Sunday, May 29, 2011

Pawlenty’s bad judgment days

Tim Pawlenty announced the start of his presidential campaign on Monday, once we’d gotten all that Judgment Day business out of the way. The former Minnesota governor said, by way of the obligatory YouTube campaign starter pistol and a personal appearance in Des Moines, Iowa, that he was running because “It’s time for a new approach. It’s time for America’s president — and anyone who wants to be president — to look you in the eye and tell you the truth.”

“President Obama's policies have failed. But more than that, he won't even tell us the truth about what it's really going to take to get out of the mess we're in,” he said. “I’m going to take a different approach. I am going to tell you the truth.”

“I’ll unite our party and unite our nation,” Pawlenty said. As supporters applauded, he added, “Leadership in a time of crisis isn’t about telling people what you think they want to hear, it’s about telling the truth.”

But even before declaring, the former governor has long been well acquainted with the impact of certain laws common to all politicians, and especially those with the stones to run for president: some truths are more accurate than others; and (cribbing from Faulkner) the past isn’t a dead issue; in too many tragically inconvenient ways, it isn’t even past.

With the recent revelations of previous budgetary sleight-of-hand, a potentially serious strategic error in the very state he needs to make a good early showing next year, and the disclosure of a 2008 pardon that’s yielded disastrous and inescapably tragic consequences, T-Paw faces a Judgment Day of his own in the runup to the Iowa caucuses.

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It’s been an article of faith that what Pawlenty brings to a badly depleted Republican table is Fiscal Responsibility. His campaign talking points — what marketers and businessmen might call his U.S.P., the Unique Selling Proposition that makes him a better candidate than anyone else — is that T-Paw balanced X budgets in a row and left the state of Minnesota financially better than he found it.

Digging down, however, you find Pawlenty’s learned some magic tricks on his way to the campaign trail. The National Journal, with information from the Minnesota Taxpayers Association, reported that Pawlenty cut spending by borrowing $1 billion from tobacco-settlement funds earmarked for health care; another $400 million from the state’s fund destined for health care for the state’s low-income citizens; and another $1.4 billion from the state’s K-12 education funding. He delayed $1.9 billion in current school funding (MinnPost reported in December) and also took $2.3 billion in federal stimulus money — money from the Obama stimulus plan. Pawlenty claimed late last year that, by way of such gymnastic accounting, he’d leave Minnesota with a $399 million surplus.

Former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, a Republican more animated by the practical than the political, had a refreshingly straightforward take on T-Paw’s accomplishments. Carlson, a man intellectually independent enough to have voted for Obama in 2008 without his head exploding, spoke to Ed Schultz on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show” on Monday.

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“This is about competence,” Carlson said. “I just happen to be an old-fashioned Republican who thinks the White House should be occupied by our nation’s best and our brightest, and I think our party should nominate our best and our brightest, and I do not believe that Tim Pawlenty’s record on Minnesota warrants any kind of advancement.”

Carlson, who may be more of a reporter than he realizes, told Schultz that in the eight years before Pawlenty became Minnesota governor, state property taxes increased by $716 million. In his two terms as governor, Pawlenty presided over a property tax increase of $2.5 billion.

“We were in a deficit position from 2003 on, long before the recession,” Carlson said.

Carlson thus appeared to take a chain saw to one of the central planks of the Pawlenty campaign message. “To run around saying he balanced the budget without raising taxes is not true,” he said. “What he did was cut spending on the state side, push the responsibility to local governments, and local governments raised the property tax to pay the bills. That’s not solving the problem, that’s just pushing the problem down the pike.”

T-Paw refuted his critics, including Carlson, who’s apparently been chapping the governor’s butt for some time: “It’s not accurate,” he told Matt Lauer on “Today” Show. “Eight years I balanced the budgets every time, they’re talking about a projected deficit down the road that’s based on a lot of big spending increases that I don’t support and wouldn’t have allowed if I’d continued on as governor.”

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T-Paw may have committed another blunder the day he threw his hat in the ring. In Iowa, where he declared on Monday, Pawlenty called for an end to subsidies for ethanol in the state that needs them most.

“The truth about federal energy subsidies, including federal subsidies for ethanol, is that they have to be phased out,” Pawlenty said. “We need to do it gradually. We need to do it fairly. But we need to do it.”

Some opponents returned fire immediately. Walt Wendland, president of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, told Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times that “Iowans look forward to Governor Pawlenty further detailing his plans to phase out petroleum subsidies, perhaps in a speech in Houston, Tex.”

