Category Archives: Elections

President Obama’s Tea Party Credentials

By Marc Seltzer; originally published at on November 14, 2010

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I wonder if the story of the midterm elections is what it seems:  Tea Party Rejection of President Obama’s policies ushers in a Republican agenda.

In that story, President Obama is either the same old Washington problem, out to use tax-payer money and gov’t power for his own out-of-touch interests or an out-of-control Democrat-Socialist on a wild spending spree.  The deficit and debt represent the proof of the irresponsibility of the incumbents, and the new Republicans are the populist heroes who will reign in spending and balance the budget.

But I keep remembering candidate Obama saying “I am not doing this so I can pass the buck on the hard decisions.”  Difficult decisions are the ones where you take things from powerful people or make them pay what they cost, rather than offer give-aways.

Leave the financial crisis aside for a moment.

The current President inherited both short-term deficit spending (war, tax cuts, excess gov’t spending, etc. — unpaid for) and long term structural debt (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security going up unsustainably per existing law and future demographics).  There are sometimes reasons to borrow money, to spend now and pay off debts later, but the past decade was not WWII.  Congress simply spent more than it took in, and it gave gifts such as tax cuts and Medicare benefits by borrowing money.

Along comes Barack Obama, talking about “bending the cost curve.”  Significant in the health care reform was removing tax subsidies for generous employer-sponsored health plans. Most Americans get their insurance from employer-sponsored health plans, and this substantial reform, however unpopular, will reduce the costs and waste of excessive medical care.  Mr. Obama also approved taking funds out of Medicare.  That’s hurting doctors and potentially forcing more cost containment on publicly funded health care for seniors.

The President also talked about reducing earmarks (the first budget under Obama contained earmarks prepared before his inauguration).  That hurts corporate interests and the politicians so aligned.   Then, Mr. Obama sought to reduce defense spending, with his Secretary of Defense standing up to criticism by congressional and corporate defense interests.

This sure seems like the long-term path of fiscal discipline.

What I’m wondering is, could the Tea Party movement be going in the same direction as the President?  Could it be that in order to balance the budget a lot of sacrifices will have to be made?  The President started down that path. (The financial crisis brought some unexpected costs — Bush’s TARP and Obama’s Stimulus — but not a recurring give-away). Now, the Tea Party-rejuvenated Republicans are all about cutting spending.

Doesn’t that really put them in the President’s camp?  Everyone with an interest, special or otherwise, will argue for their piece of the pie.  Tea Party Republicans are proposing to reform earmarks, cut defense spending and balance the budget.  They come at the problem as if it was the government that was devouring all the money.  But if they stay in the game for long enough, they will see that it’s not that simple.

In that case, President Obama may again appear the reformer:  A leader with a clear understanding of what needs to change to create a more sustainable America, waiting for people with integrity and discipline, a willingness to sacrifice, and political courage to join the fight against a system of entrenched interests.

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No Tea Party in Canada

By Marc Seltzer; originally published at on October 13, 2010
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Democrats seem bewildered by the strength of the Tea Party movement.  Powerful incumbent Senators such as Boxer (CA) and Reid (NV), and numerous House Reps in leadership positions find themselves in difficult contests. Republicans are poised to gain significant numbers in the legislative branch in November’s mid-terms election.

Fighting back, Democrats and their supporters have gone after Tea Party-Republican candidates, focusing on their oddities, inconsistencies, and lack of coherent policies.  Rachel Maddow, among others, has exposed the remarkably poor caliber of some candidates propelled by the Tea Party to victory in the Republican primaries.

Be that as it may, the legitimate complaint of the Tea Party movement has not been effectively dealt with by Democrats.  The root groundswell of anti-government energy comes from fear and anger about deficit spending and debt.

Deficits matter.

In Canada, governments of the past decade worked hard to erase the substantial deficits of the 1990s.  When the 2008 financial crisis arrived, Canada was able to face the recession with sound economic fundamentals.   Increased public spending in 2009 and 2010 again created deficits, but helped Canada recover nearly all the jobs lost in 2008.  Embarking on a new deficit spending program did not faze the public, and Canadian leaders are now talking about returning to surplus budgets in the next 7 years.

There is no tea party movement in Canada.  National health care, yes.  Major tax protests, no.

For all the things wrong with aspects of the Tea Party movement, from blaming the Obama administration for current ills to dredging up misguided social views, the truth is that the U.S. would have braved the recession far more effectively if it had had a budget surplus.

