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Winter of Discontent: Can Obama Get His Groove Back?

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President Obama needs more economic and political soul, if he is to get his groove back.

It's early December, and it's already cold out there. The political atmosphere in Washington, DC is decidedly chilly for progressives, and the compromises coming from the lame duck session of Congress won't be pretty.

After Congress goes home, we might want to use the holiday season and gifting to put politics in perspective -- and to nudge President Obama back on to a more assertive and less defensive track. Certainly, after his political "shellacking" in the mid-terms, the WikiLeaks documents revealing the inner workings of his foreign policy, and the necessity of meeting with Republican leaders who detest him, the President and his family need a lot of Christmas cheer.

In my gifting article of last year ("Joy to the World: Good-Bye Bing Crosby, Hello Bob Dylan," Huffington Post, December 4, 2010), I recommended playing Bob Dylan's CD "Christmas In The Heart" at the Obamas' holiday parties. I don't know if the President followed my advice, but he did invite Dylan to sing at the White House earlier this year, and according to his interview in Rolling Stone, he enjoyed the encounter. His staff might want to give him the new book, Dylan In America, by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz which chronicles Dylan's influence on American culture. It's a suitable gift for an intellectual President and might get his mind off his current problems for a few hours.

As for Christmas music, this year requires a heftier spirit -- and nothing is better than soul man James Brown. We are already playing "The Complete James Brown Christmas CD" at our house. I once greeted the man himself at a summer music festival in Finland while serving as US ambassador. While I stood on the running board of his white Rolls Royce, Brown gave me religious advice for his fellow Baptist, Bill Clinton. I didn't file a cable on the conversation, so you won't find it in the WikiLeaks files. With Brown a few years gone, President Obama can't have a similar meeting or invite Brown to the White House, but he can listen to his restorative singing. Soul music is always good for the soul.

Yale economist Ray Fair has already sent a Christmas card to President Obama. An expert on econometrics and the relationship of economics to politics (shorthand equation: "It's the economy, stupid"), Fair predicts that Obama is likely to win the 2012 election in a landslide (see "A 2012 Forecast That Obama Can Love," The New York Times, November 21, 2010). Fair points out that giving in to Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts, even for the super wealthy, can act as a economic stimulant and work to Obama's political advantage. The lagged effect of unspent stimulus money and the Fed's expansive monetary policy will also give a fiscal boost to the economy. Economics, of course, is not political science -- or even science -- but Fair's message can't help but raise spirits a bit in the Obama White House, especially with the lousy unemployment figures just released. Other economists like Jeff Madrick writing in the Huffington Post -- ("Obama Needs Wake-Up Call on Jobs Before 2012", November 23, 2010) -- are less sanguine. Madrick notes that in the post-WWII era, the unemployment rate has not been above 8 per cent in the fall of a presidential election as it is predicted to be in 2012.

As I have argued ("Bridging The Enthusiasm Gap: Obama and the Conventional Wisdom", October 16, 2010), simply getting re-elected while neglecting the Democratic party and its base won't allow the President to regain his economic soul or assure him a place as a great let alone a good President. He needs to redefine the public debate about the economy, not just react to the Republicans' regressive anti-government positions. He can't simply gamble that the economy will improve marginally enough to win him the election.

The perfect Presidential gift -- it might even be a re-gift -- is: The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever. As fate would have it, the author, Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, already works in the Obama White House. He has a large office with a messy desk in the Old Executive Office Building, where he works on regulatory matters. Sunstein is one of the few original thinkers whom the President brought with him from Chicago.

Even if Obama has read the book once (it was a Washington Post Best Book of 2004), he needs to reread it now, and take it to heart. He should give copies to all of his economic and political team, and ask his speech writers to work up a message based on its philosophy for his State of the Union speech. The book takes as its starting point the 1944 State of the Union speech by FDR when he proposed a second bill of rights -- an Economic Bill of Rights -- as necessary to maintain political freedom. Sunstein argues that such economic rights, their codification in law, and implementation in programs and policies are vital to the domestic security of the nation. Sunstein would make a good choice to head the National Economic Council, replacing the departing Larry Summers who liked to harass Sunstein on regulatory matters. The President would benefit from an innovative thinker like Sunstein in the job, rather than an emissary to the business community.

