Does Obama Really Need a VP?

This piece, admittedly by a right-winger, claims Barack Obama is toying with the media and clearly intends to choose Hillary Rodham Clinton as his VP.

I don’t think so. She’s obviously his best choice from one standpoint — her electoral prowess — and the worst from many others.  After all, she declared John McCain was a more plausible president than Obama. That and many other quotes denigrating Obama’s experience will already be used against him, but coming from the mouth of his VP candidate? Deadly.  What many of us suspect about Obama, that he’s not quite ready for the job of president, she has said explicitly.  So has her husband.

But I cite the post mainly because it illustrates how much of a pickle Obama is in with respect to choosing his VP nominee.  Nobody helps him. Everybody hurts him.  He’d be better off running alone.  To quote from the blogger, Patrick Ruffini:

Just look at the other names on the short list:

  • Joe Biden‘s mouth is a constant source of embarassment. And how would the PUMAs take to a failed second-tier candidate leapfrogging someone with 18 million votes?
  • Evan Bayh has been vetoed by the netroots
  • Kathleen Sebelius would be a clear and direct affront to the PUMAs, much more so even than Biden. The first woman VP/President — and one you’ve never heard of — would increase the sense of Clintonian alienation.
  • Tim Kaine. Hahahahahahahahahaha
  • Wesley Clark would provide the military experience Obama needs, but his comments about McCain’s service are a problem.
  • Chris Dodd is a crook.

What if he didn’t pick anyone?  If he’s elected and then dies in office, the Speaker of the House, presumably Nancy Pelosi, would be perfectly acceptable to Democrats.  Even the PUMAs (which used to mean Party Unity My Ass, and now means People United Means Action) would probably grant Pelosi is acceptable.

Is there a constitutional problem with leaving the VP slot vacant?  Undoubtedly.  So what if Obama picked a literal nonentity. Say, the winner of a lottery, or perhaps a special political edition of Jeopardy! The winner would have to swear that in the event of Obama’s demise, he or she would immediately resign, stepping aside for the Speaker.

Of course, Obama could short-circuit all this and just nominate Pelosi for the vice-presidency.  Her political style is more suited to a VP campaign.  She’s a shin-kicking ear-biter, and she’s obviously totally unimpressed by the McCain mystique.

But since what I’m proposing is probably too absurd, my guess is Obama will pick Joe Biden.  He’s much more than a “failed second-tier candidate.” He’s a sherpa for an inexperienced president. He’s instantly credible in all the ways Obama is not yet.  Evan Bayh has the next-best chance, but Obama would have to stand up to a lot of criticism from the left netroots, where he’s described with language such as “fucking worthless to the progressive cause.” Not a lot of wiggle room there.  After watching Gov. Kaine on Charlie Rose a few weeks ago, I was nonplussed as to how he ever got on the short list.  If he’s a rising star, it’s going to be a slow rise. It would almost be unfair to subject him to national attention at this point in his career.

The blood is thinning in the political ranks of both parties.  The VP sweepstakes illustrate that perfectly.

Gore Back At Number One Observatory Circle?

Fate

Fate

Somehow, this story reminds me of “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

I mean, if Obama/Gore battles it out with McCain/? to a near draw and it comes down to…oh…Tennessee?  And he loses again?  I wonder if that’s crossing his mind.

Or maybe it goes the other way.  Maybe he was fated to be President.  Could the possibility tempt him?

For most observers, the idea of Gore as Obama’s VP would mean he’s in charge of the climate.

Yes, at first blush another Vice Presidency would be beneath Gore. But Obama has no huge emotional investment in either energy/environment/climate change or science & technology, and Gore cares about them passionately. Obama could give him primary authority in those areas without having a full “co-Presidency.” It’s hard to see how Gore does more for what he cares about from the outside.

But Gore might see it as a route back to winning what he thought he already won.

I wonder if Gore’s 10-year challenge to sever electricity from fossil fuels will help or hurt him?  Suddenly, the Republicans have an incentive to run the numbers on his idea.  It won’t be hard to make it look very expensive.  And what if Obama/Gore wins, serves eight years, and the US is falling short (as it surely will, since Gore’s goal is impossible)?

LA Ignored the Warnings

You could use the title for almost any story about reverses affecting Los Angeles’ economy, but this one happens to be about LAX.  According to LA Biz Observed blogger Mark Lacter, and the Daily Breeze, LAX is facing losses in its lucrative overseas business, business that has a largely unseen positive effect on the Los Angeles economy.  It’s so unseen that City Hall has utterly mismanaged the needed upgrades at LAX for the past 15 years, preferring to listen to NIMBY-minded voters than the economists, labor leaders and airline executives who kept telling them LAX’s huge advantage in international flights was not God-given, and that the airport needed some major fixes or the airlines would go elsewhere.

