Archive for the ‘Obama’ Category

A New Judge for Idaho – Part 2

The New York Times reported recently on a little noted aspect of Barack Obama’s legacy that will have lasting impact for the country.LadyJusticeImage As the paper’s Jeremy Peters wrote earlier this month, “For the first time in more than a decade, judges appointed by Democratic presidents considerably outnumber judges appointed by Republican presidents. The Democrats’ advantage has only grown since late last year when they stripped Republicans of their ability to filibuster the president’s nominees.” Peters was writing about Obama’s appointments at the the federal Court of Appeals level, but the same impact applies more broadly to federal District Courts.

In fact, the U.S. Senate has virtually eliminated the old back log of judicial nominations, so much so that earlier this summer there were few pending judicial nominations in the confirmation pipeline. Part of the reason for that is apparently the fact that some Senate Republicans – particularly from states with two GOP Senators – have simply refused to engage in the time-tested process of working with the White House to get potential judicial appointees into the cue.

“Texas Sens. John Cornyn (R) and Ted Cruz (R) have 10 empty court seats without nominees,” Jennifer Bendery reported in June, and one of those Texas positions has been “vacant for more than 2,000 days; another is approaching 1,100 days. Making matters worse, six of the 10 open judgeships in Texas are ‘judicial emergencies,’ meaning the workload for other judges is now more than 600 cases. For seats vacant more than 18 months, judges are handling 430 to 600 cases.”

Since that was written, Cornyn and Cruz have helped advance at least three candidates to the Senate for consideration, but the long wait continues in a number of states.

As I noted in yesterday’s Post, one key question about the pending vacancy on Idaho’s federal bench – my friend Randy Stapilus has made the same point – is whether the state’s two GOP Senators will work with the Obama Administration to identify a candidate to replace long-time Judge Edward Lodge, or whether the Senators will run-out-the-clock on the Obama presidency, while hoping a Republican ends up in the White House to nominate federal judges in 2017. If Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch adopt a run-out-the-clock strategy, Judge Lodge’s decision to assume “senior status” next summer will, even in the best case scenario, leave the Idaho courts shorthanded for 12 to 18 months, or longer. More on that later.

Time for a Woman…

Also yesterday, I suggested three highly-qualified, and largely non-political women who might make the Idaho selection process easier for both the Republican Senators and the White House. U.S. Magistrate Candy Dale, Idaho U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson and former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Linda Copple Trout would be superb members of the federal bench and worthy successors to Ed Lodge. No doubt there are other Idaho women who have the qualifications, talent and temperament to be good federal judges. It is also clear that it is past time to have a woman on the federal bench in Idaho – Idaho has never had a woman as a federal judge – and for that matter it is past time to have women back on the Idaho Supreme Court. Idaho’s highest court once had two women among the five justices. Now there are none.

The National Women’s Law Center calculates that only 32 percent of the nation’s federal District Court Judges are women, and that number remains low despite the fact that, at least since 1992, women have made up at least 50 percent of the nation’s law school graduates. Idaho is one of only nine federal courts in the country that has never had a women district judge. As I said, it is long past time and no one can truthfully argue there are not qualified and, in fact, exemplary candidates.

The appointment and confirmation of federal judges has been one of the most contentious activities in our political system. Both parties have been guilty of the most blatant type of partisanship when it comes to staffing the supposedly non-partisan federal courts. It would be nice to think that Idaho, with a history of outstanding federal judges including Lodge, Lynn Winmill, Ray McNichols and Steve Trott to name just a few, could find a way to set the partisanship aside and identify and confirm a truly able federal judge. Stay tuned.

OK…and Some Men…

While appointing a highly qualified woman makes abundant sense to me, let’s play the “what if” game and consider four male possibilities that seem to me highly qualified, capable and possessed of the right temperament to do a fine job as a federal judge.

SGutierrez.sflbIf women are badly under represented on the federal bench, so too are Americans of color. Idaho Court of Appeals Chief Judge Sergio Gutierrez would be another historic appointment. The Judge has a compelling up-from-poverty story that took him from the Job Corps to a high school GED certificate to the University of California Hastings School of Law. Then-Gov. Cecil Andrus put Gutierrez on the District Court bench in Canyon County in 1993 and Dirk Kempthorne appointed him to the Court of Appeals in 2002. Gutierrez is a judge-as-role-model, a quiet, smart and decent fellow. He would be an historic and inspired choice for the federal bench and would shatter some old and persistent barriers.

