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12 posts from February 2009

February 28, 2009

"Tea Party Movement" Planned Months Ago by GOP Billionaires?

(Please Note:  Since first posting this piece, some claims asserted in the Ames/Levine post cited herein have been responded to in a way that makes my initial reading of that article less certain. To reflect that, I have revised the title to include a "?", added an UPDATE section at the bottom of the post, and included in-line links to that update section where relevant. Some questions were answered, some new questions have emerged, and so the conversation has grown.  --ed.)

Populist revolt against the U.S. government is all the rage in the Republican Party, these days.  As they tell the story, the public is so outraged by the recovery and reinvestment efforts of the Obama administration that Americans everywhere are turning out to overthrow the tyrannical king of the federal government by re-enacting the Boston Tea Party.  

Funny thing, though: it turns out this whole "populist" movement was a planned PR stunt funded by big-money right-wing backers of the GOP who specialize in faking grassroots movements to drum up opposition to Barack Obama. 

Everything about this so called "Tea Party" movement was pre-planned--from the supposedly "spontaneous rant" of CNBC stock market reporter, Rick Santelli, to the presumed ground-level organizing of protests all over the country.  Fake, fake, fake--like a product launch staged covertly to look like a spontaneous trend.  (please UPDATE below)

Playboy bloggers Mark Ames and Yasha Levine pulled together all the pieces of this puzzle in an incredible expose (Exposing The Rightwing PR Machine):

What hasn’t been reported until now is evidence linking Santelli’s “tea party” rant with some very familiar names in the Republican rightwing machine, from PR operatives who specialize in imitation-grassroots PR campaigns (called “astroturfing”) to bigwig politicians and notorious billionaire funders. As veteran Russia reporters, both of us spent years watching the Kremlin use fake grassroots movements to influence and control the political landscape. To us, the uncanny speed and direction the movement took and the players involved in promoting it had a strangely forced quality to it. If it seemed scripted, that's because it was.

What we discovered is that Santelli’s “rant” was not at all spontaneous as his alleged fans claim, but rather it was a carefully-planned trigger for the anti-Obama campaign. In PR terms, his February 19th call for a “Chicago Tea Party” was the launch event of a carefully organized and sophisticated PR campaign, one in which Santelli served as a frontman, using the CNBC airwaves for publicity, for the some of the craziest and sleaziest rightwing oligarch clans this country has ever produced. Namely, the Koch family, the multibilllionaire owners of the largest private corporation in America, and funders of scores of rightwing thinktanks and advocacy groups, from the Cato Institute and Reason Magazine to FreedomWorks. The scion of the Koch family, Fred Koch, was a co-founder of the notorious extremist-rightwing John Birch Society.

It helps, in other words, to have field experience ferreting out Soviet propaganda to understand how Rick Santelli suddenly became the figurehead of a right-wing "grassroots" revolt against the United States government.   It is worth reading the entire post.  

The next time you hear that the Tea Party Republican revolt is "grassroots," "spontaneous," and "populist," just swap out those PR keywords for the more accurate terms:  "planned," "scripted," "billionaire bigwigs."  

All of this makes sense, of course.  Santelli's philippic had all the hallmarks of a rehearsed piece of political theater--the pre-planned message launched of a viral marketing campaign. (please UPDATE below)

Not that any of this comes as a surprise, but...my goodness. 

Even though the curtain has been pulled back  on this astroturf marketing by GOP megabucks elite backers, it is important to keep in mind what the larger stakes are and how to respond.

Scripted or not--this Tea Party revolt needs to be treated as politically real.  People engaged in this agitation will not acknowledge ever that it is scripted, because these folks sincerely think they are engaged in some kind of revolution against their own government. They really want the country to evaluate whether or not an elected President and Congress are the same as a tyrannical king and whether a tax by fiat from the 18c is the same as a legislature approved public investment program from the 21c.  Those folks just want to make noise--lots of noise--to throw the debate off its tracks.

The big story to defend and advance, in other words, is a president advancing real solutions aimed at helping millions of Americans in serious economic trouble.  The agitation against it, whether it is scripted or not, is designed to stop those solutions from being discussed seriously, from unfolding, and then to weaken the president making them happen.  That is a basic confrontation between pragmatic action and ideological politics--between investment in people and inaction in the name of  dogma.

In the end, then, we need to make themselves aware of the massive resources the right is spending to block any effort by the American people to work together to repair the damage to our economy and restore our national confidence.  And after we have made ourselves aware of how far the opposition is willing to go, we need to get back to work making sure the debate states focused on the real issue at hand here:  millions and millions families who need help right now, and the greatness of a nation that stands together in times of need to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles.

UPDATE: This Story Has Grown (3.3.09)
Well, that was fast:  this story, less than a week old, seems way out of date.  Among other things, there have been lots of answers to the claims posed in the Ames/Levine piece that it warrants opening up my initial title to a  bigger question about what exactly happened.  First and foremost, I have added a question mark ("?") to the end of the post title to reflect how this story has grown since I first posted about the Ames/Levine piece on Rick Santelli.  Here is the list of events that I think are relevant for everyone to know:

1. Santelli finally made a statement about this whole thing here. This is his first paragraph:

First of all let me be clear that I have NO affiliation or association with any of the websites or related tea party movements that have popped up as a result of my comments on February 19th, or to the best of my knowledge any of the people who organized the websites or movements. By the way of background, I am not and never have been a stockbroker. Not that there is anything wrong with being a stockbroker. The home I have lived in for 20 years is a 2,500-square foot ranch. Not that there is anything wrong with owning a larger, grander house. I am currently an on air editor with CNBC. Prior to my 10 years in this capacity I was a member in good standing on both the Chicago Futures Exchanges. My career in the futures industry spanned 20 years.

Seems like an answer, although I wish he had not used the phrase 'to the best of my knowledge'--which makes him sound like he talked to a lawyer first. When people deny that they knew someone or were involved in something 'to the best of my knowledge,' that typically means they are concerned about accidentally committing perjury if a fact comes out later that shows they were in fact involved.  Does that mean Santelli might have been involved in something without knowing it?  I have no idea; I am not an attorney.   It could be that Santelli just adds that sentence as a routine part of insulating himself from accusations of financial conflicts of interests.  Since he reports from a trading floor, that kind of legalese could just be routine.  So, Santelli has spoken and that is where it ended up.

