"The Thirty Days of Barack Obama" in March 26 New York Review of Books inadvertently reminds me of a pre-election Chicago forum last October at which the town's best television reporter assured his elite, off-the-record audience that Barack Obama "aimed to change the political center of gravity in this country."
Whether it was policy or the language of American politics, he'd move it to the left like Ronald Reagan moved it to the right, said Mike Flannery of WBBM-TV, who's covered Barack Obama from the time he was a virtually unknown state legislator.
Reading the estimable Elizabeth Drew's largely positive analysis of Obama's hectic first 30 days, those words ring all the more true. With aggressive sobriety, he's pushing us in a distinctly different direction by force of intellect, a conscious thrust to remind the world that George W. Bush is long gone and a push for dramatic policy shifts whether or not Republicans accept his well-intentioned but not infinitely flexible peace overtures.
For sure, Drew is critical of Obama and aides on matters both substantive and tactical, starting with the stimulus package: "It was a stretch to claim that all of the measures put in the bill would stimulate the economy. The problem of writing a coherent stimulus package is that the various people involved have their own priorities, and there are few certainties as to what will actually work."
And, "A question arising from the stimulus bill episode is whether, in perpetuating the idea that he could win considerable bipartisan support for it, Obama was naïve, or engaged in wishful thinking -- or both. Aides simply miscalculated: they thought that Republicans wouldn't dare vote against a stimulus bill in the midst of a recession that was bordering on a depression. But they had surprisingly poor intelligence, and didn't realize that though the bill did contain some tax cuts, it was essentially a Democratic bill that went against the Republicans' deeply held beliefs.
Still, she's correct that various early stumbles won't matter ultimately, unless they prove to be a pattern. The intensity of increasingly agenda-setting cable news coverage aside, initial impressions, and criticisms, can fade. And Obama will surely continue his "war of civility on the Republicans," with the GOP facing peril if they decide to always fight back, all the more so if the public appreciates Obama's attempts to reach across the aisle and cuts him loads of slack; all the more so if they don't link him to a lousy economy he inherited.
Drew concludes with simple, probably wise, counsel, namely that Team Obama should avoid initially unavoidable hubris and not be too given, say, to leaving town, hitting the road and drawing cheering crowds. The problems he faces are gargantuan and "a little more management may be in order." Indeed, she chides one D.C. pundit for his praising Obama's early propensity for road trips.
While the pundit finds the departures a symbol of his disdaining a legislative give-and-take in Washington that he was "not elected to do," Drew demurs. No, she says, that is very much what we elected him to do and what's needed. For sure, that's more a tactical gripe. And it is awfully early. And he is changing the political center of gravity, even if flying in and out of Andrews Air Force base with more frequency than Drew thinks appropriate right now.
But would you rather have his way of doing business or that of a predecessor, who seemed to find the White House a prison, often splitting for the ranch in Crawford? In the process, President Bush never got all that close to "the people," with his own moral certitude his most frequent companion.
Now, on far bigger matters of state, this issue includes, "The Enlarged Republic -- Now and Then," a must-read for those interested in the roots of and ramifications modern-day federalism. It's by Cass Sunstein, a brilliant Obama bud and former law school colleague now working in the administration (and surely part of what goes for power couples in the administration, given marriage to journalist-foreign policy maven Samantha Power, best know during the campaign for calling Hillary Clinton "a monster").
He inspects key elements of the Federalist Papers and how the rise "of an immensely powerful executive branch and the growth of the administrative state have raised especially serious questions about many of [the Federalists'] claims." Policymaking power is unfortunately "often wielded by those with technical expertise" with some institutions, like the Federal Reserve Board, often melding the power to legislate with the power to execute laws., raising doubts as to whether "republican government can easily coexist with modern bureaucratic structures."
But Sunstein, now on leave from Harvard Law School, concludes (in a piece finished before he joined Team Obama in the Office of Management and Budget) that it is possible, "and perhaps not even difficult, to be at once a republican and a federalist."
---TheNation.com is worth "A Perfect Storm: The Economic Crisis Slams the Nonprofit World" by Eval Press. Starting with the ACLU, an organization close to the hearts of the magazine's readers and now with a $19 million budget gap and forced to layoff staff, but then heading across a wider spectrum, the magazine shows the huge budget cuts faced by a spectrum of groups:
And its reverberations will likely extend far beyond the world of high-profile advocacy organizations like the ACLU. From the arts to education, soup kitchens to housing organizations, nonprofits perform an array of functions that shape the texture of daily life in communities across the country, often by helping people whose situations were precarious even before the economy crashed. Now, with foundations watching their endowments shrivel, many individual donors maxed out and states across the country staring at massive budget deficits, nonprofits are scaling back their services at the very moment when the need for them is escalating.
Paul Light, a New York University professor who analyzes public service, predicts 100,000 nonprofit groups going under (for reasons including donors' being creamed by the financial crisis to declining interest rates for temporary trusts lawyers hold for clients as the lawyer work on matters for those clients). Perhaps. Still, the piece might have also placed a spotlight on organizations beyond the legal and social services groups it focuses on; and also highlighted institutions critical to the nation's cultural heart, namely arts and educational organizations which are being hammered.
---March 23 New Yorker provides a hilarious permutation in the devil-made-me-do-it history of strained self-defenses. It comes in "The Replacement: The Rise of Roland Burris," a solid profile by Jeffery Toobin of the new U.S. Senator from Illinois which cuts Burris just a bit of slack when it comes to a distinctly undistinguished public record.
