Thursday, January 22, 2009

Yes, He Can: Obama Can Have a Very Successful Presidency -- If He Can Avoid the Seven Pitfalls That Can Trip Him Up

It's Traditional Whenever a New President Takes Office for Americans to Wish Him Success -- and That Sentiment is Especially High Toward the Nation's First African-American Chief Executive -- But Anything Could Happen to Cause Obama Big Problems, Especially the Worsening Economic Crisis

Barack Obama, joined by his wife, Michelle, and daughters, Sasha and Malia, takes the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts to become the 44th president of the United States at the U.S. Capitol.

Two days after Barack Obama, joined by his wife, Michelle, and daughters, Sasha and Malia, is sworn in as president by Chief Justice John Roberts, many Americans, in a massive outpouring of goodwill, are certainly hoping that he will be able to meet the enormous challenges facing his administration. But with the economy worsening far more rapidly than anyone has expected -- and Obama himself having warned that "things will get worse before they get better" -- there is a real danger that the meltdown may already be spiraling past the point of no return. (Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP)

(Posted 5 :00 a.m. EST Thursday, January 22, 2009)



Even in a city of cynics, the inauguration of a new president — and the infusion of new ideas, new personalities and new energy that comes with it — summons feelings of reverence.

Barack Obama, especially, is the object of inaugural good feelings of an almost unprecedented scope. He has assembled an impressive White House and Cabinet team. As the first African-American elected to the nation's highest office, the country is clearly in his corner.

With the economy gasping, and two wars dragging on sullenly, even many Republicans who ordinarily might enjoy seeing Obama fail now root for him to succeed. The stakes are simply too great.

Amid all these high hopes, it may seem needlessly sour to point out why expectations must be kept in check. But it is also realistic.

Here are seven reasons to be skeptical of Obama’s chances — and the Washington establishment he now leads:


There is no disputing Obama has built a Cabinet of sharp and experienced public officials. His staff, especially on national security and economic matters, is often praised as brilliant — and that’s by Republicans.

But recent history teaches us to be wary of the larger-than-life Washington figures supposedly striding across history’s stage. Consider the economy. Everyone seems to agree Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner are smart, vastly qualified to manage and repair the economy.

Everyone was saying the exact same things about the two economic geniuses of the 1990s: Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan. Now Rubin has been reduced to making excuses for his involvement in high-risk investments and for helping oversee the demise of Citigroup, which lost $10 billion in the past three months alone. The onetime oracular Greenspan has admitted to Congress that his once-revered economic philosophy had “a flaw,” and many blame him for turning a blind eye to the housing bubble.

As it happens, the Obama economic team is full of Rubin protégés, including Geithner and Summers. Geithner had to recently admit he failed to pay taxes on a big chunk of income — as part of his confirmation process to run tax policy and the Internal Revenue Service. As president of the New York Fed, he was integrally involved in the decision not to rescue Lehman Bros., which many see, in retrospect, as a grievous error.

The reception of the Obama economic team recalls the reception of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy team eight years ago. Many Democrats applauded the experience of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

As Bush named his national security team in 2000, The New York Times editorialized: “Putting superstar players on the court does not always guarantee harmony or success.” In retrospect, that was an understatement, indeed.


The most bipartisan tradition in Washington is to laud bipartisanship, even while lamenting that there is not enough of it.

But the instinct for bipartisanship overlooks an inconvenient fact: Some of Washington’s biggest blunders occur when the government moves to do big things with big support. Bush won the much-regretted Iraq war resolution of October 2002 with strong Democratic backing.

The current economic crisis produces similar pressure to get on board the train — never mind for sure where it’s going.

It is easy to sympathize with the temptation. Top officials on Obama’s team told us in recent days that things are much worse than most people appreciate. The Obama staff and top lawmakers are getting stern warnings that the banking system in particular is extremely fragile and could collapse. So they are moving with amazing speed to pump money into the economy.

First up is the stimulus package that could top $900 billion. It is a mind-numbing number rarely contemplated in U.S. history — and yet it might not work. There are no guarantees people will spend money the government doles out or that it will be enough to offset miserable economic performance elsewhere.

The history isn’t encouraging.

Rewind just a few months back. Republicans and Democrats alike said the best of many bad options was to approve $700 billion to prop up banks, mainly to thaw the credit freeze and juice the economy. Half the money is gone now. Many banks took the cash and sat on it. Some used it increase lending. But much of it was wasted or unaccounted for. Now Washington wants to spend the rest of it.