2. Whether or not CNBC actually asked Santelli if he was involved in any organizing is the obvious question.  As a result of filing that exact query, the Columbia School of Journalism's blog Full Court Press (FCP) posted the following exchange they had with CNBC spokesman Brian Steel:

All this led Mark Ames and Yasha Levine to speculate at playboy.com that Santelli’s fifteen minutes were actually part of a right-wing Republican disinformation campaign to undermine Obama’s efforts to rescue the economy. Asked about this charge by FCP, CNBC spokesman Brian Steel sent an e-mail saying, “Rick Santelli’s comment clearly struck a nerve among a large portion of American citizens and sparked a debate which is something Rick has done for more than a decade as a commentator on CNBC. To try to make anything more of his comment than that is ridiculous and without basis in fact.”

FCP e-mailed back, “On the record: was he asked by his bosses if he was part of a larger organized effort? What “news” purpose was served by repeating this rant over and over again on CNBC, and promoting him (and it) on the Today Show?”

“We don’t comment on internal CNBC discussions,” Steel replied. Then, although FCP had specified that it was only interested in an on-the-record response, he added: “Off the record it strikes me that my first answer is unquivocal [sic] and should answer all your questions. Also off the record I am curious as to why CJR has written about it at least three times particularly since each time your readers via the comments section of your website have overwhelming disgreed [sic] with your views. It seems as if you are both tone deaf and hypocritcal [sic].”

So much for asking follow-up questions in the world of cable news.

Once the accusations of 'hypocrisy' come out, that tends to be a sign that nobody wants to have a grown-up conversation anymore.  Steel is clearly doing his job, which is to spread the chosen message that Santelli's performance was consistent with his long history of making statements that spark widespread debate amongst American citizens.  In all fairness to Steel trying to get out CNBC's message, the only example of Santelli sparking debate I can think of is the time he called for 'Tea Parties' last week.  So CNBC should probably issue a list of debates Santelli sparked if they want that message to take.

3.  Playboy took down the Ames/Levine post (as of Mar 2, from what I can tell).  They have not issued any kind of statement. 

4. Ames and Levine are sticking by their story, following up with a not-so-subtle piece titled CNBC Bitch-Slaps Santelli Into Line, FreedomWorks Admits It Organized “Grassroots” Tea Parties, Jon Stewart Cancels Santelli & Megan McArdle Queefs On Our Founding Fathers. 

5. Among other things, the Ames-Levine follow-up piece cites an AP article that they say backs up their initial claims.  The provide a link to a Star-Tribune article titled CNBC Says Ranting Rick Santelli is not Affiliated with Political Site that Uses his Name (David Bauer, Mar 2, 2009).  The article goes on to desccribe how the site reateaparty.com included enough references to Santelli for readers to conclue that Santelli was involved with the group--right up to an 'About Rick Santelli' page, but took down all the references when asked to do so by CNBC.

So, what can we conclude thus far?  The Tea Party folks would have us conclude that anyone who asked these questions about Santelli (me, for example) is an idiot leftie.  No surprise about that reaction, but there is more to be said.

In particular, I still wonder about two missing pieces of information: (1) why did Playboy take down the original post and (2) why did Santelli use the phrase 'to the best of my knowledge' in is rebuttal.   It seems fair to wonder about those things, given that the debate supposedly sparked by all this has led to cries of anti-government revolution (no small thing).

To speculate on the first:  Playboy probably took it down for fear of a boycott or of being sued or both.  Despite the racy content of the magazine, Playboy is still a relative newcomer to the world of political blogging.  They likely decided to just pull back and wait this thing out.

To speculate on the second: Santelli probably said 'to the best of my knowledge' because CNBC advised him to--which is perfectly legal, logical, reasonable, etc.  And CNBC probably advised him to say it because they had not yet figured out if Santelli was really involved with any of the sites that seemed to claim him as a participant.  CNBC then got to work examining all the free marketing they received as a result of Santelli's performance, putting Santelli and their brand back in the bottle as much as they could (which is their legal right), and pushing back against questions from bloggers and journalists who were wondering (also fairly) about those connections.

And that brings us up to date. 

February 27, 2009

Tea Party Republicans

Everywhere I look, these days, Republicans are revolting.   Here are a few snapshots of what prominent Republicans are doing:

- Ann Coulter:  In weekly column told a racist joke about Bobby Jindal, called the Speaker of the House "mentally retarded," call public schools a "union incinerator" that eat children

- Michele Bachmann (R-MN):  In remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference, used racist black-face slang to praise RNC Chair Michael Steele,"You be da man! You be da man!"

- Rush Limbaugh:  On national radio show, called President Obama a "castrati", in response to Secretary of Defense Policy shift to allow press to photograph flag-draped caskets returning from Iraq

- Michelle Malkin: Maligned American victims of subprime mortgage scams as "predatory borrowers" 

- Dean Grose (Republican Mayor, Los Alamitos, CA): Circulated racist email containing photo of watermelons growing on White House lawn with title "No Easter egg hunt this year"

Incredibly, in addition to all this revolting behavior from leading Republican pundits and elected officials, there is also a full scale revolt led by Republicans against the American government, today.

That's right:  a revolt.

The Republican revolt is called Tea Party U.S.A. and the idea is that Republicans will stage protests against government spending, today, to send the message to Washington that the American people are tired of taxation without representation--or something like that. 

Curiously, the Facebook page for one of the Washington, DC, Tea Party says that this is not actually a Republican event:

This isn't a conservative or liberal thing. This is about government forking over billions of dollars to businesses that should have failed. This is about taking money from responsible people and handing it over to CEOs who squandered their own. (link)

That seems reasonable, until we look at the list of organizations sponsoring the Washington, DC, Tea Party:

- Americans for Prosperity

- Americans for Tax Reform

- Young Conservatives Coalition

- The Heartland Institute

- National Taxpayers Union

- FreedomWorks

- Institute for Liberty

Not exactly a "Who's Who" of progressive or liberal non-profit groups.  And if we head on over to the Tea Party website, we see the following "talking points":

1. This is a non-partisan event — in fact, it’s critical of both parties — large-scale government interventions into the free market were kicked off under Bush, and Obama’s doing no better.

2. The American taxpayer is better at spending his money than the government. If you ask your average taxpayer if he wanted to spend millions of dollars on golf course renovations, you could be sure he’d say no.

3. Small business owners are the backbone of the economy, not large failing corporations. Amping up regulations only hurts these businesses.

4. It is our *optimism* that guides our frustration. We believe so strongly in the ingenuity and hard work of the American people, that we feel big government measures will only get in the way of their success.

Critical of both parties?  Those talking points read like they were clipped out of a Gov. Jindal's response speech with a pair of safety scissors. 

