Wednesday, January 27, 2010

While My Head is Clear

I will try to soon share my pondering on the President's State of the Union speech, delivered earlier tonight. It's a little early to do so; I didn't see it and I haven't read the text I downloaded for later review.

That being the case, it's a certainty that I will hear critics of the President and his administration attack the speech and his efforts to reach out to the nation to offer assurances that this generation's nattering nabobs of negativism are self-serving, misguided political opportunists.

For a change of pace, I think I will try reading the criticism before familiarizing myself with the actual speech. Perhaps if I can put myself in the mindset of those who did not bother to watch the President or read the speech but who nonetheless will take cues from Limbaugh, Hannity, O'Reilly and Beck when sharing their opinions about the substance of the State of the Union, I can begin to understand how it is that intellectual laziness and news by soundbites has so effectively undermined our democracy.

My last blog, written just prior to the first anniversary of the President's inauguration, generated a number of comments. I thank my readers for all of them. None made me feel as good as the decision by my son to post a link to the blog as his Facebook status, suggesting that his friends "
(c)heck this out if you're interested in some smart political commentary." Some of the comments that came in second to Phil's validation of his father disagreed with my observation that the President should be given time to accomplish his goals.

One of my readers, a good friend despite her conservative leanings, commented, "
Obama was an outstanding campaigner. The presidency is above his pay grade." Clearly, he was an outstanding campaigner. He won the presidency of the United States. I had a hell of a time just helping elect a couple of qualified candidates to the Independence city council in November.

However, the second part of my friend's comment is more telling. Characterizing the President's performance in relation to a pay grade is the kind of meaningless rhetoric passing for political discourse that I lamented in my last blog. Moreover, the statement, on its face, is untrue. This president is taking a pay cut working out of the Oval Office instead of pursuing his career as an author and public speaker. As has been the case since his graduation from Harvard Law School, he continues to trade a more financially rewarding career path for public service.

Of course, the issue is not really about the President's salary. My friend's comment was shorthand for "the President is incompetent." My friend chose not to back it up with specifics or suggestions on how things might have been handled better in response to the gauntlet I threw down in the blog. Rather, my friend made my point by regurgitating a catch phrase likely picked up from my friend's favorite "news" source, the FOX Network, which, if repeated often enough by like minded sheep in the Limbaugh pasture, becomes accepted as reality.

Another comment I found interesting was from another friend and former colleague who expressed disagreement with my chastisement of the Republicans. "I wish we could offer alternatives, but the Dems don't listen and don't allow anyone into their closed door meetings. There's something seriously not right about that. So I say: Term limits. They're all so disengaged from the American people. Repubs or dems, they've forsaken us all and need to go."

Again, I'm afraid the comment merely parrots empty political rhetoric. First, the Democrats went out of their way to listen and invite Republican participation at the outset of the President's administration. Once it became clear that the Republicans were adopting a strategy of opposing all Democratic initiatives as a political tool, the White House and the leadership in Congress were understandably reluctant to continue to be played for chumps.

Second, Democrats DO let some into their closed door meetings – other Democrats. That's the way the system works. The caucuses meet with their members in private. The Republicans do the same thing. The Vikings and Saints did the same thing last Sunday. Opposing teams were not invited into the huddle, even when the Vikings thought there was room for one more.

However, these closed caucus meetings are not the only meetings taking place and what's "seriously" wrong is Republican claims that they have been trying to work in a bi-partisan fashion. There was an election in November, 2008. The electorate sent a fairly strong message that the Republicans' policies of the previous 8 years were no longer acceptable to the majority of the voters. Accordingly, it is a serious misrepresentation of the facts to claim a willingness to engage in bi-partisanship if your efforts are limited to insisting that these same rejected policies be incorporated into new legislation.

Third, term limits are not appropriate in our day and age. I did some quick research and found an on-line article from 2006, 12 years after the 1994 Contract with America championed by Newt Gingerich and the Republicans running for office that year. Term limits were a cornerstone of the Contract with America. However, according to the blog I found (here), 25 Congressman and 5 Senators who had pledged in 1994 to retire after 12 years in office were running for re-election in 2006. My guess is that reality set in for these Republican contractors.

Speaking practically, few people worth having in office would trade private life for public office if they knew that, after devoting 8 to 12 years away from their career in the private sector, they would be forced to return and, at best, compete with folks 8-12 years their junior who are better informed about the needs and status of the employer. Rather than being able to excel at either career, both avenues would be short circuited. For example, my Congressman is a Republican who gave up a promising career as an executive at Target Corporation. How can anyone expect him to give up a lucrative future with Target in order to devote himself to public service if in a dozen years when he is in his mid-50's he is expected to return to the private workplace and try to continue a private sector career? Would those concerned about entrenchment have all the legislators become lobbyists at the end of their dirty dozen?

The solution is not term limits. The solution is reform of campaign finance so legislators, once elected, can exercise the independent judgment they campaigned on. More on that when I discuss the Supreme Court's recent evisceration of our democracy.