And a top Hill aide told Politico’s David Rogers that Democrats will probably need to request even more.


The past several months have produced a rare convergence. Something that politicians of both parties find pleasurable — spending money — has overlapped with what economists and policy experts of all ideological stripes said is urgently necessary. As “Saturday Night Live’s” Church Lady used to say, “How convenient.”

One month from now, Democrats will likely have passed the massive stimulus bill and Obama will have signed it into law. The new Treasury Department will be well on its way to spending the second $350 billion chunk of the $700 billion bank bailout fund.

After this rush of activity, the ability to spend during the balance of Obama’s first term — never mind if there is a second — will be sharply constrained.

Instead, the new administration and lawmakers on Capitol Hill will awaken to another first: the prospect of the national deficit approaching $2 trillion. For most, these numbers are simply too big to ponder. But ponder this: This country has never reckoned with deficits like these.

Wait, it gets worse. Remember those entitlement programs the elderly and poor need more than ever: Social Security and Medicare? In budget terms, they are more troubled than ever.

Social Security’s surpluses “begin to decline in 2011 and then turn into rapidly growing deficits as the baby boom generation retires,” according to one recent report. “Medicare’s financial status,” the report said, “is even worse.”

Basically, the government needs more money than ever at a time when people are losing jobs, income and confidence.


Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, though starkly different men, both viewed the presidency as pre-eminently a decision-making job. Clinton often waved away speech drafts bloated with lofty language by saying: “Words, words, words.”

Obama seems to have a different view of the presidency. He thinks that the right decisions can be reached by putting reasonable and enlightened people together and reaching a consensus. He believes his job as president is to educate and inspire, largely matters of style.

He knows he is good with words. He knows he has great style. So that’s why he projects exceptional confidence in his ability to do the job.

We don’t know yet how justified Obama is in his self-confidence — or how naive.

But he is almost certain to face many tests, probably imminently, in which the test will be Obama’s ability to act quickly and shrewdly — and not merely describe his actions smoothly or impress people with nuance. And an unlike a governor — who must decide what’s in a budget and what gets cut, or whether a person to be executed at midnight should be spared — Obama has not made many decisions for which the consequences affect more than himself.


Obama frequently talks of the need to transcend partisanship. And he invokes his support for charter schools — a not-terribly-controversial idea — as evidence that he is willing to challenge Democratic special interest groups.

In fact, there are few examples of him making decisions during the campaign or the transition that offended his own party’s constituencies, or using rhetoric that challenged his own supporters to rethink assumptions or yield on a favored cause.

Has Obama ever delivered a “Sister Souljah speech”? Ever stood up to organized labor in the way that Clinton did in passing North American Free Trade Agreement?

This is not a good sign. By Obama’s lights, the national interest usually coincides with his personal interest. Back to you, Church Lady.


No matter how much confidence Obama or other politicians project, the reality is the current economic crisis has totally scrambled the intellectual assumptions of almost every policymaker. People who used to bemoan deficits want to spend like crazy.

Improvisation is the only proper response. But the chances that improvisation will take the country to exactly the right destination — without some serious wrong turns along the way — seem very slight.


The big media companies that once invested in serious accountability journalism are shells of their former selves. The Tribune Co. — in other words, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune — has slashed its Washington staff by more than half. Newspaper chains such as Cox are fleeing D.C. altogether.

The end result: There are few reporters in this country doing the kind of investigative reporting that hold government officials’ feet to the fire. Think back eight years to the pre-Iraq war reporting and consider the words of Scott McClellan in his otherwise humdrum book.

“The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise,” McClellan wrote. “In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”

Rigorous reporting is even more important when you have one-party rule in Washington. Democrats, like Republicans, are simply less likely to scrutinize a president of their own. The end result here: Don’t expect the Democratic Congress to investigate the Obama administration or hold a bunch of tough oversight hearings. That means the only real check on Obama is the same one it’s always been — the voters.

# # #

Volume IV, Number 6
Special Report Copyright 2009,Capitol News Company, LLC.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama Will Have Big Shoes to Fill -- Lincoln's, Kennedy's and Dr. King's

Obama's Inauguration Will Be So Steeped in History -- on the Day After Martin Luther King Day, with the Bicentennial Anniversary of Lincoln's Birth Next Month and a Half-Century After JFK's 'New Frontier' -- that the Question Inevitably Arises: Can the Nation's First African-American President Successfully Meet the Public's Sky-High Expectations of Him?

