January 22, 2009
Dispatch from D.C.
Crowds, a coronation and the elusive nature of change
by Kate Gardiner
"There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."
Barack Obama, Inaugural address, January 20, 2008
"A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar."
What is there to say that hasn't been said? The Metro was crowded to overflowing, the streets were cordoned off and inconvenience abounded. And nothing particularly bad or dramatic developed, outside of a few creaky senators heading to the hospital after seeing their new fearless leader sworn in. It was downright magical. And it was probably best seen on TV.
I was here, you see, in Washington, D.C., first watching the magically cheesy HBO concert on Sunday. And I was here on Monday to witness the senior senator from Illinois, as he prepared to speak to his new colleague, Roland Burris. And to watch the lines, get on lists and think about what could happen on Tuesday.
So. Tuesday. Inauguration Day. I woke up, panicked about being late, rushed out the door with way, way too much stuff (and none of the stuff I needed) and clambered aboard the subway. It was crowded. The red line train in front of the one I was on ran over a person and we had to be rerouted. I left, 17 blocks from the Mall, telling myself, "it's not that far." It's far.
Initially, I wanted to be one of "those people." The people with the view, and the ambition for a better view and the heart to back it up. Unfortunately, it turns out I'm not one of those people. And it's almost impossible to do video interviews from three feet away.
I abandoned the crush of people and headed for no man's land, a vast expanse in between the Washington Monument and the World War II Memorial. It was glorious—several acres of empty, dead grass dotted with occasional bodies just waiting to be interviewed.
And it enabled me to step back from the whole situation, to stare at the huge crowd and marvel at the number of people in the street, the park, the trees…everywhere. But it wasn't particularly shocking, having been there, watching the population swell in anticipation of the inauguration (coronation?) of our new president. Sunday it was almost impossible to find a table in a restaurant—we tried 15 or more before settling into a tiny, cold table literally in the galley of a very busy restaurant. Monday, I went to lunch with a friend from high school who now lives in the city. "It's never like this," she said. "This is my 'hood, and there are usually maybe three people I can see from my office." We were elbowing people out of the way, thinking about bodies and wasted space and crowds and the misery that comes with them. It was like that citywide. Starbucks stuffed its pastry cases to the gills, barely containing the empty calories on sale. Local favorite Ben's Chili Bowl brought in extra staff to combat the block-long line out in front. The clubs were packed. The streets were crowded. And we were all waiting with bated breath for the president-elect to make a move. And so he did. Making a campaign speech rather than a political one, he acknowledged the world around him and accepted the office the people awarded him. Altogether it was satisfying. But there's still that nagging doubt in the back of my head, the one that said "He's going to get killed," "He's going to fail and we're going to fall out of our rank in the global social structure."
Or he's going to continue to be the political rock star we know him to be. It's being debated right now in the capitol. And that's fine by me. But I have a hard time watching a rock star and thinking, "Oh, the world is going to change for the better." It's not the rock star mentality I'm worried about—it seems incredibly unlikely the president is going to up and become a cocaine addict, spending federal money on illicit behavior.
At the same time, he can't live up to the people's expectations of him. And this worries me, as a voter, as a journalist and as a citizen of this fair country. What, praytell, can this man do for our country that hasn't been tried before? And how can he really help the little people every politician promises to help?
It's not that I don't like Obama. I do. I like the concept of his existence, and I think I like him as a person as well. But my inherent distrust of the system, of the process and of the public obsession with this one man has colored my whole perspective on the proceedings. And I'm not alone.
Most of the people I spoke to—more than 50, some wearing Obama buttons and others clutching Obama posters—spoke of change, of the economy and of all the other campaign rhetoric we've been hearing since the president's marketing staff came up with the "Change" slogan. It's been co-opted for every single marketing ploy currently on billboards in the District of Columbia.
