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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Additional Challenges: The Economy & Afghanistan

With the fierce debate over health care reform dominating the headlines and Washington dialog, it is easy to forget that there are several other issues at least as, if not more, important demanding the attention of the President, Congress and engaged Americans. The first is our still fragile but likely recovering economy, indeed rated as the most important issue by voters, twice as important as health care. You wouldn't know it by looking at unemployment numbers, as this has been and will be for quite a while a jobless recovery, but other indicators give reason for optimism that we have indeed come back from the brink and that the recession is over. Just how close we were to the proverbial brink is only known by the wonks who spend sleepless nights a year ago this month working to prevent an historic, and global, total collapse, but from what I've heard, the American people are better off not knowing how close we were to economic catastrophe. Even with the economy stabilizing, worries linger and people are understandably skiddish, planning to refrain from boosting their spending, a much needed catalyst to recovery.

We have seen the federal government take drastic, and in some cases unprecedented, steps to rescue major sectors of the economy: from bank bailouts begun under W to taking ownership of GM and passing a $787,000,000,000 "stimulus" package which a majority of people don't believe is working and some see as an utter failure. One study warns that Obama is making "Great Depression" policy mistakes. Americans, who by and large still believe in limited government, have begun to balk at these interventions, fear the government will do too much to fix the economy and oppose new regulation of the financial system. Many also see some of the policies coming out of the White House as job killers that could doom Democrats. The intensity of opposition is working against the President as 65% believe he has taken on more than he should have.

The August jobs report showed the unemployment rate increasing to 9.7% on its way to double digits according to most analysts, including the White House, which promised no higher than 8% if the stimulus passed. Based on the President's pledges on job creation, he is now running a 5 million job deficit; will he be held accountable for his rosy claims? Conservatives criticize Obama's policies as a major reason job creation is not happening. With 79% knowing someone out of work, the dire unemployment situation is personal. In addition, while most Americans believe tax hikes hurt the economy and favor tax cuts over more government spending, more than two-thirds believe Obama will break his campaign promise and raise their income taxes in his first term.

President Obama's actions on the economy have drawn criticism from across the oceans as well. He has increased tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade, leading the Wall Street Journal to call him a protectionist president and charge that he is abdicating U.S. trade leadership. I am a big believer in the universal value and net benefit of free trade, so this is very troubling. Warren Buffett explains the consequences of the astronomical deficits we are now running, financed by our friends overseas, which are set to "soar" with Obama's new programs to $1,500,000,000,000 in 2010. Obama is set to triple the national debt to $14,200,000,000,000 by 2019. This is creating doubts about the longterm viability of the dollar among investors and the international community, with the UN calling for a new global currency. The United States has lost it's top spot as the world's most competitive economy for the first time as a result of the crisis, placing 2nd to Switzerland.

The President continues to lay blame for the economy at the feet of Bush, although more view his presidency as a failure than did Bush's after 6 months in office, but Americans will only buy the blame shift for so long. More now disapprove of the President's handling of the economy than approve, and his numbers continue to fall including a 19 point drop since January in his leadership rating. Some speculate that piling up debt, gaffes and hypocrisy are sinking Obama and that, thus far, he has "failed miserably." Eventually this will be his economy alone, and he will have to answer for it. If that time comes before the 2010 midterm elections and unemployment is still hovering around 10%, something no one is hoping for, it could spell major electoral trouble for Democrats. After all, "it's the economy stupid."

Earlier this month, we remembered the day that will forever mark my generation, the day our grandchildren will ask us about. Our grandparents lived the horror of Pearl Harbor; our parents learned from their teachers that their President had been assassinated; we watched on our school TVs as America came under attack and the twin towers crumbled. No, we will never forget where we were that day or the feeling of shock we felt as our bubble of security was violently burst by evil terrorist with no regard for innocent human life. However, 8 years after that tragic day, the War it provoked is facing new challenges and losing public support as 49% believe the impact of 9/11 has been forgotten by most.

Commanding General McChrystal has told Obama he will need more troops or else the war "will likely result in failure." The President, under pressure from lawmakers on Capitol Hill has said he will not rush his decision and is demanding a clear strategy before sending any more Americans into combat. The Pentagon has delayed its call for additional forces pending a review of the strategy. July and August were the deadliest months for our troops in the conflict. Obama is facing waning support across the nation, with 20% saying we should pull out immediately, and major doubts among his Democratic friends on the Hill. Among conservatives, some believe it is time to get out, while others see no choice but to try. All agree that the War presents President Obama with a major test of his leadership as the AP reports he may change course again.

