Power of the Pen

Last week President Obama used a strategy that should become an important part of his leadership going forward.  On February 18, he issued an executive order creating a bipartisan commission on addressing the budget deficit, after the Senate failed to enact legislation that would have done so.  Whatever one thinks of the commission’s mission or likely recommendations, the order should represent a rediscovery of the power of the presidency.

Perhaps because he came to the White House directly from the Senate, the President has been overly reliant on that body to achieve his goals.  It goes without saying that the Senate is dysfunctional and divided—by contrast, the House has passed superior versions of many of the President’s legislative priorities, only to see more anemic version die at the other end of the building.  But while the Senate is crucial to federal legislation, and federal legislation is crucial to transformative change on many issues, such as health care, financial regulation, and immigration reform, presidents wield tremendous power as presidents through their constitutional authority as executive.  The executive order is a prime example.

President Obama has issued some 42 Executive Orders since he took office.  But the Deficit Commission order served as a public notice—or at least it should—that the President stands ready to move solutions forward, within constitutional limits, when the Legislative Branch fails to act.

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What Can an Equitable Recovery Look Like?

Recovery from a natural disaster should be able to make survivors “whole.” However, when the starting point is life in one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the Western hemisphere, getting back to normal becomes a trickier proposition.  Haiti has the highest rates of infant, under-five and maternal mortality in the Western hemisphere.  In 2003, 80% of the population was estimated to live under the international poverty line.  As demonstrated by the extended recovery process from Hurricane Katrina, economic condition has a determinative effect on the ability to recover from a natural disaster, with the worst impact and least independent ability to recover suffered by the poorest residents.

Although this paints a bleak picture, and there’s no denying that the reality is grim, the only possibility for hope or optimism lies in a new roadmap for recovery.  Any attempt to rebuild Haiti must be developed with an eye to erasing past inequities.  It cannot be enough to rebuild the Haiti of January 11, 2010.  Most Haitians lived by subsistence farming.  With a lack of arable land, continuing deforestation, and destruction of much of the country’s infrastructure, Haiti’s economy must be rebuilt on a new basis.  If the country must begin anew, the opportunity to develop something entirely new exists.

The lingering effects of colonialism, racism, and poverty must be eliminated as the country begins to map out its future.  Internal and external factors that have perpetuated, and actually increased, the disintegration of Haiti – its infrastructure, its agriculture, and its people – must be left out of the country’s future.  The color line of Haiti’s elites must go.  An economy based on unsustainable agriculture must go.  Governmental instability and corruption must go.  Unacceptable mortality rates for infants, children under five, and women giving birth must go.  All of which leaves room for a new, more equitable, more self-determined Haiti – with the help of all of us.

Read more at The Opportunity Agenda website.

Dr. King's Modern Legacy

In the days just before and after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 80th birthday, I had the opportunity to visit two places that are integral to his modern day legacy: Washington, DC and the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.  As I witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama as the nation's 44th president, I thought of Dr. King's admonition, in his 1963 I Have a Dream Speech, that "we cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote." Despite some continuing problems at the ballot box, this was an election about which Dr. King could be truly satisfied; African Americans turned out in record numbers to elect the nation's first African-American president.

In the same speech, Dr. King reminded the nation that "when the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the `unalienable Rights' of `Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'"

For anyone who's visited the Gulf Coast recently, it is obvious that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as the people of the Lower Ninth Ward--overwhelmingly poor and African-American--are concerned.  The world witnessed in 2005 how our government left the region's people to drown in their homes and suffer unspeakable conditions in the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome.  More than three years later, that abandonment continues.

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Katrina Wasn't It

Or at least it wasn't all of it. Looking through the oral history of the Bush administration available from Vanity Fair, it appears as though Bush staffers want to pin the downturn in the President's popularity to Katrina, ignoring the fact that it wasn't just the Bush administration's bungled response to the Hurricane but also -- and especially -- its pursuit of wildly unpopular policies that led to historically high disapproval ratings for President Bush.

Dan Bartlett, White House communications director and later counselor to the president: Politically, it was the final nail in the coffin.

Matthew Dowd, Bush's pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign: Katrina to me was the tipping point. The president broke his bond with the public. Once that bond was broken, he no longer had the capacity to talk to the American public. State of the Union addresses? It didn't matter. Legislative initiatives? It didn't matter. P.R.? It didn't matter. Travel? It didn't matter. I knew when Katrina--I was like, man, you know, this is it, man. We're done.

There's little doubt in my mind that for many Americans the Bush administration's disturbing inability to deal with Hurricane Katrina was the last straw. But it is not as if this event was the reason why George W. Bush lost the American people, that his far right ideology so discredited in such a short time had nothing to do with his less than poor standing with voters.

First, it's important to note that the President's approval rating was already well below 50 percent -- and dropping -- by the time the storm hit New Orleans. Much, if not the vast majority, of the decline in Bush's approval rating at the time stemmed from his administration's ill-fated and politically disastrous effort to partially privatize Social Security. Not only did such a move galvanize the Democratic base, which was glum in the wake of the 2004 elections, it moved a lot of middle of the road voters out of Bush's camp. Of course the Iraq War, which dragged on and continues to drag on, also took a major toll on Bush's ratings as Americans increasingly looked for an end to the conflict, which Bush could not or would not even attempt to provide. Throw on top of that one of the worst economies the nation has seen in generations, perhaps even since the Great Depression, and you can see why George W. Bush has the highest disapproval rating of any President in the history of polling.

So, yes, Katrina played no small part in the failure that has been the Bush administration -- but it is far from the largest cause for why he is going down in history for all the wrong reasons.

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How Not to Blow It

It's hard to overstate the transformative moment that we're in as a nation and, particularly, as progressives. In just a few years, we've gone from the high point of conservative power to a stunning rejection of conservative federal leadership and the historic election of a progressive African-American president.

But the electoral sea change is just part of the extraordinary national moment. The financial meltdown and slide toward deep recession have crystallized Americans' anger over deteriorating economic security, stagnant mobility, growing inequality, and policies of isolation instead of connection. Americans are ready for a new social compact and a transformed relationship between the people and our government. They are calling for a new era of big ideas and different values than we've seen over most of the past three decades.

The electorate has shown an unprecedented willingness to overcome racial and ethnic barriers to take on daunting shared challenges. Young people, people of color, and low-income people turned out to register and vote in unprecedented numbers that bode well for a far more participatory and egalitarian democracy going forward.

Even before this year's remarkable events, opinion research showed a historic, progressive shift in Americans' views on issues that (not coincidentally) were barely mentioned in the election. Perhaps most striking is the shift on criminal justice and problems of addiction, where the U.S. public has moved broadly to support rehabilitation and treatment over incarceration and retribution, as well as assistance and integration for people emerging from prison.

But an unprecedented opportunity for progressive values and ideas is not the same as victory for a progressive social and policy vision. The stark challenges of rising inequality, faltering security, and broken systems of health care, immigration, and criminal justice are the same on November 5 as they were on November 4. What's changed is only the chance for transformative change.

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