Obama needs to reclaim FDR's legacy and channel not only his political vision, but also FDR's political craftiness and toughness in framing the economic debate for the next two years. He has to offer an economic message that will take the wind from the sails of the Republicans and rally his own troops for the battles ahead. Paul Krugman, Frank Rich and other liberal critics doubt that Obama is up to the task -- but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Bill Clinton stumbled in his first term in ways worse than Obama, made a comeback and is now lionized as a political icon. We should give Obama the same chance to redeem himself and rescue his Presidency.

The perfect Xmas gift for Michelle Obama -- and also for her to give to her own Christmas list -- is the wonderful book, Growing Roots: The New Generation of Sustainable Farmers, Cooks, and Food Activists, written by Katherine Leiner and photographed by Andrew Lipton. The pair made a Studs Terkel-like trek around America, interviewing and profiling young farmers, entrepreneurs, and activists who are trying to change the way we think about food--the way we eat, and the way food is produced. The book is filled with examples of individuals whom Michelle should invite to future White House events, and products that she should serve at White House dinners. My favorite is the flavor Madagascar Vanilla made by Three Twins company of Petaluma, California, the largest producer of organic ice cream in the country. It is the perfect topping for holiday pies.

Last week, Congress passed a serious child nutrition bill that expands the school lunch program and sets new standards to add more fruits and vegetables to school meals. Michelle lobbied for the groundbreaking legislation which will soon be signed by the President. Food safety, food justice and other food related issues are part of a progressive agenda which President Obama can embrace and brand as his as well as Michelle's.

Here are some other gift suggestions, not only for the President and First Lady -- but for all of us who are feeling a bit shaky, are concerned about the future of the country, and need our souls revived.

MUSIC FAVORITES

My musical tastes are rooted in the 60s, so I always ask my daughter Julie who is in the music business about new albums. Her good advice is simply to go to the NPR music page (www.npr.org/music/) and peruse their list of Top 50 Albums of the Year.

However, this year a number of Oldies But Goodies have been released which I'm enjoying and want to recommend as personal favorites. "The Promise", a CD by Bruce Springsteen, features outtakes and remixes of his original album, "Darkness On the Edge of Town". The Boss is one of the authentic voices in rock music who can capture the anxiety of working class Americans in a song. Obama would do well to channel a little inner Springsteen too. In honor of John Lennon's 70th birthday, his widow Yoko Ono has overseen the release this year of twelve remastered Lennon albums such as "Imagine" and "Power to the People". Buy all 12 for someone you love. My daughter was invited by Yoko to join in the celebration of John's birthday in Iceland this fall. She came away moved and impressed by the enduring power of Lennon's music and his message of peace and harmony. Neil Young, a living Oldie But Goodie, came out with a new album "Le Noise" which is wonderful., almost therapeutic -- and my favorite rock gospel singer Mavis Staples has a new album, "You Are Not Alone". She sang the title song on stage at Jon Stewart's rally on the Washington Mall this fall and rocked the crowd.

For those who want to understand and experience how music both reflects and influences the politics of the nation, the ideal, super duper music gift of the year is "Next Stop Is Vietnam -- The War on Records: 1961-2008", a boxed set of 13 CDs and a 300 page accompanying book. It is the perfect gift for almost any baby boomer and for our children who should know that the 60s were about more than peace and love. It's not cheap, but it is a gift that will keep on giving. A wealthy Obama supporter might give a copy to the President who too frequently likes to dismiss the passions of the baby boom generation (even though he is actually a part of it, although at the tail end).

An appropriate companion gift to the Vietnam music set is the anthology of Garry Trudeau's cartoons -- 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective. Critics have called the comic strip "one of the greatest pieces of serialized topical fiction ever produced by an American." I was present at the creation, and read Trudeau's early strips called "Bull Tales" which appeared in the Yale Daily News where he developed many of the characters -- based on real life folks at Yale in the 60s -- that became the staple of the Doonesbury series. Garry is the Charles Dickens of modern cartoonists and he should go on Obama's list as a future winner of a Kennedy Center award or even the President's Medal of Freedom.

As a serial book reader, raised by my mother to have a pile books by my bed waiting to be read, I can't help but recommend some of my favorites of the past year.

