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February 5, 2009
Somehow the words of Stephen Leacock, the late Canadian humorist, keep coming to mind as I watch Barack Obama multi-task the presidency.
The presidency will, of course, always be a multi-task job. But particularly in these unusually troubled times, Obama should avoid leaving the impression—and the reality—that, like the man in humorist Leacock’s description, he “flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”
Candidate Obama promised so many “remaking America” initiatives that one wonders how he could possibly successfully address them all—or perhaps even the majority of them. Especially now, with the national economy in much more serious shape than when Obama was on the campaign trail promising a multitude of “change” initiatives.
Today I think most Americans would prefer that the president follow the old adage that advises, “First things first.” Concentrate on restoring the American economy, back to the point where people were secure in their jobs and in their retirement savings—secure until a combination of Democratic politicians’ irresponsibly liberal home-ownership policies—and a great deal of bad judgment and greed on the part of too many financial institution—created economic chaos.
Any support that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and her followers have generated for the $819 billion “stimulus” package the House passed last week has been met with a barrage of criticism—from liberal-to-moderate David Broder, the respected Washington Post columnist, to conservative Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal.
Broder wrote: “Professional economists from both the right and left have raised questions that are anything but frivolous…Martin Feldstein, a top Reagan adviser, has questioned the efficacy of the current menu of tax cuts and spending proposals to generate consumer demand and provide jobs. Alice Rivlin, who played a similar role for Bill Clinton, has called for a sharper focus on short-term job growth as distinguished from slow-acting steps for energy independence or health-care quality.
“Even the Congressional budget office has challenged how quickly this massive infusion of dollars will be felt in family budgets and their marketplace.”
Peggy Noonan has written in The Wall Street Journal: “The Congressional budget office says only 25% of the money will even go out in the first year. This newspaper, in its analysis, argues that only 12 cents of every dollar is for something that could plausibly be called stimulus.”
The bill as it passed the House was so filled with pork—pet projects of this or that Congressman or his or her constituents—that even customarily liberal CNN commentators were taking critical potshots.
David Broder gave some sound advice, which I might paraphrase in another tried but true adage, “Haste makes waste.” Broder put his advice this way:
“So much is riding on this—both substantively and politically—that it’s worth taking the time to do it right.”
My comments were dictated earlier this week, before the Senate had a chance to consider the House-passed legislation. There may have been later substantial developments in this fast-changing scene. If that’s the case, I hope those developments have included positive, forceful Obama response to the wake-up call coming at him from so many directions.
This country is much more in need of short-term “restoration” than it is of protracted debate over a multitude of issues which would be involved in Obama’s promise to “remake America.”
* * *
As long as I’m giving advice to our forty-fourth president, here’s another suggestion:
Start bypassing some photo opportunities rather than appearing to seek them out. I again quote Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal columnist: “In the time since his inauguration, Mr. Obama has been on every screen in the country, TV and computers, every day. He is never not on the screen.
“I know what his people are thinking: Put his image on the age. Imprint the era with his face. But it’s already reaching saturation point.”
I’m not sure I agree with Noonan as to the Obama team’s motive of putting his image on the era. Nor do I agree that this process is “already reaching saturation point.” My judgment is that it’s not already reaching saturation point; it’s already well past saturation point.
* * *
I came home from two days in Washington last weekend with mixed feelings. First, a thoroughly enjoyable time seeing some old friends and being a guest at the luncheon and 96th anniversary dinner of the Alfalfa Club.
The downside was seeing fresh evidence of the political influence peddling which Barack Obama had pledged to fight. The fresh evidence: The shocking Tom Daschle story. (More later about another shocking story involving a prominent Democrat, Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut.)
The Washington Post gave extensive coverage (the story started on page 1 and ran over a third of an inside page), to the Daschle story. A story of how a respected Senate majority leader from our neighboring state of South Dakota has turned into a wealthy influence peddler in his post-senatorial career (he was defeated for re-election by Senator John Thune in 2004). The Washington Post summarized it thus:
“Daschle’s expertise and insights, gleaned over 26 years in Congress, earned him more than $5 million over the past two years, including $220,000 from the health care industry, and perks such as a chauffered Cadillac.”
Daschle might have continued to peddle influence and build his fortune if the political bug had not bitten again, big time—a chance to become Secretary of Health and Human Services.
