Thursday, January 29, 2009

Stimulating circumstances

My understanding is we now have a three-pronged stimulation bill being developed in the context of a three-pronged recovery strategy. If covering the bases is the basis of post-partisan governing, then Obama is hitting his mark. Doing the math, there are at least nine combinations where the bill and strategy combined will help reboot America's economy.

While this feels like post-ideological governing, it's not turning out that way so far. House politicians were stuck between the schizophrenic mood of the nation, which is an impossible-yet-probable combination of "fix it!" and "stop spending!" Not surprisingly, House representatives weren't exactly able to thread the needle. Instead, partisanship reigned. And I don't mean just Republican partisanship, either.

The House Dems made the mistake in pre-negotiating the tax cuts as 1/3 of the bill. As a result, adding tax cuts to the bill wasn't a war that they allowed the House 'Pubs to win. Instead, they left the Pubs with nothing to showcase to their conservative districts.

The Dems also made the mistake by introducing strategic programs in a so-called emergency stimulus bill. Sure, the bill is officially called the The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but it's politically branded as a bill to dig us out of a deepening recession. As a result, the Republicans had some political weaponry to argue that the Dems were shoehorning ideological programs in an emergency spending bill.

Oddly, the House Dems are acting as if they won't have a full-on majority throughout Washington for at least 4 more years. The Dems would have done their new President much better by keeping this particular bill tactical, focusing on the immediate task at hand, and developing other bills for the more strategic bits. Even if you believe that the Pubs would not support any bill in any form, they would at least appear more ridiculous politically for not backing up a cleaner stimulus bill.

We'll just have to see if the cooler heads in the Senate have the wherewithal to invest in the Obama brand.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rebutting and rebuking Karl Rove's editorial on former President Bush

In his recent editorial, Bush Was Right When It Mattered Most, Karl Rove attempts to defend the former President Bush. Contrary to popular belief, Rove is not spinning in order to help shape his former boss's legacy. Rove actually believes what he says. He is gifted (or burdened) with the ability to view the world in a way that supports his pre-defined world view. He is simply unable to process and integrate information that would not support how he believes the world is or should be.

But Rove's inabilities should not limit our abilities to challenge his frames and rationales. And, it won't. The following is a point-by-point rebuttal and rebuke of Rove's fantastic view on Bush's legacy:

The former president and his wife thanked each passenger, showing the thoughtfulness and grace so characteristic of this wonderful American family.

Karl kicks off his rationale by directly conflating Bush's personality and demeanor with his performance as President and Commander-in-Chief. As most of us know who have ever worked in a company, a great person can be really bad at his or her job.

Yet, as Mr. Bush left Washington, in a last angry frenzy his critics again distorted his record, maligned his character and repeated untruths about his years in the Oval Office. Nothing they wrote or said changes the essential facts.

Here, Karl cares about the mainstream media that he consistently claims he doesn't care about. This is a common psychological hiccup in the conservative mind... it at once needs to be tough and victimized. A tricky dance, and I find it fascinating how few liberals call conservatives out on this.

To start with, Mr. Bush was right about Iraq. The world is safer without Saddam Hussein in power. And the former president was right to change strategy and surge more U.S. troops.

Yes, Karl, let's start with Iraq. Actually, let's first talk about conservative rationale management. I find it fascinating how sturdy the conservative mind is with conceptual rationalization. This was the first and only rationale for the war that conservatives have trotted out, and they won't give it up no matter how flat it has fallen on the populace over the years.

Now, onto Iraq. Let's be perfectly clear: Mr. Bush clearly stated that we went to war with Iraq because Saddam refused to give up his WMD program. This was the sole (and I believe formalized) reason for the U.S.'s preemptive attack on a sovereign nation. Insomuch that we know that there was no WMD program to give up, Mr. Bush was categorically wrong. Even if the world is 5000% safer without Saddam Hussein in power, Bush was still wrong based on his own stated rationale for preemptive war. And don't think that I missed the smaller conflation of "the world is safer" vs. "the United States is safer" in this rationale. There's a reason for using "world" as context vs. the U.S. -- they can't with a straight face argue that we in the United States are safer now that we know there was no WMD program.

