Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Big Picture: The Eight Big Goals

The Strike is preparing to take the LSAT tomorrow - wish him luck! - so I am starting a new feature that will be both weekly and monthly. The Strike and I have identified Eight Big Goals for the Obama Presidency:

1. Health care (from what I've read the entitlement problem is basically caused by the health care problem, so no need to add entitlements - adjusting Social Security is not a pressing priority)

2. Green, renewable energy, not dependent on foreign sources, not polluting (that includes cap and trade or carbon tax or other strategies)

3. Effective regulation

4. Labor

5. Tax Reform that is fair and provides smart incentives

6. Education

7. Re-prioritization of the budget toward human needs

8. Global cooperation towards peace, justice, and sustainable prosperity

These are all goals, rather than strategies. We are somewhat flexible on the strategies (i.e. cap and trade vs. the carbon tax, or charter schools for education, or the best way for tax reform, etc. etc.) but these goals are non-negotiable, and these really are the top priorities. Obama will surely be forced to spend his time on other matters, but any time he does not spend on these Eight Big Goals is, ultimately, time wasted, and time is the most precious commodity a President has - especially time when me maintains enormous popularity. Every Sunday we're going to be evaluating how well Obama and Congress and progressives advance on the Big 8 (doesn't have to be any one in particular, but any of them) vs. how much they were bogged down in other things, making sure to cut through the superficial crap to recognize that if, for example, there's a big to-do about Pelosi and torture but health reform passes a key vote under the radar, or a more liberal plan is introduced that widens the playing field, then it was still a good week. And, beginning with this Sunday, on the first Sunday of each month we're going to be doing a more wide-ranging evaluation of how well the Obama Administration, Congress, and progressives have advanced on all 8 of the goals over the month. We're going to have two different standards. One is a more objective standard - a yard-line on a football field, with the metaphor being that accomplishing the goal will mean crossing to the other team's goal line. This field position standard will measure how much has been accomplished, and how far there still is to go. We're also going to be issuing a more subjective evaluation of our own approval rating of Obama and Co.'s performance on each goal. Please leave comments if you have any questions/constructive criticism on these ideas - we're very open to improvements!

Alright, now to our evaluation for today. On our weekly grade of how well Obama and Co. have stayed on message with their goals, we're going to give an A. It has been a superb week in his Presidency, primarily with his Cairo address, but also in his push on Israeli settlements while still burnishing his Jewish and patriotic credentials in speeches at Buchenwald and Normandy. These all serve to advance the 8th goal of global cooperation as far as it has been advanced by an American President in only one week in decades. And, Obama has begun to ratchet up the intensity level of his push on health care as well as pushing very hard for the inclusion of the public plan - clearly he's been reading the blog! And, other distractions have been kept on the sidelines - even on General Motors, while no one is too pleased with the combination of effective nationalization and layoffs, there is no evidence that people are blaming Obama. They seem to be reasonably understanding that this tragedy was the product of decades of shortsightedness.

And now to the monthly evaluation:

1. Health Care Reform: the 50 yard line. This is, arguably, the best-ever position for achieving the liberal dream of health care reform. The stars seem to be aligned. However, there's still 50 yards to go because both the politics and the policy - which are going to involve sacrifices, trade-offs, giving up for today to benefit tomorrow, and that is never, ever easy to do. As a grade, we're giving Obama and Co. an A- so far. While a number of advisers, not to mention the conventional wisdom-spewers, urged him to put off health care reform, Obama has stuck with it as his top legislative priority, and he continues to advocate for the public option. He also signed S-CHIP. We are reserving the A until we see how much he is willing to lay on the line for this fight.

2. Green energy/environment: own 10 yard line. This is almost generous given how much has to be done to sustain our life on this planet. But, at home and around the world governments and people finally seem to begin be taking this seriously, and a compromise-but-still-groundbreaking cap and trade bill has passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee. As a grade, we're giving an A-, bordering on A, because Obama has kept up the sense of urgency even though politically he could have very easily gotten away with putting this on the back-burner because it's not people's top priority, to say the least.