I also think the current Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court, Roger Burdick, is a truly fine judge, a stand-up guy, and Burdick could burdick-small-8-9-11 probably be voted the funniest federal judge in the country. The guy has a seriously good sense of humor, often displayed in a delightful, self deprecating manner. Burdick has been a prosecutor, a public defender, worked in private practice, served as a state district court judge and once oversaw the massive Snake River Basin adjudication. Burdick could not only do the federal job, he would do it very well.

lawrence-wasdenSince I’m a truly bi-partisan guy, I would suggest that current Idaho Republican Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is another qualified and talented guy who has show a real and important independent streak during his time in public office. Wasden has been a champion of open government, is a work horse, rather than a show horse, and has had the political courage to go against the prevailing sentiments of his own party more than once. If the federal judge process in Idaho eventually requires a nominee who could serve as a “compromise” candidate to bridge ideological gaps, Wasden could fill the bill. Along with retiring Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, Wasden is among the most non-partisan of the state’s elected officials.

Last, but hardly least, the politicians make these decisions could benefit from taking a long, hard look at the former Dean of the don-burnettUniversity of Idaho Law School Don Burnett. No knock against the new president of the University, but Burnett, who served as “interim” president of the U of I, would have been an inspired choice to run the state’s land grant university. Burnett has been a law school dean at the University of Louisville, as well as Idaho, was an original member of the Idaho Court of Appeals, appointed by Gov. John Evans, and is both a scholar and a gentleman having graduated from the Universities of Chicago and Virginia. Burnett is a deeply thoughtful legal scholar, who writes and speaks with a wonderful command of the law, history and common sense. What more could you want in a judge? Some might argue that Burnett is nearing the end of his very accomplished professional life, but I would argue that a few more years as a federal judge would be the perfect capstone to his already distinguished career in public service.

What’s Right, Rather than Political...

It has been nearly 20 years since Idaho has had a vacancy on the U.S. District Court. The decision about who replaces the respected Judge Lodge is about as important a public policy decision as the state has seen in some time. Perhaps as much as ever before it is falling to the nation’s courts to sort out society’s most complicated issues, often because partisanship and narrow interest has paralyzed the Congress. If partisan politics trumps what is best of Idaho, the decision on a replacement for Judge Lodge could drag on for months and months. It shouldn’t.

In February of this year, Idaho’s Republican Senators introduced legislation that would create a third District Judge position in Idaho. At the time, Mike Crapo said: “The need for an additional judge in Idaho has been widely recognized for years. The District of Idaho has been working to meet the needs of the district while facing growing personnel and financial challenges. Advancing this productivity by adding an additional judgeship to the court would help ensure effective access to justice for Idaho’s increasing population.” The Senators point out that its been 60 years since a second federal judge was authorized for Idaho, which argues both for expeditiously filling the new vacancy and passing legislation to create another position.

I have suggested seven potential candidates – three outstanding women, four highly qualified men. There are certainly more out there. Here’s hoping for an open, bi-partisan, efficient process that produces another Idaho judge as good as Ed Lodge has been.

 

Post-Racial

donaldsterlingSo much for a post-racial America.

Americans of color may have significantly more challenges to overcome with employment, education, health and housing than most white Americans, but it takes the racist rants of two old white guys to again bring into sharp relief the sobering fact that race is still the nation’s great unresolved issue. The optimists among us thought, for a moment at least, that the election more than five years ago of the first black president ushered in a “post-racial” new day. It didn’t.

If anything the nation’s struggles with race and class, not to mention gender and sexual orientation, remain as corrosive as ever. Fox News and a few pandering Republicans turned a deadbeat Nevada rancher into a “folk hero” before his own ignorant ravings about race showed every thinking person just what Cliven Bundy is really all about. While you can apparently get away with cheating the federal government out of a $1 million in lease payments by just waving around the Constitution, waxing nostalgic about slavery is, thankfully, still un-American enough to draw a belated rebuke from Rand Paul. Maybe Bundy should have read all of the Constitution, including the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.