Mr. Bush was right to match tax cuts with spending restraint.

Karl goes on to try to justify this statement by containing the frame to the very specific budget components that meet his objectives. The rest of us may just go here and look at the unfiltered numbers (debt as % of GDP and debt per capita -- take your pick).

He was right to have modernized Medicare with prescription drug benefits provided through competition, not delivered by government. The program is costing 40% less than projected because market forces dominate and people -- not government -- are making the decisions.

Here Karl pulls another political trick that too often goes unnoticed and uncontested -- he creates a straw-man argument to show how superior the Bush solution was compared to an extreme alternative that is based on fantasy, yet obliquely attributed to the Democrats.

Mr. Bush was right to pass No Child Left Behind (NCLB), requiring states to set up tough accountability systems that measure every child's progress at school. As a result, reading and math scores have risen more in the last five years since NCLB than in the prior 28 years.

For all the good intentions of NCLB, I know too many teachers who know all too well that NCLB has created a "teach to the test" culture that does improve test scores, but does not improve education. So, yes, NCLB succeeds in the metrics that Karl chooses to pick, but unfortunately, Karl picks the wrong metrics if the goal is improving education.

He was right to stand for a culture of life. And he was right to appoint conservative judges who strictly interpret the Constitution.

Here, Karl uses some tried-and-true straw-men arguments to once again insinuate that Democrats would advocate a culture of death and judges who loosely interpret the Constitution. Yes, Bush stood for banning abortion, but he did very little to actually ban it (ask any vehement pro-lifer). And, yes, Bush did come through (eventually) in picking conservative judges. But it's not all that clear to me that anyone can measure how strict someone can interpret something. Once interpreting something, the creativity and logic of the human mind is in action. In the end, being a good judge comes down to good judgment, not good strictness.

And Mr. Bush, a man of core decency and integrity, was right not to reply in kind when Democratic leaders called him a liar and a loser. The price of trying to change the tone in Washington was to be often pummeled by lesser men.

Karl has no problem re-using the tools of persuasion as many times as needed, in an effort to exhaust the critic. Here, he re-conflates Bush's personality with his ability to do his job, and astonishingly paints the President of the United States as the victim of the tone in Washington.

Few presidents had as many challenges arise during their eight years, had as many tough calls to make in such a partisan-charged environment, or had to act in the face of such hostile media and elite opinion.

If the way you do your job creates problems, you can succeed in your career by either changing what you do in order to reduce or eliminate the problems you have been creating, or you can point to the problems as situations that were inevitable and not your fault, and then make yourself into a martyr-hero by struggling through these problems with valiant honor.

The first approach enables progress and efficiency, and the second approach creates drama and conflict that is compelling to observe, but painful to those who are directly affected by these problems. The approach one takes has more to do with abilities than it does with being "good" or "evil." Without disparaging Bush's personal character, it is fair to assert that he simply didn't have the competencies to figure out that he was the creator of so many of the problems he faced.

But despite facing challenges and crises few others have, the job did not break George W. Bush. Though older and grayer, his brows more furrowed, he is the same man he was, a person of integrity who did what he believed was right.

Karl, how else would you explain a complete lack of foreign poilcy cohesiveness, domestic economic unrest, and a listlessness that defined the last quarter of his second term? He allowed the Middle East to tumble into turmoil, the banking system to fall on its collective face, Russia to invade Georgia with no repercussions, and Iran to continue to make steady progress toward being a nuclear power. OK, Karl, if you want to talk about the job not breaking George W. Bush the person, I can agree with you. But that is of absolutely no consequence to any of us who do not know him socially. What matters to we, the people is what George W. Bush did in the job he was hired to do.

