Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama's State of the Union

Can the left live with it?

President Obama's speech last night was definitely not a leftist call to arms. But in the wake of a stinging electoral defeat for Democrats in November, it was, by and large, the speech Obama needed to give; and a speech well within his strike zone. One might have expected progressives to condemn Obama's caution, his willingness to concede space to Republicans with commitments to freeze discretionary spending, take on tort reform and and control Medicare spending, but attacks from the left, so far, are muted and seasoned with approval for some of the things he did say.

Nation writer John Nichols adopted a balanced tone in assessing the State of the Union speech. While noting Obama's declared intention to soften some regulations, continue supporting free-trade agreements, in general, and accommodate other Republican interests, Nichols also applauded Obama's forthright defense of Social Security and government investment in infrastructure.

"Obama has more political capital than he did in the weeks after the election .And he used it to defend Social Security -- rather then embrace calls for slashing benefits or experimenting with privatization – and to renew commitments to classic infrastructure investments in roads, bridges and transit, as well as 21st century projects such as high-speed rail and the development of national wireless networks," Nichols wrote.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), noted that Obama's call for further controlling healthcare costs should be perceived as a way to defend, not attack Medicare. "In reference to Medicare and Medicaid, President Obama stuck to the facts and pointed out that the problem is the broken U.S. health care system, not inefficiencies in these programs. He noted the progress made in controlling health care costs in the Affordable Care Act, but acknowledged the need to go much further in containing costs," Baker said in a written statement released by CEPR today.

The statement also credits Obama with resisting "...the immense pressure from the financial industry and other opponents of Social Security and Medicare by refusing to call for large cuts in these programs in his State of the Union Address. Given the power of these groups, this would have been the easiest path for him to take. However, he instead insisted on the need to protect Social Security and to ensure that future generations of workers can also depend on it."

But Baker was clear about the speech's shortcomings: "The most disappointing aspect of the speech is that it largely skipped over the current economic crisis. This may reflect a view that there is little that Congress will agree to do to at this point. But it still is unconscionable to accept the idea that 25 million workers will go unemployed or under-employed, with millions more losing their home, because of the economic mismanagement by the country’s leaders."

He also took exception to Obama's continuing support for free trade, arguing that an over-valued dollar is the fundamental cause of the continuing U.S. trade deficits, "the largest imbalance in the economy today."

Robert Scheer's critique of the speech must rank among the best expressions of left-wing frustration with Obama's centrism. Scheer's post today on The Smirking Chimp dismisses the speech as "platitudinous hogwash." Obama ignored "... the depth of our economic pain and the Wall Street scoundrels who were responsible—understandably so, since they so prominently populate the highest reaches of his administration," Scheer wrote. "The speech was a distraction from what seriously ails us: an unabated mortgage crisis, stubbornly high unemployment and a debt that spiraled out of control while the government wasted trillions making the bankers whole."

Scheer's points are well-taken and only occasionally hyperbolic (the government spent $1 trillion on the Wall Street bailout, not "trillions"). Indeed, there are certainly more bankers and brokers in the Obama administration than there ought to be, but it won't be the presence of Wall Street big shots in the administration that will undermine any moves Obama makes to increase investment in infrastructure and high tech. Nor will they force Obama to compromise his defense of Social Security and Medicaid.

Republican opposition, of course, will be the first cause compromising Obama's ability to move forward with domestic infrastructure investments, with further action to control health care costs, with effective follow-up on Sec. of Defense Robert Gates proposed cuts in the military budget and other initiatives progressives wish to see. But a left that cannot refrain from unnuanced and relentlessly hostile critiques of Obama's performance and agenda could pose a further problem.

Right now most observers on the left seem willing to give Obama the benefit if the doubt. That comes as a little bit of a surprise, given the widespread perception that Obama and Congressional Democrats didn't go far enough with health care or squeeze out a bigger stimulus bill. But the odds are that the left was as chastened by the November election results as was Obama. If so, would it be too much to ask that a progressive follow-up include electing a few more progressives to Congress and organizing to take back a few Congressional districts from the Tea Party?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Michelle Rhee's achievement

It says here: DC schools are not the very worst

Check out the most recent edition of Lapham's Quarterly. In his preamble,"Dancing with the Stars", Lapham sketches out the anatomy and history of celebrity, associating it with earlier manifestations like, "the vanity of princes" or the "wish for kings" or the "pretension to divinity " found in some leaders in all societies, including ours, especially "since John F. Kennedy was king in Camelot, and the collective effort [to manufacture fame]--nearly fifty years of dancing with the stars under the disco balls in Hollywood, Washington and Wall Street..."