Yep.  It has been a week of revolting Republicans, alright.  And things are getting revoltinger and revoltinger with each passing day.

This leads me to wonder: Why would anyone support Republicans who revolt against government spending on tax relief for the middle class, but not against no-bid contracts for Iraq?

Why would anyone support Republicans who revolt against deficit spending the moment the country elects a Democratic President, but not during the last 8 years when a Republican was in the White House?

Why would anyone support Republicans who cannot break the habit of telling racist jokes whenever a black, brown or otherwise non-white person takes the national political stage?

Why would anyone support Republicans who use their huge media platforms to hurl 2nd-grade schoolyard insults at non-Republicans, instead of offering pragmatic solutions to America's economic problems?

As I watch the coverage of the CPAC conference, the dilemma facing revolting Republicans comes into focus.  The Republican Party does not seem to have anybody in a position of leadership who feels compelled to speak about solving the problems Americans face in their everyday lives, today.  Instead, the collective Republican leadership is stuck in revolt mode.  They revolt against gun laws, against taxes, against any domestic program proposed by Democrats--all in the name of a vague idea of 'freedom,' but never with an eye towards what actual people are going through in this country right now.

And the more the Republican leadership revolts, the more revolting they seem to the vast majority of the public.

There is a groundswell of ideas trying to be heard in the Republican Party, but the din of the tea party Republican being thrown by the current leadership is blocking their voices.  They are old ideas mixed with new:  Goldwater conservatism blended together with the participatory civics of on-line media.  It is a seed of a new Republican Party that has the potential to draw in new membership and garner national support.   But we will not see or hear those ideas so long as they are drowned out by the revolting.

Meanwhile, as the Republicans leadership reverts to the same childish antics that turned off so many voters in the 2006 and 2008 elections, Americans worry about finding the money to put tea on their own tables--about making their mortgage payments, paying for treatment when they sick, and covering the cost of their child's college tuition.  Symbolic tea parties, in other words, are not the collective action that an America in need actually needs right now.  We need pragmatic, steady, and relentless actions--solutions after solution after solution until we finally stop the free fall of our economy and our optimism, allowing us to begin the long, arduous climb back to the surface.    While revolting Republicans sit down for their tea parties, today, the White House, the Congress, and state governments across the country are working to give Americans those solutions. 

Something tells me, however, that the Republican leadership has a lot more tea parties to throw--and long way down the rabbit hole to fall--before they see what really concerns Americans nowadays.

Cream and sugar, anyone?

February 25, 2009

The One Word Obama Now Owns More Than Any Other

A fundamental shift in how Americans understand the word investment since Barack Obama became President was the key factor underlying the political theater of last night.

If there was any doubt how much President Obama has taken hold of that word, redefined it, and re-injected it back into every kitchen table conversation across America--his speech and the weak response of Gov. Jindal (R-LA) put that doubt to rest.

How exactly has the word  'investment' changed and what are the consequences?

Before Obama took office, Americans used the word 'investment' primarily to talk about personal gain, not to talk about the public good. We talked about 'investment accounts,' asked friends if they 'heard about this good investment,' and watched our bank statements to make sure we were getting a 'good rate of return on our investments.'   When we talked or thought about our houses, our hearts quickened and filled with self doubt:  "Have I made a terrible investment?"  When our children open their college admission letters, we hugged them with pride, but then turned to our spouses later that night and said with shame,"I just don't know if we can afford this kind of investment right now."

Without a doubt, the dire situation in the national and global economy will keep those conversations about personal investments going for some time.  But since President Obama took office, a new meaning has eclipsed the old.

While the mainstream media and right-wing pundits obsessed over the word 'stimulus,' President Obama steadily pushed--and passed--an historic piece of legislation with the word 'investment' in the title:  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In speech after speech leading up to the passage of the bill, TV talking heads wondered whether or not the bill would succeed in 'stimulating' the economy.  Meanwhile, as that conversation was happening on DC circuit talk shows, Obama talked directly to the American people about the importance of 'investing' in new energy, infrastructure, and education.  And the public heard him.

What the public has seen over the past 8-years of Bush Republican rule are the dangerous consequences that arise when the American people fail to maintain and modernize the systems and resources that we all use.   We saw these failures in the collapse of the levees in New Orleans and the collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis.  Friends and family members died.  The safety and security of such basic acts as driving on a road or sitting in one's home during a rainstorm--safety we took for granted--suddenly filled us with doubt.  So, President Obama spent weeks talking about investing in public works to upgrade and modernize our roads, bridges, and other structures.  And we heard the word 'invest' and we listened.

We also saw that there is something horribly wrong with the role of oil and gas in American life.  We see our children and spouses sent off to fight wars in countries that we know nothing about other than the fact that they supply us with oil.   We see the price of gas at the pump change radically from month to month, causing havoc to our household budgets while the same handful of oil companies reap profits so large we cannot even comprehend them.  So, President Obama spent weeks talking about investing in a new energy economy that will stabilize prices, free us from fighting wars to protect foreign oil fields, and help us generate an energy revenue stream that benefits the whole country, not just a few large conglomerates.  And we heard the word 'invest' and we listened.

We also saw how difficult it has become for our children to get the kind of education that allows them to become the kind of citizens they want and need to be.  We see our children saddled with more and more homework, more and more books, but less and less confidence.  We see our classrooms filled with more and more students, but less and less resources. We hear about the so-called success of the Bush-era school reforms, but we only see the quality of education of our school go down.  We see the price of college tuition push way past the point where anyone can afford it, and yet we see new stadiums and billion dollar endowments become routine. So, President Obama spent weeks talking about investing in better education for the benefit of more capable and more confident American children.  And we heard the word 'invest' and we listened.

We also felt the fear of working hard our entire lives only to be sent into personal bankruptcy by a sudden illness.  We see our wives, husbands, parents and grandparents live every day in fear that they will be forced to choose between health and happiness, that they will be forced to choose between paying for prescriptions and paying for food.  We open insurance claim rejection letters from private companies we have paid out of our paychecks for years--paid on the idea that they would be there for us when we needed them, but now they are spitting in our faces. So, President Obama spent weeks talking about investing in a more affordable and more  modern health care system that would make sure that everybody would have the coverage they need--investing in a system that would finally tackle the fear of getting sick that we live with in this country.  And we heard the word 'invest' and we listened.

Over a period of about a month, while our anxieties at the fate of our private and personal investments mounted, President Obama unrolled a hopeful definition of investment redefined as: expending resources in public projects for the benefit of all.  The word 'investment' defined as a private action was challenged, and ultimately overtaken by the word 'investment' defined as public action. 