But you have to read to the end and that much-pilloried mausoleum of his. "Burris told me that it was the cemetery's managers who persuaded him to build the mausoleum. "It was their insistence," he said. "'Because this is not so much for you, Roland.' And I didn't even think about people thinking about my ego. This is for young people who can see a person who had accomplishments."
---Hail to baseball bats, swim goggles and fancy skateboards! SportsBusinessJournal.com reports the sports equipment industry may be in comparatively far better shape than auto or financial but sales dropped for the first time in five years last year. Elsewhere, Golfdigest.com is worth its "On Second Thought....." interview with Rep. Barney Frank, who had pilloried Northern Trust Bank of Chicago for both sponsoring a PGA golf tournament and throwing big parties, including one for clients with Cheryl Crow entertaining:
No one is saying they shouldn't sponsor golf tournaments and honor existing contracts,' Frank, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, said in a telephone interview. 'It's the spending on luxury hotels and limousines they should not be doing. Now, if they weren't getting federal money it would be up to them to decide if that's how they want to spend their money.
---I hereby declare need for a moratorium on use of the phrase, "He's Back." It was fine for Michael Jordan's return from retirement but enough already (it returned to our sports pages with the $50 million return to the Los Angeles Dodgers of wacko Manny Ramirez). That said, read "He's Back" in the April issue of The Atlantic, where prolific Christopher Hitchens argues that the current financial mess has justifiably revived interest in Karl Marx, even among educated folks of radical leanings who've "put their old volumes of Marx up on the shelf reserved for the phlogiston theory." In part, his endurance involves a larger reality that "Marxism and capitalism are symbiotic, and that neither can expect to outlive the other," which would surely displease Marx.
Elsewhere, the issue offers Don Peck's "Disassembly Line," a nifty graphic terrific detailing the expensive, complicated matter of closing an auto plant, including the need to heat them above freezing, so sprinklers will work in case of a fire. Hanna Rosin's "The Case Against Breast-Feeding" revives an old debate, juxtaposing its cachet among a certain stratum of female and the inconsistent data on the health benefits. And Wayne Curtis offers us "Spirits of the Dead," a lovely title for a look at the revival of certain long-dead cocktails, including the Aviation, which includes gin, lemon juice, maraschino liqueur and the hard-to-find violet liqueur:
That's an improvement from Frank's original outburst in which he implied running a golf tournament was a waste of corporate money," says the magazine, which has also editorialized against what it deems is unfair criticism of the sport's involvement with financial institutions. "But it still means the tour has some work to do in getting its message across to the power brokers in Washington.
---"Why Washington Worries" in March 23 Newsweek is Fareed Zakaria's correct assessment of why early qualms about Obama-Hillary Clinton foreign policy say more about a Washington establishment nervous about changes it deems compromise and capitulation.
---Time.com includes Alice Park's "The Move to Digital Medical Records: A First Step in Tampa" on a big move in Tampa, Fla., to go paperless with health records in a 10-county area. Will it work? Will it really save so much money? At minimum, at least we can hope that the era of illegible prescriptions may come to an end.
---"From Beyond the Grave" in March 12 Economist discloses the early insight from a long-secret archive about life in the Warsaw ghetto during Nazi occupation. The papers studied by an American historian, Samuel Kassow, "give a vivid, sometimes, unbearable, picture of the ghetto's destruction at the hands of the Nazis, and of the efforts made to preserve a semblance of civilised life that had succumbed to the elemental desire for survival."
--- March 30 Forbes will bet lots of notice as it discerns which billionaires have done the best and worst during these harsh times. But tucked away inside is also "Our Germs, Ourselves," a look at a provocative theory of Cornell University microbiologist Ruth Ley, who contends that trillions of bacteria in your gut may explain why some folks always stay skinny while others get fat regardless of how much they diet and exercise. She points to fatsos having different mixes of microbes in their intestines than thin folks, speculating that the fatter you are, the better your microbes at converting food into fat.
"Even though it says 200 calories on the box of Cheerios, it might be 200 for one person and 210 for someone else," says Ley.
---Martin Peretz, the once and future owner of the New Republic, contravenes the conventional wisdom on CNBC host Jim Cramer amid his faceoff with Jon Stewart. In "The Spine" feature on the magazine's website, one finds:
What I think has happened between Cramer and part of the entertainment industry--which the fact and opinion industry is fast coming to resemble--is that Jim is actually animated by a passion. It is the passion of democratic capitalism. That concern is very different from the concerns of the $10-20 million television comedians who ride around in stretch limousines. Those folk are happy when the people are in trouble. Even Jon Stewart and the makers of his 'Daily Show' are happy. Jim Fallows, an always righteous commentator (like his ex-boss Jimmy Carter), has elevated him to Edward R. Murrow who was also over-rated in his time.
---April Architectural Digest is worth "Transformational Journey," a look at how American architect Bernard Wharton and wife, Jennifer Walsh, funded and oversaw construction of a desperately-needed center for social services needed by the desperately poor just outside Nairobi. It includes a dormitory for orphans, a meeting space for an HIV/AIDS women's group and a community center:
There are the Bonos and the Gateses of the world who are making incredible contributions to that continent," says Wharton. "But there's also the need for those like us to pick up the smaller thing. You hear people say you can't save Africa -- there's too much disease, too much poverty. I'm not in that camp. These are simply buildings by our standards, but there are things happening within them that have never happened before in that region.
---HBO fans and Mormon critics might check "Big Love? Big Deal" by Orson Scott Card on Nationalreview.com. He counsels fellow Mormons to relax and just not get too upset by what he deems an "open season on Mormons," given the show's portrait of polygamy.