In not addressing this aspect of the financial health of the nation directly from the start, with a coherent long-term plan, the Democrats have allowed the opposition to bundle legitimate disapproval of the government’s budget outlook with generalized anger at banks, unemployment, the Bush administration, Congress, taxes, and government spending.

It’s working for Republicans so far, and if this election looks bleak, imagine Sarah Palin filling a stadium near you in 2012.

(Marc Seltzer has been on paternity leave after the birth of his daughter in June.  Marc can also be heard reviewing U.S. Supreme Court cases at

Our discussion of current issues continues here:

Redefining America:  Constitution and Leadership 2010

Podcast, April 12, 2010 (Click to hear)

With the November congressional elections in mind, we discuss the Democrats’ efforts to regain momentum after the passage of health care reform legislation and Republicans’ attempt to champion a rally against the incumbent majority government.

Podcast March 6, 2010

March 6, 2010 “My Show”

Iraqi election and the courage of starting a new democracy.

Health care reform and whether “reconciliation” is really just a buz word and political attack with no real historic significance.

Email or call with comments (310) 928 1408 and I will try to discuss in the next show.

Obama Approval, Progressive Politics and Democratic Unity

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on November 25, 2009, at

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Pundits have focused recently on President Obama’s declining public opinion polls.  As the President drops to fifty percent approval ratings, the talk speculates on whether the poor economy will sink Democratic prospects in the 2010 midterm elections.  The economy is important and the administration’s policies will not cure recession blues before the election, but of greater concern is the question of Democratic political unity.

Republicans have criticized the President’s leadership and policies from the get go, but with Progressives attacking the administration and fracturing the President’s base, some of the moderates who elected him are beginning to wonder.  Have the progressives gone off in search of Ralph Nader?

Neither the left nor the right have a majority in national American politics.  The candidate that convinces the pragmatic middle to join the ideological left or right wins both in electing candidates and in charting policy.  President Bush succeeded in maintaining the right-middle coalition between 2000 and 2008.  He used the power he was given to lower taxes on the wealthy, promote hands-off financial oversight, conduct aggressive foreign and military policy and tilt the delicate balance between rights and security not so delicately in favor of security.

President Obama won back moderates in 2008, promising to shift economic policy towards the middle class, embracing government regulation in finance, the environment and health care, and seeking new strategic solutions in international relations.  His is not, in fact, a liberal vision, despite Republican characterizations, but it is a more moderate one than what came before, and one that aims to learn from the experiences of prior administrations.As long as his coalition continues, the President’s approach to taxes and budget, justice and rights, and foreign policy and war will prevail.

However, after nine months in office, it seems the President can no longer count on the Progressive wing for support.  In the guise of influencing the President to move to the left, Progressive critics attack the President and his administration.  Calls for Treasury Secretary Geithner to resign by Rep. Peter DeFazio D-Or are but the most recent example.  The left is also troubled by economic decision-making and the potential increase in troops headed for Afghanistan.  Of course, any coalition will contain different viewpoints.  A goal of our democratic process is for hearty debate to distinguish the best ideas from all others.  But Progressives fail to grasp that the President needs the full support of those that elected him in order to achieve his agenda and present a successful Democratic party to the electorate in 2010 and 2012.  If the party is not unified, the President will not succeed and the power will shift back to the Republicans.

It is only because President Obama joined, at least temporarily, the moderate center of the electorate with the traditional Democratic party that he succeeded in bringing his moderate voice to the fore.

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In Republican Victories a Lesson for President Obama

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on November 5, 2009, at

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What does a master politician learn from defeat?

Republicans are claiming the November election shows a renunciation of Barack Obama’s nine months of leadership.

Democrats are reassured by the Owens victory in New York: The Conservative candidate was too far to the right for mainstream America.

But President Obama must surely be licking his wounds.  He, and his party, should have won the Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races.

Candidate Obama won those states forcefully in November 2008.  How could they be lost so decisively now?

Mr. Obama has been in office 9 months. The public saw in candidate Obama a fix for the errors of President Bush:  Bad wars would be ended; good wars would be fought successfully; special interests would be put in their place; the super rich would pay their taxes; average Joes would find jobs, and decisions on health care, foreign policy, financial regulation and immigration would solve knotty problems of budget woes, and nuclear fears while making humanitarian advances.

Ruling is far different from campaigning.  We are three-hundred million people living under the representational leadership of one head-of-state who shares power with 500 or so others representing each and every bit of our union from the Hawaiian Islands to the Eastern seaboard.