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There was, no doubt, a calculus at work in the Pawlenty camp that the candidate would win points for a tough-love approach to the matter of subsidies. But Pawlenty may have made enemies, and certainly agnostics, of the very bedrock Iowa conservatives he’ll need early in the caucuses next year for a serious run at the presidency. Many of the same farmers who’ll see the Pawlenty Plan, whatever it is, however gradualist its execution might be, as still taking money out of the pockets, and food off their tables.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Mr. Sanders’ blows to Washington:
The Speech reviewed

The war on the American middle class has had its chroniclers in recent years, almost always after some new economic insult was already a fact of life. The crisis of the economy has usually been explored in various books from a postmortem perspective, examining the assault on everyday people with a focus on the Wall Streeters and corporate barons whose relationship with lobbyists and Congress is as much the cause of the problem as it is the substance of the books explaining the problem.

Last year, Senator Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, took on the more challenging task: examining Congress’ role in the United States’ economic woes from the perspective of a congressman, and doing it before one of its most pivotal votes. Sanders stood one December morning on the floor of the United States Senate and began a speech against extension of the Bush-era tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires, and the potential compromise of the integrity of the Social Security Trust Fund.

More than eight hours later, the senator had effectively altered the tone of the debate on the matter. What had been largely an argument of abstractions and ideals became accessible to ordinary wage-earning Americans. Millions of them watched the speech live on C-SPAN; others followed online, coming to the Senate Web site in numbers big enough to crash the servers.

Sanders’ was destined to be a losing effort; the gravitational forces of the White House, a Democratic-majority Senate inclined to accede to White House requests; and a House of Representatives newly stocked with Tea Party Republicans eager to throw their weight around overcame the objections of Sanders and other Democrats in the House and Senate. President Obama signed the extension of $858 billion in Bush-era tax cuts into law one week later, and did so in the face of a $13.8 trillion national debt. …

But “The Speech” (whose author’s proceeds go to charitable nonprofits in Vermont) succeeds in being what we so rarely hear from our elected officials: a clear, reasoned, impassioned, populist argument expressed in a comprehensive way. The indefatigable Sanders manages to cut through the clutter of emotion and identity, appealing to his colleagues with both an argument of fierce practicality and a shoutout to the better angels of their nature.

Read the rest at PopMatters

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Citizens for Cain

In the politics of celebrity and the celebrity of politics, the importance of buzz is not to be underestimated. The je ne sais quoi factor — that elusive sense of maybe being the right person in the right place at the right time — can be a huge boost when other, more metrically-driven qualifications fail to impress. For a while anyway.

This is the lightning in a bottle the Republicans are desperate to capture in the runup to the 2012 presidential campaign. Some in the conservative camp are pinning their hopes on the man who spoke over the weekend at a rally at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta. About 15,000 people watched as Herman Cain, syndicated columnist, radio talk-show host, former mathematics specialist on computer systems and ballistics for the United States Navy, and former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza, began his quest for a bigger CEO job.

“On this day, this hour, this moment, I came here to declare my candidacy for the Republican nomination for the president of the United States of America.”

“I stand here today as the son of a chaffeur and a domestic worker,” Cain said Saturday professing his credo trio: “belief in God … belief in what we can do for ourselves … and belief in this exceptional nation called the United States of America. Believe in it!”

The 15,000 who were there on Saturday seemed ready to believe in a Cain candidacy; so did the members of a focus group of likely GOP voters, people who judged Cain the winner of a May 5th televised debate in South Carolina, hands down.

There are some pleasant surprises in what Herman Cain could bring to the Republicans’ table — and some things that suggest ways in which the devil and the details are intertwined.

Like Mitt Romney, Cain has run a business; he’s had to hit a payroll and execute strategies and make hard-nosed business decisions. That kind of practical, bottom-line experience as a manager tends to play well with Republicans.

He’s had previous political experience; Cain was a senior economic adviser to the Dole-Kemp campaign in 1996. He also ran for Zell Miller’s Senate seat in 2004, finishing second in the primary.

Unlike Romney, Cain has experience in finance at the level of federal policy; he was the deputy chairman and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Despite the Tea Party taint to some of his early platform (and much of his pre-primary season rhetoric), Cain has generally sounded the right notes for conservatives. He brings none of the health-care related problems of Romney, none of the presumptive bad press of Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann, and none of the formidable personal baggage of Newt Gingrich. (A Cain 2012 effort would be a headline writer’s dream, too; how many times would he referred to in the media during the campaign as CITIZEN CAIN?)

Some in the conservative thoughtocracy have gone so far as to link Herman Cain to the holy of holies, Ronald Reagan. Former UPI international managing editor Martin Sieff took that leap on the Fox News Web site on Sunday:

“Is there any candidate in the current crop that stands out from the rest in the courage, clarity and resonating wit of his utterances as Reagan always did?

“Indeed there is.