When President Obama finally said the following in his speech, last night, he did not need to explain it anymore to the American public, because we were already there with him:

Well that day of reckoning has arrived, and the time to take charge of our future is here.  Now is the time to act boldly and wisely – to not only revive this economy, but to build a new foundation for lasting prosperity.  Now is the time to jump start job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down.  That is what my economic agenda is designed to do, and that’s what I’d like to talk to you about tonight.  It’s an agenda that begins with jobs.  (link)

Expending resources now for the benefit of the future is the basic idea behind investment. But Obama was not speaking in the context of a new national story.  Whereas decades of Republican ideology had impoverished the idea of investment--demonized anyone who attempted to talk about public rather than private investments--last night a new, larger idea re-emerged.

We have not lost the private definition of investment, but now it sits on a much broader playing field whose parameters are 'our community'  and 'we the people.'

Gov. Jindal's response to President Obama's speech was another demonstration of how this new idea of 'investment'  has changed the debate.

What Jindal tried to do last night was ignore George W. Bush and return to the rhetoric and ideas of Ronald Reagan.  Cutting through the words, the message in Jindal's speech came early on in this passage:

To solve our current problems, Washington must lead. But the way to lead is not to raise taxes and not to just put more money and power in hands of Washington politicians. The way to lead is by empowering you, the American people. Because we believe that Americans can do anything. (link)

The problem here, is that Jindal has failed to understand how Obama has refocused the word 'investment' to the notion of care for the public good.

Jindal criticizes the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as if it is simply taking away from the private investments of individual citizens--as it if is undermining our personal gain.  That critique, however, is fundamentally out of sync with the experience of millions and millions of Americans.  We have saved, we have worked hard, we have invested in our retirement, paid our insurance bills, kept our cars and homes in good working order, sent our kids to college.  Still, the country we see day-to-day is crumbling around us and only a few, extremely wealthy people seem to benefit to a degree and in a way we never do.  We heard Jindal, in other words, and we thought, "Haven't you been listening to us?  Private investment is not enough!"

Unfortunately, Gov. Jindal's devotion to Republican ideology and his nostalgia for Reagan's rhetoric leads him to conclude that things are bad for Americans because of the actions of government.  But when a bridge collapses or a level breaks, it is not the actions of government that is the cause.  It is the inaction--the neglect.

And there we have it--the parameters of the new debate that have emerged from President Obama's redefining of the word 'investment.'

Rather than talking about 'big government' vs. 'small government' or 'tax cuts' vs. 'tax raises,' we can finally talk about what matters to all of us:  investment or neglect. 

Are we going to continue to neglect the future of our country to the detriment of our health, peace of mind, the well-being of our children?  Or are we going to invest in the health and confidence of all in a more just and inclusive democracy?

For millions of Americans, after just a few short weeks of Barack Obama as President, the question is easy to answer.  Think about how hard it was for so many people to answer this time last year.

Of course, now that President Obama owns the word 'investment,' it is also up to him to make sure that Americans recognize and understand how and when these newly defined investments come to fruition--both in the short and long term.  That is no easy task.  

Next year at this time, it will be interesting to see how well the President has done.

February 20, 2009

Which Economic Indicator Will Obama Watch?

With aggressive moves to revive the economy coming from the White House almost daily, journalists are starting to wonder which economic indicator the Obama administration watches to gauge the success of the recovery.    One way to answer the question is to look closer at the words Obama has used to talks about the economic crisis.

Jonathan Feinberg's Wordle.net system offers an innovative way to see which terms Obama has emphasized in his prepared speeches.  Wordle takes a piece of text and transforms it into a "word cloud": a list of the words presented larger or smaller relative to how many times each is used. 

Trying out Wordle a few times on other speeches, my hunch was that the system could be used to bring into focus those aspects of the economy that Obama was emphasizing when he spoke about the crisis in his weekly addresses, which have mostly been about the economy up to this point.

Obama's February 7 weekly address, for example, produced this Wordle image:

What we see, here, is a picture of how President Obama talked to the nation about the economy on February 7, 2009.   During this time period, the broadcast and print media was obsessing over the idea of 'bipartisanship.'   This image reveals, however, that President Obama was emphasizing jobs. 

If we return to the first weekly address Obama delivered January 24, we get a different picture of how the new President first spoke to the country about economic recovery, along with a different keyword as emphasis:

Here, we see the very first economic concept Obama emphasized was energy and, to a lesser extent, health care.  Interestingly, whereas the February 7 address emphasized infrastructure (notice the words 'levees' and 'crumbling' in the first image), Obama's January 24 address put more emphasis 'students' and 'college.'  Both addresses emphasized 'work.'

These images are not revealing startling information so much as they are clarifying what gets lost when Obama's words are swept up in Republican PR and media noise.  Simply put:  When Obama unrolled the economic debate to the general public, he emphasized energy, health care, and education as key areas of government investment.  As he pushed harder to pass the bill in Congress, he brought in a new emphasis on infrastructure projects, appealing more directly to representatives with the ailing finances and rising unemployment of their constituents in mind.

In the moment after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed, Obama repeated the word 'work' over and over again, stating clearly that his main focus for economic recovery was doing the work that needed to be done.  He also emphasized that the impact of this work would take time--time and work.

Emphasis in last week's address on work and time suggests a fairly safe conclusion that unemployment is the main indicator that the Obama administration is watching to see if their plan is working.  This is not to say that they are ignoring the stock market indexes.  Anybody with a pulse has noticed the sinking Dow Jones Industrial Index.  Most Americans have watched their retirement portfolio's cut in half if not more.  But the White House is watching the stock market, Obama's words suggest, in the context of employment figures.  Even if the stock market goes up, they will not see that as a success unless the unemployment rate starts to subside.  In fact, that is a good way for the White House to look at indicators because stock prices may rise and fall with various news items, but the overall value of the markets can only rise when employment stabilizes and then strengthens. 

If I had to predict which words the Obama weekly address will emphasize this week, I would say 'foreclosure' and 'spread,' picking up on the idea that economic stability can only happen if the default rate on middle class home owners declines.  Mortgage default rates, in other words, are the next indicator the Obama administration is watching after unemployment.

For journalists accustomed to simply looking at the market scroll on cable news as the leading indicator of economic health, the new emphasis of the Obama team may seem odd.  But for the rest of America, it is a welcome change.  After 8 years of talking about economic health in terms of nothing but 'markets,' the Obama administration has bringing a new language and a new focus to the debate.

