Sunday, April 26, 2009

The First 100 Days

Note: The date of this posting is incorrectly reflected on the blog as I began writing on Sunday, but actually finished and posted this blog on Thursday (following the President's 100th day in office.)

The Grade Summary:
Presidential Effectiveness (my grade) -- B
Approval Rating (on a post-World War 2 curve) -- C
Promise Keeping ( -- B+

At noon today, President Barack Obama completed his first 100 days in office.

Today, I'm happy to preset my retrospective on the first 100 Days of President Barack Obama. We'll focus on my grades against his key objectives, the public's grades in terms of his approval ratings, independent ratings on his promise-keeping and a look forward and the ambitious objectives that the President has laid out for his first year in office.

My grades are tough, given the challenges the President faced on day 1. But, like I've often said, we don't grade on a curve. He applied for the job and it is what it is.

Presidential Effectiveness
Here are my grades on the key areas that I discussed for President Obama upon taking office.

(1) His Cabinet -- C+
Kathleen Sebelius FINALLY took office this week after Senate confirmation, finally filling the Obama cabinet. His other (eventual) picks are now seated, but it wasn't without some blood. Tom Daschle withdrew from the HHS position after a tax scandal. Bill Richardson withdrew from Commerce after a pay-for-play scandal. Judd Gregg, Obama's second choice at Commerce, withdrew over ideological differences with the President. Nancy Killefer withdrew from the Chief Performance Officer role, possibly also over tax issues. Tim Geithner faced a bruising confirmation fight over back taxes. Eric Holder faced a rough fight over his actions relating to pardons in the Clinton administration. Hilda Solis faced a tough fight over labor policy.

In total, Obama's cabinet faced more bumps in the road than any modern President.

But there were some very bright spots -- retaining Robert Gates at Defense, Hillary Clinton at State, Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security, Arne Duncan at Education, Steven Chu at Energy, Shaun Donovan at Housing and Urban Development, Ray Lahood at Transporation, Ken Salazar at Interior, Tom Vilsack at Agriculture and Eric Shinseki at Veterans Affairs, as well as Obama's third choice for Commerce, Gary Locke.

In total, President Obama's cabinet is the most diverse in history anyway you cut it, with people from all ethnicities, genders, political affiliations and backgrounds. Let's not lose site of this.

But on our grade, he definitely gets dinged some for the drop outs, the continued vacancy and the tough fights along the way.

(2) Economic Stimulus -- A- Probably the most significant legislative accomplishment in the first 100 days of a President ever, the President on Feburary 17th signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $787 billion stimulus package, by far the largest ever enacted, including $499 billion in spending and $288 billion in tax cuts.

Like it or hate it, this is a massive legislative accomplishment for the President. It's futue effectiveness is obviously a continued matter of great debate. But that score will show up when we do the President's scorecard for his first year. For now, he gets credit for getting the bill through.

President Obama loses some points for the lack of Republican support for the bill, he had stated a goal going in of winning 70-80 votes in the Senate, which would have required the votes of at least 12 Republicans in the Senate. As it was, he got 0 votes in the house and only 3 in the Senate from the GOP side of the aisle.

(3) Bank Recapitalization -- C+
Tim Geithner's first presentation to the press and public was an unmitigated disaster, as he had no real plan and no details and markets subsequentially crashed. His follow-up presentation several weeks later when he presented a plan to build a public/private equity fund for buying up bad assets was a huge hit, with stocks soaring more than they fell at his first presentation. The plans appear to be moving a little slowly and there are still risks with capitalization and lending undermining economic recovery, but well-run banks are reporting profits again, and several major banks have announced plans to pay back to the TARP money.

The President loses some points for Geithner's original disaster, the poor handling of the AIG bonus scandal and the slow pace with which a cohesive plan has moved. In all, it's been a mediocre performance, but certainly superior to the administration that preceeded it.

(4) Auto Industry -- C-
We still don't have a real plan for the U.S. auto industry, not really. Ford is probably okay on its own, having taken no federal money and appearing to have sufficient cash to continue to operate until the economy turns around. Chrysler and GM may both be headed to bankruptcy. Chrysler may work out a deal with Fiat, but it is increasingly likely that will happen under Chapter 11, not through normal business channels. I see no way that GM can get to a plan that gets them back to profitability without massive public investment.

These issues were probably inevitable, but I sure wish we had got there without massive public investment into a black hole, which was started by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration.

(5) Everything Else -- A+
President Obama has had an extremely impressive first 100 days from an activity perspective. In addition to the stimulus package, the President has signed 6 other pieces of legislation into law, including the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a major piece of gender-discrimination legislation, an expansion to the Children's Health Insurance Program that will grow the program from approximately 7 million children to 11 and the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act, which creates a step change in the management of our parks and public lands. He had a few duds, like the Omnibus Appropriations Bill for the rest of this fiscal year, which was loaded with earmarks (I noticed it was conspicuously absent from the list of signed bills on, but the legislative accomplishments alone are impressive.

Layer on top of this the 10 Executive Orders that the President has signed, which have included reversals of Bush administration policy on stem cell research, elimination of the so-called "Mexico City Policy" that had restricted distribution of birth control as part of foreign aid, orders creating greater transparency and freezing cabinet pay and a revamping of the faith-based charity programs, and President Obama has had an impressive first 100 days in terms of substantive legal changes.

Additionally, consider the movement of America's standing in the world, given the impressive performance turned in at the G20 and in his visits to countries as diverse as Lebanon and Canada. It is all very impressive.

My Overall Grade for the First 100 Days: B

It's been a good but not unbelievably good first 100 days for President Barack Obama. Long gone are the flowery rhetoric of unity and purpose and in are the politial realities of how to get things done in Washington. He's off to a good start, but has certainly proved that he is only human.

The Public's Opinion
My aggregate polling methodology suggests that as of the end of his first 100 Days, President Barack Obama has an approve minus disapprove of 31.1% as shown on the graph below.

President Obama rode into office on a wave of goodwill, but that faded among Republicans as soon as his policy priorities became clear. It has more or less stabilized in the +28 to +35% range, which is still very high (0% would be a neutral approve/disapprove rating.)

Looking at the internals based on polling methodology we see:
Among All Americans: +36%
Among Registered Voters: +28%
Among Likely Voters: +12%

So, if we take the likely voter model, President Obama has the approval of basically everyone who voted for him, plus 5% who did not (since his margin of victory was just over 7%.)

It would be easy to give President Obama an "A" for approval based on all these positive numbers. But Presidents tend to be popular in their first 100 days, so the real question is how he stacks up against other modern Presidents at this point in his administration.

Since I can't compare all of the different methodologies, as many of the polls and sampling methodologies discussed above did not exist throughout the post-World War 2 era, I will focus on the Gallup numbers, as they have been the one constant from Eisenhower on.

On both his average over his first 100 days and his approval at the end of his 100 days, President Obama is 6th of 11 post-World War 2 Presidents, dead middle. John F. Kennedy was the best in both measures, Bill Clinton the worst.

So, I guess if we grade this on a curve against other modern contenders, President Obama gets a "C" from the public.