“Only Herman Cain, who officially announced his candidacy on Saturday, of the current crop of Republican candidates has the moral stature, the record of achievement, the outspoken wit and candor, and the simple courage to speak his mind that were the hallmarks of the Great Reagan. Only he has proved to be an eloquent and effective public spokesman without fear or hesitation in championing those same principles.”

Cain’s thus a fresh face. Fresh in more ways than one.

Yes, there’s that elephant in the room: the matter of race. As an African American Republican conservative, he could represent the sea change in self-identity that the Republican party has needed for a generation.

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If the party leadership, and its enablers in fundraising groups and the media, got behind a Cain 2012 campaign, if that campaign could get beyond the old demographic regional agonies that have made nonwhite candidates for the presidency such a rarity, Cain could cut (however marginally) into the presumed Democratic advantage among black voters.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Newt’s figment II: Walk it back

It was inevitable. When you’re in the public eye for as long as Newt Gingrich, eventually you’re going to say something fully truthful, in a moment of refreshing but uncharacteristic candor make some utterance that purely, cleanly distills what you mean and what you believe into language anyone can understand, and with which a majority of the American people agree.

That happened to Gingrich on Sunday, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” in a series of comments during an interview with NBC’s David Gregory. Gingrich, the newly minted and tarnished Republican candidate for president, was responding to a question from Gregory about the value of reforming Medicare according to the plan devised and tirelessly promoted by Rep. Paul Ryan — a plan that has met with devastatingly unfavorable reaction among the Republican constituents who use Medicare the most.

GREGORY: What about entitlements? The Medicare trust fund, in stories that have come out over the weekend, is now going to be depleted by 2024, five years earlier than predicted. Do you think that Republicans ought to buck the public opposition and really move forward to completely change Medicare, turn it into a voucher program where you give seniors —


GREGORY: — some premium support and, so that they can go out and buy private insurance?

GINGRICH: I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.

Those last two sentences reflected a sharp and non-ideological clarity of thinking that, coming from one of the main architects of the prevailing style of bare-knuckles, take-no-prisoners Republicanism, was flat-out breathtaking. It was a model of philosophical even-handedness; it was the kind of balanced, considered response you could imagine coming from ... President Obama.

In a conference call with reporters, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York admitted he and Gingrich had deep and old differences between them. But “I couldn’t agree more with what he said Sunday about the House Republicans’ plan to end Medicare. He is the Republican canary in a coal mine.”

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What’s transpired over the following five-six days is a lesson in how relentlessly unforgiving the modern Republican mindset has become, how hewing to the party line is the foundational mission of the GOP, regardless of the consequences to that party or the nation it purports to represent.

It was a tag-team beatdown. Newt got hammered almost immediately by the Republican leadership and thought leaders, who effectively told him he’d better find his place in the hymnal again, and fast. House Majority Leader Eric Kantor basically told Newt as much. Talk-radio Doberman and former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh was thoroughly flummoxed.

The National Review Online thundered: “Newt Gingrich Makes Mitt Romney Look Good.” The Wall Street Journal proclaimed Gingrich “Obama’s Running Mate.” Conservative columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer said flat-out Gingrich 2012 was toast.

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What happened next, of course, is about what you’d expect. The Gingrich campaign went into full damage control. Mission: Walk it back. Blame Gregory. Blame the media in general. Blame the janitor working the late shift at The Washington Post.

Gingrich blamed the Medicare question Gregory asked him, instead of addressing the answer yielded by the question. “It’s a hypothetical baloney question that had no hope of happening,” he said. “The Republicans don’t control the Senate. They don’t have the White House. They can’t do what Obama did. And I should just dismiss it. So, that was a mistake.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The countdown to ‘Countdown’

Once and future TV news warrior Keith Olbermann returned as a guest last night on CBS’s “The Late Show With David Letterman.” When he walked out on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Theater using a collapsible cane, all six-foot-four 3.5 inches of him, it was clear he was walking wounded. Literally. He wore a black foam cast on his left foot, a rig that made his already outsize features that much more so.

It might have been a physical metaphor for his past warfare with MSNBC, his former employer, but the real reason was more benign: “Stress fracture, running,” he said. Apparently, not only should men of his size not undulate, they shouldn’t run either (especially, by his own admission, in shoes intended for walking and nothing but).

But besides a snapshot assessment of the 2012 Republican field and discussing his own immediate future — he goes back on the air with his program, “Countdown” on the Current TV cable channel on June 20 — Olbermann last night offered his clearest rationale for making the jump from a major cable property to one with a dramatically smaller universe of loyal viewers. In the process, he  called the question of the value and importance of the news business to the multimegaconglomerates who keep television networks in their portfolios, along with everything else.

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There'd been a worsening stress fracture in Olbermann’s relationship with MSNBC for many months. It all came to a head with his sudden and (externally) surprising departure from the network in January, after eight years of service and months of friction stemming from his suspension without pay from the network in November for making three $2,400 donations to the campaigns of three congressional candidates during the 2008 election cycle.

