Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ideology and partisan pressure rivals 'team of rivals' strategy

Judd Gregg's withdrawal of his prior acceptance for Commerce Secretary in the Obama administration is all the rage amongst the political prognosticator class today. But for those who really think this is Big News should ask themselves how much political hay was made of Bill Richardson's withdrawal from this same post. The answer? About 1.5 days.

Of course, this is different than Richardson's withdrawal. Gregg was a controversial pick from the get go, from both liberal and conservative perspectives. The only way Gregg's nomination could have possibly made sense was from the symbolic perspective -- i.e., having an true blue fiscal conservative oversee the fiscal restraint Obama has called for in his own administration. This strategic brand alignment is the kind of high-minded marketing that Obama likes. And while it's clear what Obama was trying to demonstrate with Gregg as Commerce Secretary, it was equally clear to many (including, eventually, Gregg) that it was too much of a tactical stretch to reach a strategic goal.

As Gregg's departure indicates, high-minded marketing and cross-party strategic alliances is clearly not a popular sport in Washington. Combine this with the political rancor around the stimulus bill, and it's clear that Obama is going to continue to have a difficult time finding soul-mates in pragmatism in a system that has been increasingly rewarding ideologues and party loyalists for decades.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dick Cheney, FUDdy duddy

In a recent interview with Politico, former Vice President Dick Cheney expressed his deep concerns about his perception of the new administration's plans on how to handle the so-called "war on terror."  In the interview, Cheney demonstrates his natural -- and gifted -- ability to lead through fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD).  Through this interview, he exudes such a two-dimensional view of national security that he makes George W. Bush seem downright nuanced. 

In traditional black-and-white, good-vs-evil, myway-vs.-wrongway thinking, Cheney preemptively indicts the Obama administration as reckless, careless and a danger to American lives:

When we get people who are more concerned about reading the rights to an Al Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans, then I worry.

Here, Cheney outlines a cartoonish portrayal of the Obama administration's policy to comply with the rule of law and international treaties, and to act in accordance with our Western (and religious-inspired) cultural values of human rights and freedom.   Does anyone take note that the most powerful Vice President in America's history sees the closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp as equivalent to reading Miranda rights?  

If closing down the Guantanamo Bay prison, adhering to the writ of habeas corpus (as mandated by a Supreme Court ruling), and ending all torturing of human beings constitutes a concern to Cheney, maybe he should be worried.  Worried, that is, about being indicted by the International Court of Justice for conspiring to indefinitely imprison and torture people without due process. 

If you lift away Cheney's nationality and his job history, his view of national security sounds more like that of tyrannical dictator of a third world nation than a former vice president of a super power.  Even so, that doesn't mean his approach hasn't helped keep America safer over the past seven years.  And Cheney is correct in thinking that we Americans tend to take our safety and security for granted.  It's even likely that there were real threats that were stymied as a result of Bush/Cheney's overprotective heavy-handedness.  But what he, the media, and most casual observers are not fully considering is that he's never fully justified his philosophy or clearly articulated his goals. 

Cheney seems to claim that everything he does and cares about is protecting Americans from threats to their security.   Allow me to re-frame his passion through a different lens:  How many Americans died from terrorism in 2001?  2,998.  And how many people died in drunk driving accidents on American soil in 2001?  17,448. 

If the goal of his policies is to protect Americans from harm, then Cheney's passions are misdirected. Cheney should have been railing to re-instate Prohibition instead of warring against terror.   If his goal was not to protect American lives, then what was it?  To protect our freedom?  The only freedoms we've lost due to terrorism are the freedoms that the Bush administration took from us.  Was goal was to protect our nation from another catastrophe?  I'm sure that's a big part of it, but our nation's security is arguably much more at risk from nuclear weapons being sold on the black market out of Pakistan than from any box-cutter-armed thugs from Afghanistan.  If these were not his goals, then what were they?  And, if someone does know what his goals were, why doesn't anyone measure his success against his goals as VP? And, why do we allow ourselves to be swayed by these arguments when they do not stand up to basic challenges such as these? 

He then goes on to take credit for only having one attack under his watch:

Those policies we put in place, in my opinion, were absolutely crucial to getting us through the last seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on the U.S.

Well, at least he couched it as merely in his opinion.  The irony here is that President Clinton's apparent lack of any cohesive anti-terror response to the first WTC attack in 1993 also led to seven-plus years without a major-casualty attack on U.S. soil.  So, Cheney's strategy and rationale for disregarding American values and the rule of law (not to mention American casulties) had essentially the same effect as Clinton's supposed foreign policy apathy. 

And, in a baffling contradiction with Cheney's stern warnings about the Obama administration releasing Gitmo detainees, Cheney himself admits that at least 61 inmates were released from Guantanamo during the Bush administration, and that they have "gone back into the business of being terrorists."  

