Saturday, January 31, 2009

Partisan Stimulus, Goodbye Blago, More Obama Cabinet Woes and Why We Need a Larger House

The Stimulus Package
The $819 billion stimulus package has cleared the house. This is a dramatic bill that at least in the short-term, represents the largest expansion of the reach of the US Government in history. The bill passed with 0 Republican votes, despite efforts by the Obama administration to reach across the aisle. 11 Democrats, mostly Blue Dogs, also voted against the bill.

I don't blame the Republicans for being against this. Obama did all he could to reach out to them, but this just comes down to a fundamental difference in governing philosophy. Paul Begala on CNN made the point that I made several weeks ago in my posting that Republicans are generally supply-siders, believing that investment capital drives economic growth, whereas Democrats tend to be demand-siders, believing that consumer spending drives economic growth. If you are a supply-sider, you aren't going to believe in this bill.

I have my own reservations about this huge spending package, financed on debt. But, on balance, I support the bill. Conditions are too dire to "let the markets work". In the 4th quarter, the GDP shrank by 3.8% after shrinking 0.5% in the 3rd quarter. This makes the recession the worst since the early 80s -- in 1982, the GDP shrank a total over just over 6%. And unemployment generally lags GDP contraction, so even if the decline were stemmed now (and there is no indication we have reached the bottom yet), unemployment is likely to shoot up to at least 9 or 10%. In such extreme circumstances, the government must act to jumpstart the economy. The bill is not perfect and is too mis-mashed with short-term stimulus initiatives and long-term policy goals -- this is the product of a politically-motivated congress. But, imperfect as it is, it is necessary.

It will be interesting to see how this moves in the Senate, where Republicans still have the fillibuster option and deliberations tend to take longer.

Bye-Bye Blago, I For One Will Miss You
Blago is gone, removed from office by a 59-0 vote in the Illinois State Senate, convicting him of the impeachment charges passed by the House. Yes, he is corrupt, insane, arrogant and worthy of contempt, but how can you not love this guy? He outsmarted Harry Reid to get his pick in the Senate, boycotted his own impeachment trial and continues to protest his complete lack of guilt without addressing the obvious audio evidence of him trying to sell the senate seat. And to think, the 2008 Almanac of American Politics, published less than 2 years ago, called him a potential Presidential prospect. Guess Blago gets to join Elliot Spitzer on the list of "would've beens". He'll run the talk show circuit for a week or so, then we'll lost interest. But, he has been fun while he lasted.

Tom Daschle Doesn't Pay His Taxes
What happened to the legendary Obama vetting process? Tom Daschle is now the second cabinet pick this it was learned did not pay proper income taxes, in this case on a limo and driver provided to him for free by a friend and business associate over the past 3 years. To me, Daschle's sins are probably more flagrant than Timothy Geithner, who failed to declare international income. Both of them should have known better, but Daschle failed to pay almost $150K in taxes, a far larger sum. Besides, Daschle is a far less critical cabinet officer than Geithner. My opinion is that Daschle should withdraw his nomination and allow Obama to nominate someone who isn't as tainted.

But it poses the question -- did Obama know about this issue when he made the nomination or did his vetting process miss it?

All in all, the Obama cabinet continues to move slowly. Eric Holder is likely to be confirmed to justice by the Senate on Monday with maybe 20-30 nay votes. Hilda Solis' nomination to Labor is still being held up by conservatives who say she was evasive in answering questions at her committee hearing, but in reality, this is probably more of a philosophical schism than anything else. Daschle's fate is now in doubt, although Harry Reid issued a strong statement of support and as long as Democrats hold together, he will make it through. And the Commerce seat is still vacant.

Almost 2 weeks in, President Obama still has some work to do.

Why the House of Representatives Need to Be Expanded
Trivia questions for you:
#1 Where in the constitution is the size of the House of Representatives set?
#2 What was the original First Ammendment when the Bill of Rights was proposed?

Here are you answers:
#1 Nowhere! The size of the house is set by law, the constitution makes no stipulation as to the size.
#2 The original first ammendment was set to guarantee a minimum number of representatives per citizens, with the number varying based on population size, but setting a floor of at least 1 representative per 50,000 people.

We presently have 435 representatives, basically the same number we've had since 1913 (there were actually 437 for a few terms when Hawaii and Alaska were admitted into the union.) In 1913, there were 97 million people in the US, there are now 305 million. That means we now have approximately a representative for every 700,000 people.

So, who cares? Why do we need to expand? Here are my arguments:
(1) It would enable more retail campaigning -- if you have a district of 700,000 people, it is unlikely that you will ever meet all or even most of them. House campaigns have relied increasingly on tv ads and much less on actually spending time with your constitutents.
(2) It would allow for more upstarts -- it is much easier in a smaller, more retail campaign, for an upstart challenger to beat an incumbent.
(3) Communities would be better represented -- 700,000 is generally a huge swath of towns, particularly in middle America -- smaller districts would allow better representation of all constitutents.
(4) It would reduce small state disproportionality in congress -- in California, you get 1 rep for every 700,000 people. But 4 states don't even have 700,000 people -- North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming are all short. But they still get a representative. This gives them unfair influence relative to their population.
(5) It would greatly reduce the electoral college distortion -- I make no secret about the fact that I favor direct election of the president. But the electoral college IS set by the constitution, and as such is hard to change. But the constitution simply dictates that each house gets a number of electoral votes equal to it's number of senators plus representatives. So, with 435 representatives, 100 of the 538 votes (DC also gets 3 by constitutinoal ammendment) are apportioned not based on population. If congress were expanded to -- say 1,000 -- then only 100 out of 1,100 electoral votes would be apportioned not based on population -- not perfect but a big improvement.