The case of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling is both more complicated and ultimately more troubling. Bundy is just the latest incarnation of the old John Birch Society/Posse Comitatius mind set that rises and falls periodically across the American West. The rise almost always occurs with a Democrat in the White House. With typical Bircher incoherence Bundy invokes the Constitution of a government he won’t recognize. He likes the 2nd Amendment just fine, but not those pesky provisions of the Constitution related to the power of federal courts. The Bundy mind set has found its perfect foil in the young, self-assured black man in the White House. Enough said, except perhaps that the Republicans who rushed to support this nut case still have plenty of explaining to do.

Sterling, the billionaire L.A. real estate developer, is a tougher case. He has apparently long been known for his racially tinged rants and has been in and out of court fighting discrimination cases that, among other things, alleged that he refused to provide repairs for his black tenants.

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” Sterling allegedly told his mixed race girlfriend in recording she apparently made. “Do you have to?”

Later, just to double down his racism with a gob of sexism, he added: “You can sleep with them, you can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that and not to bring them to my games.”

As the Washington Post reported:

“Sterling’s history paints a picture of a man who has let slip bigoted beliefs for years — and has, at least so far, sidestepped major repercussions. He was sued in 1996 for sexual harassment. In 2003 he testified in a separate court case that he occasionally paid women for sex. The same year, Sterling was sued by 19 tenants of a building he owned, along with the Housing Rights Center; they claimed Sterling’s employees refused repairs to black tenants and frequently threatened to evict them. Sterling settled the case for an undisclosed sum.

“In 2009, Sterling spent $2.73 million to settle another suit, this time brought by the Justice Department, which alleged Sterling refused to rent his apartments to non-Korean tenants, preferring that black and Hispanic prospective tenants look elsewhere. The lawsuit quoted Sterling as saying in sworn testimony that ‘Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building,’ adding that ‘black tenants smell and attract vermin.'”

The National Basketball Association is investigating. Of course they are. It sounds like they might have done some looking around a long, long time ago. How the Sterling matter is handled by the NBA and its new commissioner will be vastly more important in the long run than any shooting-off-the-mouth of Sean Hannity’s new best friend.

Sterling is, after all, a long-time member of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs – the 30 owners of professional basketball teams. Sterling’s team, until last week a serious playoff contender, is coached by a black man. The team’s and the league’s fan base is to a substantial degree minority. The league’s big name stars, many of whom quickly condemned Sterling’s remarks, are African-American. The Clippers low key pre-game protest where white and black players wore their shirts inside out is just a preview of what’s to come from a professional league that owes its popularity, not to mention the money it generates for owners like Sterling, to the success of “black people” like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

It’s not as though the NBA didn’t know about this guy. “Donald Sterling,” Paul Westphal, an NBA coach and great NBA player before that, told columnist Mike Lupica, “was always the worst-kept secret in the NBA.” Now, it’s get serious time – a teaching moment – for new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Silver’s response and the response of the other 29 members of Sterling’s exclusive club will tell us a lot about a high profile big business in post-racial America.

The U.S. Supreme Court tells us a lot, as well. The Court’s 2013 ruling throwing out a major part of the Voting Rights Act and more recently upholding a Michigan law that bans race conscious admissions at the state’s colleges and universities are based either on wishful thinking that racial issues in the age of Obama still don’t bedevil our culture or that the courts simply have an extremely limited role in ensuring that all Americans are not merely created equal, but are treated that way, as well. Either explanation ignores today’s front page.

It seems self evident that Barack Obama’s election in 2008 not only failed to herald the arrival of a post-racial America, but rather stoked the long simmering fires of racism that were, we need to remember, originally written into the nation’s founding creed. An ignorant Nevada cowboy and the boob billionaire owner of a professional sports franchise certainly don’t represent the vast sweep of good and decent Americans of all races, creeds, colors and political persuasions, but they still represent too many.

“When ignorant folks want to advertise their ignorance, you don’t really have to do anything,” Obama said of Donald Sterling. “You just let them talk. That’s what happened here.”