Shouldn't he be concerned about his own legacy, then, if one or more of these 61 reconstitute to attack America?   How and why Cheney is not asked questions like this by the media is dumbfounding. 

Ultimately, Cheney will continue to get to say what he wants to say, effortlessly instilling fear with an air of confidence that -- if we're not thinking critically -- makes us feel good that someone as tough and single-minded as him is looking after us and our safety.  That's the power and talent of Dick Cheney -- a charismatic FUD-monger who believes what he says and says what he believes, yet is rarely called out on his tragic lack of savvy, judgment and flagrant disregard for America's values, moral leadership and societal well-being.

What Obama should be wearing

Instead of that fine suit and tie, maybe Obama should be wearing this oh shit chart on all sides of his body.   While I have argued in prior articles that Obama is using fear a little like W. did with Iraq's WMD program, this chart provides more evidence than Bush ever had, and provides the right context and framing to power him through partisan bickering. 

I'm sure there are plenty of other charts out there with different impact goals, and there are certainly points to be made about deficit spending being a long-term problem.  But leadership means picking the best path based on your experience (assessing the past) and beliefs (predicting the future), and then finding data points and frames that support your path, and convincing others that it's the best path for them, too. 

The even better news for Obama regarding the stimulus package and the bail-out fiasco is that there really is no other legitimate, alternative strategy being advocated.  The Republicans (and even angry, fed up citizens -- many of which I know personally) have not advanced a cohesive plan to counter the administration's plans.  Yes, there are spitballs loaded with compelling arguments, but until there is a full-fledged alternative strategy that can compete with a President with a popular mandate, Obama's game is the only real game in town. 

Friday, February 6, 2009

From greed to great

The law of unintended consequences has seemed to rear its fascinating head with regards to the executive pay cap President Obama recently announced. Soon after Obama announced that executive pay would be capped to $500k for companies receiving tax payer bail-out funds, we already see one firm committing to paying back their TARP infusion as soon as possible so that they would be relieved of the governmental compensation cap.

The initial analysis around Obama's decision to limit executive pay was primarily deemed to be that of smart populist politics: let the people know that accountability is the new game in town, and the corporate excesses would simply not be acceptable to the taxpayers, who not only rescued these firms, but who themselves are struggling.

Yet this turn of events makes this compensation cap strategy appear much more savvy. It now appears to be using greed the same way capitalism uses greed -- as a lever to drive behaviors toward a desired result that benefits the greater good. Most capitalists openly acknowledge that greed (the "good greed") is best channeled by free, competitive markets to create new value in the marketplace, by focusing society's energy on continually improving on the status quo. Similarly, the compensation cap plan now appears to be using the fundamental capitalistic notion of scarcity as a tool to drive "good greed" behavior: the "good greed" desire for unregulated executive compensation is driving the focus on paying back the taxpayers' bail-out.

One has to wonder if the Obama administration was actually thinking like free market capitalists when they designed this plan, and expected this desired behavior. Or did they accidentally step into this unintended consequence?

In any case, this is a great example of how government can actually create and manage programs that can help create desired results that benefit the country (did you even notice this, Republicans?). I'm sure most Americans would much rather see Goldman Sachs pay back their TARP bail-out to the taxpayers than have the government cap their executive pay. Everyone wins.

Maybe this is the kind of thing that "Generation O" progressives have been dreaming of, but have not yet clearly articulated: letting the government play in the "good greed" game along with the free market.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

If hope doesn't work, try fear

In a column in the Washington Post today, President Obama attempted to frame the stimulus package debate around old ideas and obstructionists versus the a new administration (and his posse in congress) with a mandate for change.

There were two things in this column that I found kind of shocking, considering the deftness of Obama's campaign, and the persona that Obama garnered over the past two years:

First, I found the tone of the column to be downright Bushian.  Obama used his deep concern for the health and welfare of the nation to push his stimulus agenda.  This concern, however, was framed similarly to the preemptive strike that President Bush sold America on in 2003 -- "if we don't do what I say we must do, our safety and security is at risk."   For those who cannot immediately see the parallels, let's look at the following lines from Obama's appeal:

And if nothing is done, this recession might linger for years. Our economy will lose 5 million more jobs. Unemployment will approach double digits. Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.

Here, Obama is using the same straw-man approach that the Bush/Cheney White House used so effectively over the last eight years.  Obama is comparing his (and the Democrats') plan with doing nothing.  Of course, this is a fallacy and should be pointed out as one -- it's not this bill or no bill.  The bill simply needs to be changed -- not scrapped -- if he wants to stick to his bi-partisan goals.  

In addition, Obama predicts dire circumstances if we do not follow his plan.  In fact, he goes as far as to say that we might not be able to reverse our decline.  That's scary stuff.  Are you warning us of an fiscal smoking gun turning into an economic mushroom cloud, Mr. President?