Much has been made of the partisan divide. In the Gallup polling, the separation between Democratic approval of the President and Republican approval of the President is the greatest of any post-World War 2 President at this point in his Presidency, displacing George W. Bush, who had previously been ranked the most "polarizing". Clearly, President Obama has drawn some clear lines that have enraged Republicans -- a big stimulus bill, a full-on charge for universal health care, closing Gitmo, releasing the torture memos. But the polling internals also suggest something else. President Obama is more unpopular with Republicans than say Bill Clinton, because there are less of them. A LOT less. Self-identified Republicans now represent 24% of the population, versus 41% for Democrats and 35% for Independents. Republicans were roughly even with Democrats in 2000. A smaller, far more conservative party is far more disapproving of a Democratic President than a larger, big-tent party would be. No word on how Sen. Arlen Specter (now D-PA) identified in the polls.

According to the independent, President Obama has kept 27 campaign promies, compromised on 7 and broken 6.

He also has 474 left to go, 3 that they rate as "stalled", 63 rated as "in the works" and 408 that he has yet to take any action on. For these, I will ascribe no rating as the President never said that everything would be done in his first 100 days, far from it. We'll rate him on his full set of promises at the end of his term.

Based on 40 on which he has taken significant action, we'll give him 100% for "kept" promises, 50% for "compromised" promises and 0% of broken promies, giving the President a 76% rating on promise-keeping.

As far as translating this to a grade, we don't have accurate historical accounts as has not existed for prior administrations. I think it would be very generous to say that on average, President's have kept half their promises. Therefore 50% will be our "C" grade.

By this standard, President Obama gets a B+ on promise-keeping so far.

The First Year
In his first year in office, based on self-identified priorities for the President, I've assembled a preliminary to-do list to measure President Obama against, come next January:

(1) Spend the Stimulus
At least 40% of the money needs to have been spent by January
(2) Sign Into Law A Major Step Towards Universal Healthcare
A stated priority
(3) Sign Into Law Sweeping Environmental Reform Including Carbon Controls
It doesn't have to be cap-and-trade, but it must be real and impactful reform
(4) Sign Into Law Comprehensive Green Energy Reform
The stimulus was a good start, but there is much more work to do to develop a coherent strategy
(5) Sign Into Law Major Educational Reform
Again, the stimulus was a start, but a strategy is needed
(6) Close Gitmo
You said you would do it
(7) Positive Economic Growth
If you do number 1 and the economy is still shrinking, then it didn't work
(8) Get a Budget That Reflects Your Priorities
Your party controls congress, you should be able to get this done

There are lots of other items on the foreign policy front, much to be done on comprehensive immigration reform, etc., but these were the President's stated priorities, so we will hold him accountable accordingly.

News to Come
I haven't commented much on Sen. Arlen Specter's party-switching move this week or on the swine flu outbreak. I'll get to these. I wanted this one to be solely dedicated to the first 100 days.

Thanks for reading, as always and please tell your friends about this site.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tedisco Concedes, The One-Sided Carbon Discussion, Sebelius Delayed, Stimulus Spending Update, Random Presidential Trivia

As I write this, we are in Day 95 of the administration of President Barack Obama. My next blog will focus on the review of his first 100 days, but unlike many in the media, as I've held to before, I like to at least wait until his first 100 days are up before I write my review. My coverage will focus on 3 primary areas: a review of his accomplishment against objectives in his first 100 days, an in-depth look at his popularity and a guide to the rest of his first year in office. For now, let's talk about the political news of the day.

Gillebrand to Be Replaced by Another Democrat

Assemblyman Jim Tedisco (R) has conceded to now Congressmen-Elect Scott Murphy (D) for the vacant NY-20 congressional seat that has been empty since Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand (D) was appointed by Gov. David Patterson (D) to fill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's vacant senate seat. This was an extremely close race, with the current unofficial tally, following re-checks of the voting machines and the counting of absentee ballots, showing Murphy winning by 399 votes out of over 160,000 cast, or about a 0.2% win.

This seat was thought to be a critical test of the parties relative strength in the aftermath of President Obama's first days in office. As I discussed in a previous blog, this district is approximately 3% more Republican than the nation as a whole, so it is pretty much a swing district.

A close win by Murphy, in my mind, shows that the nation is still pretty closely dividied. A decisive win by either party might have indicated a changing tide, but we didn't get that.

Congratulations to Murphy on his win. And congratulations to Tedisco for both a hard fought race and having the good sense to concede at the right time.

Maybe you should give Norm Coleman a call. His challenge of the lower court ruling to the state supreme court is scheduled for June 1st. Even if he losses this challenge (as most expect he will), he will have the option to appeal to federal court under the equal protection clause. Let's hope he doesn't. This drama will have drug on for 7 months by the time the Minnesota Supreme Court hears the case. Enough is enough.

One reason for the vast difference in the amount of time that it took to decide a closely contested race is one of voting technology. Minnesota is still on paper ballots, which meant that a recount entailed a detailed ballot by ballot count with all kinds of potential for error (part of Norm Coleman's appeal is in fact based on the premise that 135 ballots were incorrectly double-counted in the recount.) In New York, other than absentee ballots, everything was machine-based, so the recount took little time.

I'm well aware of the risks of a machine count with no paper trail. The obvious, best solution is an electronically-tallied machine count with a paper printout as a back-up (the machine would print a voters selection and let him or her see the paper back-up before casting his or her final vote.) This would enable fast, accurate totals and a verification process to ensure the machines were correct. We would defer to the machine count and use hand counts of the paper back-ups only to verify that the machines were working properly.

Honestly, why can't we get this right in the 21st century? Over 8 years after Florida, our election system, the lynchpin of our democracy is still woefully under equiped to handle close elections in many places. It's sad.

Have We Forgotten About the Trees?
It occurs to me in all this debate back and forth about Cap-and-Trade and the broader topic of global warming in general, we are only having half of the debate. We debate feverously the best way to reduce carbon emissions, while seeming to forget that emissions are only half the equation.

Lot's of things generate CO2 -- any type of fire, any time of animal life basically. The reason we didn't have global warming in the 1500s is that nature has it's own solution for carbon build-up -- plant life. All plants suck up CO2 and emit O2, it's part of the basic science of how the earth works.

Why then do we focus solely on CO2 reduction? Couldn't the same end be achieved by advancing sustainable forestry and protecting and planting trees and other plant life?

Seems like we still need some basic education into how to look at these problems. Let's hope Interior Secretary Ken Salaazar opens up some dialogue about how to protect those magical carbon-scrubbers that mother nature gave us.

Sebelius Nomination Delayed
In what seems to have become a standard ritual, unamed Senate Republicans are again delaying the approval of an Obama-Appointee for a top cabinet post. President Obama's last remaining cabinet vacancy, Secretary of Health and Human Services, a critical role in his year 1 goal around Health Care reform, is being held at least for a week or two by "several" Senate Republicans. The arcane Senate hold procedure does not require that those Senators identify themselves.

Sebelius' nomination had already been moved out of comittee by a 15-8 vote with 2 Republicans voting "aye".

There is no precedent in recent history for the amount of obstructing that is being done here to hold up a President's nominees. President Bush had all but one of his cabinet appointees approved on day 1 of his administration (John Ashcroft being the exception). There are no serious questions about Sebelius' qualifications.

This hold up is due largely to a campaign by pro-life groups to conservative senators. Sebelius does have a very solidly pro-choice record and they are flexing their muscles.

In the end, it will just be a delay. When they do get around to voting, Sebelius will gather almost every Democratic vote and 15-20 Republican votes, getting around 75 overall, cruising to confirmation.

Stimulus Spening Update
I mentioned that I would be tracking the success of the Obama Administration in spending the stimulus money. Fortunately, has significantly upgraded the quality of the information available to the public and we can now track this on a near-weekly basis.