Sure, Air India’s decision to stop flying out of Los Angeles could be blamed on high fuel prices.  That alibi was already claimed by the Department of World Airports chief executive. But Air India still flies out of San Francisco, and fuel costs just as much up there.

The fact that you could reach dozens of cities overseas via nonstop flights from LAX gave this region an enormous edge economically.  But the locals didn’t care much about that and it was easy and more beneficial to make LAX and its stewards a target for political posturing.  And eventually, much easier for those stewards to tell the city council whatever nonsense it wants to hear.  It’s not their airport.  It’s Los Angeles’.

This is the problem with term limits.  The idea was to force the politicians to focus on their responsibilities as elected officials and not on their electoral fortunes.  This part of term limits has failed. The politicians are much less connected to the city they serve than they were in the days of John Ferraro and Gilbert Lindsey.  In Los Angeles, you now have a political culture built around tearing down city assets rather than protecting them, because having a few notches in your belt positions you for the next campaign.  So what if a critical institution like LAX is weakened?  That’s a trivial concern to the city’s political leadership now.

P.S. Bill Boyarsky has a post explaining what council members really think about when they think about LAX.

Really, It’s All About Obama III: Why Are They Tied?

The press and political world are wondering why John McCain has apparently evened up with Barack Obama, despite a week of embarrassing flubs.  How could Obama have lost ground?

But if you start from the assumption that this election is all about Obama, it’s really not surprising at all.  He said it himself:

“If you are satisfied with the way things are going now, then you should vote for John McCain,” Obama says before rattling off a list of current concerns, including rising gas prices, home foreclosures and job losses as the country fights two wars. Then, Obama promises “fundamental change.”

With the exception of Ted Kennedy, John McCain is the best-known politician in America who hasn’t been president or vice-president.  Whether he is “McSame” is a matter for debate, but one thing’s for sure.  He is who he is and you know who he is.  If he has a bad week, if he misspeaks, if he changes his mind on offshore oil drilling or tax cuts, it doesn’t alter our view of him.

The picture of Obama isn’t so clear yet.  The things he says resonate more because they add proportionally more to the sum of knowledge about him.  When Obama alters his positions, there is more of an impact on his overall reputation, because his initial set of positions represented most of what we knew about him.  He is in a real bind on Iraq, because he owes his nomination to his ability to chide Hillary Clinton for her pro-war vote in 2002.

The conventional wisdom is that he can “run to the center” without penalty, but I challenge that opinion.  You could not imagine an article like this one appearing with regard to any of the Democratic candidates since 1976, all of whom tried to position themselves as centrists after securing the nomination.  Some repositionings didn’t seem legitimate, perhaps.  But none have been portrayed as betrayal:

In the breathless weeks before the Oregon presidential primary in May, Martha Shade did what thousands of other people here did: she registered as a Democrat so she could vote for Senator Barack Obama.

Now, however, after critics have accused Mr. Obama of shifting positions on issues like the war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants, gun control and the death penalty — all in what some view as a shameless play to a general election audience — Ms. Shade said she planned to switch back to the Green Party.

“I’m disgusted with him,” said Ms. Shade, an artist. “I can’t even listen to him anymore. He had such an opportunity, but all this ‘audacity of hope’ stuff, it’s blah, blah, blah. For all the independents he’s going to gain, he’s going to lose a lot of progressives.”

Later in the article, Shade allows as how she is far out of the mainstream, and the theme of the article is that Obama doesn’t really need to worry about the far left.  But it’s another clue to Obama’s situation that some in the far left thought Obama was one of them.  It’s the amplitude of surprise that impresses me.  Compare that with McCain’s situation.  The far right knows he’s not one of them.  When McCain strikes a centrist pose, they might resent it, but they expect it and have accounted for it already.  They’re surprised when he agrees with them.

It’s all about Obama.  If his statements and positions gel into a coherent whole, a graspable persona, and a philosophy, he probably wins.  But if voters are still trying to square Statement A with Statement B, voters will probably settle for McCain.

Really, It’s All About Obama II

This WSJ column by Fouad Ajami reminded me of something else I want to put on my “do’s and don’ts” list for Barack Obama:

  • Don’t pretend your election is going to put a halt to anti-Americanism, or that it only started with George W. Bush.

An excerpt:

American liberalism is heavily invested in this narrative of U.S. isolation. The Shiites have their annual ritual of 10 days of self-flagellation and penance, but this liberal narrative is ceaseless: The world once loved us, and all Parisians were Americans after 9/11, but thanks to President Bush we have squandered that sympathy.