But wouldn't this all lead to more gerrymandering?
This will always be a problem every time districts are redrawn. I think smaller districts actually make it somewhat harder. I would time the changes to the 2012 census redistricting that is happening anyway. Probably the best way to do this would be to pass a law that sets the number of representatives at, say, 1 per 300,000 people and automatically resets the number after each census. That way, when redistricting naturally occurs after each census, the appropriate number of new seats could be added.

Yes, we'd have to pay some more house salaries if we do this, but I think the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Interesting Reader Comment -- 2010 Senate Races
Had a very interesting comment posted that I thought I would respond to.

"I'd be really surprised if Judd Gregg managed to win again, really. New Hampshire isn't a red state anymore, and if someone with money runs against him he'll go the same way Lincoln Chafee did.

Also, Thune probably will face a hard race. Congresswoman Herseth-Sandlin is more popular than he is, and since her seat is at-large, she represents the same geographic area he does. She'd make it tough.

As to my home state of Kansas, the only way it isn't a safe republican hold is if Governor Kathleen Sebelius runs. If she does, the seat's a pure toss-up."
-- Posted by Kansas Jackass

New Hampshire is certainly becoming more Blue. I don't think it is quite Vermont yet though (where Sheldon Whitehouse knocked off Lincoln Chafee) -- it still carries some of its old libertarian streak to go along with the new Boston suburban population that is more liberal. I still couldn't call it a likely Democratic pick-up, but maybe that seat should've been a "lean" instead of a "likely" Republican hold.

The potential Thune / Herseth-Sandlin match-up is intriguing. She may not want to give up a safe house seat to challenge an incumbent senator, but the race certainly becomes a lot closer if she does. Also, keep in mind, if history is any guide, 2010 will be a Republican-leaning midterm.

Sebelius would be a strong candidate in Kansas -- God, how great would it be to have her representing Kansas?

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

First Look: Congress 2010

As promised, here is our first look at the 2010 congressional races. We'll begin in the Senate where there appear to be 36 seats up for grabs -- 34 seats that are on the regularly scheduled rotation and 2 that will require special elections to finish the term (New York for Hillary Clinton's vacated seat and Delaware for Joe Biden's vacated seat -- President Obama's former seat in Illinois was already on the schedule for 2010 as part of the regular rotation, as was Ken Salazar's.)

Let's look race-by-race:
Richard Shelby faces a run for a fifth term. Shelby won by over 30% in 2004, Alabama is a Republican state and Shelby remains popular.
Safe Republican Hold

Lisa Murkowski faces re-election for her second full term. While Alaska is a solid red state and Murkowski is reasonably moderate, she faces the prospect of a divisive primary challenge from Gov. Sarah Palin and the tarnished image of the Republican Party in Alaska following the Ted Stevens debacle. All in all, she is still likely to prevail.
Likely Republican Hold

John McCain faces re-election for a fifth term, assuming he seeks re-election. His most dangerous potential opponent, popular Gov. Janet Napolitano is now part of the Obama administration. Arizona is trending blue, but if McCain wants it, it's hard to see him getting beat.
Likely Republican Hold

Sen. Blanche Lincoln faces election for a third term. She is a moderate Democrat is a solidly red state and both her previous races have been decisive but relatively close (margins of 12% and 13%.) She still has to be the betting favorite but if Democrats face a mid-term slump, this could be a vulnerable seat.
Lean Democratic Hold

Sen. Barbara Boxer should be safe for a third term on the left coast, but faces the intriguing possibility of Arnold Schwarzenegger as an opponent. His popularity is well off its past highs, but he is always a compelling candidate and could put up a strong fight if it is a Republican year.
Lean Democratic Hold

Michael Bennett faces election for a first full term. As an unelected incumbent in a swing state, he has the benefits of office but the risk of a mid-term Democratic slump.

Chris Dodd's seat will be safe as long as Chris Dodd wants it -- Connecticut is about as blue as they come.
Safe Democratic Hold

Blue country for sure. Does Beau Biden jump in for the run he has been set-up for?
Likely Democratic Hold

Mel Martinez has announced his retirement and Jeb Bush has bowed out. Florida is a classic swing state and the possible nominee list on both sides is unclear.

Johnny Isakson is a red guy that's serving as senator in a red state. If Saxby Chambliss couldn't be beaten in the year of Obama, surely Isakson won't be beaten in a mid-term.
Safe Republican Hold

Daniel Inyoue is a long-serving, popular Democratic senator from a blue state. No risk for the Dems.
Safe Democratic Hold

Idaho is among the most red states in the nation. Michael Crapo, who ran unopposed in 2004 is likely to effectively run unopposed 6 years later.
Safe Republican Hold

The circumstances surrounding the Burris appointment were strange and the taint of Blago may linger, but this is still a solid blue state.
Likely Democratic Hold

Evan Bayh is popular in this red-leaning, but independent-thinking state. Could go bad in a very red year, but unlikely.
Likely Democratic Hold

Swing state fever! Chuck Grassley is extremely popular in the state. The only risk to Republicans is his age -- if he opted to bow out this would be open season, but otherwise the seat is safe.
Likely Republican Hold

I won't miss Sam Brownback when he leaves, I just hope I don't dislike the Republican who will likely win the seat more.
Likely Republican Hold

Kentucky + Republican incumbent = easy re-election
Safe Republican Hold

David Vitter is a Republican in a Republican-trending state. Post-Katrina exodus pushes Lousiana further right. The local Democratic party is very active there, but I don't see Vitter getting beat.
Safe Republican Hold

Barbara Mikulski is still Maryland's senator for life.
Safe Democratic Hold

Kit Bond is out, this is a swing state and the field is wide open.