But it's not universally applied. A man from French Guyana, for example, who lives in Washington, said he hopes Obama is the hero we all make him out to be, but that he hesitates to blindly follow the leader and get hurt. A woman I spoke to on a Metro platform, headed back after a short night drinking and dancing around at balls, said she doesn't mind when the administration changes over because the lobbyists merely shift into the government, and the government to the lobbying. She said it's very efficient and practical, and that it ensures minimal change between governments, regardless of the administration. That is an entrenched political reality, one that no president, no matter how popular or charismatic, can change overnight. And I'm OK with that. Except that when one's campaign slogan, one's entire image is wrapped up in such an ethereal concept, one does wonder how Mr. Obama is going to make change tangible. MTW
Getting the economy back on track will be Obama's first big test. Here's a cheat sheet…
By Doug Levin
I have a confession to make that isn't going to sit well in some circles: I didn't originally support Barack Obama. I was for Hillary.
There were a number of reasons, but the primary one was the initial release of his planned tax policy sometime last spring. Now, for those of you who haven't been paying attention to these occasional columns, I'm a tax accountant, which makes me a geek for this stuff. I read that policy paper from cover to cover—twice. And I hated it. I thought it was terrible. Not surprisingly, it's long gone. The economic problems killed it even before Obama beat McCain in November.
Now we're getting to see the first drafts of the President's plan to fix the economy, and sorry, but I'm still not very impressed. He's combining tax cuts with spending primarily on capital improvements like roads and bridges, which he claims will stimulate the economy.
However, there's more than one way to stimulate, and while Eisenhower's building of the national highway system created long-term growth because it replaced an antiquated, inefficient road system, merely repairing the existing one isn't going to lead to the same economic riches since it isn't improving commerce at all, merely maintaining it.
Which leads to an important distinction when we're throwing possibly trillions of dollars around to support the economy: you automatically create jobs and economic growth when you spend money, but truly inspired plans will lubricate the wheels of commerce immediately and keep stimulating long after the original project is complete.
Mind you, I'm not completely disappointed with Obama. His stated plans for helping existing homeowners keep their homes with the remaining $350 billion of the bailout money appear sound on the surface. I like it. But tax cuts? Taxpayers with jobs or income need to keep paying taxes so the deficit doesn't become any more of a burden for the next generation.
The challenge for Obama is going to be assessing the hundreds of ideas he'll be presented with and picking those that are a cut above. Not that he's paying attention to my little column out here in Maui, but just in case he is, here's my short wish list of ideas he should strongly consider:
1. Lower the trade imbalance by going green as fast as possible. T. Boone Pickens with his Pickens Plan is on to something: we're transferring $800 billion of our wealth overseas every year buying oil. The solar tax credits I wrote about in December were a good start, but instead of going in debt to rebuild the roads, invest in enough green technology to completely eliminate the need to buy energy from foreign countries within eight years. That will create economic benefits long after the money is spent.
2. Don't cut taxes, fix them. For example, people love to complain about fuel taxes but they're an extremely effective and fair way of assessing tax for the use of roads as well as an incentive for people to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. Raise the gas tax up a lot, then establish automatic rules for rolling it back temporarily when the price of oil gets uncomfortably high. Use this money to fix the roads (which do in fact need some TLC) rather than going deeper in debt to do it.
3. Finish the job with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I predicted it six months ago when they took them over, and Henry Paulsen, the outgoing Treasury Secretary last week finally suggested it: make a federal reserve-like entity out of Fannie and Freddie that will allow for control of interest rates for mortgages like the fed does for all other loans. Home loans are now a huge portion of our collective personal debt, and they are totally unmanaged from an economic policy basis. If the fed had had control over the mortgage rates, they could have started raising them in 2004 and 2005 and brought that overheating housing market under control before it collapsed. More immediately, they can lower mortgage rates now and soften this already hard landing we're having.
Although I originally supported Hillary, I do have high hopes for our new president. He's already demonstrated an ability to assess complex issues, provide insightful analysis and reach wise resolutions. The speech he gave on racism in America after his minister personally embarrassed him should be required viewing.
