Monthly Archives: March 2010

The visit of the French president was happily timed to draw headlines at home away from the regional election results. It seemed to go well. Sarkozy spoke to a packed attentive house at Columbia University. He performed deftly at his White House press conference (putting Obama on the spot over EADS by saying, “He is a man of his word”). And with his elegant wife he was treated to a rarely bestowed supper a quatre with the US president and  first lady.

Speaking about Obama at home, his tone had been more critical of late. Like other European leaders, he evidently feels that the administration is neglecting them, preferring to develop new partnerships elsewhere, notably with China and Russia. (With mixed results. Outreach to Russia has borne fruit on nuclear arms reduction. The effort to get on with China seems to have stalled.) Feelings in Britain are especially bruised. You could argue that Gordon Brown has been snubbed, not merely neglected, by Obama, notwithstanding Britain’s large and politically taxing commitment in Afghanistan.

This recent piece by Robert Kagan was on to something. You seem to get more warmth from Obama as an adversary than as a friend.

This administration pays lip-service to “multilateralism,” but it is a multilateralism of accommodating autocratic rivals, not of solidifying relations with longtime democratic allies. Rather than strengthening the democratic foundation of the new “international architecture” — the G-20 world — the administration’s posture is increasingly one of neutrality, at best, between allies and adversaries, and between democrats and autocrats.

Sarkozy prepared for this trip by criticizing US policy and advertising the limits to French co-operation with the US. He was warmly received as a result. If I were advising Brown on managing his own relationship with Obama, I’d say, “Forget the special relationship–it means nothing to Obama. No more reflexive support of the US. Follow Sarkozy’s example, and things will warm up directly.”

he passage of US healthcare reform is enormously consequential, and not just for the things the new law aims to affect. The manner of its passage, as much as its substance, makes November’s mid-term elections pivotal. They may decide the political trajectory of the United States for the next several decades.

Continue reading “Obama throws out the political rules”

The Democrats’ healthcare victory has set some large political forces in motion. Gideon Rachman rightly points out that the implications extend beyond the United States.

Increasingly Mr Obama was portrayed overseas as weak, indecisive and ineffective. That is now likely to change–at least for a while–in the wake of the passage of healthcare reform. As a result, Mr Obama now has a chance to relaunch his presidency, abroad as well as at home…

Gideon argues that Obama can no longer be dismissed as all talk. The healthcare triumph makes him look like a winner not a loser. It makes him look tenacious and determined. He might start to get more respect from foreign leaders, commensurate with his popularity among ordinary folk. And there might be a pay-off in terms of his country’s image abroad.

By committing his nation to providing healthcare for nearly everyone, Mr Obama will undermine the Michael Moore vision of America as a country where big business ruthlessly exploits the downtrodden poor. This is a cartoon version of the US that is wildly popular in Europe and around the world. It will be harder to propagate in the wake of the passage of Mr Obama’s healthcare reforms.

I agree. All that seems plausible. But there are some countervailing tendencies.

Gideon Rachman thinks they might be. He is struck, as I was, by the startling numbers in a Harris poll that looked at Americans’ beliefs about Obama. One in four Republicans thinks Obama “may be the Anti-Christ”, according to this poll. Nearly 40% think he is “doing many of the things that Hitler did”. Gideon finds that these numbers give a “fair insight into the challenge facing Obama”–namely that Republicans are nuts.

Well, as I say, the numbers are startling, but I don’t know that Gideon’s “fair insight” is all that accurate. Findings like these should send you straight to the small print. James Taranto reads it, and lodges several objections. His most telling point is that the panel for the poll is self-selecting: that is, it consists of people who have volunteered to be pestered by questions such as these. This is a sample akin, I would say, to the set of people who comment on blogs. In this set, the middle is under-represented, the extremes are magnified, and the lunatic fringes (at both ends) are amplified by several orders of magnitude.

If only for calibration purposes, this methodology should have been used, as Taranto says, to check for insane opinions about George W. Bush from the corresponding wingnuts on the other side. A Rasmussen poll in 2007 found that 35% of Democrats thought that Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, and that another 26% weren’t sure. I hesitate to mention this in case Europeans conclude that roughly all of the country is nuts.

My golden rule of opinion polls is, “If you want an intelligent answer, ask an intelligent question”.

I was about to take issue with a recent post by Jonathan Chait on the politics of healthcare reform, but I see he launched a pre-emptive strike against one of mine, so I’ll start by responding to that. Chait accuses me of contradicting myself when I call this a tainted victory. I argued that (a) the healthcare plan has moderate, centrist ambitions and (b) Obama broke faith with American voters by subordinating himself to liberal Democrats in Congress. Absurd! And I say these things in the same column!

Is this logic so very hard to penetrate? I don’t think I am the first person to draw the distinction between the product and the process. The product is a centrist plan. Chait and I agree about that. It is so centrist, as Chait pointed out in a note on the progressives’ suicide impulse, that many liberals had to hold their noses to vote for it. How quickly we forget. A week ago, the plan that now has all Democrats in rapture (and rightly) was so popular with much of the party in Congress that Pelosi wanted to pass it without asking her members to vote for it. At the beginning of March Chait wrote:

[T]he most committed Democrats believe, absurdly, that the final bill has been compromised down to something that only barely improves the status quo.

