Archive | October, 2009

Where's the Cabinet?

28 Oct

If you’ve ever read a White House memoir, or a book on what goes on inside this or that administration (typically by Bob Woodward), you know president’s often have a peculiar view of their cabinets.

These people, who were handpicked, either happily or not so much, by the president, were originally marginal figures, with as much power as the presidential dog. Ask a White House historian and you may find that Bo has more influence in foreign policy now than the Millard Filmore cabinet ever did.

Around the time Eisenhower and Kennedy picked the men (only men, back then) that would help them lead the nation, some major responsibilities were finally given to the cabinet. They had actual power and were no longer just placemats with fancy titles. As soon as this power was siphoned off to them, it led to interesting subsequent relationships between the hand that fed and the dog(s).

Nixon was typical Nixon when it came to his cabinet. He called them “idiots,” “dirty,” and a bunch of “clowns.” He delegated what he thought of as the boring work to them: domestic policy. Nixon was so antagonistic towards his cabinet (save for his kindred spirit, his national security advisor, Prof. Henry Kissinger) that he would lock them out of meetings or leave them with little hesitation.

George Bush’s cabinet was more like a fraternity. Everybody thought in groupthink, prompting the disillusioned Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill to call the scene a “blind man leading a room full of deaf people.” Those that just couldn’t take the blindness left promptly (Powell), while the rest were held tight by Bush with ardent loyalty.

Obama’s cabinet is somewhere in the middle. Although Obama is a seasoned pol who knows the importance of loyalty and respect in politics, he is not emotionally attached to his crew like Bush was. He did not shed a tear when he promptly dropped his nominee for the Secretary of Health, Tom Daschle, when he was caught in tax snafu. The same went for Bill Richardson, his intended Secretary of Commerce and fierce ally. Obama lacks the heat Nixon had toward his cabinet, or the warmth Bush shed over his.

And while the full nature of the relationship between the two has yet to be seen (there has yet to be a disagreement on policy or protocol between them), there is a definite idea as to what role each play in public.

This administration’s cabinet still hasn’t decided what kind it will be. At times it can be a unified front of wiz kids, showcasing their strength and smarts on Sunday morning shows and press conferences. Most of the times, however, it looks neutered, with very little panache of their own.

Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, may be the best example of the latter. As soon as he was confirmed by the Senate, he sparkled with ambition and daring, coming up with innovative ways to rescue the economy. Once those ambitious and daring proposals were shot down by everyone and their mother, he scuttled back behind Obama, wounded and afraid. He has not recuperated much since then, choosing to now flex his muscle in private and in whispers.

Hillary Clinton may be the best example of a cabinet member that can stand on her own, yet collaborate with the president and the rest of the team when needed. She’s taken initiative on various topics (Af-Pak, human/women’s rights around the globe), all while showing a deference to the president. She is, in a sense, the perfect cabinet member–as if anyone would doubt she was capable of taking up this job.

Other Secretaries are somewhere in the middle, trying to become “deputies of their own department,” as Nixon expected from his cabinet, but not willing to pull too far away from Obama and face the cold reality by themselves. Arnie Duncan-  Education, Ray LaHood-Transportation, Kathleen Sebelius-Health, among others, are slowly filling their role, making their own name and departments, but they are not there yet.

Once all cabinet members truly own their departments it will make President Obama’s life a whole lot easier and productive. At the moment, he still has to hold their hand, or intervene when they botch the task. His cabinet is definitely smart, possibly as book smart as Kennedy’s “best and the brightest.” Now they just have to get street smart. Hillary could definitely teach them that.


Why the 'Opt-Out' option is genius

26 Oct

You have to respect Harry Reid’s determination. Despite flagging support from his constituent state, the Senate majority leader from Nevada is not giving up his ambitious agenda. He has taken the reins of a healthcare debate that was swerving and dipping under Pelosi’s leadership. Now, with a palpable sniff of victory in front of him, Reid is going in for the kill.

He is expected to unveil the newest, shiniest version of the healthcare reform bill yet. This time, he is mostly trying to garner enough support to push it through in decisive fashion. His silver bullet: an opt-out option that allows states to remove the public option from their constituents’ list of healthcare choices.

This is genius. It’ nearly bulletproof. The shrewd Harry knows  doing this allows him to calm the public option doubters, while simultaneously making sure the public option stays embedded in American healthcare for generations.

It comes down to politics. The opt-out option would allow a state to pass a law, which both the legislature and the governor of that state must approve, that bans the public option. What this does is bind the governor and any state legislator that voted for the “No Public Option” law to it, thereby tying them to the popularity, or lack thereof, of that decision.

According to recent polls, support for the public option is anywhere between the high 50’s and mid 60’s percentage points. It is safe to assume that this will stay the same once the bill is approved and it becomes law.

It’s easy for a Senator from Alabama, or a governor from Texas to skewer the idea of a public option from an ideological/illogical standpoint, knowing that he is one of many against it. But when it’s easy to single out those in favor and those against it, and when people in Texas see that people in California are saving so much more money because they have a public option in place that puts pressure on insurance companies to stay competitive, it won’t be so safe to do such grandstanding.

Let’s say a brave governor decides to declare his state “Public Option Free,” what could happen then? It will become a campaign issue. It might be powerful enough to kill that governor’s, or even worse, that governor party’s chances at re-election. Same goes for legislators. A vote against the public option could prove to be a vote they will have to explain ten times over when seeking to keep their seat.

If the public option proves to be the money saver many, including the Congressional Budget Office, says it will be, that is strong enough argument to persuade the nay-sayers that they are on the wrong end of the debate. Good job, Harry. Keep that gutsy cleverness coming–and keep away from Pelosi, she is a photo-op killer.

Why Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize

9 Oct

Essentially, it’s not about past achievements, but future implications:

As Francis Sejersted, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the 1990s, once proudly admitted, “The prize … is not only for past achievement. … The committee also takes the possible positive effects of its choices into account [because] … Nobel wanted the prize to have political effects. Awarding a peace prize is, to put it bluntly, a political act.

This probably will still not satisfy the people who laughed at Obama when Chicago lost the Olympic bid and are now infuriated an American president was internationally recognized. It’s ill will.

Roman Polanski, Hollywood, and Justice

5 Oct

There is an odd illness going through Hollywood right now. It isn’t swine flu, or bird flu, or Obama fever. A lot of major Hollywood players are feverishly supporting a famed director, signing petitions and voicing their calls to “Free Polanski!” in hopes he will not be extradited to the US, and will not serve time for a crime he committed and admitted to more than thirty years ago.

The crime: He drugged and raped, under unambiguous legal terms, a 13 year-old girl. He admitted to the crime.  When in the middle of a plea bargain that was quickly unraveling, he fled the country. He’s been a critically-acclaimed and innovative director ever since then–he even won an Oscar for “The Pianist,” which he couldn’t come to the US to receive out of fear of being incarcerated. Last week, while on his way to a film festival where he would be honored, he was apprehended by Swiss police, and is now in the process of being sent back to the US to continue his trial.

Hollywood was quick in voicing its undiscriminating support of Polanski.

A bit too quick, and a bit too undiscriminating. Continue reading

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