Regrettably, Harry Reid is probably safe -- states don't kick out their Senator when leads the Senate too often (although it happened in 1994.)
Likely Democratic Hold

New Hampshire
New Hampshire is trending blue, but Gregg is a popular three-termer in what is still a swing state.
Likely Republican Hold

New York
Chuck Schumer is safe as safe can be. Kirsten Gilenbrand is a moderate in a solid blue state.
Both Seats Safe Democratic Hold

North Carolina
Richard Burr won a close race in 2004 (5% vs. incumbent Erskine Bowles) and Kay Hagan and Barack Obama both proved that the Democratic party is resurgent in NC. Still, it is a right-of-center state and 2010 won't be the year of Obama.
Lean Republican Hold

North Dakota
North Dakota is a right-leaning state, but Byron Dorgan hasn't had a close race in a long time.
Likely Democratic Hold

George Voinovich is a popular ex-governor who won decisively in 2004. Ohio is a swing state, this race will not be.
Safe Republican Hold

Republican in a super-Republican state. Coburn stays.
Safe Republican Hold

Ron Wyden won by 31% in 2004 and Oregon has only become more liberal.
Safe Democratic Hold

Arlen Specter is always at risk in the primaries as a very moderate Republican. He also has fought through cancer and may not be up to another term. Pennsylvania has also been trending Democratic. Specter should win if he is the nominee, but if he isn't, the seat would be up for grabs
Lean Republican Hold

South Carolina
Obama couldn't contend here, so unseating Jim Demint will likely prove impossible for Democrats.
Safe Republican Hold

South Dakota
John Thune eeked out a win over Tom Daschle in 2004. South Dakota is right-leaning and he won't have to fight a guy as popular as Daschle in 2010.
Likely Republican Hold

Bob Bennett is the safest seat in the US Senate.
Safe Republican Hold

Okay, maybe Jim Leahy is as safe as Bob Bennett
Safe Democratic Hold

Patty Murray is a perfect fit for left-wing Washington.
Safe Democratic Hold

They love Russ Feingold in Wisconsin.
Safe Democratic Hold

So, in total, I don't see the prospect for any dramatic shifts in the Senate. The most possible Democratic pick-ups are the open seats in Florida and Misouri, the most likely Republican pick-up is in Colorado. In all, the Democrats are likely to control 55 to 60 seats at the end of the 2010 cycle. Republicans just have too many of the seats up (18) in 2010 to make serious inroads. This is the last cycle that the Republicans have to play defense. In 2012, the Democratic gains will cycle around and the Democrats will have to defend more seats.

On the house side, obviously, all 435 seats are up for grabs in the last election before the 2010 census redistricting. The house has the potential for a much larger swing as Democrats have made gains in many traditionally Republican districts over the last 4 years. Of the 14 closest house races in 2008, 9 were won by Democrats, meaning those seats are vulnerable if 2010 is a Republican year (as history would tend to indicate it would be.) Republicans could very reasonably expect to pick up 10 to 15 seats in the 2010 cycle.

The 2010 elections are still a lifetime away, so expect a lot to change between now and then.

So much that I haven't talked about yet --
Up next: more on the stimulus package negotiations and vote, the Blago drama (God, that guy is fun to watch!), Obama cabinet updates and why the size of the House of Representatives needs to be expanded.

And you thought politics was going to slow down after the Presidential race?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Site Updates

As you've probably noticed if you are a frequent user, you will notice that I have been updating the content of the ad with some new gadgets. This will never be the most high-tech site -- I'm content-focused, not gadget focused, but it seemed right, given the increasing site traffic to add some basic things like a site traffic counter.

The site traffic counter is at the bottom of the blog and was started late night, January 24th, for those who are curious of site traffic.

I have also started receiving unsolicited offers to review websites on this blog for compensation. I have no interest in publishing paid reviews of the latest auto-moving site as I don't think it is in the spirit of why people come to this blog.

What I will begin to do is sell unobtrusive advertising space on the left-hand side of the blog. My intent is to always keep this blog free of charge to the reader. I want to offer you the best political analysis, including what I consider to be the best analytical projections of elections in the business without cost to you. I will never ask you for a subscription fee or donation. Advertising will in no way influence the content of the blog, I promise you.

As always, I welcome your suggestions and comments.

Geithner Takes Office, Rove Subpoenaed, Sean Hannity Has an Intelligent Thought

Cabinet Update -- Geithner Confirmed, Takes Treasury Post
The Senate this afternoon confirmed Timothy Geithner to the Treasury Secretary Post by a vote of 60-34. 49 Democrats and 1 Independent joined 10 Republicans to confirm his confirmation, overcoming opposition by 30 Republicans, 3 Democrats and 1 Independent. This is by far the closest confirmation vote of any of Obama's cabinet picks so far, with 8 of his picks winning confirmation without opposition and Hillary Clinton garnering only 2 "nay" votes.