Of the $499 billion appropriated for spending (the other $288 billion was tax cuts which took effect April 1st), $69.3 billion has now been allocated to projects (13.9%) and $14.2 billion has already been spent (2.8%).

Since those numbers were next to nothing at the first of April, clearly the Obama administration has kicked it into high gear.

Spending the money quickly is very important to getting the desired stimulative effect. Spending it wisely is important too and we will be keeping an eye on that side of things as well.

Random Presidential Trivia
Milestones like the first 100 days always cause me to troll through Presidential history and dig up interesting facts. Some data on the length of service of President's is informative:
Served > 8 years: 1 (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
Served Exactly 8 Years: 11
Served Between 4-8 Years: 8
Served Exactly 4 Years: 12
Served < 4 Years (excluding Obama): 10

Some other interesting facts:
(1) George Washington did not serve a full 8 years as his first term started late
(2) President Obama has already served 3 times as long as the shortest-serving President, William Henry Harrison, who died a month after taking office from a fever he got while giving a long-winded innauguration speech. The next shortest-server, James Garfield, was only President for 6 months.
(3) Gerald Ford is the only man ever to be President who never won an election to any national office. He was appointed Vice President after Spiro Agnew resigned and then began President when Richard Nixon resigned.
(4) Grover Cleveland is the only President to serve two terms that were not continuous. Ironically, he won the popular vote in all three elections, but lost the electoral vote to Benjamin Harrison in his first attempt at a second term. He is often counted twice in the count of Presidents as both the 22nd and 24th President.
(5) 5 of the first 7 Presidents were two-termers (John Adams and John Quincy Adams being the exception.) From there, you have to go 9 Presidents, all the way to Abe Lincoln to find a guy who won re-election -- and Lincoln only served a month of his second term before being killed -- you have to go all the way to Ulysses Grant for a President who served the full 2 terms.

Some Reader Comments
As you know, I always like to address reader comments that people are brave enough to post on this blog (and I encourage you to do so, although it seems many people would rather e-mail me than post comments publically.)

NetBizSaavy writes that strength of the domestic economy is key to addressing the foreign policy challenges that we face.

I agree, although I think there is a need for a balanced approach -- what is going on in Mexico and Pakistan right now is very scary and we can't afford to wait for our economy to recover before addressing it.

Kingsmillblogs writes that I am nuts for saying President Obama would win Texas if an election were held today.

Well, maybe, but let's understand the context of what I was saying. I was certainly not projected that when election 2012 rolls around that President Obama is the favorite to carry it. What I was saying was that based on his current popularity, if an election were held TODAY, he would carry virtually every state, except the most right-wing.

But, let's look a little bit at Texas. In 2008, Sen. John McCain carried the state of Texas by a vote total of 4,479,328 to 3,528,623 to Obama or about a 56%-44% margin. In 2004, President Bush carried Texas of Sen. John Kerry by a margin of 4,526,917 to 2,832,704 or about a 62%-38% margin. The interesting thing about these numbers are that President Bush and Sen. McCain both got roughly the same number of votes, but President Obama gained about 700,000 for the Democrats versus what John Kerry got. In large measure these were new votes, young people, hispanics and other groups that either could not or did not vote in 2004.

Do I think Obama will carry Texas in 2012? No...not unless it is a landslide. Might it continue to get closer, absolutely. If the trend from 2004 to 2008 continues into 2012, it would be a 4.5 million to 4.2 million margin for the Republicans...and 2016 might well be a toss-up.

Before you say that I'm nuts, consider two case studies:
(1) California -- this was a swing state in the 1980s, with Ronald Reagan carrying it twice and George H.W. Bush carrying it again in 1988. By 2008, the margin was so wide that nobody even bothered to campaign, with Barack Obama prevailing by a margin of 8,274,473 to 5,011,781 or 62% to 38%. Over a 25 point swing in 20 years. And very similar trends to Texas -- an influx of hispanic immigrants, new, younger voters registering, etc.
(2) North Carolina -- In 2004, President Bush carried the state 56% to 44%, the same margin by which John McCain carried Texas in 2008. Of course, as we all know, President Obama won the state by a narrow margin in 2008.

There are many other case studies of electoral shifts in recent years: Indiana and Virginia to Democrats, Arkansas and Louisiana to Republicans (Bill Clinton carried both states), etc.

I'll I'm saying is if you are asking if it is possible for Barack Obama to win Texas in 2012, I say yes. If you ask me if it is likely, I say probably not. But we are a long way off and there is much script to be written. Obama could be a disaster and lose Pennsylvania and Ohio or could be immensely popular and win Texas and Georgia. We'll just have to see how the next 4 years unfold.

Keep those comments coming -- I love a good debate. And tell all your friends about this site and encourage them to join in.

Next up -- my 100 days scorecard on President Barack Obama

Thursday, April 23, 2009

CIA Torture Memos, Economic Recovery (?) and Right Track/Wrong Track

The CIA Torture Memos

President Obama's decision to release Bush-era CIA memos on techniques for extracting information from suspected terrorists, including waterboarding, stress positions, sleep deprivation and other techniques has sparked a firestorm of commentary on both the left and the right. At the time of the release, President Obama made clear that agents carrying out these techniques would not be prosecuted, although he has since left open the possibility of investigations into the Bush administration officials who drafted the policies.

The left has largely reacted with praise for the release of the memos but some dismay that President Obama isn't more forcefully investigating the Bush administration. The right has been largely critical of the release, claiming that this is an effort simply to discredit the policies of the Bush administration and that it gives potential terrorists valuable information.

Let me start the discussion by saying, first of all, that I find the methods perscribed by the Bush administration repugnant. There is no doubt in my mind that they constitute torture and are, simply put, morally abhorant. I could have a reasonable debate about whether those methods are effective at all at extracting useful information (there have been a number of studies that have called into question the effectiveness of torture), but it does not matter to me. Even IF these suspected terrorists WERE all terrorists, even IF they had valuable information and even IF these methods would somehow extract it in ways that normal investigation couldn't (and those are 3 pretty big "IF's", mind you), I would still be completely and unapologetically opposed to these tactics. Torture is wrong, period. The ends do not justify the means and I am embarrassed that my country used such tactics.

Having said this, there can be legitimate debate about whether the memos should have been released. Both present CIA Director Leon Panetta and at least the last 3 predecessors all opposed their release, fearing it would undermine the confidence of agents in the field that they had support of their government.

On balance, though I believe that the release of the memos were the right thing to do for several reasons. First, I don't buy the argument that this gives terrorists valuable data. If knowing that we are not a nation of torturers is valuable information, then they should have had that valuable information all along, because we have a moral obligation to take a stand against torture. Second, I believe that the world has a right to our apology for these acts. Third, I think President Obama effectively diffused concerns of CIA agents by making it clear that they would not be punished for following the orders of the Bush administration.

I would urge the President, however, to not engage in investigations of the Bush administration. There is no productive end to doing so. I know liberals want somebody's head, but they are going to need to learn to live with the knowledge that the right policy is in place going forward.

Is the Economy Recovering?
I wrote back in February that based on the economic data, I felt a return to economic growth was likely in the back half of 2009 with unemployment starting to drop in early 2010. The data in the intervening two months has been a mixed bag -- some slightly positive signs at retail, a stock market rally (although it has stalled this week), some strong earnings reports from big corporations, including banks, but continued trouble in the housing market and the auto industry, a very rough labor market and some continued dicey leading indicator data from the conference board.

