this is very different from the Jimmy Carter years. Carter's grave personal flaws--his petulancy, flip-flopping, and penchant for blaming the American people for economic woes--doomed his presidency. Obama is doing none of that. His flaws are different--professorial lecturing and what David Bromwich calls his general fastidiousness.
But with passage of Start, Obama did show a different side, one that indicates he is ready to fight for what's really important to him. Republicans will thus have to play their cards carefully. Had the GOP held out against any compromise during the lame duck session, Obama would have pilloried the party as a bunch of do-nothing legislators, a tack that Harry Truman successfully followed in his 1948 reelection campaign.
The truth is that playing field may be level, as Krauthammer puts it, but that was probably inevitable. The power of the presidency remains enormous, particularly in a time of war. Sen. Mitch McConnell overreached in trying to stymie Obama on Start, which, as Krauthammer notes, ended up inadvertently handing Obama a big PR victory over a small treaty.
But the real arena of contention in the next two years will not be foreign policy. It will bethe deficit and economic regulation. The administration is issuing a raft of new environmental regulations on emissions under the flag of combatting climate change--a tailor-made issue for the GOP to argue that liberal government bureaucrats are being empowered by Obama to run roughshod over the free enterprise system. Similarly, the GOP can take a number of steps to push for deficit reduction--if it wants to. That would have to include cuts in the Defense budget as well as social programs. The looming collapse of state pension fund systems will also allow the GOP to the imperative of slashing deficits.
So, yes, Obama has made something of a comeback. If the economy continue to recover, it will be extremely difficult to unseat him in 2012. But that doesn't mean that the GOP won't be able to stymie much of his legislative agenda in the next two years.
The remit of newspapers has always been to expose scandal. The Washington Post, at least since Watergate, has regarded itself as in the forefront of the crusaders for justice. Now its empire is under siege. The revelations of corruption at Kaplan Higher Education, a key part of the company, are bringing dishonor upon the Post.
To add insult to injury, the story has been broken by the very kind of internet website that is bringing the newspaper's circulation low: the Huffington Post (where I occasionally contribute) reports that Kaplan has been bilking students:
The Kaplan name has been doing no favors for the Washington Post's reputation or that of the Graham family. As HuffPost business reporter Chris Kirkham detailed this week in a hard-hitting piece drawing on former Kaplan insiders, management has employed deceptively aggressive marketing practices to recruit students, while enrolling many in classes without their knowledge, enabling the company to pocket a larger slice of the federal financial dollars that comprise upwards of 85 percent of their tuition revenues.
Like many schools in the thriving for-profit college industry, Kaplan has churned out graduates with debts most cannot hope to repay, given the meager wages they will likely earn. Indeed, Kaplan's graduates have wound up defaulting on their federal student loans at roughly twice the rate of counterparts at non-profit university programs.
For the Post, these accusations of extensive malversation at Kaplan are doubly dire. Not only does they tarnish the reputation of the newspaper, but there is also a practical matter. The newspaper has been losing money. Kaplan, by contrast, has been keeping it afloat. Nor is this all. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Kaplan for racial discrimination. You can read all about it in the Post itself.
The broader question raised by the Kaplan imbroglio is the whole idea of higher education as for-profit industry. Writing in the National Interest, Anthony Grafton correctly notes that much of the derision and contumely directed at elite schools is misplaced. But where there's smoke there is also fire. Sordid things are happening as businesses such as Kaplan, which made its name as a test preparation center, morph into education establishments. It's also the case that university presidents are cashing in, as Graham Bowley detailed earlier this year in an illuminating piece in the New York Times, creating what he calls an "academic-industrial complex."
For now the Post will have to perform the task of cleaning its own Augean stables. Its troubles offer a further reminder that not even the press is exempt from the scrutiny it likes to extend to others.
Barack Obama is about to become the first Democratic president in decades to sign his own arms-control treaty, which the Senate is set to approve today. The debate over the New Start treaty has been a prolonged exercise in the sort of demagoguery not seen since neoconservatives such as Richard Perle and Norman Podhoretz ganged up on Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to pillory them as appeasers for signing arms agreements with the Kremlin. But Nixon and Kissinger really were negotiating important treaties that helped bring about the end of the cold war.
By common consent, New Start does not qualify for that designation. Yet the GOP has mounted a host of niggling objections to the treaty. It's also indulging in the fantasy that a full-scale missile defense system can be constructed (the most recent test, incidentally, failed, a routine occurrence). The objections smack of pettifoggery rather than serious qualms. That wise woman of foreign affairs, Sarah Palin, chirped that the treaty makes "no strategic sense." How would she know?