Republicans Voting in Favor of Geithner were: Corker (TN), Cornyn (TX), Crapo (ID), Ensign (NV), Graham (SC), Gregg (NH), Hatch (UT), Shelby (AL) and Snowe (ME) and Voinovich (OH)

Independnets Voting in Favor: Lieberman (Independent Democrat -- CT)

Democrats Voting Against Geithner: Byrd (WV), Feingold (WI) and Harkin (IA)

Independents Voting Against Geithner: Sanders (Socialist -- VT)

Of note are the party defectors. While moderates like Snowe supported Geithner, so did conservatives like Cornyn, Crapo and Graham. Of the opposition, Feingold and Sanders are among the more liberal in congress. Also, Robert Byrd, who probably has the best command of the history and traditions of the Senate, speaks volumes in his opposition.

To me, this one is a close call. Geithner is incredibly capable and qualified to run Treasury and his appointment was initially roundly praised. But his failure not only to initially pay income taxes on foreign-earned income, but his subsequent use of a statute of limitations loophole to dodge paying all of the back taxes when he was caught until his appointment is troubling. I understand and respect the perspective of those who voted against his nomination. I wish Obama had ruled him out when this defect was discovered in the vetting.

One final note on this appointment -- John McCain (R-AZ) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) both voted "nay" after saying that would support confirmation over the weekend. I'm not sure their reasons, but these are odd departures for these two moderate Senators. Specter may be trying to secure his base as he is always a primary target. McCain's motives are less clear.

The fights still to be had in the Senate: Solis for Labor, Holder for Justice and Daschle for HHS as well as Obama's ultimate pick for Commerce. It will be interesting to see if Solis or Holder get as many "nay" votes as Geithner does. I personally don't have any of the same reservations about any of them that I did about Geithner, but Republicans are still making hay about Holder's role in the Mark Rich pardon and Solis' very liberal views on labor are sure to draw ire.

In total, Obama's cabinet is actually moving at an historically slow pace. George W. Bush had all but 1 of his cabinet picks (John Ashcroft) approved on his first day. Republicans have been using a lot of holds to slow down the process. It appears the spirit of bipartisanship isn't lasting long. It would be hard to argue that Bush's cabinet was more clearly qualified than Obama's (in fact, I could argue the reverse.) But, no matter, Obama will get all his picks and a couple of weeks won't cost him that much.

Karl Rove Subpeonaed
A House subcommittee headed by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has subpeonaed Karl Rove for his role in the firing of US Attorneys during the Bush administration.

I have a piece of advice for congressional Democrats: LET IT GO!

Yes, it might be good theater to dredge up the sins of the Bush administration, but what constructive purpose does it serve? Bush is gone, the damage is done. We have too many time-critical problems facing our nation to waste time with an investigation that has a 0% chance of leading to prosecutions.

I Guess If You Say Enough Random Things....
It's rare that Sean Hannity has a thought that I would define as intelligent, but he made one today. He pointed to the size of the economic stimulus package ($825 billion) and the promise of job creation (3 million new jobs) and noted that this translates into spending $275,000 per new job created.

Let's say the average cost of a middle class job with benefits is $75,000 (about $50,000 in salary and $25,000 for a good benefits package.) This means, if we used the $825 billion to directly hire workers, it would be worth 11 million new jobs.

So, what gives?

Part of the problem is that the plan has too many multi-year components. If you spend the money over two years, it halves the effectiveness in terms of near-term job creation. Part of it is Obama hedging. Another part may be all the pork that is getting rammed into this thing. While some pork is necessary for passage and should be accepted (as I've said in the past), we should at least ensure that it is pork that can be spent quickly and will employ people. Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration need to ensure that this bill doesn't turn into an ineffective lightning rod. Republicans are already crying that is a socialist power grab and not a stimulus package. In the light of this criticism, Democrats need to ensure that spending in the bill is: a. immediate and b. job-creating

Next Up:
First Look at 2010 Senate Races
The Republicans face a huge structural challenge in 2010 and have no plausible path for re-taking the Senate, even though mid-term elections historically favor the party out of power. We'll analyze their chances to make in-roads.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The First 5 Days, Senate Update

It is now Day 5 of the Obama Administration.

Let's review the latest news:

Cabinet Picks
Reconfirmation Not Required:
Robert Gates, Defense

Approved Jan 20th:
All approved by Senate voice vote, without objection
Ken Salazar, Interior
Arne Duncan, Education
Tom Vilsack, Agriculture
Stephen Chu, Energy
Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security
Eric Shinseki, Veterans Affairs

Approved Jan 21st:
Hillary Clinton, State (94-2 senate vote)
Ray Lahood, Transportation (by voice vote, without objection)
Shaun Donovan, Housing & Urban Development (by voice vote, without objection)

Selected, But Not Yet Confirmed:
Eric Holder (Justice) -- appointment being "held" by one or more Senate Republicans -- this tactic can delay a confirmation vote by up to a week.
Tim Geithner (Treasury) -- approved by Senate Finance committee. Full Senate vote scheduled for Monday.
Hilda Solis (Labor)
Tom Daschle (Health & Human Services)

(Bill Richardson originally nominated but withdrew his nomination on January 4th, no replacement named as of yet)

Clearly, Obama's "easy wins" are the ones who have already been confirmed. Holder still faces lingering questions from Senate Republicans about the Mark Rich pardon when he was undersecretary in the Clinton administration. Geithner faces questions on taxes he failed to pay (although he ultimately paid along with IRS penalties) on international income. Solis faces opposition from Republicans because of her strong pro-union views, including support for card check. Daschle faces questions about ties to lobbyists, although he does meet the Obama administration's new rules.

