Rename and Repair “Affordable Care”


The struggle over the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as Obamacare, ended a crucial round last month, when, in the Senate, three Republicans–Susan Collins, John McCain, and Lisa Murkowski–joined Democrats in voting down the so-called “skinny repeal.”  Despite Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and despite the president’s scornful goading, the GOP has at long last stopped in its tracks: it has heard, from far off in the hinterland, the howl of the people.  To repeal the Affordable Care Act, to discontinue its hallmark features, has become politically unacceptable in the US.

Partisan representations of the bill notwithstanding, the guarantee of affordable medical coverage for all, which is at the heart of “Obamacare,” has become a grail to the American people.  Kate Zernike and Abby Goodnough of the New York Times co-authored a fascinating article describing how a sea-change in popular sentiment, running increasingly in support of the ACA, has occurred along with its threatened repeal.  First-hand understanding of the bill’s provisions and benefits are driving Americans to an acceptance of universal coverage that makes the GOP’s top-down rhetoric a tougher sell.  Americans do not want to return to the “bad old days” when insurers could turn sick or at-risk customers away.  They do not want millions of Americans who are now insured to lose the benefits guaranteed them under the ACA.

Politically, then, the President and the GOP face the issue of how to Affordable Care their own.  (After all, it has the makings of a smashing success!)  During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump wasn’t at the forefront of those calling for the ACA’s repeal.  He was the reasonable candidate then, wanting to find solutions that would remedy the defects of the legislation.  During the debates, he suggested eliminating state-level restrictions to allow insurers to create pools across state lines.  Ironically, President Trump has since decided that scapegoating others is essential to his popularity, a conviction that has led him away from an approach to health care that was more constructive and reasoned.  Has the President never heard the saying, “Revenge is a dish that is best served cold”?

Were I a Republican, I would vow never to utter the word “Obamacare” again.  Members of the Republican Party stand to become heroes by repairing the Affordable Care Act and re-branding it to heighten its associations with compassion and inclusion.  Forget about wreaking revenge on Obama.  Listen to the people.  Collaborate with Democrats.  Deliver a shared triumph to the nation.  It will matter far more than any partisan loss.

Image: from this source.
“The National Dime Museum” by Bernhard Gillam
is a send-up of leading American politicians circa 1884.

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A Stress Test for the Constitution

Soon after the election, a friend envisioned Trump’s presidency as “a stress test for the Constitution and all of its institutions.”  This is proving to be the case, for reasons that are both collective and peculiar to Trump and his administration.

Collectively, his presidency has halted, and aspires to reverse, the direction American government took under President Obama, a direction decried in some quarters but one charted in careful accordance with the law.  The Affordable Care Act, which some Republicans so revile, was nonetheless “ratified” after a protracted but open struggle by both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court.

In other areas, President Obama’s use of executive power, though politically unwise, was legally defensible.  His approach to reducing carbon emissions, so hated and feared in some quarters, took shape only after a long period of public comment and after his legal team was certain the new guidelines could withstand a Constitutional challenge.  President Obama exercised discretion in whether and how to enforce immigration laws, but, as Richard Lugar, a former US Senator from Indiana, has observed, every president has done the same, since all have lacked the means to see that the laws on the books were fully enforced.  Lugar, a moderate who was one of Capitol Hill’s most influential Republicans before a member of his own party “primaried” him from the right, driving him from office, wrote in the New York Times that, given the howls of outrage over Obama’s immigration policies, one would never guess that his administration had “vastly exceeded the deportations under President George W. Bush,” just as Bush’s had vastly exceeded those of President Clinton.

President Obama sought to move the nation and the Democratic Party in a new direction, but he was not a party leader, and he did not wait for a bipartisan consensus that he knew was never coming to emerge.  In his second term, he focused increasingly on what he could do without Congress–but to the extent that his victories lacked Congress’s active assent they were unsustainable.  They were simply too far ahead of the collective political will.  In the meantime, Obama’s dogged pursuit of his own grand vision hid the senescence of the Democratic Party.