Karl, it is -- and has been -- the country's assessment that the job did break George W. Bush. Just look at what President Obama has done in this first 48 hours, and you can see what a President does when he's not broken.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

(The first day) Of change and leadership

President Obama, master of the symbolic sphere, launched some serious symbols at us and the Middle East today.   The few detractors and cynics out there will surely lament that signing executive orders and making phone calls is not change we can believe in -- it's merely the low-hanging fruit that feels better than it means.

But I would argue that these symbols are tools of leadership that help set a tone, expectations and context for an organization.  As such, these early moves are imminently powerful, timely and are in fact the seeds of a culture that will grow and blossom over time in-line with Obama's philosophy and values.  This is how the process leadership works. 

You may or may not like Obama, agree with his policies, or trust him.  But Day One have proven to be yet another case study in Obama's effective leadership abilities. 

Obama's inaugural address-down

President Obama (which, by the way, somehow sounds even more exotic to me than Barack Obama) stepped into this inaugural celebration with high expectations. Before I jump right into the address, a quick word on the swearing in...

I would not be surprised if a nervous few non-believers (non-believers, that is, in Obama's reported mastery of all-things-politics, not the non-believers Obama reached out to in his speech) were a bit shaken by the apparent flub of Obama's swearing in. After all, Obama is the master communicator -- the one who gives everyone the hope that we now have someone running the country who is not so easily stumped. Could this be a small sign of weakness, or signal of being overwhelmed -- a crack in Obama armor? Actually, no. According to Ben Zimmer at Language Log, it was actually a flub by Chief Justice Roberts that led to the shaky stagecraft. Yes, our shared public persona of Barack Obama shall remain -- at least for now -- air-tight and as solid as Barack.

With regards to his address, I didn't know quite what to expect. Could he really compete with some of the astonishing performances he gave during the primaries? Could he one-up JFK? I doubted it, so my expectations were grounded, yet open.

What I heard was a speech that traded in the soaring, optimistic rhetoric that defined his early campaign speeches for that of a proud, but scolding father who knows we haven't been on our best behavior, and is eager to help us turn things around, but only if we're willing to put in the hard work to help make it happen. It was a somber speech -- one that used history as context, not as a mission. It was a serious speech that condemned many of the decisions and philosophies of the outgoing Bush administration so starkly that I actually felt a little uncomfortable knowing that Bush and Cheney were right behind him, listening to his every word. It also happened to be a speech that redefined and repositioned America's foreign policy in one fell swoop, outlining the ground rules for global engagement. All countries of the world -- both dear and diabolical -- received invitations to engage the sole global superpower of the world, complete with instructions and ground rules.

It was in the last portion of the speech, however, where I saw a tangible, palpable connection between his face and his words. I could sense that of all the messages he conveyed, the final message meant the most to him at a deep, personal level. It was the message of responsibility, duty, character, and spirit. It is through these "truths," as he put it, that we as individuals shape our nation's character. That it is only through the collective, combined force of millions of citizens working toward a common set of goals can a nation overcome its most dire challenges.

The very fact that these themes needed to be conveyed in his address tells us a lot about what we've let ourselves -- and thus our nation -- become over the years. The notions of fear, greed, and divisiveness has defined the past eight years, and probably even longer. Yet, our eager acceptance of this Presidential dress-down also tells us how eager we are to snap back -- eager to reclaim the soul of our nation through our own personal soul-searching, enabled by a sense of pride in our shared national history of courage, hard work and innovation.

As I step back to assess the overall tone, style, content and delivery, I can not help but think that President Obama's inaugural address felt more like a civil sermon than a secular address. Yes, he's now the President, but Barack Obama also seems to be playing the role of High Priest of the Civil Church of America.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bush's Farewell Address -- More Fair than Well

I didn't quite know what to expect from President Bush's farewell address -- would it be the normal marketing message espousing his world-view one last time? Or would he change it up, throw us a curve ball, and do what Al Gore did as he accepted defeat from the recount in 2000 -- become magnanimous, strong, and truly embody the behaviors of a leader?