Key Non-Department Heads Confirmed
Lisa Jackson, EPA Administrator
Nancy Sutley, Council on Environmental Quality
Mary Schaprio, Head of SEC
Susan Rice, UN Ambassador
Peter Orzag, Office of Management and Budget

Other Key Non-Department Heads To Be Confirmed:
Leon Panetta, CIA Director
Denny Blair, Director of National Intelligence

Obama also needs to nominate a FEMA director.

Of other note, the Obama adminstration has waived its new lobbying rules for William Lynn, a former Raytheon lobbyist, to be nominated for #2 at defense. I think this is a mistake. I have no reason to doubt Mr. Lynn's integrity, but as we all know, ethics rules are about the appearence of conflicts of interest, and this one doesn't look good. Granted, no other President had such strict rules, but if you are going to set a high standard, you need to hold to it.

All in all, Obama's top team is generally winning confirmation quickly and the administration is getting right to work.

More Executive Orders
Obama has issued an order reversing the so-called "Mexico City Policy" which restricts US funding of birth control as part of international aid. Good riddance to a bad policy.

This adds to a firestorm of executive orders issued this week, including the order to close Gitmo within one year, the new lobbying rules, the cabinet pay freeze, banning torture in interrogations, greater complaince with the Freedom of Information Act and a hold on regulations issued in the last 30 days of the Bush administration.


President Obama continues to press for an $825 billion economic stimulus package that includes upgrades to roads, health care facilities, government buildings and tax cuts for lower and middle-income Americans.

Obama met with congressional leaders from both parties Friday to try to broker a deal. Republians are still very wary of the level of spending and are pushing for more tax cuts (Tax Cuts represent about $300 billion of the Obama package, new spending about $525 billion.)

This is a big test for both Obama and the new congress. The need to broker a deal and get this bill signed into law and working is huge. Every day the economic news is horrible. Unemployment surged to 7.2% in December and new unemployment claims so far in January indicates that it will rise to at least 7.5% when the January numbers are reported.

Fire From Women's Groups

Groups such as the National Organization of Women are now protesting Obama's cabinet picks, saying that 6 women in the top 21 spots is insufficient. How silly. Yes, if statistically, all else being equal, women should be 10 to 11 of the top spots, but I'll put Obama's diversity record up against any Fortune 500 corporation, he has put women in some of the most choice roles (State Department, UN Ambassador, EPA Administrator, Labor Secretary) and no one yet has articulated a single case where a more qualified woman was turned away for a man. NOW appears to be struggling to remain relevant.

Senate Update

New York Governor David Patterson has named Kirsten Gillebrand to fill the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. Gillebrand is a blue dog Democrat who is economically moderate, anti-abortion and anti-gun control. A suprisingly conservative pick for a state as liberal as New York. She is certainly FAR more qualified than Caroline Kennedy would have been and is probably well poised to be elected in a 2010 special election, but I have to say I would have personally preferred Andrew Cuomo for the role. But, good for Patterson for going his own way and congratulations to Sen. Gillebrand. More moderates in congress can't be a bad thing.

In Minnesota, the saga drags on as the seat remains vacant. Following the certification of Al Franken as the winner, Norm Coleman's legal challenge is being heard beginning Monday. Even if the district court grants a decisive order, either party can still appeal to the State Supreme Court or take the issue to federal court. Few believe Coleman has a credible chance to ultimately prevail, but this thing could drag on until sometime in March if he exhausts all his options. Meanwhile, the seat will remain vacant.

Media Bias

All throughout this year, I have heard complaints from conservative friends, with some validity, that so-called "mainstream" media have been soft on Obama and overly tough on the GOP. There was some credibility to the argument, as I do feel Obama got favorable treatment.

But whatever favorable treatment Obama got from MSNBC, CBS News, etc. it pales in comparison to the blatant, unrepentent bias being displayed on Fox News. They have behaved like the country has ended since Obama won, raising false controversies, showing more footage of ex-President Bush then President Obama on inauguration day and generally trying to undermine his agenda from day one.

I'm a big first ammendment guy. Fox News can present whatever bias it wants and people can judge for themselves. I vote with my remote control. It's just the hypocracy of complaining about bias while blatantly displaying it that annoys me.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The First 30 Hours

It's been quite a day and a half. Here are my highlights:
The Swear-In Snafu
How did Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts get the Presidential Oath of Office wrong? He had ONE job to do and it's only like 35 words long. Good lord.

At any rate, Obama has be "resworn" as of tonight, hopefully with the correct oath this time. It is debatable whether any of this matters -- the constitution is pretty clear that Obama became President at noon yesterday, but it is funny.

An Average Speech
Obama's speech effectively articulated policy differences with the Bush administration and reassured the world. I particularly liked the line about not sacrificing our ideals for security, harkening back to Benjamin Franklin's famous quote that "those who would sacrifice liberty for a measure of security deserve neither security nor liberty". Having said this, a lot of the speech was fairly ho-hum, a cut below the inspirational speeches that we've seen in the past from Obama including his '04 convention speech, his speech on race and his '08 acceptance speech. I would wager that a few weeks from now, few will remember much from the speech.

Cabinet Appointments Moving Along
Yesterday, the Senate approved by voice vote (which essentially means unanimously) six of Obama's cabinet picks.
They were:
Ken Salazar, Interior
Arne Duncan, Education
Tom Vilsack, Agriculture
Stephen Chu, Energy
Janet Napolitano, Homeland Security
Eric Shinseki, Veterans Affairs
Also approved by the Senate by voice vote was Peter Orszag to run the Office of Management and Budget

Today, Hillary Clinton was confirmed for State by a recorded vote of 94-2. Dr. Susan Rice was also advanced from committee as UN Ambassador.