Oh, if only it were that easy.

 

Playing the Hand

Patient-ProtectionI’m not sure, but this photo may be the last time Democrats smiled about the Affordable Care Act or, if you prefer, Obamacare. President Obama put his signature on his signature legislative accomplishment on March 23, 2010 and, until the last few weeks, from a political standpoint the news has been pretty awful.

First the admissions: Democrats – thank Nancy Pelosi as well as the president for this – completely lost control of any coherent message about the law. Republicans did a masterful job of characterizing the ACA as government run amok. Obama, so the story goes, has Socialized health care in America and shredded the Constitution in the process. Sarah Palin chimed in with her nonsense talk about “death panels.” Democrats failed to respond or failed to respond effectively. Obama fumbled, screwed up, mislead, fabricated (chose your word) the business about liking and keeping your health plan. The roll-out was a first-class mess and we all know about the stupid website. Fundamentally the law, thanks to log rolling in Congress with the drug companies, the device manufactures, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, is a massively complicated pile of legalize. It was almost as though the president and his supporters were saying, “We could tell you how it will work and how you will benefit, but you’d have to get sick first…”

More importantly from a political point of view the supporters of the law, chiefly including the Commander-in-Chief, never adopted a coherent, consistent, engaging message that might have allowed them to talk to the American people about an issue that has been on the agenda of every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt. The debate became about process, ideology and partisanship and not about a better more secure future.

In politics, as in corn flakes, you can’t sell an idea without a believable message. The failure to offer a coherent, believable story about the law is nothing short of political malpractice. Critics will say, of course, that the law is such a mess that it can’t be defended or marketed, but I don’t buy that. Even George W. Bush, initially at least, sold the invasion of Iraq. Creating a system for millions of Americans to have health insurance and a more secure life is surely an easier sell than a war.

Still, four years later the law is the law, upheld by the Supreme Court (or at least by five justices), a survivor of a hundred different efforts by Republicans to repeal it or, better yet from their perspective, use it as a blunt instrument to pummel Democrats in another mid-term election. Apparently – crank up the irony meter – Americans now hate the law so much they have signed up in numbers that have even surprised the law’s biggest supporters. The polls tell us the law is a huge loser – although repeal is even more unpopular – and yet the GOP has placed nearly all of its mid-term eggs in the “we hate Obamacare” basket. All of the party’s 2016 hopefuls have bought into the notion that Obama’s law is the worst things since, well, maybe since Social Security, yet they offer nothing in the way of a better alternative.

In one of his pithy and incisive essays Garry Wills points out that supporters of the law will likely never turn the opponents around. Obama, Wills writes, “made the mistake of thinking that facts matter when a cult is involved. Obamacare is now, for many, haloed with hate, to be fought against with all one’s life. Retaining certitude about its essential evil is a matter of self-respect, honor for one’s allies in the cause, and loathing for one’s opponents. It is a religious commitment.”

Wills reminds us that Social Security was once almost as hated as the ACA, but somehow nearly 80 years on it still stands. “Repealing Obamacare will eventually go the way of repealing the New Deal,” Wills opines. “But the opposition will never fade entirely away—and it may well be strong enough in this year’s elections to determine the outcome. It is something people are willing to sacrifice for and feel noble about. Creeds are not built up out of facts. They are what make people reject all evidence that guns are more the cause of crime than the cure for it. The best preservative for unreason is to make a religion of it.”

The editorial page of the Wall Street Journal with an almost daily discourse on the “failures of the law” or any given George Will column easily serve as the Bible for this new religion. Will’s most recent column excoriating the law and the president concludes with this sweeping indictment of all things Obama: “progressivism is…a top-down, continent-wide tissue of taxes, mandates and other coercions. Is the debate about it over? Not quite.” Reads like a sermon to me.

But let’s talk politics. If Garry Wills is right (and George Will is his proof point) and it follows that Republican voters who have made a religion out of hating Obamacare are the most likely to turn out and vote in the November Congressional elections, what are Democrats to do?