Security issues threaten to steal the spotlight that has been on health care for the last several months as Obama cannot avoid the great challenges and hard choices which face him. The world's atomic watchdog believes Iran has the ability to make a nuclear bomb as the U.S. says the rogue nation could expedite the process. Meanwhile, President Obama has scrapped plans to deploy a ballistic-missile defense shield in Central Europe. This very controversial move, domestically and abroad, is based in a "gamble that scaling back defense ambitions will improve security in the long run." Members of both political parties in Congress have expressed concern over the decision as Heritage calls the move a "shameful surrender." As for the American people, 31% agree with the President while 38% disagree. Voters still trust Republicans more than Democrats to keep the country safe.

For a fresh look at the dynamics of international affairs, I highly recommend this fascinating piece in Foreign Policy magazine in which Marc Lynch illuminates the American primacy debate with an analogy to a feud in the hip-hop world involving Jay-Z.

For your laughing pleasure, definitely check out Sh&% My Dad Says and People of WalMart. I think every other picture was taken in North Carolina, Raise Up! Also, this dog really doesn't want a treat from Obama, and a space butterfly!

Make your opinion known in the PG Polls: Do you think the economy will hurt Obama and Democrats in future elections? Should we remain committed to the Afghan War, even sending additional troops, or abandon the effort?

The PG Blog has gained over 60 new fans in the past week. You can be the 300th! Thanks for the support!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Obama's Uphill Battle on Health Care

President Obama welcomed members of Congress back from the most tumultuous August recess many of them had ever faced with an address to a joint session in the House chamber in which he hoped to regain control of a debate that got away from him in August as public opinion soured drastically on his health care reform proposals, dragging the President's own approval down. Analysts called his speech a make or break moment for his signature legislative initiative as everyone hoped he would be more definitive and specific about what exactly he supports in health care reform and what he doesn't. The President offered a few more specifics, but left some of the most contentious questions, such as his bottom line on the public option, unanswered. Fact checkers, including the AP, found "a variety of oversimplifications and omissions" as well as "spurious" claims.

After a post-speech bounce in public support for Obamacare, opinions on the reform proposals have fallen back to August levels as voters still aren't convinced the changes will help them. This is bad news for Obama and his allies and indicates that even after employing his inspirational rhetoric and unquestioned speech making talent, the President faces a major uphill battle, with 23 Democrats vowing to vote no, to see anything close to his original ideas for reform make it to his desk. Worse for the President, 54% of voters say the more they hear about his plan, the less they like it. With public opinion mirroring that of Clinton's failed effort in 1994, perhaps it would be wise for Obama to step back and start over.

It has indeed been a rocky road for the President as he has "turned mortal" right before our eyes and even his strongest supporters are beginning to call he and the Democratic Party out. Camille Paglia, called one of the left's sharpest minds and someone who is as liberal as it gets, has taken Obama to task and even called for Pelosi, presiding over the most unpopular Congress in decades, to step aside. She writes about "Obama's healthcare horror," the administration's "grotesque mishandling of healthcare reform" and the President's "vague and slippery promises" which she exposes as nonsensical and false; others have called them fantasies. "It isn't conservative rumors or lies that are stopping healthcare legislation; it's the justifiable alarm of the electorate." She wonders "who is naive enough to believe that Obama's plan would be deficit-neutral? Or that major cuts could be achieved without drastic rationing?" Paglia concludes that "after a summer of grisly hemorrhaging, too much damage has been done" as "liberals have drifted into a strange servility toward big government." Read her pieces, brilliantly written, to see that she has no tolerance for Republicans either, but as a prominent liberal, I believe her reasoned and objective criticisms of Obama and his health care proposals carry a particular weight and credibility.

Nothing more needs to be said in this space about the public option, which as I've laid out before is by design intended to be a gateway to a single payer system of health care which voters firmly reject as contrary to American liberty and capitalism. Given that, to Obama's surprise, the public option has become a flash point in the debate and deeply unpopular and is thus likely dead, other watered down proposals, such as "triggers" to activate the public option at some later date, have been put forward to accomplish some of its same ends.

One idea is to use co-ops to provide competition to private insurers and help cover those who are currently unable to get health insurance. Co-0ps have a rich tradition in the US, but they can come in two very different varieties which would make all the difference as it concerns the health care debate. A co-op run by the government and funded by the government which offers health plans chosen by the government would simply be one step back from the public option- a trojan horse for the trojan horse for single payer. On the other hand, a co-op run by its members, funded by its members and controlled by its members could be a successful mechanism to reach some of our mutually agreed upon goals in the health care system. As you might expect, the Democrats warming to the co-op idea have in mind the former variety. Also troubling are proposals for individual and employer mandates to purchase health care, a specific, highly regulated service, or face stiff penalties, something that the CBO says would be unprecedented in this country.

