Sunday, May 24, 2009

Popularity & Stimulus Updates, The Commencement Speeches, Obama v. Cheney

It is day 125 of President Obama's administration, 8.6% of the way through his elected term and 527 days until the mid-term congressional elections.

Presidential Approval
President Obama's approval has been tracking very consistently since early April, with his approve minus disapprove (percentages of poll respondents approving minus percentage disapproving) continuing to average right around 30%. It had appeared initially as I wrote earlier, that he was bumping up in the month of May, but that has abated and he is tracking almost exactly where he was in April.

Here's our monthly average view. As you can see, the averages are almost identical for April and may, with April's approve minus disapprove of 30.4% and May at 30.6%.

As for our polling methodology breakdown, here are the latest polls:
Adult Americans -- +33%
Registered Voters -- +30%
Likely Voters -- +16%

President Obama continues to be more popular with the general population than he is with people who are actually likely to vote in an election, which is not unusual for a Democrat (as we've discussed previously, demographics favoring Republicans are much more reliable on election day than demographics favoring Democrats, although that has shifted somewhat in the past few years.) Under the toughest test, likely voters only, he still is running 9% ahead of his actual vote count in November, which would mean if an election where held today, he would win all the states he won last November plus Montana, Georgia and Arizona, the Dakotas and South Carolina.

Stimulus Spending Update
As of the latest government issued reports, the stimulus spending totals now stand as follows:
Authorized: $116.1 billion (23.3%) -- up from $88.1 billion in our May 9th update
Spent: $31.1 billion (6.2%) -- up from $28.6 billion in our May 9th update

There has been increased media scrutiny of late surrounding the pace of the stimulus spending. First of all, I'm disappointed in the lack of accuracy in some of the reports coming from news outlets like CNN, who have been reporting the spending figures as a percentage of the total stimulus package rather than as a percentage of the spending portion of the package. Bear in mind $288 billion of the $787 billion package was in the form of tax cuts and tax credits, which took effect in April. Reporting only the spending as a percentage of the overall $787 billion is a distortive view of what is actually happening.

Secondly, I actually think the package is being managed extremely well so far. There have been some hiccups, to be sure (several million approved for programs that are slated to be cut from the President's budget next year, for instance), but by and large, programs are being approved at a relatively speedy pace and spending is on track with what was committed (approximately 40% in 2009, 50% in 2010 and 10% in 2011 was the commitment in the bill.) $499 billion is a massive amount of money and while we want the stimulative effects as quickly as possible, it is also important that the money be used for public good and I'm not in favor of just dumping it without proper thought.

There have been signs of late, with weak home starts, continued high unemployment claims and disappointing retail sales figures that the economic recovery is not as strong or coming as fast as initially expected. The banking sector appears to be stabilizing, with banks successfully raising capital and starting to pay back TARP funds and lending flowing much more freely. But the massive unemployment hit brought on by the bankruptcy of Chrysler and the likely pending bankruptcy of GM will still have to be absorbed and consumers will need to start spending and buying homes for the economic recovery to have legs.

In spite of the new news, I still maintain my projection that slightly positive GDP growth will return in the third quarter of this year, but unemployment will continue to rise until approximately year end and reach around 10% before falling modestly in the first half of next year.

We aren't out of the woods yet and the stimulus money clearly needs to get moving in my mind to restore the labor markets, which are ultimately the engine of consumer spending.

In the future, as we get more data and history, I'll ad some graphs to this recurring section of the blog.

The Commencement Addresses
President Obama's commencement speeches at Arizona State University and Notre Dame last week brought differing controversies.

First, the Arizona State controversy centered around the state declining to give the President an honorary degree on the basis that his "achievements were yet to come". Liberals seized on this, noting the broad group of people that had been granted honorary degrees by the university and also citing, humorously, that Arizona State generally ranks higher on lists of party schools than on lists of academic accomplishments. I personally think this is much ado about nothing. Honorary degrees are meaningless gestures and whether President Obama gets one from Arizona State means nothing one way or the other. The speech went fine and I'm sure this whole story will be quickly forgotten.

The commencement at Notre Dame was far more interesting. The controversy and protest surrounded President Obama's support for abortion rights and the Catholic church's strong anti-abortion / pro-life position. President Obama handled the controversy very well, focusing his speech on finding common ground to reduce the number of abortions ni this country. The media, showing their usual short memory, treated this speech like it was breakthrough thinking, forgetting that former President Bill Clinton gave a similar speech in 1993. This is the right tone to set in this contentious debate with no easy resolution, but let's not oversell things. The words are nice and were well received at Notre Dame, but as soon as President Obama appoints a Supreme Court justice who will likely be solidly pro-Roe v. Wade, I expect all the good feelings to end.