Every President suffers in the elections following their inauguration as the public’s hopes are dashed by the realities of governance.  What seemed so obvious and positive in a speech during the campaign becomes so complicated and expensive when you face it squarely and manifest it in policy and law.

But is that it?  Is it just disappointment with reality?

I don’t think so.  It’s more than that.

The President has presided over one of the most remarkable economic events in U.S. history.  The financial industry – a core pillar of American and international business — was brought to the brink of collapse.  Democratic and Republican leaders acted quickly and creatively without a playbook to rescue the financial sector.  This was not an average recession, but an international crisis of finance that was bigger than the financial system itself.  That’s why the government had to step in, but the results will be debated and lessons included in the next generation’s history books.

Possibly fearful of making a mistake, the President has hesitated to explain clearly to the American people just what has happened.  Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and a league of economists in government and academia have spoken to the causes and reform proposals.  With all due respect to Secretary Geithner’s intellect and articulateness, President Obama, with his commanding charisma and office of authority, must lead on this issue.

If the nation had plunged into a depression, rather than skirting perilously around the edge, the President would be expected to lead us through.  The fact that we may have avoided more catastrophic losses does not obviate the profound need for leadership to speak powerfully to the causes, remedies, and reform.  It is not enough that competent leaders work the process through congressional committees and administrative working groups.  The President must face the event squarely and communicate to the public about his presidency’s relationship to these historic times.  When I think of the Great Depression, I think of Roosevelt telling the nation “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  When I think of the bombing of Britain, there is Churchill saying, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”  But when I think of the financial crisis of 2008-2009, I think of Paul Krugman and Bloomberg Economics.

And this leads back to November 3, 2009.  The reason that the Democrats lost in battles against Republicans is that the public is concerned about direction of the government on the economy.   What has the President done in 9 months of office?  He has addressed the financial crisis and pushed ahead on health care.  Both of these programs deal fundamentally with economics (if money grew on trees, we wouldn’t bother with insurance reform) and the fiscal state of the nation.  Yet the President has not yet done what he is capable of to express a coherent financial plan on either issue.  He is, of course, subject to Republican criticism no matter what, but more important than that, he does not have the confidence of the moderate middle of the country who decide close elections.

Bill Clinton lost a great deal of his authority in 1994 when the Republicans retook power in Congress two years into his presidency.  President Obama has had a hint of what can happen in the losses in Virginia and New Jersey.  A gift in disguise?

Mr. Obama needs to refocus his communication priorities to explain to the American people his short- and long-term economic vision.  He needs to include a convincing dose of reality in his message rather than campaign rehtoric — not just “economic recovery” and “bend the cost curve” but targets for deficit and debt, goals for long term spending and revenue, transition from stimulus to private economic activity.  And the President must deliver and stay on the message himself in order to inspire confidence in the majority of Americans.

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Senate Membership Roller Coaster

The Magic Number for Cloture Ending Senate Filibusters

The Magic Number for Cloture Ending Senate Filibusters

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on February 3, 2009, at

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On the way to sixty — the twists and turns on the way to the Senate.

Leading up to the Presidential election in November 2008, Senate watchers were wondering how close the Democrats would get to the magic number of 60. It takes sixty Senators, under cloture rules, to cut off debate, and proceed to a vote, even where a simple majority of Senators favor passage. There have been arguments over the validity of the filibuster rule itself (essentially a minority party bargaining chip), but it has withstood challenge in the Senate for more than a century. With no filibuster rule in the House and significant Democratic majority expected, the Senate numbers represented the only Republican check on free reigning democratic legislative authority until the 2010 congressional elections.

And so, as the Democrats went into the election with assurances of picking up seats under the sway of Obama’s popularity, Bush’s dismal ratings, looming economic meltdown, and 23 Republican incumbents facing re-election, all eyes were on the numbers.

Essentially, the Democrats needed 9 to reach sixty (two Senate independents side generally with the 49 Democrats). And they got six. Six, that is, on November 4. But that left Alaska, where the longest serving Republican, Ted Stevens, ahead in the count, had been indicted on corruption charges and was being asked by his own party to resign. And Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who only ended up ahead by 230 votes, triggering an automatic recount and analysis that the types of voting machines and propensity for errors, which are corrected by the recount, gave the Democrat Al Franken real hope.

The other Senate changes, first and foremost, Barack Obama’s Illinois Senate seat, and Joe Biden’s Delaware seat, would not change the Senate make-up because Democratic governors of Illinois and Delaware would appoint Democratic replacements. (Though no one could have predicted that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich would be caught on tape seemingly trying to exchange the appointment for the greatest personal gain, would be indicted, impeached, and removed from office, soon after the seat was filled).