Yet financial matters do not appear to be one of his strengths, as his early tax policy revealed. He has since selected some well-received financial advisors, and his latest ideas are much better than his earlier ones, but this country needs exceptional leadership in these difficult financial times. Let's all hope the strengths Obama has shown in other areas will soon be revealed in his economic policies. MTW
The stench of success
Closing the book on eight years of corruption, cynicism and deceit
By Jacob Shafer
Until recently, there was a neat little Google trick that someone probably showed you. If you typed "failure" into the search field and clicked the "I'm feeling lucky" button, you were directed to the official Web site of President George W. Bush. Like millions of other Americans who blinked incredulously when Bush was selected (no, that's not a typo) in 2000 and blanched in horror when he was handed a second term in 2004, I found Google's bit of devious political trickery amusing. Yet it never completely sat right with me. It took some pondering, but I figured out the reason: whatever else he was, George W. Bush was not a failure.
Yes, he plunged the country into two ill-conceived, mismanaged wars and needlessly sent young men and women to their deaths. Yes, he condoned torture and cast aside bedrock civil liberties in the name of false security. Yes, he rolled back environmental protections and willfully ignored the looming climate crisis. Yes, he set the free market loose like a pit bull off its chain and, lo and behold, the rich got richer and the poor lost their homes to greedy bankers. Yes, he stretched international alliances past the breaking point and lowered our standing in the world community.
By any measure, the public good was greatly, perhaps irreparably diminished on Bush's watch. Isn't that failure?
No. Because that seemingly obvious conclusion is based on a false assumption: that the goal of Bush and his advisors was to increase the public good. In fact, their aim was exactly the opposite.
From the moment he wobbled out from under his father's coattails and rode his fake cowboy swagger and famous name to the White House, it's been clear Bush is a puppet, a pawn. He is the bumbling, smirking front man for a cabal of power-hungry men for whom the word evil is more understatement than hyperbole. Dick Cheney. Donald Rumsfeld. Paul Wolfowitz. Karl Rove. If upon reading those names a shiver doesn't shoot down your spine, you haven't been paying attention.
Their agenda was never to serve the people, but rather a small collection of business interests. Consolidating wealth and power was their aim, and they used one of history's oldest, surest methods: war. In the vacuum of horror and panic created by the attacks of September 11, 2001, they rushed to ram through a misanthropic agenda outlined years earlier—access to and control of the Middle East's vast oil reserves and a vague, unending foreign conflict that would feed the coffers of their friends in enterprise: Halliburton, Bechtel, Boeing. By any name, war profiteers.
At home, taxes were cut across the board (an unprecedented move during wartime), but disproportionately so for the wealthiest Americans. Even as Bush blathered about an inclusive "ownership society" where everyone would be invited to sit at the table of plenty, his administration saw to it that money was kept firmly clutched in the hands of those who had more than they could ever need.
Setting aside the cynical, calculating intentions of his handlers, Bush as an individual is the embodiment of everything that's wrong with this country: a silver spoon fortunate son whose blunders in both the public and private sector have been masked or swept away, continually forgiven as part of his undeserved birthright. To quote the old joke, Bush was born on third base thinking he hit a triple. (Or, as some have cleverly modified it, he was born on third base and stole second.)
As we welcome the new president with a guarded mixture of hope and trepidation, we cannot forget the monumental injustice that has been committed by the outgoing commander in chief. We cannot allow the foggy lens of hindsight or some well-intentioned but misguided desire for unity, forgiveness and a smooth transition to blind us to the atrocities that were perpetuated, atrocities whose consequences will reverberate for generations.
No, the last eight years were not a failure for the men who now walk with impunity from the smoking wreckage of the nation they callously, ruthlessly drove into the ditch of history. Rather, they were a terrible, soul-crushing success. MTW
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