3. Effective regulation: own 35. The one major positive is the political environment is as anti the deregulatory ideology as it has been since arguably the Great Depression. Under the radar, there have been some strong regulatory actions, especially on carbon. But overall, there is so much regulation necessary of big corporations, there is a long, long way to go. As a grade, we're giving a D+ - the carbon regulation was good, but overall the administration has given in WAY too much to the very same financial interests that brought the economy to its needs. Especially terrible given the political environment where the public would assuredly support some serious regulation. Unacceptable.

4. Labor - own 35. This may seem better than expected, and unquestionably workers' position has declined, the labor movement is at a low ebb, unemployment is rising, wages are stagnating, and Obama has not done nearly enough. However, I think we have to appreciate how much better conditions are for workers than they were before the New Deal era, and in comparison with workers around the world, and also that the interests of people who work for living, while not nearly as powerful as business, are still a lot more powerful than those calling for a wholesale change in our acquisition and use of energy, are those opposed to the military budget, or those advocating for immense tax reform. In other words, getting the average worker to have a solid standard of living and decent security is challenging, but it doesn't seem as daunting as some of these other tasks. I am a union shop steward and a staunch labor advocate, but even I will admit that the median worker's standard of living being too low is not the most pressing problem facing Obama. As a grade, Obama gets a C+ due to him spending a lot less time and energy on Americans' top concern - their jobs - than he should, and his softpedaling of labor priorities such as the Employee Free Choice Act.

5. Tax reform - own 15. The one positive is that the federal tax code is at least somewhat progressive. Other than that, it is a gigantic mess, unfair and loaded with perverse incentives. It needs a massive overhaul. And that overhaul will be extremely complicated and face enormously powerful opposition. As a grade, Obama gets a B- for including some progressive changes in his budget, but overall not doing too much to radically re-shape the tax code, including failing to talk about its unfairness and counterproductiveness, even though that would be a political winner, in my opinion.

6. Education - own 20. At least all American children have a right to 13 years of free education. That shouldn't be taken for granted. We still have top research universities. But otherwise, we need vast improvement and massive overhaul to get what we need out of our education system. Obama has been solid on this so far, with a lot of resources and reform packed into the stimulus package (more before the 'reasonable centrists' prevented school construction for their own amusement), but (understandably) hasn't advanced more sweeping reforms yet, . We are also boosting his grade because of the example he and Michelle are setting for our nation's children about how working hard in school can allow you to achieve anything. The selection of Sonia Sotomayor is along that track as well. B+.

7. Re-prioritization of the budget: own 15. There are some good things about the budget - I am in favor of prioritizing Medicare and Social Security, after all - but overall we need major major changes, especially to the military budget. Our budget is extraordinarily ill-suited to our needs as a nation. Obama receives a B+ so far - his budget proposal was pretty exemplary compared to the previous 30 years, and I was very pleasantly surprised by its boldness. Obama's focus on health care, energy, education, and deficit reduction are sound and the best possible way to sell a liberal budget. But, the insanely bloated military budget is one of the worst problems facing the country over the long term, and he has done far too little to tackle that. Do I understand why, politically? Yes. But I can't ignore it.

8. Global cooperation - own 30. The positives: The United Nations does exist, there are worldwide treaties, there is a global effort on climate change, nations aren't behaving as selfishly as they did during the Great Depression, and Barack Obama has as great a potential as anyone in history to unite the world toward a common purpose. But I don't think I need to explain why we have a LONG way to go to achieve a decent level of "peace, justice, and sustainable prosperity" on this planet. Obama gets a laudatory A so far. His election, his inauguration, and his Cairo speech were all huge symbolically, and on all kinds of issues and decisions Obama has re-engaged with the world and strengthened global cooperation toward meeting common challenges in significant ways. He has been at his best in this category.

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