One of the best opinion pieces written on health care recently caused one of the most absurd reactions from the left I have ever seen. John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, a favorite of progressives, wrote a piece in the WSJ in which he argues against a government takeover of the health care system and deficits that will bankrupt our country by presenting eight quality reform ideas geared towards "less government control and more individual empowerment."

From the incredible reaction by his liberal patrons, you would have thought he was promoting terrorism; he was indeed called evil and worse. They absolutely vilified a CEO who, in 2007, gave up his salary for charity. His exercising of his right to free speech, typically sacred to liberals, presenting well-reasoned alternative ideas to the liberal solution incited a massive boycott and caused his company's brand perception to drop. It is truly pathetic and a sad commentary on the state of our political discourse that civility, tolerance and respect have given way to vitriol over policy disagreements. It it not only those on the left who are guilty, but this episode was telling. Americans supportive of his ideas and disgusted by the reaction responded with "buycotts" around the country.

One of the points Mackey made is fundamental to the health care policy issue. He observes,

Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care. Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That's because there isn't any. This "right" has never existed in America.

A Duke professor, after analyzing exactly what is in the House's reform bill, recently wrote on the same issue, pointing out that "There was no right to such care before doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies produced it." While Obama has favored addressing the issue as one of choice and competition rather than as the moral imperative many liberals see for the government to provide health care to all, it is an interesting point to consider. There is no fundamental right to healthcare. We, as a compassionate nation, should see to it that policies are in place to allow all of our fellow citizens to reap the benefits of one of the very best health care systems in the world. There are strong proposals for doing just that without putting the government in between patients and doctors, artificially rationing new procedures and technologies and bankrupting the country with new entitlements. Government exists to preserve our natural, inalienable rights; it does not exist to control our access to critical and personal services.

Check out the comment Danny Mammo of Duke left on my last post critical of some of my evidence. I responded, defending the validity of the Lewin study and shedding light on the discrepancy with the CBO. We dove deeper into the specifics of the bill, including some of the more inflammatory charges made by conservatives: death panels, abortion funding and health care for illegals. Please share your thoughts as well!

Note: Thank you so much for a great first year for the PG Blog with more than 3,500 views and over 200 Facebook fans!!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The August Slide: Health Care & Obama

August has been a great month for Democracy, an active, passionate and vocal democracy, very American and created by a perfect storm that has resulted in the President suffering a precipitous fall in public opinion and his signature policy initiative going on life support in one of the "most rapid turnabouts in recent American political history." All Presidents fall at the end of their honeymoon, but no president has ever fallen this far this fast. The "August Slide," as David Brooks calls it, is not personal. Pollster Glen Bolger observes that the major hit Obama has taken in the past month is a function of a populace that still likes the President as an inspiration figure and positive image on the foreign state but is growing very skeptical and quite wary of his big government policies, as well as his leadership, down 19 points from January. The health care debate "is at the fault line" of a larger debate about the role of government. The damaging path of the debate caught Obama by surprise, and Charlie Cook believes the situation has "slipped completely out of control" for the President and Democrats.

Americans are waking up to the doublespeak the President and his Capitol Hill allies, to whom he has outsourced an inordinate amount of his policy formulation, continue to employ in frantically pushing their version of health care reform; Time calls these obvious paradoxes the fatal flaw of ObamaCare. The WSJ also describes the President's many contradictions, pointing out that voters aren't stupid and it's because they are listening that ObamaCare is in trouble. As the White House likes to say, "facts are stubborn things." Notice we haven't heard much from Obama lately about his unequivocal promise that "if you like your insurance, if you like your doctor, you can keep them." Why? It turns out saying something over and over with increasing force and conviction does not make it true. The Lewin Group, in a major analysis of the bill, estimates that 83 million people would be forced onto the "public option" under Obama's plan, losing their current, private coverage. Truly, no study was necessary to see the fallacy in Obama's claim. His purpose is sweeping health care reform that would transform the entire system... yet no individual would need to change their coverage. It's difficult to enact fundamental change if none of the players in the system change their behavior. Many Americans saw the wool being pulled over their eyes and reacted indignantly.

Speaking of wool being pulled over our eyes. Can we put to bed the debate about whether or not ObamaCare with a public option, not only would, but is designed to lead to single-payer care? Over the course of the debate, Democrat after Democrat, including Obama, has been caught telling friendly crowds that that is indeed the whole idea. The public option, it turns out, was part of a grand strategy developed in 2007 as a "stealth single payer." Hillary Clinton's chief strategist says the public option "was always meant as a transition to single payer, not merely as an aid to competition with private insurers." Case closed.