This question was answered mighty quick. Unfortunately for him, and for us, it was the former. And, possibly, even worse.

I found the address to be primarily a set of thinly-veiled non-apologies for things that he must feel the need to apologize for, but can't, intermingled with crusty platitudes that could only make the most blindly patriotic citizen choke up. In addition, I was struck by a few unnecessarily provocative statements:

"Freedom is the universal gift of almighty G-d, and that liberty and justice lead to peace. Advancing this belief is the only practical way to protect our citizens."
This is simply an unnecessary conflation of human rights, American values, and religious values. Yes, Mr. Bush, we know that America's values and constitution were inspired by the Christian values of those Brits who couldn't stand the Christian values as they were implemented in their homeland at the time. But this very story of what brought the founders to America in the first place indicates that G-d seems to spread "His gift of liberty and justice" a bit unevenly. Best to adhere to the founders' own judgment -- let the values stand on their own. Doing so gives them a universality that conflating with Western religions can only limit. Bush's inability to see this is just that -- an inability.

"When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who willingly pursue campaigns of terror."
Depending on your perspective, you could find this either infuriating or simply false. Ardent Bush-haters will certainly find tragic irony, seeing Bush himself as one of these leaders who induced terror within his own populace, not to mention how some in Iraq might feel about him. And then there's the the little story of Adolph Hitler, who was democratically chosen to lead the Germans. This overarching neo-con philosophy now rings so hollow that it makes the man saying it look hollow.

"The addicted and suffering are finding new hope through faith-based programs."
Not surprising he'd be strutting his stuff in expanding government programs, but this is the stuff that simultaneously petrifies the secular left and divides the fiscal and social conservatives. How unite-y.
(Oh, and he stumbled on "faith-based" in such a way that I thought he was going to say Facebook! Now that would have been a curveball.)

"A new Medicare prescription drug benefit is bringing peace of mind to seniors and the disabled."
This is a wonderful example of how the Bush administration was so fantastic at the packaging and so destructive in the details. Yes, this certainly sounds like compassionate conservatism, but the details of this program included no negotiating drug discounts from pharmaceutical companies to keep the costs of this plan down for tax payers. So, all compassion, no conservatism? Mostly. The compassion was divided between seniors (large voting bloc) and Big Pharma profits (who struck gold with a huge contract with no bulk discounts). Another eye-roller for true-blue conservatives and deficit hawks.

"Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks. There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."
This was the most fascinating part of his address. If you really look at this statement, you can see the psychology of George W. Bush. He cares deeply what people (including the media, and his detractors) think of him. He cares deeply because he uses the prodding of his detractors to frame up why he ignored them. And, most astonishingly, he gives himself an excuse for making mistakes that he admits he can't admit. On face value, he is saying "I would be sorry for the blunders you and I think I made, but I can't be sorry -- and you can't blame me -- because I did my best." He wants an A for effort, even though he, in the eyes of the public, has failed (a 34% exit approval rating I think rates as failure).

"Our enemies are patient and determined to strike again. America did nothing to seek or deserve this conflict."
This is a stunning statement. It's as if he sees America's history starting the day he took office. I'm not saying we deserved 9/11 (far from it), but it's quite a different thing to state that we've done absolutely nothing that could have instigate terrorist threats. It remains astonishing how simply he appears to see the world, even to this very day. I won't go into great detail, but let me just lay out a few examples top-of-mind of what America has done in the past that might have helped -- even unintentionally -- instigate foreign fury: America supported Osama Bin Laden in the Afghanistan war against the Soviets. America provided support to Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. America provides money and political support to Arab leaders who oppress their people in exchange for easy access to oil. America's unflinching support for Israel, despite their at-times-questionable approach to peace in the Middle East. America's historic ambivalence toward human rights and development in the Middle East, and turning our backs when leaders in the region use the poor cultural environment as an excuse to blame America for all their troubles. As I said, these are just the top-of-mind situations that could have built up to explain why there is an Al Q'aida in the first place.

