Friday, August 28, 2009

The Late Senator Edward Kennedy, Can Obama Rediscover His Mojo?, Can You Be Pro-Stimulus and Anti-Deficit

Senator Edward Kennedy (R-MA)
The passing of Senator Edward Kennedy is an historic end to an era of prominence for the Kennedy family in New England and across the country. The "lion of the Senate" served for 47 years, longer than all but two men, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC) and the current President Pro Tempe of the Senate, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV). His passing reminds me of my own internal conflict about the man called Teddy by his friends and the broader divide in America that it reveals.

Senator Kennedy was a deeply flawed man. A famous drunk, who was four times convicted of DUI in his youth, Teddy was twice kicked out of Harvard for cheating. Once considered the black sheep of the Kennedy family, Teddy rose to prominence after the death of his progressive-hero brothers, President John F. Kennedy and sure-to-be President Bobby Kennedy, both dead far too early at the hands of killers' bullets.

The event that more than any other defined Senator Kennedy as a villainous figure in the minds of many on the right and some on the center occurred July 18th, 1969, when Senator Kennedy drove off a bridge killing Mary Kopenche and then failed to report the death until nearly nine hours later, the next morning. There is much unknown about the famous Chappaquiddick incident (named for the island on which it occurred.) Was Mary in the car as part of an extramarital affair? Had Kennedy been drinking that night? Where was he really headed that evening (he claimed to be headed to a ferry but there are inconsistencies in both the location and the timeline)? Given Kennedy's history, it is not unreasonable to assume the worst about all of those questions. Some have even suggested that the killing was an intentional murder, although the evidence of this is scant. At the end of the day, however, they don't really matter. Senator Kennedy killed a woman and failed to make the feintest effort to get emergency services on the scene, who could have at least had a chance to save her life. It was the most morally repungnant behavior from every possible angle that one could imagine.

Despite Chappaquiddick, Senator Kennedy easily won re-election in Kennedy-friendly New England and went on to possibly the most accomplished Senate career in U.S. history. His friends span the ideological spectrum -- his close friends included former President George Herbert-Walker Bush and the very conservative Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). He fought relentlessly for social justice, health care and the underrepresented. He reached across the aisle to get things done rather than grandstand, including being a key player in President George Walker Bush's crowning piece of social policy, No Child Left Behind.

So what are we to make of this dichotomy? For me, I can appreciate the accomplishment, but can't forgive the crime. I've never been a fan of royal families in our Republic, and there is little doubt that Senator Kennedy would have done jail time and never been heard from again if he had another name. The hubris and entitlement of the Kennedy clan has always annoyed me, the latest example being Caroline Kennedy's aborted attempt to be handed Hillary Clinton's Senate seat with zero qualifications.

Senator Kennedy may have been an advocate in the Senate for those who needed one and a great legislator, but he was still a meager man. Some will say that I would be best not to criticize the deceased, but I have to call them like I see them. The guest list at Kennedy's funeral proves that I am probably in the minority -- those who knew him seemed to all love him, left and right.

Looking for Some Mojo -- Will Obama Slip Below November?
Same old story from the past two months. President Obama's approval has slipped to a new low since taking office, with the daily tracking at +9.7%.

President Obama can still take solice in a few facts:
(1) His poll numbers have never, for a single day, been below his margin of victory in November (although he is flirting with the lines, only 2.5% ahead of his November margin)
(2) Congress will be back in session in a couple of weeks and the town halls will stop
(3) President Clinton had even lower numbers at this stage in his Presidency and went on to win re-election by a wide margin (9%)
(4) Opinion is fickle -- President's routinely gain and lose double digits in a matter of months

If you are on the other side, you can rejoice in these fact:
(1) No post-World War II except Clinton was less popular at this stage in his term
(2) While this may not be predictive of 2012, the history with Clinton would indicate a good shot at a resounding GOP comeback in congress in 2010
(3) President Obama's daily numbers are still below his monthly numbers, meaning that at least in the short-term, he is likely to continue to see decline

The monthy numbers are below:

If current trends were to hold, sometime in September, President Obama would drop below his November margin and sometime around this November he would drop below the all-critical zero line. Not too strong a negotiating position to try to push a health care bill through Blue Dog Democrats. Of course, as I've said, if unemployment starts falling, don't be surprise if these numbers reverse fast, regardless of the environment in Washington.

Pro-Stimulus and Anti-Deficit?
I've been loaded down with e-mail from conservatives and liberals alike questioning how I could have been in favor of an almost $800 billion stimulus bill and at the same time be bemoaning the size of the deficits over the next 10 years.

Allow me to explain -- a fiscal stimulus is designed to jump start a damaged economy. By spending large sums of money quickly, the government can light a fire under economic growth and reduce unemployment. This, in turn, yields greater long-term tax revenues that repay the initial investment. Now, you could certainly quibble with some of the details of the stimulus bill that passed -- I would have liked to see more infrastructure (roads, bridges, electrical grid, etc.) and less lower-order stimulus (state aid, etc.), but the concept of a stimulus is one that I'm firmly behind.

Of course a big stimulus increases this year's and next year's deficit. That is not my concern -- you should run deficits in a recession to try to jump start the economy. My concern is the STRUCTURAL deficit that continues over the next 8 years. Still being $900 billion in the whole every year 10 years from now is not acceptable. President Obama needs to come clean with the need for either dramatic entitlement reform, dramatic tax increases or some combination of both. He shouldn't attempt to do it now -- fixing the economy is job one, but we need to be doing it in 2011 and to do so, we should at least be talking about the need for future reform now.

Speaking of stimulus, the latest figures are as follows:
Of the $499 in spending:
$208.0 billion has been authorized (41.7%)
$84.6 billion has been spent (17.0%)

To date, since the bill was enacted, we have averaged about $3.15 billion in stimulus spending per week. At this pace, it would take over 3 years to complete spending on the bill. It is clear to me that this is not fast enough. The pace has picked up somewhat recently (the last 5 weeks have averaged $3.44 billion), but it needs to move much faster. The economy is continuing to get healthier, but unless the pace picks up, we may have protracted high unemployment even with the economy likely growing again in Q3 (albeit at a shaky 1 or 2%.)

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