It is hard to know, based on all of this, whether we actually are pointed towards recovry, but my inclination is to stick to my original projection. Interest rates are at a historic low, banks are rapidly recapitalizing and will have capital available to lend and stimulus spending and tax cuts are about to hit the economy. I think all of this still leads to a modest recovery in the back half. I realize that I continue to be among the most optimistic in the economic world on this topic.

Right Track/Wrong Track
One reason to be optimistic is new data on "right track / wrong track" polling. For those of you not familiar with such polling, here is a brief primer: pollsters survey Americans and ask them whether they think the country is on the "right track" or the "wrong track". It sounds very simple, but these polls are powerful. Much has been written about how they predict the outcome of elections, often even more so than Presidential popularity or the candidates themselves. They also predict economic activity. When people think the country is on the "right track", they tend to keep those already in power, spend money and take risks. When they think the country is on the "wrong track" they tend to throw the bums out and conserve cash.

An AP poll released this week showed the "right trackers" leading for the first time since 2004. Albeit, the margin was slim: 49% to 45%. Granted, other polls in the past few weeks have shown the "wrong trackers" still leading. But the positive movement is huge. The same poll had the "wrong trackers" leading by 78% to 17% just last October. Clearly, the mood is improving in the country.

And when the mood improves, people may just go out and spend money, work hard, innovate and make things better.

Let's hope so.

100 Days Scorecard -- No Cheating!
Newspapers, blogs and commentators are already evaluating the first 100 Days of the Obama Administration. I plan to publish a comprehensive analysis and scorecard, I just plan to do it after the first 100 Days are actually over!

Quit cheating, L.A. Times! Something important might happen this week!

Site Update
Thanks for all your visits and recommendations, site traffic has picked up this past week. We are at 147 visitors for the month of April with just over a week left. My goal was to maintain our traffic from February (235 visitors) and March (257 visitors), so hopefully all of you will recruit us some new readers in the next week or so.

Thanks for reading and tell all your friends!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Presidential Approval Update, Tea Parties, Foreign Relations & An Update on the Ambitioius Presidential Agenda

Presidential Approval: Holding Steady, But Some Interesting Footnotes

In my aggregated composite of polls, President Obama's approval rating has been very stable for the past week, moving upward 0.4%, a statistically insignificant margin. This stability is significant only in that I previously reported how the President had been slowly shedding approval, at a rate of about 6% a month through the month of March, but he now appears to have stabilized -- at least for the time being.

The lack of movement may be attributable to the slow political news: the Easter holiday, congress on recess, etc.

Below is the latest chart:
Since the numbers didn't move much, I took some time to look at the internals of the polling data and it is interesting. There is one poll that has consistently been lower than our avearge, by 15 to 18% almost all the time and that is the Rassmussen poll. Rassmussen is a non-partisan poll (I only use non-partisan polls in any of my projections and averages) and is well-respected with a strong history of good results. So why is it such an outlier?

I have two theories. The first relates to polling questions. The Rassmussen polls uses a different format from the other major polls in that it uses a four-choice question rather than a simple approve or disapprove. The availability of intermediate choices can change how some people make judgements versus a binary choice. For instance, a liberal activist who isn't happy that the President is beefing up troops in Afghanistan might choose a "slightly disapprove" choice if given it but may not pick "disapprove" if only given two choices.

My second theory, and I believe that this is probably the greater contributing factor, lies in sample selection. There are three major sample types that one can pick in a political poll:
Adult Americans -- basically a random sample of all people in the country
Registered Voters -- a sample of people who are actually registered to vote
Likely Voters -- a sample of people, who, based on previous history are likely to vote in future elections
Come election time, polls almost universally use a likely voter model. In Presidential approval polls, the methods vary. Here are the methodologies for some of the polls that input into my composite model:
Adult Americans: Gallup, Ipos/McClatchy, Pew Research, CNN, CBS News, Newsweek
Registered Voters: Marist, Fox News
Likely Voters: Rasmussen

You can see that only Rasmussen is using a likely voter model and most are polling all adult Americans. Historically the more selective the criteria, the more conservative the response, because past election history shows greater turnout among core conservative groups (Evangelicals, for instance) versus core liberal groups (African-Americans, for instance.)

Viewed through this filter, I separated out recent polling by methodolgy to come up with the averages for each:
Adult Americans: Obama +35%
Registered Voters: Obama +26%
Likely Voters: Obama +12%

There is definitely something to this and President Obama should be cautious. Even though he is fairly widely popular with the country right now, in terms of likely voters, he is a mere 5% ahead of where he was on election day, when he won the popular vote by just over 7%.

This is probably just another sign of a deeply, but closely divided electorate, as we have seen in ever race since Ronald Reagan's landslide in 1984.

I plan to continue to track the average, but I will also periodically publish a breakout of the methodologies so that we can continue to understand the differences.

The Tea Parties
April 15th tax protests across the country have rekindled some interesting questions around public outrage and media bias.

First, I have to admit a little confusion. Whose federal taxes have gone up? Not the rich -- their taxes won't go up before 2011 at the earliest when the Bush tax cuts expire and let's not forget that those were always passed as temporary law and the rates will only go back up to their levels in the 1990s. Certainly not the middle class -- and nobody is proposing hiking taxes on the middle class. In fact, both Democrats and Republicans have a stated intent to cut middle class taxes and the stimulus reductions just took effect April 1st. Certainly not the poor, many of whom pay zero or negative federal taxes.

The only people I can figure out whose taxes have gone up are smokers, who saw a 200% hike in the federal tax on cigarettes April 1st. But something tells me these protests weren't angry smokers.

So I watched the coverage of the events to learn. It sounded like most protesters were either just anti-Obama or upset that rising federal spending would increase future taxes.

I'll just dismiss the anti-Obama sentiment as typical of the partisan divide. But the rising federal spending meaning higher future taxes is actually a fair argument. We have to pay our bills sometime, some way and certainly the stimulus bill, the proposed Obama budget and universal healthcare reform will cost a ton of money.

On the one hand, if spending is your concern, I wonder a little bit about where you were for the past 8 years, which was a dramatic expansion in the size of government as huge amounts of money were spent on two wars, perscription drug benefits, etc. It seems a little silly to be up in arms now about things that might happen when you were silent on things that did happen.

On the other hand, President Obama hasn't come clean with us on univeral healthcare yet. The stimulus bill is temporary and deficits will fall if the economy recovers. But there is simply no way to pay for healthcare for all Americans without raising taxes on the middle class. That's why the 10-year Obama budget shows big deficits as far as the eye can see, yet only sets aside approximately 50% of what it would cost to do universal healthcare. Canada and Europe had to implement either large federal VAT or Sales taxes to fund health care. We will have to either do that, hike income taxes rates, or require people to pay in in some other way. Be prepared for that debate.

The media coverage rekindled the age-old questions around media bias. Fox News essentially sponsored the debates, providing advance coverage, even calling them "Fox News Tax Day Tea Parties", all while chiding the "main stream" media for lack of coverage of these "grassroots" events. The New York Times all but ignored the protests. The only coverage that I would call fair was CNN's, which gave the protests air time and interviews and presented both sides of the debate.

Let's face it -- Fox News and the New York Times have essentially become commentary outlets. They don't report the news, they just report their opinions about it. Don't get me wrong, I love reading Maureen Down and Paul Krugman. I enjoy watching Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke. But I look at those outlets for interesting points of view -- they have no credibility in the unbiased news coverage business.

