The State of the Union Address

Barack Obama needed a great speech and he delivered. (Transcript of State of the Union Address here.) As noted by both myself and others live blogging or otherwise commenting live, the speech started out slow, initially with no applause. He finally received applause with, “It is because of this spirit – this great decency and great strength – that I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight.” He received further applause for expressing dislike for the bank bail-out, and more for speaking of getting the rest of the money back. Talk of cutting taxes was also received well.

Obama took advantage of the negative view of Wall Street and gained points for recognizing the importance of Main Street:

For these Americans and so many others, change has not come fast enough. Some are frustrated; some are angry. They don’t understand why it seems like bad behavior on Wall Street is rewarded but hard work on Main Street isn’t; or why Washington has been unable or unwilling to solve any of our problems. They are tired of the partisanship and the shouting and the pettiness. They know we can’t afford it. Not now.

Obama countered the misinformation from the right which has tea-baggers who had their taxes cut by Obama protesting against imaginary tax increases:

We cut taxes. We cut taxes for 95 percent of working families. (Applause.) We cut taxes for small businesses. We cut taxes for first-time homebuyers. We cut taxes for parents trying to care for their children. We cut taxes for 8 million Americans paying for college.

Obama announced a jobs bill, which I’m sure surprised nobody. He discussed his education policies along with tax credits for college education. He promoted high speed rail. He discussed the need for acting on climate change, along with the need for developing new energy sources even if one does not accept the scientific evidence. (I was happy to see him refer to the scientific evidence for climate change. I wish that he could also make a political issue out of those who do not accept the scientific evidence for evolution.)

The big question for the past week was whether, after getting so close, Obama would give up on health care because people in Massachusetts who already have a similar program saw no point in backing one nationally. Obama made it clear that he planned to move ahead:

Our approach would preserve the right of Americans who have insurance to keep their doctor and their plan. It would reduce costs and premiums for millions of families and businesses. And according to the Congressional Budget Office -– the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress –- our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades.

Reducing the deficit was just one reason for backing health care reform. Obama pointed out that the problem arose under George Bush, and the economic conditions he inherited made it necessary to spend more:

At the beginning of the last decade, the year 2000, America had a budget surplus of over $200 billion. (Applause.) By the time I took office, we had a one-year deficit of over $1 trillion and projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade. Most of this was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program. On top of that, the effects of the recession put a $3 trillion hole in our budget. All this was before I walked in the door. (Laughter and applause.)

Now — just stating the facts. Now, if we had taken office in ordinary times, I would have liked nothing more than to start bringing down the deficit. But we took office amid a crisis. And our efforts to prevent a second depression have added another $1 trillion to our national debt. That, too, is a fact.

Obama called for more action to reduce the deficit:

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.

We will continue to go through the budget line by line to eliminate programs that we can’t afford and don’t work. We’ve already identified $20 billion in savings for next year. To help working families, we will extend our middle-class tax cuts. But at a time of record deficits, we will not continue tax cuts for oil companies, investment fund managers, and those making over $250,000 a year. We just can’t afford it.[…]

I’ve called for a bipartisan, Fiscal Commission, modeled on a proposal by Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad. This can’t be one of those Washington gimmicks that lets us pretend we solved a problem. The Commission will have to provide a specific set of solutions by a certain deadline. Yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I will issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans. And when the vote comes tomorrow, the Senate should restore the pay-as-you-go law that was a big reason why we had record surpluses in the 1990s.

Obama also called for earmark reform and for reducing the influence of lobbyists. He addressed why Washington does not work:

But what frustrates the American people is a Washington where every day is Election Day. We can’t wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side -– a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can. The confirmation of –I’m speaking to both parties now. The confirmation of well-qualified public servants shouldn’t be held hostage to the pet projects or grudges of a few individual senators.

Washington may think that saying anything about the other side, no matter how false, no matter how malicious, is just part of the game. But it’s precisely such politics that has stopped either party from helping the American people. Worse yet, it’s sowing further division among our citizens, further distrust in our government.