As the first person of color to occupy the presidency, Barack Obama symbolized the America we are fitfully becoming–a nation that is truly inclusive and color-blind.  As a symbol and agent of that change, he aroused a lot of resentment and fear, emotions that candidate Trump and some other Republicans inflamed to their benefit in the campaign.

The stunning political triumph of a charismatic outsider, the shattered GOP’s success at hanging on to power, and the dangerous eclipse of the Democratic party: these are the three huge interrelated events whose consequences are shaking the political community, from the nation’s most powerful institutions to its polarized citizenry, united only in its demand for responsible governance.

Image: “Save yourself”
@2017 Susan Barsy

Day 50: A Change in the Political Atmosphere

Day 50 beautiful aerial of blue ocean and sky
The atmosphere of the presidential race has changed, with ardent Democrats conscious of a tightening race.  Despite Donald Trump’s negative qualities, he has doggedly chipped away at Hillary Clinton’s lead.  Recent polls, whether from Reuters or CBS, show Clinton’s lead in the battleground states vanishing or perilously thin.  John Zogby, writing in Forbes, has the two candidates in a dead heat for the lead, with Jill Stein and Gary Johnson siphoning off enough support to deny either of the other two an advantage.  The particulars don’t matter as much as this general point: it’s getting more difficult to dismiss Trump and more necessary to admit he could end up in the Oval Office.

It might be unthinkable; but impossible, no.

Over the weekend, John Podhoretz published a column in the New York Post, excoriating Democrats for their misguided belief in Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.  He blames the establishment for failing to vet or challenge her sufficiently.  Even Bernie Sanders’ astonishingly strong showing against her in the primaries failed to awaken party loyalists to the stubborn limits of her appeal.  Some Democrats remain baffled as to why the electorate has not swung toward a candidate they regard as likeable and decent.  It’s painful to admit she offers too little in the way of the backbone and implacability the nation wants.

Meanwhile, Trump, formerly intent on misbehaving himself into oblivion, has subtly shifted his strategy, putting more time into dignified niche appearances (like Monday’s at the Economics Club of New York, which some business channels aired in its entirety) and less into vociferous and controversial rallies.  Fearful of throwing away his shot, Trump has stepped up his game.  He wants to win and senses he can.

Oddly, he suddenly chose to lay to rest the birther controversy, admitting last week (after years of claiming otherwise) that Barack Obama was born in the US rather than elsewhere abroad.  Why bother?  Because admitting the truth—that President Obama is an American—is going to help Trump with African-Americans more generally.  An LA Times poll registers increasing support for Trump among that constituency, prompting the president to warn African-Americans that he will view it as a ‘personal insult’ if they don’t turn out for Clinton.  Meanwhile, Trump’s simple message to urban blacks—that years of the Democratic rule have failed to deliver the safety, employment, and access to decent schools that they deserve—is resonating.

RELATED READING:
Niall Ferguson, “The Fight Isn’t Going Clinton’s Way” (Boston Globe)

Resisting the drumbeat

I spent the week after the Paris attacks wondering, Why must the US response be military?  France is justified in avenging itself against ISIS, but the United States should be cautious in responding to this particular instance of violent jihad.

When have we heard more hysterical commentary than during this past week, a week of incomplete sentences and excited spluttering?  Ironically, only the President remained calm; only his remarks regarding ISIS’s threat to the US made sense; and, perhaps for that reason, the media and political establishment have excoriated him and deprecated the administration resoundingly.

Meanwhile, a perfect storm is picking up speed in Syria, where a civil war broke out four and a half years ago, in response to a citizens’ uprising against Bashar al-Assad during the multi-national Arab Spring.  I remember seeing an interview with some moderate rebels then: they were dismayed at the US’s failure to help them and predicted that disillusionment would encourage the growth of anti-Western extremism.  And so it has.