Last night on Letterman, Olbermann explained the reasoning behind his choice to jump to Current, which despite being available in somewhere between 30 million and 60 million homes, is actively watched during prime-time by about 23,000 households:

“At some point in the years of doing the news in the way that I do it, it’s occurred to me that the best place to start doing the news, and hopefully to continue it that way, would be at a place that’s just in the news business and nothing else. It doesn’t also own an amusement park in Orlando or doesn’t have outdoor advertising or, you know, beet plantations in the Azores, but just did news ...”

It was a telling shot at Comcast (television/Internet/sports franchises/advertising), the new corporate overlords of NBC Universal, the continuing corporate overlords of MSNBC (the stake of General Electric’s corporate overlordiness in the channel was diminished when Comcast took over). And by extension, Olbermann seemed to be firing another shot at corporate entities like Disney (theme parks/television/movies/Internet/publishing/hotels/toys) and Viacom (television/cable/Internet/outdoor advertising/32 Bubba Gump Shrimp Company seafood restaurants) … and General Electric (jet engines/medical diagnostics/energy services/home appliances/television/real estate/cigars/beach balls/guitar strings/bottled water).

How important can the news possibly be, Olbermann seemed to ask the multimegaconglomerates without asking, when the news is so little of what you do — and what you are?

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It’s a safe bet that Olbermann won’t have the short newsgathering leash he had at MSNBC while he’s at Current: Olbermann assumes the title of Current Chief News Officer — he’s management! “The lunatics have taken over the asylum,” he said last night. What’s still to be seen is whether the loyal following that made 8 p.m. a destination time when he was at MSNBC will follow him to a smaller, less recognized network still very much in the process of defining itself for the public in a ravenously competitive television landscape.

Olbermann means to try, first by making it easy for people to find his program, the name of which remains the same. Letterman asked the inevitable question: How’d he manage to take control of the ‘Countdown’ brand from MSNBC?

“We just sorta did it,” he said. “We’ll hear from them if they’re not happy about it.”

Keith Olbermann’s getting ready to retake the big chair. He’ll be hearing from everyone — and we’ll be hearing from him, again — about a month from now.

Image credits: Olbermann and Letterman: The Late Show With David Letterman (© 2011 CBS/Worldwide Pants). Logos are properties of their respective corporate parents.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bid? No Trump

Sometimes in the news business, there’s news coming at you from so far off that when it finally arrives, it isn’t news anymore. That happened Monday when billionaire publicity enthusiast Donald Trump formally, finally dislodged the hairball we knew was coming and announced that he would not be running for the presidency of the United States in 2012. The earth’s axis remained unchanged, much like the rapidly declining fortunes of the Republican Party.

The king of wishful thinking announced his decision on the same day he was meeting with NBC executives to discuss the future of his show "The Celebrity Apprentice" — the same day that NBC announced the programming for its fall 2010 lineup, with Trump’s program very much in that lineup.

“I will not be running for president as much as I'd like to,” Trump said in a written statement.

“This decision does not come easily or without regret; especially when my potential candidacy continues to be validated by ranking at the top of the Republican contenders in polls across the country,” Trump said. “I maintain the strong conviction that if I were to run, I would be able to win the primary and, ultimately, the general election.” —

Oh well, yes sir, Sir Donald, there’s absolutely no doubt about that!

“I have spent the past several months unofficially campaigning and recognize that running for public office cannot be done half-heartedly. Ultimately, however, business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector.”

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With that, the certification of the stillbirth of Donald Trump’s presidential ambition was official. No long form is required. Trump’s deeply cynical, racism-tinged campaign, entirely defined by his revival of the Obama birther issue, was doomed from the start, despite his high showing in several recent opinion polls — a showing in the polls no doubt animated by the relative absence of any other recognizable name in the GOP field of dreamers, and by the fact that, this far out, there was nothing to lose by polled voters elevating a man they knew wouldn’t run and wouldn’t win if he did run.

And those poll respondents had company. The only thing more improbable than Trump’s flirtation with a presidential campaign was the number of media mainstreamers prepared to take him seriously this time, despite his past pattern of behavior. Various talking fishheads like Charles Krauthammer, Dick Morris, David Brooks and Mark Halprin suggested, silkily or straight out, that Donald Trump might have been the adrenalizing factor the Republicans sorely need on the eve of the 2012 campaign season.

But in all their assessments, there was always the thread of default: Trump rose to the top of the field because everyone else among the possible presidential contenders seemed to pale by comparison. Nobody had buzz but Trump, no one could stir the drink like Trump. Maybe those pundits got it right after all: To go by the recent pro-Trump polls and his reception from some in the conservative media, there’s a sense that for the Republicans right now, gravitas can wait. The GOP is in a hunt for effervescence, for that galvanizing candidate who captures, or embodies, lightning in a bottle.