So, no, I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics. I know it’s an election year. And after last week, it’s clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern.

To Democrats, I would remind you that we still have the largest majority in decades, and the people expect us to solve problems, not run for the hills.  And if the Republican leadership is going to insist that 60 votes in the Senate are required to do any business at all in this town — a supermajority — then the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.  Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it’s not leadership. We were sent here to serve our citizens, not our ambitions.  So let’s show the American people that we can do it together.

On foreign policy, Obama discussed his successes in fighting terrorism, and plans for getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq:

Since the day I took office, we’ve renewed our focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation. We’ve made substantial investments in our homeland security and disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives. We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence. We’ve prohibited torture and strengthened partnerships from the Pacific to South Asia to the Arabian Peninsula. And in the last year, hundreds of al Qaeda’s fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed — far more than in 2008.

And in Afghanistan, we’re increasing our troops and training Afghan security forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011, and our troops can begin to come home.  We will reward good governance, work to reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans — men and women alike. (Applause.) We’re joined by allies and partners who have increased their own commitments, and who will come together tomorrow in London to reaffirm our common purpose. There will be difficult days ahead. But I am absolutely confident we will succeed.

As we take the fight to al Qaeda, we are responsibly leaving Iraq to its people. As a candidate, I promised that I would end this war, and that is what I am doing as President. We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.

He also discussed eliminating “don”t ask, don’t tell.”

This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.

There were also several other items discussed and there is plenty of other commentary. The best one-liner came from Josh Marshall: “Nelson and Lieberman sitting together in axis of weasels.” The dumbest line from someone who was saying something favorable about Obama came from Chris Matthews:  “I forgot he was black tonight for an hour.”

The speech actually went on for over an hour, which is rare for State of the Union addresses. The only previous presidents to do this was Lyndon Johnson one time, and I believe Bill Clinton every time.

Obama made many arguments to counter the distortions from the Republicans and the misconceptions held by the Tea Party movement. Contrary to the conservative memes, he supports Main Street and small business, not Karl Marx. He has cut taxes and is determined to reduce the huge deficit he inherited after years of Republican fiscal irresponsibility. He advocates moderate plans to reform health care coverage, not a government take over of health care. This won’t change the mind of partisan Republicans and ignorant tea-baggers but it will help Obama retain the support of the independents who helped elect him.

Update: Obama did quite well when his statements were checked by the legitimate, non-partisan fact checkers. Incoming  links show a sure sign of intellectual dishonesty–utilizing right wing partisan “fact checkers” who evaluated Obama’s statements based upon their biases as opposed to the facts.

State of the Union Live Blogging

Using Facebook, rebelling against the Twitter trend. Who needs the 140 character limit? The live comments are here.

Update: An actual post discussing the speech is posted here.

Update II: Text of the Facebook live comments have been pasted under the fold.


Continuing The Fight For Health Care Reform

Most of the talk about health care reform in the blogs since the loss in Massachusetts has been about ways to ram through health care reform despite losing the super-majority in the Senate. While I agree with the importance of passing health care reform, both in terms of public policy and politically, such arguments often overlook what really must be done first–win over the hearts and minds of the voters. We cannot afford to fail to pass health care reform, but nothing good will come out of ramming through unpopular legislation.

Some liberals think that once the health care plan is passed everyone will see that it is nothing like what is being portrayed by the right wing noise machine and will learn to love the new plan. Most key provisions of health care reform will not take effect until after the 2010 and 2012 elections. During this time people will continue to hear scare stories about the doom we will face. These scare stories about health care reform are no more true than the scare stories of planetary doom in 2012 based upon the Mayan calendar, but they will still be believed by far too many people.

Ramming through health care reform before obtaining the support of the voters is also a mistake as it would reinforce one of the right wing’s criticisms of Democrats as being arrogant in their exercise of power. Sure, it is true as Democrats counter that the Republicans have done far worse than this when in power, but voters will respond to what they see today. Acting like Republicans is no way to convince the voters that the Democrats are any better. Fortunately the Democratic leadership decided against actions such as delaying the seating of Scott Brown or quickly holding a vote before he was seated.

