Friday Talking Points [108] -- Obama's Pivotal Week

03/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I have to start off today apologizing to my Huffington Post readers for possibly wearing out my welcome there this week, since this will be my fourth post in as many days there. But it's been a heckuva week, that's my excuse. I started with two columns on the anniversary of Barack Obama's Inauguration and his first year in office (one with my thoughts, and one with two extraordinary essays from young Americans I attended the Inauguration with). But, while I was wallowing in the calendar, other things were happening.

That's right. This column was moved to 12:05 in the morning, and Jay Leno announced he'd be taking over the normal Friday Talking Points column.

Heh. No, seriously, there was this election up in Massachusetts, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are "persons" with full First Amendment rights, and then Barack Obama pivoted hard -- to Populism, of all things. Which led me to offer up a rare Thursday column, where I tried to encourage the "Let Obama be Obama" moment that had apparently just happened.

So, for those HuffPosters who feel it's been too much, well, my apologies.

But it is Friday, and Fridays are what we enjoy most around here, since it's time for the weekly wrapup/smackdown known as the Friday Talking Points.

Here's a bit of news you may have missed: Democrats still control the Senate. Really! This seems to have escaped a lot of people, leading the Village Voice to run the hilarious tongue-in-cheek blog headline: "Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race, Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate."

Although portrayed as Doomsday by both the media and by Democrats themselves, everyone seems to have forgotten that Democrats only held the 60 votes (really, "59 plus Lieberman") for a period of a few months. Most of last year, they only (even counting Lieberman as a "Democratic" vote) had 58 or 59 votes, and they still managed to get a few things done.

But if it scared the living daylights out of Capitol Hill Democrats, then I guess there is a silver lining to the whole Massachusetts fiasco. And it fits right in with the White House's plans to "pivot" (more on this pivoting, in a bit) after health care reform was done... or, maybe, during the State Of The Union speech next week.

Those two used to mean pretty much the same thing, but health care reform now looks like an even bigger trainwreck than the Massachusetts election. The only thing certain at this point is that it ain't going to happen before the State Of The Union speech.

But since Democrats are taking some time to figure out what to do next, we shall do the same here, and skip over the entire health care reform subject, after highlighting (in the "if I doesn't laugh, I'm sure gonna cry" spirit) two hilarious commentaries on the situation. The first comes from Tom Toles, Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist at the Washington Post (Oh, let's go for the field goal, whaddya say?). And the second I noticed on Salon, in the "War Room" column, an ad for "Balls Beer" that is just as funny.


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

While the Awards Committee here at FTP had some reservations about this one, we're going to remain optimistic and positive, and go ahead and award President Barack Obama this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week.

Obama didn't start the week strong, of course, since his last-minute campaign blitz into Massachusetts last weekend didn't really accomplish much. A backdrop to the early part of the week that helped Obama nationwide, however, was his handling of the Haiti earthquake situation, which seems to have done him a bit of good in general. But this, and his celebration of Martin Luther King Day were overshadowed by the Massachusetts Senate loss.

Luckily, Obama was ready. There's a reason for this, and the reason is that about a month (or so) ago, the White House reportedly woke up to the fact that the Obama administration was generally seen by the public as sucking up to Wall Street, while simultaneously ignoring Main Street.

This both astonished and dismayed Obama's advisors, from all reports.

But, to their credit, they started working on the problem. And, for the past month, the White House leak brigade has been continuously squeaking about how Obama was going to perform a massive "pivot" -- after health care reform was signed -- to economic issues average Americans worried about, like jobs (for instance). And taking on the Big Banks on Wall Street.

So they had a lot of this stuff teed up and ready to drive down the fairway, right after health care reform was done. Problem was, health care reform is still not done, and now that the Senate's makeup is going to change, it just got a lot harder.

So Obama's team decided not to wait. They announced that the State Of The Union would take place in January (early leaks were that it was going to be pushed back to February), all but guaranteeing that the speech would fall before the health care bill's signing ceremony (this was even before Massachusetts voted). In other words, Obama was ready to pivot.

Then Massachusetts happened. And Obama, to his credit, executed his pivot without even waiting for the big speech next week. He is obviously annoyed at the perception of being in bed with Wall Street (especially since, honestly, that particular rhetorical shoe must have fit pretty well when he tried it on), and he is going to try to change that with a vengeance.

"About time!" I hear many of you say.

But timeliness (and his first year in office) aside, we simply have to recognize that Obama's pivotal moment has sent him off in a new and welcome direction. There seems to be a struggle within Obama's economic team, and for once Paul Volcker (look for his name in the news a lot more in the immediate future) seems to have come out on top.

The first three shots across Wall Street's bow from Obama are (1.) a bank tax, levied on how risky the bank is behaving, (2.) support for restoring Glass-Steagall rules for banking, and (3.) defining what "too big to fail" means, and drawing a line that says "no company should be too big to fail."