He then goes on to say:

In recent days, there have been misguided criticisms of this plan that echo the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis

While there are certainly many Republicans who simply are unable to look critically at their blind trust of free-market ideology, the way this is phrased sounds actually more Cheneyian than Bushian Obama is actually saying "if you do not agree with my approach to solving the problem, then you are unfortunately misguided.  Only I know how to guide us."  Sound familiar? 

Finally, in a departure from Bush/Cheney idea management savvy, Obama fails to connect the fear he creates to the results of his plan.  He jumps into a list of objectives in his re-investment and recovery plan as "things we need to do" without describing at all how and why these particular things are the things we need to do.  In other words, why these things versus other things?  Are all the other things simply "misguided?"

For all I know, Obama's plan might be spot-on.  He's a smart fellow, and has smart people all around him.  But being smart isn't good enough.  And not sharing the thinking and reasoning behind each specific pillar of the plan is a mistake that is giving many Americans pause.  Unfortunately, I see the Obama administration already hunkering down as if this is a partisan fight, when I really do think it's more of a communications misstep (as I've posted about here and here).  

Not that the Obama administration is listening to my little corner of the blogosphere (where's that NYT gig when I need it?), but if I could offer my advice, I would have President Obama halt the stimulus bill as it stands, and request to break it up into the primary pillars that defined his candidacy, and pass them one by one. 

As far as I'm aware, there is no quota on how many bills can be passed in one term, so I do not understand the reasoning behind the bulkitude of this stimulus bill.  Obama and the Democrats would be wise to engage the Republicans on each individual cause, because there's more political punch in each item individually than all combined. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

A less stimulating stimulus

Big surprise -- a new Rasmussen poll indicates that the public is becoming wary of the stimulus bill. The question asked in this poll was:

Do you favor or oppose the economic recovery package proposed by Barack Obama and the Congressional Democrats?

If you read the prior post here at Between the Columns, you'd see that I made the case that the branding and the naming of the bill are completely out of sync, which is one of the primary sources of political rancor, and frankly, confusion. And the naming/branding divide shows up once again in this poll.

The stimulus bill is referred to the economic recovery package in the poll question, whereas the actual bill's name and cause is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill. That "reinvestment" bit is the elephant, if you will, in the room.

The Democrats are just itching for a fight if they're going to continue to push a bill that is both recovery and reinvestment, when the rest of the country thinks it's only about recovery.

As I stated in my prior post (in greater detail), this divergence of cause cannot be understated. Yet, I feel I am the lonely voice in the political blogosphere trying to raise this issue. If you can help raise awareness around this, please do. Framing this bill consistently is the first critical step toward getting a bill so important (and so expensive) right.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Democrats dogged by stimulus branding

What's in a name? A lot, and not too surprisingly, the Democrats are showing their penchant for allowing themselves to be out-framed by the Republicans due to clumsy naming and branding.

While most of the pundits are portraying the politics swirling around the stimulus bill as partisanship and philosophy (i.e., government spending vs. tax credits and tax cuts), I suggest that much of it is actually about brands, names and frames.

Let's start with brand: Ask anyone about the big economic debate in Washington, and what are you going to hear? The stimulus bill or the stimulus package. That is the brand -- meaning, that's what the bill is promising to offer, an economic stimulus.

Now let's look at the name: The bill that is being developed to help get America out of its economic pit is called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill.

There is a clear divergence between the brand and the name, and that's a problem. A big problem. Here's why: The goals, expectations, scope and costs surrounding a recovery and reinvestment bill should be far-reaching, sustainable and strategic. In contrast, the goals, expectations, scope and costs supporting a stimulus bill should be quick, targeted and short-lived.

How, then, can a bill named recovery and reinvestment ever live up to its brand as a stimulus bill? Short answer, it can't.

As Democrats work to make the best recovery and reinvestment bill in their power, they are being pummeled by Republicans (and the media) for looking like liberal kids in a progressive candy store. This is inevitable, because through the lens of the brand, the Democrats are essentially pimping out a what is understood to be a stimulus bill to include much of what Obama campaigned on -- a re-investment in America's infrastructure, values and long-term economic sustainability.

Democrats have every right to craft the best recovery and reinvestment bill they can draft. But everyone else also has a right to complain that they are shoehorning reinvestment ideology into what has been branded as a stimulus.

In the final analysis, I lay blame on Obama and the Democrats for this political problem. They should have named and scoped this economic stimulus bill in alignment with how it is branded: a short-term, high-impact, politically uniting package that jump-starts the economy in 2009. If President Obama would have led the congress to first draft a narrow stimulus bill for a big, post-partisan win, it would have garnered him more political capital for his larger battles ahead.