It is a focus we can hear and see, if only we pay attention.

February 19, 2009

On The Joy Of Not Cringing At Our President

A funny thing happened as I was watching President Obama's press conference with Prime Minister Harper in Ottawa: I did not cringe with embarrassment.

It may seem like an odd admission at first. After all, everybody knows by now that Obama is comfortable on the public stage--at ease with teleprompter and off-the-cuff alike--and expert at framing key concepts to shape and lead a pragmatic debate.  

And yet, after 8 years of pulling my hair out in large clumps each time George W. Bush stood at a press conference with another world leader, I feel a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders by the mere fact that Obama was not embarrassing.  Policy positions aside:  what a relief to not feel utterly humiliated as a citizen after watching our Commander in Chief take the foreign stage.

I know others felt the same way. 

For example, I noticed at the Ottawa press conference that nobody in the room stood up, shouted something threatening, and then threw their shoes at our President.  Based on my anthropological expertise of cross-cultural behavior, I can verify with relative certainty that not throwing shoes at a world leader is a universal sign of not being overcome with frustration and annoyance. I also noticed that Obama did not butcher any words in the English language, resulting in many people not laughing at him and not telling jokes depicting him as a fool.

Not cringing at the President when he is abroad may seem like an insignificant thing relative to the details of the Recovery Act or troop levels in Afghanistan or benchmarks on lowering carbon emissions.  Still, imagine the impact of these non-cringe-worthy Presidential press conferences abroad.  Each time President  Obama stands on the global stage, waves of non-embarrassment and non-frustration will wash over millions and millions of people like a warm and relaxing mist.  "My goodness," the world will whisper to itself. "This new American President does not make us uncontrollably anxious."

Now, here at home there are some in the broadcast media who are trying very hard to repackage each of President Obama's appearances as threatening or disconcerting.  These pundits are trying to convince the public to be nervous and concerned when Obama speaks at home or abroad. It is not working.

The fact is, a new reality is emerging each time our President speaks, and with that reality a new feeling.  Like Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, when President Obama speaks to the public, either at home or abroad, members of the public feel distinctly different than they felt over the past 8 years.  They feel--positive.

This positive feeling is a combination of two things all rolled into one.  We are relieved that the recent era of American Presidential ignorance and jingoism is over and we are amazed that the voice of an American President can once again light up a room, no matter what the lingua franca of the room may be.

Combined with Secretary of State Clinton's diplomatic emphasis on 'smart' foreign policy, President Obama's ability to not make people cringe when he speaks is a powerful tool, and will be the key to advancing a vast array of important policy changes.  It is hard to imagine how it could not be.

No matter how unsavory political debate may seem here at home, particularly as the next stage of Obama's recovery bill gets chewed up like an old slipper by Congressional Republicans and the right-wing media--remember the feeling that flowed from Obama's press conference in Ottawa, today. 

A little non-cringing at our President abroad may just go a long way towards changing the world.

February 18, 2009

Is American Car Patriotism Dead?

When I was growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, my family only bought American cars.  We were not particularly patriotic.  We never had a flag pole in our yard.  But we only had American cars in our garage.   I wonder, as GM executives arrive again on Capital Hill, how many families are left who still adhere to American car patriotism? Not many, I suspect.  And this leads me to a strong, if not sobering prescription for GM.

To succeed again, GM must do more than build good cars. GM must find a path from 'buy American' to 'buy green' and then it must become that path.  It must not only find a way to market itself as a premier car company for transportation invested in environmental stewardship, but also create the means for millions of Americans to identify anew with their products as the country embraces a more sustainable economic and cultural story.

GM of all companies has probably benefited the most from this kind of automotive nationalism.  At one point, the main focus of their TV marketing was swapping the word 'Mom' for 'Chevrolet' in the jingle, "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and...Chevrolet." 

Personally, I think American car patriotism is not such a bad idea, but I can see why fewer and fewer people go in for it these days.  Try asking any potential car buyer under 40, for example, if they would buy an American car.   Irrespective of their political persuasion, that under-40 potential buyer is likely to offer up something about going green--the environment and trust. Deep down they may have memories of buying American cars when they were kids, but times have changed.  Buying American is what our parents did.  Buying green is what we do now.  Or is it?

What if, for example, President Obama were to use the bully pulpit to rekindle American car patriotism?  "American car companies are building the cars that Americans need," he could say at his next press event. "So if you need a car, buy one from GM, Ford or Chrysler."  Even if Obama did say that, though, I doubt the resulting media stir would translate into car sales.

The problem is the new frame the defines our thinking on car sales.  The big story on buying cars has shifted in the past few years from 'buy American' to 'buy green,' but GM has not shifted with it. Ford is already well under way towards refocusing their brand and they are not taking bailout funds at this point.  Plus, Ford has a prominent executive who bears the company name and is genuinely a leader of new green thinking. But GM? Not so much.

Take a look at GM's website and you see a company that talks big change, but is oddly out of sync with the new vernacular.  GM speaks a different language than a country of consumers seeing the world anew threw green tinted glasses.   GM may throw around hopes of  new fuel cells and adding a few more miles per gallon to current models, but they also talk about the enduring need for trucks.  They sound like a company weighed down by nostalgia far more than they are buoyed by innovation.   And this says nothing about the quality and value of the cars they produce, which is higher than at any other time in the company's history.   

GM is suffering from a brand-identity problem, and a severe one at that.  When I close my eyes and think of the most "un-green" large-scale manufacturing company in America, for example, GM is right up there in my list of three or four.  Is that fair?  Probably not.   God knows I would still give my left kidney for a 1978 Corvette.  Still, the fact remains that when most people today think of GM, they do not think of sustainability. 

While GM is busy trying to convince the country through PR that it is poised to become a major player in the new era of sustainability, more and more Americans look at GM as the company that symbolizes the old era of gas guzzlers and SUVs.  

All this means that the path to survival for GM--not to mention prosperity--is more than a matter of finding a way to put high-capacity batteries into production vehicles in the next 2 years.  Given enough cash, they could probably do that.  For GM to thrive again, the company must drop its past reliance on American car patriotism and embrace the new 'green' ethic that is pushing Americans to reinvent themselves.  

What might this look like if GM actually underwent such a radical transformation?

Imagine, for example, if tomorrow GM announced that it was changing the mission of its company to something like this:

Meet the world's transportation needs with the goal of protecting global water resources for future generations everywhere?