They have two basic choices: Continue to flounder around and try to pretend they can whistle their way past the political graveyard without defending Obama’s law or they can embrace the obvious and begin – finally – to vigorously defend the law and its impact. One of this year’s imperiled Democrats, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, has adopted Option Two.

“It’s a solid law that needs improvement,” Landrieu told the Washington Post. “My opponent [Republican Bill Cassidy] offers nothing but repeal, repeal, and repeal. And even with all the law’s setbacks, we’re seeing benefits for thousands of people in Louisiana.”

Landrieu continued, “I think the benefits that people have received are worth fighting for.” She citing an end to discrimination against preexisting conditions and extended coverage for young adults on parents’ plans. ”I think Bill Cassidy is going to be at a distinct disadvantage. He has insurance, but he’s also denying it to the 242,000 people” who would qualify if Louisiana expanded Medicaid as it can opt do under the Affordable Care Act.

Her opponent, Landrieu says, “also wants to take coverage away from tens of thousands who have gotten it for the first time.”

There is an old adage in politics that holds “being for something is better than being against something.” Democrats don’t have a choice. They can try to campaign this year by being for a law that admittedly is very controversial and almost universally misunderstood, but that is also of obvious advantage to millions of Americans or they sink again into the defensive crouch they have largely adopted since that smiling day back in March 2010.

Republicans are agin’ it. We know that for certain. Yet, voters must be just as confused about where Republicans stand on issues – providing health care for millions of uninsured, expanding Medicaid, keeping young folks on their parents insurance plans longer and providing coverage for preexisting conditions – as they are confused about what is and isn’t part of the controversial law. This is ground, as Sen. Landrieu suggests, for a real election year debate.

Democrats may not win a religious fight this year over Obamacare, but they won’t even have a chance unless they start throwing a few punches rather than trying to absorb those the other side will continue throwing. Defending a law that more than eight million Americans have embraced and that holds out the hope for a much improved quality of life for millions more seems like something worth fighting for because it really is better to be for something than against everything.

Many Republicans of the generation that created Social Security never came to fully embrace the program, but time, events and public opinion overtook them. Franklin Roosevelt, the father of modern American politics, loved to taunt his opponents by asking them what they would do differently and whether they had an alternative. Those are still good questions.

The Pope of Hope

CVC_TNY_12_23_13_no_date_580pxAn enduring image for me of the decidedly mixed year that is fast passing away is the whimsical cover illustration of a recent New Yorker magazine of the Jesuit Pope Francis spread eagled in the snow, six-year-old like, creating a snow angel. It seems a perfect image of hope in what has often seemed to be a year marked only by discord, strife and bitterness.

From the partisan breakdown in Washington politics, including the now distant memory of a pointless and costly shutdown of the federal government and the more recent abandonment of unemployment protections and reductions in food stamp benefits for millions of Americans, to the deadly and protracted civil wars in Syria and South Sudan and the near civil war in Iraq, from media fixation on the trivial ignorance of Duck Dynasty and Anthony Weiner to the incompetence of the Affordable Care Act roll out, only Pope Francis and Nelson Mandela seemed able this year to cut through the clutter and address something important.

In a superb profile in the same New Yorker with the Argentine snow angel on the cover, James Carroll offers a nuanced assessment of the still-new Bishop of Rome. Yet you come away from Carroll’s profile and the recent reporting of other Vatican watchers believing – even hoping – that this man is the radical that both his church and the world need. And the word radical is used not in its usual polarizing political context of right vs. left, but rather in the context of a moral and spiritual leader who recognizes the need for fundamental change both in tone and substance.

Carroll recounts that the Pope is “a large man with a ready smile” who preaches with fervor and with questions. “What kind of love do we bring to others? . . . Do we treat each other like brothers and sisters? Or do we judge one another?”

Elsewhere it is reported that President Obama sees the surprising Pope as an ally with like-minded notions about the need to shrink the gulf between the world’s rich and poor. However, what Francis has and Obama struggles to obtain may make the Pope a better mentor than a kindred soul. After two successive leaders of the Catholic Church who placed a premium on doctrinaire obedience by the church and its leaders to a our-way-or-the-highway view of social issues like gay rights, contraception and abortion, the new pope seems determined to reform the Catholic bureaucracy and turn the church’s message in a new and better direction with both his words and his deeds.