There are many obstacles to selling health care reform but the distortions from the right wing noise machine could have been predicted. Polling does prove that most Americans do not really understand what is in the bills and are more willing to support them once they understand. Obama needs to to campaign for his policies as strongly as he campaigned to beat Hillary Clinton and John McCain. He is now showing that he realizes this.

As Americans do support most of the individual aspects of the health care plan I have suggested that different portions be proposed and debated separately. Pushing everything at once provides too many avenues for the right to obfuscate the real issues. A majority would be likely to support eliminating restrictions on pre-existing conditions, eliminating rescission of policies after people become sick, offering the choice of a public option, establishing exchanges to provide a choice of health care plans, eliminating the Medicare donut hole, and even paying a little more in taxes to provide coverage for those who cannot afford it. Even if there are not enough votes in the Senate to pass portions such as the public option, we should have a public debate and a vote. Sooner or later the public will figure out who it is that is blocking the measures they want. Let the Republicans try to run on such a record.

At present Democrats have far too many points to defend at once, allowing the Republican to create their distortions such as claiming the massive bill contains death panels. Democrats  needed to do a better job of explaining that the Medicare Part D cuts being proposed are cuts in subsidies given to the insurance companies by George Bush, and not actual cuts in Medicare. It is astounding that the Democrats could ever wind up in the situation of allowing the Republicans to falsely portray themselves as the defenders of Medicare.

There is  increased hope that a deal might be reached to have the House pass the Senate bill in return for plans to fix the problems with separate legislation. If this was the fantasy world of The West Wing I would prefer to see a series of individual battles and victories for health care reform, but a deal such as what is being discussed is more realistic in this world.

If such a deal cannot be reached, and ideally even if one can, Obama should take advantage of the State of the Union Address to explain what is actually in the health care plan and to also tell the American people that he has heard their concerns and is recommending that Congress make some changes.

One mistake which Obama can still rectify is backing away from his opposition to the individual mandate. The mandate changes how people see individual fixes they might otherwise support, and plays into the talking points of the far right. Many independents voted for Obama because they realized after Katrina that we cannot have a government which ignores the need for government action when necessary. However, while many are willing to support government helping those who need assistance at obtaining health care, they are justifiably nervous about government programs designed to help people whether they ask for the help or not.

People who see this as a more voluntary plan to help either themselves or others would be more willing to support this as opposed to a plan which is mandatory for themselves. There are many other ways around the free rider problem which would not lead to opposition from many on both the left and the right as has occurred as a result of the individual mandate.

There are many other details I would change but this is already far too long for a blog post. I will end by repeating one of my other objections to the course the health care debate has taken even if, in this case, it might not be politically feasible to change course.

The Democrats have fallen into a trap of accepting the Republican dogma that taxes should never be raised, as most forget that even Ronald Reagan did raise taxes. They are forced to find ways to limit the people who pay for the health care reform measures, leading to opposition from certain groups and an overall impression that they are trying to sneak something by the American people. Everyone benefits from health care reform in the long run and far more money can be raised less painfully if there is a broad based tax. If Barack Obama had used his oratory skills from the start to explain to people exactly what they must pay and what they get in return I wonder if Americans would have understood this. Or perhaps I’m returning to the fantasy world of  The West Wing on this argument.

The Public Still Opposes Republicans, And Will Support Health Care Reform If Handled Better

Republicans are feeling very good this week, as would be expected after winning a Senate seat in Massachusetts and possibly being successful with their strategy to do anything to block health care reform regardless of how much they harm the country. They should not get over confident that they can win without several unusual factors which helped them in Massachusetts. Public Policy Polling found that only 19 percent of voters are happy with the direction of the Republican Party:

One lesson that can be taken from the recent GOP successes in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia is that your party can be a complete mess and still win an election.