All in all, the liberal strategy of focusing on the public option and constantly harping on the bill’s shortcomings has won few identifiable concessions and has significantly increased the chance that no bill at all will pass.

Agreed. Now, my point is to ask, where was Obama in all this? Was he leading the party and the country to the centrist plan which the Democrats ended up with? No. He called for change, but was mostly absent from the debate about the form it should take. When he did express a view, he spoke up for the public option, though signaling he would not go to the stake over it. He outsourced leadership on the issue to the Democrats’ Congressional leaders.

The superlatives are justified. The passage of comprehensive healthcare reform is this country’s most momentous social reform since the creation of Medicare more than 40 years ago. And in my view the new law is at least that long overdue. It beggars belief that a nation as rich as the United States could have tolerated for years a healthcare system which every other advanced economy would reject out of hand, one which left tens of millions without health insurance, and under which serious illness could very well mean financial ruin. The new law finally confronts the problem, and takes bold steps towards fixing it.

Sunday’s vote is also a political triumph. Scott Brown’s unexpected win in Massachusetts–a Republican in a liberal state, running against this bill–stunned the Democrats and caused many to think the effort was dead. Barack Obama bravely chose not to back down. Without that commitment, the bill would have failed. The same goes for Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi: they did not deviate. In parliamentary terms, the Democrats made the whole venture more dramatic than it needed to be. It is absurd that getting the Senate bill through the House should have been such a struggle. But the main thing is that they succeeded. It is a success that eluded all their predecessors. They are entitled to celebrate. They have their places in history.

Remarkable as it may be–and welcome, too, as I believe–it is nonetheless a tainted victory. Brown won in Massachusetts for a reason. The Democrats had failed to make their case for this reform to the American public. They pressed the case for some sort of reform, but that was easy: the country was already there. What the country dislikes is this particular bill, and the Democrats, intent on arguing among themselves, barely even tried to change its mind.

With the US in convulsions over healthcare, Barack Obama devoted his regular weekend broadcast to a different subject: financial reform. It was a surprising choice, but give the president credit for recognising the importance of the issue.

Continue reading “US financial reform ignores wider terrain”

Democrats are pleased with the CBO’s preliminary score of the reconciliation package. Adding the cost of higher insurance subsidies, extra spending on Medicaid, and other outlays, then subtracting Medicare savings and new revenues yields a $138 billion reduction in the ten-year deficit, says the agency. That is better than many had expected.

I don’t question the competence of the CBO’s analysts, but I wouldn’t bet my 401(k) on these numbers turning out to be even roughly correct. The uncertainties lie in both directions. The plan might save more money than the CBO says: it has scored the efficiency-promoting experiments conservatively. The bigger risk is that the provisions yielding the projected savings and tax increases will be reversed before they take effect. I would need to think about it, but I might be willing to bet my 401(k) on that.

After John Paul Stevens. Jeffrey Toobin, New Yorker. Fascinating profile of the Supreme Court’s “senior Justice, in every respect”.

Has Obama turned against Israel? Fred Kaplan, Slate. The underline says “The charge is ludicrous”, but the piece doesn’t make that case. See also: Israel slapped America-and may have jolted Obama awake, by Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian.

The weak renminbi is not just America’s problem. Arvind Subramanian, FT. The case for a new WTO rule. Paul Krugman proposes a tough unilateral line; Greg Mankiw disagrees, and links to this column from last year.

Nancy Pelosi says “deem and pass” is her preferred strategy for pushing healthcare reform through. And she is apparently surprised by the ferocious reaction. The self-executing rule is not an unusual, esoteric technique, she notes. There was no such ferocity before. It has been used countless times. Its constitutionality is not in question. So what’s the problem?

Let me explain.

So far as the legality or regularity of the procedure is concerned, Pelosi is correct. Reconciliation does raise a substantive issue: whether the Senate filibuster serves a rightful quasi-constitutional purpose. But if you accept that use of reconciliation is justified in the present case, as I do, “deem and pass” raises no further issue of that sort–because it is procedurally identical to the House passing the Senate bill and a reconciliation sidecar along with it.

My test of “procedurally identical” is simple. Suppose the House passes Pelosi’s rule, and then the Senate fails to pass the reconciliation alterations to its own measure. Would the unamended Senate bill, assuming the president signs the right paper, then become law? According to what I am told, the answer is yes. “Deem and pass” has exactly the same legislative function for the House as passing the Senate bill and separately passing the reconciliation changes.

Which raises the question, why do it? Pelosi says, because many of her members do not want to vote for the Senate bill. But if I understand this procedure correctly, that is what they will be doing, with the possible consequence that the Senate bill eventually becomes law. What Pelosi is saying, almost in these very words, is that she wants her members to be able to vote for the Senate bill while telling their voters back home they have not. Her method may be procedurally correct. It is also, quite explicitly, cover for her members to lie to their voters.

What, she asks, is wrong with that? She and her supporters seem genuinely puzzled, so I had better spell it out. (1) Lying to voters is wrong. (2) Doing it so nakedly insults their intelligence (which, in addition, is unwise).

Pelosi is equally perplexed, I imagine, by the fact that she and the institution she leads are held in such contempt by the people of this country.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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