What the debate over the treaty has revealed is that the GOP remains in the grip of the neocons, who reflexively oppose any arms-control treaty as an intolerable restriction on America's freedom of action. Which is why Republicans should be brought up short by foreign policy grandee Leslie Gelb's observation in the Wall Street Journal:
To many in the foreign policy establishment, the split over New Start was eye opening. Leslie Gelb, president-emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, said leaders abroad were mystified at Republican opposition to a treaty that if anything was initially criticized for being too modest. The debate, he said, "seriously damages [Republican] credibility on national security."
He's right. There can be no doubting that, by and large, the GOP has held the edge over the Democrats when it came to foreign policy. But that edge began to erode during the George W. Bush administration. Secretary of State Colin Powell was sidelined. So was outside adviser Brent Scowcroft. In essence, the entire GOP foreign policy establishment was put out to pasture. Now it's returned--to endorse the New Start treaty. Everyone from Kissinger to George Shultz has endorsed it. But as the presidential primaries loom, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and others are staking out extreme positions. Yet even as the GOP tries to assail Obama as soft on Russia--a vital partner, by the way, for America in tackling Iran and North Korea--it will confront the conundrum of backing his war in Afghanistan.
The biggest problem the GOP will face, however, is the Gelb prophecy. President Obama will ballyhoo his modest treaty as a major accomplishment, one achieved in the teeth of retrograde Republican opposition. He looks like the statesman; his detractors like leftovers from the Cold War. Before the GOP embarks upon a fresh neocon crusade in foreign affairs, it might think about the results of the last one in Iraq. The New Start treaty does not jeopardize American security. Quite the contrary. The treaty enhances it.
America's task isn't to keep building new weaponry, but to keep it out of the hands of its foes. The treaty helps accomplish that goal. America has more than enough weapons to, as Sen. Bob Corker vividly put it, blow its enemies to "Kingdom Come." As Kissinger himself expostulated in 1972, "What in God's name is the meaning of nuclear superiority?" Forunately, the era of supersizing is over. Lean and mean should be America's new credo.
The Obama administration is releasing the first census in several decades to be overseen by Democrats. Despite fears that the administration would try to taint the numbers, the results don't appear to be good for the Democratic party. Quite the contrary.
The 2010 census suggests that the Democrats are going to lose congressional seats. Overall population growth has slowed. Immigration appears to have come to a standstill since the 2008 recession. The total population is estimated at slightly over 300 million people.
Yet on Monday White House press secretary Robert Gibbs pooh-poohed the idea that the census is bad for the Democrats:
"I don't think shifting some seats from one area of the country to another necessarily marks a concern that you can't make a politically potent argument in those new places."
U.S. News agrees with Gibbs:
Republicans have a problem with minority voters. Multi-racial coalitions gave Barack Obama victory in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, California and other crucial states in 2008. Yes, the Sun Belt is growing, but to a great extent that growth is Hispanic. Newt Gingrich can take all the Spanish lessons he wants, but the Tea Party Republicans won't let their party bend on immigration. Senate Republicans did themselves no favor by rejecting so moderate and fair a measure as the DREAM Act last week.
Still, the question is whether Obama can resurrect that coalition. While Texas, Arizona, and Florida are expected to gain seats, New York may lose several. California is unlikely to gain any and may lose one. Those are forbidding odds for the Democrats.
Perhaps the biggest question is going to be overall population growth. Without it, the Social Security system and a host of other government programs are going to go under. The one advantage America has had over Europe and Japan is that its population continues to increase. Will Obama propose a population increase program along the lines of Germany, offering special subsidies for parents to have three or more children?
On the political side he could adopt another strategem--a relocation program. Obama could offer economic incentives for liberals to leave the Western states and congregate in New York and California to up their numbers. But that would be an act of desperation and Obama's liberal base is turning against him, anyway. The real challenge for the GOP and the Democrats is going to be to woo the increasing number of Hispanic voters who don't fall into any traditional political camp.
South Korea has started to defend itself again against the North. It's about time. For too long South Korea has been lax about the threat it faces.
It's refusal to back down in the face of the North's bluster about a calamitous attack should it proceed with a military drill on Yeonpyeong island, part of an area that the North claims as its sphere, was a promising sign. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak entered office with the claim that he would toughen up policy towards the North. He didn't. The result was that the North kept hitting the South with impunity, whether it was attacking the South's sea vessels or the island. Further tests are surely in the offing.
The North, however, is dependent on China and may not be as mercurial as it's often depicted. The blunt fact is that it backed down from its dire threats against the South. The military drill went as it was supposed to. The North's bluff was called.
Maybe former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had a hand as well in getting the North to stay its itchy trigger finger. Richardson, a maverick operator if there ever was one, likes to hold powwows with the world's dictators, a trait he shares with former president Jimmy Carter. But Richardson often seems to get results, in contrast to Carter. Richardson is asserting that the North is offering some concessions on its nuclear program.