Robert Gates does not require confirmation as he was already serving as Secretary of Defense under Bush.

In terms of cabinet departments, this leaves Justice (Eric Holder), Treasury (Tim Geitner), Commerce (?), EPA (Kim Jackson), Health & Human Services (Tom Daschle), Housing and Urban Development (Shaun Donovan), Labor (Hilda Solis) and Transportation (Ray Lahood)

Of these, Obama needs to name a Commerce replacement for the withdrawn Bill Richardson. Of the remaining nominees, only Holder and Geitner are expected to face significant opposition in the senate and all are expected to be ultimately confirmed.

Executive Orders
On his first full day in office, Obama issued several executive orders aimed at greater government accountability and transparency, including strict new lobbying rules, a pay increase freeze for cabinet officers and greater compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

Many of these are largely symbolic gestures, but I appreciate the symbolism. Let's hope Obama follows thorugh on this tone and we have greater accountability in government.

An executive order is also expected tomorrow to start the process of closing Gitmo.

Caroline Kennedy Withdraws

Caroline Kennedy has "dropped out" of asking for the appointment to the New York Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. Thank God. What an uninformed, unqualified, arrogant train wreck she turned out to be. Here's to New York Governor David Patterson for standing strong on this one.

Kennedy's Seizure

Ted Kennedy had a seizure during the congressional luncheon with Obama and was rushed to a local hospital. He appears to be recovering well and the word is that it was due to physical stress from the day. It did serve as a reminder how much time has passed since the Kennedy's were the youthful revolution that Obama now represents.

My Favorite Moment of All
Obama kicked off the congressional luncheon after expressing concern for Senator Kennedy, by thanking the wait staff at the venue. What a classy and rare thing to do.

Various Stylistic Choices

Okay -- as I guy who mostly owns clothes from Target, I am probably completely unqualified to speak on fashion, but what was the deal with Aretha Franklin's hat? And who told Michelle Obama that a yellow dress goes with green gloves and shoes?

Sorry -- I know all of this is incredibly irrelevant and normally I wouldn't comment, but it was a very visual ceremony.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Goodbye George W. Bush, Hello Barack Obama

I'm preparing to watch the swearing in of our 44th President and trying to put what is in store for us in perspective. So, let's look at this thing from a few angles.

The 4-Day Rock Event

Any doubt that Barack Obama was a rock star has been dispelled this weekend, with a star-studded HBO event to a massive crowd and unbelievable turnout in DC, overwhelming even the already high estimates. People have come from everyone corner of the world to see Obama be sworn in.

We can expect a few things. The first is a massive security effort. I'd be lying if I said that seeing Obama in front of huge crowds of people doesn't still make me a bit nervous, but judging by the HBO concert held at the Lincoln Memorial, which featured massive air support, dozens of rooftop snipers and a huge law enforcement presence, it appears everything possible is being done.

Expect Obama's speech to be impressive, as they always are. It will likely be inspiration, but short on specifics. More specifics are due when Obama gives his first State of the Union speech, but this speech will be focused on the moment. I would expect Obama to spend very little time discussing race. Countless others have made the point about the historical significance of his race, but Obama has always shyed away from being a "black" President and I think he will continue to speak to unifying themes.

It will be a great ceremony and moment to watch, regardless of your political persuasion. I think the peaceful passing of power between Presidents of opposing parties is one of the best testaments to the power of our republican form of government.

The Early Agenda

Expect some quick executive orders reversing Bush decisions. Among those being discussed are repealing the restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, starting the process to close Gitmo, increasing auto fuel efficiency standards and fully allowing homosexuals to serve in the armed forces. It is likely all of these will come quickly after his swearing in.

But these are just side items. The real issue, front and center, is obviously the economy. Agenda item number one is signing an economic stimulus package into law. It will likely take at least a month to broker a final deal with both houses of congress -- the House and Senate will pass different versions reflecting the different make-up of the two bodies and a compromise will have to be hammered out. House Democrats will want more spending and less tax cuts than Obama has proposed, Republicans in both houses will be uncomfortable with the massive spending in the bill. Compromise will be in order to get legislation through. Hopefully the bill won't just get chopped up into a bunch of special interest giveaways -- a real risk in a poorly led congress.

The other side to this is dealing with the second half of the bailout funds. Obama won a fairly narrow (52-43) confidence vote on the second $350 billion, buoyed mostly by Democratic votes. In return, Obama promised to spend $50-$100 billion of the funds to bailout homebuyers. The public and congress are clearly unhappy with the management of the program so far, and who can blame them? We've flushed $350 billion into equity markets with little to show for it. Obama must be more transparent and more strategic in how he spends the funds, but he must also be hasty -- the economic crisis won't wait.

The other big agenda item for early on is getting his cabinet picks confirmed. Most will still fly through, but Obama will have to fight to get Geitner and Holder confirmed. Geitner is critical, since he is Obama's point person on economics. There is, frankly, a legitimate concern with the man who would head the IRS having not paid taxes while earning income abroad. While it may be an honest error, I can't fault Senate Republicans for scrutinizing this question more closely. I still believe he will ultimately be confirmed by a strong majority. Holder will continue to take a lot of heat over Mark Rich and ultimately be confirmed, probably by a largely party-line vote.

On the foreign policy front, expect no big splash, but rather a gradual draw down in Iraq and a gradual build-up in Afghanistan. Diplomatic efforts will obviously be focused on the Isreal-Palestine conflict. Call me a pessimist, but after seeing every president try to resolve this issue, I don't hold out much hope that Hillary Clinton and team can solve this one either. If there were an easy answer, surely Carter, Reagan, H-W Bush, Clinton or W Bush would've implemented it, as it was a stated foreign policy priority for all.