But quite crying Fox News, you have the highest ratings of any news outlet -- so it's hard to say people aren't getting the right-wing perspective or that the "mainstream" media is liberal. You ARE the mainstream media and you don't even attempt to be "fair and balanced".

Foreign Relations in Latin America
Things appear to be warming a lot between the U.S. and Cuba and warming slightly between the U.S. and Venezuela.

The U.S./Cuba thaw is long overdue. I could never morally reconcile how we trade aggressively with brutal dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and China under the pretense that increased trade will bring about freedom there, but isolate Cuba because somehow isolating them is the way to bring about democracy. Our current policy is a 1950s relic that has failed for over 50 years. It's time to open up trade and normalize relations. I don't like the Castro regime, but that isn't the point. What's good for the Saudis and the Chinese is good for the Cubans as well.

I'm less excited about the seeming warming with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. First of all, we already trade with them -- ever been to a Citgo station? So this isn't an economic question. But Chavez is a nut and his anti-American railings are almost as repugnant as the way he has damaged the economy of his own country. I have no problem with President Obama talking to him, but let's tred lightly -- this guy is not our friend.

The Ambitious Obama Agenda, Part 2
If President Obama's previously articulated priorities for year 1 weren't daunting enough, he's adding to them. Recall that he had previously stated 4 focus areas:
(1) The Economy
(2) Univeral Healthcare
(3) The Environment and Green Energy
and (4) Education

My year 1 scorecard for President Obama was going to be based on his ability to impact significant movement in those four, huge policy areas.

Now, President Obama is also going after immigration reform in year 1. The timing seems all wrong -- people are a lot less accepting of illegal immigrants when the unemployment rate is 8.5% than when it is under 5.0%. It is an issue that divides his own party and one that is actually less pressing than it was a year ago, because the rate of illegal immigration has slowed with the slowing economy.

Yet, the President continues on his full court press to do everything while he has the wind of public approval and a Democratically-controlled congress at his back.

Immigration will be an interesting issue in that Obama will find enemies in his own party, but allies on the other side of the aisle -- such as Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

It's Day 88 of the Obama Administration, 6% of the way through his first term and 12 days before the end of his First 100 Days. Watch for my scorecard of his first 100 days in a couple of weeks.

Site Update
Site traffic has been a little slow this month, with only 113 visits so far in the month of April, which would put us on a pace to have less than 200 visits for the entire month, the first full month to fall in that category.

I assume traffic has been in part slow because of the holidays, but I'm asking for your help. Please tell you friends, family, co-workers and anyone else who might be interested about this site and get them to visit.

I put this together all for your benefit and enjoyment and have never and will never charge for content, so please support us by visiting and reading often.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Piracy, Economic Stimulus Spending and Gay Marriage Update

The political news is light (with congress still on break until Monday), so this will be a quick one.

Somali Pirates -- An American Victory
The slaying of 3 Somali pirates holding an American freighter Captain captive this past week represents an American victory against this sort of terrorist economic disruption. The Navy Seals conducting the operation did their job admirably and with precision and deserve the bulk of the credit. The Captain, who sacrificed himself as a hostage to free his crew is a true hero.

The couple of issues that are a subject of much debate are: #1 Does the Obama administration get any credit for his handling of the crisis and #2 What are we going to do about the ongoing problem of Somali pirates?

#1 is sort of a boring issue to me. Frankly, who cares who gets credit at this point? Is anyone even going to remember this in a future election? Doubtful. I think this incident does demonstrate some level-headedness and clear thinking on the part of the Obama administration, not inflaming the situation, giving the order to act decisively, etc. But this certainly wasn't some brilliant strategic maneuvar and as I said, most of the credit should go to the Seals. To the extent that there is judgement about the administration, it should be positive, but let's not get too excited over competence.

So, what are we going to do about Somali pirates? My thought would be to beef up naval presence in the waters around Somalia. Get tough on these guys -- capture a freighter and we will send ships -- and those ships will kill the pirates. Period. This whole problem was created by the still-devastating economic conditions in Somali combined with some big companies who were willing to pay ransoms to these pirates. Pay offs have to stop. Take away the incentive for piracy and create a big, loaded disincentive and this thing will die down.

Economic Stimulus Spending
The tax cuts in the stimulus bill (37% of its spending) took effect April 1st, so I thought it would be a good time to look at what has happened on the spending side of the equation.

Fortunately, the website is finally starting to live up to its advertised functionality and provide some real information on how money is being allocated and spent.

The results are pretty scant to date. So far $11.7 M (that's million not billion) have been spent, or $1 for every $42,000 in the stimulus bill. The press has been mostly about the approval of projects and morehas been allocated, but still only $56.3M or only about $1 in $9,000 in the stimulus bill.

I suppose some patience is in order here -- spending this kind of money in an effective, useful way is no easy task, especially for a new administration, but employment needs a boost right now, so I wish these agencies would get a move on.

I'll keep you posted as numbers come in.

Gay Marriage
Iowa and Vermont have suddenly doubled the number of states the permit gay marriage in the U.S. (joining Connecticut and Massachussets.) Vermont's addition is most significant in that: #1 it became the first state to legalize gay marraige by legislative act (the other 3 where it is legal plus the brief period of time that it was legal in California were accomplished by court order) and #2 the legislative vote was so overwhelming that it overrode the Governor's veto.

So is the tide finally turning on this debate?

Here is the legal breakdown as of now:
Gay Marriage Legal: 4 States (IA, VT, CT, MA)
Civil Unions: 8 States (CA, CO, OR, WA, ME, NH, NJ, MD) plus District of Columbia
States without legal recourse for same-sex couples: 38
Of those 38 states 19 expressly prohibit both civil unions AND gay marriage in their state constitutions.

So, it isn't likely that the majority of Americans will see either legalized civil unions or legalized same sex marriage anytime soon. Keep in mind that Prop 8 passed just last November in liberal California.

But I do think the tide will eventually turn. Maine, New Hampshire, New York and the District of Columbia all have pending action before their respective legislatures to legalize gay marriage. And while no Presidential candidate has yet expressed support for gay marriage, ALL major candidates for the past 12 years have expressed support for Civil Unions (George W. Bush, John McCain, Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama all favor Civil Unions.)

And I suspect California voters will eventually reverse Prop 8.

The trend is for gay marriage and civil unions, but we aren't there yet.
Overall (based on a recent Pew poll), Americans opposee gay marriage by a 59% to 32% margin and full-fledged civil unions by a 51% to 42% margin. But those 35 and under are evenly split on gay marriage and strongly supportive of civil unions.

And I have to imagine as more states legalize it and society doesn't suddenly crumble, views will shift further to the left on this issue. Keep in mind Massachussets has been marrying gay couples since 2004 and Boston is still standing. Canada also marries gay couples and Toronto looked okay when I visited (actually really clean and safe compared to American cities.)

Progress takes time, but it is coming.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Minimum Wage 101

Taking a break from analysis of political news, polls and projections is something that I've only done a few times in this space. But, with congress on it's Easter recess, the news cycle relatively slow (unless you want me to do a history on bowing to Saudi Arabian leaders or whether Lindsay Lohan should get the rights to do a Fleetwood Mac movie), I thought now would be a great time to touch on a topic that impacts a relative few directly, but drives a great deal in our economy: the minimum wage.

The subject is timely because in July a national minimum wage hike is due to take effect. The minimum wage will increase from $6.55 / hour to $7.25 / hour, as part of a 3-year increase, approved by the Democratic congress and signed by President George W. Bush in 2006 that took the minimum wage from its then level of $5.15 / hour in 2006 to $7.25 / hour in 2009, the largest three-year dollar increase in the minimum wage ever.