Since that ‘simpler’ time, Syria has become the theater where at least three wars are raging simultaneously.  First, there is the increasingly sectarian civil war aimed at deposing the intractable Assad.  Second, a war within a war is being waged, as the stateless guerrilla group ISIS attempts, in Syria and elsewhere, to establish a retrograde caliphate that it justifies in the name of Islamic purity.  Finally, the Syrian war is a proxy war, with numerous other powers overtly or covertly aiding the principal combatants, attempting to further their own interests by investing in the triumph of one or the other side.  The outside players include Iran, Russia, and the Lebanese-based group Hezbollah on the Syrian government’s side, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US, the UK, and France on the opposition side.  (For more on the war’s history, see this BBC News summary; also this map of Middle-Eastern involvement at The Maghreb and Orient Courier.)

The opposition has the weaker hand, because its principal aim is to bring down the Assad regime; yet no one can imagine who could bring order to Syria if Assad were gone.  The so-called ‘moderate’ rebels fighting for democracy have long since been overwhelmed by militants from all over the world, and especially by Sunni forces fighting to bring down Assad’s Alawites and attain a theocratic victory.  Westerners who think this war is still primarily about democracy and self-determination have it wrong.  Re-establishing civil order will involve either the installation of a puppet government with a new strongman or a return to the status quo ante bellum.

Tactically, the conflict has morphed into a type of total war that is difficult to categorize, though, sadly, many of its most brutal elements (chemical warfare, the bombing of civilian populations) have occurred in modern wars before.  The tactics of the Islamic State (which of course is a fantastical misnomer, as the force does not constitute a state at all), however, are novel in that they combine Western-oriented terrorism with transnational guerrilla warfare aimed at further creating anarchy in and beyond the territory that ISIS is intent on overtaking.

The New York Times published an excellent graphic feature highlighting how ISIS’s terror activities complement their geographically focused war aims.  Precisely because ISIS is not a state, it wishes to promote anarchy as well as to break up the influence of the West and exorcise the Western narrative that has shaped and justified our involvement in the affairs of many Muslim-populated societies.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the pressure is on the Obama administration to step up the fight against ISIS in Syria, to send ground troops and commit more air and fire power to a multi-sided conflict already fraught with too many antagonistic parties.  The pressure is all the greater given that the presidential race is in full swing.  Republican candidates, eager to talk tough, are vying to out-do one another with fantastical visions of military aggression whose virtues are merely quantitative.

President Obama did a good job last week of reminding everyone that ISIS is not a state but a more amorphous and unconventional enemy.  At a press conference during the G20 summit in Turkey, the president astutely rejected the idea of being further drawn into a conventional war, reminding his listeners that conventional tactics will not work against this unconventional enemy.

We play into the ISIL narrative when we act as if they’re a state, and we use routine military tactics that are designed to fight a state that is attacking another state. That’s not what’s going on here.

These are killers with fantasies of glory who are very savvy when it comes to social media, and are able to infiltrate the minds of not just Iraqis or Syrians, but disaffected individuals around the world. And when they activate those individuals, those individuals can do a lot of damage. And so we have to take the approach of being rigorous on our counterterrorism efforts, and consistently improve and figure out how we can get more information, how we can infiltrate these networks, how we can reduce their operational space, even as we also try to shrink the amount of territory they control to defeat their narrative.

The gravest threat that ISIS poses to the US is the incitement of terror.  Here’s hoping that Americans can resist the drumbeat and refrain from over-reaching in the Middle East, instead choosing to devote themselves to the twin causes of domestic safety and peace.

The president’s vision of progress on guns

The sociopathic killings in Oregon on October 1 spurred another round of chaotic and frenzied comment. The dialogue began with the president, whose comments on the shootings came out fast, faster than news of the shooting itself.  Whereas some might see the increase in mass gun murders in the US as a cultural, even media-driven, problem, the president understandably sees the Oregon massacre and others like it as having political roots.  In his brief somber statement that day, President Obama argued that this form of criminality has grown out of political choices that ordinary Americans have made.  Make different choices, and sociopathic rampages involving firearms will begin to wane.  Most strikingly, the president appealed to the public for relief from a stale, inconclusive dialogue about gun violence that has become terrifyingly routine.