Obama's next highest priority is probably health care, but it is distant compared to the economy and foreign policy. Expect an incrementalist approach, probably starting with an expansion of the SCHIP program to cover more and more kids. A big legislative splash, a la Hillary Care, would be a mistake at this juncture, especially with a massive deficit looming.

Joe Biden Can't Stop the Gaffes
Okay, I guess you can't blame him for his wife letting the cat out of the bag, but it is kind of poor form to let Hillary know Biden was offered the State Department if he didn't that the VP job. She probably already know she was second-fiddle to Biden, but Obama had done a good job of unifying all his rivals, that this gaffe just came off as mean and divisive. I know that wasn't the intent, but it is what it is.

As I watched the HBO concert and listened to Biden's and Obama's speeches, I actually felt a little sorry for Scranton Joe. Biden has devoted his life to public service, has an incredibly compelling personal story and has desparately wanted to be President for a long time (his first run was in 1988.) Obama is very new to the scene, relatively speaking. Yet watching Biden and Obama speak, you quickly realize that Biden will never possess the charisma and command skills Obama does, hard as he might try. He will probably never be President, barring something happening to Obama. And I think Biden knows it.

My Hopes and Fears

I am hopeful that the new administration will restore US credibility abroad. I am hopeful that the strong foreign policy team will successfully navigate us through the dangerous waters. I am hopeful that the last eight years of social policy cowtowing to the far fringes of the right wing will end. I'm hopeful that the economy will get jump-started.

I'm fearful that we will take on way too much debt. I'm fearful that the size of government may expand to a point that it depressed long-term economic growth. I'm fearful that the pace of progress will be too slow for those who have ascribed god-like qualities to a guy who is just a man. I'm fearful that poor leadership in congress will slow progress. And I'm still fearful that some idiot will try to take a shot at Obama.

I read the blogosphere frequently, and I've never seen the kind of scary stuff that the far fringes of our soceity are posting about Obama. I read "Obama must die" in graffiti on an overpass in North Carolina last week. On iTunes, an "Obama Countdown" clock, counting down the hours until Obama was sworn in, drew a comment from a reader "how about a countdown until he gets shoot -- woot". While the left was certainly nasty to Bush, calling a criminal, a traitor, a nazi, etc., you did not see the kind of physical threats that you see against Obama.

It would be devastating to all the progress that has been made with the Obama candidacy to see him get shot. Let's pray the Secret Service is on the ball. 99.9% of America is far better than that. But you always have to worry about the 0.1%.

So, hail to the new chief. Good luck, Mr. President, I wouldn't want the job.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Will This Election Ever Be Over? Plus -- Chinks in the Obama Armor

Minnesota 2008
It seems the election of 2008 has extended into 2009. The Al Franken - Norm Coleman race seems to never end. But, it appears the result is now inevitable from my standpoint. After an exhaustive statewide recount, Al Franken has been certified the winner by a mere 225 votes. There are still legal challenges to come. They center around 2 claims by Norm Coleman:
(1) That 130 Votes Were Double-Counted in the Recount
The basis for this claim is as follows: In Minnesota, when a ballot is damaged to the point that the scanning machine cannot read it, a photo copy is taken and scanned. The photo copy and the original are then supposed to be kept together so that in the event of a hand recount, they are not counted twice. Evidentally, in 130 cases, this did not happen in the recount as 130 photocopies could not be matched to their originals.

This is a legitimate complaint but Coleman's problems are:
a. There is no way to know whether the originals were double-counted or destroyed
b. We don't know who these allegedly double-counted votes voted for (certainly they did not vote 100% for 1 candidate)
c. Even if you give assume that they were ALL double-counts and ALL voted for Franken (which would be a little ridiculous), Franken still leads by 95 votes.

(2) That not all the improperly rejected absentee ballots on election day were discovered by the counties
The Coleman campaign now claims there are 654 additional improperly rejected ballots that were not discovered in the post-election assessment of absentee ballots.

This is a pretty laughable position since Norm Coleman fought, in court, from counting ANY of the improperly rejected ballots. He has now done a complete 180 and wants to count more.

Bottom line -- Al Franken will be the Senator from Minnesota. He won't be seated likely for a few more weeks while Coleman exhausts his legal challenges, but this one is over.

I'm not sure if this is good for Democrats. Franken is a highly divise figure and his over-the-top rhetoric will likely make him a national punching bag in the next 3 election cycles. But it is 1 more Democratic vote.

This makes the likely make-up of the Senate 57 Democrats, 2 Independents (Socialist Bernie Sanders and Independent Joe Lieberman) and 41 Republicans. Just shy of a fillibuster-proof majority.

The Burris Affair
Illinois continues to be a mess. The Senate has refused to seate Burris on the basis that his credentials were not signed by the Secretary of State in Illinois. The Illinois Supreme Court has now ruled that such a signature is not necessary.

Harry Reid, after initially saying that the senate would not seat Burris is softening his position. More wish-washy crap from one of the worst leaders of the Senate in my lifetime.

The bottom line is the Senate should and probably ultimately will seat Burris.

Yes, Blagojevich should have resigned. No, he should not have made the appointment. But he is still the governor of Illinois and has not been convicted of any crime or removed from office (although he has now been impeached by an overwhelming vote from the State House.) As such, he has the legal right to make the appointment, whether Reid and the Senate Democrats like it or not. This is a basic constitutional issue and the Democrats should honor it, no matter how onerous the circumstances.