It is an old trick, the use of foreign narrators and witnesses to speak of one’s home. Montesquieu gave the genre its timeless rendition in his Persian Letters, published in 1721. No one was fooled, these were Parisian letters, and the Persian travelers, Rica and Usbek, mere stand-ins for an author taking stock of his homeland after the death of Louis XIV and the coming of an age of enlightenment and skepticism.

“This King is a great magician. He exerts authority even over the minds of his subjects; he makes them think what he wants,” Rica writes from Paris. “You must not be amazed at what I tell you about this prince: there is another magician, stronger than he. This magician is called the Pope. He will make the King believe that three are only one, or else that the bread one eats is not bread, or that the wine one drinks is not wine, and a thousand other things of the same kind.” Handy witnesses, these Persians.

The Pew survey tells us that some foreign precincts show a landslide victory for Barack Obama. France leads the pack; fully 84% of those following the American campaign are confident Mr. Obama will do the right thing in foreign policy, compared with 33% who say that about John McCain. There are similar results in Germany, and a closer margin in Britain. The populations of Jordan, Turkey and Pakistan have scant if any confidence in either candidate.

The deference of American liberal opinion to the coffeehouses of Istanbul and Amman and Karachi is nothing less than astounding. You would not know from these surveys, of course, that anti-Americanism runs deep in the French intellectual scene, and that French thought about the great power across the Atlantic has long been a jumble of envy and condescension. In the fabled years of the Clinton presidency, long before Guantanamo, the torture narrative and the war in Iraq, American pension funds were, in the French telling, raiding their assets, bringing to their homeland dreaded Anglo-Saxon economics, and the merciless winds of mondialisation (globalization).

(snip)

Meanwhile, a maligned American president now returns from a Europe at peace with American leadership. In France, Germany and Italy, center-right governments are eager to proclaim their identification with American power. Jacques Chirac is gone. Now there is Nicolas Sarkozy, who offered a poetic tribute last November to the American soldiers who fell on French soil, before a joint session of the U.S. Congress. “The children of my generation,” he said, “understood that those young Americans, 20 years old, were true heroes to whom they owed the fact that they were free people and not slaves. France will never forget the sacrifice of your children.”

The great battle over the Iraq war has subsided, and Europeans who ponder the burning grounds of the Islamic world know the distinction between fashionable anti-Americanism and the international order underpinned by American power. George W. Bush may have been indifferent to political protocol, but he held the line when it truly mattered, and the Europeans have come to understand that appeasement of dictators and brigands begets its own troubles.

It is one thing to rail against the Pax Americana. But after the pollsters are gone, the truth of our contemporary order of states endures. We live in a world held by American power – and benevolence. Nothing prettier, or more just, looms over the horizon.

It would cost Obama nothing politically to acknowledge this.  In doing so, he need not endorse Bush’s leadership — just America’s.  A change we could really use beginning in 2009 is bipartisanship and greater continuity in US foreign policy.

Really, It’s All About Obama

ObamaI hope my last post makes clear what I think the 2008 election is really all about. It’s about Barack Obama.  Obama is the only interesting choice, but I am uneasy about him, as are many Americans.

John McCain is a safe choice, but a most unsatisfactory one.  He’s safe enough to function in this election as the default.  If Obama lays an egg, we’ll get McCain, and he’ll be no worse and probably a good deal better than what we have now.  But most of us would be disappointed, wouldn’t we?  We are rooting for Obama to succeed, but not betting everything on it.

I have my own list of things Obama has to do and other things he has to avoid.  I’m sure you have yours.  I’m sure mine isn’t like yours, but I’d enjoy reading yours, and I’ll keep adding to mine:

  • Don’t be too liberal.
  • Don’t do class warfare.
  • Don’t be naive on foreign policy.
  • Don’t pretend it’s the 1930s or the 1960s.
  • Don’t let your past campaign rhetoric stand in the way of doing what’s right in Iraq. Go there and come back with a new message.
  • Don’t let yourself get rolled by the unions. Make them shape up first.
  • That goes double for the public employee unions.
  • You’ll probably get away with breaking your word on public financing of campaigns.  Don’t get cocky.
  • Don’t be too clever by half.  Telling McCain you’ll meet him at a town-hall forum on the night of July 4th and only then is infuriatingly disingenuous.
  • Do more town halls.  If your advisors tell you this isn’t your best format, tell them “Practice makes perfect.”
  • Don’t play the race card.
  • Don’t get pissed off when the media starts getting tougher on you. If they ever do.

To be continued….