Obama v. Cheney
President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney's dueling speeches last week illustrated the stark contrast in this administration's approach to interrogation and the last. Cheney has been all over the news lately defending his administration's policies and criticizing the current administration as making the country "less safe".

Let me summarize the competing remarks. Cheney contends that enhanced interrogation has saved thousands of American lives by providing critical information about Al Queda and that it was absolutely necessary to protect the country. President Obama has contended that torture does not work and should never be a part of America's policy.

I have stated before that I strongly believe the moral issues surrounding terror supercede any debate around its effectiveness. Layer on top of this that the majority of CIA and FBI operatives appear to have concluded that torture is ineffective and the emperical evidence that we tortured the same few individuals dozens of times to seemingly no effect and I don't think this debate is close.

I do appreciate, however, that Mr. Cheney has toned down his rhetoric surrounding Obama in recent weeks. Defending his administration's policies is fair enough, when he led with uninhibited criticizism of the Obama Administration, it just felt like a lot of sour grapes and fairly classless.

Some have speculated that Mr. Cheney's sudden high profile is indicative of a potential run for the Presidency in 2012. Forget it. Cheney isn't interested, the GOP isn't interested in having him and he could never win. Take Mr. Cheney's comments for what they are, his attempt to shape the legacy of the administration he served in.

What to Do in GITMO -- the NIMBY Syndrome
Closing GITMO in the next year is going to be harder than anticipated. The senate nearly unanimously voted to block funding for the administrations plan to close the base, citing the need for more information about where the prisoners will go.

Senator and Representatives of both parties have been clear that they don't want suspected terrrorists in federal prisons in their backyards. This is silly political posturing, plain and simple. No one has ever escaped from a federal supermax prison. We've housed Timothy Mcveigh, Jeffrey Dahmer and all sorts of charecters that are very scary in those prisons. They are a much better solution for terrorism suspects that the embarrassment in GITMO. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who as you recall, was appointed by President Bush, has said as much.

President Obama has also hinted in recent days that there may be some prisoners who are never charged and never released. This policy is just as wrong now as when it was Bush administration policy. If we have credible evidence against prisoners, let's bring them to justice. If we do not, we need to release them. Holding suspects indefinitely without charge is unjust and un-American. Don't think for a second that this precedent won't have chilling implications on the rest of our criminal justice system. Innocent until proven guilty and the right to a speedy trial are the bedrock of our justice system. I continue to be disturbed by how Obama Administration policy feels like it is drifting towards Bush Administration policy. He promised us better.

Megan McCain, a Breath of Fresh Air
I saw an interview with Megan McCain, the daughter of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on the Colbert Report this past week. She represents exactly what the Republican party needs to be doing. She unabashedly described herself as a "pro-sex, pro-gay marriage Republican". She spoke elloquently about the need for Republicans to focus on the concept of liberty and limited government and how that should extend to social issues as well as economic. She is a young, attractive, well spoken woman with views that mirror broader trends in the country. She has a much more compelling vision and presents a much better image than the bitter image of Dick Cheney and Ann Coulter (and sorry Ann, she is far more attractive than you are as well.)

Republicans would do well to listen to her if they are looking to engineer a comeback in 2010 and 2012, ditch the far religious right and speak about the power of limited government. It isn't a new concept, but Republicans could upstage the Democrats by taking social issues off the table and focusing the discussion on the need for better fiscal management.

Barney Frank, Defender of Freedom
I have had problems with Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) in the past. Nearly 20 years ago, he was tied up in an ugly male prostitution ring. He appears to have been asleep at the switch while Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were loosen lending standards in a reckless way.

But there is one issue very personal to me on which Rep. Frank deserves a ton of credit -- online gambling rights. During the Bush Administration, an awful law was passed that made it illegal for banks to process transactions from online gambling houses. Of course, the law hasn't worked as various offshore third parties have stepped in as intermediaries to keep the industry alive, but it has added cost to the system and made law-abiding citizens who enjoy playing poker online for $5 at a pop into technical criminals.

The law is wrong, but there is very little public sentiment or lobbying money behind it. Rep. Frank is fighting hard to overturn this law and may be successful.

With a $1.5 trillion deficit is there any doubt that we could use tax revenue from a legal, legitimate, regulated online gaming industry? Don't we all deserve the right to decide for ourselves if we should gamble.

Keep fighting the good fight, Barney. I'm with you.

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