Obama would prefer single-payer, so why use the public option to get to the liberals' dream? Krugman explains that "politically it's hard to do in one step." I wonder why... Perhaps because only 32% of Americans favor single-payer health care. The rest understand what it would mean. Liberal leaders are being forced to confront a centrist nation. Realizing they've been found out, and with a plurality now opposing the trojan horse, the public option looks increasingly less likely to be included in any reform that passes. Meanwhile, Pelosi says she can't pass a bill in the House without it. In case you've forgotten why conservatives oppose the public option, here's Heritage...

The bottom line is that a public plan will grant the federal government unprecedented power to constantly tinker with the health care sector in ways that will make one sixth of our entire economy completely dependent on decisions made in Washington, DC. This is not the way free societies operate.

Democrats would also like us to believe their sweeping reform would be deficit neutral as Obama has demanded. It was a rude awakening for them when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office scored their bills between $1 and $2 trillion dollars. Director Elmendorf said that rather than "bend the curve" on health care cost as Obama has promised, his proposals would "significantly expand the federal responsibility for health care cost." We are then to believe that health care and all of Obama's other big government initiatives can be paid for by pillaging the wealthiest Americans with a variety of surtaxes. The Washington Post has called this a "mirage." As Margaret Thatcher said of Socialism, "the problem... is that eventually you run out of other people's money."

Obama is right to preach the dangers of inaction on health care. Health care spending, especially in the form of entitlements, is on an unsustainable and dangerous path, one that could bring down the entire economy. However, the President loses me in using this fact as rationale for passing legislation that we now know would only make our bleak budget outlook much worse. CBO director Elmendorf told congress that ObamaCare would "put an additional long-term burden on top of an already unsustainable path." Indeed, doing nothing would be better than accelerating our dive into the red; 54% of Americans agree.

Time Magazine laid out the challenge for Obama very well:

The hard part is making sure that in transforming a system that is bankrupting the country, Washington doesn't create a new one that does it even faster. Or that in expanding health coverage to the minority of Americans who don't have it, Washington doesn't leave the majority who do have it — and who like what they have — with less.

Unfortunately, the President's proposals fail on both counts.

Obama and Democrats in Congress have simply lost credibility with the American people, including their strongest supporters. Republicans are not trusted much more, but have overtaken Democrats on the question for the first time in years. Only 27% of Americans believe members of Congress have a good understanding of the health care issue as they look to reshape one-sixth of the American economy; voters think they know the bill better. The polls were turning against the President in the early summer and by the end of July, only 36% thought ObamaCare was a good idea. Gallop presented the top 10 takeaways of public opinion on health care at the time and the numbers all look bad for the President. Obama's power has been dwindling ever since, leading some to conclude that he does not know how to legislate. In August, voters came to appreciate more of the reasons the plan is bad for America. At this point, Obama has been dealt a major blow in the polls with his approval dropping to 46% in one poll and losing 17 points with Independents.

The last hope for a bipartisan bill rests with six Senators on the Finance Committee, but talks appear to be breaking down on irreconcilable differences. Desperate to pass their signature piece of legislation, regardless of what the American people think, Democratic leaders on the Hill are considering twisting Senate rules to force through a bill with no Republican support, a move that many commentators believe would be ultimately suicidal. Mr. Obama's pledge to be a post-partisan president has quickly fizzled as he wages a permanent campaign, employing the politics of fear and blame, instead of governing. He is also providing a variant, incoherent message, the result of allowing focus groups to dictate his language. The carefully crafted phrases that Obama has used repeatedly have thus far not convinced a skeptical public. He now faces a "politically explosive mix of unpopular policies and an angered electorate." Some believe Obama's smartest move would be to "pull the plug on ObamaCare" and find an exit strategy in order to save his presidency, but I'm not holding my breath. He is indeed pushing ahead with a new strategy and plans to address a joint session of Congress next Wednesday night in an attempt to regain control of the debate.

Clearly a lot has transpired in Washington and around the country in the last month in the tumultuous world of health care reform. There is more to discuss, but it can wait until next week as I anticipate being able to post more regularly. We'll address the question of health care as a right and the co-ops alternative, look at the absurd reaction from the left to this great piece in the WSJ by the CEO of Whole Foods as well as cover the economy, the GOP and other issues that have been muffled by the town hall volume of health care in August.

In the meantime, cast your vote in the latest PG Polls: Do you think President Obama will sign a major health care reform bill this year? Will Obama ever fully recover from his downward slide?