NON-FICTION BOOKS

In the category of political economy, two books explain how we got into our current economic situation and why getting out is more than just a matter of reviving economic growth. In his book, Capital Offense: How Washington's Wise Men Turned America's Future Over to Wall Street, Michael Hirsh, national economics correspondent for Newsweek, provides indepth reporting on how both Democrats and Republicans have been in bed with Wall Street financiers for decades and allowed the financial sector to become a casino operation rather than one which supports balanced economic growth.Two political scientists, Jacob Hacker of Yale and Paul Pierson of UC Berkeley, analyze the role that government policies have played over three decades in shifting the country from one of middle-class opportunity to one of super-rich privilege. The book, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer--and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, is a reality-based argument that is hard to dismiss. Both books, and their authors, should be consulted by the Obama White House about the scale of the reforms which are needed to make this a more secure and fairer middle-class nation. If you can't read an entire book on economics, then at least read John Cassidy's article, "What Good Is Wall Street?" in The New Yorker, November 29, 2010, and give a gift subscription to a loved one or a young friend. The magazine publishes the best in-depth reporting on politics and economics available in print or on line.

On foreign policy, one could simply read the extensive reporting at home and abroad based on the WikiLeaks documents. However one feels about WikiLeaks and its odd founder Julian Assange (Congressman Ron Paul defends him), the source material opens a window on the conduct of US foreign policy.

If you can gift only one book about China, then my hands-down pick is, Dreaming In Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love and Language, by Deborah Fallows, who along with her journalist husband Jim Fallows, spent three years living and reporting from The Peoples Republic. While Jim focused on economics and politics, Deb spent time learning the language, eating the food, and meeting the people, blogging on her experience to friends, and writing a wonderful and humane book. Her observations will wet almost anyone's appetite for learning more about the country. How the US responds to the reemergence of China -- and how China handles its own rise again -- are among the most vital questions of this century.

As the Wikileaks documents illustrate, the Obama administration has spent a great deal of diplomatic time and effort responding to Iran and its nuclear ambitions. It's useful to get some perspective on current events by reading good books on the country. One is The Ayatollah's Democracy: An Iranian Challenge, by Iranian journalist Hooman Majd, whose earlier book, The Ayotollah Begs to Differ is also worth owning. Because he speaks the language yet lives in New York and understands the US, Majd is as good a cross cultural interpreter as we are likely to find on Iran. Read his work to get an understanding of the complex nature of Iranian society and politics and why the current US approach is not likely to succeed at containing Iran or pushing it to regime change. A policy of genuine engagement might be called for -- and former New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer (whose book on earlier US-Iranian relations, All the Shah's Men, is a classic), offers an "out of the beltway" strategy in his new book: Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future. Kinzer argues that it is in the US national interest to find a way to work with Iran in the Middle East or at the very least, to normalize relations as the US did with Mao's China. Iran and the US have much in common (and Iran's young population admires a lot about America). In spite of the difficulties, the two countries need to find a way to work together on common problems in the region. Engagement is more than just a catch phrase; it requires diplomatic initiatives and a willingness to take political risks to change relationships.

Latin America is a neglected area of Obama foreign policy. The good news is that things are going okay for many countries south of our border (excepting Mexico) -- at least the ones that have learned the lessons described in Sebastian Edwards' new book: Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism. A professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Business, as well as a noted Chilean economist (and author of a best selling thriller in Spanish), Edwards explains clearly, without equations or complicated graphs, why many Latin American countries have failed to share in the growth of the global economy, and why the way forward is not that of Chavez' Venezuela but of Lula's Brazil. Edwards argues convincingly that it is social democratic government and policies, not left wing populism or right wing populism, which produces improved economic outcomes. It's a message that is relevant to the US and Europe as well as to Latin America.

If you want a gift book which ties the world together in a brilliant intellectual framework, then your best choice is the new global history, Why The West Rules -- For Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal about the Future. The author is Ian Morris, a professor of classics and history at Stanford, a highly learned and eclectic thinker who is also a fluid and amusing writer. Any author who can quote both Aristotle and Asimov is a man after my own intellect. Few historians can make use of science fiction references without sounding silly; Morris succeeds with his discussion of Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation series. One of the many important points that Morris makes is that in the 21st Century, perhaps more than any time in human history, the role of political leadership has taken on heightened importance. Individuals can make a significant difference, and are not simply buffeted by economic and social forces. President Obama should take note. It matters a great deal if he can get his groove back and regain control of the national agenda.