Our national poll this week found that only 19% of voters in the country are happy with the direction of the Republican Party, compared to 56% who are unhappy with it. Even among independents, who have voted overwhelmingly for Scott Brown, Chris Christie, and Bob McDonnell 58% say they don’t like the direction the GOP is headed in.

The GOP’s own voters are displeased with where the party’s going- 38% say they are unhappy with the current direction to 35% who support it. In a trend that perhaps provides at least a ray of hope to Democrats the Republicans unhappy with their own party are disproportionately moderates. 54% of them are displeased to 25% content- the question is what Democrats can do to get those folks to actually jump ship.

Disliking the Republicans does not necessarily mean people will vote Democratic. Far too many Democrats saw the repudiation of George Bush and the previous Republican-controlled Congress in 2008 and 2006 as support for a specific agenda as opposed to opposition to the status quo. If voters remain upset about the status quo, many are likely to respond by voting Republican.

I don’t normally pay much attention to anonymous blog comments, but part of the problem can be seen in the first comment at Public Policy Polling’s site:

Tom, I personally think that you’re analysis isn’t correct, but I do think that many ppl I know, from around me, who always voted for Democrats, their whole life, and are promising never ever to put a ballot with a D near it in the ballot box! We’ll vote for the Republican always b/c the Dems went to the extreme left with Obama et al. That’s the problem!

In reality it is the Republicans on the extreme right with Obama taking a centrist course. The Republicans have managed to distort a fairly conservative fix to our health care delivery problems as a radical solution. Democrats deserve part of the blame here. This includes failing to properly prepare for this inevitable attack  as well as some policy mistakes, including Obama backing away from his opposition to the individual mandate.

Democrats  needed to do a better job of explaining that the Medicare Part D cuts were cuts in subsidies given to the insurance companies by George Bush, and not actual cuts in Medicare. It is astounding that the Democrats could ever wind up in the situation of allowing the Republicans to falsely portray themselves as the defenders of Medicare.

The Democrats  might have been better off pushing for pieces of health care reform in smaller chunks which the pubic could understand rather than having to defend themselves on far too many fronts at once. A majority would be likely to support eliminating restrictions on pre-existing conditions, eliminating rescission of policies after people become sick, offering the choice of a public option, and even paying a little more in taxes to provide coverage for those who cannot afford it. The Democrats might have won on each of these as individual battles while they now risk losing the war. It is not too late for the Democrats to take up each of these measures. Public support might lead to their victory, or if the Republicans continue to block everything they will then risk being the party which is shocked in November.

Most Americans Do Not Want Sarah Palin To Run

There’s some hope for this country. A majority of Americans, even Republicans, do not want Sarah Palin to run for president. CBS News reports:

A new CBS News poll finds that a large majority of Americans say they do not want former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to run for president.

Specifically, 71 percent say they do not want the former Republican vice presidential nominee to run for president, while 21 percent say they do want her to run.

When the results are split out by party, 56 percent of Republicans say they do not want her to seek the office and 30 percent do. Meanwhile, 88 percent of Democrats do not want her to run. Among independents, 65 percent do not want her to run and 25 percent do.

The poll also finds that more people view Palin negatively than positively and that her book tour did not improve overall views of her. However, she is a little better-known now than she was last fall, and both favorable and unfavorable ratings of her have increased slightly.

If conservatives had any sense they would appreciate a poll which doesn’t taint them by associating them with Palin. Hot Air tries to blow it for them by questioning the accuracy of the results. If the poll can be believed, it shows that conservatives are the only group with a favorable view of Palin, but still do not want her to run:

Conservatives are the only ideological group that holds net positive views of her — just under half do, while a quarter are unfavorable and a quarter of conservatives are undecided.

But while favorable toward her, most conservatives say they do not want to see Palin run in 2012 – 58 percent of conservatives say she should not run.

Most Americans do not know much about the Tea Party movement:

Sixty-nine percent of Americans are either undecided about the movement or haven’t heard enough so far to have an opinion about it. Among those who have heard of it, 18 percent have a favorable opinion of it and 12 percent have an unfavorable opinion.