It actually surprises me, given the current economic conditions, that there has been little discussion about this hike -- one would expect free-marketers to rail against a greater than 10% hike when the economy is depressed and businesses are losing money. I suspect that we haven't heard anything because Democrats are in favor of the increase and Republicans don't want to be seen as dumping on the poor, so the present law will likely stand.

So, the minimum wage will be at historically high levels, right? A look at the nominal (absolute dollar) value of minimum wage over time would make you think so:
Look at that slow upward tick, followed by the explosion in the past 3 years. Of course, this chart actually doesn't mean much. To understand what the minimum wage is worth, we have to account for inflation.

The chart below shows the real dollar value of the minimum wage over time (in 2009 dollars.)

Paints a bit of a different picture, huh? By this perspective, the real value of the minimum wage steadily increased from its inception in 1938 until it peaked in the early 1970s at a 2009 value of just over $10/hour. Since then, it has steadily declined until at 2006 it hit near $6/hour in 2009 dollars. Now, with 3 straight increases, it has closed some of the gap but is still almost 30% below its high in the 1970s and is still lower than at any point from 1956 through the mid 1980s.

But even the inflation adjusted picture doesn't tell the whole story. To truly understand the relationship of the minimum wage to our economy, you have to understand the relative value of the minimum wage to per capita GDP.

Let me explain why this measurement matters. The GDP is the total value of all the goods and services produced in the United States in a year. By dividing the GDP by the number of people in the country you get the per capita GDP or the value of the goods and services each person would get if we all got the same amount. Of course we don't, we aren't a socialist country, but understanding the minimum wage "floor" that we set in terms of our per capita GDP -- that is, the ratio of what the poorest working Americans make to what the average person does. For purposes of the graph, I've assumed a 40 hour work week, 52 weeks per year. Our minimum wage as a percentage of per capita GDP is as follows:
In 1938, when the minimum wage was instituted, a fulltime minimum wage job would give you 80% of the per capita GDP -- that is, minimum wage earners were a mere 20% poorer than the average American. This trend largely continued until the mid 1960s, when the value of the minimum wage started to fall. It fell to 70% by 1967, then to 60% by by 1974, to 50% by 1982, to 40% by 1985, then to 30% by 2002.

Even with the hikes of the last two years and the one coming in July, minimum wage will still stand at only 32% of per capita GDP, an all time low.

Another interesting comparison is how the U.S. compares with other large world economies. I researched the 10 largest economies in the world. Of them, there are 8 first world powers (the United Kingdom, France, Canada, the United States, Germany, Japan, Spain and Italy) and 2 developing economies (Brazil and China.) Of these 10 countries, 3 do not have minimum wage laws per say. Germany and Italy rely on collective bargaining agreements by industry to set wages -- those wages tend to be relatively high compared to minimum wages. China has no minimum wage at all -- wages in China tend to be relatively low. Of the 7 that do have laws, the percentage of per capita GDP is below. Note that Canada has varying provincial laws that range from $8 / hour to $10 / hour -- I've used the lower number for their comparison, just as I've used the federal number for the U.S. versus the sometimes higher state laws.

So in terms of their economic wealth, Japan and Spain set a lower minimum wage than the U.S., but Canada, France, Brazil and the U.K. set higher wages, often significantly higher.

Also worth noting (as I stated above) are state minimum wage laws. According to the Department of Labor, the folowing state laws are on the books:

States where the minimum wage is equal to the federal minimum wage (there is either no law or it does not call for a higher wage):
New Hampshire*
New Jersey*
New York*
North Carolina
North Dakota
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia*

* These states have minimum wage laws higher than $6.55/hour but lower or equal to $7.25/hour, meaning that their wage laws are currently higher than the federal law, but will not be when the July increase takes effect.

States with Higher Minimum Wages:
California ($8.00 / hour)
Colorado ($7.28 / hour)
Connecticut ($8.00 / hour)
District of Columbia ($7.55/hour)
Illinois ($8.00/hour)
Massachussets ($8.00/hour)
Michigan ($7.40/hour)
New Mexico ($7.50/hour)
Ohio ($7.30/hour)
Oregon ($8.40/hour)
Rhode Island ($7.40/hour)
Vermont ($8.06/hour)
Washington ($8.55/hour)

Note: For states with higher minimum wages, the rate effective as of July 2009 was used to be comparable to the July 2009 Federal Rate of $7.25 / hour.

So, you can see that a lot of states have taken matters into their own hands in advance of federal law. As of July, 12 states plus the District of Columbia will have higher minimum wages than federally required. An additional 14 have laws that are currently higher than $6.55/hour, meaning they are higher than the federal minimum wage, but will not be in July.

All of this gets us to two key questions:
(1) By what standard should we set our minimum wage laws?
(2) Is it better left to the federal government or to state governments to set the wages?

For question number 1, let's consider the two extremes:
The extreme conservative position would be that there should be no minimum wage. Minimum wages by definition are an interference in the free market and conservatives would argue that wages, as with the price for anything, should be set by the market and the natural balance of supply and demand.

Extreme liberals (socialists) would argue that the minimum wage should be equal to the per capita GDP, that all in a society should have an equal share of the wealth.

As with most things, I believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I don't think brutal free markets are the way to go -- you'd literally have workers on the lowest income rung starving to death and I don't think that is right in a society as rich as ours. I also do believe that capitalism promotes a rising pool of wealth, however, so I don't think setting all wages equal would serve us well. The goal should be a minimum wage that assures coverage of the basic necessities for all working people, does not overly disrupt the markets and leaves out the incentives that produce innovation and hard work to advance.

There are no hard and fast rules to this, but I look to two things: the US poverty level and historical evidence of the impact of minimum wage. I think it would be hard to argue that in the 1960s that the minimum wage was a huge weight on the economy. The economy rapidly expanded in the 1960s and I've seen no study that would indicate that it would have been better with a lower minimum wage. Therefore, I think that a minimum wage of up to 70% of per capita GDP would be attainable without major disruptions to the economy.

The U.S. poverty level guidelines for 2008 (the last year I could find), are as follows:
1 person household -- $10,400 / year
2 person household -- $14,000 / year
3 person household -- $17,600 / year
4 person household -- $21,200 / year

For my rough purposes, I'll assume a 3-person household with 1 income -- that is a parent that works, a parent that stays home with a single child. You could question this assumption -- should be in poverty be having children? But the reality is that many, many people in poverty do have children and the children are often the victims of being below the poverty level.

My rough calculations would imply a minimum wage of $8.50 / year, or an additional $1.25 / hour beyond what is going into effect in July. This would put the minimum wage at 38% of per capita GDP, still historically low, but sufficient for my theoretical family to cover the basic necessities.

But, to question 2, wouldn't it be an issue better left to the states?

There is certainly an argument to be made that with different economic circumstances and vastly different costs of living that different states should have different minimum wages. And evidence does suggest that states eventually take minimum wage laws into their own hands, as demonstrated by the 26 states that were out in front of the federal increase.

The counter agrument to this is that states are often wary of setting minimum wages that are very far out of line with the national minimum wage. States compete for jobs all the time and companies will tend to locate to areas with lower minimum wages. Why do you think BMW is in South Carolina and Honda in Ohio rather than in California or New York? Also, state level minimum wages reinforce existing wage disparities -- Mississippi is in no position to increase its minimum wage above Alabama's, for instance.