But this, too, is part of the bait-and-switch that Pyongyang likes to practice. The Obama administration has been laudably vigilant about not getting ensnared in otiose negotiations with the criminal regime in Pyongyang. Now it looks as though South Korea is starting to wise up as well.
The Obama administration has correctly backed South Korea, a vital ally. Were America to abandon South Korea, the consequences truly would be catastrophic for western interests. China would be emboldened. The North would wreak havoc. And Japan would go nuclear.
For now, America and South Korea have handled the latest "crisis" produced by the North. There will be new ones. But the lesson of this one should be remembered. Trying to placate the North will get South Korea nowhere. It's time for a new approach.
Judging by this column, Charles Krauthammer is terrified of President Obama. Where some see a president who has capitulated to his ideological foes, Krauthammer, by contrast, detects a nefarious Obama whose cunning has set a trap for the GOP on tax and spending policy. Obama, thanks to the foolishness of the congressional GOP, which appeased him, is on the rebound. All the GOP did is ratify a new round of stimulus spending:
Even as they were near unanimously voting for this monstrosity, Republicans began righteously protesting $8.3 billion of earmarks in Harry Reid's omnibus spending bill. They seem not to understand how ridiculous this looks after having agreed to a Stimulus II that even by their own generous reckoning has 38 times as much spending as all these earmarks combined.
So says Krauthammer, at any rate. But is it true? Has Obama pulled a fast one on the GOP? Or did he betray his own principles?
Early polls suggest that Obama, in compromising with the GOP, has begun to shore up his centrist bona fides. It's also true, as Krauthammer notes, that the bill continues lots of pork for bogus projects such as ethanol, a program that even Al Gore now admits is inimical to sound environmental practices. The bill also adds about a whopping $1 trillion to the national debt.
But both Obama and the GOP were in something of a bind. Former vice-president Dick Cheney famously said that "deficits don't matter." But at some point they clearly do. We just don't know at what point.
Republicans were desperate to retain the Bush tax cuts in toto. In return they extended unemployment insurance for another twelve months and agreed to a payroll tax cut. But to argue that Obama somehow outmanuevered the Republicans is implausible.
Krauthammer focuses on the politics, arguing that Obama's base has nowhere else to go. But it could. It could, in fact, go nowhere. On election day. That alone could jeopardize Obama's reelection chances. The real question is whether Obama is going to morph into the slayer of old-time liberalism.
He was elected on the expectation that he would revive the Democratic party. But what if he does it by completing the Clinton revolution? It's worth asking what will be left of liberalism after one, or especially two, terms of Obama. Obama is talking about using the tax cut program deal as a template for reaching other compromises with the GOP on issues such as reforming Social Security. Now that the midterm election has wiped out many House members, Obama is free to tack to the center.
Ultimately, the president remains the central actor. If there's a foreign policy crisis, he's the big man. If Obama wants to reshape the federal government, he can float a proposal that will appeal to Republicans. Obama's mistake during the health care debate was to rely on congressional Democrats to come up with a program. He forgot the old line that the president proposes and Congress disposes. It looks as though Obama may be going into proposing mode.
But whether this really turns him into the cunning chameleon that Krauthammer purports to see is another question. The blunt fact is that Obama can do all the trimming he wants, but if unemployment remains at 10 percent he's most likely a one-term president.
Julian Assange is a free man again. He was released today by Britain's high court on bail of 240,000 pounds. This might be a new trend: England took an Australian and imprisoned him. In the past they used to ship their convicts to Australia.
Sweden continues to hope to extradite Assange and try him on allegations of sexual crimes. But the American government, singed by the WikiLeaks revelations, livid at the exposure of its diplomats, wants to take him down as well. The eager beavers at the Justice Department are working overtime to concoct a case against Assange. According to a New York Times report,
Among materials prosecutors are studying is an online chat log in which Private Manning is said to claim that he had been directly communicating with Mr. Assange using an encrypted Internet conferencing service as the soldier was downloading government files. Private Manning is also said to have claimed that Mr. Assange gave him access to a dedicated server for uploading some of them to WikiLeaks.
Maybe the government can eventually put Assange on trial for conspiring with Private Manning, who is himself in the brig. But I continue to think it's a bad idea. And a silly one.
The only thing a trial will accomplish is to give Assange a fresh pulpit and turn him into a martyr. Already a petition is being circulated by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights defending Assange. The petition makes a simple but persuasive case that Assange shouldn't be censored. The case of Assange could become a huge and fresh sore point between America and Europe. It would be ironic if the Obama administration, in pursuing Assange, ended up reviving the kind of anger that existed toward America during the Bush years.