Fair enough. Americans don’t know much about the tea baggers, and we’ve already seen that the tea baggers don’t know much about American, or anything else.

Another False Internet Rumor: Lieberman Not Endorsing Brown

There is an anonymous report on a blog claiming that Joe Lieberman is preparing to endorse Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race. While this should immediately raise doubts as to its accuracy, this is being quoted elsewhere. I imagine that a story suggesting that Lieberman plans to sell out the Democrats and further attempt to block health care reform has the feeling of truth to many.

The Hill reports that Lieberman has no plans to endorse anyone in the Massachusetts race, noting that conservative bloggers are floating this rumor. It is likely that this is intentional under the assumption that this might encourage some independents to vote for Brown over Coakley.

How Could The Democrats Do So Poorly In Massachusetts?

Here’s what I don’t understand. Ted Kennedy and John Kerry have tied up the two Massachusetts  Senate seats for years. I would think that there are many highly qualified Democrats in the state who didn’t get a shot at such a spot until now. How did the Democrats wind up with as weak a candidate as Martha Coakley?

Coakley’s campaign sounds a lot like Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign based upon inevitability and entitlement. That is not going to work, especially when Scott Brown is running as a moderate Republican. As The Christian Science Monitor points out, Massachusetts is not so Democratic that a moderate Republican can’t bring out the vote, especially with the amount of anti-incumbent sentiment at present:

…Massachusetts voters also gave Republicans the key to the governors’ office for 16 straight years, from 1990 to 2006.

Moreover, Senate races have historically been tight when the Republican candidate is moderate enough to appeal to centrist voters. Sen. John Kerry had close races against Ray Shamie in 1984, Jim Rappaport in 1990, and Bill Weld in 1996 – all of whom earned at least 40 percent of the vote.

Senator Kennedy saw his toughest challenge in 1994 against Mitt Romney, who would later be Massachusetts’ governor and an unsuccessful candidate for president. While Mr. Romney eventually shifted further to the right during his 2008 presidential bid, Massachusetts voters considered him a moderate Republican in his statewide campaigns. In fact, until 1993, Romney was registered as an independent.

For Coakley and Brown, it’s the state’s independents who will likely determine the outcome of the race.

“The majority of registered voters now are independents,” says David Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University in Boston, which conducted Thursday’s poll. “Despite the fact that they are people who say … they don’t want to be tied to one party, independents have emerged as the political party in Massachusetts now. It’s really about the independent voter.”

Making matters worse, Coakley has committed a number of gaffes. Health care might fall in the Senate because of a dumb baseball comment–Coakley calling former Red Sox pitcher and Brown supporter Curt Schilling a Yankee fan. Even worse, she has resorted to the type of tactics which we see far more from Republicans, but which are not exclusive to them. For some reason Republicans do far better than Democrats in bringing out the vote by distorting the record of their opponent, as Coakley did in a recent ad and flier.

The race will be decided by independents, and Brown has positioned himself much better than Coakley to pick up their votes. He is also better able to run as a moderate as the far right has appeared to have learned their lesson in New York’s special election. In New York the far right condemned Dede Scozzafava as if she was on the far left and allowed the Democrats to win the seat. Even though Brown is more liberal than Scozzafava we are not hearing any complaints that he is a RINO at the moment.

The reason why Republicans are willing to accept a moderate in Massachusetts is that he could be the 41st vote to stop a health care reform bill. If not for these dynamics Republicans from out of state would not be giving Brown so much assistance, and I’m not sure that many Democrats would really mind seeing Coakley going down to defeat.

At the moment the race is too close to call based upon the polls. If Brown does win there are a few possible outcomes with regards to health care reform:

The House could very quickly pass the Senate version unchanged allowing this to be sent to President Obama for his signature without giving the Republicans a chance to filibuster a bill coming out of reconciliation. The problems here are that many House liberals would not accept the Senate bill, and the Senate bill should not be passed as it is.