But they won’t get it from the mogul with hair with a mind of its own.

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The Republican saga continues. Newt Gingrich is officially in, of course, as well as the libertarian Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. Evangelical darling Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and Krispy Kreme enthusiast, has announced he won’t run next year.

Attention has started to coalesce around the usual suspects (former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney) and credible outliers (Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels). The name of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann has been tossed around, God knows why.

But The Donald will observe it all from the plush, moneyed, oaken security of the “Celebrity Apprentice” boardroom. He’ll release political broadsides from time to time, in his own singular way hoping to remind the nation of what they missed when he bowed out. He’ll go on firing people for NBC.

We’ll just have to make do, living our lives without the campaign of a man who really didn’t really want to get hired in the first place.

Image credit: Trump: David Shankbone, republished under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license 3.0 Unported license.

Newt's figment

The freight car known as Newt Gingrich left the station on an utterly quixotic quest for the 2012 Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States. It will be a long and slow journey on the Gingrich Personal Baggage Train from now until the season of the snows in Iowa and New Hampshire next year; it may not get further than the parking lot.

He proved this over the weekend. Speaking at a GOP convention in his home state of Georgia, Gingrich posited an either/or scenario for the nation.

“You want to be a country that creates food stamps? In which case, frankly, Obama is an enormous success, the most successful food stamp president in American history. Or do you want to be a country that creates jobs?” Gingrich said. “I would like to be the most successful paycheck president in American history.”

But Gingrich will not be so regarded in the history books. The man that Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state called “the most uniquely unqualified man to be president I can imagine” has launched a presidential campaign that reveals just what’s wrong with his party.

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Gingrich made it official on May 11, via Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, that he would run for president “I'm Newt Gingrich, and I'm announcing my candidacy for president of the United States because I believe we can return America to hope and opportunity, to full employment and to real security,” Gingrich said in a two-minute video on YouTube.

“There's a much better American future ahead with more jobs, more prosperity, a better health system, longer lives, greater independent living and a country that is decentralized under the 10th amendment, with power once again back with the American people and away from the Washington bureaucracy,” he said.

On the one hand, you have to admire the courage of the man’s convictions. Anyone else with one affair, three marriages and two divorces under his belt, who had resigned as Speaker of the House in disgrace would’ve called it a day — and a career.

Not Newt. Since resigning the Speaker’s post in November 1998, Gingrich has reinvented himself as a fundraiser, mini-media mogul and ideological gun for hire. He had a gig at Fox News lobbing grenades at President Obama and Democrats in general. His fundraising organization, American Solutions, has raised at least $28 million for Republican causes and initiatives. And his production company, Gingrich Productions, makes videos that amount to infomercials for conservative ideology.

Now he wants to be president. But the dream that is utterly a figment of Gingrich’s fevered imagination will founder on the rocks of reality soon enough. First there are the messy personal details of a libido run amok. Then of course there’s the “clash of civilizations” mini-meme Gingrich has trotted out in various speeches since Obama took office, in which Gingrich rhetorically positioned the United States in a war against the “Islamist triumphalism” symbolized by the planned mosque near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

And with various intemperate or quasi-racist statements he’s made about Obama over the last two years, it points to a pattern of behavior that suggests what David Corn of Mother Jones said May 11 on MSNBC’s “Hardball” is true: “Newt Gingrich is Glenn Beck with better syntax.”

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Katie Couric kicks back

CBS News anchor and managing editor Katie Couric made it all official on Friday. “As some of you may already know, I’m moving on from CBS News, and next Thursday will be my last broadcast,” Couric said Friday of her grand run at the helm of CBS News, which ends on May 19. Couric promised a retrospective of her some of her more memorable broadcasts from the nearly five-year Couric Era, which started Sept. 5, 2006. It’s a safe bet there won’t be a dry eye in the studio that evening.

Couric’s replacement, Scott Pelley, is presumably scheduled to start as the new CBS News anchor the next day. The buzz about Pelley in the big chair has been nominal, compared to Couric's ascension. Sometimes even downright unflattering. On May 9th’s “Late Show,” David Letterman weighed in on the changing of the guard, by way of praising the winner of the Run for the Roses.

“Congratulations to Animal Kingdom!” Letterman said. “You watch the Kentucky Derby? Odds of that horse winning were 20 to one. Same odds they’re giving Katie Couric’s replacement.”

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How Couric will choose to unwind before her next television project remains to be seen. Some clever wiseacre with a sharp command of human anatomy and Photoshop posted a YouTube video that suggests Couric’s already started kicking back.