All admirable goals, I have to say.

Now, these are likely just the first proposals in a whole raft of proposed legislation we should look for in the coming weeks from the White House. And, really, they're not too hard to come up with, which I'll get to in the Talking Points part of the program, in a minute.

Obama still does face a lot of suspicion and mistrust by voters, mostly due to his own actions in the past year. Obama's known for talking a good game, and then quietly allowing Rahm Emanuel to "give away the store" in negotiations with Big Business -- while most people aren't even paying attention. So we'll see what the actual follow-through is on Obama's newfound Populism.

But my guess is that a new day is dawning in the White House. Obama is no fool. He can read his own poll numbers just as well as the next guy can. And they've been on a slow slide ever since he took office. He knows that he's got to act soon, or watch his presidency's opportunities slip away. My guess is that he knows full well that he's got about half a year or so to prove himself on the issue -- to many who are seriously skeptical about his commitment right now.

Time will tell, in other words. But for now, for this week, Obama's pivot simply has to be acknowledged. Obama has pivoted hard, and he has pivoted in the right direction. For this, he has earned his Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.

[Congratulate President Barack Obama on his White House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

This one is easy, this week.

Martha Coakley, erstwhile Democratic candidate for Ted Kennedy's seat in the Senate, was easily far-and-away the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week. Disappointment reigned far from Boston this week, as Coakley blew an enormous lead in the foreshortened 42-day campaign, to lose this past Tuesday's special election.

Now, there's plenty of blame to go around in this particular fiasco, there is absolutely no doubt about that. But Coakley was head and shoulders above (below?) the rest, in the running for MDDOTW this week, for her (to put it mildly) uninspired campaign.

Here's a hint for all up-and-coming Democratic candidates for higher office: don't take a six-day vacation in the middle of a 42-day race! Sheesh! I'm surprised I have to explain this stuff, as the renowned philosopher Joe Bob Briggs would put it.

Also, the Hillary-esque "I'm inevitable, don't bother me with the campaign, I'm busy measuring the drapes for my new office" campaign strategy is not particularly a good one for the mood the country's in right now.

But Coakley's been beaten up enough this week, both in print and at the ballot box. So we'll just hand her the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award, and move on. To dwell on it anymore would be the equivalent of rubbernecking at a particularly bad trainwreck, which would be unseemly. Ahem.

[No contact information is available for Martha Coakley, which is not all that surprising, really.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 108 (1/22/10)

Today's talking points are directed at President Obama and the White House Team Of Economic Muckety-Mucks.

The following are seven suggestions for issues to champion, to follow up on President Obama's pivotal week. They come complete with an easy way to explain what you are doing to the public. That's a key part of these reforms -- they should be simple. The legislation should be twenty pages each, tops. And they should be easy to explain to average Americans -- because they are issues that will greatly benefit average Americans. I should mention that it took me about five minutes to come up with these seven ideas, proving that there are many, many different ways to tackle the core Populist issues.

Because once you begin, Mister President (and assorted Muckety-Mucks), I believe you'll figure out this core truth: this Populism stuff is easy!




The reason this one is first is that it is currently grinding its way through Congress. But, unfortunately, as with almost all financial reform legislation, it is being gutted in the process. Obama has already taken a stronger stand on this than many expected (quite recently, I should mention), and it, like the issues mentioned in the MIDOTW section, has already been debated in Congress. Obama needs to issue his first veto threat over this one, in no uncertain terms.

"I believe Americans need a strong agency that fights for their rights against the banks. Congress is considering a Consumer Financial Protection Agency right now, and some have suggested that it is going too far, or that it is somehow too much. I disagree strongly, and I say to Congress that any bill which reaches my desk without a truly independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency will be returned with a large 'VETO' stamped upon it. Because anything short of this is a giveaway to Wall Street, instead of protecting Main Street as it should. If this is the first bill I veto, then so be it. I will fight for the C.F.P.A. until Congress gets it right."



   Credit card caps

This one is easy, and would require revisiting an issue that Democrats previously watered down. Luckily, one of the ways they watered it down was to delay implementation, so there is still a short window where they could just amend the new credit card rules which are about to take effect. This one issue -- more than any other financial issue -- would reap an overwhelming amount of support from average folks. Which is why it should be pushed -- hard.

"Looking at credit card rates today brings to mind a word from the Bible -- 'usury' -- which, in modern terms, might be called 'loan sharking.' I call for a federal law that no credit card or debit card would be allowed to have interest rates over twenty-five percent. Even that's too high, but anything over that is just flat-out wrong. I intend to end these abominably high interest rates from greedy Wall Street firms, and instead pass a law to change it overnight. This wouldn't have to be a long and complicated law, it could consist of about two or three paragraphs. No interest over 25%. I call on Congress to pass such a law immediately and put it on my desk so that this change can take effect when the other credit card reforms already passed take effect. And if there are bought-and-paid-for Congressmen from either party who are holding it up, I want to know their names so I can share with the American people exactly who is on the side of obscene bank profits, and who is fighting for the middle class."