President Obama’s remarks are worth reading in their entirety. They are notable for what they did and did not say. The president did not call on Americans to back any specific gun-control measure.  Instead, he made three general appeals.

 1.  GET OUT THE FACTS ON GUN-RELATED DEATHS.  The president appealed to the journalistic world to assemble and publish comprehensive data about gun-related deaths in the US.  It’s odd, but authoritative statistics about gun trafficking, gun sales, gun violence, and gun crimes are surprisingly hard to come by.  Several years ago Congress barred the Obama administration from studying this problem or amassing authoritative statistics on public’s behalf.  So, most of the available data is very old, incomplete, or statistically flawed.  Instead, the job of monitoring the extent and nature of gun violence has fallen to a ragtag assemblage of voluntary efforts throughout the country, such as Slate’s effort in the year after Newtown, or the real-time reporting on gun violence that the good people at the Gun Violence Archive carry on.  Accurate information about gun violence and its social costs could reshape the gun debate by silencing false claims and focusing public attention around effective policy aims.

2.  RESPONSIBLE GUN-OWNERS ARE A KEY GROUP IN THE STRUGGLE TO PROMOTE GUN SAFETY.  The millions of Americans who own guns are perhaps the only constituency capable of checking the influence of the National Rifle Association.  The heinous mass murder of children and teachers at the Sandy Hook School in December 2012 effected an attitudinal shift, galvanizing responsible gun-owners in favor of stricter gun laws.  Surveys show that 90 percent of gun owners now favor ‘common-sense’ gun-safety measures, a stance at odds with the unbounded pro-gun rhetoric of the NRA.  In his message, President Obama appealed directly to gun owners, asking them ‘to think about whether your views are properly being represented by the organization that suggests it’s speaking for you.’  Gun-owners are uniquely positioned to speak out in support of prudent public-safety measures that do not impinge upon Second Amendment rights.

3.  VOTERS MUST MAKE PUBLIC SAFETY A PRIORITY: Though many Americans favor tougher gun laws, they do not view this as a key issue when voting.  As a consequence, the gun lobby and pro-gun advocates routinely get their way in Congress and state legislatures.  The president urged voters to care more, and to pay more attention to candidates’ voting records (an issue that has lately vexed Bernie Sanders).  Without legislators willing to vote for gun-control measures, the political struggle to inhibit the reckless use of firearms will go nowhere.

The president’s conviction that the will of the people can transform the gun debate is characteristic of an executive who has taken to heart his role as ‘the people’s sovereign.’  Time and again, the president has placed his faith in a democratic public to generate the “change we can believe in.”  Whether Americans have the determination and wherewithal to fight for a safer civil society remains to be seen.

After the Red Wave: What Democrats Should Do

2014midtermcolorbar
Republican gains in Tuesday’s elections delivered a stunning rebuke to Democrats and their party.  The GOP is resurgent, despite having teetered after the 2012 election on the verge of disintegration and decline.

The Republicans achieved this gain primarily by telling voters that, under President Obama and the Democrats, the nation has fared badly.  Republican candidates attacked both the style and substance of the administration.  They assailed a government that they styled as autocratic, expensive, and ineffective.  They railed against government intrusion, and (in the case of illegal immigration) against governmental laxness, too.  They chafed against laws and constraints they don’t believe in.  Most of all, Republicans succeeded by denigrating what will surely be regarded as this era’s most significant achievements, such as the government’s success at bringing the nation back from the brink of all-out economic collapse and at passing a radical yet tenable and comprehensive health-care reform bill.

Strategically, the GOP also took care to marginalize some of the worst kooks seeking to work their way up in the party’s ranks.  The Republican National Committee under Reince Priebus encouraged and supported more electable candidates whose messages would still resonate with conservatives.  The policy also served the goal of producing a Republican Congress that is more homogeneous and governable.  Anyway, as campaign strategy, it worked.  Even weak candidates like Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas won.