Or maybe it’s the real thing! Maybe Couric was caught in an unguarded moment on an internal CBS News feed — much like the one that caught Sen. John McCain in a lie during the 2008 campaign.

Whatever’s next for Katie Couric, it’s right and proper to wish her all the best. After four years and eight months at CBS News, and the ratings decline that’s attended her stewardship there from almost the beginning, despite her best efforts, she could use a break. When she hangs ‘em up on Thursday, shots of Jagermeister might not be enough to unwind with.
Image credits: Couric illustration: via YouTube. CBS eye: © 2011 CBS Inc.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A new meme a-comin’

The late-night TV crowd has a knack for distilling the national conversation down to something manageable, and one of their number did it again last night. David Letterman of CBS’ “The Late Show With” got to the heart of the still-developing national reappraisal of President Obama on national security and the fight against terrorism, in the wake of the May 1 raid on Osama bin Laden.

Letterman, who’s always done this kind of thing better than most, made part of his monologue a tongue-through-cheek assessment of Obama’s performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 30, and how, despite the president’s customary cool and his intent to keep the secret of what was to unfold in Afghanistan in less than 24 hours, it was possible to get a glimpse of what was coming. “If you take a look at that videotape," Letterman said, "you can see signs ... that something was up.”

What follows was a brilliant, provocative, doctored-video clip of President Obama in a new mode, Obama at the podium dispensing weapons to American soldiers and finally brandishing and firing a shotgun.

This is why we need late-night. They can say not just what isn’t being said or expressed by the mainstream media in prime-time; Letterman and his cohort can say what people are saying to themselves, at a million water coolers and break rooms across America.

And that video clip also suggests an opportunity for President Obama to redefine himself — to effectively reintroduce himself — to the American people in the runup to the 2012 presidential campaign.

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We know the old meme for Barack Obama. He was the Change agent. The C word dominated the 2008 campaign; it was foundational in Obama’s campaign literature, in his stump speeches, in what he successfully instilled in the American electorate.

Since he’s taken office, of course, his deliberate, methodical approach to decision-making has been thoroughly condemned by the red meat eaters of the Republican party — those for whom bombing of our enemies back to the Stone Age wouldn’t have been far enough. He’s been called too professorial, too measured, too — what’s the word they threw around? — nuanced to be an effective leader against a terrorist threat.

What a difference a raid makes. In a relative instant, Obama has reshaped the national posture vis-à-vis global terrorism, removed a longtime terrorist threat who was as much operational as inspirational; and proving again (as if it needed to be proved again) that the perception of a Democratic administration as weak and ineffectual against terrorism is as dated and willfully inaccurate as those who propagate that myth.

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This isn’t to suggest that Obama 2012 will be party to some new John Wayne lock-and-load meme; his administration’s targeted, precise use of force points to a future in which new use of military force will be more the exception than the rule.

But the Obama we’ve seen in the last ten days — the president lampooned on Letterman last night — will give his Republican opponents (whoever they turn out to be) more sleepless nights than they’ve had already.

However the Obama brand is symbolized in words next year (“Obama: The Strength to Lead,” “Obama: Bustin’ Caps When Necessary”), it means the same thing for the Republicans: Right now, President Obama remains the equation for which they have no solution.

Image credits: Obama screengrabs: “The Late Show With David Latterman”: © 2011 CBS/Worldwide Pants. home page: CNN. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Osama bin Laden, this was your life

The Special Forces May 1 takedown of the world’s foremost terrorist in Afghanistan has reportedly yielded the United States and its allies a bounty of intelligence: documents, hard drives, DVDs and other info that’s sure to be useful against any reconfigured al-Qaida (AQ 2.0?) in the war on terrorism.

One piece of this intel, just released to the public, stands out. It’s arresting the first time you see it: a home video of Osama bin Laden sitting in a drab room, shrouded under a blanket, one hand on a remote control and watching a woefully small, bargain-basement, rabbit ears-era television set hooked up via various cables to a satellite hookup. Osama sits watching news footage of his own exploits and travels, quietly regarding the impact and consequences of his own handiwork on Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s a meta- media moment — Osama observes Osama — with precursors in the wider culture. Seeing it, you can’t help but think of Norma Desmond rattling around in her own private Elba in “Sunset Boulevard,” watching herself in her silent-era heyday on the dropdown wall of an in-home screening room — “I’m still big, it’s the pictures that got small!”

Or maybe you think of Warren Beatty’s fictional but compelling interpretation of mobster and Las Vegas entrepreneur Bugsy Siegel being murdered by nine shots from an unknown assailant in Beverly Hills in June 1947, while watching a projection of himself reading movie lines. Bugsy Siegel, this was your life.