The only effective way to pull working people out of poverty is at the federal level. Therefore, I would propose, at a minimum, raising the federal minimum wage to $8.50 / hour and creating future inflation-adjusted increases. This could be phased in over two additional years -- say taking it to $7.85/hour in 2010 and $8.50/hour in 2011, in line with the size increases that we have had over the past few years.

I think this would be a very popular position and one that Democrats in congress and the Obama administration could champion fairly easily.

I hope they do.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Obama Approval, 2010 & 2012 Projections, Recount Updates

Well, we are now 80 days into the administration of President Barack Obama (5.5% of his term for those of us keeping count), so like true political junkies, it's never too early to start looking ahead to the next set of elections. I'll reserve my first scorecard of the President for day 101, but the public's judgement has obviously already begun.

Presidential Approval
In my sample-weighted aggregated average of all non-artisan approval polls (the same methodology that enabled a perfect projection of the national vote last November), President Obama continues to enjoy broad approval. As of today the President has an approve-disapprove of 29.5% in contrast to his margin of victory of 7.2%. Trendwise, his margin, which was an unrealistically high mid-50s immediately following his inauguration, quickly dropped to around 40% and stayed there through the end of February, then has bounced back and forth, but generally declined to it's current margin.
The averages for each month of his administration are as follows:
January: 47.9%
February: 41.1%
March: 35.1%
April-to-Date: 30.9% (29.5% as of today)

Viewed through this prism, the President has been losing about 6% per month throughout his administration, a recognition of the acrimony along the partisan divide right now.

So, what would a theoretical election look like today? President Obama would win big...see the map below.
Does this matter? Not really. President's tend to be popular during their first 100 days and it rarely translates into these kinds of electoral landslides, Ronald Reagan in 1984 and Richard Nixon in 1972 being the notable exceptions (both won 49 states to win their second terms.)

The more relevant comparison at this stage is probably how President Obama stacks up with former President's at the same stage of their time in office. While the quantity of data is not as great in the past (polls have really exploded the past few years), Gallup has a good database that is helpful to draw a comparison.

Obama's Approve vs. Disapprove vs. Post WW2 First Termers:
vs. George W. Bush -- Obama +10%
vs. William J. Clinton -- Obama +10%
vs. George H-W. Bush -- Obama +2%
vs. Ronald Reagan -- Obama equal
vs. Jimmy Carter -- Obama -16%

So, President Obama is more popular at this point in his presidency than George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom won second terms, is roughly equal to George H-W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, one of whom won a second term, and way behind Jimmy Carter, who got routed in his re-election bid.

So what does all this tell us? That the first 80 days aren't very predictive of ultimate popularity. Four years is a long time. It does give us some indicators as to the sentiment going into mid-term elections.

House Projection 2010
It is extremely difficult projection House races, especially so far. So, my methodology relies on the generic congressional ballot question.

Let me explain -- there are running national polls that ask people which party they plan to vote for in the next congressional elections. History has shown that these polls are pretty accurate in projecting the overall national outcome of House races.

In 2008, going into the election Democrats led by 7% in the generic preference polls. The actual vote totals showed Democrats winning by 10%, leading to their large majorities in congress. This could have been due to poll error or due to the fact that their were more unopposed Democrats than Republicans (obviously, in an unopposed race, one party gets 100% of the vote, regardless of preference.) Looking at the actual margins in each house race and adjusting for the movement in the current polls, we can project potential 2010 shifts.

Presently, the average of generic congressional polls has Democrats at +2%, 5% shy of the 7% they had going into November and 8% shy of their actual 10% margin. Republicans were actually briefly ahead in this polling last month, but this has since reversed.

Based on the actual 2008 results, I project if the election were held today:
Republican Gain of 16 to 20 Seats

This would cut substantially into the Democratic margin but is far shy of the 41 votes that they would need to regain control of the chamber.

The recent special election in NY-20 reinforces this projection. This was a district that was Obama +3%, which means that it was about 4% more conservative than the national vote. The special election is extremely close (in recount), demonstrating that Democrats are still competitive in slightly right-of-center swing districts.

More on NY-20 below in the recount discussion (not a recount yet, but wait.)

I've made the following changes to my initial projections (see my previous blog):
Connecticut moves from "Safe Democratic Hold" to "Toss-up"
Chris Dodd screws up with AIG and slips in the polls, which currently show the race a dead heat.

Florida moves from "Toss-Up" to "Lean Republican Hold"
Charlie Christ's likely entry tips this one modestly in the GOP's favor. He is still popular in Florida, despite a downbeat economy.

Illinois moves from "Likely Democratic Hold" to "Lean Democratic Hold"
The ongoing saga of Sen. Roland Burris continues to damage Democratic chances there. Illinois is still a true blue state, but this seat is now in play.

Ohio moves from "Safe Republican Hold" to "Toss-up"
Sen. Voinovich is out and this state is trending blue. The field is wide open.

We now have:
8 Safe Democratic Holds
3 Likely Democratic Holds
3 Lean Democratic Holds
4 Toss-ups
4 Lean Republican Holds
6 Likely Republican Holds
7 Safe Republican Holds

We have no actual projected gains by either party and the current control of the toss-ups is split (2 Republicans, 2 Democrats.)

Therefore, I project if the election was held today:
From +2 for Democrats to +2 for Republicans

Absentee Vote Counts and Recounts
The Minnesota drama continues between Al Franken and Norm Coleman. After counting the 387 originally rejected absentee ballots that the court ruled should be included, Al Franken actually widened his lead to 312 votes.

Norm Coleman still intends to appeal the ruling to the Minnesota Supreme Court, seeking that more rejected ballots be included. It is not clear, based on the 387 breaking 2:1 for Franken, that those ballots would even help him if included.

Calls for Coleman to concede are increasing in volume and I suspect this one is almost over. The Minnesota Supreme Court would probably be wise to not grant cert and let the ruling stand. Minnesota needs for this one to be over -- it has made Florida 2000 look downright orderly.

In the NY-20 race, Republican Jim Tedisco led Democrat Scott Murphy by 97 votes with absentee votes yet to be counted. A court ruling Monday cleared the way for the counties to begin counting the absentee ballots, even though overseas ballots are not due until April 13th. Those ballots, according to the ruling, will be counted on April 14th, but machine re-checks and counts of the absentee ballots on-hand could begin immediately. As of today, Murphy appears to lead by 8 votes with the absentee ballots partially counted, but it is tough to get an accurate in-progress count and there are, of course, a multitude of challenges on both sides.

If the Franken/Coleman race is any indicator, don't expect a resolution on this one any time soon.

Whew! That's a lot of election news.

Back to some political commentary and my promised perspective on minimum wage laws coming up.

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

I'm Back, So Let's Get Down to Business

Thanks to everyone for waiting for my return from Jamaica. It was all at once beautiful, relaxing and enlightening but more on that later.

So much has happened in the past week, I can't possibly cover it all in depth in one post, so I'll try to hit on some highlights in 5 parts below and then share some of my thoughts from the past week:

The Last Week's News in 5 Parts
(okay, not all of it, but the parts I find interesting)
(1) The Obamas in Europe
Okay, it may have been a foregone conclusion, but Europeans, both heads of state and the general population, love the Obamas. President Obama drew intense praise not only from expected allies like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, but also from potential detractors like French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy who drew a very positive and no so subtle contrast between President Obama and former President George W. Bush. Obama held town halls in France, spoke in Prague and did a presser in London all of which he knocked out of the park, as we've come to expect.