There is always, always, a hot new thing, and always a new niche opening. For the moment, former DC public school chancellor Michelle Rhee occupies a celebrity niche in education; type Michelle into a search engine and Rhee will pop up before Obama.

But her moment is likely passing. Rhee has moved on to her own nonprofit organization, Students First, and to Sacramento where she will live. The Students First website promotes the organization as the agent of a national movement that will influence educational policies down to the state and local level. The website features glowing generalities about great teachers, informed parents and motivated students, but little about the Rhee's confrontational attitude toward teachers unions, the ultimate basis for her celebrity. Rhee and Students First, according to Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss, "are attempting to raise $1 billion for her new effort to take on the teachers unions." Rhee, it appears, still prizes confrontation with teachers unions above all else.

In her short turn as chancellor, a little over three calendar years on the job (but likely less than that in real time), Rhee crafted her own image as a teachers union nemesis. And the media responded. See, for example, Time magazine's 2008 take on Rhee, who posed on their cover holding a broom with which she would presumably sweep out the "bad" from America's schools as a way to get on the right track, or Fast Company's 2008 cover story, "The Iron Chancellor," which applauded Rhee's serve-the-children-damn-the-adults rhetoric, or the same magazine's 2010 follow-up on Rhee, which included her off-with-their-heads explanation for the firing of some 250 teachers, "I got rid of teachers who had hit children, who had had sex with children, who had missed 78 days of school," Rhee says. "Why wouldn't we take those things into consideration?"

Standardized test scores improved after Rhee's first year on the job, but the results from the next two years were mixed. Nevertheless, Rhee gets lots of credit for "fixing" a disastrously bad school system. "When Rhee took over in 2007, D.C. schools were tied with Los Angeles for worst-in-the-nation status," writes Richard Whitmire (author of The Bee-Eater: Michelle Rhee Takes on the Nation's Worst School District), in "Rhee's necessary toughness." Her achievement, Whitmire, observes, "boosted the District off the cellar floor." Such an improvement hardly seems worth celebrating, but Whitmire is pleased with it and pronounces his disappointment at being unable to "identify one state poised to make Rhee-style academic gains."

So in the wake of Rhee's scorched-earth march through DC, we are now looking for other leaders who will, at a minimum, literally decimate the teachers unions in various school districts, abandon her post in three years or so, and leave behind minimal gains on standardized tests that cannot be correlated with specific, sustainable reforms. Such are the gifts of celebrity.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Power of Our Grief

There was a time when nobody cared what I did. That is a time to which I am fast returning.

The difference is that the first time around I was unaware of anyone else's active interest in me (or lack thereof), but this time around I am clear that nobody cares.

But why should anybody do so? We all ply this dark river in our one-woman or one-man canoes, and it is too fast a river, and too turbulent. Under those circumstances active caring for another person is an act of grace. The pains and the aches and the memories of wounds and losses are personal burdens that can't easily be shared.

That is one of the things that sex is for--to bridge the gap, to greet the world naked and to share it, to love and be loved, to touch the sky. But one cannot ask too much of lovers, nor grab for too much sky.

It's a funny thing (and a blessing, I guess) when you, and maybe others around, believe that what you do next might make a difference. Might save some lives, or parts of lives. Might help set some people free.

That's where the promise of who we are comes in to play, the promise of who we are willing to try to be. Do we dream across the threshold of ourselves, a person who maybe makes the world a vanishingly small bit better? If ever we are to become that person, it will be love more than skill, openness rather than dedication, the power of kindness, of naked touching, of ecstatic longing and deliberate vulnerability; feelings that first come to us at birth, at sleeping deeply and with each loving encounter.

We can be awesome in our grief for the world. And we can be restored by our shared grief, and wonder that we might always have been okay.