He pursued this opportunity until the story of previously unpaid income taxes and—perhaps the final straw—revelation of additional unpaid taxes came to light.
Daschle apologized and withdrew from consideration for the appointment. Obama said he felt he had “screwed up” by letting Daschle come so close to appointment.
The New York Times said of Daschle’s performance: “It shows how in just four years an influential former senator was able to make $5 million and live a lavish lifestyle by dint of his name, connections and knowledge of the town’s inner workings.”
As I see it:
Although he lists a residence in Aberdeen, South Dakota as among his assets, I believe the truth is that in his later years in the Senate, Daschle had become more of a Washingtonian than a South Dakotan, and I believe this hurt him in his bid for a fourth term in the Senate.
Now, after ex-Senator Daschle has become a millionaire Washington influence peddler with a Federal income tax problem, I believe South Dakotans and their neighbors in adjoining states like Nebraska are entitled to say, “Good riddance.”
Elsewhere on the seamy Washington political scene, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he will refinance two home mortgages at lower rates offered to him by a troubled national lender that is being investigated by a Senate ethics panel.
Dodd said he sought no special treatment from Countrywide Financial Corp. He has acknowledged participating in a VIP program at countrywide. He said he thought the VIP program offered upgraded customer service, not reduced interest rates.
* * *
Concluding on a happier note—the better side of my visit to Washington—let me tell you a few of the remarks which drew laughter at both the Alfalfa Club luncheon and later at the black-tie dinner.
Incidentally, I heard only one explanation of why the club—whose members include public officials and business leaders from Washington and across the country—chose the name “Alfalfa.” Alfalfa is a plant that needs a lot of moisture—and there is a good deal of moisture—as it comes in cocktail glasses and bottles—consumed at Alfalfa Club affairs.
I found the pre-lunch and pre-dinner hours very convivial but no more “moist” than comparable cocktail hours before similar luncheons or formal dinners.
At the luncheon sponsored by a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, there were both humorous and serious remarks. Among the more serious remarks were those of General James Jones, Obama’s pick as National Security Advisor.
Jones, whose military leadership roles included commandant of the Marine Corps and Supreme Allied Commander Europe said, there is a perception in some circles that America’s influence, its world leadership, is on the wane or ended.
“I categorically resist with every fiber of my body” the notion that America’s world leadership is past,” Jones declared. “The world wants our leadership.”
Another luncheon speaker, former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, contributed to the levity with a story that Bob Schieffer of CBS News, a fellow Alfalfa Club member, confronted a decision as to whether to air an exclusive but unverified story which would have considerable viewer impact. Schieffer’s decision, as described by Nunn: “Let’s run with it. It’s too good to verify.”
At the Alfalfa Club dinner Saturday evening, news media were not invited but some of the speakers customarily make their remarks available to the press. The Washington Post, for example, had a story the next morning with some of the speakers’ quotes.
The Club has a tradition of nominating its own presidential “candidate.” This year the nominee was Vernon Jordan, Washington lawyer, well known as a civil rights activist and corporate board member.
Jordan spoke of how things have changed since he came to Washington. “Eastland (the late Senator James Eastland of Mississippi) thought I was a Harlem Globetrotter,” Jordan said.
Referring to the Republican presidential nominee, fellow Alfalfa Club member John McCain, Jordan said, “America was just not ready for a white man to be president.” As president, Jordan said, he would proclaim March as “White History Month.”
“Candidate” Jordan ended on a more serious note. On election night last November, Jordan said he went to his home and tears rolled down his cheeks when he learned that Obama had been elected. He recalled his mother’s daily prayer, which concluded, “Trust that things will come right.”
The incoming Alfalfa Club president, Senator Kit Bond of Missouri, said that, when informed that he had been elected president of the Alfalfa Club, he said something like this to his wife: “Honey, in your wildest dreams did you ever imagine an honor like this would come to me.” His wife’s reply, Bond said: “Kit, you’re never in my wildest dreams.”
In response to repeated news media requests, the White House released some of what Obama planned to say at the dinner. Included in his remarks were a reference to the family dog, a Labradoodle, having “some problems with back taxes” in connection with his appointment as official White House family dog. On a more serious note, Obama said, “We can turn on each other and blame one another or we can work together.”
Alfalfa Club president Bond responded: “We wish you the best. Your success will be our success.”
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