FICTION

I took World Literature at Culver City High School, had a great teacher, and consequently read most of the classic authors like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Cervantes. In American literature and US history classes, we read Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis. I've also had my J.D. Salinger and John Updike periods. So been there, done that, and I feel no guilt now with my choice of light fiction. I like detective and thriller novels with interesting settings where one can learn something new about a topic or a foreign society while enjoying the story line and the writing. A few of my favorites from 2010:

+Nineteenth Street NW -- a tale of financial markets and terrorism by Rex Ghosh, an international economist who knows how the International Monetary Fund and world currency markets operate. You get a quick course in global economics and a compelling story of justice and neglected nations.

+The Dervish House -- by Ian McDonald, a future history set in Istanbul which projects technological and political possibilities in Turkey a few decades from now and weaves them into a well crafted and superbly written thriller.

+Where The Shadows Lie -- by Michael Ridpath, and Operation Napoleon by Arnaldur Indridson, are both set in Iceland. One involves the ancient past and the other recent political events and the angst that a small country feels about its place in the global system.

+The Broken Shore -- and the sequel, Truth, by Peter Temple, one of the best Australian writers of crime noir, and The Old School, by P.M. Newton, a first novel by a rising star about a woman detective in New South Wales, provide hours of enjoyment.

+Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End -- by Leif GW Persson, the latest entry in the Nordic thriller sweepstakes as to who will follow in the footsteps of Stieg Larsson and his phenomenally successful Millennium series. The author knows the ins and outs of the Swedish police and security services from first hand experience, and lends authenticity to his well conceived and well executed plot.

+The Stone Cutter -- the first in a new series by Camilla Lackberg, another up and coming Swedish author. Her police novels are set in Fjallbacka, a resort town on the southern coast of Sweden -- an actual place where Ingrid Bergman and her Swedish husband spent their summers on an island home. The main square is named after Ingrid Bergman and local shops like the bakery where she brought bread and pastries figure in the series. A notable feature of the novel is the historical back story about Sweden's past.

DVDS

You can't read all the time, and we certainly don't in our house. Some nights will find us relaxing on the couch, surrounded by two dogs and a cat in various positions of recline, watching a movie or documentary on our flat screen television. We are fans of HBO series like Broadway Empire and Showtime's Dexter, but most network TV leaves us cold. We prefer foreign imports. A few of our favorites of the past year:

+Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities, and Underbelly: The Golden Mile -- a controversial Australian series in two parts about the drug wars of the 90s in Melbourne and Sydney. An Aussie version, so to speak, of HBOs The Wire. A good anecdote to halcyon images of life Down Under.
+The Killing -- a superb, highly nuanced Danish series set in Copenhagen involving police, politicians and low lifes, provided one of the best viewing experiences of the year. Somewhat lighter Danish fare, Ana Pihl (1 and 2), depicts the life of a single Copenhagen police woman with a small boy and a former cop father who attracts a twenty something girl friend and decides to write his memoirs. Both are available from Readings book store or Dymonks in Australia by mail, or from Amazon or Amazon UK-- and you need an all region DVD player to view them.

+The Two Escobars -- a true tale of soccer, politics and gangsterism, linking the lives of Colombian international soccer star Andres Escobar and Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin narco cartel. It is one of the best soccer documentaries ever, made by two brothers, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist (sons of Andrew Zimbalist, the leading sports economist in the US).

+Inside Job -- this award winning documentary is a visual companion to the books by Hirsch and Hacker. Filmmaker Charles Ferguson tells the story of the financial crisis and explains its root causes, as well as highlighting much needed reforms. It should be screened at the White House for Congressional leaders from both parties.


YES WE CAN

The joy of grandparenting is that you get to buy gifts for your grand kids, as well as take them out for ice cream or cupcakes. Our granddaughter Jasmine, age 5, is a princess and an artist (in spite of her Dad's desire that she become a world class athlete), so she loves Disney movies, and small items like the colorful rubber bracelets and hair bands which seem to be the fad among her peers. Our three year old grandson Viggo is into construction equipment, as well as airplanes. His favorite DVDs are the Bob The Builder series, originally from England, as well as the BBC's Planet Earth series (he likes sharks a lot). The theme song from Bob the Builder is often playing in our house, and the refrain goes: "Can We Build It? Yes, We Can!" Bob, his partner Wendy, and his crew of talking machines tackle every obstacle with determination and optimism. We should all strive to do likewise, even in a winter of discontent.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year
The Ambassadude

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