Now, if I were to sit down with a GM executives tomorrow, and advise them to change their mission statement to emphasize transportation and water stewardship (just one possibility of many) instead of just selling cars, they would tell me that I was being unrealistic and that I should find a way to 'balance' the economy with the need to protect the environment.   And that is what makes GM a company of the past--a company hiding from change behind a cloak of American car patriotism that is rapidly diminishing.

Ford has already made the shift from 'cars' to 'transportation' and from 'earnings' to 'stewardship' in their corporate vision. GM has not even begun. 

And yet, for a company of GM's size to benefit from the kind of economic investment and recovery the Obama administration has set in motion, it must do more than just take buckets of government money and apply it to the holes in its rickety financial roof.  GM must reinvent and revolutionize the very meaning of "GM" in the American mind.

To all those GM executives who would respond to this challenge by saying, "We have already done it!"  My answer is: Sorry, but...no you have not.  The truth is in the hearts and minds of the American consumer when it comes to GM, not in the damage control of the GM PR machine.

I am optimistic, if not a bit nostalgic.  If GM would start tomorrow to build that path from 'buy American' to 'buy green'--the next 5 years could be the most exciting time the American consumer has ever known.  The innovations that could hit the market as a result of a completely reinvented GM would be virtually limitless. The Detroit Auto Show could become the biggest world stage for green technology ever known.  Michigan could become the center of a new green manufacturing movement.  The result would be a radical shift in how we experience and how we think about American cars and how we think about being American.

The choice is up to GM--the real choice.  I hope they make it.

February 14, 2009

How Obama Frames 'Success'

The passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will go down in history as one of the boldest efforts to push past the voices of dissent and invest public resources in the Middle Class.  But beyond the stunning scale of his legislation, President Obama is working hard to reframe how we talk and think about the most fundamental idea in American culture: economic success.

One of the best ways to see Obama's reframing in action are the transcripts of his Weekly Addresses. 

In this week's address, after lauding Congress for passing his legislation, Obama defines in clear and specific terms what he means by 'success' in the context of the debate on the economy (emphasis added):

For our plan to succeed, we must stabilize, repair, and reform our banking system, and get credit flowing again to families and businesses.

We must write and enforce new rules of the road, to stop unscrupulous speculators from undermining our economy ever again.

We must stem the spread of foreclosures and do everything we can to help responsible homeowners stay in their homes.

And in the weeks ahead, I will submit a proposal for the federal budget that will begin to restore the discipline these challenging times demand. Our debt has doubled over the past eight years, and we’ve inherited a trillion-dollar deficit – which we must add to in the short term in order to jumpstart our sick economy. But our long-term economic growth demands that we tame our burgeoning federal deficit; that we invest in the things we need, and dispense with the things we don’t. This is a challenging agenda, but one we can and will achieve. (link)

When extracting a definition from political rhetoric, it is often helpful to divide the longer definition into subheadings to see how the concept breaks down.  

Obama divides economic "success" into four (4) related tracks:

  1. credit
  2. regulation
  3. housing
  4. debt

In talking about success in the credit markets, Obama defines credit in terms of water "flowing," picking up on the well accepted idea that the cash is "frozen" inside lending institutions and needs to be "unfrozen" for the markets to function again.   In addition to the metaphor of [credit] as [water], however, Obama uses the phrase "stabilize, repair, and reform" on which a great deal depends.  We will probably hear that phrase a great deal this week, as it establishes a logic using alliteration--a sure sign of an intentional framing effort.  But what does "stabilize, repair, and reform" do to our thinking about banks?

The idea that a credit market is unstable, broken, and out of control is a departure that puts Americans in a new conversation.  Under a Republican dominated debate--the past 8-years or so--the banking system was described in terms of wealth, capital, and cash, but nothing more.  In that language, which dominated when the crisis banking broke in the last weeks of the Bush administration, the goal was also to "unfreeze" credit, but there was never any sense that strong, lasting action from outside the banking system was required to restore it.  Credit, in the Republican idea of things, is just a river flowing in nature--there are no built structures.   With Obama's new language, that sense has changed.  He is beginning to talk about the build structures that make the flow of credit possible--a canal rather than a river, perhaps.  We also begin to see the signs of repair going up around the structures the way scaffolds appear around a building.

A similar image begins to come into focus when Obama talks about the "rules of the road," a metaphor for market regulation.

Republicans talked only about regulation in the context of attacking the idea, advancing a claim that capitalism only works if there are no rules.  In that logic, rules are like hurdles--boulders put in the river that impede the flow.  With his new language, Obama is unfolding a metaphor that defines markets in terms of roads and highways. 

When we talk about roads and highways, nobody would disagree that the best way to make sure we can drive from one place to another and return home safely is to have rules of the road that make sense and that everybody observes.  We also need a system to enforce those rules.  As much as each of us may resent the traffic cop when she is writing us a speeding ticket for $250 and making us late for our father's birthday party (ehem), we understand and agree that the alternative is a system of deadly mayhem that no longer functions--no longer gets people from point A to point B.  And that is how Obama would like Americans to start thinking about the financial markets. 

On the issue of housing, the Republican dominated debate only allowed for a conversation about homeowners who took on more than they could chew.  Listen to the Republicans of the past 6 months talk about the sub-prime mortgage bubble and inevitably they say that the 'root cause' of the entire financial crisis was low-income first-time home buyers who assumed mortgages they could not afford.  In Obama's new language, foreclosure itself is defined as a problem that must be addressed. Obama describes foreclosure as if it is a stain 'spreading' across the country, and encourages Americans to think both about stopping this spreading stain and about responsible home buying as necessary parts of fixing the housing crisis.  Stopping the spread of foreclosure is a way to visualize the action that needs to be taken.  Stains must be treated to be removed.

Finally, Obama's definition of economic success involves a return to a conversation about "debt," which he links strongly to the idea of investment.  This is a major departure from Republican language and logic.

When Republicans dominated the economic discussion, the only federal debt they discussed was spending on domestic programs.  According to this logic, all domestic spending was bad.  This led the public to conclude that the only way to stem federal debt was to eliminate government programs, such as Social Security, Medicaid, and unemployment.   Debt Republicans never talk about includes debt incurred to fund the military, debt incurred to give tax revenue back to the wealthiest 1% of Americans, and debt incurred to protect foreign sources of oil.

Obama introduces a very simple idea--the idea that we must "invest in the things we need"--to begin a national conversation about long-term and short-term, good and bad debt. This new language injects a basic, pragmatic set of question into the debate about federal debt:  Is it useful for America in the long run to invest money in the short run?  If the answer is "no," Obama tells us, then the debt will be eliminated.  More importantly, he is inviting us to begin thinking about federal debt in terms of investing and our social programs not as 'entitlements,' but as a long term portfolio.    It may seem simple to think of federal money as investment in a portfolio for the long-term benefit of the nation, but under Republican dogma that dominated the past ten years, it has been impossible to start that conversation about investment.