"Term limits", "pay grade", "exclusionary" are all expressions of passion but not of substance. Although their repetition provides the speakers solace in numbers with fellow ditto-heads, they offer no roadmap on how to create jobs, reform health care or bring peace to the world. As of now, I'm not buying any suggestions to the contrary. Perhaps after I take in the criticism of the State of the Union address before viewing it and without reading it I'll come to understand the crises we face as a result of electing Barack Obama to the presidency. Or perhaps I'll follow through with my commitment made in my last blog and call a fraud a fraud. Make a bet and stay tuned.

Monday, January 18, 2010

One Year Later

As the holiday celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. draws to a close, I thought I'd take a few moments to reflect on the first anniversary of our president's inauguration. Last year at this time, the juxtaposition of the holiday with the pending transition of power to America's first African-American president was the subject of much reflection, national self-congratulatory musing and fervent hope by the 68% of Americans who approved of the president-elect that, finally, longed for "change" would come to fruition.

A year later, the mood of the country has changed dramatically. The president's approval ratings now hover around 50%, diminished by a growing perception that (i.) the ongoing high unemployment rate, (ii.) the uncertainties about the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, (iii.) the challenges, tinged by images of nuclear holocaust, posed by Iran and North Korea, (iv.) the unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, (v.) the government's inability to prevent terrorist attacks in the homeland, (vi.) the continued depression in the residential housing market, (vii.) the looming collapse of the commercial real estate market, (viii.) the inability to pass meaningful health care reform, (ix.) the unfettered greed of Wall Street and (x.) the affront to the United States by the rejection of Chicago as the site of the 2016 Olympics all could and should have been dealt with more successfully by President Obama and his administration.

It is utterly depressing. I am overwhelmed by the hopelessness that results from living in a society that is so naive, short-sighted and malleable under the kneading of hypocritical conservative punditry.

As you may imagine, I am firmly ensconced among the president's supporters. Has he pitched a perfect game? Of course not. Have there been missteps in attempting to implement certain policies? Of course. Has 20% of the American public lost sight of the fact that running the country is not a scripted docu-drama in which all loose ends are tied up quickly neatly in response to the skill and wisdom of the chief executive as we head to the refrigerator for a late night snack? Apparently.

We are so, so much better off with a president who takes the time to think before acting and refuses to be bullied into knee-jerk reactions by impatient opponents. I am comforted by the thought that while the Fox network's talking heads were verbally eviscerating President Obama for not addressing the nation immediately after the attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253, the president was quietly directing his underlings to identify the causes of the breach of security and recommend fixes. Frankly, THAT is what he was elected to do. When he had something to say, he said it. Until then, he was focused on doing his job.

In the last year,
  • the Obama Administration has brought the country, and, by extension, the world from the brink of another Great Depression;
  • the Obama Administration made the decision that the ramifications of allowing GM and Chrysler to fail were too significant and potentially detrimental to the economy to allow that to happen. I believe that the auto makers are entitled to a chance to reorganize. Given the scope of the endeavor, the assistance of the Federal Government is required to make that possible. The dearth of manufacturing jobs in this country is enough of a problem without further reductions resulting from the shuttering of even more domestic auto plants;
  • the Obama Administration pushed through programs designed to jump start the housing industry and the auto industry;
  • the Obama Administration sent a message to the world community that the United States was done behaving like a self-righteous bully, dictating policy to everyone else and fabricating "coalitions of the willing" as if the Emperor were fully dressed;
  • the Obama Administration implemented a policy in Afghanistan, in a timely fashion when measured by relevant deadlines, that did not surrender to domestic politics and that made appropriate demands on our allies;
  • the Obama Administration attempted to work in a bi-partisan manner to formulate legislative solutions to problems demanded by the electorate in November, 2008. When frustrated by a united Republican Party that has traded the exercise of independent judgment for partisan purity in order to undermine the president, the Obama Administration continued its efforts to serve the will of the People and proceeded unilaterally.
Many of us are concerned about the costs of financing the solutions offered for the challenges we face as a nation. Those of us who are honest acknowledge that the tab for addressing these challenges has been a long time coming. We did not have a robust auto industry, real estate industry, banking industry or manufacturing base on January 19, 2009. We were not on the verge of peace in and/or with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Yemen, Israel or Gaza as Barack Obama took the oath of office a day later. The health care system was not providing adequate, affordable care for all Americans a year ago.

In my view, President Obama got stuck with the tab and has spent the last year figuring out just how much each of us is going to have to chip in. I'm not happy about it, but there are no good alternatives. As a nation, we spent beyond our means. We chastised former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan for spoiling the party fueled by a run-up of stock prices when he prophetically warned of an "irrational exuberance" taking place. We financed our misguided military forays and low tax rates by borrowing unfathomable amounts of money from foreign investors, leaving us particularly exposed should we allow a failure of our domestic banks and industrial engines.

In reality, President Obama's popularity has dropped because he hasn't been able to magically make our problems disappear in an unrealistically short time frame given their scope and depth. The propaganda proffered by the president's detractors has succeeded in convincing enough of our citizenry with "inquiring minds" otherwise focused Tiger Woods' marital status that the president has failed to deliver on the vision he offered a year ago. Given the incessant efforts of the same detractors to derail the vision's delivery, and given too many voters' confusion of partisan sniping for thoughtful analysis, the result is to be expected, yet disconcerting.