Symbols are important, as presidents from Lincoln to Reagan have taught us, and Pope Francis seems to instinctively grasp that truth. He has mostly abandoned the Popemobile for a small car, lives in a two room apartment rather than the Vatican penthouse, shuns the red loafers and ermine capes, and, yes, he kisses babies. He has attacked the bloated and corrupt Vatican bureaucracy like a born-again political reformer and dismissed some bishops and scolded others for forgetting – or ignoring – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

“The spirit of careerism,” Francis warned a recent gathering of new bishops, “is a form of cancer.” And he possessed of enough self-awareness – an indispensable political attribute  – not to shield himself from criticism. “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others,” he wrote in recently, “I too must think about a conversion of the papacy.” That sounds a good deal like a radical with a plan laying the groundwork for a new direction.

One suspects that Francis also is a strategic enough political thinker to understand the value of surprise, the power of the unexpected gesture. As a 76-year old with only one lung Francis could easily have been a caretaker pope, but he’s been anything but so far. Rather he seems like a man in a hurry, at least in the context of a church that is defined by glacial change, who realizes he may not have much time to change things. So, with the surprise of his symbols and the courage of his convictions the pope, it seems to me, is executing on a grand strategy.

First he must change the focus of the church from a hectoring, secretive institution that has become comfortable with constantly saying “NO” to one that actually speaks of its real purpose, which is to serve the poor, seek justice, be inclusive even with non-believers, and advocate for peace. Once that moral authority is established and the bureaucracy is better under control he can move on to even more controversial issues.

One of the many remarkable things this new pope has done is to be gentle with the man he replaced. Under different circumstances and with a different leader having the previous Pope Benedict literally living above the store could have been awkward in the extreme. But Francis has done not only the kind and Christian thing, but the politically strategic thing by tending to his relationship with the uber doctrinaire ex-pope who once led the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican office dedicated to keeping the church in line. On Dec. 23 Pope Francis visited his predecessor for prayers and lunch, just the kind of small but telling gesture that speaks volumes and resonates on television.

Pope Francis like Mandela, another great leader who was able to transcend his circumstances, are better politicians than most politicians. They understand that change – political and institutional change – come from a careful meld of arts both soft and firm. Leadership requires both moral authority and sense of purpose. It can mean quiet persuasion delivered with a smile as well as fierce determination to succeed coupled with the energy and drive to execute on a plan. Leadership also means outwitting your opponents and, a lesson Obama has yet to learn after five years in office, a willingness to cajole, flatter and co-opt. But it begins with moral authority.

Perhaps the president’s New Years Resolution should be to not merely quote the pope’s speeches, but adopt his political tactics.

Given what may become the long lame duck presidency of Barack Obama and given the dispiriting lack of genuine leaders elsewhere in the world – think of the thuggish Putin or any of the bureaucrats running western European nations – maybe, just maybe we have reason to hope at the end of this mostly hopeless year that God does work in mysterious ways.

When most we need a reminder of what one man can do on a journey from a jail cell to the Nobel Peace Prize we end 2013 reflecting on Mandela’s remarkable life. And when most we need to believe that someone can articulate with real moral authority the universal truths of compassion, respect, inclusion and peace we at last have a Pope of Hope.

 

Not Getting the Word

ht_john_f_kennedy_telephone_ll_120921_wgDuring the height of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 – October 27 to be precise – President John Kennedy, the crisis manager-in-chief, was informed that Soviet MiG fighter aircraft had been scrambled to intercept a U.S. spy plane that had wandered into Soviet airspace. Kennedy had been working for days to keep the crisis from escalating into a nuclear exchange and now one U.S. aircraft might well upset the balance of peace, particularly if the Soviets concluded that the U2 spy flight was a preliminary step to a U.S. missile strike.

The president was making his way to the Oval Office after his daily swim that Saturday when he was told by an aide of the unwelcome news of the spy flight. Kennedy reacted with one of his classic one-liners: “There’s always some son of a bitch who doesn’t get the word.”