This brings us to a general, four-part definition of "economic success" being advanced by President Obama:

  1. credit structures have been rebuilt so they are stable
  2. market regulation has established clear and enforceable rules of the road
  3. foreclosures have stopped spreading; responsible home buying has returned
  4. federal debt has been tied to good investments; bad debt has been minimized

The conversation this definition holds in place is very different from the Republican discussion that was largely confined to talk of cutting taxes, ending programs, and blocking market regulation.  With Obama's new framing, we can begin to talk about the economy in ways not heard for almost a century.

In other words, the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment act is a critical first investment in the future of the middle class, but it is also the beginning of a new way of talking and thinking about the economy. To understand what 'change' means from this point forward, we must pay attention not only to the legislation President Obama passes through Congress, but also how he defines the essential terms of the debate.

February 13, 2009

GOP Dogma Clouds Recovery Act Debate

Watching the House Republicans debate the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is like watching outtakes from the Twilight Zone.   Here is a short list of some bizzarro ideas the Republican Party is repeating in defiance of pragmatism, not to mention the laws of physics.

Government Is Not Part Of The Economy
The biggest claim Republicans are making is that "government" is somehow outside of the "economy."  Republicans in the house are repeatedly arguing that investing money in government agencies is not related to investing in the economy.   "This bill contains spending on government, not the economy."   If government is not part of the economy, where exactly is it? 

The idea the Republicans want us to buy is this:  the "economy" only includes for-profit businesses.  Anything that involves investment in public agencies is not investment in for-profit business, therefore, it is not the economy.  According to this logic, the only way to invest government money in public works is to give that money to for-profit firms who then use it on government contract work.  That is why the Republicans supported giving billions to Haliburton and other firms for no-bid work in Iraq and New Orleans, but reject investing in pay for teachers. 

Investment In Infrastructure Will Not Lead to Recovery
Republicans would have us believe that spending money on infrastructure--repairing roads, bridges, railroads, and schools--will not lead to recovery.  The Republicans talk about investment on infrastructure as 'government spending.'  "Government spending will not led to recovery."

The idea the Republicans want us to buy is this:  recovery means only that profit margins in private business have been restored.  When profit margins have been restored, tax revenues will increase, and those revenues indicate recovery.  According to this logic, any dollar government spends on infrastructure repair is wasted.  Is it any wonder that levees nd bridges collapsed after decades of Republican dogma in attendance?

The Recovery Act Will Lead To Rationing of Health care
This claim is so strange that it really makes one wonder how much peanut butter they have been eating:  the American Recovery and Investment Act will lead to a communist revolution in American medical care. 

The idea the Republicans want us to buy is this:  the Recovery Act secretly funnels money to government agencies empowered to take control of all hospitals, clinics, doctors offices, insurance companies, and pharmacies.   According to this logic, every dollar spent on public agencies is tantamount to government seizing control of our private lives.

We Do Not Know What Will Happen As A Result Of The Recovery Act
It may seem irrational to claim in one breath that the bill will led to socialism, but in the next breath claim that nobody knows what the bill will do.  But Republican dogma is not troubled by this contradiction. "Nobody knows what this bill will do," they proclaim.  Nobody knows. 

The idea Republicans want us to buy is this:  the Recovery Act is nothing more than a hastily made stew of paybacks and Liberal voodoo.  Sending large amounts of resources to state governments asking for relief?  How could anybody possibly know what effect it would have if places like California, Florida, and Michigan have money to pay for services, salaries, and shovel-ready public works?

Cutting Spending Is The Only Way to Increase Spending
One of the most common make-believe GOP economic theories has to do with cutting spending as a strategy for increasing spending.  "The only way to prevent an economic slowdown is to stop spending!" 

The idea Republicans want us to buy is this: To revive the economy, government needs to stop spending to match the way the public has stopped spending.  According to this logic, all spending comes to a grinding halt, at which point--by magic--spending suddenly starts again.  Abracadabra.

A Lesson From The ARRA Debate:  Dogma Clouds Common Sense
There are many more odd claims that defy common sense in the Republican arguments.  But what we hear in the Republican Recover Act debate is the end result of GOP dogma gone wild. 

Over and over and over again, the Republican Party insists that the American people worry about the perils of investing money in a functioning government and advance to the American people the baseless claim that government functions outside the bounds of the economy.

What does the American public actually want to talk about?  We want to talk about every possible action that can be useful to our economic recovery--every possibility, unbound by dogma, unfettered by ideological gate-keeping. 

If the Republican Party just lift its head from the ideological cloud of its own making, it could join America in the pragmatic debate the rest of us are having.

February 12, 2009

"Updates!" (Open Thread)


February 10, 2009

The Voice Of American Pragmatism

More than policy details, President Obama's first press conference showcased an aspect of America that  8 years of Bush-era pessimism worked hard to destroy:  American pragmatism.

For those of us who watched Obama, last night, we heard the voice of American pragmatism for a full hour, but few if any of us have much experience stepping back and talking about it.   Decades of Reagan, Bush and now Limbaugh Republicanism created such a toxic environment for American pragmatism that anyone who dared to step in that direction has been ridiculed and silenced.

That ended last night.

What is American pragmatism?  It is a political philosophy rooted in the twin principles of action and usefulness.  "If we take this action, will it be more useful than that action?"  That is the basic question of American pragmatism.

The great American pragmatists, of course, are names that we once held up in this country with great pride, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Abraham Lincoln.

Listening to Obama's press conference, it was strikingly clear that he was speaking in the voice of American pragmatism.  Consider,  for example, this comment that President Obama offered about 21 minutes into the event:

As I said, the one concern I've got on the stimulus package, in terms of the debate and listening to some of what's been said in Congress, is that there seems to be a set of folks who -- I don't doubt their sincerity -- who just believe that we should do nothing.

Now, if that's their opening position or their closing position in negotiations, then we're probably not going to make much progress, because I don't think that's economically sound and I don't think what -- that's what the American people expect, is for us to stand by and do nothing.

There are others who recognize that we've got to do a significant recovery package, but they're concerned about the mix of what's in there. And if they're sincere about it, then I'm happy to have conversations about this tax cut versus that -- that tax cut or this infrastructure project versus that infrastructure project.