First Lady Michelle Obama was also a star, drawing praise for her speech at a London lower-middle class public school and creating controversy about touching the Queen of England. I don't pretend to understand the rules of dealing with British royalty, so I'll just leave it as the Queen didn't seem too bothered.

Okay, so did Obama get what he needed out of the trip? We already knew the Europeans loved him, right?

He got some of the things that he wanted, including a commitment of $1.1 billion from the World Bank to aid developing nations, finance in part by gold sales. This is important because it will act as a kind of global stimulus, although it clearly falls short of what President Obama seemed to be seeking going into the summit. The G20 also agreed to essentialy create an advisory board to warn of future financial collapses versus the global financial regulatory framework that France and Germany had sought but the U.S. has opposed.

I've said it so many times that it borders on fawning at this point, but I feel compelled to say it again -- President Obama is the best that I have ever seen in my lifetime at public forums. Calling on foreign journalists. Witty banter with journalists and in town halls alike. This guy has it. It doesn't make him any more or less right on substance, but it sure is impressive.

So, let's call it an absolute victory on style and a partial victory on substance. Clearly President Obama has increased the stature of the US within the G20 and NATO nations, but that's a fairly low bar. And like I said, we already knew that the Europeans loved him.

(2) Minnesota Senate Decision
A decision came down in the Norm Coleman / Al Franken legal battle for Minnesota's second senate seat while I was away. The ruling essentially puts 400 of the ballots Coleman had sought into the count. With Franken ahead by over 220 ballots after the recount, 400 ballots is probably not enough to tip the balance, unless they break overwhelmingly for Coleman, so this ruling is probably a set back for him.

Coleman is sure to appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court, so don't think for a second that this thing is over.

For an excellent write-up and history of this dispute, please read the comment posted under my March 7th post (thanks for the reader post on this topic.)

(3) Gary Locke Confirmed, Sebelius Road Bumps
Gary Locke was confirmed as Commerce Secretary last week by voice vote (without objection) in the Senate. This was no surprise as he was widely praised in his confirmation hearings.

This leaves only Kathleen Sebelius at HHS to be confirmed. Also last week, during her confirmation hearings it was revealed that a complete audit by the President's team during the vetting process revealed just shy of $8,000 in tax errors on her last 15 years of returns.

Frankly, this is no big deal on substance -- if I had a CPA audit my last 15 years of returns, I'm sure I would find some of the same problems (missing receipts for charitable deductions that I actually made but might not have the right records, deductions that I misunderstood, interest from small accounts where the earnings statements got lost, etc.) $8,000 in 15 years is scarcely $500 per year and I don't know of two CPA's who don't come up with numbers on any two tax returns.

On politics, however, this just continues to contriute to the public perception of Obama appointees who don't pay their taxes. They did it to themselves by leading with Daschle and Geithner, who both had real and substantive discrepencies. Now everyone will be scrutinized.

Sebelius will likely still be confirmed next week by a wide margin (at least 70 yea votes), but these things divert attention, energy and press from the things the President would like them to focus on.

(4) North Korea Launches It's Rocket
Despite broad warning and condemnation from the NATO community, including direct appeals from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, North Korea went ahead and launched the rocket, which it alleged contained a communications sattelite this past week. The launch itself might sound innocent enough, but the capability North Korea is building to launch long range missles is incredibly concerning in light of the nuclear capability and the fact that Kim Jong Il seems to be certifiably insane.

North Korea seems hell-bent on pushing itself to the front-burner as a concern not only in the Asia Pacific region of the world, but across the globe.

The question is -- now what? What can President Obama, the EU, NATO, Japan or South Korea do about any of this? North Korea is already isolated economically and none of us are crazy enough to suggest going to war with a nuclear power with an egomaniac at its helm. Hope our world leaders have some tricks up their sleeves.

(5) House Passes Budget Blueprint
The House of Representatives passed this past week the outline for the Fiscal 2010 budget (the budget year that begins in October.) The resolution passed by 233-196 with no Republican support and 20 Democrats voting "no". The outline is in large measure in line with the proposed plan from the White House.

This outline isn't that significant in that it doesn't appropriate any money -- that process and the real fights begin potentially later this month, when the House takes up the individual appropriation bills for each cabinet department that make up the federal budget.

Thoughts from Jamaica
A week in Jamaica is mostly about spending time at the beach, the bar and the buffet and I did plenty of that. I also re-learned some basic lessons that I wanted to share.

(1) We Have It Really Good
Jamaica is a poor, poor country. Unemployment is high and they have been decimated by the double-whammy of declining global tourism dollars (their primary industry) and the exodus of manufacturing jobs from very cheap Jamaica to even cheaper China and India. Those who are employed can expected to earn the Jamacian minimum wage of around $35 / week. In Montego Bay, the average apartment rent (and not a great apartment either) is about $360/month, so you do to the math on what that means for standard of living. And that's for those who are fortunante enough to find work.

Incidentally, the U.S. Minimum Wage is set to rise again in July to $7.25/hour, fully implementing the three year increase of $2.10/hour that was passed three years ago. Is it too high or too low? Depends who you ask, but I plan to do a future blog about how both the real dollar value and the percentage of per capita GDP of our minimum wage has changed over time and how we stack up against the rest of the world. But first, I owe you a complete update on 2010 and 2012 races and a full rundown on President Obama's approval numbers.

(2) America is Still Full of Heroes
Sad to say that during my vacation I witnessed the death of a staff member on the resort at which I was staying, but I got to see full-blown American heroism in the process.

The resort at which I was staying offered glass-bottom boat rides, during which people could ride out on boats and look down towards the bottom of the ocean. The boats would ride out, stop and drop anchor, then pick-up anchor and return to shore. During one of the trips out, a young Jamaican man who worked on the boat pulling up the anchors somehow got stuck under water and was unable to resurface. When a rescue boat finally pulled him to shore (I won't Monday morning quarterback and talk about all the poor judgements that were made in the heat of the moment in bringing him to shore), it was clear the staff at the resort were ill-equipped to deal with the situation.

In steps a true American hero, a young EMT from Boston who was on th beach that day, who takes command of both the staff and the crowd, coordinates resources, administers CPR and gives this young man his best chance at survival.

Regrettably, the Jamaican man did not survive and our hero then goes a step further and organizations donations to the man's wife and young son.

Did I mention that the EMT was on his honeymoon?

A true American hero, if I ever met one. And such an unassuming guy. I had lunch with him the next day after everything calmed down and it was evident that he didn't want any recognition or praise and that he simply felt he did what he needed to do. The best heroes are usually that modest.

Site Update
I frankly expected site traffic to completely die while I was gone, and while it was down modestly on some days, it stayed strong on others. By month, site traffic is as follows:

Last Week in January (from the 24th-31st) -- 179 visits (22.4/day)
February -- 235 visits (8.4/day)
March -- 257 visits (8.3/day)
April-to-date (through the afternoon of the 5th) -- 21 visits (4.2/day)

Note as I've stated before that the January numbers are abnormally high due to the very high level of hits that the site got immediately following the inauguration.

Next up: I still owe you that numbers rundown on President Obama's approval, 2010 house and senate races and a 2012 Presidential map

After that (sometime in the next few weeks): My minimum wage rundown

And, of course, commentary on all the news I can get to.

Thanks for continuing to read, comment and recommend this site. I hated to leave Jamaica, but it sure is good to be back.