Sadly, the Democrats were afraid to be identified with their party’s strengths.  They also failed to deliver a vision of government, that, if consonant with their recent achievements, was fresh and forward-looking.  As the president’s time in office wanes, Democrats should be thinking about how to catch the next wave.  What should the Democratic Party be about, once heavyweights like Obama and the Clintons are gone?  The Dems are notably short on galvanizing up-and-comers who could breathe new life into what has become a too-staid and centrist political party.

Chiefly, though, the Democrats have failed to accommodate and adapt to legitimate criticisms of Democratic governance and ideology.  In particular, they do not seem attuned to the people’s desire for a government that, if powerful, is deft and efficient.  They have not cared enough about the national mood to break with the president and demand Congressional debate on issues like our open-ended bombing campaign against the Islamic State.*  Nor have Democrats cared enough about the middle and lower classes to attack the glaring issue of corporate responsibility, favoring a rise in the minimum wage, yes, but remaining silent on a host of policies that work against working-class prosperity while benefiting corporations and the interests of global capital unduly.

Renew themselves: in short, this is what the Democrats must do.  Dare to be a more interesting, local, peaceful, green, and economical party.  Dare to think small, and find new ways to promote prosperity that rely less on government spending and more on shrewd uses of information and technology.  Scour the countryside for young, charismatic, ardent, and innovative political thinkers.  Restore pride in American citizenship and civic culture.  And move beyond the paradigm of the social-welfare state in trying to figure out how to give a stagnant, suffering America what it wants and needs.

* The president has since called on Congress to debate and authorize the bombing campaign.

On John Kerry’s eerie resemblance to George Washington

John Kerry 1795, after Gilbert Stuart © 2013 Susan Barsy

Have you noticed that, as John Kerry has aged, he looks a lot like George Washington?

His similarity to the great Founding Father and Commander-in-Chief is unnerving.  It’s as though the ghost of Washington is haunting us, reminding us of his legacy, just in time for Halloween.  When Secretary Kerry appears on television, he unwittingly channels the ghost of Washington.  It’s cautionary.

The ghost prompts the question, “What would George Washington think of our actions overseas?”  Would he have condoned the President’s hawkish determination to punish Syria with military force for its use of chemical weapons against its people?  Would he have applauded the US intelligence forces’ capture of a suspected terrorist in the Libyan capital?  More generally, would George Washington, if alive in our time, be inclined toward intervention, or isolation?

The value of these conjectural questions lies in reminding us of the intimate connection between internal strength and influence abroad.  We need a fixed yardstick against which to measure our global acts and ambitions, which are more over-reaching and morally dubious than they were back in Revolutionary days.  Conscious of enjoying military and technological advantages and relatively ample means, the US frequently intervenes just because it can.  Because it can, our government has been spying on Angela Merkel, of all people.

Alternately, our government follows a schoolyard logic: if Johnny Johnson jumps off a bridge, then so will we.  If our strength relative to other nations continues to supply an irresistible rationale for scatter-shot decisions, soon that strength will be gone; what remains of our moral integrity will vanish, too.

When the United States were weaker, they had little choice but to be savvy about what fights they took on.  In George Washington’s time, a time of global conflict if ever there was one, even the most powerful Americans understood the truly vital importance of focusing on ‘within’ while exercising caution abroad.  While General Washington (1732-1799) was the preeminent ‘hawk’ of his day, he was also a prime founder of the powerful civic institutions that, in their fruition, secured broad national safety and prosperity.

The blessings of that peace were hard-won.  The North America of Washington’s lifetime was shaped by the great global conflict between France and Britain.  As a youth, Washington was one of the earliest participants in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), an expensive multinational conflict waged on the borders of the American colonies that lasted nine years. He then reluctantly led the colonial Revolutionary Army in its War of Independence against the British, a wearisome duty that absorbed him for another eight years’ time (1775-1783).

Given the tortuous path the young nation followed toward establishing a viable government under the US Constitution, George Washington was relatively old by the time he became the nation’s first president.  He governed those eight years with a consciousness of the nation’s fragility, respecting the preciousness of what it had achieved.