If the race is close the Democrats might try to delay seating Brown should he win. Think back to Al Franken’s election.

Democrats might try to come up with even more compromises to try to get Olympia Snowe’s vote. This could cost them even more votes from House Democrats.

They might try to pass health care reform with a simple majority by using budget reconciliation, but this would require massive changes to the bill as only items affecting the budget can be passed in this manner.

These choices do not look good, making it very possible that it could be the loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat which  results in the blockage of health care reform.

Opposition To Mandates Uniting Left And Right Against Health Care Reform

Throughout the primary campaign when it was an issue I argued against including an individual mandate in health care reform. It does makes it easier to write a bill eliminating exclusions for pre-existing conditions if there is a mandate to prevent people from gaming the system, but there are many other ways around this problem.

What supporters of the mandate failed to understand is that such government requirements greatly magnifies potential for opposition to health care reform. To be accepted by a majority, any health care reform plan needed to provide assistance to those who desired it without being seen as interfering with others. Even though Republicans initially supported the mandate along with most Congressional Democrats, this has now become an issue which could backfire against the Democrats.

David Weigel believes that Firedoglake, a liberal blog which opposes the bill, is paying for polls to undermine Democrats whose seats are in trouble. Questions include:

Under one proposal, if a person does not carry health insurance from a private insurance company, they would be fined up to 2% of their income. Is this fair, or unfair?

Nate Silver commented more on the polling and Weigel concluded:

The question, raised by Nate Silver and others: Is Firedoglake trying to scare vulnerable Democrats into retirement in order to kill health care reform? All indications point to “yes.” I’m hearing that FDL will conduct more polls in vulnerable Democratic districts, based largely on this chart of the “top 20 Democrats who could lose their seat over health care vote[s]. Snyder was at the top of that list, posted by FDL’s Jane Hamsher on Jan. 6. (One irony: Snyder is a fairly progressive member of Congress, and not a member of the Blue Dogs.)

Tension between FDL and some other progressive sites has increased since the Senate’s health care compromise took shape–Hamsher has campaigned aggressively to “kill the bill.” A month ago she predicted that “left/right populist outrage” would do so, and she hasn’t slowed down since.

Liberals can question Hamsher’s actions. It is certainly possible that killing the bill could lead to even worse results than a flawed bill which might still be improved upon. Nate Silver has a point that, “The survey fails to provide context about the individual mandate, and arguably biases the respondent against it through its choice of question wording and question order.”

Despite this, the fact remains that including an  individual mandate decreases the chances of passing health care reform along with increasing the potential for losing seats in 2010. Democrats need to consider  how this plays into the often distorted picture of them generally painted by Republicans. Independents who rebelled against the policies of the authoritarian right in recent election cycles, and who were willing to accept bigger government involvement to help those who desire help, can only view coercive government mandates as reason to question whether Democrats are any better.

It is rather late in the process but changes can still be made. Obama should go on television and admit he was wrong for changing his position and going along with Congress on the mandate and that he hears the popular objections to the current health care plan. I believe that many of the independents who supported Obama last year would respect such an admission and back him. This might also provide momentum for support of an improved version of the health care plan and deny the Republicans the ability to win by campaigning against much-needed improvements in the health care system.

Lieberman’s Approval Falls

Things are not going well for Joe Lieberman. Public Policy Polling  finds that “Barack Obama’s approval rating with Connecticut Republicans is higher than Lieberman’s with the state’s Democrats.” His approval among Democrats is down to 14 percent, with 81 percent disapproving.

There’s been talk that he will run for reelection as a Republican. Republicans like him more than Democrats do, but still don’t like him very much. Republicans disapprove of him by a 48/39 margin and independents disapprove of him by 61/32 spread. Overall his approval is only 25 percent.

Keith Olbermann’s Special Comment Opposing The Current Senate Health Care Bill

Keith Olbermann’s Special Comment on why he believes the Senate health care bill is no longer supportable. I posted more on the various views held on the left here. The transcript of this Special Comment is below the fold.