   TARP to go to small businesses

This one probably would need a little tweaking, but I still think the core idea is a good one, once again, because it is such a simple concept to comprehend.

"I am calling on Congress to pass a bill which frees up all the remaining TARP funds, so that instead of shoveling money at Wall Street forever, we send this money instead to the Small Business Administration, so that they can lend this money directly to American small businesses, to jumpstart our economy. Small businesses create around seven of every ten jobs in America, and they have been hurt by the tight credit situation on Wall Street. To rectify this situation -- since Wall Street doesn't seem interested in making loans available to small businesses -- we will offer to loan this money to these small businesses directly, at the same rate we lend money to the big banks on Wall Street. That's right -- the same rock-bottom rates the big banks get will be offered to the public instead, on hundreds of billions of dollars. We may lose a little money on these loans, but I am betting American small businessman will take this money, expand their business, and create some jobs -- and then successfully pay it back to the taxpayer. I'm willing to bet the federal government will actually make money on this deal, because I believe in the power and in the future of American small business."



   Call it "the Mr. Magoo rule"

OK, this one is trivial, I'll be the first to admit. But it bugs me no end, and always has.

"I am calling for new rules for television advertising, which will permanently ban 'the fine print.' Right now, anyone advertising anything on television is free to put whole paragraphs of text (legally-required notices, mostly, that the businesses don't like) into such tiny text that it is completely unreadable, even on the new digital televisions. This practice must stop. From now on, any legally-required notice on television will have to meet readability standards. I want legal notices on ads to be so large that Mister Magoo can easily read them. It's time for advertisers to end the 'fine print' forever."



   End the hedge fund managers' gargantuan tax loophole

If you're a banker, your obscenely-large salary, even with bonuses (which we'll address in a moment), is taxed as income -- because it is. If you're a hedge fund manager, your salary is taxed at less than half the rate everyone else pays, as "capital gains" -- even though it is clearly income. This one is an easy target.

"I call on Congress to make sure that people whose job it is to make other people money are all taxed at the same rates -- and at the same rates all other American employees are taxed. This means taxing hedge fund managers at the same tax rate as bankers. It means taxing people raking in millions of dollars at the same tax rate everyone else pays, instead of letting them get away with paying a lower tax rate than policemen, firefighters, teachers, and secretaries. Congress needs to close the loophole that hedge fund managers use to pay lower tax rates than the rest of us, and declare the money that they make as 'income' so that they pay the tax rates that all other Americans pay. Fairness demands it."



   No business can "write off" any salary or bonus above what the president makes

This one is easy, too. The White House has been trying to say one thing on this issue, and then turn a blind eye to it, for far too long now. Obama needs to see the error (and political stupidity) of these ways, and get on the bandwagon before it leaves town without him.

"I propose a new law for all American businesses. Any compensation paid to any employee of any business which is above the salary America pays the president will not be tax-deductible on the business' tax returns. And I mean any compensation whatsoever -- salary, bonuses, stock options, any other way businesses try to find loopholes to reward their workers -- any of it. Now, don't get me wrong -- I'm not saying that any business isn't free to pay any amount of money they choose to any employee they wish. There will be no law saying they can't. But for them to write off on their taxes as a 'business deduction' millions upon millions of dollars (that are, quite frankly, obscene amounts) will come to an end! In other words, any money paid to an employee over $400,000 per year will come out of that company's profits, and will be fully taxed as such. The fat cats have had a free ride for far too long, and I propose to end this free ride once and for all."



   A "bonus" for the American people

This last one has the added benefit of being a Republican idea. So any Republicans who now come out against it will have to explain to voters why they supported it last year and are now against it, just because Obama's for it.

"Last year, Republicans offered a suggestion that I think bears a second look -- a 'payroll tax holiday' from all payroll taxes for one year. For the next year, American workers would get a boost to their take-home earnings by exempting them all from Social Security and Medicare taxes. This will boost the economy by giving folks a break on taxes for one year, until the economic recovery is fully underway. This may push the deficit a bit higher for a single year, but I think it is worth it in the end. I have to say that after seeing one company on Wall Street hand out over sixteen billion dollars in bonuses and compensation last year, that it is about time the average American worker got a 'bonus' -- since many of them have never gotten one in their lives, much less sixteen billion dollars in one year. I call upon the Republicans who originally proposed this idea -- as well as all Democrats in Congress -- to immediately pass a temporary one-year payroll tax holiday. And I suggest you call the bill 'The Main Street Bonus' bill, as well."


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