Apparently the Obama Administration has turned Kennedy’s one-liner on its head: the SOB who doesn’t get the word in the current White House is the occupant of the Oval Office. As Barack Obama lurches from one crisis to the next he looks more and more like an observer of his own administration. In both of the major political and policy events of the last two weeks – the bungled roll out of the Affordable Care Act website and the revelations about NSA spying on European allies – Obama seems to have been among the last to know of any trouble within his own administration.

First, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius tells CNN that her boss, the president, didn’t know “of problems with the Affordable Care Act’s website — despite insurance companies’ complaints and the site’s crashing during a test run — until after its now well-documented abysmal launch.”

Then over the weekend NSA sources disputed German media reports that Obama knew about the program to listen in to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone calls. “Gen. [Keith] Alexander [the NSA director] did not discuss with President Obama in 2010 an alleged foreign intelligence operation involving German Chancellor Merkel, nor has he ever discussed alleged operations involving Chancellor Merkel. News reports claiming otherwise are not true.” NSA spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines said in a statement.

Let’s admit the obvious. In an operation as large, complex and secretive as the U.S. government it is humanly impossible for the president of the United States to know everything that he should know. There are not enough hours in the day for that. Any president has to create priorities and allocate precious time to be informed. No president can be “hands on” on everything. But, and it’s a big qualifier, being a successful manager and leader, whether in politics or baseball, requires creating a system to get to the boss the critical and essential information needed to manage and lead. Some things are so critical that the president has to run the meeting.

Three things, at least, seem to be wrong in the second term Obama White House. First is the hands on problem. If there was any initiative during Obama’s tenure that he needed to roll out smartly and without a couple of months worth of glitches it was the launch of “Obamacare.” Yet, to believe Secretary Sebelius, the president was never informed that major problems were likely. Either he wasn’t asking questions or delegated completely the implementation of his signature initiative. Either way he’s been badly served by his staff and his hands off approach to this kind of issue gives him no margin for error when things do go wrong.

Second is the failure of key people in the administration to share vital information with the Commander-in-Chief. I once worked for an elected official who had few rules, but paramount among them was – no surprises. A leader can deal with almost anything they know about. Silence from underlings that allows a problem to grow and fester is deadly. It is managerial malpractice that Obama was not informed weeks ago of the computer meltdown. If he didn’t know that his own national security agency was aggressively spying on foreign leaders then he deserves, at minimum, to be dressed down by Chancellor Merkel. Wouldn’t you have liked to listen into that phone call?

The third White House management problem is accountability. If the president doesn’t insist on accountability it won’t happen, and now we see the silly Washington game of members of Congress calling for this head or that, while the White House is left to condones sloppy and silly work on the part of the very people who created the problems in the first place.

One of the great problems of the modern presidency is the so called “bubble effect.” The president and many of his advisers literally live in a bubble with every moment of every day planned and controlled with information and access rationed by jealous gatekeepers who too often act on their own agendas. Briefings from agencies, as we know from pre-September 11 accounts during the Bush Administration, often become a bureaucratic litany of detail that tend to fog any call to action. Perhaps the complexity of the modern American presidency means there can be no other model. If that is the case then it is all the more important that a president insist on candid and timely information from his staff. If he doesn’t get it and subordinates fail in their jobs the answer is accountability.

You don’t fire the president between terms. He, on the other hand, can fire his advisers and he should with some frequency.

 

Go Big or Go Home

Barack ObamaOK, what does Barack Obama do now?

The president might start by remembering that there are three things in politics that can be enormously powerful, but are almost always vastly underrated particularly by risk averse officeholders. The three are acting against type, the element of surprise and the importance of timing.

Mr. Obama could grab on to all three tactics in the wake of the Republican disaster over the federal government shut down and the close encounter of the weird kind with the debt ceiling. The big three could help salvage his second term.

First is timing. The president must have woke up this morning and smiled while thinking that Sen. Ted Cruz, the gift that keeps on giving, is in the United States Senate. Cruz’s Tea Party-fueled crusade to defund Obamacare flamed out like a shooting star over west Texas and left the president with a stronger hand and a united Democratic Party. Sen. Cruz is more popular than ever with a vastly unpopular movement, while Congressional Republicans remain badly divided and without a coherent domestic agenda. The timing, therefore, is right for Mr. Obama to Go Big with a budget, revenue and reform proposal.