The Obama family (July 2008)

Barack Obama shares a joke with his 10-year-old daughter Malia (right), while her seven-year-old sister Sasha converses with their mother, Michelle (left) during an Independence Day parade last July in Illinois. The new First Family already is being compared to the Kennedys -- not surprising, given that the Obama girls will be the youngest children to live in the White House since Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr. in the early 1960s and Amy Carter in the late 1970s. But as America's first black First Family, can the Obamas successfully bear the tremendous weight of history that will undoubtedly sit on their shoulders? (File photo by the Associated Press)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EST Monday, January 19, 2009)


When the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the podium in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on that hot and sweltering late-August day in 1963 and told the world of his dream that "my four little children will grow up in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character," few people at the time believed that his vision would come true in their lifetime.

Yet on Tuesday -- more than 45 years after Dr. King delivered that most-immortal line of his immortal "I Have a Dream" speech and on the day after America's observance of the national holiday honoring what this year would have been the martyred civil rights hero's 80th birthday -- an expected record-breaking worldwide television audience of five billion people will witness a fulfillment of Dr. King's vision when a debonair, 47-year-old black man from the state of Illinois takes the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States.

Almost from the day after Barack Obama won last November's election and a lofty place in American history, the former junior senator from Illinois; his wife, Michelle; and their daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, have drawn inevitable comparisons to another young, telegenic family headed by the former junior senator from Massachusetts who was sworn in as the nation's 35th president exactly 48 years earlier.

And on this Martin Luther King holiday weekend, Obama staged a re-enactment of the pre-inaugural train ride of his hero: another junior senator from Illinois who was sworn in as the nation's 16th president -- and who would have a profound impact on African-Americans during his presidency, an impact that helped pave the way for Dr. King to likewise pave the way for Obama's own inauguration.

To say that this presidential inauguration will be like no other in American history would be an understatement. Indeed, January 20, 2009 is very likely to be one of those cathartic dates that profoundly alters not only the future course of America, but that of the world as a whole. If nothing else, this inauguration will be steeped in American history to an unprecedented degree.


Obama might rely heavily on Lincoln as his inspiration -- including taking the oath of office with the same bible Lincoln used at his inaugural in 1861. But it is John F. Kennedy to whom millions of Americans are comparing him to. And no wonder: The Obamas will be the most youthfully telegenic First Family since the Kennedys.

Already, Michelle Obama's sense of fashion is being compared to that of Jacqueline Kennedy. There is a sense of generational change in the transition from George W. Bush to Obama that hasn't been felt -- Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural notwithstanding -- since JFK's inauguration in 1961. Although Clinton, Bush and Obama are all Baby Boomers, Obama was born at the tail end of it -- seven months after Kennedy was sworn in -- and thus has more in common with Generation X, coming of age during the Ronald Reagan era of the 1980s.

Adding to the Kennedy-Obama comparisons is this little historical tidbit: When he held his first press conference as president-elect in 1960, Kennedy -- with Jacqueline, then pregnant with John Jr., looking on -- told reporters that he looked forward to his new administration -- and a new baby.

Fast-forward to 2008. At his first press conference as president-elect, Obama chatted with reporters about the new puppy that he had promised his daughters would have after they move into the White House.

But that's not the only parallel. Kennedy and Obama will have begun their administrations facing remarkably similar challenges.

Kennedy was confronted with an economy that had slid into recession in the closing months of the eight-year tenure of his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. U.S. diplomacy was then, as now, in the doldrums, with America at nuclear loggerheads with the Soviet Union, confronting a hostile neighbor in Fidel Castro's newly-established communist government in Cuba and on the brink of war with a growing communist insurgency in what was then South Vietnam.

The nation was also reeling in shock from the Soviet Union's successful 1957 launch into orbit of Sputnik I, the world's first man-made satellite, and of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961 in the world's first manned space flight -- raising fears that the U.S. was losing out to the Soviets in the Cold War and prompting Kennedy to launch the "New Frontier," with the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. The Cold War reached its most dangerous point in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. It wasn't until that crisis that Kennedy's stature began to rise.

Obama will take office facing problems far more daunting than those faced by Kennedy: The worst economic downturn in 30 years -- and which is threatening to deepen into a second Great Depression. The U.S. once again at nuclear loggerheads, this time with Iran and North Korea. And the country still hasn't quite gotten over the shock of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

Whether the next four years will really become a "Black Camelot" -- or "Bamelot," as a recent front-page headline in the New York Post put it -- remains to be seen. It's impossible to predict whether Obama will find himself faced with a nuclear crisis in Iran or North Korea as dangerous as that which Kennedy faced in Cuba in 1962. Nor is it possible to predict whether he will be able to successfully tackle the nation's economic woes.