Further change in the post-election Senate make-up came from the appointment of Hillary Rodham Clinton, replaced finally by Democratic State Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Meanwhile, on November 18, the final count in the close Alaska election reversed Ted Steven’s early lead and put Anchorage Mayor, Mark Begich, in the Senate as Democrat 58.

After further wrangling about erroneously uncounted absentee ballots in Minnesota, ballot challenges and final recount tallies were in, the Minnesota Canvassing board declared comedian Al Franken the victor over Norm (not laughing) Coleman. Republican Coleman has challenged the final tally of 225 votes in Franken’s favor, but Democrat Franken is on his way to being Senate Democrat number 59.

And so it would have remained, except that President Barack Obama’s Commerce Secretary nominee, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, withdrew from consideration in the face of an investigation, and Republican Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire will be nominated instead.

The political dynamic is momentous. On the one hand, Sen. Gregg serves in a state with a Democratic Governor, John Lynch, who would ordinarily choose a Democratic replacement. This would represent the magic 60 in the Senate. Republicans have said that Gregg should not take the position in this situation.

On the other hand, the Commerce position is an important one and one which a Republican advocating free market principles will find especially significant during the economic downturn. There is already talk of protectionism creeping into stimulus legislation and the Commerce Secretary would likely take the lead in advocating against protectionism at home and abroad.

And so, like the best of roller coasters, with unanticipated twists and turns, we have to wait for one more appointment to finally determine the make-up of the 2009 Senate. New Hampshire Governor Lynch is indicating that his appointment will not change the Senate’s party politics.”I will name a replacement who will put the people of New Hampshire first and represent New Hampshire effectively in the U.S. Senate.”

To some extent the numbers will be of symbolic significance since the most moderate of the Republican Senators, such as Maine Republicans Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins are not likely to join a filibuster against the President except in exceptional circumstances. But with talk of bank nationalizations, deficit-fed stimulus and promises of dramatic change in Washington, these are exceptional circumstances.

Obama, Choose Your Battles

Photo credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi; license

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on January 9, 2009, at

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Obama is undoubtedly feeling the pressure, felt jointly in capitals around the world, to help end the conflict in Gaza, where a fierce Israeli military operation, has resulted in significant death and destruction.

The U.S. has traditionally played a major role in facilitating negotiations throughout Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.  The deeply divisive and longstanding battle goes to the heart of the security and future of the state of Israel and rights to statehood and autonomous homeland for the Palestinian people.

However, despite the best intentions, the conflict in Gaza will not be solved easily.  At this point, President Obama’s involvement risks squandering substantial energy and political momentum desperately needed for domestic reforms.

A lesson from history

Republicans will remember:  The first significant act in office for President William Jefferson Clinton was to revisit the military ban on service by gay soldiers.

It was January 1992, and Clinton took on his own Joint Chiefs to establish a new compromise policy, commonly known as don’t ask, don’t tell.  Merits of the reform aside (which allowed many soldiers serving honorably to continue service) it angered the political right, which took sights on the Clinton Presidency and never looked back.

In retrospect, the action cost the Clinton Presidency dearly.  Despite significant improvements in welfare reform, balanced budgets and economic prosperity during his presidency, the Clinton Presidency never ceased to arouse conservative ire.  The animosity from the right dogged the President in office, played a role in Al Gore’s unsuccessful Presidential bid, and may have lingered into the campaign of Hillary Clinton, eight years later.

All this comes as a warning to President-elect Barack Obama:  Choose your first battles carefully.

Global perspectives

Obama would do well to remember that the U.S. is involved in other conflicts throughout the world, some demanding presidential attention. India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, for example, have a joint population of 1.3 billion people, with robust nuclear arsenals in the first two and an ongoing U.S. military operation in the third.  All have recently been unwilling hosts to tragic terrorist violence directed against civilians.

While sympathetic in their distress, the civilian population of Gaza remains less than 500,000 people. Israel, and the greater Palestinian population number less than 8 million.

Barack Obama has spoken solemnly about his commitment to the faltering U.S. economy, the foundation of this nation’s prosperity and security.  His steady hand convinced voters that he was best candidate to keep a nasty recession from turning into something historic and much worse.  Americans will be looking to President Obama for leadership.

At least at the outset, Obama must avoid any temptation to solve all the world’s problems.  Being drawn into negotiating a cease-fire in Gaza risks squandering the new administration’s goodwill and focus.