It's time to call a fraud a fraud. For example, if you think Secretary Napolitano defended the Department of Homeland Security by proclaiming that "the system worked" notwithstanding the Christmas Day terror attack, you've been defrauded. I heard her initially and verified it by listening to my podcast of the December 27, 2009 edition of "This Week with George Stephanopolous" (at about 6:40 into the podcast). She clearly stated that "once the incident occurred", everyone did their job and "the system worked". She was not referring to efforts to keep terrorists off of airplanes. She was referring to the agencies' and airlines' reactions to the news that an attempted terror attack had taken place. The difference is important and the right wing nut jobs who take the Secretary's statement out of context in order to attack the president should not be given credence on account of any resulting drop in popularity.

It's time to demand accountability from those intent on undermining the will of the electorate. If you're going to complain about the programs proposed and implemented by President Obama to address our national crises, offer specific alternatives. If you're going to whine about the state of the economy, start by disclosing whether you were part of the problem and, if so, have the decency that admit that the president is trying to clean up after your mess. If you think it's a mistake to close Guantanamo, explain why we shouldn't just execute all the prisoners there to assure that they won't be a problem in the future and to allow the eventual dissipation from our enemies' psyche the fact that America preaches due process but holds hundreds incognito without charge year after year after year.

As I said, the situation is utterly depressing. I had thought that enough of us had learned valuable lessons from the Bush/Cheney fascista that we were intent on taking back our democracy and using the government to serve the common good. Instead, we've retreated in silence and let the fear-mongers once again inject their self-serving poison into the public conscience. I intend to do my part to shed light on this mockery of the democratic process. I need to write more often as a cure for my depression. If you agree with me, pass on my prairie ponderings. If you disagree, refer to the paragraph immediately above and give it your best shot. Finally, if you disagree with me and think Sarah Palin should be president, leave me alone. You're an idiot.

I leave you with an example of pushback that I hope to see more of. Click here.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I had a "what are the odds?" experience the other day and it made me think about strange coincidences I've been involved in over the years. I decided it is time to reduce some of these to writing. Otherwise, over time, if left untold, the incidents take on mythic elements and seem too fantastic to have actually happened. Feel free to leave comments with your own coincidental experiences.

In 1986-7, I was flying to Los Angeles at least once a month to work with a client who was developing a customized vitamin business. To some extent, I made the trips to get out of being in Minnesota in the winter and out of the apartment my family was living in while our home was being constructed. To a greater extent, I made the trips because the client, a Persian expat, gave me the keys to his Ferrari Testarossa to drive while I was in town. The price of the plane ticket ($240) was worth it just to be able to drive up the Coast Highway in a car that was an upgrade from Tom Selleck's ride in Magnum, P.I.

One day, I boarded a Northwest flight to LAX. The flight attendant asked me to switch seats so a family could sit together. I obliged and moved back over the wing to an aisle seat. There was a woman of similar age in the middle seat next to me who had started her travels in Detroit. While waiting to depart we struck up a conversation. She had graduated from the University of Michigan a decade or so earlier with a theater major and was flying to Los Angeles to follow her dreams and break into the entertainment business.

I went into my facilitator mode and suggested she contact my former roommate from law school who was working as an attorney for ABC Entertainment in Los Angeles. I remember writing Bob's name and work phone number on the back of one of my cards and handing it to her. Bob and I had the kind of relationship where I knew he would help the woman if she called on a referral from me. It seemed appropriate, a logical follow-up to the twist of fate that had me sitting next to this woman after initially being assigned elsewhere.

I will never forget the look on the woman's face as I handed her the card. She stared at me in disbelief. It wasn't just the random act of kindness that stunned her. She had graduated with, and performed under, Bob, who had directed the University production of "Hello, Dolly" their senior year. Someone in Ann Arbor, who had Bob's home phone, had told her to look up Bob when she arrived in Los Angeles. Making that connection had been a major part of her plan to establish herself. But she had lost his number, had no idea where he worked and did not plan on calling every "Robert Cohen" in Los Angeles to try to track him down. She told me how upset she had been, thinking she had lost a golden opportunity to get a leg up in an extremely competitive endeavor. And then I appeared, randomly, an out of the blue second chance. "What are the odds?" Incalculable.

Life is full of these wondrous moments if we are receptive to the possibility of their occurrence. If I had not introduced myself to Bob at the student housing office before the start of law school in St. Louis in 1974 and suggested rooming together and/or if I had not engaged my neighbor on the plane to Los Angeles, there would have been no magical connection.

In these troubled times, we need to make positive things happen. We need to demonstrate the benefits of community and support. We need to network wisely. We need to reach out. Interact. Make our 1 in a million shots happen. We need to share our stories and pass on the hope of possibilities. Our lives have more meaning when we rely on the kindness of strangers – especially when WE are the strangers.

Robert Cohen and Nathaniel Davis, Hong Kong, October, 2000