But what I've -- what I've been concerned about is some of the language that's been used suggesting that this is full of pork and this is wasteful government spending, so on and so forth.

(link: CNN)

What we hear in this statement is a fundamental concern for action and usefulness, and a deep impatience with political strategies aimed at advancing this or that theory as the goal of policy.  The point of the Recovery Act, in other words, is to bring about useful change, not to advance a system of beliefs for the sake of establishing this or that theory as 'truth.'  What 'concerns' President Obama, in other words, is not just that his bill advances through Congress, but that the actions we must take as a nation not be blocked by a debate that wallows in word play at the expense of usefulness. 

To pass a bill designed to benefit the American public, in other words, President Obama is willing to talk to Republicans about anything that pertains to useful actions, but he is not willing to allow either Republicans to turn the debate into a self-indulgent conversation about belief in government.

The purpose of government in the eyes of American pragmatism is to solve problems by asking what actions will be most useful. To bicker endlessly over the belief in government is to waste a profound amount of energy and time. If a series of actions intended to be useful do not all turn out to be so, then ask the question again:  which actions have been useful?

What we are faced with as a nation is something far more corrosive than an 8-year emphasis on tax cuts or a willingness to give away unregulated public resources to Wall Street.  The real problem posed by Bush-era republicanism is that each time the government takes action to improve the life of citizens, the Republican leadership insists on hamstringing the conversation with useless questions about belief in government, rather than focusing on pragmatics.

But what if that changes?  What if each time a series of programs are put forward we return to them in six months and ask which actions have been most useful instead of throwing up our arms and debating our theory or belief in government?  That change is precisely what Obama intends when he talks of 'change.'

In this second long passage from the press conference, notice once more how Obama makes this point about debating useful action versus hijacking the debate into word play about theories of what government should and should not do.  He makes the point over and over again using the examples of energy policy, healthcare, and education:

Now, maybe philosophically you just don't think that the federal government should be involved in energy policy. I happen to disagree with that; I think that's the reason why we find ourselves importing more foreign oil now than we did back in the early '70s when OPEC first formed.

And we can have a respectful debate about whether or not we should be involved in energy policymaking, but don't suggest that somehow that's wasteful spending. That's exactly what this country needs.

The same applies when it comes to information technologies in health care. We know that health care is crippling businesses and making us less competitive, as well as breaking the banks of families all across America. And part of the reason is, we've got the most inefficient health care system imaginable.

We're still using paper. We're still filing things in triplicate. Nurses can't read the prescriptions that doctors -- that doctors have written out. Why wouldn't we want to put that on -- put that on an electronic medical record that will reduce error rates, reduce our long-term costs of health care, and create jobs right now?

Education, yet another example. The suggestion is, why should the federal government be involved in school construction?

Well, I visited a school down in South Carolina that was built in the 1850s. Kids are still learning in that school, as best they can, when the -- when the railroad -- when the -- it's right next to a railroad. And when the train runs by, the whole building shakes and the teacher has to stop teaching for a while. The -- the auditorium is completely broken down; they can't use it.

So why wouldn't we want to build state-of-the-art schools with science labs that are teaching our kids the skills they need for the 21st century, that will enhance our economy, and, by the way, right now, will create jobs?

For Obama, the Republicans are not trying to debate the economy so much as they are trying to push philosophical word play about the role of government. And so long as they push that useless debate, the American people will not benefit.

And this brings us to the big story that lies behind American pragmatism: the larger purpose of American life.

For decades, now, the Republicans have been telling us that the purpose of American life is to create conditions in the present that allows us to, effectively, go back in time and reclaim a set of moral beliefs that supposedly gave our nation stability in the past. Those moral beliefs, we have been told endlessly, were solid and in tact in the past, but they have fallen apart in the present. Of course, whether or not that Republican claim about moral beliefs in the past is true is not the point. What matters is whether or not we are better off as a nation for having followed that Republican course of action over the past decade. Have the actions we have taken as a nation--by government and by individuals--been useful to us? Have our lives improved as a result of trying to create conditions that allows us to go back and get these supposed moral truths that, in theory, made for such a stable and beneficial American society 'back then.'

No, they have not.

And this, too, was Obama basic pragmatist message in his press conference--and in his inauguration address and campaign stump speech before it. The policies of the past have not been useful to us as the Republicans said they would be. And so, rather than wasting more time with more debate about what is and what is not the right truth to hold about the place of government in our lives, we will simply try different actions that have a better chance at being useful to the greatest number of Americans.

To be deemed 'useful,' the actions of our government must do more than align themselves with a belief. They must demonstrate improvement in the lives of people. And by 'improvement' we mean: the opportunities of individuals must not be less and the conditions of individuals must not be worse than those of their parents. The chance--the possibility of a healthy and secure life must must be equal to or greater than what came before.

How, then, will we know that the economic recovery package designed by Obama is working--Adam Nagourney's question last night at the press conference? We will know because we will see that people's lives are improving:

My initial measure of success is creating or saving 4 million jobs. That's bottom line number one, because, if people are working, then they've got enough confidence to make purchases, to make investments. Businesses start seeing that consumers are out there with a little more confidence, and they start making investments, which means they start hiring workers. So step number one: job creation.

The foundation of useful economic policy, in other words, is not that it serves the belief that a market is 'free' if government keeps its hands out of the business of regulation, but whether or not the actions in that policy have resulted in an individual reclaiming up the tools of work. If the actions in the recovery act put people back to work, then it will have been useful.

In this note, Obama and Biden alike have emphasized that pragmatic leadership begins with a very different opening premise than the ideological word play of the Bush-era. Whereas Bush told us that the priority was the ideology, and then defended that ideology at all cost, Obama is telling us that the priority is usefulness and so we must expect constant re-evaluation and fine-tuning as we go forward.

In a pragmatic form of leadership, the executive never stops asking: "Has this action been useful?" Actions that have not been useful are revised or discarded, actions that have been useful are amplified and applied more broadly.

What a different country it will be, if Obama's emphasis on American pragmatism goes forward. It will be a country of achievement, instead of ideological positioning.

In the meantime, individual Americans and the media must step up and do their part to reclaim the spirit of pragmatism maligned so relentlessly by two terms of George W. Bush as president. In a country where pragmatism is attacked in the name of ideology, little if anything gets done. Elected officials stuck in the Bush-era will remain forever spectators rather than actors. But in a country rallied again to pragmatism, our leaders become the driving agents of useful action.

We have waited long and hard for pragmatism to return.  Now that it is here again, Americans everywhere should reclaim it with pride.