Little wonder that, on leaving office, Washington famously warned the nation to avoid the dangers of “foreign entanglements.”  Americans still faced the daunting challenge of growing together as a Union.  The last thing they needed was to become enmeshed in the machinations of world’s great powers.  Violent conflict throughout Europe marked the final years of Washington’s presidency.  Napoleon’s star had begun to rise. The year Washington died, the long Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) were just beginning.  Protecting ourselves from the debilitating snares of global conflict was an important early contributor to our national growth, our 1812 war with England notwithstanding.

There is much to be said for shaping a foreign policy as creditable to a puny government as to one that’s strong.  Sadly, Kerry’s resemblance to Washington is only skin-deep, and President Obama doesn’t resemble George Washington at all.

© 2013 susanbarsy.com

American Beauty: The Inauguration as Medium and Message

President Obama taking the oath of office as his family looks on (Photograph of PBS coverage)

The American Revolution was a revolt against “kingly power,” that, upon succeeding, evolved into a gamble that ordinary people could rule themselves without a monarch.  The republican government the Framers devised nonetheless featured a novel office—that of chief executive—who, being the choice of the populace, would function as the nation’s symbolic head for four years’ time.  Without some such “people’s sovereign,” the Federalists believed, the new government would have trouble securing the affections and loyalty of the citizenry.  The ritual of the inauguration has taken shape around preoccupations like these.

The inaugural was held on the west front of the Capitol (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Relative to the pomp surrounding British monarchical rituals, for instance, American inaugurals are low ceremonies indeed.  Since John Adams’s early disastrous experiments in aping the British monarchy, presidents and their families have avoided ostentatious costumes or trappings offensive to democratic sensibilities.  Officials take the oath of office wearing ordinary street clothes, allowing the “majesty of the people” to take center stage.

The president listening to the inaugural proceedings (Photograph of PBS coverage)

The preference has been strong for an open-air ceremony.  George Washington set the tone in 1789 with his swearing-in on the balcony of Federal Hall (then the seat of Congress) in New York City.  Though harsh weather has sometimes forced inaugurals inside, their location has generally been selected to allow them to be witnessed by largest possible number of people.

A vast crowd came to the National Mall to take part in the 2013 inauguration (Photograph from PBS television coverage)

Over time, the inaugural has evolved into a full and appropriately expressive ritual, especially through the device of the inauguration poem (a custom begun and carried on mainly by Democratic presidents) and the performance of American song.  In the right hands, the inaugural’s simple components can be coaxed into a whole of considerable beauty and eloquence, as was certainly the case with the inaugural  last Monday.

The ceremony was beautifully orchestrated, planned with an understanding of how its elements could combine.  From invocation to closing prayer, Obama’s second inaugural presented an aesthetic and patriotic vision of the American essence, receiving its purest expression during James Taylor’s simple rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ on acoustic guitar.  At the same time, several complex political messages were effectively conveyed.

1. Ours is an inclusive, multiracial republic.

The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic (Photograph of PBS coverage)Visually and verbally, the inaugural moved beyond tokenism to demonstrate the diverse and inclusive character of the US today.  The crowd gathered on the Mall, as well as all those with an official part in the proceedings, showed the fruits of the country’s long struggle to make good on its egalitarian principles and dreams.  The reality of integration and inclusion was embodied in the faces of the military, in the diverse complexion of officialdom, and in all those clergy, singers, poets, musicians, and orators, who were called on to inspire, entertain, instruct, bless, and thrill us that day.

Beyonce leaving the inauguration, where she performed the national anthem (Photograph of PBS coverage)Coinciding with Martin Luther King Day, the inaugural paid homage to the nation’s centuries-long quest for civil equality, encompassing the struggle to end slavery, extend the franchise, welcome the immigrant, and end archaic practices that are discriminatory.  Progress toward these goals, though incomplete and painfully achieved, is evident, and our maturity as a pluralistic country was joyfully ratified on Inauguration Day.