Next, let’s consider surprise. During so much of his presidency Mr. Obama has been content, even comfortable, letting Congress take the lead on big things. He did it with his signature Affordable Care Act (ACA) and completely lost control of the political message, a problem that he has never again been able to get in front of. Nancy Pelosi became the face of health care reform and the anti-Obama crowd skillfully framed the issue as a socialist, big government, job killing takeover of health care. Now, during the brief breathing spell post-shut down, the country and the GOP fully expect Obama to sit back and leave the avoidance of the next shut down and the next default dodge to a bunch of members of Congress who are completely focused on the next election. This is the old approach of trying the same thing over and over and hoping for different results. It’s insanity.

Surprise would be for Mr. Obama to lay out in a series of speeches, town hall meetings, interviews and news conferences a detailed plan to get budget/revenue and entitlement reform in place. Timing could meet surprise.

Finally, it’s time for the president to go against type. History may well record that the single worst decision of the president’s tenure was to turn his back on the Bowles -Simpson bi-partisan “grand bargain” to fix the budget, revenues and entitlements for a decade or more, while starting to reduce the national debt. Of course, Mr. Obama tried to make The Big Deal with House Speaker John Boehner and failed, but he also quietly walked away from Bowles-Simpson when he should have clutched the framework. Remember that he created The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and the co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson developed a real plan that gained bi-partisan Congressional support.

The timing, surprise factor and going against type, in this case embracing some GOP needs and holding off the left wing of of his own party, make great second term sense. Political commentator Andrew Sullivan has the same idea, as he has written:

“If the GOP were a genuinely conservative party, actually interested in long-term government solvency and reform within our current system of government, they would jump at this. They could claim to have reduced tax rates, even if the net result were higher taxes. And the brutal fact is that, given simply our demographics, higher taxes are going to be necessary if we are to avoid gutting our commitments to the seniors of tomorrow. They could concede that and climb down from this impossibly long limb they have constructed for themselves.

“I’ve long favored a Grand Bargain,” Sullivan continues, “but recognize its huge political liabilities without the leadership of both parties genuinely wanting to get there. But for Obama, it seems to me, re-stating such a possibility and embracing it more than he has ever done, is a win-win.”

For a politician with such obvious rhetoric gifts, Mr. Obama has a strange inability to state the most obvious things in simple, direct and understandable terms.

In the wake of the huge GOP meltdown, as the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank has written, Mr. Obama “spoke abstractly about ‘the long-term obligations that we have around things like Medicare and Social Security.’ He was similarly elliptical in saying he wants ‘a budget that cuts out the things that we don’t need, closes corporate tax loopholes that don’t help create jobs, and frees up resources for the things that do help us grow, like education and infrastructure and research.’

“Laudable ideas all,” Milbank says, but timidly said and lacking in real-world details. “Timidity and ambiguity in the past have not worked for Obama. The way to break down a wall of Republican opposition is to do what he did the past two weeks: stake out a clear position and stick to it. A plan for a tax-code overhaul? A Democratic solution to Medicare’s woes? As in the budget and debt fights, the policy is less important than the president’s ability to frame a simple message and repeat it with mind-numbing regularity.” Exactly.

Are there risks involved? Sure, but what does Mr. Obama really want out of the rest of his second term? Months and months of partisan haggling over non-issues? He should embrace the risk and put it all out on the table, otherwise why be president?

I suspect if one the smart pollsters measuring the declining standing of Sen. Cruz and the Tea Party’s approach to non-governance would ask one additional question they would find that the vast majority of Americans are ready – in fact clamoring for – real straight talk about specific policies that end the politics of going to the budget brink every few months.

The question I’d like to see asked in a national poll is pretty simple: “If President Obama proposed a specific plan to reduce long-term federal spending, reduce tax exemptions and lower tax rates, while ensuring the long-term viability of Social Security and Medicare would you be in favor?”

I’m betting the overwhelming answer would be YES. Timing, Surprise and Acting Against Type = a political strategy. That strategy is – Go Big.