Ironically, the severity of the recession might have given Obama one advantage that Kennedy didn't have. Unlike Kennedy, who could afford to take his time, Obama went immediately to work on putting together his Cabinet and he appears determined to get his administration off and running on Day One.

Also unlike Kennedy, who won the 1960 election by the narrowest of margins and whose approval ratings remained stuck in the upper 50s to low 60s until after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Obama, who won the 2008 election with 52 percent of the vote, already has garnered an overwhelming 85 percent approval rating even before he's sworn in -- the highest ratings ever for an incoming president.

Part of that, of course, is a reflection of how deeply unpopular Bush is. Yet Bush, whose own transfer of power from Clinton in 2001 was marked by bitter partisan rancor ensuing from the protracted legal fight with his opponent and Clinton's vice president, Al Gore, over the recount in Florida, was nonetheless determined to make the transition to his successor -- the first wartime transfer of power in 40 years -- as smooth as possible, even as his own presidency ends in disgrace.


Enter Lincoln. In assembling his Cabinet, Obama took a page from the 16th president's playbook and put together a team that included several of his rivals for the Democratic nomination -- just as Lincoln, the nation's first Republican president, included several of his former competitors for the 1860 GOP nomination into his.

But, as writers Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin noted last month, Obama's Cabinet is less of a "team of rivals" as it is a "team of giants" -- a bipartisan team loaded with some of the best and brightest people in Washington today, but also one brimming with strong-willed individuals who are likely to jostle against one another -- and, at times, the new president.

In truth, Lincoln -- whose bicentennial anniversary of his birth will be observed next month -- had little choice. Long forgotten in the collective memory of Americans today is the fact that the ideologies and electoral bases of the Democrats and the Republicans in Lincoln's time were the exact reverse of what they are today. Indeed, if Lincoln had the opportunity to travel forward in tine to our era, he would be stunned by what he would see in today's Washington; he'd think the nation's political system had turned completely upside-down.

As the first president from the then-fledgling, Northern-dominated, liberal and anti-slavery Republican Party, Lincoln had to deal with a hostile Congress controlled by a then-Southern-dominated, conservative and pro-slavery Democratic Party -- a Congress made even more hostile by the defection in 1863 of the mostly-Northern "War Democrats" who supported Lincoln's policies during the Civil War and ultimately formed an alliance with the Republicans under the Union Party banner.

Among the Democratic defectors was Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who became Lincoln's vice presidential running mate in the 1864 election -- and president in 1865 after Lincoln's assassination.

By contrast, Obama had the rare luxury in putting together a bipartisan "team of rivals" in that he will take office at a time when today's Republican Party is in the throes of an identity crisis similar to that which racked the Democrats 20 years ago.

At least two Republicans have been tapped for Obama's Cabinet. Defense Secretary William Gates, appointed by Bush in 2006, will stay on (As the incumbent defense chief, Gates doesn't need Senate confirmation). The other Republican is former Representative Ray LaHood of Illinois, whom Obama nominated to be Transportation Secretary.

A moderate who was elected as part of the Republican Revolution of 1994, he was one of only three GOP candidates who refused to sign on to the "Contract with America," Newt Gingrich's manifesto for a conservative Republican majority. If confirmed, LaHood, who is of Jordanian and Lebanese descent, would be the first Arab-American to serve on a president's Cabinet. But his nomination is controversial among some Democrats; he presided over the impeachment vote against Clinton in 1999.


While comparisons to Kennedy were inevitable and his embrace of Lincoln understandable, it is Obama's inheritance of Dr. King's legacy -- however indirectly -- that perhaps will weigh most heavily on the new president.

Obama is an African-American in the truest sense of the term, as his father, Barack Obama Sr., was a native of Kenya and thus the paternal side of his family tree is quite literally rooted in "The Motherland," as most black Americans refer to their African ancestral home. Consequently, Obama has no direct roots in the African-American community; his early life experiences obviously differ markedly from the generation of African-American politicians who launched their careers in the 1960s through participation in the civil rights movement.

But Obama's lack of direct ties to the African-American community is more than compensated by his spiritual ties, as evidenced by his work as a community organizer in Chicago's predominantly black South Side in the late 1980s and early 1990s; his longtime membership in the mostly-black First United Church of Christ; his marriage to the former Michelle Robinson; his close relationship with his daughters and his outspoken "tough-love" criticism of black fathers who don't meet their parental responsibilities -- and, of course, his lifelong love of basketball.