I am actually disappointed that Bush did not wow us with a surprising twist with his farewell address. I do think he has it in him to pull such a trick. But I suppose the decision was made that he should go out the way he came in -- using controversy, and a belief in a two-dimensional moral code, as his core leadership tools.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen... goodbye.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Obama's moral conservatism breaks from Bush's liberalism

It's not really surprising that Obama has come out strongly again against torture, as he was quite clear about it during the campaign.  But what is notable about it is the rejuvenation of a symbolic moral high ground for Democrats on foreign policy.  Because of the various over-reaches of the Bush administration, there are many opportunities now for Democrats to represent traditional American Values

Ironically, the Bush administration with its neo-conservative foreign policy was liberal in its foreign philosophy.  They liberally interpreted the constitution, and liberally applied interrogation techniques against a liberal interpretation of enemy combatants.  Now Obama will bring back some conservatism in his beliefs that we should go back to the international footing that worked so well for us in the past.   Funny, aren't the Republicans usually the ones trying to take us back to the past?

Yes, this return to the good ol' days in foreign policy is a simile to the cultural right wistfully looking back to the good ol' days culturally; back when there were fewer civil rights and abortion wasn't legalized.  How fortunate for Democrats to be able to represent conservatism and international moralism in our moralistic, center-right country

Because the Bush administration felt that the so-called War on Terror gave them the excuse to put our highly-regarded values on hold, they gave the incoming Obama administration a political gift -- the gift of recapturing our traditional foreign policy values, and the opportunity lead our nation back to our moral comfort zone. 

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Chief Performance Officer redux

It was inevitable, I suppose.  After Obama announced he had created and filled the Chief Performance Officer position for his administration, analysts and cynics asked why we need another layer of management in an already huge government machine.  There is the "What's the GAO (Government Accounting Office), swiss cheese?" commentary, and of course there is the IG (Inspector General) position that is supposed to be, well, generally inspecting the very same things.

This analysis, while having technical merit, is not placing enough emphasis on the political nature of the creation of the position.   There are two specific political reasons why this is an important role and post for Obama:
  • From the populist politic perspective, most Americans do not know about the GAO or the Inspector General, so creating a new C-level position does mean there will be political gravity around the success of this role that existing roles and departments simply do not have. 
  • From the change perspective, the IG and GAO roles existed throughout the last 8 years, which innately indicates that these roles clearly don't have the teeth required to ensure financial responsibility.
David Greising, chief business correspondent for the Chicago Tribune seems to agree, when he says "In fact, cutting waste is a political exercise as much as a managerial one."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More Obama Innovation

One of the understated and underreported undercurrents of the Obama candidacy was the notion that Obama is not just "smart," but has an orientation for innovative thinking and implementation.   Of course, everyone took notice of and as his ability to harness the power of the internet and social networking to help power his campaign.   But the focus was usually on the shiny internet technology and not the underlying acumen Obama seems to have in picking the right people to implement the right things in the right way.

Now Obama has taken a page from business management innovators, and is introducing a Chief Performance Officer to his administration.   This move follows Obama's trademark style of politics -- a combination of innovative thinking and operationalized innovation, all wrapped in relevant symbolic purpose. 

A CPO tells Americans (and the markets) that we're going to be using best-practice business intelligence methodologies -- not merely "politics as usual" -- to weed out poorly performing managers and programs, while investing in managers and programs that yield higher returns for the country.

This move will likely be seen by the business sector as yet another sign of discipline that will help gain their trust as he pushes through tremendous deficit spending programs.   The CPO is a meaningful post that has symbolic power in ensuring that an Obama administration breaks from the traditional Democratic brand as "tax and spend" with no discipline.   Obama may very well spend, but he'll do so in such a way that will not engender distrust by the business community.