Obama Can Reboot the Federal Government

Pilobolus enacts social mediaBarack Obama apparently resents it when he’s accused of being vague about the policies he’ll pursue as president, seeing such questions as a political trap.  He’s not unjustified in this fear, but since he doesn’t have a record of doing anything in particular in the public sphere — if he had a signature issue, it was ethics and campaign reform, and he just jettisoned that with his decision to raise unlimited private funds in his general election bid — he does have to be more specific than another candidate with a record and a reputation might have needed to be.

I think the promise of Obama is that he will bring to the US government of the new opportunities for collaboration and network formation that creative people have developed in the past five years, using the Internet’s capabilities as their primary tool.  Social media is why my son’s life is going to be very different from mine.

Social media could also be why Obama’s presidency could be very different from any of his predecessors.  Who knows, maybe the state of the art is such that McCain would also embrace these techniques, but if you had to pick between them as to who would usher in that future first, it wouldn’t be a contest. It’s Obama.

There’s a tension, however, between the futuristic orientation of Obama’s young supporters and the essential stodginess of the Democratic Party — a condition Obama’s acolytes haven’t really experienced yet.  The Democratic Party gives life to, and is the death of, idealism in youth.  The situation was nicely captured in today’s Sunday New York Times Magazine, in a short piece by NYU sociology professor Dalton Conley.  Here are some of the key grafs:

The chatter these days is that the Republicans are a party that has run out of ideas. The Soviet Union is long gone; welfare has been reformed; market logics have permeated almost every aspect of our lives (eBay, anyone?). The truth is that the triumph of conservative ideas may present a political problem for the ailing Republicans, but the party that’s truly lacking in new ideas is my own, the resurgent Democrats.

There is lots of talk in progressive policy circles that we need a “New New Deal” or some other sort of postindustrial revision to the social contract. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, after all, were forged in a society in which, for the most part, social organization was concentric. By way of analogy, think of Russian nesting dolls: children were nested in families; each family had one breadwinner; that breadwinner worked for a single employer; those employers were firmly rooted in the United States; and, to top it all off, the vast majority of people living in the country were citizens. This form of social organization made the social contract possible. There were clear parties to cut the deal, so to speak.

(snip)

Today, by contrast, the most common model of social organization is crosscutting social groups.

(snip)

These more complex social arrangements create many problems for the old social contract.

(snip)

So perhaps we need to reimagine these nesting dolls and instead think of the social contract along the lines of a computer network or the hub-and-spoke airline network in the U.S. In such “scale free” networks, distance has been collapsed by long links that allow you to skip between any two points in a couple steps. The government’s role is less as a backup provider — in case one link of the nested chain breaks down — and more as honest broker and resource hub across groups.

In health care, for example, the government could act as a pooler, forming health-insurance-purchasing cooperatives, randomly assigning unaffiliated individuals to groups that would then contract with private insurers. Likewise, the state could set up universal investment accounts for retirement savings, college savings and health expenditures. In education, the feds could mandate that any institutions of higher education that receive government dollars must make their research and course materials available online in an open-source format free of charge.

Private companies and nonprofits are already stepping in to fill this role. The Freelancers Union allows self-employed individuals to purchase health insurance at less expensive group rates. And M.I.T. and iTunes U have already inaugurated the open-courseware movement. But government has an important role to play. After all, the state can absorb a lot more risk than smaller entities can. Think how well government-backed V.A. and F.H.A. mortgages worked after World War II as compared with how the private market has fared lately.

(snip)It’s not surprising that the private-sector, new-economy companies are ahead of government in adapting to the networked society, but if progressives want a victory in the world of ideas and policy — and not just a couple of good election cycles — they are going to have to stop talking F.D.R, J.F.K. and L.B.J. and start thinking eBay, Google and Wiki.

Social network diagramOn my other blog, From 50,000 Feet, I wrote about Obama as viewed similarly in a Wired story.

These aren’t the ideas that will get Obama elected, surely.  He already gets mocked as the “egghead” in the race.  He’s compared in an uncomplimentary fashion to such famous Democratic intellectuals as Adlai Stevenson and Michael Dukakis.

But someday, somehow, one of our presidents is going to rescue the federal government from its sclerotic ways and figure out how to treat us like valued customers.  I think it will have to be a Democrat, because only a Democrat will be trusted to reconfigure social safety-net programs, and only a Democrat can butt heads with the public-employee unions that exist to kill efficiency reforms and expert to emerge with anything to show for it.

Obama can grow in the areas where he is now weak.  McCain is what he is. He’s the Pope Benedict XVI of this election, the safe, stall-for-time choice for president who will hold the office honorably while both parties figure out what their new directions will be.  Obama might not be ready (see my last post), but modernizing the colossus that is the US government is a task no one will ever be ready for.  You have to start somewhere, and Obama brings more of the kinds of tools we’ll need than anyone else with a credible chance to become president in 2012.