A now-popular African-American catch phrase distilled the concept: "Rosa [Parks] sat so that Martin could walk; Martin walked so that Obama could run; Obama is running so that our children can fly."

And Obama's life story is one that in many ways is a living embodiment of the dream that Dr. King had for his children: that they not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Born in Hawaii, where whites are a minority -- outnumbered by Asian-Americans -- Obama acknowledged in his 1995 autobiography Dreams from My Father that he thought nothing about his mixed heritage while growing up. "That my father looked nothing like the people around me — that he was black as pitch, my mother white as milk — barely registered in my mind," he wrote.

Separated from the U.S. mainland by 2,000 miles of ocean, few African-Americans live in Hawaii; the majority that do are U.S. military personnel and their families. Obama has acknowledged that as he passed from his teenaged years into young adulthood, he struggled with his biracial identity and actively sought to associate more closely with African American students and military service people by attending college parties and other events.

At the same time, Obama wrote, growing up in multicultural Hawaii -- as well as spending his formative years in Indonesia with his white, Kansas-born mother, Ann Dunham, his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Seotoro and half-sister, Maya Seotoro-Ng (who now lives in Hawaii with her Chinese-Canadian husband, Konrad Ng and their daughter, Suhaila) -- afforded him the opportunity "to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect [which] became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear."

In another example of living out Dr. King's dream for his children, Obama entered Harvard Law School in late 1988. He was appointed as an editor of the otherwise all-white Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year and elected the journal's first black president in his second year.

And then there is Obama's 2004 election to the U.S. Senate. Talk about being judged by the content of one's character: Obama's opponent was another African-American -- the ultra-right-wing Republican gadfly, Alan Keyes. Keyes entered the race after the GOP nominee, Jack Ryan, was forced to withdraw after he became embroiled in a sex scandal stemming from Ryan's 1999 divorce from his former wife, actress Jeri Ryan (of "Star Trek: Voyager" fame).

But Keyes turned out to be an even bigger embarrassment for the Republicans than Ryan. The longtime Washington, D.C. resident was immediately branded a "carpetbagger" by The Washington Post for moving to Illinois specifically to run against Obama -- rendering hypocritical Keyes' own accusations against Hillary Clinton as a "carpetbagger" for her 2000 run for the U.S. Senate in New York while she was still the nation's first lady.

Keyes also angered national GOP leaders by blasting Vice President Dick Cheney's openly lesbian daughter, Mary, as a "selfish hedonist" -- then by publicly disowning his own daughter, Maya, after she came out as a lesbian. Keyes even ordered Maya -- a self-described anarchist, advocate for gay and lesbian youth, and animal-rights activist -- to move out of an apartment funded by Keyes' political organizations in Chicago after she participated in a protest march against Bush's second inaugural in 2005.

Consequently, the voters of Illinois made their judgement based on the content of Obama's and Keyes' character -- and went for Obama by a 70 percent landslide. Two years later, Obama was judged by the content of his character again -- this time by the entire nation -- and won again, albeit by a much-smaller 52 percent of the vote. Even so, Obama fared much better among white voters -- whose support for Democratic presidential candidates had been steadily eroding since 1968.


Obama's inauguration will be a truly historic watershed in another way: For the first time in America's history, the nation will have a president with a family tree that literally spans four continents: Africa, Asia Europe and, of course, North America. His background and life story is a genuine reflection of America today -- the most multiracial and multicultural nation on Earth.

It goes without saying that as America's 300-million-strong population -- already more diverse now than at any other time in the country's 232 1/2-year history -- becomes one without a dominant racial or ethnic group by the middle of the 21st century, Obama's presidency truly marks the opening chapter in the story of the New America.

But make no mistake: Obama will assume the presidency at the most trying economic times that America has faced in over a generation -- and quite possibly, since the Great Depression. The success of his presidency will undoubtedly depend on how Obama -- who ran on a platform of getting the nation's economy moving again -- succeeds in achieving that goal, which, by his own admission could consume his entire four-year term and possibly most of his second, should the voters grant him that in 2012.

But for now, enjoy the inauguration on Tuesday. For America -- and the world -- it will be feel-good moment of a magnitude that hasn't been felt since the world rang in the turn of the millennium nine years ago.

# # #

Volume IV, Number 5
Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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