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While it’s to be somewhat expected — criminals are known for watching the news to observe reaction to the crimes they’ve just committed — the Osama video is both ironic and almost comic. This most elusive and publicity-allergic terrorist on the planet sits watching Arabic-language news feeds of his own distant or recent past.

Without the necessary context of this silent video, Osama could be anyone — an actor in his trailer watching the video playback of a scene he just shot for a movie; an everyday man watching the news with one hand on the remote and the other deep in the popcorn; an armed robber looking at the surveillance feed of his own crime.

The White House and the Pentagon will be poring over the collection gathered during the Abbottabad raid for months. You can bet there’s actionable intelligence that the United States and its allies will eventually find useful.

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Al-Qaida has released other videos, of course, updates, mission statements, opportunities to gloat from a secret undisclosed location. As U.S. officials look at Obama’s self-referential home video— another meta moment: them watching Osama watch Osama — they’ll be watching intel into the al-Qaida of the past, and the mind and psyche of the operational leader and spiritual sparkplug of the world’s pre-eminent terrorist organization.

But that video’s also a likely glimpse into the behavioral patterns into the al-Qaida of the future: a brain trust not heroically sequestered in caves but comfortably ensconced in houses and compounds; not indifferent to the media’s perception of the organization, but very much attuned to it, after all these years, as avid students of the very Western media they purport to abhor.

Image credits: Bin Laden: Department of Defense via ABC News. Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard: © Paramount Pictures.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Collateral benefit

The U.S. Special Forces operation that took down more than Osama bin Laden on Sunday took down more than Osama bin Laden. Another victim, at least for now, is the downbeat perception of Obama’s abilities to lead as president, a perception eagerly cultivated by his political opponents.

The assault’s success, and the relatively muted way President Obama has presided over the end of this tangible and symbolic phase of the War on Terrorism, will have at least short-term positive effects — collateral benefit, if you will — for the commander in chief.

Even allowing for the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately mode of impatience loose generally in the nation and absolutely in the media, the mission and its outcome will resonate in ways that resist the spasmodic nature of partisan politics.

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You saw some of that in the first of the post-operation opinion polls. The president’s overall approval rating surged nine points to 56 percent, according to a Pew/Washington Post poll. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey placed Obama’s approval rating at 52 percent, a four-point increase from the month before. The USA Today/Gallup poll had similar upbeat results: 32 percent said they were more confident in Obama as commander-in-chief, and in the Ipsos-Reuters poll, 39 percent volunteered that their view of Obama’s leadership had improved since May 1.

“Overnight polls are notoriously fickle,” reported Michael Muskal of the Los Angeles Times. “But the polls agree on the basic thrust that the deadly raid politically helped Obama who announced that he will seek reelection in 2012 against a yet-to-be-decided Republican candidate.

“Americans also feel more positively about Obama’s role as president, which has been under pressure regarding domestic issues such as the economy and the federal budget deficit,” Muskal reported.

You’d expect the overnights to be glowing. But six days later, today’s Presidential tracking poll from the conservative-leaning Rasmussen Reports found that 86 percent of voters approve of the president’s decision to authorize taking out bin Laden. Fifty-one percent of voters said they at least somewhat approve of the president's action — the highest level of overall approval for the president in four months.

Fifty-three percent now give Obama a high grade on national security matters, a spike of 14 points from a week ago. Similarly, Rasmussen reports, 55 percent now believe the United States and its allies are winning the War on Terror. That’s up 23 points from a month ago. Only 11 percent now think terrorists are winning, the most optimistic assessment since April 2004, Rasmussen said.

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If this were a war, all of the above would amount to one part of a two-prong offensive. The other one was his deft exercise of the ceremony of the office. On Thursday the president came to Manhattan and made an appearance with the firefighters of Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 of the New York City Fire Department, a squad whose ranks were decimated on Sept. 11, 2001.

He also met with police officers from the 1st Precinct of the New York City Police Department before laying a wreath downtown at Ground Zero.

“What happened on Sunday,” the president said at Engine 54, “... it sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back home that when we say ‘we will never forget,’ we mean what we say. Our commitment to make sure that justice was done was something that transcended politics, transcended party. It didn’t matter which administration was in, it didn’t matter who was in charge.”

The low-key dimensions of the visit, the handshakes and private words with the cops and firefighters, the quiet decorum — all of it was pitch perfect. No MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banners anywhere in evidence; not much in the way of presidential trappings. Just the man, reaching out, one on one.

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The assault on Abbottabad and its eloquent White House aftermath may well freeze in place much of the political machinery being arrayed against him in the runup to the start of the 2012 presidential campaign. The flawlessness of the operation — the Swiss couldn’t build a watch that worked any more precisely than this did — greatly reinforces the president’s bona fides on decision-making and the deft use of U.S. military force.