New York Senate
The Democratic Party may have found its Sarah Palin. Caroline Kennedy has been on her media tour and let me say that I find her inarticulate, not particularly well versed on the issues and frankly, not all that intelligent. It looks like she may get the nod from David Patterson, but I am still hopeful he will pick somebody who is more qualified like Andrew Cuomo. Ironically, David Patterson would be the perfect person for the post, and had the Spitzer scandal not broken, he may well have gotten the nod, but his dance card is now full for the next few years. Let's hope he does the right thing.

Chinks in the Obama Armor

Boy -- that didn't take long. The honeymoon is over. Obama has taken a lot of heat the past few weeks.

There was the Rick Warren controversy.

Then Bill Richardson withdrew from the Commerce role, embroiled in pay to play allegations.

Now it looks like Senate Republicans are going to put a lot of heat on the Holder nomination at justice.

Obama is also taking flack for naming Panetta for the CIA and for the rumor that Sanjay Gupta will be named Surgeon General.

Finally, congress is now starting to hedge on the stimulus package timing.

As far as the appointments go, I have no idea whether Richardson did anything wrong or not, but certainly it was the right move to remove himself from consideration amidst the controversy.

Holder will ultimately get the job. The Mark Rich pardon is kind of a ridiculous issue to raise -- the Presidential power of pardon is absolute and blaming an Undersecretary at Justice for a Clinton pardon is sort of absurd. Besides, Holder has been forthcoming and stated he wished he'd handle it differently. The GOP will make a point by putting on some heat at the hearings, but his nomination will get 70 votes in the end.

The Panetta pick is an interesting one. It IS a fairly political pick for a traditionally non-political agency. It will also ultimately get approved, but I do wish Obama had named someone less controversial.

Sanjay Gupta is a great pick for Surgeon General. The notion that he is unqualified is absurd. He is a medical doctor who has spent years of his life communicating to American publica about health issues. Isn't that the definition of the best possible job qualifications for Surgeon General?

Finally -- the stimulus package. Here is our inept congressional leadership again. We will get a stimulus package. But, because congress is still a shiftless, self-intereted body, it's going to be laden with local pork projects just to get it to pass. I don't like it, but I don't see an alternative.

The economy is in really bad shape right now. Unemployment has risen from 4.8% in February to 7.2% in December, the highest rate since the 90-91 recession and is projected to climb further in the next 3 months, possibly reaching double digits. Action is required, and if we have to hold our noses for a few bee-hive museums and little league fields, so be it.

With an estimated $1 trillion in new spending and tax cuts, the defecit may ballon the $2 trillion next year, it's highest level on a percentage of GDP basis since World War II. This is not good, but we have to live with it in the short-term. When the economy is grounded, Obama must address this. He can let the Bush tax cuts expire on upper-income brackets and that will help, but more will be needed, especially with rising entitlement costs. He will either have to deeply cut federal discretionary spending or look to things like new gas taxes (which would not be a bad idea for a number of reasons including national security/energy independence) and increased income and payroll taxes to close the gap. Getting out of Iraq will also save substantial amounts of money.

Thanks for all your tax cuts, George Bush. The only problem is that you spent us into bankruptcy and as a result, we will likely be paying higher taxes for the next 20 years. Anyone miss that Clinton surplus?

Friday, January 2, 2009

2008, The Year That Was

Happy New Year, everyone!

I'm late on my 2008 retrospective, but here it goes:
2008 was, in my estimation, the third most significant historical year of my lifetime. The two that I put ahead of it are:
#1 1989 (the fall of the Berlin Wall)
#2 2001 (the September 11th terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan)

Huge and historic events took place:
a. We had a hugely historic presidential race -- the first legitimate female candidate for President almost secured the Democratic nomination. The first African-American candidate nominated by a major party won the Presidency. Think about the context -- only white males had ever been NOMINATED by major parties prior to this year, let alone WON a Presidential election. In the 1960s it was considered a big break for a Catholic to win the Presidency (many thought that was impossible 40 years ago), now we have an African-American win it -- and a first term Senator, no less.
b. We faced down the 2nd most serious economic crisis in US history. To put it simply -- our years of living on debt (politely called "leverage" in financial circles) at all levels of the economy -- consumer, business, etc. We face the prospect of the most severe economic contraction since the Great Depression (although probably not close to as severe as the Great Depression.) We saw the US Auto Industry, the benchmark of American industrial strength failing. We saw the socialization of the mortgage industry, the insurance industry and possibly others to come.
c. We saw a turning point in the war in Iraq, with reduced levels of violence and reduced strength of Sunni insurgents in Iraq.

All of these events are hugely significant and will have impact on our history for years to come.

Since this blog is mostly about the world of politics, in political terms this year saw:
a. The most resounding Democratic presidential victory since Bill Clinton's 1996 defeat of Bob Dole. Barack Obama won the Northeast and the West coast solidly as would be expected, but won states in every other region of the country as well -- the Southwest, the Mountain West, the Midwest and the Southeast.
b. Republicans saw their numbers in congress diminished to their lowest levels since post-Watergate.

For the first time since 1994, we have a Democratically controlled congress and a Democratic President. The Democrats also have far larger majorities than in the first two years of Bill Clinton's first term.

What a year it was. Some good, some very bad. Here's to hoping that our new government will develop solutions to guide us out of the complex and troubling situations in which we find ourselves economically and geopolitically.

Happy New Year, everyone.