2. Religion is central to American civic life, but not in the way Christian conservatives imagine.

Religious sentiment (of a peculiarly American kind) suffused the inaugural proceedings.  Its historic role in inspiring Americans to preserve and strengthen the Union and to persevere in the face of injustice was humbly acknowledged.  In the ceremony, religion figured as a fountain that Americans must continue to draw on as they seek to discern the right and the true.

Myrlie Evers-Williams somber invocation and Reverend Luis Leon’s benediction extolled the blessings of religion as a unifying and transcendent force, binding together and uplifting the American people.  Driving the point home, the multiracial Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir wowed the crowd with its rendition of the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ a Civil War-era song about militant righteousness and Union, written by northern white abolitionist Julia Ward Howe.

Was the inaugural satisfying in part because it sketched the spiritual and patriotic dimensions of the Obamas’ own deep personal faith, a faith that opponents have often assailed, belittled, and misrepresented for the sake of political gain?  At the same time, the intense but inclusive spirit of the inaugural seemed a rebuke to the more narrow and divisive Christianity that social conservatives espouse.

3. The condition of the people is the President’s main concern.  Maximize their security, happiness, and well-being, and national  prosperity will follow.

President Obama delivering his inaugural address (Photograph from PBS coverage)Jeffersonian thought has been so marginalized in political discourse that commentators hardly recognize its essence today.  President Obama’s repeated use of phrases and ideas from the Declaration of Independence in his speech signaled his interest in governing in a Jeffersonian vein.  It’s an interesting idea, but what does it mean?  For Jefferson, it meant providing a framework for the individual so that the the individual could flourish.  Jefferson was not anti-government—he was the architect of many enduring and expansive national projects—but he believed chiefly in that government necessary to protect and promote a prosperous and self-realizing citizenry.  When it came to big projects, Jefferson was all about innovation and efficiency.

4. The relationships born of our civic life enjoy a priority over those of corporations or the economy.

The Capitol as seen from the Washington Monument on January 21, 2013 (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Throughout his career, President Obama has sought to reinvigorate the potent role of citizens in political life.  David Brooks, though admiring the inaugural address, regretted the president had not devoted more of it to the budget, the markets, the economy, or free enterprise.  We’ve grown accustomed to thinking that government must be mainly about these.  But are these truly the chief interests of a republican government?  Are these the interests that need protecting?  American business will continue to find a way, whether the Obama administration puts its might behind that project, or not.  The president believes that investment in human capital is the chief requisite to making the economy thrive.  As if to underscore the point, inaugural poet Richard Blanco offered a lyrical, Whitmanesque view of American work in his spare yet impressive poem, One Today.

5. We are all citizens, and, as citizens, must fulfill certain transcendent obligations consonant with the great power reposed in us.

 The best part of the president’s speech was its conclusion.  Pointing to oath-taking as a unifying ritual, the President likened his oath to others we have taken, whether as schoolchildren, government officials, new citizens, or members of the military.  The promises we make to our country bind us together in a way that transcends the claims of self-interest and party.  The president closed with an appeal to each of us to continue to make our voices heard.

The president looks back on the Inaugural crowd (Photograph of PBS coverage)

Election Scenarios; The Spotlight on Silver

Interactive electoral graphic (Screen grab from the NYT; click to visit NYT)

With Election Day 2012 finally in sight, national attention is riveted on the possible electoral outcomes of the presidential vote.  A useful interactive on the New York Times website makes it easier to envision the implications of losses and victories in various swing states.  Click on the image to go to the site, then use the “next” button to take advantage of its interactive features.

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Voters pinning their hopes on Mitt Romney’s purported momentum may find that a visit to Nate Silver‘s blog, FiveThirtyEight, puts them in a sour mood.  Silver, a youngish statistician whose 2008 predictions were highly accurate, has consistently assigned President Obama favorable odds of victory.  Even as isolated polls show his challenger pulling even with Obama in several key states, the margin by which Silver’s quantitative model favors Obama has been increasing.  (Silver assigned Obama a 77% chance of winning with 299 electoral votes, as of my site visit earlier in the day.)