The operation’s success, to be shortly followed by the first of the long-planned withdrawals from Afghanistan, should over time redound nicely to the president’s advantage among the American armed forces. For obvious reasons, nobody’s more a fan of judicious use of the military than the military itself.

But what happened on Sunday, more than eighteen months before the 2012 election, places Barack Obama in a new and hugely powerful light. And it puts his Republican challengers (whoever they ultimately are) on notice: Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing’s more problematic to their presidential prospects than a Democratic-branded national success they can’t spin to their advantage.

This time a few weeks back, remember, billionaire publicity enthusiast Donald Trump was holding forth about the veracity of the presidential birth certificate. In the ensuing days, after the president released the long form of that document, some in the conservative mob were out for more blood. You could see where they were going: Well, how about those college transcripts, sir?

That’s history. In the short term, at least, you won’t hear a mumblin word from the birthers abiding by their own political tweak on Ecclesiastes — yea, knowing there is a time to speak and a time to STFU.

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The pivot back to the economy is inevitable. With Congress back in full swing, the partisan skirmishes that characterized the budget debate will crank up again. The Labor Department reported Friday that 244,000 new jobs were added in April, but the unemployment rate ticked up to 9 percent as more people resumed looking for work. And the same glowing Rasmussen tracking poll also found that 36 percent of Americans give Obama reviewed his handling of the economy in positive light, and 42 percent said the president is doing a poor job on the economy.

And even with this triumph in the international arena, there will be those for whom no good deed should go unpunished. Questions remain about our future relationship with Pakistan, and the roughly $2 billion that flows into Islamabad as foreign aid every year.

Unintended Consequences Dept.: Perversely, last weekend’s targeted operation may have worked almost too well. Its swift success proves conclusively that stealth boots on the ground can be highly effective against terrorism. We could hear the argument that the success of the May Day mission, and its relatively low cost in dollars and collateral damage, undercuts some of the rationale for future Predator drone strikes in the region.

But for now, President Obama is quietly, tastefully savoring the fulfillment of a pledge made during the 2008 campaign, and its bankable dividends. The Obama Stock Exchange has been a volatile place these days, rising and falling a lot like the other ones. This has been a week for investors — the voters — to bid up the shares, anticipating a big return on their investment next November.

Image credits: Obama at Ground Zero: AFP. White House Situation Room, Obama in profile: Pete Souza/The White House. Obama at Engine 54: Still from White House video. U.S. employment rate graph:, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The world changer

What became colloquially known as the War on Terrorism began in the skies over lower Manhattan on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. One phase of that war ended about 3:30 p.m. Eastern time on  May Day afternoon, at a compound in Abbottabad, a garrison town about 35 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan, where a small team of U.S. Special Forces conducting the most important black-ops mission of the decade engaged in a firefight with al-Qaida operatives, and shortly, the figurehead anathema of our time, Osama bin Laden, was dead.

Another phase of that war persists: the one that over the last nine years, seven months and twenty days has transformed our habits, our culture, our laws and our national psyche. But Sunday’s events effectively change everything for America’s global posture, its domestic politics and its national pride.

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“Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan,” President Obama said about 11:40 p.m. on Sunday night, at a startling, powerful address from the East Room of the White House. “A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

"For over two decades, bin Laden has been Al-Qaida's leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat Al-Qaida.

"Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There's no doubt that Al-Qaida will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must and we will remain vigilant at home and abroad.”

The operation, the product of several national security briefings, apparently went off without a hitch. Besides bin Laden himself, one of his sons was also killed, as well as three al-Qaida operatives.

But for the president who ordered the assault, the location of its swift and successful conclusion also confirms what Obama has been saying for years: that Pakistan and Afghanistan, not Iraq, were the proper spatial theaters for the war on terrorism, and that Pakistan was the most likely hiding place for bin Laden and his leadership. The news of the assault is a breathtaking vindication of that belief.

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Around this country, it was instant flashmob. Spontaneous crowds of celebrators formed in lower Manhattan, at or near Ground Zero. Fireworks went off in South Carolina. Spirited celebrations happened in Morgantown, W. Va. Cadets went nuts at West Point. And it was a zoo near the White House, at Lafayette Square, where tens of thousands of mostly young revelers partied and rallied for hours in a wild blend of the brio and spirits of V-E Day, spring break and a college football game.

That’s a distillation of the benefits that await the president. In the days and weeks to come — count on this — Obama will see a serious rise in his favorables in any opinion polling on presidential performance. That’ll probably be a short-term bump, and as such it’s more or less predictable.

More enduring, from a historical perspective, will be the sense that the successful execution of this plan burnishes the Obama presidency, repositions the president as a commander-in-chief whose stealth strategy, once seen as plodding and — what was the word thrown at him — nuanced, was exactly and surgically what was required; a president whose philosophy of sharply targeted military force has just been utterly validated.

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