But there is also the question of effort versus payoff. Assange did no real damage to American foreign policy. At most he revealed that American diplomats can pen a tart sentence about foreign leaders, which is reassuring to learn. But the significance of the leaks has been exaggerated. Embarrassing? Yes. A disaster? Hardly. The truth, as George F. Kennan noted decades ago, is that the importance of government secrets is grossly overrated. Kennan observed that the average American could pretty much learn all there was to know about foreign affairs by reading the New York Times on a regular basis.
Time magazine already took the right path by making Mark Zuckerberg its person of the year. The Obama administration would be wiser to ignore Assange than to devote great efforts to hauling him into the dock. Anyway, he already has enough problems dealing with Sweden. For America to pursue Assange is heaping Pelion on Ossa. Doesn't Obama have better thing to do with his time?
It's time to kill the estate tax. End it, don't mend it. So says Ray D. Madoff, a professor at Boston College Law School, in today's New York Times.
His point is simple. Americans don't believe in the tax. The idea of confiscating wealth at death has itself become toxic for the Democratic party. It amounts, in essence, to a double tax on income. Originally designed to break up the enormous concentration of wealth in America, the estate tax has now run its course. Already Obama has acceded to lowering it to 35 percent for the next two years. Writing in the Washington Post, Rep. Chris Van Hollen sounds the traditional Democratic mantra about the iniquities of failing to tax estates at a higher rate.
But as Madoff puts it,
After all, the Democrats have already lost the battle. The president’s proposal is fresh evidence that even Democrats have given up championing the fundamental value that the estate tax was originally intended to promote. This tax, first enacted in 1916, was never intended to be simply a device for raising revenue. Rather, it was meant to address the phenomenon of a small number of Americans controlling large amounts of the country’s wealth — which was considered a national problem.
Today not so much. Madoff's suggestion is to tax inherited wealth as income. My guess is that it wouldn't quite work that way. Instead, it would probably enjoy the same status as capital gains. Perhaps the rate would be around 15 percent. Either way, it would end the status of the estate tax as a special one, onerous for small businesses.
President Obama has indicated that he wants to overhaul the tax code, which makes sense. The last big reform came in 1986. Instead of reforming the estate tax, Democrats should wise up. In killing the death tax, they would deal a potentially fatal blow to the idea that they're simply a tax and spend party out to gore the wealthy. The estate tax isn't really all that important except to the current identity of the Democratic party, which wants to be perceived as standing up for the common man against the rich.
Of course Obama has already kicked up a brouhaha inside the party over his readiness to compromise--i.e., jettison Democratic doctrine--by extending the Bush tax cuts. As Doyle McManus notes,
It was a Clintonian exercise in practical politics: He abandoned one of his most fervently argued positions, but the result was that he probably improved his own political standing in both the short term and the long term.
The odds are that more such betrayals loom ahead.
Larry Summers, who has stepped down as an adviser to President Obama, holds the distinction, in a very crowded field, of being one of the most pompous government officials in recent memory. As Dana Milbank observes in the Washington Post, Summers couldn't even gracefully manage his own exit from the administration. Instead, in a farewell address at the Economic Policy Institute, he remained true to himself--sneering at everyone as he departed.
Fortunately, Summers' goverment service has presumably reached its terminus. Summers is symptomatic of the problems that have plagued Obama, which is to say that he exemplifies the Ivy League syndrome. He is a high IQ moron.
Of course Obama put all his faith in the wunderkinder from the Ivy Leagues who would supposedly turn around the economy. They never did. Instead, Summers, a protege of the now-discredited Robert Rubin, had no real remedies for the catastrophes that he helped bring about during his years as Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration--a post that he should never have occupied. Now Summers apparently thinks that everything will be hunky-dory with the economy. This blowhard told Milbank that it's "not always easy for people to understand," but things aren't so bad.
10 percent unemployment? Crushing federal debt? No matter. As Milbank acidly put it, "Americans don't know how good they've got it--because they aren't as smart as Larry Summers."
Smart. The word brings to mind an anecdote about Saul Bellow that Irving Kristol once recounted:
Saul, then an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, was, like so many of us in the 1930s, powerfully attracted to the ideologies of socialism, Marxism, Leninism and Trotskyism, as well as to the idea of “the Revolution.” He and a group of highly intellectual and like-minded fellow students would meet frequently at his aunt’s apartment, which was located next to the university. The meetings lasted long into the night, as abstract points of Marxism and Leninism agitated and excited these young intellectuals. Saul’s aunt, meanwhile, would try to slow things down by stuffing their mouths with tea and cakes. After the meetings broke up in the early hours of the morning, Saul’s aunt would remark to him: “Your friends, they are so smart, so smart. But stupid!”
It could serve as an epitaph for the career of Larry Summers as well.