Not surprisingly, Silver has come under attack from the right and finds himself the center of eleventh-hour controversy.  The key charges, defenses, and countercharges are contained in the various links below.  The weirdest charge is that of Dean Chambers, who insinuates that Silver is too effeminate to be a competent predictor of the presidential odds.  Also discernible is an anti-intellectual discomfort with hard numbers.

Dylan Byers, Nate Silver: One-Term Celebrity?, Politico.
Brett LoGlurato, People are flipping out over Politico’s attack on Nate Silver, Business Insider.
Ezra Klein, The Nate Silver Backlash, The Washington Post.
Robert Schlesinger, Mitt Romney’s Electoral Problem and the War on Nate SilverUS News and World Report.
Charles P Pierce, The Enemies of Nate Silver, Esquire.

Woodrow Wilson Casts His Ballot

Woodrow Wilson Casts His Ballot, 1912 (Courtesy Princeton University Library via Flickr Commons)

I’d been looking for an excuse to write about Woodrow Wilson when Monday’s presidential debate, with its exchange over “horses and bayonets” and the WWI navy, came along especially to encourage me.

An interesting cache of photographs put online by the Woodrow Wilson Library includes this one of Wilson casting his ballot in the presidential election of 1912.  Wilson, then governor of New Jersey and the Democratic candidate for president, won the election in a landslide.

The photograph, with its mesh ballot receptacle, handwritten records, and air of social intimacy, casts doubt on some time-honored political verities.  How free and fair were the elections conducted with this “technology”?  Did our elective process, so often derided as “broken,” really work better in an earlier day?

In 1912, most black Americans were barred or discouraged from voting.  Community norms and party interests inflected how election rules were applied.  Until the ‘Australian’ ballot was universally adopted, casting a vote was a social act, not granted any privacy.  And party loyalty was the grease that kept the machinery running: for much of the nineteenth century, “voting” typically meant nothing more than delivering to the poll a ballot that your party had already completed for you.

Wilson’s ascent coincided with a move toward a more participatory democracy.  In 1912, US senators were still elected, not by the populace, but by the state legislatures.  A Constitutional amendment changing that would be ratified the next year.  The nominating conventions of 1912 were historic, because they were the first to include delegates chosen, not by party operatives, but by popular votes cast in the nation’s first presidential primaries.

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A scholar-statesman not unlike Barack Obama, Wilson, a noted professor of political science and former president of Princeton University, spent just two years as New Jersey’s chief executive before catapulting to the presidency.

His path to the White House was more than a little unlikely.  The 1912 election pitted him against three other candidates: the Socialist Eugene Debs, incumbent President William Taft, and former president Theodore Roosevelt, the latter two representing the Conservative and Progressive wings of the Republican Party, respectively.  Only deep divisions within the Republican Party enabled Wilson, the first Southerner to be elected to the White House since Zachary Taylor, to succeed.  Wilson had been a dark horse in the fight for his party’s nomination, triumphing over the favorite, James Beauchamp Clark, a popular House Speaker, in the eleventh hour.

Wilson’s agenda was progressive and sophisticated, but the fractious political environment prevented him from realizing many of his cherished visions, dealing him some notable humiliations instead.  In 1913, John McCutcheon drew this cartoon drubbing Wilson’s first-year performance, yet in the succeeding years Wilson presided over many liberal reforms (e.g. women’s suffrage) and fiscal innovations (e.g. the income tax) that shape our political landscape today.  While Wilson’s approach to the Great War was adroit, he suffered a rebuke heard round the world when a Republican-controlled Senate jettisoned US participation in the new League of Nations and refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.  (Unbelievably, Wilson was the first US president to make an official trip abroad when he traveled to Europe to negotiate the Treaty in 1919.)

Image: Wilson voting in New Jersey, from this source.

Stephen Colbert on the recent attacks against the 17th Amendment here.